Tuesday, December 9, 2014

When did "race" start anyway?


On December 16th, we'll be discussing the last of our trio of "race books" Jacqueline Jones' A Dreadful Deceit. Jones looks at 6 remarkable people from the colonial era through the late 20th century, each of whom posed a threat to contemporary racial hierarchies and categorizations. Here's a summary from the New York Times review:

There’s Antonio, murdered in colonial Maryland for refusing to submit to enslavement; Boston King, a former slave from South Carolina turned loyalist during the American Revolution; the Afro-Indian Elleanor Eldridge, who started several successful businesses in Providence, R.I., in the early 19th century; the Reconstruction-era Georgia politician Richard W. White; the early-20th-century educator William H. Holtzclaw, who founded a Tuskegee-like school in Mississippi; and finally the radical labor activist Simon P. Owens in mid-20th-century Detroit.

Jones' believes that race is far less important than economics, that race was created was for economic reasons, and that continuing to talk about race "keeps a destructive idea alive". But is it realistic,o r helpful to stop talking about race, when economic (and health, and educational) disparities still fall along racial lines.

That's what we'll be talking about next Tuesday! If you don't have time to read the whole book, let's focus on the chapters about Boston King, William Hotlzcclaw and Simon Owens. A couple of articles to give you an overview:

"It's the Economy": A Dreadful Deceit by Jacqueline Jones, New York Times, February 14 2014

Dreadful Deceit: Race is a Myth, Salon

See you Tuesday December 16th , 7:00 pm at the Evanston Public Library!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Being "Black" is more than a matter of looks...

Here's a great follow up to The Invisible Line, sent in by Fred from our August Wilson reading group:

Pike County, OH: As Black As We Want to Be



Visit a tiny town in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio where, for a century, residents have shared the common bond of identifying as African-American despite the fact that they look white. Racial lines have been blurred to invisibility, and people inside the same family can vehemently disagree about whether they are black or white. It can be tense and confusing. As a result, everyone’s choosing: Am I black? Am I mixed race? Or, am I white? Adding to the confusion, there’s a movement afoot to recognize their Native-American heritage.

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.