Category Archives: slavery

Moral force against symbols of white supremacy: solidarity means sharing risk

At the heart of white supremacy is the request to those who get white skin privilege to take care of their own. White supremacy means that white people explicitly or implicitly give jobs, representations (front stage in advertising, leading roles in televisions shows) and foreground the needs and stories of white people. White supremacy is insidious because it is the water we drink every day in the United States and the casual continued comfort with the symbols of white supremacy (including the stars and bars) is evidence of how deeply twisted white supremacy is with american culture.

In 2015 Bree Newsome took down the confederate flag that flew in front of South Carolina’s statehouse. Here is the Vox footage from that direct action.

This is a really interesting case study for several reasons.

  1. Newsome’s use of biblical and constitutional rhetoric present a uniquely american rhetorical location for Black amercians – faith in God and indignant appeal to promised democracatic structures for equality (civil rights). Given the central location of separation of church and state in the first amendment, the combination of biblical scripture and civil rights might seem in tension. But Black churches have been central places for spiritual respite, cultural survival and political resistance in this nation. Which is why they have historically been targeted for violence. Newsome is climbing in the shadow of the Charleston South Carolina massacre in the The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where an avowed white supremacist murdered nine worshipers including the pastor and state senator Clemanta Pickney. Newsome puts the pieces together about historical violence and the context of the action in the Democracy Now interview:

2. I was at a lecture this month where the presenter noted this as a good example of white work for racial solidarity. James Tyson climbed the fence with Newsome and helped out with the action. The presenter called this collaborators, arguing that anti-racist work needed more white people interested in collaborating to make changes for racial justice. Others like Noel Ignatiev have noted that solidarity to fight racism means sharing risk and there are ways that this can be done performatively. Thinking, talking and strategizing about how to be productive and ethical allies to people of color means consideration. James Tyson shared in the risk (both got arrested), used his privilege (he argues with the police officers that Newsome should be allowed to come down the flagpole on her own for safety – he notes that “They had enough respect to allow me to help her.” in the Democracy Now interview).

3. The moral authority to remove the symbol of the confederate flag in this case is the justification for civil disobedience and direct action. Newsome is excellent on this point:

Thinking about changing white supremacy means all of the tools in the tool box. The cultural awareness, education, political action, stunts, celebrity endorsements and militant actions will be necessary. This long-standing constellation of white supremacist narratives that have sustained inequality and injustice as normal by stretching and re-articulating violence as community care for people who are like you. To move away from that requires mental and political work. Taking note of the keystones and approaches that can inform the work to come is useful.

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Filed under colonialism, communication, human rights, police, protest, race, representation, resistance, rhetoric, slavery, vulnerability

Picking a fight out of your division: Bonz Malone

Intellectual giant and cultural wizard Bonz Malone offers a vicious attack on Spike Lee in this interview on the OKAY Player Radio.  The subject is sort of about Django Unchained, but really it should be about Bonz Malone.  It made me think about Spike Lee making an enemy of Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller.

Bonz wrecks spike Lee, but of course, he doesn’t make films.  In the same way, Spike Lee doesn’t actually play competitive basketball and Reggie Miller took the taunts from the film-maker and well . . . just watch.

One possible lesson is stay in your lane.

The other is that it is healthy for us to share insights across experiences.  And you certainly don’t have to be in the NBA to have an opinion on basketball.  Bonz Malone gets at some real and interesting things in this discussion.  Worth a listen.

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Colorlines on Django – can we critique a fiction?

Colorlines have the *science* on Django Unchained and slavery.  Among their “Top ten things you should know about slavery but won’t learn at ‘Django’ are the following crucial insights:

3) Africans possessed unique expertise which Europeans required to make their colonial ventures successful. Africans knew how to grow and cultivate crops in tropical and semi-tropical climates. African rice growers, for instance, were captured in order to bring their agricultural knowledge to America’s sea islands and those of the Caribbean. Many West African civilizations possessed goldsmiths and expert metal workers on a grand scale. These slaves were snatched to work in Spanish and Portuguese gold and silver mines throughout Central and South America. Contrary to the myth of unskilled labor, large numbers of Africans were anything but.

via 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ – COLORLINES.

And this nice reminder about the violent disciplinary work of slavery economics:

6) The brutalization and psychological torture of slaves was designed to ensure that plantations stayed in the black financially.

Slave revolts and acts of sabotage were relatively common on Southern plantations. As economic enterprises, the disruption in production was bad for business. Over time a system of oppression emerged to keep things humming along. This centered on singling out slaves for public torture who had either participated in acts of defiance or who tended towards noncompliance. In fact, the most recalcitrant slaves were sent to institutions, such as the “Sugar House” in Charleston, S.C., where cruelty was used to elicit cooperation. Slavery’s most inhumane aspects were just another tool to guarantee the bottom line.

via 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ – COLORLINES.

And key to remember that many of those who made profits from slavery continue to be the global elite:

9) Many firms on Wall Street made fortunes from funding the slave trade.

Investment in slavery was one of the most profitable economic activities throughout most of New York’s 350 year history. Much of the financing for the slave economy flowed through New York banks. Marquis names such as JP Morgan Chase and New York Life all profited greatly from slavery. Lehman Brothers, one of Wall Street’s largest firms until 2008, got its start in the slave economy of Alabama. Slavery was so important to the city that New York was one the most pro-slavery urban municipalities in the North.

via 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ – COLORLINES.

I like this list and would only add an eleventh argument – fleshing out some discussion of gender.  I agree with Angela Davis that a lot of the violent responses by white folks during reconstruction was mobilized around the representation of the threat of black men raping white women.  I think we can track some of current American tensions about sexuality to this decade of image/cultural construction: white male supremacy, female purity and implications of criminality associated with black skin.  Despite being incorrect and made up, these ideas stuck around.

In the comments section of the Colorlines article, one person asks:

‘Django Unchained’ was FICTION why does everyone want to hold it up to fact-checking? These 10 points are correct but had nothing to do with the film. I know so many people that have been discouraged from seeing a great film because the net is flooded with articles about how historically inaccurate the film is. It’s a cowboy styled revenge film where the hero is a black man…

via 10 Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won’t Learn at ‘Django’ – COLORLINES.

I wouldn’t speak for the Colorlines author, Imara Jones, but in my opinion the importance of Django is precisely that it is a popular fictional representation about slavery.  I don’t think it’s real, but Django, along with a long-line of films (Gone with the wind) about slavery can be probed for shared themes, threads, preferred representations.  The fictional liberties are worth examining not for historical accuracy, but for current political implications.

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Reconstruction panic/Django and Sean Price: representations of black masculinity

There is a particular part of the press conversations about the new film Django Unchained that bothers me.  I guess it feels like the indignation about the portrayal of the so-called racism of the film.  In this particular time, marked by the re-election of Barack Obama, it seems like people with white privilege have taken notice of the actual reality of racism but only because of the perceived loss of power.  We could note the famous Bill O’Reilly Fox News white privilege breakdown AKA “the white establishment is now the minority” rant:

I actually think O’Reilly’s speech is pretty transparent, in that it communicates the loss of explicit — assumed solidarity between white women and a white candidate.  O’Reilly makes clear the idea of white privilege as a club — a team of support of care and compassion extended, in his view, between members of the same race.  This absurd idea of compassion and solidarity is at the heart of racism and exactly how people can simultaneously be incredibly violent and exclusionary to people and still imagine themselves as caring people.

We might think about the time period known as Reconstruction — after the Civil War.  James Loewen, a professor of History at UVM who wrote the wonderful book Lies my teacher taught me which gathers up the worst distortions of US History text books.  Here he talks about the fundamental flaws about our understandings of Reconstruction and the implications on self-consciousness:

LOEWEN: I taught for many years at Tougaloo College, a college in Mississippi that is predominantly African-American. Then I moved to the University of Vermont, so I went from the blackest to the whitest college in America. When I was at Tougaloo, I was distraught by the fact that my students believed the following myth about Reconstruction. They believed that Reconstruction was that time period when blacks took over the government of the Southern states right after the Civil War, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they messed up and whites had to take control again. Now, that’s a terrible misstatement of what happened in Reconstruction. For one thing, the Southern states were governed by a black-white coalition led by whites; they did not go under black control. For another thing, many of the Southern states, particularly Mississippi, had good government during Reconstruction. In Mississippi the state government during that time period started the public schools for both races, whites as well as blacks, wrote a terrific new constitution and did other things.

I thought, what must it do to people to believe erroneously that the one time that they were on the center stage of history in the American past they messed up? What does that do to your self-concept? So I looked into how had my students learned this. Why did they believe it? And Tougaloo was a good college, is a good college. They had learned what was in their high school state history books, so I put together a coalition of students and faculty, and we wrote a new history of Mississippi called “Mississippi: Conflict and Change.” The state rejected it for public school use, and it’s another story but we actually took them to court about that and won a First Amendment victory.

via Booknotes :: Watch.

I listened to the NPR audio interview with the director of the film, Quentin Tarantino, and the questions posed to Tarantino about the racism of the use of the N-word seemed so similar to the arguments about reconstruction.  It seems like the simplistic portrayal of racism — the idea that the offensive part about racism is the expression of the word rather than the systematic exploitation and oppression of a group of people for 500 years.  I can’t find the interview, but this gives you some taste of the NPR take on things.

“Django Unchained” not only plunges Tarantino back into the racially sensitive territory that has brought him criticism in the past, it essentially explodes it. The n-word is used more than 100 times in the film. Two especially violent scenes of slavery — one a Mandingo brawl, the other involving a dog — even Tarantino calls “traumatizing.”

It’s a revenge fantasy that, depending on your perspective, makes this either the rare film to honestly present the ugliness of slavery, or one that treats atrocity as a backdrop for genre movie irreverence. It’s probably both.

“If the only purpose of this movie was to make a shocking expose about slavery … that would be well and good. You could definitely do that,” says Tarantino. “But this movie wants to be a little more than just that.”

via Tarantino Unchained: Quentin Unleashes ‘Django’ : NPR.

It seems to me that this time period of heightened white anxiety over the displacement of power, so clearly represented in the racist O’Reilly rant, one modern thread is the bogus fear that a rising tide of revenge-prone people of color will come to presumably kick white people’s ass and take their stuff.  What I’m calling reconstruction panic.

I guess the NPR tsk-tsk of Quentin Tarantino seems similar.  I feel like they are suggesting that it isn’t acceptable to represent aggressive black violence against white racists, and it is certainly not okay to make a fictional film about it that uses the N-word.

Both the NPR response to Django and the O’Reilly segment present a kind of problem with the representation of threatening men of color.  Which brings us to Sean Price.

For those who don’t know, Sean Price is one of the best rappers in the United States.  At various points he raps with his partner Rock as Heltah Skeltah, sometimes he raps with a larger crew of emcees as the Boot Camp Clik.  Any verse you hear from him will be talented and probably contain something offensive.

His newest album Mic Tyson — exemplifies the double entendre word play and aggressive tough-guy rhymes that makes Sean Price so appreciated.  It goes without saying that the rhymes are so strong that I don’t tend to share my appreciation with Sean with anyone else other than with rap fans.  I like that Sean Price has rhymed with the same genuinely clever anti-social style since he was a teenager.  I buy everything he releases simply because he is that good. I don’t need him to get with the hottest beat makers.  And I don’t need him to have a collaboration with a current emcee.  All I need is that he continues to make really good rhymes and I’ll keep buying the records.

So if one is, lets say, like Sean Price a large black man — is there any way to soften one’s image to make the incredibly talented rhymes that you write be appreciated and for you to get paid?

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Indigenous people’s day juxtaposition

Thanks to Vintage Ads for the image.

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Valuable documentary: Black in Latin America

Henry Louis Gates has produced a wonderful new documentary series Black in Latin America.  It is a series that looks at the historical representations of the importation of African slaves in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil.  Each episode is pretty strong standing alone, but viewing them together really helps to synthesize some of the shared dynamics — the ideas cross over episodes.

Particularly interesting to me is the impact that cane sugar has on European tastes and the relationship sugar has to plantation economies.   When Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian rebellion denied Europe this now vital commodity, Cuba is flooded with slaves to gear up sugar cane production.   This not only allows European flavor access, it also speaks to the compelling desire to never be without refined sugar.  Not to mention enabling France and the United States to isolate and embargo the newly-emancipated Haiti, crushing the economy and facilitating US military take-over.

Also fascinating are the attempts to ‘whiten’ the populations by encouraging immigration from Europe and the impact this has on racial self-identification.  As Gates notes when asked about the racial difference between the nations in the documentaries and the US he notes:

Whereas we have black and white or perhaps black, white, and mulatto as the three categories of race traditionally in America, Brazil has 136 kinds of blackness. Mexico, 16. Haiti, 98. Color categories are on steroids in Latin America. I find that fascinating. It’s very difficult for Americans, particularly African-Americans to understand or sympathize with. But these are very real categories. In America one drop of black ancestry makes you black. In Brazil, it’s almost as if one drop of white ancestry makes you white. Color and race are defined in strikingly different ways in each of these countries, more akin to each other than in the United States. We’re the only country to have the one-drop rule. The only one. And that’s because of the percentage of rape and sexual harassment of black women by white males during slavery and the white owners wanted to guarantee that the children of these liaisons were maintained as property.

via Q&A with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. | Black in Latin America | PBS.

Gates covers the history with a certain quickness.  But he get’s at the cultural impact — in each nation we find some folks whitening, changing the features on statues and in history books, shifting the representation of black leaders to affirm non-blackness.  He also maps the resistance of music, religion, language and the threads of political pan-African identity.

This is a massive topic and I would watch a 12 or 15 part series on the subjects.   It is a shame that Gates only has five episodes to get at the story.  He does an admirable job organizing the ideas and also exposing current themes in each nation that point back to their historical relationship to the slave economy.

The episodes are up for viewing on pbs.  Highly recommended.

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