What Michelle Obama Gets Wrong About Racism

Succeeding While Black

Michelle Obama’s new book reduces racial inequality to a matter of psychological impairment that can be overcome through grit and grin. This is a dangerous proposition.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR

Becoming

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s popularity is a remarkable political feat. Her ascent into the public spotlight, after all, began as a receptacle of rightwing misogynoir. From the suggestions that she was ill-tempered to the hideous portrayals of her as male or some kind of primatial hybrid, Obama endured scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the role of first lady. This was hardly surprising given that the pageantry and pomp of the office had become synonymous with white and wealthy “ladies.” Her opponents were quick to cast Obama—the dark skinned, Chicago native—as decidedly un-ladylike, characterizing her instead as an anti-American political militant.

Becoming is an exquisite lesson in creating political ideology—one that I find troubling.

Sensitive to these portrayals, Obama acquiesced when her staff asked her to soften her gestures and play down her political contributions to Barack’s first campaign run. In her new book, Becoming, Obama describes how campaign aids encouraged her to “play to my strengths and to remember the things I most enjoyed talking about, which was my love for my husband and kids, my connection with working mothers, and my proud Chicago roots.” Together, the Obamas became disciplined in responding to the racist attacks, in part due the desire not to confirm the stereotypes. As Obama has famously said, “when they go low, we go high.”

The strategy worked. A recent Gallup poll listed Obama as the most “admired” woman in the United States. Becoming sold a breathtaking 1.4 million copies in its first week, and its success is partly due to the perception that this is Obama’s response to the years of silence—her chance to finally break free from adherence to the public rituals of U.S. power. And, indeed, Obama’s book is her story in her own words—authentic and refreshingly un-ladylike. She endears herself to a broad audience as she freely recalls smoking marijuana with a boyfriend in her car, having pre-marital sex, living at home well into her thirties even after she was married, having troubles conceiving both of her children, yelling in arguments with Barack, and feeling bitter as she was expected to carry most of the burdens of her household after marriage. Free of the pretense often effused by those with wealth and power, Obama comes off as ordinary and relatable.

In Becoming, Obama describes the value of telling one’s story this way: “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” For Obama, a person’s story is an affirmation of their space in the world, the right to be and belong. “In sharing my story,” she says, “I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. . . . Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” The root of discrimination, Obama implies, including the ugly discrimination she faced as first lady, is misunderstanding. Sharing personal narratives, then, offers a way for people to fully see each other and to overcome our differences.

This message has resonated widely, but especially with black women, for whom Becoming has been a source of pride and celebration. Black women have paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to crowd into stadiums on her book tour, which speaks not only to the celebrity of Obama, but the depths of disrespect and invisibility that black women in the United States experience. Indeed, black women in this country are so debased and ignored that it often feels as if the success and public adoration of Obama can lift and make visible all black women—a process Obama herself encourages.

Her story is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other.

Yet despite all the optimism and goodwill that Obama embraces and inspires, I find Becoming troubling. Sticking to her strategy for success, Obama reassures her reader repeatedly that she is not a “political” person. Instead Obama describes herself as a “child of the mainstream” who “never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love for a good sitcom. . . . And to this day nothing pleases me more than the tidy triumph delivered by a home-makeover show.” But as someone who has been around politics since she was a child (her father was a precinct captain in the Democratic Party) and is now, domestically and internationally, one of the most well-known ambassadors of the United States, this denial is not modesty, it is misleading. Indeed, far from being apolitical, Obama is politically sophisticated, and any reader of her book should treat her that way.

Becoming, after all, is an exquisite lesson in creating ideology. As a political insider with broad pop culture appeal, Obama wields enormous influence in shaping discourse and opinion on critical issues concerning race, gender, public policy, and how we define progress in general. Lauren Mims, a former assistant director for the White House project “Educational Excellence for African Americans,” has even undertaken an initiative to create a curriculum for Becoming that she says will “disrupt the traditional practice of talking about black girls in pejorative ways and center them and their unique experiences to study how we can support them.”

Obama, then, is not just telling stories; she is shaping our understanding of the world we live in, which is why it is so critical that we, as a public, interrogate her ideology. When we do, we might see that her story is not in search of the collective experience but is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other. Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy. This is unfortunate because personal narratives—including Obama’s—do have power. When stitched together and told honestly, they can create a map of shared experience that raises the possibility of collective action as a way to transform the individual circumstance. This is certainly true of poor and working-class black women whose personal stories expose the racism, sexism, and general inequality of U.S. society. These stories relentlessly pierce the treacherous idea that the United States is free, democratic, and just, and they prove the axiom of black feminism that the personal is political.

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Born in 1964, Obama has no recollection of the political strife—including multiple uprisings in response to police violence and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—that unfolded in Chicago neighborhoods during her childhood. Instead, her memories revolve around her family’s cramped apartment on the Southside of Chicago, and her narration of her working-class family’s history perfectly captures the systematic way that African Americans were excluded from the vast bounty created in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, as a child, Obama was palpably aware that her circumstances were vastly different from those of the adults around her. While their potential was truncated by rampant racial discrimination, Obama was able to attend a promising new magnet high school called Whitney Young. She then goes on to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School, and by the mid-1980s, Obama was earning a six-figure salary at one of the most highly regarded law firms in downtown Chicago. By any measure, she and her equally successful brother, Craig Robinson, overcame circumstances that many of their peers inevitably succumbed to.

Obama’s book reflects the diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans.

Racism does exist for Obama, but these two realities—the history of structural segregation that she and her brother emerged from and their subsequent black success—shape her perception of racism as less an institutional phenomenon and more an unfortunate residue from the past. This does not negate its realness, but she sees its manifestation largely as a “deep weariness . . . a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time.” She had seen it in both her grandfathers, “spawned by every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make.” It was why the neighbor had stopped mowing the lawn or even keeping track of where her kids went after school. And “it lived in every piece of trash tossed carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.”

One of Obama’s best friends growing up was Santita Jackson, one of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughters. In Becoming, Obama points to Reverend Jackson’s talking points in his 1984 presidential run as an inspiring message of racial uplift. She writes enthusiastically about how Jackson

toured the country, mesmerizing crowds with thundering calls for black people to shake off the undermining ghetto stereotypes and claim their long-denied political power. He preached a message of relentless, let’s-do-this self-empowerment. . . . He had school kids pledge to turn off the TV and devote two hours to their homework each night. He made parents promise to stay involved. He pushed against the feelings of failure that permeated so many African American communities, urging people to quit with the self-pity and take charge of their own destiny. “Nobody, but nobody,” he’d yell, “is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night.”

Conversely, Obama saw how other “extraordinary and accomplished people”—including black women such as herself—had managed the skepticism they were surrounded by:

All of them had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals. . . . I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. . . . My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had.

In Obama’s telling, then, racism is not the defining feature of black life, and her profound success is a testament to the ways that striving and self-motivation are the difference between those who succeed and those who do not.

The absence of materiality in Obama’s understanding of racism in contemporary life underlies her sharp rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Becoming. Known for his fiery sermons condemning the racism, militarism, sexism, and oppression in U.S. society, Reverend Wright became a thorn in the side of the Obamas during the 2008 campaign when it was “discovered” that the Obamas were members of his church. The mainstream media delved into his sermons and described some of Wright’s incisive comments as “hate speech,” which worked to fuel the presumed radicalism or militancy of the Obamas. The most widely circulated of these sermons showed Wright at his incendiary best:

The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.

In Becoming, Obama dismisses Wright’s experiences and viewpoints as him “careening through callous and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe.” She accuses him of viewing “race through a lens of cranky mistrust.” Wright and older African Americans, she says, became “cranky” because of legal strictures of segregation that gave rise to a “narrow mindedness” in matters regarding race. Obama goes on to conflate the bitterness of older African Americans with the racism of older white people, such as Barack Obama’s white grandmother who felt afraid of black men on the streets. That fear, she writes, “was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided—that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.”

It is a diplomatic reading—but ultimately a clumsy effort to reach across the profound racial division in the United States. Consider the political ramifications of such a reading. By treating them as two sides of the same coin, Obama is equating African American anger—which is rooted in material deprivation and human subjugation—with white fear, which is rooted in racial stereotypes. These two worldviews are not the product of the same generational experiences and reducing them to such forecloses the possibility that African Americans could ever find real redress to the inequality produced by centuries of slavery and legal discrimination.

Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy.

Moreover, Obama’s reading reinforces the perception that African Americans’ persistent demands against racism are not much more than “crankiness” or complaining. When combined with Obama’s own emphasis on striving as a way to overcome racial discrimination, this narrative reduces racial inequality to one of psychological impairment that can be overcome through sheer determination and a positive attitude. She fails to see how it was bitter struggle against real institutions that created the new world she was able to thrive in. Indeed, Whitney Young high school was built on an empty lot that had seen multiple uprisings over the course of the 1960s. Those uprisings eventually caused the political establishment to acquiesce and take concrete steps to create a black middle class. Elected officials invested in schools such as Whitney Young while also exerting enormous pressure on the private sector to end the racial enclosure of segregation that had slowly suffocated Obama’s parent’s social mobility. The crucible of the 1960s widely expanded access to homeownership, college education, white collar professions, and formal entry into electoral politics for African Americans.

Obama and a thin layer of others were beneficiaries of these transformations in the U.S. political economy. The short-lived reforms created by the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s lowered the rate of black poverty by expanding the federal bureaucracy and creating new job opportunities for black workers. But as the momentum from the political insurgency of the 1960s waned, political support for these programs evaporated. And as more time passed from the high point of the movement, the hardship experienced by most African Americans grew deeper. In 1964, the year Obama was born, black unemployment was 9.6 percent; by 1975, it had crept up to 15 percent; and while Obama was at Princeton University, in 1983, black unemployment inched up even further to a bewildering 20 percent—the highest ever recorded. Nevertheless, the successes of the few were held up as evidence that it was not the system that was broken; instead, black people simply weren’t taking advantage of all that the United States had to offer.

To make sense of the persistent low wages, housing instability, higher rates of poverty, and deepening social crisis that marred black communities, the political focus shifted violently to personal responsibility or a lack thereof. In doing so, the infrastructure of publicly funded institutions—including public housing and other forms of social welfare—that had been slowly chipping away at inequality and poverty were dismissed as unnecessary and financially gutted. The picture of success for some African Americans—whether they were lawyers or young elected officials—and continued hardship for others created a distorted picture of black America. Like a fun house mirror, it enlarged features such as personal persistence and responsibility while pushing others, such as the role of institutional racial discrimination, further to the margins.

The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.

Obama’s book reflects this diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans. With the public sector out of view, her conception of social progression is freighted with “public-private partnership” ventures and mentorship steered by “gifted” individuals. Social change is thus based on the goodwill and interests of well-endowed funders and well-meaning individuals while inequality is essentially accepted as something to navigate rather than dismantle.

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If this reading seems unfair, consider Obama’s 2013 visit to the Chicago high school, William R. Harper, and her recollection of it in Becoming. As an institution, Harper stands at the intersection of racism, poverty, and violence. In 2012, twenty-one of its students were injured and eight killed from persistent gun violence. Obama chose to visit Harper in 2013 as she became increasingly focused on gun violence in Chicago. Just weeks before, a fifteen-year-old black girl who had just performed at Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade was shot and killed in a Southside neighborhood approximately one mile from the Obama family home.

On the day of her visit, Obama met with twenty-two students who had all been psychologically scarred by their constant exposure to gun violence. They relayed with frightening detail walking down the middle of the street to avoid stray gunfire and their routines of clearly identifying escape routes in case they needed to run. In the course of the meeting, one of the Harper students remarked to Obama, “It’s nice that you are here and all . . . but what are you actually going to do about all of this?”

In her telling, Obama did not have much to say to them: “Honestly, I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon. Most people in Washington aren’t even trying. A lot of them don’t even know you exist.” It was an honest statement—one we are expected to read as refreshingly honest and “real”—but one that betrayed the logical conclusions of seeing racism as a manifestation of psychology, bad intentions, or simple ignorance. When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.

In Becoming, Obama also recalls that Englewood (the neighborhood Harper is in) had been considered a “tough” area when she was growing up, but seeing the shuttered windows and dilapidated structures in 2013 showed how much more ingrained its problems had become. She blames white flight: “I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood, and how the word ‘ghetto’ got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it . . . caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. ‘Ghetto’ signaled that a place was both black and hopeless.”

When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.

But while white flight was certainly part of Englewood’s history of decline, white people abandoned Englewood more than a half century ago. Englewood’s problems of today are both historical and contemporary. The neighborhood has continued to suffer because successive city administrations have starved it and other poor and working-class black communities of desperately needed resources, opting instead to redirect those funds to whiter and wealthier sections of the city. In 2012, just months before Obama’s visit to Englewood, Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, shuttered fifty-two public schools in Chicago—the largest simultaneous school closure in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Chicago has dedicated 40 percent of its budget towards policing.

Almost half of black Chicagoans, men and women, between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are both unemployed and out of school. It is an economic situation that produces crime while arrests and imprisonment reinforce the tight circuit of oppression and brutality. There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism, but Obama’s telling treats them as sad but ultimately disconnected events that are the simple product of partisan politics, pessimism, bullying, even hate—nothing quite tangible enough to put one’s hands on and dismantle.

Obama, who avoids any analysis of the systemic or systematic feature of racial inequality, offered the children at Harper this lesson: “progress is slow . . . they couldn’t afford to simply sit and wait for change to come. Many Americans didn’t want their taxes raised, and Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, let alone rise above petty partisan bickering, so there weren’t going to be billion-dollar investments in education or magical turnarounds for their community.” In the end, she told them to “use school.”

There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism.

While the first lady of the United States does not hold a legislative position and thus is not able to secure funding for a school in need, Obama’s normalizing gaze at inequality, almost accepting it as a fact of nature, reinforces the status quo for her largely black audience—and that is a dangerous proposition. Obama shows the extent to which she has given up on the idea that demands can be made of the state. These children don’t have the luxury to “simply wait” for change, so their only option is to turn to their underfunded, lightly resourced school and work hard amid stray gunfire to get themselves out.

This lesson—that personal striving is an important remedy to racial inequality—is given a sunny, optimistic sheen when Obama tells us that local “business owners” later donated funds so that those same twenty-two Harper kids could visit the White House, meet Barack Obama, and visit Howard University. Obama tells us that her hope was for the Harper students to see themselves as college students and use that as motivation to change their lives. As she triumphantly declares at the chapter’s end, “I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and hastened its arrival.”

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It is important to distinguish Obama’s retreat to personal striving as not just the same old “respectability politics”—the belief that if African Americans just presented themselves as competent and upstanding citizens then they would be seen as entitled to the benefits of U.S. society. Even within the distorted framework of respectability politics, there was still an understanding of the materiality of racism, and there was a notion of collective endeavor—a “linked fate” among black Americans. In place of these politics, Obama concocts a kind of hybrid of middle-class feminism—with its focus on self-actualization, empowerment, and personal fulfillment—with wisps of J. D. Vance–style bootstrap uplift, which centers on hard work, education, and personal responsibility. By eschewing all “policy solutions,” she sends a profoundly dangerous political message: that individuals alone can change their circumstance.

The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message.

Indeed, in Becoming, she details her endeavors to bring poor and working-class children into the White House so that she could personally encourage them. There are multiple examples of Obama using the power of her office to pluck up black and brown students here and there to, in her words, say, “You belong. You matter. I think very highly of you.” This is, without question, meaningful and valuable to the hundreds of young people who encountered Obama in person. Indeed, even the symbolic power of seeing a black president and first lady evokes the optimism that the Obamas often preach as antiseptic to the chaos of poverty. But, in reality, it also trivializes the enormity of the structural crisis and deprivation in communities such as Englewood. The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.

In the period of struggle that bequeathed Obama the possibility of her improbable rise to the White House, Ella Baker, a radical black feminist and organizer within the civil rights movement, encouraged ordinary people to connect the dots of their oppression to a broader, unjust social order. Making these connections demonstrated the potential for an alliance of similarly aggrieved citizens and residents who don’t benefit from our social order but suffer from its disorder. As she said in 1969:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message. Obama served as an inspiring role model—her personal story is extraordinary by any measure. But it is crucial for both her and us to acknowledge that it was made possible by the confluence of institutional changes and her own talents. For the children of Harper High and their parents who live with PTSD and other scars of urban and suburban life in the twenty-first century, we must reaffirm our commitment to the same kinds of institutional interventions—and beyond—that made her ascent possible.

Another world is possible, but it can only be built through a collective struggle that Obama no longer sees as necessary.

Source: What Michelle Obama Gets Wrong About Racism

Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say | The New Yorker

“My mourning mind, compromised and searching for coincidence, processes the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up. If we are Morrison-fearing, as some others are with their icons, well, we were socialized by her novels. What an experience, to be mothered on one plane by our Beloved. It’s a plane that occupies the thorny reserve of memory. If you asked your mothers questions about your origins, they responded with irritability. Actually, you knew better than to ask. One thing about being a black girl is, by the time you come around, and your body awakens to feeling historically out of sorts, the matriarchs have been worn out. Their patience to “do language” has dried up. You have been born late to the mystery. Catch up, but how? Morrison motioned to us and got us up to date.

You are always too young to read Morrison. I was eleven. A teacher had grown concerned. From what I can recall of the report, my eyes glazed over in class and I was sinking into my desk, falling inexplicably ill. “Maybe this will make you feel better?” my mother asked. The copy of “The Bluest Eye” that she gave me was distended, graffitied with epiphanies. It had been assigned to her in an E.S.L. class at Kingsborough Community College, burdening her for all time with a misleading impression of the potential of English. Out of a “discredited vocabulary,” as Morrison once termed it, the author coaxed out a superior written tongue—one that, I more than suspect, each black woman writer who has come after her mimics, to varying degrees. My own mimicry was, at first, automatic. That summer, I stayed indoors, truly possessed. I transcribed the whole of “The Bluest Eye,” in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, at least a dozen times. I memorized whole chapters. My finger pads melted. I ingrained the beat of the novel into the movement of my right wrist.

For years, it went on like this: I would become withdrawn, and my mother would hand me “Sula,” then “Jazz,” then “Beloved.” My early readings of the novels were hungry misuses. Her novels were the boundary between herself and her readers, an instrument of intellectual self-protection, but we violated the boundary, almost deliriously. By the time I was reading Morrison, the novel had allegedly lost its status as an influential factor in the making of society. We didn’t know that. Morrison was our celebrity; it was only right that she appear on “Oprah.” We were poor in imagination, trained to think of our histories as sociological math. Morrison invalidated the lie, which taints black minds especially, that our people are either one way or the other. To her, we were naturally literary and epic. I got inebriated on the image of Pecola Breedlove, who “was a long time with the milk,” soused by a community’s predilection for a certain kind of beauty. The ghost in “Beloved,” swelling as she threatened to overcome the spiteful home at 124 Bluestone Road, made us think gothically. I wanted to build a retreat in the woods, like Denver. I thought that I was destined, one day, to become a Sula Peace, leaving home, and returning under the shelter of a great hat, carting havoc just under my breast.

In a foreword to “Sula,” Morrison wrote, “Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men.” It is too seldom acknowledged that the greatest novelist this country has ever produced was a single black mother. She had two sons, one who passed before she did, and how many daughters? We know that it is problematic, or maybe just self-indulgent, to claim her as mother. And yet, if the business of mothering is to broker the link between two generations, then what else can she be? During her childhood conversion to Catholicism, she chose the confirmation name that eventually led to “Toni”: Saint Anthony, the patron of the lost. An old-fashioned loss lives between my mother and me, and we tend to it. Ghosts have visited her, and human dramas have haunted her, and erotic moments have freed her, and for reasons both altruistic and proud she will not express these stories to me. I have my own things she will not know. We are secretive. We talk to each other through intermediaries, and their names are Baby Suggs, Guitar, and Milkman. We talk to each other through Morrison.

  • Doreen St. Félix is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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Source: Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say | The New Yorker

America Loves Black Culture But Not Black People – The Black Detour

“Cultural appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or racial stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged takes it for itself.”

-Amandla Stenberg, Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows: A Crash Course on Black Culture, 2015.

Source: America Loves Black Culture But Not Black People – The Black Detour

What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism? [Boston Review]

What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?

RACE

What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY

This essay is the introduction to Boston Review’s print issue, Race Capitalism Justice. Inspired by Cedric Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, this themed issue is a critical handbook for racial justice in the age of Trump.

 

“Robinson’s critique of political order and the authority of leadership anticipated the political currents in contemporary movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter—movements organized horizontally rather than vertically. His monumental Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) takes Karl Marx to task for failing to comprehend radical movements outside of Europe. He rewrites the history of the West from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, scrutinizing the idea that Marx’s categories of class can be universally applied outside of Europe. Instead he characterized black rebellions as expressions of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” movements whose objectives and aspirations confounded Western social analysis. Marxism also failed to account for the racial character of capitalism. Having written much of the book during a sabbatical year in England, Robinson encountered intellectuals who used the phrase “racial capitalism” to refer to South Africa’s economy under apartheid. He developed it from a description of a specific system to a way of understanding the general history of modern capitalism . . .

Robinson was a challenging thinker who understood that the deepest, most profound truths tend to bewilder, breaking with inherited paradigms and “common sense.” When asked to define his political commitments, he replied, “There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people.”

Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

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Lessons From McGraw Hill: The Eurocentric Influence on History Textbooks and Classrooms – The Atlantic

Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.

The recent blunder has to do with one bubble in particular. Pointing to a patch of purple grids extending throughout the country’s Southeast corridor, the one-sentence caption reads:

The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.
The photo that spread through social media was taken by a black Texas student named Coby Burren, who subsequently texted it to his mom, Roni-Dean Burren. “Was real hard workers, wasn’t we,” he wrote. Roni-Dean quickly took to Facebook, lambasting the blunder: the reference to the Africans as workers rather than slaves. A video she later posted has been viewed nearly 2 million times, and her indignation has renewed conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement while attracting coverage by almost every major news outlet. “It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” she told The New York Times. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”
McGraw Hill swiftly did its damage control. It announced that it was changing the caption in both the digital and print versions to characterize the migration accurately as a “forced” diaspora of slaves: “We conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves,” the company said in a statement. “We believe we can do better.” Catherine Mathis, the company’s spokeswoman, also emphasized that the textbook accurately referred to the slave trade and its brutality in more than a dozen other instances. And McGraw Hill has offered to provide various additional resources to any school that requests them, including supplemental materials on cultural competency, replacement textbooks, or stickers with a corrected caption to place over the erroneous one. But Texas school districts were already in possession of more than 100,000 copies of the book, while another 40,000, according to Mathis, are in schools in other states across the country.

“We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees. We are teaching twig history.”
If nothing else, the incident may serve as yet another example of why social studies—and history in particular—is such a tricky subject to teach, at least via textbooks and multiple-choice tests. Its topics are inherently subjective, impossible to distill into paragraphs jammed with facts and figures alone. As the historian and sociologist Jim Loewen recently told me, in history class students typically “have to memorize what we might call ‘twigs.’ We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees,” said Loewen, best known for his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “We are teaching twig history.”

This is in part why a growing number of educators are calling for a fundamental shift in how the subject is taught. Some are even calling on their colleagues to abandon traditional models of teaching history altogether. Instead of promoting the rote memorization of information outlined in a single, mass-produced textbook, these critics argue that teachers should use a variety of primary-source materials and other writings, encouraging kids to analyze how these narratives are written and recognize the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials. In an essay for The Atlantic earlier this year, Michael Conway argued that history classes should focus on teaching children “historiography”—the methodologies employed by historians and the exploration of history itself as an academic discipline:

Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose the American national story.
But according to Loewen, the shortcomings of the country’s history teachers make the improvement of its instruction, let alone the introduction of historiography, a particularly difficult feat. Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)

MORE ON HISTORY EDUCATION

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Who Should Decide How Students Learn About America’s Past?
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In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.
A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history. They just happen to be assigned to it.”
This disconnect can take a serious toll on the instruction kids receive, according to Loewen. Absent a genuine interest in history, many teachers simply defer to the information contained in textbooks. “They use the textbook not as a tool but as a crutch,” Lowen said. And chances are, that makes for a pretty lousy class. Loewen suspects that these and other textbook woes are largely why students frequently list history and other social-studies subjects as their least favorite classes. And perhaps it’s why so few American adults identify them as the most valuable subjects they learned in school. In a 2013 Gallup poll, just 8 percent of respondents valued history most, while just 3 percent voted for social studies. (First place, or 34 percent of votes, went to math, while 21 percent of respondents selected English and reading.)

And as the McGraw Hill example demonstrates, the textbooks teachers rely on so heavily are prone to flaws. A National Clearinghouse on History Education research brief on four popular elementary and middle-school textbooks concluded that the materials “left out or misordered the cause and consequence of historical events and frequently failed to highlight main ideas.” And the flaws can be much more egregious than isolated errors, disorganization, or a lack of clarity—sometimes they’re fundamental distortions of the contexts leading up to many of today’s most dire social ills.

Source: Lessons From McGraw Hill: The Eurocentric Influence on History Textbooks and Classrooms – The Atlantic

From Prostitute to Professor: The 7 Lessons of Maya Angelou’s Messy Life φ Yolanda Young

From Prostitute to Professor: The 7 Lessons of Maya Angelou’s Messy Life

Yolanda Young

Yolanda Young Become a fan

Yolanda Young is the author of On Our Way To Beautiful founder of http://www.onbeingablacklawyer.com.

Posted: 06/12/2014
MAYA ANGELOU

The death of Dr. Maya Angelou provided us the opportunity to once again delight in her memoirs, which chronicle the eclectic, bohemian first half of her life. Yet, we know from her writings that such praise was often withheld as she pursued her dreams of being a dancer and poet while raising a young child as a single mother. How many times must she have been urged to settle down and give up her artistic and cultural pursuits, which time and time again left her broke and broken? While we now refer to Angelou as a renaissance woman, until she published I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in her 40s, her life resembled what is referred to in ghetto parlance as a hot mess.

This messiness is what we all fear. It is why rather than pursue our dreams, we settle into the lives expected of us. Cubicles and cul-de-sacs become the things of our imagination. Only happiness and satisfaction studies suggest they are not enough. A GALLUP Poll last year found that only 30 percent of U.S. workers are passionate about their work. The majority (52 percent) are unhappy with their jobs and put little energy into their work while another 18 percent actually hate their jobs and actively work to undermine coworkers. We sacrifice our dreams only to find ourselves restless, bored and frustrated in midlife having realized what Angelou told us all along; “making a living is not the same thing as making a life.” Worse still, we recognize the irony in discovering after layoffs, financial setbacks and divorce that the “mess” is unavoidable.

These unmet expectations and realization that youthful aspirations have been abandoned are suspected as the cause of feelings of discouragement and depression among those in midlife. The British think tank NatCen Social Research found that studies show that people between 35 and 55 suffer a dip in well-being. A separate study that analyzed data from “nationally representative” surveys in Australia, Britain and Germany found that the bell curve in well-being dips to its lowest point around the ages of 40 to 42.

Even those who choose to pursue unconventional dreams don’t escape these feelings, especially if such pursuits have come at the expense of nearly everything else. I abandoned life as a lawyer in favor of one as a writer, activist and entrepreneur. Now having entered midlife without any of our culture’s success markers — husband, children, two-car garage — I have had to answer, both to myself and to others, the question of whether the path I’ve chosen was a wise one. Reflecting on Angelou’s has helped me find the answers.

1. Be uniquely you.

Angelou described herself in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” She knew such a girl would’ve perished trying to conform to mainstream conventions. “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Instead of fretting over not being a swan, Angelou reinvented herself as a rare bird. As many biographers have noted, she won’t be remembered for her poems or plays, but for her memoirs and for being Maya Angelou. The key to discerning one’s authenticity is quite simple: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

2. When it comes to failure, be courageous.

Angelou was a marvelous failure. Her most noteworthy stage performance, playing the seamstress in the two-woman play Mary Todd Lincoln, earned her a Tony nomination but closed on opening night. The rolling stone never stuck to one thing for long. She moved from coast to coast, continent to continent, sometimes making poor childcare decisions, one of which resulted in her son’s brief abduction. She didn’t have a stable home or steady job until she was in her 50s, an age at which many are preparing for retirement. She divorced several times but would would never confirm the exact number, “for fear of sounding frivolous.” Aware of all her failings, Angelou was brave enough to look at herself. “We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay — and rise!”

3. Know who your friends are.

One would be hard-pressed to identify a significant black figure Angelou didn’t know. She danced with Amiri Baraka. Billie Holiday visited her home and explained the meaning of Strange Fruit to her young son. While a calypso dancer she worked with Alvin Ailey. James Baldwin gave her the introductions that would lead to the publication of her first memoir. These were people she deeply cared for, but in anEssence interview, she had this to say of friendship.

There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends. Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person, and your values coincide. Friends may disagree, but not about serious matters. A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able… Years ago one of the slick White women’s magazines asked if they could photograph me with my closest friends for an issue they were doing on friends. The editor wanted me to bring Oprah. I have 30 years on Oprah. She calls me her friend, her mother, all that. I am very close to her in a motherly way. So I told [the magazine], ‘I have three dear friends — Dolly McPherson, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford and M.J. Hewitt — they are sisters to me.’

4. Believe you can do anything.

For Angelou, inexperience was never a reason not to take on an interesting job. Angelou’s only criterion was seemingly that a new occupation share little to no similarities with her previous one. At sixteen, she became San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar conductor and later passed herself off as an experienced Creole chef. She held jobs dancing in a nightclub, stripping paint from old cars, and singing Calypso. She knew nothing about being a journalist when she accepted a position as an editor for The Arab Observer,” an English-language magazine. She said of the experience,

I stayed at the Arab Observer for over a year and gradually my ignorance receded. I learned from Abdul Hassan how to write an opinionated article with such subtlety that the reader would think the opinion his own…I received a raise from Dr. Nagati, the respect of my fellow workers and a few compliments from strangers…

She made her television debut as Kunte Kinte’s grandmother in the acclaimed television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. And in the one-time high school dropout who never attended college became the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

5. Forgive others and yourself.

In addition to enduring the injustices that came along with being poor, black and female in the South, Angelou was also raped as a child and beaten as a young woman. In a May 9th interview at her home she told Armstrong Williams, “I’ve learned that forgiving is one of the greatest gifts that I can give myself…And as soon as I do I feel lighter, brighter and better.”

In Gather Together in My Name, Angelou shares one of her lowest periods when she served as a pimp for two lesbian prostitutes and sometimes worked as a prostitute herself. In one interview, she said of the experience.

If you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home — wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it.

6. Persevere.

In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Angelou tells of her midlife crisis which was accompanied by great sorrow. Returning to the States after the end of a romance in Africa, Angelou became a Civil Rights activist only to be witness to the Movement’s greatest tragedies. She was working with Malcolm X to establish his foundation when he was assassinated New York City. Three years later she was working as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was gunned down in Memphis on Angelou’s 40th birthday. For a time, Angelou withdrew from society unable to deal with the tragedy, but eventually she harnessed her grief and regrets to write her seminal work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. From then on, she would rise at dawn and set out for the motel room where she would write. Her only companions were a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a stack of legal pads, and a bottle of sherry. Having written her way out of the worst time in her life, she credited it with her survival. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated…Nothing will work unless you do.”

7. Change.

Angelou was a master of reinvention. She didn’t settle on a name until after her first marriage, claiming her childhood nickname and a twist on her first husband’s last name. For Angelou, change was essential. Perhaps more so when one decides nothing can be done at all. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

 

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