Harriet Tubman: Why Google Doodles Matter (Updated)

In a rare move, the Google Doodle today features a black woman, Harriet Tubman, to mark the start of Black History Month.

Tubman Google Doodle



In case you’re not familiar with the illustrations featured on the Google search page, Google Doodles are intended to be “fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.” They’re also notoriously known for their sexism.  Shelby Knox has a Google Doodle Sexism Watch.  Amadi has also noted the way gender, race, and class are drawn into the Doodles, as in her critique of the father’s day images that “reinforce stereotypical western societal stereotypes and privileged class mores with repeated depictions of white, middle+ class men who are only engaged with their kids during playtime.”

This is only the second time, to my knowledge, that the Google Doodle has ever featured a black woman.   (Updated via RUBÉN G. RUMBAUT, Professor of Sociology, UC-Irvine who wrote to say: “There are a lot more if you just take the time to search for them in the Doodle.”  Professor Rumbaut mentions the previous illustrations honoring (South African singer) Miriam Makeba’s 81st birthday, (Cuban American singer) Celia Cruz’s 88th birthday, (African American singer) Ella Fitzgerald’s 96th birthday, and (African American Civil Rights Leader) Rosa Parks, on the 55th Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. JD: Thanks for the correction, we aim for precision here. I think the larger point stands that these few women of color are still vastly underrepresented among those chosen for a Google Doodle. )

Earlier this year when they honored the great American author and anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston with an illustration.

Zora Neale Hurston


Where do the doodles come from? 

Google was founded by two guys from Stanford, Larry Page and Sergei Brin. According to the Stanford Magazine, the origin of the doodles happened like this:

The first Google doodle appeared in 1998, when Brin and Page decided to leave the company untended for a couple of days while they attended the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Brin put a little stick figure emblematic of the event on the Google logo as a clue to where they were. Users loved it, and soon the company hired an outside graphic artist to come up with other simple cartoons to mark special events.

Dennis Hwang is the artist behind most of the illustrations, from the same story:

Hwang’s original job involved straightforward programming chores, but soon he was charged with posting those doodles and “cleaning them up,” in programming parlance, so they looked better. After his modification of a Fourth of July doodle caught the founders’ attention, word of Hwang’s art experience and his talent got around. Pretty soon, Hwang became the official doodler, completing about 50 doodles a year.

But, it’s not Hwang who decides on who will be honored.  He’s following the directives he’s given from others:

About once a quarter, a group of executives get together to map out a calendar of doodle-worthy dates. Page and Brin have the final say, and they sometimes approve spontaneous drawings, such as when a Mars Rover landed. Hwang creates the images, using an electronic tablet and stylus for his sketches. The doodles are fun, usually whimsical—and sometimes baffling. Know about Gaston Julia, for example? Visitors to Google on February 3, 2004, saw the Google logo with a hurricane-shaped “o” against a backdrop of equations to celebrate the French mathematician’s birthday.

The Doodles then, offer a kind of insight the values of the executives at Google, one of the key shapers of Internet culture.  Some enterprising young graduate student could do a mighty fine dissertation offering an analysis of all the Google Doodles ever published for what these tell us about Google, Internet culture, and American society.

Do Google Doodles matter? 

There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens with Google Doodles. When they appear, they drive the news cycle, and the news about that person.  Recently,  Ian Steadman writing at The Guardian, offered an analysis of the way the Google Doodle about Simone de Beauvoir. Steadman makes a strong case that these are “clickbait” that’s capable of altering the news cycle. In the trajectory of contemporary news cycles, it’s the Doodle, not de Beauvoir herself, that becomes the real news story,  These articles are all basically the same, Steadman writes, “Simone de Beauvoir’s in a Google Doodle, and here’s a few paragraphs outlining who she was and why she deserves it.”

Steadman says what’s important to pay attention to are the incentives that digital journalists are confronted with. What matters in online journalism is the speed of publication, not necessarily the quality, because that correlates to the greater number of shares or clicks which is how the economy of Internet advertising works.  He continues to explain the way this works:

The algorithms that Google’s News page uses also rely on the size and perceived readership of the sites it features, along with the number of articles it puts out a day, along with other factors, to decide which stories to promote and which to ignore. In the case of Google Doodles, we can see the emergence of a symbiotic relationship: Google’s choice of a person or topic gives newspapers an easy topic to cover with guaranteed interest from a key source of traffic, keeping them near the top of the News rankings for other topics; while Google gets traffic to its services from people made aware of its cute little commemorative cartoon or game.

In other words, drives business to its other products through the use of the Doodles. The power of Google Doodles is their ability to shape Internet conversations is what’s at stake here.  Again, Steadman nails this:

Google, then, creates the news (or at least some news), and has the ability to raise awareness about niche topics or person who are perhaps not particularly well catered for by the media most of the time.

Google has a real power to raise awareness about the many lesser known heroes of American culture, many of whom are black women, and other people of color. The Doodles of Tubman and Hurston may be just two isolated disruptions in the otherwise all male, mostly white pantheon of those deemed worthy of an illustration from the Internet giant Google. Or, it could be the start of a trend in the right direction. Only time, and the next Doodle, will tell.





Documentary: “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock”

Independent Lens (PBS) is celebrating Black History Month with a bunch of terrific documentaries, including a wonderful new documentary about Daisy Bates, a complicated, unconventional, and mostly forgotten heroine of the civil rights movement. It was Ms. Bates who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. The film is called “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock.” Here’s a short clip (1:08):

Watch A Feminist Before the Term Was Invented on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

There’s also an interview with the filmmaker, Sharon La Cruise, available here. The film is airing this month on PBS stations across the U.S., so as they say, check your local listings and set the DVR!

Documentaries: “Banished”

During Black History Month, I’m sharing some relevant documentaries. One of my favorite is, “Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America.” (Independent Lens, PBS, 2007). The film examines the history of racial cleansing in America, in which at least 12 different counties in eight states “banished” their black populations through the threat of violence. Here’s a short clip (1:27):

As a companion to this film, I’d recommend James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, about the widespread phenomenon of places where African Americans were not welcome at after dark, often noted by a sign that read, “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” While most people associate this sort of exclusion with the Jim Crow South, Loewen demonstrates that in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and other places north of the Mason-Dixon Line, sundown towns were created by waves of white-led violence in the early decades of the twentieth century. As with the film, the book shows how the predominantly white cities, towns and suburbs of today are rooted in historical violence and ongoing discrimination.

The film is available through California Newsreel.

Masterful, Witty, Illuminating Letter: Former Slave to His “Old Master”

A recently resurfaced letter, dated 1865, from a former slave to his master is getting some well-deserved online news and social media attention.

According to Letters of Note, the letter comes from a formerly enslaved man by the name of Jourdan Anderson. In the missive, Jourdan appears to be responding to a petition made by his former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, requesting that Jourdan and his family return to Tennessee to work as freed laborers on the same land on which Colonel Anderson had enslaved them for 30 years.

Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post summarized the letter perfectly:

In a tone that could be described either as ‘impressively measured’ or ‘the deadest of deadpan comedy,’ the former slave, in the most genteel manner, basically tells the old slave master to kiss his rear end.

Jourdan’s letter brilliantly reveals the numerous injustices suffered by enslaved people at the hands of their white masters, as he compares the ways their lives had improved since their emancipation and migration to Ohio. In one exquisitely subtle example, Jourdan addresses the daily disrespect no doubt endured by his wife while enslaved by Anderson, writing “folks here call her Mrs. Anderson.” Similarly, he challenges the absurd promises made by Colonel Anderson to try to entice the family back with sarcastic genius, simultaneously revealing the tragic circumstances of their lives while living as the colonel’s “property.”

The horrors of the family’s enslavement notwithstanding, the letter is worth reading for its comedic richness alone.

(Indeed, how tragic there was no YouTube video in 1865, to capture the expression on Colonel Anderson’s face as he read the sharp-as-a-tack dismissal from his former slave – our full imaginations will have to suffice as we picture the colonel reading Jourdan’s calculations of past-due wages owed his family, along with directions as to how they should be sent!).

Beyond any amusement, however, Jourdan’s letter should put to rest narratives, old and new, of the so-called “happy slave,” showcasing the masterful insights that black Americans of the time had regarding the circumstances of their oppression by whites. Indeed, not only could black Americans like Mr. Anderson well-analyze such matters; as argued by Joe Feagin and others, these Americans of color also held a much more sincere and unsullied sense of justice than most white Americans have, in practice, ever embraced.

Documentaries to Celebrate Black History Month: Brick City

To celebrate Black History Month, I’ll be sharing a few documentaries throughout the month that have a particular focus on African American culture told through non-fiction film.

I’ll begin with one of my favorite films in the last few years is Brick City (2009), which aired as a documentary series on the Sundance Channel.  The filmmakers Mark Benjamin and Mark Levin do a remarkable job of capturing the daily drama of Newark, New Jersey, a community striving to become a better, safer, stronger place to live.

Against great odds, Newark’s citizens and its Mayor, Cory Booker, fight to raise the city out of a half century of violence, poverty and corruption. Booker, an outspoken and charismatic mayor who many compare to Barack Obama, works with Police Director Garry McCarthy, youth mentors, Blood and Crip gang members and other citizens on the front line to bring peace and prosperity to their once-proud city.  Here’s a short clip:

Available through multiple outlets, including First Run Features (distributor) for purchase.

Dis-Commemorating the Greensboro Sit-Ins: Whites’ Continued Rejection of the Movement

Greensboro, North Carolina, is considered the birthplace of the student lunch counter sit-ins of the early-1960s. This Tuesday marked the 51st anniversary of the proactive step planned and enacted by four African American male freshmen students at historically black North Carolina A&T State University on February 1, 1960, to sit resolutely in protest at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s, one of the city’s prominent five-and-dime stores. The “Greensboro Four” were Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. (later, Jibreel Khazan), and David Richmond, and a statue of them walking resolutely, shoulder-to-shoulder, has for 10 years now been displayed on NC A&T’s campus.

woolworth sit-ins

(Creative Commons License photo credit: charlie_combine)

Greensboro was not the first site of African American’s sit-in protests against whites-only public facilities; accounts of similar actions reach back decades prior. Nevertheless, the action by McNeil, McCain, Blair, Richmond, and the hundreds of other students who joined them in subsequent days, inspired a rapid implementation of sit-in protests throughout the segregated South within a matter of weeks. After nearly five months of strong resistance to let go of “local custom,” the white management of the Greensboro Woolworth’s finally caved and served its first seated black lunch counter customers (ironically, its own employees) on July 25, 1960.

February 1, 1960 was a historic moment in the American – and global – human rights story. And it is the sit-ins alone that make Greensboro a memorable city in the American consciousness. Many Greensboro citizens, especially African Americans, have embraced this identity of their city as the birthplace of the sit-ins, and this recognition led to the renovation of the original downtown Woolworth’s store into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which opened in 2010 in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration.

But what I have found in my interviews with older white residents of Greensboro, on the racial past including their memories of segregation and the civil rights era, is that the identity as an important site of civil rights struggles has been largely ignored or rejected by white Greensboro. It clashes with white Greensboro’s long-held notion of itself as epitomizing progressiveness, especially regarding race. In his excellent book on the civil rights era in the city, Civilities and Civil Rights, historian Bill Chafe calls white Greensboro’s delusion about its racial enlightenment the “progressive mystique.”

For my dissertation, I wanted to investigate how ordinary white people recall the racial past, so I came to a city known for its racial history. I’ve been living in Greensboro for a few years and have conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of lifetime white residents of the city, people old enough to have lived through Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights era.

When people described the actions of sit-in protestors, their portrayals were cursory and often dismissive. One woman in her 70s said:

They didn’t make any fuss or anything. They just got together and they just ambled in to Woolworth’s and asked to be served.

Saying that protestors “just got together” and “just ambled in” portrays their organizing as spontaneous, the implementation lackadaisical, and the backlash as insignificant. Virtually no one indicated that many white business owners fought hard, for months in many cases, to maintain segregation policies.

A few people credited the sit-in demonstrators for bravery, but there was very little willingness to promote the organizers to heroes, or people worth celebrating. A woman in her 80s said she would have been a superior protestor:

Had I been born black, I would’ve protested before they did. I would have. I have never understood how they had the patience as long as they did.

While acknowledging the inherent unfairness of segregation practices, this woman belittled those who she thinks waited much longer to act than her fictitious black self would have.

In these ways and more, the older white lifetime residents of Greensboro I interviewed demonstrated that they had not accepted their city as an important site of Civil Rights Movement activism. To fully embrace that identity, they would have to redefine themselves and loose their grasp on this belief that (white) Greensboro had for centuries been “good to the blacks,” a diamond in the rough city that the rest of the region and nation could hold up as a model of racial progressiveness.

This exchange with a married couple illustrates well just how adamantly some white Greensboro residents reject the notion that their city should be known for the sit-ins:

Wife: That museum should be on the campus of A&T, where the students came from, not in downtown Greensboro. . . . And I’m not against the museum . . . but it should be down on the campus where the A&T students were, and have it as a commemoration to them.

Husband: Isn’t that statue of the four down on campus? Me: Mm-hm. Wife: You see, put the museum down there with that.

Me: Do you have any pride that the sit-ins happened here. Wife: No. Me: and that they started sit-ins all over the South?

Wife: I thought it really started out in Omaha, Nebraska, is what I heard and that they did not get the publicity Greensboro got. That’s what I’ve heard. Now I don’t know how true that is. I’ve tried to look it up on the computer, and I hadn’t been able to trace . . . No, I’m not proud of that, no. No, we have other things to be proud of. O’Henry was born here, Dolley Madison was born here. Okay? Yes, Edward R. Murrow was born here. We are very proud of those citizens, absolutely. I admire these four young men that took the initiative for the sit-in. I admire their courage for it.

Husband: Took a lot of guts.

Wife: but these other people are to be admired more for what they did and the legacy that they have left for us.

Me: Why is that?

Wife: Well, Dolley Madison was the wife of our fourth President! And she was born out here near Guilford College. So Dolley was quite a lady. O’Henry is known for his short stories. They’ve been translated into many, many, many foreign languages, and he was born here outside of Greensboro. Edward R. Murrow, who was the leading commentator and correspondent during the Second World War, he was born here in Greensboro. These are the people that really accomplished an awful lot. We had other people that accomplished things. We had another black man who did an awful lot for the city of Greensboro, Charles Henry Moore, who is not very well known, but he was a teacher and professor at the colleges here. He was instrumental in getting Bennett College established in Greensboro. He was instrumental in raising money for the black hospital, L. Richardson Hospital. He opened the door for a lot of the blacks and unfortunately he is not remembered like these other people, but he contributed a lot to improve their way of life.

This woman argued that Greensboro’s sit-ins should not be commemorated because she “heard” they began elsewhere first, and, if commemorations are designed, they should be sequestered on the campus of NC A&T. She refused to view civil rights actions as a movement that significantly improved African Americans’ “way of life” or left a “legacy” for the city and beyond.

In my research I have found that a great many whites today are unable or unwilling to extend genuine respect and admiration for African Americans, especially activists from civil rights and post-civil rights eras. They refuse to acknowledge that black Americans have contributed, perhaps more than anyone else, to the expansion of our most dearly-held American values of “liberty and justice” and that these gains have benefited all citizens, including whites. In rejecting the reality that the Jim Crow society whites had formed was inherently unjust, they can continue to deem whites as virtuous and African Americans as second-class citizens.

It continues to be a radical act to challenge white racism openly in the U.S.A. And, unfortunately, it is also a radical act to commemorate those moments in our history that exposed and weakened the contradictions between our American pride and our American racism. Let us continue, in the spirit of February One, to be radical by remembering well and taking collective action.

February: Celebrating Black History

February – the shortest month of the year – marks the beginning of black history month in the U.S. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C. lunch counter sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. If you’re not familiar with this important history, this short (6:11) video clip from the History Channel provides a basic review of the facts:

Today is also significant for the opening of a Civil Rights Museum on the site of the sit-ins in Greensboro. While the courage of people like the four young, African-American men that sat at that segregated lunch counter helped change the system of Jim Crow segregation, we should not let the civil rights struggle become ossified in memorials and museums. The truest celebration of black history month is to continue the struggle for racial equality now.