On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Mary-Frances Winters, founder and president of The Winters Group, Inc., and author of Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Black fatigue is the physical and psychological toll on African Americans’ daily lives as a result of systemic racism. The damage wrought by racism isn’t only the atrocities so powerfully condemned in the demonstrations and protests around the world.
Winters talks about African Americans being middle class and that being from a two-parent family does not protect them from systemic racism; how millennials and Generation Z continue to suffer under the hand of systematic oppression; and how, as a baby boomer, she lived through three different generations of racial discrimination and unrest in North America.
This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021 concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish.
This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021, concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish. Some of the responses to my statement were serious, thoughtful, and critical, but others were so hostile. I am convinced many of them were written by people who only had, at best, second- or third-hand knowledge of the content of my message.
Let me be clear, I remain steadfast that African American reparations in the United States should be designated specifically for black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. It is a position that I have maintained for upwards of 20 years, first articulated with the eligibility criteria I presented in an article published with Dania Frank in 2003 in the American Economic Review.
The criteria expressed at the time were twofold: 1. An American citizen would have to demonstrate they have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. 2. An American citizen would have to demonstrate that for at least ten years before the adoption of a reparations program they self-classified as black, negro, or African American. The first criterion is a lineage standard; the second is an identity standard. Both standards must be met to merit receipt of reparations payments.
In our recent book, From Here to Equality (FHTE), Kirsten Mullen and I modify the identity standard to lengthen the time to at least twelve years (two Senatorial terms) and to include the adoption of a study commission for reparations as one of two events that would trigger the time count on self-classification.
The core objective always has been to include all persons, and their descendants, who have been subjected to the cumulative, intergenerational effects of slavery, legal segregation and white terrorist violence, and post-Civil Rights Era mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, and ongoing discrimination in the justice claim. This is the community whose ancestors were denied the promised 40 acres as restitution for the years of bondage and as a material springboard for entry into full citizenship in the United States.
Kirsten and I argue further, in FHTE, the best economic indicator of the combined effects of these atrocities is the racial wealth gap. We propose that elimination of the gap yields the baseline value for a reparations plan—demanding a federal government expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion. It is a key aspect of our project to generate a research-based standard for determining the size of the bill that is due. We do not identify an upper bound for the bill.
We also insist that priority be given to mobilization of the funds in the form of direct payments to eligible recipients, whether cash transfers, trust accounts, other types of endowments, or some combination thereof.
The two eligibility criteria necessarily exclude many Americans. The lineage standard will exclude all blacks in the United States who migrated to the United States and became citizens after the end of the Civil War. Their descendants also will not be eligible, in the absence of a parent’s or grandparent’s intermarriage with black Americans having ancestry anchored in US slavery. Counting among blacks excluded would be the relatively small group that migrated to the United States during the Jim Crow years (estimated to be, according to a Smithsonian study, to the right of the decimal point). Also excluded is a much larger group of black immigrants (now approaching ten percent of the nation’s black population) who arrived after 1964, especially coming in large numbers from the 1980s onward.
The identity standard excludes all persons who self-identified as non-black, inclusive of all white Americans, at a point where there was no apparent financial benefit from classifying oneself as black.
Meeting the lineage standard necessitates serious genealogical research. As a result, in FHTE, Kirsten Mullen and I recommend the federal government establish an agency with genealogists with expertise in African American ancestry to provide free services to all persons seeking to establish their reparations claim. Despite that recommendation, we continue to get substantial push back from those who say many black Americans with ancestors enslaved in the US will hit a wall in getting past the 1870 Census to identify their particular ancestors who were held in bondage before 1865. Therefore, I have been giving more thought to modifications in the criterion that would make it easier for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery to be assured of inclusion.
One possibility that seemed reasonable is the one I advanced that stirred the pot to a boil—include black immigrants who came during the Jim Crow years on the eligibility list. Let me emphasize, I advanced this to prompt discussion. I even referred to this in a later post as a “trial balloon,” which left me open to the somewhat humorous charges that the balloon popped or, quite the opposite, the balloon was made of lead.
Here is the thinking that I pursued: Allowing pre-1950s black immigrants onto the reparations roll eases genealogical proof required of black American descendants of U.S. slavery to establish their lineage claim. You necessarily have a tradeoff between letting a small number of otherwise excluded black folk in the door versus keeping the strong genealogical standard that will demand going past the 1870 “wall.” Under the former case, with the relaxed lineage standard, a person would have to demonstrate, say, that they have at least two black ancestors who were citizens of the USA before 1950 or 1960.
Then, eligibility would be much easier to establish for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery at the “price” of including a small number of black immigrants who arrived during legal segregation. Let a few in who do not meet the original lineage standard to ensure that all make it in who meet the original lineage standard.
No Mission Creep
I reject the “slippery slope” argument that has it that making this exception opens the gates for every other group to piggyback onto the reparations’ claim. Conditions can be drawn so precisely that no additional groups will become eligible.
Nevertheless, I do take seriously, the following critical response to my “trial balloon”: The limitation of African American reparations to black American descendants of US slavery is a matter of principle that should not be compromised. America’s history of racial injustice has targeted this community so consistently and with such ferocity that we should brook no modification in the criteria, even it remains more difficult for each individual to establish eligibility for the merited compensation.
In fact, I take it so seriously, in a later message, I indicate that I would not advance as an option the proposal any longer, and I will stand committed solely to the original criterion. Unlike what is suggested in a number of messages on Twitter, I never proposed that recent black immigrants should be eligible for reparations from the U.S. government. Nor do I anticipate reneging on that position. . . ”
Classical pianist Lara Downes knew she was onto something profound when audiences began to react to her show-closing rendition of “Fantasie Negre,” a 1929 composition by the African American composer Florence Beatrice Price. Instead of relying on motifs typical of the time period, Price injected a new musical influence by adapting the melody of the soulful spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.”
“People would go nuts,” recalls Downes. “It was this sound that people hadn’t heard before.” Although Price was the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, her works remained outside the mainstream of classical concert music, not to mention beyond name recognition of the most casual classical music fan. Downes, who also hosts Amplify with Lara Downes on NPR, first came across Price’s music in the mid-aughts, in a dusty library copy of a collection of compositions by Price and her contemporaries.
Downes’ new project, Rising Sun Music, aims to reframe the history of American classical music by embracing its diverse origins and composers of color like Price, while building a more inclusive future for the genre. The project, created and curated by Downes and assisted by veteran classical music producer Adam Abeshouse, is a series of newly recorded works written by black composers—including many works that have never been recorded before—performed by Downes with guest artists. She plans to release one song per week to streaming platforms, with a new theme every month, beginning February 5.
During an era when American popular music was defined by Aaron Copland’s sweeping fanfares and George Gershwin’s cinematic melding of styles, African American composers brought their own heritage to their music. Inspired by social and artistic movements in Harlem and Chicago, musicians like Price or Harry T. Burleigh took spirituals, a form borne out of a mix of African traditions with Christian themes, and enshrined them in the lexicon of concert performance music. Burleigh’s composition “On Bended Knees,” for example, notably quotes the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Such overt references in classical and concert music to spirituals, notes Horace J. Maxile, Jr., a music theory professor at Baylor University whose musicology work centers on African American composers, often came in the rhythms and note choices.
“There could be actual quotes of spiritual tunes, or [they could] allude to the spiritual by way of their melodic content,” Maxile says. “There could also be evocations of the dance by way of lots of syncopated rhythms and snapped rhythms that feel like stomp, clap, stomp, clap.”
That Downes had never encountered Price before finding the library book, despite training at conservatories in Vienna, Paris and Basel, Switzerland, sent her deeper in search of composers of color, and Americans in particular. But for Downes, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and a Jewish mother who had lived abroad since her teenage years, her quest was as much a search for her own identity.
“I had just come back to this country by myself without my family,” who remained in Europe, she says. “I was living in cities like Berkeley and New York and sort of processing myself through the eyes of other people and just having all of this input about what it means to walk in the world as a person of color.”
Downes’s childhood in California was preoccupied with loss; her father fell ill and died when she was 9 years old. Growing up in a white environment in San Francisco, she says, left her filled with questions about the part of her family she had lost—questions that led her to trace the larger arc of American identity on her 2001 album American Ballads, and then on America Again in 2016, which included her studio performance of Price’s “Fantasie Negre.”
While studying in Europe, where she walked in the footsteps of composers like Beethoven and Mozart, she says she felt the contradiction of feeling at home playing the piano eight hours a day while also being an outsider twice over—both as an American and as a person of color. Likewise, she found that works by American composers were generally ignored by European conservatories.
“Studying in Europe was the first time that I encountered this kind of bias against a certain type of American music,” she says. “I remember wanting to play something American, and … they didn’t know anything about American music. I think they had vaguely heard of Aaron Copland, maybe, but I remember wanting to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and it was laughable that I would do such a thing.”
When it came to black composers, the situation she found back home wasn’t much different than the strictures she faced abroad. Maxile says that could be due in part to how classical music is tied to class and race in America. The early consumers of classical music were wealthy Americans with access to leisure tied to European culture and its composers; those associations persist today. For conductors of American orchestras and other classical performing groups, these realities, among others, factor into how they select music for performance, which exacerbates the problem of black composers’ anonymity.
“What are you going to program—are you going to go to the things that are going to get people in the seats, and your wealthy donors, or are you going to take a couple of chances?” posits Maxile. “I think some conductors might be wrestling with that. Some are taking some chances and doing some innovative programming, and putting some things out in schools and that kind of thing, but there’s also that go-to clientele, so to speak, that you might have to continuously cultivate.”
With Rising Sun Music, Downes is expanding on her recent explorations into black classical compositions. Last year, her twin releases, Florence Price Piano Discoveries and Some of These Days, highlighted Price as well as pioneers like Burleigh and Margaret Bonds, the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a composer and arranger known for her collaborations with poet Langston Hughes.
Downes will begin her series with the theme “Remember Me to Harlem,” a nod to the importance of Harlem Renaissance composers such as William Grant Still, the first African American to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera, and Eubie Blake, who co-authored one of the first Broadway musicals written and directed by African Americans. The monthlong February run is also a tribute to her father, who grew up in Harlem and attended the same church as Burleigh.
The church, of course, had a large influence on the work of pioneering black composers, and not only in the religious sense. At a time when African Americans owned little real estate, churches were one of the few spaces where they could congregate, collaborate and perform. “The church was a central place for cultural development as well as spiritual, and social, and educational development as well during those years,” says Maxile.
Price, who will be featured in March as part of the “Phenomenal Women” theme, wrote compositions based on spirituals from the black church, choosing to embrace her roots instead of writing music that adhered to a more Eurocentric tradition.
“It’s an intentional thing… and it’s a surprising thing, because already you’re a woman [and] nobody’s going to take you seriously as a composer,” she says. “Now you’re a black woman, and twice they’re not going to take you seriously as a composer. And you still make that choice.”
Rising Sun Music, which borrows its name from lyrics of the “black national anthem,” the unifying spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” comes along at a time when Americans are divided along racial, political and class lines more than at any moment in the last half-century. Downes says she wants to set people on a journey of discovery to understand the roots of American classical music, where it has traveled and who it has connected along the way. She hopes it can help others in the same way her journey into the works of black composers brought her to understand her own American identity.
“We’re all just feeling this urgency to find the places where we come together, right? That’s the only way that we can heal all this division,” says Downes. “When you hear the music, you hear that. You hear that we’re all connected, and you hear a song with different references or context or memories than I do. But it’s the same song, and that’s the beauty of it.”
In a time of racial reckoning, a new film looks at a very personal attempt to address racial injustices in this country.
“Ashes to Ashes” are the final words in typical African American funeral services. Many of those who were murdered by the Klan to maintain the reign of white supremacy never received their “Ashes to Ashes”.
Ashes to Ashes, the film, is an endearing portrait of Winfred Rembert, an avid Star Wars fan and master leather-work artist who survived an attempted lynching in 1967. This moving short documentary showcases the incredible friendship he has forged with Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, as she creates and establishes an interactive art exhibit to memorialize the more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched during the Jim Crow era. Taking all of her experiences from her love of medicine, art and people, Dr. Shirley J. Whitaker, MD, created the Ashes to Ashes program that will provide for a real memorial (funeral) service for the over 2 million lost during the Middle Passages.
FROM 1882-1968, 4,743 LYNCHINGS OCCURRED IN THE UNITED STATES. OF THESE PEOPLE THAT WERE LYNCHED 3,446 WERE BLACK (72%). THE MAJORITY OCCURING IN THE SOUTH (79%). This too is Black History.
The goal of the project by Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker is to acknowledge and mourn the African Americans who were racially terrorized during the Jim Crow era after the Civil War and until this very day. Some endured lynching and other forms of brutalization and therefore, they never received a proper burial. The ceremony was a celebration of thousands of African Americans. As we must. #BlackHistoryMonth2021
Dr. Whitaker will join us this week. Mr. Rembert is unable to join us tonight. We will host him soon.
Dr. Whitaker is the seventh child of Eddie and Charlie Mae Jackson from Waycross, Georgia. Dr. Whitaker attended Clark Atlanta University completing a BS degree with honors in Biology. She attended Yale University School of Medicine-Department of Public Health and obtained her medical degree form Emory University School of Medicine, the only female African American in her class. A kidney specialist by trade, an artist trained under Leonard Baskin, and a healer by passion, her Ashes to Ashes project was developed to provide hope for a better American future, one in which races of varying color and heritage can understand the importance of each other’s American history, empathize with each other’s sacrifices and tragedies, realize the legacy of impacts from suffered injustices and accept that healing is a process as much a cure, and recognize and lay to rest the 4,000 victims of vigilante justice perpetrated against a predominantly black population for simply desiring the most basic of American rights of obtaining an education, ownership of land, fair competition in commerce, the uniquely American right of voting for our governing institutions and for an equal stake in the American experience. She is currently working on the second phase of A2A: The Noose: Tread of Hate and Resilience. This will center on American history through the lens of lynching and will include an International Speak My Name Day to speak the names of the lynched.
Mr. Rembert grew up in rural Georgia, in a farm laborer’s house and later in the small town of Cuthbert. Raised by his great-aunt, Rembert worked with her in the cotton fields during much of his childhood, and received little formal education. As a teenager he got involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jailed for fleeing for his life in a stolen car, nearly lynched and then cut down to serve as an example to others, Rembert was sentenced to 27 years in the Georgia Penal System. Despite the cruel prison circumstances, Rembert learned to read and write and managed to meet and write letters to his would-be wife Patsy as well as to congressmen, with the hope of gaining early release. He also learned the craft of hand-tooling leather from a fellow-prisoner. After seven years, most of which was spent on chain gangs, Rembert was released from prison, but it wasn’t until 1997, at the age of 51, that he began to work more seriously with leather as his artistic medium, creating tooled and dyed canvases that tell the stories of his life. His paintings have been exhibited at galleries across the country—including the Yale University Art Gallery, the Adelson Galleries New York, and the Hudson River Museum—and have been profiled in The New York Times and elsewhere. Rembert is the recipient of a 2017 USA Fellowship, and in 2015 was an honoree of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. Rembert’s full-color memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021.
“I’ll Be Listening for You”
Join us for the OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special
“A History of Black Political Movements in America”
The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
“Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable.”
Policing in America is facing a PR crisis. Following the May 25th murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the term “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for thousands across the country. Six months later, however, America has not defunded its police force––and in fact, has in some cases taken steps to give police departments even more money. Instead, police forces across America have taken an insidious approach: painting their departments in blackface.
After the January 6th Trump riot at the Capitol building, Yoganda Pittman, a Black woman, was named the new Chief of Capitol Police. Her appointment followed the resignation of former Chief Steven Sund and the arrest and firing of several white police officers who were found to be in attendance at the MAGA riot. Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals who falsely believe that allowing Black folks to infiltrate or run law enforcement agencies will lead to higher levels of safety for Black Americans. The termination of several officers who took part in the riot has convinced many that we are one step closer to “reforming” the police by weeding out the racist, bad apples within the department.
“Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals.”
This is a nice narrative, but a false one; in order to understand why, we must look at the history of policing in this country. Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system wherein squadrons made up of white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. These “enforcers” were in charge of locating and returning enslaved people who had escaped, crushing uprisings led by enslaved people, and punishing enslaved workers who were found or believed to have violated plantation rules. After slavery was legally abolished in 1865, America created its modern police force to do the exact thing under a different name: maintain the white supremacist hierarchy that is necessary under racial capitalism. The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
Liberal media has also contributed to the recent valorization of Black cops. In the days after the January 6th riot, many news outlets aggressively pushed a story about Eugene Goodman, a Black capitol police officer who led several rioters away from the Congress people’s hiding places while being chased by a white supremacist mob. Several news outlets published testimonials of Black police officers disclosing instances of racism within the department. A January 14th article in ProPublicanotes that over 250 Black cops have sued the department for racism since 2001: some Black cops have alleged that white officers used racial slurs or hung nooses in Black officer’s lockers, and one Black cop even claimed he heard a white officer say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
“Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system.”
These white officers’ racism is unsurprising, and I am not denying any of these claims. But focusing on these singular, isolated moments of racism wherein white cops are painted as cruel and Black cops are the sympathetic victims grossly oversimplifies the narrative of structural racism that modern American policing was built upon. After hearing these slurs that they were allegedly so disgusted by, these Black cops still intentionally chose to put on their badge, don their guns, and work alongside these white police officers who insulted and demeaned them, laboring under a violent system with the sole purpose of harming and terrorizing Black and low-income communities. Similarly, while Goodman’s actions most likely saved many lives during the riot, we cannot allow one moment of decency to erase centuries of racist violence.
The great Zora Neale Hurston once said: “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Her words ring ever true today, and these Black police officers are an excellent example of why. It’s tempting to believe that putting Black folks on the force will solve racial violence, but this is a liberal myth we must break free of. Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable: a quick look at many Black folks in power today, such as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Lori Lightfoot, and Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately prove this to be the case. Everyone supporting racial capitalism must be scrutinized and held accountable, regardless of their identity. We cannot on the one hand say that ‘all cops are bastards’ and then suddenly feel sympathy when those cops are not white. If we want to defund and abolish the police, we must resist the narrative that Black cops have anything to offer us.
Mary Retta is a writer, virgo, cartoon enthusiast — a queer Black writer for sites like Teen Vogue, The Nation, Bitch Media, and Vice.
The violent insurrection by domestic terrorists last week at the U.S. Capitol was not Black people’s fight.
But make no mistake: It was all about Black people. Because white supremacy is about Black people.
The Oxford dictionary defines white supremacy as “the belief that white people constitute a superior race and should therefore dominate society, typically to the exclusion or detriment of other racial and ethnic groups, in particular Black or Jewish people.”
What else explains how people can think it’s perfectly within their rights to try to overthrow the government because their guy didn’t win?
But it was about more than an election. President Donald Trump exhorted the armed, angry and violent extremists to “fight like hell, or you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The mob went through with their plans, breaking into the Capitol with crowbars, sledgehammers and ropes, destroying property, assaulting Americans, taking selfies, gleefully posting on social media, waving Confederate flags in the Capitol vestibule,beating a police officer to death, and fully expecting to walk out with impunity. In case those actions didn’t tell the story enough, they wore Camp Auschwitz shirts and other racist and anti-Semitic branding, and hung a noose.
Had the foaming mobs gotten their hands on a member of Congress, God only knows what could have happened.
The assault on our democracy was a culmination of what the supremacists see as a larger threat: the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian and female vice president. It was an election decided, in large part, by Black voters, turning out in large cities with Black populations, such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta. Not coincidentally, those were the cities where Trump sought to strip electoral votes from.
State-sanctioned racial violence to keep Black people from attaining power is nothing new. After all, wasn’t that what the Civil War was about? Black voter suppression has always been embedded into our democracy’s shameful history.
You don’t need to look any further than Philadelphia. Octavius Catto, Black American educator and activist was on his way to vote in 1871 when he was murdered by a white man who opposed Catto’s politics and very existence. The murderer was not charged, and the police were later found to be aiding and abetting the mob to keep Black people from voting.
Suppression through violence and intimidation continued throughout history: States employed tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, all to keep Black people from voting. In 1920, a Florida mob of white men, aided by the Ku Klux Klan, massacred as many as 50 Black people on Election Day, because a single Black man was intent on casting his ballot.
It took civil rights activists marching in the streets — some sacrificing their lives — to force Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act only 55 years ago, which was supposed to ensure that cherished right.
But even today, voting rights are under attack through restrictions of voter ID laws and polling place shutdowns.
“When you look at every portion of American history where we’ve made gains toward easing some of the burdens of that oppression, we’ve seen some type of violent backlash,” said Timothy Welbeck, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney and Temple University professor. “And because of the history of Black voter disenfranchisement in this country, I guess that allowed some whites to think that the election was rigged, even though it was fair and free.”
So, when we watched in horror as the orgy of violence unfolded at the Capitol, well, I was shocked. But I couldn’t say I was surprised.
Yes, Trump has been impeached for the second time, but it doesn’t stop there.
White supremacy will always rear its ugly head. We’ve seen it take all kinds of forms in these dangerous times. It comes in the defiant refusal of folks to mask up during a global pandemic because, well, their personal freedom is at stake, never mind they’re putting their fellow citizens in harm’s way, particularly people of color. It comes not only from far-right extremists living in rural communities, but in suit-wearing CEOs, cops, teachers, real estate agents, nurses, military men and women and even a gold-medal Olympian.
It comes from lawmakers, too. And now we’re learning it might even come from right inside of Congress, from the very people who took a vow to uphold our democracy.
During a symposium on We Are Not Slaves, Ernest McMillen, a co-founder of SNCC, Dallas, and an activist for the incarcerated, observed that, “The prison system is a microcosm, a concentration, of what is actually in the whole of society. This idea of going from the universal to the particular, and back to the particular and to the universal, is very important for people to see,” McMillen continued, “because the very forces [of oppression] that are at work concentrated in the prison system, are the same as those at work in our everyday society—from economic exploitation, to racism, to sexism, to untold injustices that we see every day. They are perfected first in the prison system.” This incredibly thoughtful observation is precisely why I wrote We Are Not Slaves.
*This post is part of our online roundtable on Robert T. Chase’s We Are Not Slaves. On Friday, January 15, at 12noon EST, Chase will be in conversation with Talitha LeFlouria about this book. The event is free and open to all. Click here to register for the event. During a symposium on We Are
“Hicks’ poignant conclusion reminds us that the ravages of COVID-19 leave today’s incarcerated peoples especially vulnerable. In a recent discussion with Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, he told me that he had been placed in permanent solitary because of his organizing, but was recently relocated. In his words, “it’s obvious that several people in this neighborhood have been exposed to the virus and it’s very probable that the Administration knew that prior to moving me. Could it be coincidence? Lol. Well, it could be.” 2 This twenty-first century punitive cell displacement near a bio-virus harkens back to the disciplinary strategy I uncovered of purposeful cell displacement to generate racial and sexual violence. The disciplinary tools may change, but the strategies remain similar. Hughett’s final point is where I also concluded We Are NotSlaves, ending carceral violence “will require abolishing the prison.” That political project requires resistance against both the prison particular and the universal carceral apparatus and with a broad coalition of people inside and outside of prison.”
A FEW YEARS ago, an acquaintance and I found ourselves debating the value of art in a capitalist society—a suitably light topic for a summer evening. My companion believed strongly that art must explicitly denounce the world’s injustices, and if it did not, it was reinforcing exploitative systems. I, ever the aesthete, found this stance reasonably sound from a moral perspective but incredibly dubious otherwise.
Then, as now, I consider art’s greatest function to be its capacity for expanding our conceptions of reality, not simply acting as moralistic propaganda. After all, the foundational thing you learn in art history is that the first artists were mystics, healers, and spiritual interlocutors—not politicians.
We started making art, it seems, to cross the border between our world and one beyond. Prehistoric wall paintings of cows and lumpy carvings of fertility goddesses serve as the earliest indications of our species’ artistic inclinations, blurring the lines between religious ritual and art object. Even as the world crumbles around us, I am convinced we must hold onto art’s spiritual properties rather than succumbing to the allure of work that only addresses our current systems.
I wrote the following essay, “Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson,” in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, but it could have been written today—two days into a still unsettled presidential election; two days of witnessing frenzied, nail-biting, soul-searching Democrats wondering what happened to the blue wave and why 68 million people actually voted for Trump; two days of threats from the White House that they will fight in the courts and in the streets before giving up power. And today Cedric Robinson, pioneering scholar of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” would have celebrated his eightieth birthday.
Today Cedric Robinson would have celebrated his eightieth birthday. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
The lessons I took from Cedric in the aftermath of Trump’s election still stand: our problem is not polling, or the failure of Democrats to mobilize the Black and Latinx vote (they came out, often at great risk to their health and safety), or a botched effort to reach working-class whites with a strong, colorblind class-based agenda. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
But before reviving the tired race-versus-class debate, pay attention: Robinson was making an argument about racial regimes as expressions of class power and how racism undergirds class oppression. As I quoted Robinson before: “White patrimony deceived some of the majority of Americans, patriotism and nationalism others, but the more fugitive reality was the theft they themselves endured and the voracious expropriation of others they facilitated. The scrap which was their reward was the installation of Black inferiority into their shared national culture. It was a paltry dividend, but it still serves.” (The emphasis is mine.)
What we’ve seen is the consolidation of a racial regime based—as are all racial regimes—on “fictions” “masquerading as memory and the immutable.” Trump is saving white suburban women from Black rapists and drug dealers who want to take their Section 8 vouchers out to gated communities. He’s protecting our borders from “illegals” who have no claims whatsoever to this white man’s country. He’s shielding the nation from wicked critical race theorists and Howard Zinn with “patriotic education.” He responds to the assault on white supremacist mythologies by defending Confederate monuments. He dispatches federal military forces to crush antiracist protests and declares Kyle Rittenhouse a patriot for killing two unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters. And he dusts off the tried and true strategy of labeling all challengers to the regime “communists and socialists.” (When Biden brags “I beat the socialists!” and “I am the Democratic Party,” he plays right into the regime’s fictions—he is the neoliberal moderate taking back the country from rioters, fascists, and socialists.)
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. President Obama presided during the killing of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—ad infinitum. It was the mass rebellion against the lawlessness of the state—in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, in New York, in Los Angeles, and elsewhere—that prompted Trumpian backlash.
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity.
The massive vote for Trump and his fascist law-and-order rhetoric should also be seen as a backlash to a movement. Some of us believed Black Spring rebellion in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery signaled a national reckoning around racial justice. But rather than reverse the rewhitening of America, our struggles catalyzed and concretized the racial regime’s explicit embrace of white power. Once again, an unstable ruling class drapes itself in white sheets, puts on its badge and brings out its guns. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity. And in the face of a global pandemic, joblessness, precarity, and an economy on the verge of collapse, this paltry dividend still serves.
If we’d paid attention, we wouldn’t have expected a Biden landslide or a blue wave ripping the Senate from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell grip. It is not a coincidence that Louisville is on fire over the murder of Breonna Taylor and countless others who died at the hands of police in McConnell’s state. Kentucky has always been a battleground. California is too, and we’re not necessarily winning. Voters just defeated affirmative action, rent control, and the labor rights of gig workers. And despite some important victories, California delivered a lot of votes to Trump. We need to face the fact that our entire country, and the world, is a battleground. Trump and McConnell have succeeded in packing the Supreme Court with reactionaries. Trump’s backers still run the Senate. Gun-toting men and women in red hats stand outside vote-tabulating centers, threatening to do whatever is needed to secure a Trump victory. They yell “stop the count.”
Even with a Biden victory, the failure of the blue wave will be attributed in part to a certain kind of identity politics—Black and Latinx voter turnout less than what was expected—or to the militancy of antiracist protests, or to left-leaning candidates who scared off white moderates by pushing for single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal. We should not see these as problems for legitimate Democrats. We’ve been witnessing authentic small-d democracy in action. In the streets we’ve seen a movement embrace Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, queer feminism, and a horizontal leadership model that emphasizes deliberative, participatory democracy.
We have an electoral college, battleground states, and voter suppression because the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy.
This is the democracy Cedric Robinson insisted we embrace. He reminded us that the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy, a theory of so-called enlightened governance that excludes the popular classes. This is why we have an electoral college, why we have battleground states, and why voter suppression was built into our country’s DNA. As I wrote three years ago, “today’s organized protests in the streets and other places of public assembly portend the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past five years, the insurgencies of the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations have warned the country that unless we end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of black and brown people, we are headed for a fascist state.”
We’re already here. And there is no guarantee that a Biden-Harris White House will succeed in completely reversing this trend. Nor should we expect presidents and their cabinets to do this work. That would put us back where we started—with tacit acceptance of the principles of anti-democracy.
Cedric’s words from exactly twenty years ago still haunt: “For the moment . . . an unelected government has seized illegal powers. That must be opposed with every democratic weapon in our arsenal.”
Happy Birthday, Dr. Robinson.
March 6, 2017
Cedric Robinson was fond of quoting his friend and colleague Otis Madison: “The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient.” Robinson used the quote as an epigraph for a chapter in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007), titled, “In the Year 1915: D. W. Griffith and the Rewhitening of America.” When people ask what I think Robinson would have said about the election of Donald Trump, I point to these texts as evidence that he had already given us a framework to make sense of this moment and its antecedents.
Robinson’s work—especially his lesser-known essays on democracy, identity, fascism, film, and racial regimes—has a great deal to teach us about Trumpism’s foundations, about democracy’s endemic crises, about the racial formation of the white working class, and about the significance of resistance in determining the future.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
Now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had to travel a rocky road to immortality. Initial reviews ranged from positive to condescending to downright hostile, as many in the African American literary community bristled at Hurston’s rejection of the Harlem Renaissance and W.E.B. Du Bois’ Uplift agenda. A decades-long wilderness period in which both the novel and its author fell into obscurity ended with the establishment of several Black Studies programs in universities across America in the 1970s and 1980s. This, coupled with a growing black feminist movement, spearheaded by activist writers like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, helped create a space in which Hurston’s work could be rediscovered. Walker’s 1975 essay, ‘Looking for Zora,’ in which she chronicled her search for Hurston’s unmarked grave, was a particularly significant part of this effort.
83 years on from its publication, we take look back at some of the original reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“Whether or not there was ever a town in Florida inhabited and governed entirely by Negroes, you will have no difficulty believing in the Negro community which Zora Neale Hurston has either reconstructed or imagined in this novel. The town of Eatonville is as real in these pages as Jacksonville is in the pages of Rand McNally; and the lives of its people are rich, racy, and authentic. The few white characters in the book appear momentarily and incidentally. The title carries a suggestion of The Green Pastures, but it is to this extent misleading; no religious element dominates this story of human relationships … The only weak spots in the novel are technical; it begins awkwardly with a confusing and unnecessary preview of the end; and the dramatic action, as in the story of the hurricane, is sometimes hurriedly and clumsily handled. Otherwise the narration is exactly right, because most of it is in dialogue, and the dialogue gives us a constant sense of character in action. No one has ever reported the speech of Negroes with a more accurate ear for its raciness, its rich invention, and its music.”
“Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction … Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes. Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears … The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’ the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”
“This is Zora Hurston’s third novel, again about her own people–and it is beautiful. It is about Negroes, and a good deal of it is written in dialect, but really it is about everyone, or least everyone who isn’t so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory … The story of Janie’s life down on the muck of Florida Glades, bean picking, hunting and the men shooting dice in the evening and how the hurricane came up and drove the animals and the Indians and finally the black people and the white people before it, and how Tea Cake, in Janie’s eyes the ‘son of Evening Son,’ and incidentally the best crap shooter in the place, made Janie sing and glitter all over at last, is a little epic all by itself. Indeed, from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible.”
“It isn’t that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better. In execution it is too complex and wordily pretty, even dull—yet its conception of these simple Florida Negroes is unaffected and really beautiful … Through these chapters there has been some very shrewd picturing of Negro life in its naturally creative and unself-conscious grace … If this isn’t as grand as it should he, the breakdown comes in the conflict between the true vision and its overliterary expression. Crises of feeling are rushed over too quickly for them to catch hold, and then presently we are in a tangle of lush exposition and overblown symbols; action is described and characters are talked about, and everything is more heard than seen. The speech is founded in observation and sometimes wonderfully so, a gold mine of traditional sayings…But although the spoken word is remembered, it is not passed on. Dialect is really sloppy, in fact…And so all this conflict between the real life we want to read about and the superwordy, flabby lyric discipline we are so sick of leaves a good story where it never should have been potentially: in the gray category of neuter gender, declension indefinite.”
“And now, Zora Neale Hurston and her magical title: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s story should not be re-told; it must be read. But as always thus far with this talented writer, setting and surprising flashes of contemporary folk lore are the main point. Her gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humor keep her flashing on the surface of her community and her characters and from diving down deep either to the inner psychology of characterization or to sharp analysis of the social background. It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly — which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplication!”