Archive for memoriam
As 2012 draws to a close, I pulled together some of the biggest news in racism for the year.
Election Politics – Of course, much of the year we were focused on the racism in election politics.
- New scholarship on the Obama years, the 2012 election and systemic racism appeared in the Journal Qualitative Sociology by our very own Joe Feagin and Adia Harvey Wingfield.
- As a voters, Latinos had a big impact in this election, as Maria Chavez noted here.
- Even though white privilege was not enough to secure a victory for Mitt Romney, he still did well among white voters who overwhelmingly supported him at the polls.
- Even so, The New York Times was unable to marshal a sophisticated critique of the racism in the GOP.
White Male Shooters – In some of the saddest news of the year, 2012 was bracketed by white male shooters unleashing violence on innocent strangers.
- In January, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a crowd at an Arizona political rally, killing 6 and injuring 14.
- In August, white supremacist Wade M. Page walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where he shot and killed 7 people.
- In December, Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 children at an elementary school in Connecticut. With this most recent shooting, some in the mainstream press began to identify white men as a group that “should be profiled,” a point that Joe Feagin has been making for many years.
Racial Profiling – Racial profiling was in the news a great deal this year, and was implicated in at least one death.
- The senseless killing of teenager Trayvon Martin seemed to be case of racial profiling taken to a violent extreme when volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman perceived the unarmed Martin as a “threat” and shot him.
- Racial Profiling is not only an issue in the U.S., it is also characteristic of policing in France as well.
- In the city where I live, racial profiling combines with racial disparities in marijuana arrests and results in over 400,000 Black and Latino young men needlessly caught up in the criminal justice system each year.
Law & Economy – Institutions, such as the law and the economy, are fundamental to the perpetuation of racism.
- The Supreme Court heard a case about affirmative action brought against the University of Texas by a white woman who was refused admission.
- Even with the election of Obama, deportations of Black and Latino men based on immigration status continued at an alarming rate, as Tanya wrote about here.
- And, the election of Obama has done little to stem the tide of the racial gaps in wealth and income.
Athletics – There were some new stars in athletics who faced racism.
- Gabrielle Douglas won a gold medal in gymnastics at the Olympics, yet faced a huge wave of criticism about her hairstyle, which many saw rooted in racism.
- Jeremy Lin played in the NBA after a less-than-stellar college basketball career, and sparked “Linsanity” from enthusiastic fans; others made racist jokes at his expense.
- There remain significant racial barriers to becoming a coach in the NFL, as Michael R notes here.
Passages – We lost some people who played a role in racial politics.
- Rodney King, focus of a shocking video of police brutality, and when officers were acquitted in that beating, he famously tried to quell rioting by asking “Can’t we all just get along?” – died. He was 47.
- Russell Means, a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and an Ogala Sioux Indian, died. He was 72.
Personal Essays – We were delighted to post a couple of really moving personal essays from guest bloggers.
Hate & Violence – Overt racist hate and violence continued in 2012.
- The SPLC reported that there has been a resurrgence in hate groups in the years since Obama’s election.
- There was a spate of anti-Asian American racism in the news, perhaps none more tragic than the murder of Danny Chen.
Technology – Despite claims that Internet technology would usher in a new era in which “there is no race,” racism continues to be built into our technologies.
- This year, Microsoft unvieiled – then quietly removed – their “Avoid Ghetto” App meant to help guide presumably white drivers away from “dangerous ghettos” with predominantly Black or Latino residents.
- As the election news spread, so did the racist tweets about Obama. Some clever folks made a map of those racist tweets, and I wrote a critique of it.
- I also created a short video explaining how racism operates in the digital era.
Culture – Sometimes, when I consider the progress that’s been achieved around racism, I think some of the most important progress is achieved in culture, both popular culture and more rarefied high culture.
- The gift that just keeps on giving is the change in lineup that happened this year at MSNBC when they (finally!) removed Pat Buchanan and then Melissa Harris-Perry got her own show.
- A major museum in the nation’s capitol featured a show of all African American artists, simply called “30 Americans.”
- And, when an artist made a cake that many viewed as racist, it seemed the whole world spoke out against it.
Viral Videos – The year 2012 was a good one for viral videos about racism.
- Stuff White Girls Say took off and made a point about the racism of white women.
- Similarly, Randy Newman skewered white people in his spoof of his old song “Short People.”
- Somewhat unintentionally, the highly crafted marketing video “Kony 2012″ ended up being about racism as well in its facile portrayal of ‘evil’ in Africa in need of ‘white saviors.’
Documentaries – I continue to believe that documentaries can be a crucial tool in the effort to bring about racial justice.
- Central Park Five - an important, devastating critique of racism.
- Deconstructing Racism – a funder makes a call for documentary filmmakers to address racism.
May 2013 bring more racial justice!
This Sunday marked the passing of Rodney King, and perhaps fittingly, that same day tens of thousands participated in a Silent March down Fifth Avenue to protest the stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD.
There have been quite a few write ups about his passing, and the significance of his life, around the web and here are a few of those:
- Touré writes in his Elegy for Rodney King: It was the media that transformed King’s horrific ordeal into a moment that would never die. That’s why the moment sits on a gruesome continuum of other horrific moments that were captured by the media and thus swelled to have a forceful impact on America. From Emmett Till in 1955, who was killed and beaten beyond recognition and memorialized by a photograph of his mutilated corpse lying in its coffin, to Trayvon Martin this year, whose moment of death was captured by multiple pieces of audio that seem to paint a frightening portrait of his last moments. These three are martyrs who were crucified, their bodies sacrificed, and their moment recorded and disseminated, thus showing black pain and revealing American injustice and accessing the moral power that was necessary to inspire change. …. But despite the nation watching in horror and feeling for Rodney King, another Rodney King incident could happen today.
- Jamil Smith, producer at MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, writes: Rodney King nearly became the subject of one of those signs, but he survived. His battle was one which African Americans had fought many times before outside of the glare of the cameras — and yet, despite the presence of a camera, had to fight again. The cameras, in a sense, later turned on him, repeating another theme of cultural strife in this country: subjecting those symbols of those of us who must suffer with its negative effects daily to the media microscope, chipping away at dignity all the while. There’s a reason why you’re seeing a lot of “flawed” and “complicated” in headlines about King’s death, as if having been an addict somehow validated him being beaten to within an inch of his life by L.A.’s Finest. (Aren’t we all flawed and complicated?)
- Davey D points out that “Even, in Los Angeles the place where Rodney King’s beating was supposed to spark improvement within LAPD we see that police killing civilians is up a whopping 70%. … One would think after the King beating we would’ve witnessed a sea change of improvements within the police departments. sadly what we’ve seen is fast track to enhanced, new and improved forms brutality and harassment. Since the killing of Trayvon Martin we’ve had over 30 Black people alone killed by police. That speaks volumes.”
- Dr. Jelani Cobb writes: “The removal of Police Chief Daryl Gates and the subsequent appointment of Willie Williams, the first black police chief in L.A. history, was directly related to King’s beating. But in 2009, television viewers saw grainy footage of another black man lying prone at the feet of a California police officer, this time in Oakland. The man, Oscar Grant, had been shot and killed. Earlier this year, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a reportpointing out that in 2011 the N.Y.P.D. conducted nearly six hundred and eighty-six thousand stop-and-frisks, with blacks and Latinos accounting for more than eighty-six per cent of those targeted by police.
- Dr. James Braxton Peterson reminds us that: “Although Rodney King escaped death that night [he was beaten by LAPD], his life was irrevocably altered; his history became inextricably linked with the violent history of police brutality, racial profiling, and racialized injustice.”
- Dr. Marc Lamont Hill spoke with Rodney King a couple of months before his death, and asked him if he thought the US could erupt in violence again if, for example, George Zimmerman were acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. When King said he didn’t believe it would, Hill chided him for his optimism, then he writes: “Given everything that we’d seen and done as a country, how he could he be so invested in the goodness of America? He said that like all people, he had doubts. But his faith in God and America were stronger than those doubts. That, in a nutshell, is who Rodney King was. Not the lawless monster portrayed by the LAPD. Not the walking punch line depicted in both Black and mainstream culture. And not the unrepentant addict who never conquered his demons. Rather, Rodney King was someone who desperately aimed to love his way through the absurdity of America’s racial condition.”
Today, we mark the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The memorial is the first to honor an African American on the National Mall and its adjoining memorial parks and is the result of more than two decades of planning, fund-raising and construction. The efforts began early on by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (King had been an active member). It was dedicated in October,2011, making today the first time that we’ve celebrated the holiday with a national monument in King’s honor.
Critics of the memorial, such as this one writing at The Economist, object to the memorial on both aesthetic and political grounds, calling it a ‘blockheaded’ design that is merely state-sponsored ‘propaganda,’ not in keeping with the values of equality that King championed. (One suspects that this critique is rooted as much in xenophobia about the Chinese sculptor and imported granite as it is in the objection to honoring King, but I digress.)
I couldn’t disagree more. I think the King memorial matters for our national conversation about race.
(Photo credit: Julie Netherland)
On a recent visit to the memorial, I was struck by conversations happening all around me about civil rights, about Dr. King’s legacy, about racial equality and justice. (There’s a great art / ethnographic project to be done here, setting up audio recorders to grab snippets of conversations heard around the memorial.)
Along with individual kids with their moms or dads, there were also small and large groups of students with teachers and guides, talking about the quotes by Dr. King etched in stone along the wall behind the large statue, using the monument as a way to teach about civil rights.
Given the monument’s significance as a place for enabling the ‘teachable moment,’ it’s also important to get it right.
One of the inscriptions on the monument reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” The problem? King never said those words, at least, not exactly. The actual quote comes from this sermon about a eulogy someone might give at his funeral, and it goes like this:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
As Maya Angelou notes the shortened, paraphrased text misleads: “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Secretary of the Interior Salazar has issued a statement saying that the quote will be corrected.
Perhaps most striking moment for me on my visit was the scene inside the gift store near the monument. There are no t-shirts or mugs or bobble-head dolls inside, only books and DVDs about the civil rights movement and Dr. King, many of these children’s books. Because the memorial is part of the National Park Service, the bookstore is staffed by Park Rangers.
And, while I was there, you could hear the voice of a Park Ranger reading a children’s book about the civil rights movement to a group of school children sitting on the floor in a circle.
That’s why the monument is important. Attacking Dr. King and his legacy is a key strategy of opponents of civil rights. It’s an object that officially recognizes King’s legacy and contribution to civil rights in the U.S., and it opens up a space for having a conversation about what the legacy means and how it’s relevant today.
And that, I think is priceless.
As the year 2011 ends, there are several good year-end reviews about racial justice, this video from Colorlines and this post from a David J. Leonard writing at New Black Man, are both excellent. We here at Racism Review offer this as our own brief, and necessarily incomplete, recap of some of the notable events in the struggle for racial justice. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end, there are some victories there, too ~ and a challenge for you at the end.
We lost some fierce champions and scholar-activists:
- Manning Marable, aged 60, died in April, just days before his epic biography of Malcolm X was published.
- Derrick Bell, aged 80, a founder of critical race theory who famously resigned his tenured position at Harvard Law School in protest over their failure to hire any women of color, died in October.
Lots of things happened in 2011 which illustrate just how entrenched racial inequality (still) is, including:
- the execution of Troy Davis and the ongoing racism of the New Jim Crow. I argued here at the time of Davis’ execution that the U.S. death penalty is akin to the American practice of lynching in which black and brown people, especially men, are executed in disproportionately high numbers as a means of social control.
- the Occupy Wall Street movement, initiated and led predominantly by white people, missed the racial significance of the “occupy” terminology, and thereby missed an opportunity to galvanize a movement across racial boundaries. Dick Gregory said in October that the Occupy movement had a ‘whiff’ of the civil rights movement, with a key difference: “The difference between this movement and our movement is that white people — rich, poor, educated — are born with 300 years of white privilege. So there are certain things that you don’t do to me when you’re born with privileges. When it was us, the cops could do anything they wanted to. You can’t do these children like this.”
- the racism in presidential politics has been off the hook this year, with the Republicans on center stage as they search for a viable opponent to defeat President Obama. This is not to say that Democrats are not capable of practicing racism in the service of a political goal, it’s just that the Republicans have been taking up all the air time. From the buffoonery of Herman Cain and the strategic racism of his Koch brothers’ supporters, to the ‘food stamp president’ racism of Newt Gingrich, to the white-supremacist-supported campaign of Ron Paul, it’s been an epic year for racism in presidential politics.
- immigration reform has stalled and deportations have increased under President Obama. In 2010, the U.S. government deported some 400,000 people, more than in the entire decade of the 1980s. However, it’s not all immigrants who are being targeted; research indicates that Asian and European immigrants are almost never deported, yet blacks and Latinos are deported in large numbers.
- Facebook (and YouTube) racism continue. In a move that continues to baffle me (you know we can see what you’re saying, right?), white people continue to post racist crap to Facebook, YouTube and any other form of social media. One of the more infamous examples from 2011 was Alexandra Wallace, former UCLA college student, who posted a racist video of herself mocking her Asian American classmates. She later left UCLA amid reported death threats. More recently, the racist postings on Facebook by NYPD cops was exposed.
- Islamophobia on the rise, and mass murder in Norway. In July, Anders Breivik opened fire on a Norwegian camp killing about 90 people, many of them children. He was said to be upset about “immigrants” especially Muslim immigrants that were supposedly “destroying Europe.” In the U.S., Rep. Peter King (R-NY), led the way in fomenting Islamophobia through a series of congressional hearings that targeted Muslims living in the U.S. as potential terrorists. King refused to focus any of his congressional hearing on predominantly white militia groups or white supremacist organizations.
A few things that happened in 2011 which might be helping create a more just world (and which you could do in 2012):
- Changing the language we use. The Drop the I-Word campaign, to get people to stop using the word “illegal” and terms like “anchor baby” has been extremely successful and even got the New York Times to remove the word “illegal” from its official style guide.
- Documentaries and digital videos that tell different stories. Independent non-fiction visual media, such as documentaries and DIY digital video, have become increasingly accessible to everyday users and that means that there has been a proliferation of the kinds of stories people can tell. These stories often run counter to the dominant narratives and have the power to change things. Stories like those told in “The Interrupters,” about young people working to end gang violence, can open up new dialogues and create new opportunities for change. The easy access to digital video allows people to reframe media stories in which they are subjects, re-positioning themselves as narrators of their own stories.
- Research that exposes racism and chips away at the liberal ideology that we live in a ‘post-racial’ society. All the many contributors here at the RR blog try to do this, along with lots of other scholar-activists.
- Celebrating differences. Audre Lorde wrote “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” Some women who are putting that philosophy into practice are these Latina Moms who have been active in publicly supporting their LGBT kids. Embracing this kind of practical intersectionality undermines those political strategies that try to divide and conquer us. It’s this kind of effort that is the heart of coalition building, and we need lots more of it.
- Social media campaigns that push back against racism. There have been some clever social media campaigns to push back against racism, including a (now defunct site) called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.” Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile. Although no longer active, there are other sites like this which have sprung up in its place, like this Tumblr site, “I’m not a racist, but…”
- The international human rights campaign to end the death penalty. Amnesty International mobilized people to save Troy Davis’ life, and when that failed, continued to mobilize concerned people to make abolishing the death penalty an international human rights issue. In my view, making the criminal justice system in the U.S., and especially the blatantly racist death penalty, a human rights issue will be an important wedge in ending this injustice.
- The nascent Occupy the Prison Industrial Complex movement. In the final hours of 2011 as I was finishing this post, some protesters from the Occupy movement were headed to a Manhattan correctional facility to begin an ‘occupation’ there. Occupy DC has already started mobilizing against Wells Fargo and their funding of private prisons. The massive prison industrial complex, which is premised on the elite privilege of a few white people, is funded my large banks, ‘profiteers of misery,’ who make money from the incarceration of millions of people, almost all black or brown. If the Occupy movement is really concerned with addressing the stark inequality between the 1% and the 99%, and wants to do that important work of coalition building, I can think of no better place to start than with those who seek to make a profit from the New Jim Crow.
What will you do in 2012 contribute to the struggle for racial justice?
Manning Marable, the author of a long-awaited new biography of Malcolm X to be published Monday and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, died Friday at the age of 60, his wife, Leith Mullings, has confirmed to the New York Times. His new biography of Malcolm X is scheduled to be published on Monday by Viking.
Here is his website on Malcolm X. Our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. He was a great scholar and a kind man. He will be missed.
We got this letter today from colorofchange.org about how conservative white media pundits/activists get no penalty for extreme and biased antiback reports:
Dear Friends, Remember Andrew Breitbart? He was the man who used selectively-edited video to paint Shirley Sherrod as a racist, to smear the NAACP, and to accuse the Obama administration of reverse racism. It was all a big, premeditated lie. Unbelievably, ABC News now plans to have Breitbart participate in their Election Night coverage, despite his history as a deceitful operative who distorts, lies, and race-baits. ABC’s decision is a slap in the face to Shirley Sherrod, to Black America, and to everyone who believes in the value of telling the truth….It’s why I’m joining ColorOfChange in calling on ABC News and its parent company Disney to drop their plans to include Breitbart now
They summarize what Breitbart did:
The video pushed by Breitbart showed Ms. Sherrod telling a story about how she once was asked for help from a White farmer, and how she didn’t “give him the full force of what [she] could do” to help him, because of his race. … Breitbart touted the video as evidence that the NAACP and the Obama administration tolerated racial discrimination against White people…. Breitbart’s doctored video and false storyline moved quickly to FOX News, where on-air personalities called for Sherrod’s firing…. Sherrod was forced to resign from her post at the USDA
The problem is that this was a mythology created apparently for political purposes:
The truth is that Sherrod was telling a 25-year old story about her work for a non-profit organization whose mission was to help Black farmers. Discrimination against Black farmers was rampant, and she described how she was first reluctant when approached by a White farmer named Roger Spooner for help (in her speech, Sherrod connects her reluctance to the fact that her father was killed by a White farmer 45 years ago). But after seeing that no one wanted to help Spooner, she worked to save his farm, and eventually became good friends with his family.
Once called out, Breitbart did not apologize and persisted in attacking the NAACP. Sherrod is now suing him. ABC is keeping him on in spite of the great opposition that has grown about him getting such a commentary job. The color of change folks ask for help:
It’s not too late for ABC to do the right thing. Please join us in demanding that they do: [go here]
When Joe and I re-designed this site about a year or so ago, I reached out to a web designer I’d met online, Elmyra (Myra, who also went by Ellie) Jemison. She was the Ultimate Geek Girl (the name of her site), and did a great job. Along the way, she also became a friend.
I recently learned that she died unexpectedly and much too young. I will miss her.
In lieu of flowers, her family asks that people consider donating to the American Stroke Association in her name. You may also contribute in Myra’s name with gifts of time, talent or treasure in your community to causes that were significant to her including homeless shelters, food pantries, rape crisis centers, and domestic abuse shelters.
Since the passing of Sen. Robert Byrd, his life has become a kind Rorschach Test that allows people to say what they’re thinking about race. Given Byrd’s legacy as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the U.S.’s homegrown terrorist organization, and a member of the Senate, I’ve been curious about how various media outlets would cover the news.
The right-leaning blogosphere has been quick to point out what they see as the hypocrisy of a left-leaning mainstream media for “pushing hagiographic narratives” about Robert Byrd’s past and for failing to call out Byrd for his KKK past, while left-leaning journos and bloggers have grabbed onto the trope that Byrd’s story was one of racial “redemption” as marking “the end of an era in (so-called) race relations.”
Still other observers have parlayed Byrd’s handling of his KKK legacy into an example for business leaders to follow, as in “5 Things Robert Byrd’s Life Teaches Us About Leadership.” (#3. “If your decisions were bad enough, they’ll haunt you to the end. Although Byrd changed over time, the Klan would haunt him until the end.”)
Lots of eulogies are like this one at Politico.com, which calls Byrd a “venerable institution” and this one at the New York Times which calls him a “pillar” - both referring to Byrd’s career in the Senate. This is completely understandable given Byrd’s record as the longest-serving senator. From my perspective, his vote against the Iraq war was a heroic stance and one I was heartened to see at the time. But it’s his years as not just a member, but a leader of the Ku Klux Klan that I want to address here because I think that legacy can tell us something important about racism in the U.S. Here’s the account from the New York Times obituary (June 28, 2010):
In the early 1940s, he organized a 150-member klavern, or chapter, of the Klan in Sophia, W.Va., and was chosen its leader. Afterward, Joel L. Baskin, the Klan’s grand dragon for the region, suggested that Mr. Byrd use his “talents for leadership” by going into politics. “Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” Mr. Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.”
Mr. Byrd insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence. He said in his autobiography that he had joined the Klan because he shared its anti-Communist creed and wanted to be associated with the leading people in his part of West Virginia. He conceded, however, that he also “reflected the fears and prejudices” of the time.
Byrd apologized repeatedly for his involvement with the KKK as a “sad mistake.” However, he was largely allowed to skate on a number of issues related to his membership in the Klan. This is a reprieve that, frankly, would never happen today. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when he left the Klan, nor was he pressed to disavow his views when he went from being an official member of the KKK to when he was an upstanding (conservative) member of the Senate. While praise has been heaped on him from the left since his passing, his KKK-inspired views influenced his actions well into his tenure in the Senate.
In 1964, he voted against the Civil Rights Act, which he declared was a violation of “States’ Rights.” And, in 1967, Byrd voted against Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination. Byrd even approached J. Edgar Hoover (director of the FBI) to see if Marshall had any Communist ties that could ruin his nomination. This is especially ironic today when Thurgood Marshall’s legacy as a Supreme Court justice is under attack by Senator Kyl in the Kagan hearings. Kyl and the Republicans want to go back to a regressive stance, in many ways replicating the very politics of the Citizen’s Council and the KKK.
In a different supreme court vote in 1991, Byrd voted against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and said, quite famously, “I believe Anita Hill.” Perhaps even more remarkably, Byrd called out Clarence Thomas for his deeply cynical use of the term “high tech lynching” to refer to the confirmation hearings and basically accused him of “playing the race card.” Oh, the irony runs deep and wide here.
As late as 2001, Byrd got in a lot of trouble for an interview for “Fox News Sunday” in which he said the following when asked about “race relations”:
“They are much, much better than they’ve ever been in my lifetime,” Byrd said, but added that he believed people talk about race too much.
“My old mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.’ We practice that. There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I’m going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.”
Of course, what he got into trouble for is the use of a slur – but it’s what’s at the end of the quote that’s telling, “I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.” In many ways, this marks the real move of Sen. Byrd into the mainstream of race-talk in the U.S. This is where most people are around race in the U.S., they’d just as soon quit talking about it so much. And, that goes double for any discussion having to do with actual KKK or white supremacist groups, people in the U.S. prefer to not talk about these and pretend they don’t exist.
By 2008, Sen. Byrd was endorsing a fellow Senator, Barack Obama, for President. This unlikely friendship is the almost irresistible coda to Byrd’s life, as if to say, “it doesn’t matter that he was a leader in the KKK, he was friends with Obama.” This friendship is what ultimately marks Sen. Byrd as “not racist” in the public imagination.
But, the whole narrative of “redemption” rings a bit hollow to me. It’s not that I don’t think redemption is possible, I do. I’m just not persuaded by the evidence in Byrd’s case.
To me, what’s compelling in Byrd’s life is that he appeared to at least give some thought — more than most privileged white folks do — about race. He seemed to make some move toward transformation of his own views on race, however flawed, self-serving, and incomplete those efforts were. Yet, we actually learned so little of what this process was like and what drove him to engage in this process. Even in his own account of his KKK leadership he attributes the pull to “anti-Communism” rather than anything to do with race, or his own racism. Of course, all is made whole in the end because of his friendship with one (extraordinary) black man.
There is much that’s lost, however, in the stories being told about Sen. Byrd’s legacy – from the right and from the left - in the days since his passing. From the right, there’s a harangue that it’s “hypocritical” to call out racism among some politicians (e.g., Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott – R) but not others (e.g., Robert Byrd-D). And, indeed it is. But this doesn’t amount to “racism” on the left.
On the left, the hagiography obfuscates what is actually a complicated, nuanced, imperfect story about race, racism and civil rights, and replaces it with one that’s denuded of the ugliness of actual racism.
The facts of Sen. Byrd’s life are that he was both a leader of the KKK and a leader in the Senate. His views changed some, but not completely, as he moved from one of these American institutions to the other. And, for a considerable portion of his life – and the better part of the 20th century – there was considerable overlap between his views in the KKK and his views as Senator. The sooner we come to terms with Sen. Byrd’s KKK legacy, and the ways that white supremacy are woven into the very fabric of this nation’s institutions, the sooner we can set to work dismantling the vestiges of that legacy.
This is the birthday of the very talented William Grant Still, the first African American composer and conductor of classical music to get much national recognition in the US. He was the grandson of enslaved African Americans and faced both poverty and much racial discrimination in his relatively long life. According to Wikipedia’s summary he composed more than 150 compositions: (Photo: wikipedia)
He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He is often referred to as “the dean” of African-American composers.
He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and celebrated and advocated for jazz and blues as central music for African Americans and US society as a whole. His first and famous first symphony, the Afro-American, was composed in 1930. It was performed the next year by the Rochester Symphony. It makes use of the long African American musical heritage, including the blues, much other rhythmic material such as that of jazz, and the tenor banjo. It also makes use of the African American poet, Paul Dunbar’s, poetry. Sample the symphony here.
Why is it not surprising that such a very talented American musician and his music are all but forgotten in this country, including in our history textbooks?