The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

There is an amazing series airing on PBS this fall, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The documentary series is produced and narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and made possible, in part, by JustFilms of the Ford Foundation, The Hutchins Family Foundation, as well as corporate sponsors.  I mention the sponsorship at the top because you can see how the deep-pocketed funding pays off in this well-crafted, beautifully told, and thoroughly researched series.

The episodes include a wide sweep of just over 400 years of history, beginning with The Black Atlantic (1500-1800), The Age of Slavery (1800-1860), Into the Fire (1861-1896), and the most recent, Making a Way Out of No Way (1897-1940). Still to come are Rise! (1940-1968), and It’s Nation Time (1968-2013).

Each episode blends Gates’ avuncular narration and interviews with leading scholars and experts on African American culture with solid scholarship and a compelling visual style. These are also travelogues as we follow Gates re-tracing the steps of the African diaspora, across the Atlantic, to the American south, and then North and West through the great migration.

The tone of the series is on emphasizing the rather profound resilience, innovation, and resourcefulness of the African American people. Yet, it simultaneously takes an unflinching look at the centuries of white oppression that changes shape over time but remains a brutal, nefarious, and life-threatening constant. In my view, it strikes just the right balance between these two, always emphasizing how African American folks were able to “make a way out of no way,” while never pulling any punches about the unrelenting nastiness of white racism and the cruelty of institutional oppression.

 


(More Famous Quote Posters from PBS)

There are so many people in the US – the overwhelming majority, I think it’s safe to say – who do not know this history. To our great, collective shame this history is not part of the K-12 curriculum, and most adults will only learn it if they choose to take a “Black History” class in college.  My hope is that this remarkable series might be incorporated into more curricula, as it was clearly designed to do.

The series airs on PBS through November 26, check your local listings as they say. And, many clips and several full length videos are available online.

Livestreaming Now: Whiteness & Health Roundtable Today at CUNY Graduate Center (Updated)

The archived video(s) of An Exploration of Whiteness and Health A Roundtable Discussion

is available beginning here (updated 12/16/12):

The examination of whiteness in the scholarly literature is well established (Fine et al., 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine and Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through the social boundaries by, for example, defining who is white and is not white (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). The seeming invisibility of whiteness is one of its’ central mechanisms because it allows those within the category white to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1998). We know that whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012), law (Lopez, 2006), research methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our misapprehension of society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998). Still, we understand little of how whiteness and health are connected. Being socially assigned as white is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status (Jones et al., 2008). Anderson’s ground breaking book The Cultivation of Whiteness (2006) offers an exhaustive examination of the way whiteness was deployed as a scientific and medical category in Australia though to the second world war. Yet, there is relatively little beyond this that explores the myriad connections between whiteness and health (Daniels and Schulz, 2006; Daniels, 2012; Katz Rothman, 2001). References listed here.

The Whiteness & Health Roundtable is an afternoon conversation with scholars and activists doing work on this area.

Follow the livetweeting on Twitter at @jgieseking (Jen Jack Gieseking) and @SOSnowy (Collette Sosnowy), and via the #DigitalGC. You can also view the compilation of those Tweets on Storify here.

The roundtable is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Critical Social & Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center CUNY. The event is hosted by Michelle Fine (Distinguished Professor, Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education), Jessie Daniels (Professor, Urban Public Health and Sociology) and Rachel Liebert, (PhD Student, Critical Social/Personality Psychology).

Visible Evidence of Racism

With the passing of Rodney King (which I talked about yesterday), there’s a collective sense that video has changed everything in the digital era when it comes to racism. Now, the saying goes, the whole world is (really) watching and that changes everything. And yet, it’s the video footage that helped acquit the white officers that assaulted Rodney King. How is that possible?

There are clue to the answers to this question in the scholarship that emerged shortly after the videographic evidence of the brutal, racist beating of Rodney King.  Most notable here in the scholarly literature is the anthology Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising  (Routledge, 1993) edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, Surprisingly, none of the eulogies and elegies to King (even the ones by academics) have mentioned this volume by Gooding-Williams.  It was a remarkable volume at the time it appeared, so close after the uprisings following the verdicts, and it still holds up some 20 years later.

 

 

The lead essay in the volume, written by Judith Butler,  speaks directly to the use of the video – seemingly visible evidence of racism – and the way it was used to acquit the white LAPD offocers. In her chapter called “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” Butler writes that while she can write  “…without hesitation,” that ‘the “video shows a man being brutally beaten,” yet, it appears that the (predominantly white) jury in Simi Valley claimed that “what they ‘saw’ was a body threatening police, and saw in those blows the reasonable actions of police officers in self-defense.”

Butler goes on to offer this observation:

“The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent of violence, one whose agency is phantasmatically implied as the narrative precedent and antecedent to the frames that are shown.  Watching King, the white paranoiac forms a sequences of narrative intelligibility that consolidates the racist figure of the black man: ‘He had threatened them, and now he is being justifiably restrained.”  “If they cease hitting him, he will release his violence and now is being justifiably restrained.” King’s palm turned away from his body, held above his own head, is read not as self-protection but as the incipient moments of a physical threat.”

She then turns to Franz Fanon’s exclamation, “Look, a Negro!” to explore the theoretical understanding of the black male body in contemporary popular culture, where the “Look” is a racist indicative that indicates a body regarded as inherently dangerous.  Butler notes that “seeing” with regard to King (the night he was beaten) and “seeing” the video are highly problematic notions infused with racism.  She goes on to say:

“The kind of ‘seeing’ that the police enacted, and the kind of ‘seeing’ that the jury enacted, is one in which a further violence is performed by the disavowal and projection of that violent beating. The actual blows against Rodney King are understood to be fair recompense, indeed, defenses against, the dangers that are ‘seen’ to emanate from his body.  Here ‘seeing’ and attributing are indissoluble. Attributing violent to the object of violence is part of the very mechanism that recapitulates violence, and that makes the jury’s ‘seeing’ into a complicity with that police violence.”

So, what Butler is saying here is that even when it seems that we have incontrovertible visible evidence of racism, the “seeing” of that evidence is contested in various ways.  To be more precise, Butler argues that it is the “white paranoia” that pervades contemporary US culture which made it possible to “see” the defense gestures of Rodney King – as he lay being beaten – as evidence of his threat to whiteness.

As we mark some 20 years since the Rodney King beating, acquittal of the LAPD officers in Simi Valley and the uprisings in Los Angeles that followed, it may be comforting to think that digital cameras are more ubiquitous now than they were in 1992.

Yet, to assume that digital video cameras alone (or, the digital cameras in smart phones), are going to address the plague of police violence and brutality is at best naive.

Ending the Institutional Racism of NYC’s Marijuana Arrests

Over the past 15 years, New York City has become the marijuana arrest capital of the world due to a policing policy that functions to institutionalize racism. More than 84 percent of those arrested were people of color – even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates. Research by CUNY Professor Harry Levine finds a systematic, racial bias (pdf) to the NYPD’s approach to policing marijuana.

While possession of a small amount of marijuana (less than 25 grams) has been decriminalized in New York State since 1977, more than 50,000 people were arrested in New York City for “possessing or burning marijuana in public view” in 2011 (largely the result of the City’s controversial stop-and-frisk practices that recorded almost 700,000 stop-and-frisks last year alone).

A large majority of these arrests are the result of illegal searches, false charges, and entrapment. Several organizations in New York City such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives (IJJRA) and VOCAL New York, are working to end these racially biased and illegal marijuana arrests. The main way these organizations are doing this now is through a piece of legislation currently in the NY State legislature.

Democrat Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies and Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti have legislation that would clarify and to go back to the original intent of the 1977 law and make under 7/8 of an ounce an unarrestable offense. Since Jeffries will likely be elected to Congress in November, and the legislative session is almost over, this is the last chance to pass this bill. In this short (2:12) video, Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies explains what’s behind this legislation:

Conservative media pundits like Bill O’Reilly argue that further decriminalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in street crime (as he did on air this morning on Fox & Friends or as ), but there’s no evidence for such a claim. In fact, a recent New York Times piece clarifies this by noting that crime has also dropped in jurisdictions that don’t use NYC’s aggressive, racist stop-and-frisk policing strategy.

If you’d like to take action to stop this form of institutional racism, you can sign this online petition.

Kony 2012: Whiteness, Social Media and Africa

There is a viral video spreading across social media platforms called Kony 2012 created by an organization known as Invisible Children. Just released on Monday, March 5, the video has already passed 75 million views on YouTube. This is a phenomenal reach for a video on the long side (30 minutes) about Joseph Kony a Ugandan war lord, that until now American audiences had demonstrated little interest in. The viral video has been amplified through reports at major, mainstream news outlets in the U.S. A week into its existence, the video campaign has even been spoofed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

There have also been some scathing critiques and reactions against the #StopKony campaign.  Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post, “Unpacking Kony 2012″ that details many of the problems with the video, including that the film gives Ugandans little agency in determining their own destiny.  Sarah Wanenchak wonders whether any viral video will necessarily be as overslimplified as this one is. For those that are interested in the mechanics of how this organization was able to pull off this viral campaign, there’s some fascinating data at SocialFlow (the key: pre-existing networks established with Christian youth).

What none of these excellent analyses examine, however, is the role of whiteness in the Kony 2012 phenomenon, and I want to focus on that aspect here because I think it’s central to the viral video’s appeal.

Sarah Wanenchak identifies the central, symbolic moment in the video:

“What is perhaps the film’s most revealing moment occurs quite early, when the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the situation – in a child’s terms. The child responds, ‘Stop him.’ Which is really the entire film in two words, on essentially the level of complexity at which it is delivered.”

That moment is captured in this digital still photo from that scene:

 

Obscured in this image is the photograph of Joseph Kony (just out of frame to the left). The image that’s visible is Jacob Acaye, a former child soldier in Uganda. The adult hand holding the top of the photograph is the boy’s father and the filmmaker, Jason Russell.  Throughout the film, we meet Jacob several times, and he is described as “a friend” by Jason and his well-coached son. In some ways, Jacob drives the action of the film as it is the promise that Jason Russell makes to him (to “make it stop”) that propels the rest of the video.

It’s this moment, and the image here, that carry the central message of the film, and it has much to say about “whiteness.”  It is, in effect, a white savior film with social media added in. This film is, (as Richard Dyer argues about another film) “organized around a rigid binarism: with white standing for modernity, reason, order, stability and black standing for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence” (1988:49).

The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voice over narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa. This is a deeply ironic claim given the importance of mobile technology throughout the continent, often at rates that out-pace the U.S.

The absurdity of this is playfully skewered in the “First Day on the Internet Kid” meme (“Share Kony Video, I Fixed Africa”). Yet, the more serious implications here are the ways that this kind of white racial frame is rooted in colonialism. The notion that Jason Russell – a white, heterosexual, American man – is going to “stop”and “fix” the problems in Uganda ignores the work already happening there in favor of a white-led campaign advocating military intervention.  One of the moments the video portrays as a victory #StopKony campaign is the order by President Obama to send troops to Uganda. The iconography of (predominantly white) U.S. troops with “boots on the ground” in Africa, flying an American flag conjures the very essence of colonialism and whiteness.

The Kony 2012 video’s binarism is, in the broadest sense, racist but not in the narrower sense of operating within a notion of intrinsic, unalterable, biological differences between groups of people (Dyer 1988:51). There is also a strong theme of evolutionism in the video as well, that the, good, liberal whites portrayed in the video are charting a path of progress that is potentially open to all. The video takes pains to draw a distinction between the “bad African,” Joseph Kony, to save the “good African,” Jacob Acaye, who we learn aspires to be a lawyer (as in the image above). Jacob, unlike Joseph Kony, is portrayed as reasonable, rational, humane, and liberal. White viewers are invited to root for (if not identify with) Jacob Acaye, and in so doing, the film positions itself as ‘white savior’ of this young man and the other children he represents.

Kony 2012 is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order, and now social media against the supposed chaos and violence of Africa.

 

Everyday Racism

This short clip (7:08) is the second half of a story that the ABC “20/20″ news show did called “True Colors.” It features Julianne Malveaux as one of the experts. The whole piece is 19 minutes long (part 1 is here) and is one of the most powerful teaching tools I’ve ever used for demonstrating how everyday racism works:

Basically, what the ABC crews does is set up a “matched study” – a white guy and a black guy are matched on every quality except skin color – and films the results. They put these two gentlemen, both recent college grads, in St. Louis, Missouri to establish themselves. They are sent to find work and a place to live. Hidden cameras record the very different treatment that they receive at almost every turn. It’s a compelling look at how everyday racism operates and the way that it “grinds exceedingly small,” as Malveaux says.

You can purchase a licensed copy (the one above is definitely a pirated copy) of the full video here. Unfortunately, the official copy is priced for institutional buyers ($595), not the individual user. The original story aired in 1991, about the time current college sophomores were born, so the video is vulnerable to being dismissed as “the kind of thing that happened a long time ago, in the distant past.”

Of course, those of us who study racism know that this continues to happen and it continues to “grind exceedingly small” for those who experience it. It’s definitely time for some enterprising investigative reporter to re-make this classic video about everyday racism.

Broken on All Sides: New Documentary about Race and Criminal Justice

Matthew Pillischer has just completed a new documentary about race and criminal justice in that is worth checking out. Here’s a trailer for the film (6:58):

The film includes an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which we’ve written about here before. While most third year law students are busy studying for the bar exam, Matthew Pillischer found time to produce and direct a documentary film about this important social justice issue. I don’t know how he did that, but I’m glad he did as his film promises to bring this important issue to a much wider audience.

Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues

The documentary “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” tells the story of the blues, a uniquely American music form. Born out of the economic and social transformation of African American life early in the 20th century, the blues eloquently capture both suffering and resilience.  The film features many of the often overlooked women who were pioneers of the blues, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters.  This short clip (7:04) gives you a preview:

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the good folks at California Newsreel are offering by a free preview of the entire film through the end of March.  Great for classes on race, gender, culture, American studies and women’s studies.

Racist Video Goes Viral at UCLA

Racism online takes new forms, as I’ve written here before, and it gets joined with centuries-old forms of racism. The latest example of cyber racism on a college campus is playing out right now at UCLA. Alexandra Wallace, a white female student, posted a video online that made fun of her Asian classmates, and the video has gone viral. Here’s a short video (1:38) from MSNBC / The Grio explaining the story:

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Clearly, this is the kind of thing that Ms. Wallace felt comfortable saying in the “backstage” to an audience that she imagined to be filled with like-minded, white friends. Remarkably, what she failed to consider is that other people in the “frontstage” would hear, see and be appalled at her clueless display of racism.

Now, the many students are calling for Ms. Wallace’s expulsion from UCLA and administrators at that institution will have to decide what kinds of repercussions, if any, she should have to deal with. What do you think? Should Ms. Wallace be expelled? Punished in some other way? Or, is this just a function of living in the U.S. and she should be able to say what she thinks?

Strange Fruit: Documentary About Billie Holiday

“Strange Fruit” is a term that refers to the legacy of lynching in the U.S., and it’s the title of a documentary exploring the history and legacy of the Billie Holiday’s classic song by the same name. [wrong video clip - removed. JD]
Lady Day (Columbus, Ohio)
Creative Commons License photo credit: moniquewingard

The film tells part of the story of race in America through the evolution of this song’s evolution. The saga brings viewers face- to- face with the terror of lynching even as it spotlights the courage and heroism of those who fought for racial justice when to do so was to risk ostracism and livelihood if white – and death if Black. It examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor and the left, and popular culture as forces that would give rise to the Civil Rights Movement.

The film’s distributor, California Newsreel, is offering a limited time (through end of November) free preview of the entire film, here. Highly recommended for those teaching race, gender, popular culture, American Studies, and for any one who wants to learn more about racial violence and resistance to it through art.