Monday Reads: How is this even a Thing? I try to fully Celebrate Black History Month this year

RL Barnes, Ph.D. ‏ @DigitalHistory_ 24 Oct 2018 More “In 1828, T.D. “Big Daddy” Rice, a struggling white actor, made his New York stage debut. With a single dialectical song performed in blackface, his routine radically transformed the cultural landscape of North America.”

Well, it’s Monday Sky Dancers and it’s never too late to learn new things unless you’re Donald Trump.

The appalling way women have been historically treated was one of the hallmarks of the last two years. The #MeToo movement led to a very differently looking congress in 2018. The #BlackLivesMatter movement went back front and center yesterday at the Super Bowl.

It’s Black History month and it’s time to find teachers and take lessons.  It’s also evidently time to relearn a few lessons some people failed to get the first million times out.

I’m fully beginning to think that the next election will be about the historically shameful way that Black people have been treated up to and way pass the Emancipation Proclamation and the enfranchisement of Black men into the voting populace in 1870 with the passing of the 15th Amendment.  Virginia has once again taken center stage.

How can a man my age think that participating in any form of black face as an adult in any manner during–at the very least–the back half of the 20th century forward think that’s not an offense that should cause you to resign your position as Governor of the state that basically was ground zero for American slavery?  How can a Democratic leader who relied on votes from African Americans not do the right thing?  When will Virginia Governor Ralph Northram resign?

The drumbeat spread to the state’s public universities. The College of William and Mary on Monday announced that Northam would not attend Friday’s inauguration of new president Katherine Rowe, saying in a statement that “the Governor’s presence would fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to and hope for with this event.”

University of Virginia president James Ryan issued a statement Sunday suggesting that Northam should resign, saying that if a leader’s “trust is lost, for whatever reason, it is exceedingly difficult to continue to lead. It seems we have reached that point.”

On Sunday night, the governor met with senior staffers of color to discuss his future following two days of defiance against the national clamor that he should resign. People familiar with that meeting said Northam had not reached a decision.

It was unclear who was present, but the group did not include Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who would become governor if Northam resigned, the people said. One Democratic official said the meeting was emotional in tone.

Calling the Sunday night meeting was a clear signal of Northam’s effort to weigh support within the administration as he evaluates his options. Although he pledged Saturday to stand his ground, he also said he would reconsider if he thought he could no longer be effective.

Though blackface was the No. 1 entertainment form throughout the United States in the 19th century, it has a particularly notable legacy in Virginia. The first globally famous minstrel troupe hailing from New York City rebranded itself as the Virginia Minstrels in 1843. Dan Emmett, the group’s founder, understood his minstrel troupe needed to project a sense of authentic, stereotypical blackness. Virginia, a state that imported enslaved Africans as a colony as early as 1619, embodied the complex relationship between blackface entertainment, slavery and American culture in a single word. The troupe did not just borrow Virginia’s brand, but shaped it: Its song “Dixie” became the unofficial Confederate anthem.

That legacy can be seen in the history of blackface at the University of Virginia, founded and designed by another Virginia governor: Thomas Jefferson. Virginia was a state built on enslaved labor, and U-Va. was no different. Beginning in 1830, the university would “hire out” enslaved people from the surrounding area. Eventually, U-Va. purchased humans like “Big Lewis” Commodore in 1832 at auction for $580, permanently separating him from his family.

Virginia’s slave empire ended when African American slaves fought for their freedom in the Civil War. After 1865, Lewis Commodore was free. But when slavery disappeared, fundraising with amateur blackface minstrel shows and city minstrel parades emerged. They featured fictionalized blackface slaves and their Klansman counterparts — a pairing on display in the Northam photo — to sustain Virginia’s infrastructure and segregated economy, as well as to inculcate new generations into a form of white supremacy associated with collegiality, school spirit and patriotism.

Over the weekend, BB introduced me to Dr RL Barnes and her area of research which is basically the not so subtle and the subtle ways that the Institutions of this country remind every one of what racists think is the “place” of Black Americans in their own country.  It’s also about how some of us passively, stupidly, and naively go along with it and internalize it.

I remember poring over literature, laws, and popular culture in the 1970s discovering how language, pictures, stories, and culture all work together to keep women in their “place”.  As a teenager and young adult, it became very freeing to be able to point these things out and to discover it wasn’t all in your head that menfolk and their enabling women were out to get you.

I knew there was similar things in place for people of color including all the stereotypes of Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans that culture, the law, and society can feed you.  I’m beginning to read stories of friends much the same way I read stories of friends screaming Me Too.

Over the weekend, I learned that decorating with recently picked cotton bolls was and is a thing.  Oh, this is not making faking spider webs with synthetic batting and its use isn’t the innocent thing that Way Fair, Hobby Lobby and others are making it out to be. 

There was also a history of casually tossing bags of them on to the lawns of “inconvenient” neighbors which seems a bit like something the KKK would do.  How is this a thing?

Bridging that gap requires unpacking why, for many black people and people of color, raw cotton is a symbol of racial terror.

Cotton represents the product of a system that required slave labor to function. More recently, perpetrators of racial intimidation have used cotton as a symbol of their hatred. Before white robes became the uniform, some KKK members wore ceremonial hornsstuffed with cotton. Two white men seeking to intimidate and unsettle members of the University of Missouri’s Black Culture Center littered the front lawn of the Center with cotton balls. The word even fills the mouths of students who bully their black peers by calling them “cotton pickers.”

Jasmine Gales, a black woman and social activist in Nashville, explains how this context translates into the contemporary mindset of many people of color:

“Black people’s association with the cotton plant is an obvious one of trauma and suffering,” she wrote for The Tennessean. “In being culturally sensitive to the history of African-Americans which includes slavery and the free labor of cotton harvesting, an institution wouldn’t choose to display it at a dinner meant to uplift the black experience.”

The individuals who reacted defensively or dismissively to the cotton complaints either ignored this context or were ignorant of it entirely. If there wasn’t an explicitly racist motive behind the design choice, they reasoned, then it wasn’t a problem.

Neither perception reflects an absolute truth. But the chorus of naysayers trying to drown out the voices of two black women reflects a power dynamic that must inform a culturally responsive interpretation.

So, I was horrified back in 1986 when the CJ Howell movie “Soul Man” came out. Haven’t seen it. Wouldn’t see it. Still can’t believe some one released and funded it and filmed it.  It had obvious implications for my generation because of the Bakke Supreme Court decision in 1978 and my experience with busing and integration prior to that in and around 1973.  There were mad white people every where about those decisions but I kind’ve wrote it all off to crazy white uneducated southern white trash and didn’t really explore it.  Well, I’m exploring it now and finding that my assumptions were naive.  Well, stupid if you really want the truth

There is, of course, no acceptable way for deeply unacceptable films to reach their merciful conclusions. But Soul Man manages to confound even one’s worst expectations. Before Mark’s big reveal to the campus, Gordon assumes the role of a pseudo-defense attorney, flipping the script on the product-of-his-environment argument. Mark, he argues, was brought up to be selfish and entitled, the product of an upper-crust white family in the suburbs. “Can you blame him for the color of his skin?”

For some reason, James Earl Jones’s character agrees with the assessment, and is even amused by Mark’s stunt. “You must have learned a great deal more than you bargained for through this experience,” he remarks, grinning. “I didn’t really know what it feels like, sir,” adding, “If I didn’t like it, I could always get out.”

That line is the movie’s nauseating coup de grâce, intended to justify the fact that Mark gets off with little more than a slap on the wrist for his deception. He tells Jones’s character that he wants to finish his law degree to “do some work that might be of use to someone.”

Mark’s happy ending prefigures a new era of racist film: the 21st-century white savior flick, a future constant in multiplexes and on Oscar ballots.

The deal is this.  The blackface thing in that Virginia med school during the 1980s wasn’t an outlier. It was evidently another one of those “things” that I had no clue was a thing.  I’m fortunate to know many New Orleans Writers and bloggers including a young black woman whose outrage at a cottonball decoration introduced me to more subtle ways that white culture continues to terrorize Black Americans.

My friend and blogger at The American Zombie reminded me this weekend that Tulane had a similar incident. One of the guys that was involved ran unsuccessfully for governor of Louisiana and now owns one of the state’s two big Newspapers. 

I thought it prescient to repost this story today to remind folks that institutionalized racism is still alive and thriving behind the closed doors of collegiate fraternities throughout the South.  Also to point out that the universities themselves should not be blamed.  As evident in my story, Tulane struggled for years to separate the DKE’s from the school’s namesake going so far as to kick them off campus and not recognize them as an official fraternity.  They existed as an independent entity living off-campus until the cancer finally died out around the late 90’s, or at least it went into remission. I would hope it’s dead but judging by the impenitent attitudes of the former DKE’s in the comment section of my post I would assume an entire new generation of kids are now carrying their fathers’ prejudices with them under alternate letters of the Greek alphabet.

My favorite dodge in that comment section was the DKE alum who tried to convince me that the noose in the 1975 yearbook picture was actually a tire swing sans tire:


A “tire swing sans tire” hanging twenty-something feet in the air would lead me to believe all these guys were on the Tulane pole vaulting team.  And how, exactly, did the tire disappear from the noose?  The tire split before the rope did? No one thought to ask, “Hey…you know…we have a noose hanging in our yearbook picture…should we take that down?”  What a load of shit. 

University of Oklahoma president David Boren voiced his distaste with the actions of the SAE’s but he may have a hard time eradicating the fraternity from the campus if he so chooses.  Once again, I don’t want to blame the educational institution itself, the actions of these fraternities do not represent the morals of the body wh ole.  Anyway, here’s the story, reposted:

State Sen. Ernie Chambers (2017)

You may read Jason Brad Berry’s 2010 story at this link.  I was in college at the University of Nebraska at the time. I was in grad school at the time of Northram’s adventure.  I personally know of no one in my circle that would’ve done anything remotely like that even though I did witness a number of horrifying angry white people during the Omaha Public Schools “busing” policy’s start.

I grew up knowing that Omaha purposefully designed its interstate system to isolate the black part of town that provided the  only black representative in the state’s unicameral.  His voice was powerful and pissed off that powers that be for decades which frankly thrilled me to pieces. Senator Ernie Chambers turned 80 in 2017 and his legacy will be a forever thing there.  Still, finding  all this stuff went on with me totally unwoke embarrasses me and made me extremely sad. Senator Chambers was my primary teacher on racism until I moved to New Orleans.  I  have found I need more teachers. I need to learn more about these things that I did not know were a thing.

As I delve more into Black history with so many motivations that it’s hard to unwind them all, I turn to this “How Frederick Douglass Harnessed the Power of Portraiture to Reframe Blackness in America”.  Douglass knew the power of an image before nearly any one.

For Douglass, this was no happy accident. Today, he is remembered as an influential advocate of emancipation and civil rights, a legacy defined by his best-selling autobiographies and powerful speeches. But what has largely been forgotten is the way he deftly manipulated the power of images to advance his cause.
To put it simply, Douglass was a photography buff. He penned four speeches expounding upon the medium throughout his life—one more than the man considered the Civil War era’s most prominent photo critic. He held Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, in great esteem for broadening photography’s appeal beyond the upper class. Because of daguerreotypes, Douglass claimed, “the humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.” He viewed photography as the most democratic of the arts.
He also believed deeply in its objectivity. “For Douglass, photography was the lifeblood of being able to be seen and not caricatured, to be represented and not grotesque, to be seen as fully human and not as an object or chattel to be bought and sold,” says Celeste-Marie Bernier, co-author of Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (2015).
Photography was the perfect tool for a man trying to rewrite racial prejudices in the United States, and Douglass sought out every opportunity to be captured. With each portrait, he could present America with an additional image of blackness that contradicted the prevailing racist stereotypes.

Zulu 1937
The king of Zulu rides on his float.

The last time I really thought about the history of blackface was back when there was discussion of the role of Zulu and the incredible racist roots of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Here’s something you may want to read about the krewe and its signature looks from New Orleans investigative paper The Lens

It’s hard to measure the scope of Zulu’s influence on what the Times-Picayune’s Doug MacCash has called the “new” Mardi Gras, and on what I have called the restoration of carnivalesque carnival, after the dark ages of the white supremacist anti-carnival ushered in by the Mystick Krewe of Comus in 1857. It’s a remarkable testament to the resilience of carnival spirit that, in the midst of the white supremacist era, when Comus, Momus, Proteus, and Rex ruled the day, the Zulu king first stepped off a banana boat in the New Basin canal wearing a lard can crown. The date: 1909.

That’s why it’s so upsetting — also a bit absurd — when people who have no understanding or appreciation for carnival aesthetics and social analysis chime in from hundreds of miles away with self-righteous finger-wagging. What they’re about is shaming traditions that are far more revolutionary than they are able to comprehend.

That’s exactly what has happened this year, when Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Tuennerman went up on Facebook with a picture of herself in Mardi Gras regalia and since then, after taking flack for it, has been agonizing through a multi-part act of public contrition. Tuennerman’s sin is to have had the temerity to accept the great honor of riding in the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning, wearing the traditional mask of Zulu blackface.

I say “Zulu blackface” because the style of blackface worn by Zulu riders is distinct from other forms of blackface viewed as offensive due to their history as a tool of white supremacist ideology. One of the distinctive visual features of Zulu blackface is an enlarged white eye on one side of the face, which can be seen in depictions of the Zulu Big Shot as well as on Tuennerman’s face in her much-maligned social media posting. In the world of totalitarian expression — the opposite of carnivalesque expression — such nuances of signification go unnoticed.

typically clueless (and arrogant) response to Ann Tuennerman’s posting came from Chicago’s Nikkole Palmatier: “I have a problem with the blackface entirely. As do most people outside of the New Orleans tradition. Just as those who live outside of Cleveland think the Indians logo is racist and the term ‘Redskins’ is racist.”

Yeah. Just let that sink in for a minute. It’s hard to conceive of a more egregiously false analogy than this. Are the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins actually Native American institutions, founded, owned, and staffed, at all levels, by Native Americans?

Palmatier’s argument leads us to question whether Zulu’s iconography should be practiced by anyone, not just whether Zulu should accept white riders. And that’s a whole other can of worms. It calls into question the extent to which black people should be allowed agency in representing their own experience; it also places limits on how black people themselves choose to enunciate anti-racist arguments.

There’s also the Spike Lee film “Bamboozled” for an interesting take.  This film was made in 2000.

I feel this year that I need to unpack a lot more about black history and experience than reading inspirational speeches by the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.  We’ve all seen the images of black stereotypes that were prevalent in the pre Civil Rights era.  I’ve only used the original “Jim Crow” here but we likely all know many more.  For me, it’s time to learn some of the deeper stories and to listen more about how this country continually dehumanizes our Black Americans.

I intend to fully celebrate Black History month.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?

 

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