To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History – Black World Media Network (BWMN)

To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History

There is a long tradition of Black educators fighting attempts to keep America’s true history out of the classroom—one we can all learn from
Forten
African American abolitionist, poet, and educator Charlotte Forten (1837–1914), circa 1865.

 

By Keisha N. Blain

thenation.com

February 18, 2022

This week, South Dakota’s House of Representatives passed two bills, one targeting the teaching of “divisive concepts” and the other aimed at “protecting” kids from “political indoctrination.” While neither bill mentioned the words “critical race theory,” it was clear what they meant. They followed just a few weeks after the Mississippi Senate passed Senate Bill 2113—another “critical race theory” bill authored by Michael McLendon (R-Hernando)—over the objection of Black lawmakers, who walked out of the chamber in protest. Both of these efforts, along with many others, are part of a nationwide campaign led by conservatives to supposedly rid classrooms of “critical race theory”—a term for a high-level legal discipline that has been used as a cover to ban books by Black and brown authors.

While the obsession over “ critical race theory” is a new manifestation, it represents long-standing efforts to keep Black history—and the perspectives of Black writers—out of the classroom. For many conservatives, the attack on “critical race theory” is rooted in a desire to shield their children from the uncomfortable aspects of history and evade “sensitive” topics such as racism, white supremacy, and inequality. As this wave of anti-Blackness and anti-intellectualism grows, Black educators and their allies must be prepared to oppose these forces, building on a long tradition of Black protest.

For as long as white politicians have employed these tactics, Black educators in the United States have vigorously resisted. Through a myriad of strategies—including creative lesson plans and the production of anti-racist books and articles—Black educators have worked to counter the spread of misinformation and ensure that students have access to texts and perspectives that represent the diversity of the nation—and the world.

During the antebellum era, Black teachers in the North led the charge to ensure that Black students would receive a quality education—despite having limited access to resources. These efforts often required “conscious, vigorous, and sustained acts of defiance and protest,” as historian Kabria Baumgartner recounts in her groundbreaking book In Pursuit of Knowledge, but Black educators were willing to take such risks.

In 1830s Boston, for example, Susan Paul taught at a primary school for Black children where she intentionally included lessons on the evils of slavery and the significance of abolition. Paul brought her students to meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society—an interracial abolitionist organization founded in 1832. She also encouraged her students in the Boston Juvenile Choir to perform songs that extolled abolitionist ideas. Her inclusion of abolitionist materials and her focus on her students’ public comportment represented a direct challenge to the era’s racist propaganda on the capabilities and qualities of Black people—a mission she followed even as she faced threats of violence from white Bostonians at the time.

Paul published the Memoir of James Jackson in 1835 to honor a student of hers who had passed away from tuberculosis. In telling the story of Jackson’s short life, the book also revealed Paul’s pedagogical emphasis on Christian empathy as an opposing force to racial prejudice.

Similarly, Charlotte Forten, a Black educator from Philadelphia, passionately resisted the spread of miseducation in the classroom—and introduced an array of diverse materials to broaden her students’ perspectives. One of the first Black women teachers to be hired to teach in the integrated schools of Salem, Mass., Forten joined the staff of the Epes Grammar School in 1856. Though she only taught in Salem for a few years, she was unwavering in her commitment to nurturing Black students, and in 1862, traveled to the Sea Islands in South Carolina to teach Black children who were recently emancipated by Union forces.

Forten used this opportunity to instruct her students about the life of revolutionary Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. “I told them about Toussaint,” she explained in an 1864 Atlantic Monthly article, “thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race.” This determination to center Black perspectives in the classroom as a counter to stereotypical representations of mainstream accounts guided Black educators in the decades to follow.

In February 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of Black history, devised a strategy to address the failure to teach Black history in classrooms across the nation. By first establishing “ Negro History Week,” Woodson provided an avenue for educators to recognize and celebrate the history of people of African descent in the United States. In so doing, he disrupted educational norms shaped by white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Woodson and members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—the organization he had established several years earlier—created and distributed books, lesson plans, and other curriculum materials to aid teachers across the nation.

Within five years of the program’s creation, 80 percent of Black high schools in the United States were celebrating Negro History Week. According to Jarvis R. Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Woodson’s mission as a scholar “was influenced and made possible by the pedagogical work of black schoolteachers.” These educators had instructed and prepared Woodson’s generation after the end of legal slavery, and a new generation now risked their own personal safety to defy the accepted curriculum by implementing Negro History Week lessons, influencing generations of scholars and activists to follow.

It is in this spirit that the famed scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. The pioneering book, which would go on to shape future writing and research on Reconstruction, was a direct refutation of the false narratives emerging from leading white scholars. Black Reconstruction in America unequivocally challenged the racist Dunning School of historians—named after William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. In their portrayal of Reconstruction (1865–77), the Dunning School scholars, as Du Bois explained, had portrayed the South as victims and the North as having committed a “grievous wrong.” Their writings on the subject treated the free and enslaved Black population with “ ridicule, contempt or silence.”

This framing of the ideals motivating Reconstruction—and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—as a mistake was further propagated in popular media, most notably in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction offered an important counterargument that not only reaffirmed the evils of slavery but also demonstrated the active role enslaved people took in liberating themselves. They were, as Du Bois powerfully demonstrated, not simply the passive recipients of white actions but agents in shaping their own destiny.

This tradition coalesced into the dynamic field of Black Studies during the 1960s and 1970s. As Abdul Alkalimat, one of the founders of Black Studies, points out in The History of Black Studies, the field’s growth is directly tied to the pioneering work of scholars like Woodson and Du Bois. The work of Black educators—combined with other forces, including the civil rights and Black Power movements as well as the vital intellectual space created by historically black colleges and universities—provided the catalyst for the establishment of Black Studies programs and departments.

Freedom Schools, such as those established by organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the rise of Black Power ideology, fundamentally shaped Black college students and challenged mainstream (anti-Black) university curriculums on college campuses and beyond.

Today, we are witnessing an effort to return to an era when Black voices and experiences—along with those of other marginalized groups—were excluded from classrooms. The recent legislative and executive bans on “critical race theory” are designed to intimidate teachers and school districts from teaching accurate representations of American history. As the historical record reminds us, these attempts are not new. But we can draw inspiration from the long line of Black educators and their allies who vigorously worked to overcome these forces in the past.

Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a 2022 National Fellow at New America. Along with Ibram X. Kendi, she is the editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019. Her latest book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Twitter: @KeishaBlain

Source: To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History – Black World Media Network (BWMN)

Beyond Racism and Misogyny | Boston Review

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in Boston Review in December 1991.


In June 1990, the members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested and charged under a Florida obscenity statute for their performance in an adults-only club in Hollywood, Florida. The arrests came just two days after a federal court judge had ruled that the sexually explicit lyrics in 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, were obscene. Although the members of 2 Live Crew were eventually acquitted of charges stemming from the live performance, the federal court determination that As Nasty As They Wanna Be is obscene still stands. This obscenity judgment, along with the arrests and the subsequent trial, prompted an intense public controversy about rap music, a controversy that merged with a broader debate about the representation of sex and violence in popular music, about cultural diversity, and about the meaning of freedom of expression.

Two positions dominated the debate about 2 Live Crew. Writing in Newsweek, political columnist George Will staked out a case against the Crew, arguing that Nasty was misogynistic filth and characterizing their lyrics as a profoundly repugnant “combination of extreme infantilism and menace” that objectified black women and represented them as legitimate targets for sexual violence.

The most prominent defense of 2 Live Crew was advanced by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an expert on African-American literature. In a New York Times op-ed piece, and in testimony at the criminal trial, Gates portrayed 2 Live Crew as brilliant artists who were inventively elaborating distinctively African-American forms of cultural expression. Furthermore, Gates argued, the characteristic exaggeration featured in their lyrics served a political end: to explode popular racist stereotypes about black sexuality precisely by presenting those stereotypes in a comically extreme form. Where Will saw a misogynistic assault on black women by social degenerates, Gates found a form of ‘sexual carnivalesque’ freighted with the promise to free us from the pathologies of racism.

As a black feminist, I felt the pull of each of these poles, but not the compelling attractions of’ either. My immediate response to the criminal charges against 2 Live Crew was ambivalence: I wanted to stand together with the brothers against a racist attack, but I wanted to stand against a frightening explosion of’ violent imagery directed at women like me. My sharp internal division-my dissatisfaction with the idea that the “real issue” is race or that the “real issue” is gender– is characteristic of my experience as a black woman living at the intersection of racial and sexual subordination. To that experience black feminism offers an intellectual and political response: aiming to bring together the different aspects of an otherwise divided sensibility, it argues that black women are commonly marginalized by a politics of race alone or gender alone, and that a political response to either form of subordination must be a political response to both. When the controversy over 2 Live Crew is approached in light of such black feminist sensibilities, an alternative to the dominant poles of the public debate emerges.

At the legal “bottom line” I agree with the supporters of 2 Live Crew that the obscenity prosecution was wrongheaded. But the reasons for my conclusion are not the same as the reasons generally offered in support of 2 Live Crew. I will come to those reasons shortly, but first I should emphasize that after listening to 2 Live Crew’s lyrics, along with those of other rap artists, my defense of 2 Live Crew, (qualified though it is) did not come easy.

The first time I listened to 2 Live Crew, I was stunned. The issue had been distorted by descriptions of “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” as simply “sexually explicit.” “Nasty” is much more: it is virulently misogynist, sometimes violently so. Black women are cunts, “‘ho’s,” and all-purpose bitches: raggedy bitches, sorry-ass bitches, lowdown slimy-ass bitches. Good sex is often portrayed as painful and humiliating for women. Take, for example, “The Buck.”

That’s the only way to give her more than she wants,
Like a doggie-style, you get all that cunt.
Cause all men try real hard to do it,
To have her walking funny so we try to abuse it.
Bitches think a pussy can do it all,
So we try real hard just to bust the wall.

And:

I’ll break you down and dick you long.
Bust your pussy and break your backbone.

Elsewhere:

I’m gonna slay you, rough and painful,
You innocent bitch! Don’t be shameful!

And for added measure:

That dick will make a bitch act cute,
Suck my dick until you make it puke
…
Lick my ass up and down,
Lick it till your tongue turns doodoo brown.

This is no mere braggadocio. Those of us who are concerned about the high rates of gender violence in our communities must be troubled by the possible connections between these images and tolerance for violence against women. Children and teenagers are listening to this music, and I am concerned that the range of acceptable behavior is being broadened by the constant propagation of anti-women imagery. I’m concerned, too, about young black women who, like young men, are learning that their value lies between their legs. Unlike men, however, their sexual value is a depletable commodity; by expending it, girls become whores and boys become men.

Nasty is misogynist, and a black feminist response to the case against 2 Live Crew must start from a full acknowledgment of that misogyny. But such a response must also consider whether an exclusive focus on issues of gender risks overlooking aspects of the prosecution of 2 Live Crew that raise serious questions of racism. And here is where the roots of my opposition to the obscenity prosecution lie.

An initial problem concerning the prosecution was its apparent selectivity. A comparison between 2 Live Crew and other mass-marketed sexual representations suggests that race played some role in distinguishing 2 Live Crew as the first group ever to be prosecuted for obscenity in connection with a musical recording, and one of only a handful of recording artists to be prosecuted for a live performance. Recent controversies about sexism, racism, and violence in popular culture point to a vast range of expression that might well provide targets for censorship, but that have not been targeted. Madonna has acted out masturbation, portrayed the seduction of a priest, and depicted group sex on stage, yet she has never been prosecuted for obscenity. While 2 Live Crew was performing in an adults-only club in Hollywood, Florida, Andrew Dice Clay was performing nationwide on HBO. Well-known for his racist “humor,” Clay is also comparable to 2 Live Crew in sexual explicitness and misogyny. In his show, for example, Clay offers: “Eenie, meenie, minee, mo, suck my [expletive] and swallow slow,” or “Lose the bra bitch.” Moreover, graphic sexual images–many of them violent–were widely available in Broward County where the performance and trial took place. According to the trial testimony of Vice Detective McCloud, “nude dance shows and adult bookstores are scattered throughout the county where 2 Live Crew performed.” But again, no obscenity charges were leveled against the performers or producers of these representations.

In response to this charge of selectivity, it might be argued that the prosecution of 2 Live Crew demonstrates that its lyrics were uniquely obscene. In a sense, this argument runs, the proof is in the condemnation–if their music was not uniquely obscene, it would not have been deemed so by the Court. However, the elements of 2 Live Crew’s representation that contributed to their selective arrest continued to play out as the court applied the obscenity standard to the recording.

To clarify this argument, we need to consider the technical use of’ “obscenity” as a legal term of art. For the purposes of legal argument, the Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Miller v. California held that a work is obscene if and only if it meets each of three conditions: (1) “the average person, applying community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest”; (2) “the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law”; and (3) “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The Court held that it is consistent with First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression for states to subject work that meets all three parts of the Miller test to very restrictive regulations.

Focusing first on the “prurient interest” prong of the Miller test, we might wonder how 2 Live Crew could have been seen as uniquely obscene by the lights of the “community standards” of Brossard County. After all, as Detective McCloud put it, “patrons [of clubs in Broward] can see women dancing with at least their breasts exposed” and bookstore patrons can “view and purchase films and magazines that depict vaginal, oral and anal sex, homosexual sex and group sex.” In arriving at its finding of obscenity, the court placed little weight on the available range of films, magazines, and live shows as evidence of the community’s sensibilities. Instead, the court apparently accepted the Sheriff’s testimony that the decision to single out Nastywas based on the number of complaints against 2 Live Crew, “communicated by telephone calls, anonymous messages, or letters to the police.”

Evidence of this popular outcry was never substantiated. But even if it were, the case for selectivity would remain. The history of social repression of black male sexuality is long, often-violent, and all-too-familiar. Negative reactions against the sexual conduct of black males have traditionally had racist overtones, especially where that conduct threatens to “cross over” into the mainstream community. So even if the decision to prosecute did reflect a widespread community perception of the purely prurient character of 2 Live Crew’s music, that perception itself might reflect an established pattern of vigilante attitudes directed toward the sexual expression of black males. In short, the appeal to community standards does not undercut a concern about racism; rather, it underscores that concern.

A second troubling dimension of the case against 2 Live Crew was the court’s apparent disregard for the culturally rooted aspects of 2 Live Crew’s music. Such disregard was essential to a finding of obscenity, given the third prong of the Miller test requiring that obscene material lack any literary, artistic, or political value. 2 Live Crew argued that this test was not met since the recording exemplified such African-American cultural modes as “playing the dozens,” “call and response,” and “signifying.” As a storehouse of such cultural modes, it could not be said that Nasty was completely devoid of literary or artistic value. Yet the court denied the group’s clause of cultural specificity by re-characterizing those modes claimed to be African-American in more generic terms. For example, the court reasoned that “playing the dozens” is “commonly seen in adolescents, especially boys, of all ages.” “Boasting,” the court observed, appears to be “part of the universal human condition.” And the court noted that the cultural origins of one song featuring “call and response”–a song about oral sex in which competing groups chanted “less filling” and “tastes great”–were to be found in a Miller beer commercial, and thus not derived from any African-American cultural tradition. The possibility that the Miller beer commercial may have itself evolved from an African-American cultural tradition was lost on the court.

In disregarding testimony about cultural specificity, the court denied the artistic value in the form and style of Nasty and, by implication, rap music more generally. This disturbing dismissal of the cultural attributes of rap, and this effort to universalize African-American modes of expression, flattens cultural differences. The court’s analysis here manifests in legal terms a frequently encountered strategy of cultural appropriation. African-American contributions that have been accepted by the mainstream culture are eventually absorbed as simply “American” or found to be “universal.” Other modes associated with African-American culture that resist absorption remain distinctive and are either ignored, or dismissed as “deviant.”

An additional concern has as much to do with the obscenity doctrine itself as with the court’s application of it to 2 Live Crew. The case illustrates the ways that obscenity doctrine invites racially selective enforcement while at the same time pressing into focus the wrong questions about sexual expression.

As I mentioned earlier, obscenity requires a determination that the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest. Although the prurient interest requirement eludes precise definition it seems clear that prurient material must appeal in some immediate way to sexual desire. While it is difficult to say definitively what constitutes such an appeal, one might surmise that the twenty-five cent peep shows that are standard fare in Broward County rank considerably higher on this scale than the sexual tall tales of 2 Live Crew. But the obscenity doctrine is, as justice Stevens said, “intolerably vague,” and the result is that “grossly disparate treatment of similar offenders is a characteristic of the criminal enforcement of obscenity law.” More precisely, as the case of 2 Live Crew suggests, the vagueness of the doctrine operating in a world of racial subordination represents an invitation to racially selective enforcement.

While 2 Live Crew should be one of the lesser candidates in the prurient interests sweepstakes mandated by the obscenity doctrine, it is also a lesser contender by another measure that lies entirely outside of obscenity: violence. Compared to such groups as N.W.A., Too Short, Ice Cube, and the Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew’s misogynistic hyperbole sounds minor league. Sometimes called “gangsta’ rap,” the lyrics offered by these other groups celebrate violent assault, rape, rape-murder, and mutilation. Nevertheless, had these other groups been targeted rather than the comparatively less offensive 2 Live Crew, they may have been more successful in defeating the prosecution. The graphic violence in their representations militates against a finding of obscenity by suggesting an appeal not to prurient interests but instead to the fantasy of the social outlaw. Against an historical backdrop that prominently features the image of the black male as social outlaw, gangsta’ rap might be read as a subversive form of opposition that aims to challenge social convention precisely by becoming the very social outlaw that society has proscribed. For this reason, their lyrics might even be read as political, and if they are political they are not obscene. So long, then, as prurience remains an obsession of First Amendment argument, and violent imagery is seen as distinct from sexuality, rap artists may actually be able to strengthen their legal shield by heightening the level of violence in their lyrics.

I do not mean to suggest here that the distinction between sex and violence ought to be maintained in obscenity, nor, more specifically, that the violent rappers ought to be protected. To the contrary, these groups trouble me much more than 2 Live Crew does. My point instead is to emphasize that the obscenity doctrine itself does nothing to protect the interests of those who are most directly implicated in such rap–black women. Because the doctrine is vague, it opens the door to selecting offenders on the basis of race, Because it separates out sexuality and violence, it shields the most violently misogynistic rappers from prosecution. For black women who are hurt by both racism and misogyny, it does no good at all.

Although black women’s interests were quite obviously irrelevant in this obscenity judgment, their bodies figured prominently in the public case supporting the targeting of 2 Live Crew. This brings me to my final concern: George Will’s Newsweek essay provides a striking example of how black women were appropriated and deployed in the broader attack against 2 Live Grew. Commenting on “America’s Slide into the Sewers,” Will tells us that “America today is capable of terrific intolerance about smoking, or toxic waste that threatens trout. But only a deeply confused society is more concerned about protecting lungs than minds, trout than black women. We legislate against smoking in restaurants; singing “Me So Horny” is a constitutional right. Secondary smoke is carcinogenic; celebration of torn vaginas is “mere words.”

Notwithstanding these expressions of concern about black women, Will’s real worry is suggested by his repeated references to the Central Park jogger. He writes that “Her face was so disfigured a friend took fifteen minutes to identify her. ‘I recognized her ring’. Do you recognize the relevance of 2 Live Crew?” (Emphasis added.) While the connection between the threat of 2 Live Crew and the specter of the black male rapist was suggested subtly in the public debate, it is manifest throughout Will’s discussion and in fact bids fair to be its central theme. “Fact: Some members of a particular age and societal cohort–the one making 2 Live Crew rich–stomped and raped the jogger to the razor edge of death, for the fun of it.” Will directly indicts 2 Live Crew in the Central Park jogger rape through a fictional dialogue between himself and the defendants. Responding to one defendant’s alleged comment that the rape was fun, Will asks: “Where can you get the idea that sexual violence against women is fun? From a music store, through Walkman earphones, from boom boxes blaring forth the rap lyrics of 2 Live Crew.” Since the rapists were young black males and Nasty presents black men celebrating sexual violence, surely 2 Live Crew was responsible. Apparently, the vast American industry that markets every conceivable form of misogynistic representation is irrelevant to understanding this particular incident of sexual violence.

Will invokes black women twice–as victims of this music. But if he were really concerned with the threat to black women, why does the Central Park jogger figure so prominently in his argument? Why not the black woman in Brooklyn who was gang-raped and then thrown down an airshaft? For that matter, what about the twenty-five other women–mostly women of color–who were raped in New York City during the same week the Central Park jogger was raped? In Will’s display of concern, black women appear to function as a stand-in for white women. The focus on sexual violence played out on black women’s bodies seems to reflect concerns about the threat of black male violence against the security of the white community. In this, Will’s use of the black female body to press the case against 2 Live Crew recalls the strategy of the prosecutor in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Bigger Thomas, the black male protagonist, is on trial for killing Mary Dalton, a white woman. Because Bigger burned her body, however, it cannot be established whether Mary was raped. So the prosecutor brings in the body of Bessie, a black woman raped by Bigger and left to die, in order to establish that Bigger had raped Mary.

These considerations about selectivity, about the denial of cultural specificity, and about the manipulation of black women’s bodies convince me that race played a significant if not determinative role in the shaping of the case against 2 Live Crew. While using anti-sexist rhetoric to suggest a concern for women, the attack simultaneously endorsed traditional readings of black male sexuality. The fact that most perpetrators and victims are of the same race is overshadowed by the mythical image of the black male as the agent of sexual violence and the white community as his victim. The subtext of the 2 Live Crew prosecution thus becomes a re-reading of the sexualized racial politics of the past.

While concerns about racism fuel my opposition to the obscenity prosecution, I am also troubled by the uncritical support for, and indeed celebration of, 2 Live Crew by other opponents of that prosecution. If the rhetoric of anti-sexism provided an occasion for racism, so, too, the rhetoric of anti-racism provided an occasion for defending the misogyny of black male rappers.

The defense of 2 Live Crew took two forms, one political and one cultural, both of which were advanced most prominently by Henry Louis Gates. The political argument was that 2 Live Crew represents an attack on black sexual stereotypes. The strategy of the attack is, in Gates’s words, to “exaggerate [the] stereotypes” and thereby “to show how ridiculous the portrayals are.” Thus, Gates concludes, 2 Live Crew and other rap groups are simply pushing white society’s buttons to ridicule its dominant sexual images.
I agree with Gates that the reactions by Will and others to 2 Live Crew confirm that the stereotypes still exist and still evoke basic fears. But even if I were to agree that 2 Live Crew intended to explode these mythic fears, I still would argue that their strategy was wholly misguided. These fears are too active, and African-Americans are too closely associated with them, not to be burned when the myths are exploded. More fundamentally, however, I am deeply skeptical about the claim that the Crew was engaged–either in intent or effect–in pursuing a postmodern guerilla war against racist stereotypes.

Gates argues that when one listens to 2 Live Crew the ridiculous stories and the hyperbole make the listener “bust out laughing.” Apparently the fact that Gates and many other people react with laughter confirms and satisfies the Crew’s objective of ridiculing the stereotypes. But the fact that the Crew are often successful in prompting laughter neither substantiates Gates’s reading nor forecloses serious critique of its subordinating dimensions.

In disagreeing with Gates, I do not mean to suggest that 2 Live Crew’s lyrics are to be taken literally. But rather than exploding stereotypes as Gates suggests, I believe that they were simply using readily available sexual images in trying to be funny. Trading in racial stereotypes and sexual hyperbole are well-rehearsed strategies for getting some laughs. 2 Live Crew departs from this tradition only in its attempt to up the ante through more outrageous boasts and more explicit manifestations of misogyny. Neither the intent to be funny, nor Gates’s loftier explanations, negate the subordinating qualities of such humor. Examining parallel arguments in the context of racist humor suggests why neither claim functions as a persuasive defense for 2 Live Crew.

Gates’s use of laughter as a defensive maneuver in the attack on 2 Live Crew recalls similar strategies in defense of racist humor. Racist humor has sometimes been defended as an effort to poke fun at, or to ridicule racism. More simply, racist humor has often been excused as just joking; even racially motivated assaults are often defended as simple pranks. Thus, the racism and sexism of Andrew Dice Clay could be defended in either mode as an attempt to explode the stereotypes of white racists, or simply as humor not meant to be taken seriously. Implicit in these defenses is the assumption that racist representations are injurious only if they are devoid of any other objective or are meant to be taken literally.

Although these arguments are familiar within the black community, I think it is unlikely that they would be viewed as a persuasive defense of Andrew Dice Clay. African-Americans have frequently protested such humor, suggesting a general recognition within the black community that “mere humor” is not inconsistent with subordination. The question of what people find humorous is of course a complicated one, sometimes involving aggression, in-group boundary policing, projection, and other issues. The claim that a representation is meant “simply as a joke” may be true, but it functions as humor within a specific social context and frequently reinforces patterns of social power. Moreover, even though racial humor may sometimes be intended to ridicule racism, the close relationship between the stereotypes and the prevailing images of marginalized people complicates this strategy. Clearly, racial humor does not always distance the audience from the racist subject, nor does it indict the wider society in which the jokes have meaning. The endearment of Archie Bunker suggests at least this much. Thus, in the context of racist humor, neither the fact that people actually laughed at racist humor nor the usual disclaimer of intent has functioned to preclude incisive and often quite angry criticism of such humor within the African-American community.

Although a similar set of arguments could be offered in the context of sexist humor, images marketed by 2 Live Crew were not condemned but, as Gates illustrates, defended, often with great commitment and skill. Clearly, the fact that the Crew and the women it objectifies are black shaped this response. Had 2 Live Crew been white in blackface, for example, all of the readings would have been different. Although the question of whether one can defend the broader license given to black comedians to market stereotypical images is an interesting one, it is not the issue here. 2 Live Crew cannot claim an in-group privilege to perpetuate misogynistic humor against black women. They are not black women, and more importantly, they enjoy a power relationship over them.Sexual humor in which women are objectified as packages of body parts to serve whatever male-bonding/male competition needs men have subordinates women in much the same way that racist humor subordinates African-Americans. That these are “just jokes” and not meant to be taken literally does little to blunt their demeaning quality–nor for that matter, does the fact that the jokes are told within a tradition of intra-group humor.

Gates advances a second, cultural defense of 2 Live Crew: the idea that Nastyis in line with distinctively African-American traditions of culture and entertainment. It is true that the “dozens” and other forms of verbal boasting have been practiced within the black community for some time. It is true as well that raunchy jokes, insinuations, and boasting of sexual prowess were not meant to be taken literally. Nor were they meant to disrupt conventional myths about black sexuality. They were meant simply to be laughed at, and perhaps to gain respect for the speaker’s word wizardry.

Ultimately, however, little turns on whether the “word play” performed by 2 Live Crew is a postmodern challenge to racist sexual mythology or simply an internal group practice that has crossed over into mainstream America. Both versions of the defense are problematic because they each call on black women to accept misogyny and its attendant disrespect in service of some broader group objective. While one version argues that accepting misogyny is necessary to anti-racist politics, the other argues that it is necessary to maintaining the cultural integrity of the community. But neither presents a sufficient reason for black women to tolerate such misogyny. The message that these arguments embrace–that patriarchy can be made to serve anti-racist ends is a familiar one with proponents ranging from Eldridge Cleaver in the sixties to Sharazad Ali in the nineties. In Gates’s variant, the position of black women is determined by the need to wield gargantuan penises in a struggle to ridicule racist images of black male sexuality. Even though black women may not be the intended targets, they are necessarily attached to these gargantuan penises and are thus made to absorb the impact. The common message of all such strategies is that black women are expected to be vehicles for notions of “liberation” that function to preserve their own subordination.

To be sure, Gates’s claims about the cultural aspects of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics do address the legal issue about the applicability of the obscenity standard. As I indicated earlier, their music does have artistic value: I believe the Court decided this issue incorrectly and Will was all-too-glib in his dismissal of it. But these criticisms do not settle the issue within the community. “Dozens” and other word plays have long been a black oral tradition, but acknowledging this fact does not eliminate the need to interrogate either the sexism within that tradition or the objectives to which that tradition has been pressed. To say that playing the dozens, for example, is rooted in a black cultural tradition or that themes represented by mythic folk heroes such as Stackalee are “black” does not settle the question of whether such practices are oppressive to women and others within the community. The same point can be made about the relentless homophobia expressed in the work of Eddie Murphy and many other comedians and rappers. Whether or not the black community has a pronounced tradition of homophobia is beside the point; the question instead is how these subordinating aspects of tradition play out in the lives of people in the community, people who otherwise share a common history, culture, and political agenda. While it may be true that the black community is more familiar with the cultural forms that have evolved into rap, that familiarity should not end the discussion of whether the misogyny within rap is acceptable. Moreover, we need to consider the possible relationships between sexism within our cultural practices and the problem of violence against women.

Violence against women of color is not presented as a critical issue in either the anti-racist or anti-violence discourses. The “different culture” defense may contribute to the disregard for women of color victimized by rape and violence, reinforcing the tendency within the broader community not to take intra-racial violence seriously. Numerous studies have suggested that black victims of crime can count on less protection from the criminal justice system than whites. This is true for rape victims as well–their rapists are less likely to be convicted and on average serve less time when they are convicted. Could it be that perpetuating the belief that “blacks are different” with respect to sexuality and violence contributes to the familiar disregard of black female rape victims like Bessie in Native Sonor the woman thrown down an airshaft in Brooklyn?

Although there are times when black feminists should fight for the integrity of the culture, this does not mean that criticism must end when a practice or form of expression is traced to a particular aspect of culture. We must determine whether the practices and forms of expression are consistent with our fundamental interests. The question of obscenity may be settled by finding roots in the culture, but obscenity is not our central issue. Performances and representations that do riot appeal principally to “prurient interests,” or that may reflect expressive patterns that are culturally specific, may still encourage self-hatred, disrespect, subordination, and other manifestations of intra-group pathology. These problems require group dialogue. While African-Americans have no plenary authority to grapple with these issues, we do need to find ways of using group formation mechanisms and other social spaces to reflect upon and reformulate our cultural and political practices.

I said earlier that the political goals of black feminism are to construct and empower a political sensibility that opposes misogyny and racism simultaneously. Converging this double vision into an analysis of the 2 Live Crew controversy, it becomes clear that despite the superficial defense of the prosecution as being concerned with the interests of women, nothing about the anti-2 Live Crew movement is about black women’s lives. The political process involved in condemning the representations that subordinate black women does not seek to empower black women; indeed, the racism of that movement is injurious to us.

But the implication of this conclusion is not that black feminists should stand in solidarity with the supporters of 2 Live Crew. The spirited defense of 2 Live Crew was no more about defending the black community than the prosecution was about defending women. After all, black women–whose very assault is the object of the representation–are part of that community. black women can hardly regard the right to be represented as bitches and whores as essential to their interests. Instead the defense of 2 Live Crew primarily functions to protect the cultural and political prerogative of male rappers to be as misogynistic and offensive as they want to be.

The debate over 2 Live Crew illustrates how race and gender politics continue to marginalize black women, rendering us virtually voiceless. black feminism endeavors to respond to this silencing by constructing a political identity for black women that will facilitate a simultaneous struggle against racism and patriarchy. Fitted with a black feminist sensibility, one uncovers other issues in which the unique situation of black women renders a different formulation of the problem than the version that dominates in current debate. Ready examples include rape, domestic violence, and welfare dependency. A black feminist sensibility might also provide a more direct link between the women’s movement and traditional civil rights movements, helping them both to shed conceptual blinders that limit the efficacy of each.

The development of a black feminist sensibility is no guarantee that black women’s interests will be taken seriously. In order for that sensibility to develop into empowerment, black women will have to make it clear that patriarchy is a critical issue that negatively impacts the lives not only of African-American women, but men as well. Within the African-American political community, this recognition might reshape traditional practices so that evidence of racism would not constitute justification for uncritical rallying around misogynistic politics and patriarchal values. Although collective opposition to racist practice has been and continues to be crucially important in protecting black interests, an empowered black feminist sensibility would require that the terms of unity no longer reflect priorities premised upon the continued subordination of black women.

The AFRO-American Newspapers invests to digitize 129 years of archives – Local Media Association + Local Media Foundation

The AFRO-American Newspapers has a daunting task ahead: Creating a searchable and publicly-accessible database to house an estimated 3 million photos, thousands of letters, business records, original audio recordings, advertisements and even reporters’ notebooks. And then there are the newspapers themselves — 129 years of them. “The collection is really remarkable. It’s probably one of […]

Source: The AFRO-American Newspapers invests to digitize 129 years of archives – Local Media Association + Local Media Foundation

Why Black Marxism, Why Now? | Boston Review

Why Black Marxism, Why Now?

The threat of fascism has grown before our eyes. Black Marxism helps us to fight it with greater clarity, with a more expansive conception of the task before us, and with ever more questions.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY

Image: Flickr / Doc Searls

The inspiration to bring out a new edition of Cedric Robinson’s classic, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, came from the estimated 26 million people who took to the streets during the spring and summer of 2020 to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others who lost their lives to the police. During this time, the world bore witness to the Black radical tradition in motion, driving what was arguably the most dynamic mass rebellion against state-sanctioned violence and racial capitalism we have seen in North America since the 1960s—maybe the 1860s. The boldest activists demanded that we abolish police and prisons and shift the resources funding police and prisons to housing, universal healthcare, living-wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. These new abolitionists are not interested in making capitalism fairer, safer, and less racist—they know this is impossible. They want to bring an end to “racial capitalism.”

The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.

The state’s reaction to these protests has also brought us to the precipice of fascism. The organized protests in the streets and places of public assembly, on campuses, inside prisons, in state houses and courtrooms and police stations, portended the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past several years, the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations warned the country that we were headed for a fascist state if we did not end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of Black and brown people. They issued these warnings before Trump’s election. As the protests waned and COVID-19 entered a second, deadlier wave, the fascist threat grew right before our eyes. We’ve seen armed white militias gun down protesters; Trump and his acolytes attempt to hold on to power despite losing the presidential election; the federal government deploy armed force to suppress dissent, round up and deport undocumented workers, and intimidate the public; and, most recently the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by members of the alt-right, racists, Neo-Nazis, and assorted fascist gangs whose ranks included off-duty cops, active military members, and veterans. The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.

The crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet is precisely the space where Cedric’s main interlocutors find the Black radical tradition. Black Marxism is, in part, about an earlier generation of Black antifascists, written at the dawn of a global right-wing, neoliberal order that one political theorist called the era of “friendly fascism.”

Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism. The Black radical tradition defies racial capitalism’s efforts to generate new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture.

What did Robinson mean by the Black radical tradition, and why is it relevant now? Contrary to popular belief, Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism. Robinson takes Marx and Engels to task for underestimating the material force of racial ideology on proletarian consciousness, and for conflating the English working class with the workers of the world. In his preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, Cedric wrote, “Marxism’s internationalism was not global; its materialism was exposed as an insufficient explanator of cultural and social forces; and its economic determinism too often politically compromised freedom struggles beyond or outside of the metropole.” It is a damning observation. Many would counter by pointing to Marx’s writings on India, the United States, Russia, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and peasants. Others would argue that Marx himself only ever claimed to understand capitalist development in Western Europe. But because neither Marx nor Engels considered the colonies and their plantations central to modern capitalist processes, class struggles within the slave regime or peasant rebellions within the colonial order were ignored or dismissed as underdeveloped or peripheral—especially since they looked nothing like the secular radical humanism of 1848 or 1789.

Cedric’s point is that Marx and Engels missed the significance of revolt in the rest of the world, specifically by non-Western peoples who made up the vast majority of the world’s unfree and nonindustrial labor force. Unfree laborers in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the islands of the sea were producing the lion’s share of surplus value for a world system of racial capitalism, but the ideological source of their revolts was not the mode of production. Africans kidnapped and drawn into this system were ripped from “superstructures” with radically different beliefs, moralities, cosmologies, metaphysics, and intellectual traditions. Robinson observes,

Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or decultured blanks—men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.

With this observation Robinson unveils the secret history of the Black radical tradition, which he describes as “a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people.” The Black radical tradition defies racial capitalism’s efforts to remake African social life and generate new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture. Robinson traces the roots of Black radical thought to a shared epistemology among diverse African people, arguing that the first waves of African New World revolts were governed not by a critique rooted in Western conceptions of freedom but by a total rejection of enslavement and racism as it was experienced. Behind these revolts were not charismatic men but, more often than not, women. In fact, the female and queer-led horizontal formations that are currently at the forefront of resisting state violence and racial capitalism are more in line with the Black radical tradition than traditional civil rights organizations.

Africans chose flight and marronage because they were not interested in transforming Western society but in finding a way “home,” even if it meant death. Yet, the advent of formal colonialism and the incorporation of Black labor into a fully governed social structure produced the “native bourgeoisie,” the Black intellectuals whose positions within the political, educational, and bureaucratic structures of the dominant racial and colonial order gave them greater access to European life and thought. Their contradictory role as descendants of the enslaved, victims of racial domination, and tools of empire compelled some of these men and women to rebel, thus producing the radical Black intelligentsia. This intelligentsia occupies the last section of Black Marxism. Robinson reveals how W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright, by confronting Black mass movements, revised Western Marxism or broke with it altogether. The way they came to the Black radical tradition was more an act of recognition than of invention; they divined a theory of Black radicalism through what they found in the movements of the Black masses.

The final section has also been a source of confusion and misapprehension. Black Marxism is not a book about “Black Marxists” or the ways in which Black intellectuals “improved” Marxism by attending to race. This is a fundamental misunderstanding that has led even the most sympathetic readers to treat the Black radical tradition as a checklist of our favorite Black radical intellectuals. Isn’t Frantz Fanon part of the Black radical tradition? What about Claudia Jones? Why not Walter Rodney? Where are the African Marxists? Of course Cedric would agree that these and other figures were products of, and contributors to, the Black radical tradition. As he humbly closed his preface to the 2000 edition, “It was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there.”

Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt to construct a wholly original theory of revolution.

The Black radical tradition is not a greatest hits list. Cedric was clear that the Black intellectuals at the center of this work were not the Black radical tradition, nor did they stand outside it—through praxis they discovered it. Or, better yet, they were overtaken by it. And, as far as Cedric was concerned, sometimes the Black intellectuals about whom he writes fell short. Marxism was their path toward discovery, but apprehending the Black radical tradition required a break with Marx and Engels’s historical materialism.

Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt—and to Black radical intellectuals who also turned to the history of Black revolt—to construct a wholly original theory of revolution and interpretation of the history of the modern world.

When the London-based Zed Press published Black Marxism in 1983, few could have predicted the impact it would have on political theory, political economy, historical analysis, Black studies, Marxist studies, and our broader understanding of the rise of the modern world. It appeared with little fanfare. For years it was treated as a curiosity, grossly misunderstood or simply ignored. Given its current “rebirth,” some may argue that Black Marxism was simply ahead of its time. Or, to paraphrase the sociologist George Lipsitz quoting the late activist Ivory Perry, perhaps Cedric was on time but the rest of us are late? Indeed, how we determine where we are depends on our conception of time.

In thinking of the Black radical tradition as generative rather than prefigurative, not only is the future uncertain, but the road is constantly changing.

Cedric took Marx’s historical materialism to task in part for its conception of time and temporality. From The Terms of Order to An Anthropology of Marxism, he consistently critiqued Marxism for its fidelity to a stadial view of history and linear time or teleology, and dismissed the belief that revolts occur at certain stages or only when the objective conditions are “ripe.” And yet there was something in Cedric—perhaps his grandfather’s notion of faith—that related to some utopian elements of Marxism, notably the commitment to eschatological time, or the idea of “end times” rooted in earlier Christian notions of prophecy. Anyone who has read the Communist Manifesto or sang “The Internationale” will recognize the promise of proletarian victory and a socialist future. On the one hand, Robinson considered the absence of “the promise of a certain future” a unique feature of Black radicalism. “Only when that radicalism is costumed or achieves an envelope in Black Christianity,” he explained in a 2012 lecture, “is there a certainty to it. Otherwise it is about a kind of resistance that does not promise triumph or victory at the end, only liberation. No nice package at the end, only that you would be free. . . . Only the promise of liberation, only the promise of liberation!”

“Only the promise of liberation” captures the essence of Black revolt and introduces a completely different temporality: blues time. Blues time eschews any reassurance that the path to liberation is preordained. Blues time is flexible and improvisatory; it is simultaneously in the moment, the past, the future, and the timeless space of the imagination. As the geographer Clyde Woods taught us, the blues is not a lament but a clear-eyed way of knowing and revealing the world that recognizes the tragedy and humor in everyday life, as well as the capacity of people to survive, think, and resist in the face of adversity. Blues time resembles what the anarchist theorist Uri Gordon calls a “generative temporality,” a temporality that treats the future itself as indeterminate and full of contingencies. In thinking of the Black radical tradition as generative rather than prefigurative, not only is the future uncertain, but the road is constantly changing, along with new social relations that require new visions and expose new contradictions and challenges.

Cedric reminded us repeatedly that the forces we face are not as strong as we think. They are held together by guns, tanks, and fictions. They can be disassembled.

What we are witnessing now, across the country and around the world, is a struggle to interrupt historical processes leading to catastrophe. These struggles are not doomed, nor are they guaranteed. Thanks in no small measure to this book, we fight with greater clarity, with a more expansive conception of the task before us, and with ever more questions. Cedric reminded us repeatedly that the forces we face are not as strong as we think. They are held together by guns, tanks, and fictions. They can be disassembled, though that is easier said than done. In the meantime, we need to be prepared to fight for our collective lives.


Adapted from the foreword to the third and updated edition of Black Marxism: The Making of a Radical Tradition, Copyright © 1983 by Cedric Robinson. Foreword Copyright © 2021 by Robin D. G. Kelley. Used by permission of the publisher.

Source: Why Black Marxism, Why Now? | Boston Review

The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is. | McClatchy Washington Bureau

The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is.

UPDATED MARCH 11, 2021 10:28 AM
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Duration 1:17
Reaction to removing the Confederate Flag
South Carolina residents respond on June 21 when Governor Nikki Haley began the process of removing the Confederate Flag from the statehouse grounds. Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com 

I’ve lived 55 years in the South, and I grew up liking the Confederate flag. I haven’t flown one for many decades, but for a reason that might surprise you.

I know the South well. We lived wherever the Marine Corps stationed my father: Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas. As a child, my favorite uncle wasn’t in the military, but he did pack a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun in his trunk. He was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Despite my role models, as a kid I was an inept racist. I got in trouble once in the first grade for calling a classmate the N-word. But he was Hispanic.

As I grew up and acquired the strange sensation called empathy (strange for boys anyway), I learned that for black folks the flutter of that flag felt like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And for the most prideful flag waivers, clearly that response was the point. I mean, come on. It’s a battle flag.

What the flag symbolizes for blacks is enough reason to take it down. But there’s another reason that white southerners shouldn’t fly it. Or sport it on our state-issued license plates as some do here in North Carolina. The Confederacy – and the slavery that spawned it – was also one big con job on the Southern, white, working class. A con job funded by some of the ante-bellum one-per-centers, that continues today in a similar form.

You don’t have to be an economist to see that forcing blacks – a third of the South’s laborers – to work without pay drove down wages for everyone else. And not just in agriculture. A quarter of enslaved blacks worked in the construction, manufacturing and lumbering trades; cutting wages even for skilled white workers.

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Duration 0:48
Flag Protester Talks About White Role

James Tyson was arrested with Bree Newsome in SC Confederate flag removal. 

Thanks to the profitability of this no-wage/low-wage combination, a majority of American one-per-centers were southerners. Slavery made southern states the richest in the country. The South was richer than any other country except England. But that vast wealth was invisible outside the plantation ballrooms. With low wages and few schools, southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than northern whites.

My ancestor Canna Hyman and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”

Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing that blacks had no slice at all.

How did the plantation owners mislead so many Southern whites?

They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today’s lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class.

Today’s version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

For example, a map of states that didn’t expand Medicaid – which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites – resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Romney and Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South we went 2-1 for Romney.

Lowering the flag because of the harm done to blacks is the right thing to do. We also need to lower it because it symbolizes material harm the ideology of the Confederacy did to Southern whites that lasts even to this day.

One can love the South without flying the battle flag. But it won’t help to get rid of an old symbol if we can’t also rid ourselves of the self-destructive beliefs that go with it. Only by shedding those too, will Southern whites finally catch up to the rest of the country in wages, health and education.

Frank Hyman lives in Durham,where he has held two local elected offices. He’s a carpenter and stonemason and policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback. This essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission.

Source: The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is. | McClatchy Washington Bureau

What Was the Elaine Massacre? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System

White Arkansans, fearful of what would happen if African-Americans organized, took violent action, but it was the victims who ended up standing trial

Elaine defendants
Elaine Defendants, Helena, Phillips County, Ark., ca. 1910, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.

“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. Organizers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.

At around 11 p.m. that night, a group of local white men, some of whom may have been affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumors arose that the sharecroppers, who had formally joined a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County.

Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African-Americans (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.

Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.

Ulysses Bratton
Ulysses Simpson Bratton, attorney, Little Rock, Ark., ca. 1890 (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

During the massacre, Arkansan Leroy Johnston, who had had spent nine months recovering in a hospital from injuries he suffered in the trenches of France – was pulled from a train shortly after returning home and was shot to death alongside his three brothers. In places like Phillips County, where the economy directly depended on the predatory system of sharecropping, white residents were inclined to view the activities of Hill and others as the latest in a series of dangerous agitations.

In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. Their conclusions all too predictable: the following week they issued a statement in the Arkansas Democrat declaring the gathering in Elaine a “deliberately planned insurrection if the negroes against the whites” led by the PFHUA, whose founders used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.”

The paper claimed every individual who joined was under the understanding that “ultimately he would be called upon to kill white people.” A week later, they would congratulate themselves on the whole episode and their ability to restore order confidently claiming that not one slain African-American was innocent. “The real secret of Phillips county’s success…” the newspaper boasted, is that “the Southerner knows the negro through several generations of experience.”

To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter. In subsequent articles, he claimed that “careful examination…does not reveal the ‘dastardly’ plot which has been charged” and that indeed the PFHUA had no designs on an uprising. He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. With African-Americans making up a significant majority of local residents, “it appears that the fatalities would have been differently proportioned if a well-planned murder plot had existed among the Negroes,” he wrote in The Nation. The NAACP also pointed out in their publication The Crisis that in the prevailing climate of unchecked lynchings and mob violence against African-Americans, “none would be fool enough” to do so. The black press picked up the story and other papers began to integrate White’s counter-narrative into their accounts, galvanizing support for the defendants.

The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion – it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner.

“You had 12 black men who were clearly charged with murder in a system that was absolutely corrupt at the time – you had mob influence, you had witness tampering, you had a jury that was all-white, you had almost certainly judicial bias, you had the pressure of knowing that if you were a juror in this case that you would almost certainly not be able to live in that town…if you decided anything other than a conviction,” says Michael Curry, an attorney and chair of the NAACP Advocacy and Policy Committee. No white residents were tried for any crime.

The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.

Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed previous attempts at legal redress for black citizens. “It’s a learning process for the NAACP,” says Lentz-Smith. “[There is] a sense of how to do it and who to draw on and what sort of arguments to make.” The cases of six of the men would be sent for retrial over a technicality, while the other six defendants – including named plaintiff Frank Moore – had their cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP’s legal strategy hinged on the claim that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated.

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

The verdict marked a drastic departure from the Court’s longstanding hands-off approach to the injustices happening in places like Elaine. “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans,” says Curry. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs. Dempsey (the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary) preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama in 1932, which addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs. Mississippi in 1936, which ruled on confessions extracted under torture.

Moore vs. Dempsey provided momentum for early civil rights lawyers and paved the way for later victories in the ’50s and ’60s. According to Lentz, “when we narrate the black freedom struggle in the 20th century, we actually need to shift our timeline and the pins we put on the timeline for the moments of significant breakthrough and accomplishments.” Despite Moore vs. Dempsey being relatively obscure, “if the U.S. civil rights movement is understood as an effort to secure the full social, political, and legal rights of citizenship, then 1923 marks a significant event,” writes Francis.

Elaine defendants
Elaine Defendants: S. A. Jones, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, J. C. Knox, Ed Coleman and Paul Hall with Scipio Jones, State Penitentiary, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Ark. ca. 1925, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases. “The recognition that the state had violated the procedural due process, and the federal courts actually weighing in on that was huge,” says Curry. “There was a deference that was being paid to state criminal proceedings, then this sort of broke that protection that existed for states.”

The sharecroppers that had gathered in Elaine had a simple goal: to secure a share in the profits gained from their work. But the series of injustices the events of that night unleashed would – through several years of tenacious effort – end up before the nation’s highest court and show that the longstanding tradition of declaring African-Americans guilty absent constitutional guarantees would no longer go unchallenged.

Source: What Was the Elaine Massacre? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

Straight Down to the Bones | Boston Review

ARTS IN SOCIETY

Straight Down to the Bones

In this searching interview, legendary Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez discusses the ancestral influences on her work and how art can give us strength.

Includes new audio of Sanchez reading from her work.SONIA SANCHEZ, CHRISTINA KNIGHTThis interview is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Ancestors.ORDER A COPY TODAYEditor’s Note: You can hear Sonia Sanchez read some of her poems at our launch event for Ancestors next Thursday, March 11!

In addition, we are thrilled to announce that Sonia Sanchez will be one of the judges for this year’s creative writing contests. Free for writers from non-Western countries (as well as those experiencing hardship), our short story and poetry contests are open now.

A key figure in the Black Arts Movement and a founder of Black Studies, Sonia Sanchez has authored more than a dozen books of poetry, criticism, and plays. Though I’ve never met Sanchez in person, it is not an exaggeration to say that her life as a poet, playwright, and professor has made my own possible.

Taking a class on the Black Arts Movement as an undergraduate introduced me to the fire behind her language. My graduate training in African American Studies showed me images of her as an impossibly young professor, fighting for the establishment of Black Studies at San Francisco State University. And most recently, in my own life as a young professor in Philadelphia, I’ve seen Sanchez enter a room and be suddenly surrounded by former students, friends, and colleagues, living evidence of her lifelong generosity of spirit. Sanchez radiates brilliance, humor, and integrity, and her work has touched countless lives.It was a joy, then, to speak with her about the many people, living and dead, who have shaped her own journey. In our interview, she discusses mentors and teachers as well as her fierce devotion to her students. She concludes by recalling her writing process for A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), an astonishing volume of poetry shaped by the artist’s dream dialogues with her late mother.—Christina Knight“How could I be a graduate in New York City and never come across these Black books?

”Christina Knight: You have mentioned before that there are lots of people, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, who have inspired you and your own vision for a more just and peaceful world. Could you talk about who some of those people are—those chosen ancestors—who guide you on your journey? Sonia Sanchez: Some of them are people like Jean Hutson, who was a curator and then chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for decades. When I was finishing my bachelors at Hunter College, I had done some substitute teaching around my neighborhood, and I had this agreement with the principal that I would have a job in September. But I graduated in January, and when you come from a family that’s not wealthy, jobs are very important, are they not? So my dad said, “Well, you’d better go out and get a job.” I looked around in the newspapers and I went to all these places to get a job, and they all said they were filled. But I had the feeling that it had to do with how I looked, you know, my color, right? Someone I was talking to said, “Why don’t you look at the New York Times? They have all of these ads.” So I looked and there was one that said to write in; it was for a writer for a firm. And I thought why don’t I, at that point, play with what I really want to be?So I sent my CV, and I wrote whatever they asked me to write. And I got a telegram on Saturday that said to report to work on Monday; I was hired. So on Monday I went out in my blue suit, and my hat, and my blue pumps, and my blue bag. I had gloves and everything. I went out like a church person, you know what I mean? I got there at 8:30, and I remember waiting outside this door, which was locked. I’m standing there thinking, “Am I in the right place?” And I heard these heels come clicking down the hall. This woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” So I took the telegram out and handed it to her.I remember she read it, and then she looked up at me; she looked back down, she read it again, and then she looked back up at me. Then she handed it to me, unlocked the door, and said, “Come in and have a seat.” You know how it is just to be twenty? How young you are at that time? Being eighty-six, now, you look back, and you remember the youngness in your eyes—like, “Whoa, here I am, I’m going to get a job. I’ve been hired to do something that I want to do.” It’s amazing. So I’m sitting there, and a man walks in and says, “Yes, can I help you?” I got up, and I had my letter out, and I handed it to him. And he read the letter and looked at me; he looked down at the telegram and read it again and looked up at me. And you know, I am smiling the whole time. And he handed it back to me and said, “I’m sorry, the job is taken.”With my New York City humor, I said, “Oh, I got it—the telegram said report to

Source: Straight Down to the Bones | Boston Review

Reflections On Recent Controversy And The Case For #PureReparations | Actify Press

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.

Background

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.

Lineage Criteria

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.

Necessary Exclusions

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 slaveryCounting 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.

Balloon Reasoning

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. . . ”

Additional Considerations

Source: Reflections On Recent Controversy And The Case For #PureReparations | Actify Press

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham :: “Ashes to Ashes: Addressing Racial Injustice in America” :: Dr. Shirley J. Jackson, MD, Artist, Author and Filmographer :: February 6, 2021 :: 10 pm EST

“Ashes to Ashes: Addressing Racial Injustice in America”

Saturday, February 6, 2021 ∞ 10 pm EST ∞ LIVE

Tune In LIVE Here: http://bit.ly/OCGTruthTalk

Listen & Call In Line: 347-838-9852

About this Episode of OUR COMMON GROUND

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.

Watch the film here:

http://ashes2ashes4ever.com/video/Award-Winning-Rees-Films-Shirley-Whitaker-Winfred-Rembert-Ashes-to-Ashes-US-Lynchings-and-a-Story-of-Survival-Al-Jazeera-Witness.mp4

About Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker

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.

 About Winfred Rembert

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”

Janice

Join us for the OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special

“A History of Black Political Movements in America”

Four-Week Lecture Series

Presenter, Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Each Session: Thursdays 8- 10 pm EST :::

February 4, 11, 18, 25, 2021

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