Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is "race based" science inherently racist?

"Racial science" used to mean the inherently racist travesties of eugenics and  Nazism. In 2000, The Human Genome Project emphatically declared that there is no true biological definition of race, and that genetically all humans are 99.5% the same. Why then are DNA ancestry services  offering to parse our racial identities, and why has the FDA approved a cardiac drug marketed exclusively to African Americans?

These are some of the questions Dorothy Roberts poses in Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century Roberts questions some common assumptions about the distribution of sickle cell anemia, genetic medicine, and the very definition of "race", and asks whether the focus on genetic causes of racial disparities in health, crime, and education overlook the social and political causes. She contradicts the work of science journalist Nicholas Wade, whose book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, claims that human evolution has in fact produced three genetically different human races.

We'll be discussing Roberts' book at our next AAL meeting this coming Tuesday. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the book, here are a few shortcuts:

Dorothy Roberts interview with Tavis Smiley on WBEZ (about 8 minutes)

Speech at Berkeley, (this is about an hour, but will give you a full experience of the book.

Interview with Colorlines, "The Dubious Dangerous Science of Race Lives On",

"Race Re-emerges in debate over "personalized medicine". Great article from the Washington Post summarizing the issues of race, genetics and medicine.

Join usTuesday, November 18th, at 7 pm in the Small Meeting room of the Evanston Public Library. Call 847-448-8630 for more information.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kinks and Kitchens; Naps and Naturals: Talking about Black Hair

 Few topics can get sistahs more riled up than hating on our hair. Witness the uproar over Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas's "messy" hair, or Michelle Obamas's bangs, or the U.S. Army's restrictions on black hairstyles, mocked on the Daily Show.

Chris Rock was forced to take a new look at hair issues when his preschool daughter wistfully asked why she didn't have "good hair" like her white friends. Good Hair became the title of Rock's humorous yet fact-filled look at the black hair care industry. After talking to a chemistry expert about the composition of straightening creams ("they put that on their HAIR?!") bonding with some brothas over never being able to touch a black woman's head, and observing an over-the-top styling competition, Rock concludes that he wants his daughters to care more about what is inside their heads, than about what grows on top.

For more on black hair care and culture, check out,
 Hair story : untangling the roots of black hair in America 
Good hair : for colored girls who've considered weaves when the chemicals became too ruff   Hair matters : beauty, power, and Black women's consciousness 

And for a look at just how extraordinary the art of black hiar can be, treat yourself to Queens : portraits of black women and their fabulous hair

Friday, November 7, 2014

Curse of the White Savior

This Sunday, we welcome Northeastern University scholar Joan Johnson, speaking about "What the Help Does NOT Tell Us About African American Women in the South".

It's always bugged me that this book/movie, which essentially tells the story of black women in the civil rights movement from the point of view of a privileged white woman, was so insanely popular. It seems to fall into the category of "white savior" stories, where a person or a community of color is rescued or uplifted by a heroic white person with a conscience. There are dozens of examples: The Blind Side, Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, The Long Walk Home, and that perennial sacred cow, To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are, in fact so many that entire books have been written about the phenomenon, most recently Matthew Hughey's, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption . Hughey argues that white savior films place "messianic characters in unfamiliar or hostile settings discovering something about themselves and their culture in the process of saving members of other races from terrible fates".

The problem with the white savior film is that it marginalizes people of color within their own story. Designed to appeal to and flatter mainstream white audiences, such films magnify the role of white characters in say, the civil rights movement or the anti-apartheid movement, while sidelining non-whites, (often depicted as childlike or helpless) as background.The "audience identification figure" is the heroic white person: we see events through his eyes, and we get the sense that, if not for her selfless dedication all would have been lost.

A second problem is that the savior film becomes more about the "journey" or "awakening" or "coming of age" of the white person than it is about civil rights or apartheid. Terrible things may happen to black and brown people in these films, but that's okay, because the white person has learned a valuable life lesson. Tom Robinson may get shot in To Kill a Mockingbird,  but hey, Scout and Jem now understand the dangers of prejudice! Thus, a monumental human tragedy is reduced to the level of an afterschool special.

Professor Johnson has recommended several books as useful correctives to The Help: notably Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. And if you're looking for fiction about the civil rights movement, check out my list of Civil Rights Fiction by Black Folks.

Monday, October 20, 2014

As white as they want to be: crossing "The Invisible Line"

An Atlanta chauffeur, proud of his ancestral connections to British royalty, and disdainful of his black co-workers, learns that his own father's family was African American. An elderly woman in Kentucky worries that her husband might "lose his love for me" if he discovers her black ancestry. A proud family of South Carolina aristocrats explain away the "darker elements' in their family tree as Gypsy, Sephardic, Turkish, Portuguese, Senecan...anything but African.

These are a few of the people we meet in Daniel Sharfstein's fascinating look at families that straddled the color line from the Colonial era to the present.  Contrary to popular belief, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, race and color were not rock solid social dividers,  nor was intermarriage especially rare or always frowned on. Biracial families like the Walls of Ohio and Washington DC, and the Spencers of Kentucky were highly respected community members, office holders and even authority figures.

In fact, status could determine race rather than the other way around.  According to a South Carolina court for example, "a person's status is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man. A man of worth honesty, industry and respectability should have the rank of a white man".  Thus when Randall Gibson; Yale graduate, Confederate war hero and United States senator was "accused" of having black ancestry, (which he did), his family's status as long time property owners and people of standing allowed him to remain safely white. “Such status,” Sharfstein explains, “could not mean anything but whiteness. . . . As much as racial purity mattered to white Southerners, they had to circle the wagons around Randall Gibson. If someone of his position could not be secure in his race, then no one was safe.”

Take  look at this interview with author Daniel Sharfstein, and please join us for our discussion this Tuesday October 21st at 7 pm, at Evanston Public Library. This program is offered in partnership with the RACE exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, co-sponsored by the YWCA Evanston/Northshore.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meet Jacqueline Williams this Monday!

Acclaimed actress Jacqueline Williams  will be back at EPL this coming Monday 10/20 to lead our discussion and reading of  August Wilson's Jitney. Set in the 1970s, Jitney explores the  relationship between a black "jitney" cab service owner and his son.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

RACE - What is it really?

We see it all the time: on surveys, Census forms, applications : "What's your race?" Most of us rarely question our race; we "know" we are white, African American, Indian, etc. But these racial categories are far more fluid and changeable than we may realize. Is "Hispanic" or "Latino" a race? Not according to the current Census, but it used to be. Are Ashkenazic Jewish, Irish, and Italian Americans all part of the same race? Most Americans would say yes, but at the turn of the 19th century, all three of these ethnic groups were considered separate "races",  generally deemed inferior to "whites", (i.e. Northern, Protestant Europeans).

In fact, there is no agreed upon biological definition of  race, yet race as a social construct has had, and continues to have a profound effect on one's social, educational, physical and economic health.

Evanstonians have a rare opportunity to explore these questions as we welcome the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center this month. Developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, it is the first national exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States. Co-presented by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, it runs from October 12, 2014 – January 25, 2015.

EPL is a proud community partner for the RACE exhibit, and our next 3 AAL book discussions all relate to its themes:

The Invisible Line, 3 American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White  Tuesday Oct. 21st 7 pm

Many light skinned African Americans crossed the color line to avoid the very real and harsh implications of racial classification. Legal scholar Daniel Sharfstein chronicles the lives of three such families who made the transition from black to white during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing on archival material, Sharfstein constructs an absorbing history, demonstrating the fluidity and arbitrariness of racial classification.


This groundbreaking book examines how the myth of biological concept of race--revived by purportedly cutting-edge science, race-specific drugs, genetic testing, and DNA databases--continues to undermine a just society and promote inequality in a supposedly "post-racial" era. Fatal Invention is a  timely and provocative analysis of race, science, and politics by one of the nation's leading legal scholars and social critics.



A Dreadful Deceit: the Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America Tuesday, December 16th, 7 pm

Professor Jacqueline Jones profiles six African-Americans from the 1650s  to late 20th-century to demonstrate that race, which has no "basis in biology," didn't become a social construct until around the time of the American Revolution. Jones argues that throughout our history, race has been used as a malleable tool that has been forged over and over to fit the political and economic whims of America's elite.

All 3 books will be available at the 2nd floor desk a month before the discussion. Call 847-448-8620 to register and reserve a copy.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Meet Ron OJ Parson!

This is an exciting week: two fantastic "11 Months" programs back to back!
On Monday at 6, we'll be reading and discussing August Wilson's The Piano Lesson with Ron OJ Parson!  This is is a don't miss event: Mr Parson is a legendary director whose stellar  productions of the Wilson plays at Chicago's Court Theatre have garnered national acclaim. Visit the the Court Theatre production, website to watch  video clips,  and review  the play guide.

Tuesday night at 7  is our discussion of Sundown Towns, James Loewen's sobering account of enforced "white only" communities across America. All of our copies are out, but take a look at Loewen's  21 page introduction for an overview.