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An Internet acquaintance posted a link to an online course on Critical Race Theory offered by Adrienne Keene at Brown University, and while I'm not in a position to formally enroll in, or even audit, a course, I thought that it might be both interesting and useful to read as many of the assigned books and articles as I could access.

One of the core texts is Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (foreword by Angela Harris), which I was able to download via a link in the course syllabus.

In their introduction, Delgado and Stefancic say: "The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up, but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law."

They go on to provide a brief history of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement and to identify the fore principles that most CRT scholars and activists would agree are the foundational ideas of CRT:

"First, that racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascen- dancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material. ...

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient."

Other crucial concepts in CRT are differential racialization - the recognition that different minority groups are defined, treated and represented in different ways at different times by the dominant culture in response to its changing needs and interests - and intersectionality - a concept developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which holds that "No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity."

Finally, CRT argues that people of colour offer unique perspectives and knowledge on issues with a racial component: "... the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know."

The concepts outlined in the text are not new to anyone who has been at all engaged in anti-racism action or discourse in recent years, but I found that there was value in seeing these basic tenets organised in a logical fashion, and seeing how they flowed from and built upon each other to create a way of seeing race in North American society. As an activist who began thinking and reading about these matters in the late 60s, and who has tried to keep current with the many changes and refinements, advances and extensions of theory over the decades, a primer in modern race theory is also an excellent source for absorbing not just new theory, but new terminology, and a resource for scholarship in more specific areas of the field of study.

I'm very glad that I happened upon this text, and decided to read it. And I'm looking forward to further readings from the course syllabus (which can be found here: https://blogs.brown.edu/amst-2220j-s01-2017-fall/syllabus/).

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Michelle Alexander's book on the carceral state, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is rightfully on most lists of essential books to read for an understanding of race in America. It is a masterful indictment of the ways in which the American justice and penal systems continue the job of the former "Jim Crow" laws, of keeping black Americans in the role of second-class citizens, with limited rights and reduced access to everything from jobs to participation in the political system. As Alexander notes in her Introduction,

"The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race."

She goes on to say that " ...despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community, the civil rights community is oddly quiet. One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system—in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole—yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis)."

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates with overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration is indeed a racial justice issue, and one that should he at the forefront of the social justice agenda.

"This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system."

Alexander begins her argument with a discussion of past 'racial caste systems' - slavery and the Jim Crow - and how the same results are created again and again by changing social structures and institutions: "... there is a certain pattern to the births and deaths of racial caste in America. Time and again, the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole. This pattern, dating back to slavery, has birthed yet another racial caste system in the United States: mass incarceration."

The essence of Alexander's argument is demonstrated through detailed historical research. She shows clearly how, almost from the moment of emancipation following the civil war, unjust laws and prisons that are little more than enforced eork camps have been used to perform the same social functions that slavery did, to deny human rights, civil rights, and the rights of citizenship to black Americans, and to coerce their labour to support the economy to the benefit of white Americans. Of the Reconstruction Era, she writes that "... tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release. With no means to pay off their “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, at a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor."

The Jim Crow era - the name is most likely derived from a popular minstrel show character - stretched from the Reconstruction to the post-WWII period, when changes began to appear, sparked by the nascent civil rights movement, the growing presences in politics of blacks in the North, and a desire to actualise the American ideals of freedom and equality which were made much of during the war. Of the Jim Crow era itself, Alexander notes that "By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together). The public symbols and constant reminders of black subjugation were supported by whites across the political spectrum, though the plight of poor whites remained largely unchanged."

But even as Jim Crow laws were challenged and civil rights were - at least formally - gained for American blacks, the development of a 'law and order' focus that would ultimately lead to today's carceral state had begun. In federal and state legislatures, the strongest supporters of law and order platforms were the same politicians who opposed civil rights legislation. Initially, race-based arguments were openly used by the 'law and order' proponents - they pointed to lower crime rates in the south where segregation remained the unwritten law of the land and referred to civil rights protestors as criminals.

Later, the racism in the law and order platform because implicit, with the concept of a 'culture of poverty' which led to crime standing in for a direct association between being black and being more prone to criminality. This 'colourblind' language became the norm among conservative politicians by the time that Reagan sought office:

"In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the “excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse” and thus built on the success of earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race. Condemning “welfare queens” and criminal “predators,” he rode into office with the strong support of disaffected whites—poor and working-class whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights agenda. As one political insider explained, Reagan’s appeal derived primarily from the ideological fervor of the right wing of the Republican Party and “the emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan somehow to keep him ‘in his place’ or at least echo their own anger and frustration.” To great effect, Reagan echoed white frustration in race-neutral terms through implicit racial appeals. His “colorblind” rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and states’ rights was clearly understood by white (and black) voters as having a racial dimension, though claims to that effect were impossible to prove. The absence of explicitly racist rhetoric afforded the racial nature of his coded appeals a certain plausible deniability. For example, when Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the annual Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964—he assured the crowd “I believe in states’ rights,” and promised to restore to states and local governments the power that properly belonged to them. His critics promptly alleged that he was signaling a racial message to his audience, suggesting allegiance with those who resisted desegregation, but Reagan firmly denied it, forcing liberals into a position that would soon become familiar—arguing that something is racist but finding it impossible to prove in the absence of explicitly racist language."

With the introduction of the "war on drugs" the pieces were finally in place for a massive increase in law and order funding to provide more police and more prisons. Signalling its true goals with clarity, the federal budget for law enforcement grew in the wake of the war on drugs while spending on drug prevention, education and treatment programs was cut. At the same time, urban black men - most of whom had traditionally worked in blue collar jobs requiring minimal education - were facing an employment crisis due largely to globalisation and the shift from an industrial to a service based economy. Poverty, unemployment, the introduction of crack cocaine into urban centres, increased policing, welfare crackdowns and a 'tough on crime' policy among bith conservatives and liberals set the stage for mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of black Americans.

"The law and order perspective, first introduced during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement by rabid segregationists, had become nearly hegemonic two decades later. By the mid-1990s, no serious alternatives to the War on Drugs and “get tough” movement were being entertained in mainstream political discourse. Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order—this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s—a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born."

Alexander examines in depth the ways in which the 'war on drugs' has been used as a justification for massive investment in policing and prisons, changes in the execution of laws which make arrest and conviction easier, and incentives from grants to military equipment to asset seizures which motivate police departments to focus their resources on drug-related crime. Starting with the legal processes of warrants, search and seizure of evidence, she follows the trail through to incarceration and disenfranchisement, and the denial of access to employment, housing, education, professional certification and other essentials of living to released felons, showing the coded racism of anti-drug and anti-crime propaganda, legislation and police action, and demonstrating the ways in which the system operates to disproportionately target black communities.

In the final section of the book, Alexander addresses the massive challenge posed by any attempt to end this prison-centred system of racial caste control. The end of the carceral state requires first the end of the War on Drugs and the ideas that black communities are the primary centre of drug activity, that black men are the primary actors in the drug trade. The first principle of change, then requires an "understanding that any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control." In order to achieve this understanding, Americans must be willing to give up the false ideal of 'colourblindness' and look at - and have a national conversation on - the realities of race.

In considering the factors that have worked against the development of a clear consciousness of racial inequity, Alexander makes an interesting argument for the end of affirmative action:

"Racial justice advocates should consider, with a degree of candor that has not yet been evident, whether affirmative action—as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years—has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice. One might wonder, what does affirmative action have to do with mass incarceration? Well, perhaps the two are linked more than we realize. We should ask ourselves whether efforts to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity—that is, reform efforts that make institutions look good on the surface without the needed structural changes—have actually helped to facilitate the emergence of mass incarceration and interfered with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness."

She goes on to itemise the specific reasons behind this proposition: "... (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a “trickle down theory of racial justice”; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations." Alexander makes a strong argument that, by facilitating a small number of success stories that showcase 'black exceptionalism,' affirmative action actually supports the continuation of the carceral state by seeming to say that 'if these black individuals can succeed, that means the failure if most to do so is rooted in personal choices and decisions, not systemic racism.'

Her closing thoughts on the path to an end to the carceral state and the beginning of a society based on social justice for all look back to the shift that Martin Luther King Jr. was moving toward when his life and evolution as a leader for social change was brutally ended. As he said in introducing the idea of the Poor People's Campaign, "I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society."

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Keeanga-Yamahtta ​Taylor, African American scholar, socialist and academic - she is assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University - offers a profoundly incisive and extensively researched study of US politics American racism and Black resistance in recent decades in her book From ​#BlackLivesMatter ​to ​Black ​Liberation.

Taylor's viewpoint is grounded in both socialist and anti-racist theory - and her analysis looks at both economic and cultural forces. Taylor's focus here is on the era from the civil rights movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the similarities and differences between the two movements, and ultimately on "the potential for a much broader anticapitalist movement that looks to transform not only the police but the entire United States." However, she begins her analysis with an examination of America's history as a racist state, from the earliest foundation of a slave-based economy to the exclusion of Black Americans from the benefits of the New Deal. In particular, Taylor points to the effects that the cultural myth of "American exceptionalism" has had, particularly in the Cold War period, in suppressing any consideration of institutional and systemic injustice in American society, and the subsequent evolution of the idea of the "culture of poverty" as the reason for the existence of economic and social inequity in the supposedly freest and most economically mobile country in the world.

"The government and its proponents in the financial world were making a global claim that the United States was good to its Black population, and at the same time they were promoting capitalism and private enterprise as the highest expressions of freedom. American boosters sustained the fiction of the “culture of poverty” as the pretext for the persisting inequality between Blacks and the rest of the country. In some ways, this was even more important as the United States continued its quest to project itself as an economic and political empire. Cold War liberalism was a political framework that viewed American racial problems as existing outside of or unrelated to its political economy and, more importantly, as problems that could be fixed within the system itself by changing the laws and creating 'equal opportunity.' "

Taylor notes the beginnings of a wider understanding of racial inequity as a systemic issue - and one with material as well as cultural elements -during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, the extension of the welfare state under Johnson, and most significantly, in the multiple Black Liberation movements, and particularly The Black Panthers - that followed in the latter half of the 1960s.

"Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans drew even more radical conclusions about the nature of Black oppression in the United States as they were drawn directly into the radicalizing movement; hundreds of thousands more sympathized with the rebellions. The struggle broke through the isolation and confinement of life in segregated Black ghettos and upended the prevailing explanation that Blacks were responsible for the conditions in their neighborhoods. Mass struggle led to a political understanding of poverty in Black communities across the country. Black media captured stories of injustice as well as the various struggles to organize against it, feeding this process and knitting together a common Black view of Black oppression while simultaneously providing an alternative understanding for white people. A Harris poll taken in the summer of 1967, after major riots in Detroit and Newark, found 40 percent of whites believed that “the way Negroes have been treated in the slums and ghettos of big cities” and “the failure of white society to keep its promises to Negroes” were the leading causes of the rebellion. Many, including Martin Luther King Jr., began to connect Black oppression to a broader critique of capitalism."

Unfortunately, as Taylor demonstrates, this early materialist critique of the philosophies and methods of institutionalised racism faded in the 1970s as more conservative, 'personal responsibility' narratives take the central place in the debate on both racism and poverty, and the doctrine of 'colourblindness' emerged as a means of appearing non-racist while continuing to engage in administrative and economic practices that were inherently unjust to people of colour.

"Nixon’s turn to focusing on crime fit snugly with his broader use of colorblindness to champion his domestic policies. There was no need to invoke race in this campaign for law and order, but the consequences of the policies could not have been clearer. Crime was committed by bad people who made bad choices—it was not the product of an unequal social order that left Blacks and Puerto Ricans, in particular, isolated in urban enclaves with little access to good jobs, housing, or schools in a worsening economy. Instead, inequality left poor and working-class people of color to their own devices to advance in a society that had made next to no provisions for them to do so through legal or normative means. These kinds of constrained “choices” were made in white enclaves as well, but those were less surveilled and less likely to be criminalized by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole."

As the political climate in America became increasingly conservative in the years following Nixon - even among Democrats, but alarmingly so among Republicans - the twin narratives of colourblindness and the 'culture of poverty' became fixed as the foundations of public policy. Even among the middle class Blacks who increasingly gained access to positions of political and economic power, these narratives went unchallenged, while social and economic conditions worsened for poor blacks (and other people of colour). By the time that conditions were ripe for the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as Taylor notes in comparing the situation in 2014 immediately prior to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson to that preceding the emergence if the civil rights movement, "The main difference is that today, when poor or working-class Black people experience hardship, that hardship is likely being overseen by an African American in some position of authority. The development of the Black political establishment has not been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence."

Taylor sees the betrayal of black communities by black politicians and elites as the inevitable outgrowth of a switch from grassroots resistance and critique of the political and economic power structure structures to a strategy based on electoral politics - one which, due to the nature of the political process in America left black politicians financially beholden to corporate money and conservative voting bloc brokers.

After examining political viewpoints surrounding the oppression of Black Americans, Taylor turns to an examination of racism and violence toward Blacks in criminal justice institutions.

At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began their long transition from living largely in rural areas to living predominantly in urban ones. In that time, there have been many changes in Black life, politics, and culture, but the threat and reality of police surveillance, scrutiny, violence, and even murder has remained remarkably consistent. The daily harm caused by the mere presence of police in Black communities has been a consistent feature of Black urban history and, increasingly, Black suburban history. Police brutality has been a consistent badge of inferiority and second-class citizenship. When the police enforce the law inconsistently and become the agents of lawlessness and disorder, it serves as a tangible reminder of the incompleteness of formal equality. You cannot truly be free when the police are able to set upon you at will, for no particular reason at all. It is a constant reminder of the space between freedom and “unfreedom,” where the contested citizenship of African Americans is held."

She opens with a discussion of laws restricting black movement, employment and home rental/ownership after the Civil War, laws whose violation was punished by enforced labour on municipal projects - thus beginning the carceral-based slavery system that has replaced the plantation-based slavery system.

"The desperate need for labor seemed insatiable; it turned all Black people into potential suspects and justified surveillance and scrutiny. Convict leasing was lucrative for employers compared to slavery, since it involved lower overhead expenses. As one observer put it, “Before the war we owned the Negroes. If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” The police were the linchpin to this new arrangement."

Having set the scene, as it were, by delineating the history of the conditions - institutional racism and its consequences for the average black person, police brutality, the narrative of a 'culture of poverty' and the co-opting of the black elite - which could, given the necessary spark, bring about a new Black liberation movement, Taylor takes a close look at the Obama regime and its influence on perceptions of racism. She recalls the initial optimism of blacks and progressive whites at the election of a black man to the office of President:

"The excitement about Obama turned into postelection euphoria. That was certainly the feeling in Chicago on election night, when a cross-section of the city converged in Grant Park to hear the country’s first Black president-elect address the nation. It was a rare, almost strange scene to see a multiracial crowd gathered in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. That was the power of Obama’s calls for hope and change. On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, 69 percent of Black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King’s vision had been 'fulfilled.' In early 2011, asked whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of Blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites. This was not just blind hope: it was the expectation that things would, in fact, be better. One researcher described the broader context: 'Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents. Obama’s election was, in effect, the final revelation—the long awaited sign that a new American age had arrived.' "Now we have a sense of future,' said Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson. 'All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.' Almost 75 percent of African Americans in the South said that Obama would help America rid itself of racial prejudice. Forbes ran an enthusiastic editorial opinion in December 2008 titled 'Racism in America Is Over.' "

Disillusionment with Obama's reticence on racial issues and acceptance of the 'culture of poverty narrative among Blacks helped to build a loose coalition between social justice activists and the economic justice activists of the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement.

"...Black Occupy activists organized “Occupy the Hood,” whose goal was to raise the profile of the Occupy movement in communities of color across the country and widen the range of people involved. Some “Occupy the Hood” organizers had also been involved in organizing against “stop-and-frisk.” Thus, not only did Occupy popularize economic and class inequality in the United States by demonstrating against corporate greed, fraud, and corruption throughout the finance industry, it also helped to make connections between those issues and racism. The public discussion over economic inequality rendered incoherent both Democratic and Republican politicians’ insistence on locating Black poverty in Black culture. While it obviously did not bury the arguments for culture and “personal responsibility,” Occupy helped to create the space for alternative explanations within mainstream politics, including seeing Black poverty and inequality as products of the system. The vicious attack and crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful Occupy encampments over the winter and into 2012 also provided a lesson about policing in the United States: the police were servants of the political establishment and the ruling elite. Not only were they racist, they were also shock troops for the status quo and bodyguards for the 1 percent."

Taylor pinpoints the killing of Trayvon Martin as the turning point that led to the coalescence of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Despite protests, demonstrations and attempts by Black and anti-racist activists to challenge the narrative, Martin was characterised as a dangerous criminal and his killer, George Zimmerman, as a victim.

"Out of despair over the verdict, community organizer Alicia Garza posted a simple hashtag on Facebook: “#blacklivesmatter.” It was a powerful rejoinder that spoke directly to the dehumanization and criminalization that made Martin seem suspicious in the first place and allowed the police to make no effort to find out to whom this boy belonged. It was a response to the oppression, inequality, and discrimination that devalue Black life every day. It was everything, in three simple words. Garza would go on, with fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, to transform the slogan into an organization with the same name: #BlackLivesMatter. In a widely read essay on the meaning of the slogan and the hopes for their new organization, Garza described #BlackLivesMatter as 'an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.' "

While the death of Martin ad the acquittal of his killer marked the beginning of the BlackLivesMatter movement, Taylor identifies the crucial moment when that ignited mass resistance in the killing of Michael Brown:

"For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson—but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States. Perhaps it was the inhumanity of the police leaving Brown’s body to fester in the hot summer sun for four and a half hours after killing him, keeping his parents away at gunpoint and with dogs. “We was treated like we wasn’t parents, you know?” Mike Brown Sr., said. “That’s what I didn’t understand. They sicced dogs on us. They wouldn’t let us identify his body. They pulled guns on us.” Maybe it was the military hardware the police brandished when protests against Brown’s death arose. With tanks and machine guns and a never-ending supply of tear gas, rubber bullets, and swinging batons, the Ferguson police department declared war on Black residents and anyone who stood in solidarity with them."

As she recounts the growing response to the deaths of Brown and other black boys and men at the hands of police across the country, Taylor draws clear distinctions between the positions of the black 'older statesmen' such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who sought to defuse tensions and re-establish the legitimacy of the government in dealing with police violence and racism, and the younger generations of activists who sought immediate and direct action.

"The young people of Ferguson had great reverence and respect for the memory of the civil rights movement, but the reality is that its legacy meant little in their everyday lives. “I feel in my heart that they failed us,” Dontey Carter said of contemporary civil rights leaders. “They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.” When Jesse Jackson Sr. arrived in Ferguson, he was confronted by a local activist, who said, “When you going to stop selling us out, Jesse? We don’t want you here in St. Louis!” Other activists did not go that far, but they did note that young Black people had been thrust into leadership on the ground in Ferguson because they were the ones under attack."

Taylor notes other differences between the BLM movement and the more established Black civil rights organisations - the prominence of women and LGBT people, its decentralised structure and use of social media, the flexibility of its tactics, its work in coalition building with labour and other movements, and the development of a "systemic analysis of policing.... that situated policing within a matrix of racism and inequality in the United States and beyond."

In the book's final chapter, Taylor discusses the ways in which radicalisation on political and economic issues - an analysis that links capitalism to the material conditions that Black and other marginalised people are faced - with is a necessary part of the struggle for Black liberation. She reminds us of the socialist perspectives adopted by 60s activists such as the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panthers, and traces the roots of black radicalism in the United States from the early days of the Communist Party in that country. Beginning with the words of Karl Marx on the relation between colonial exploitation, slavery, and capitalism, she outlines a radical understanding of the relation between the capitalist system and the oppression of black people, leading to the conclusion that only a restructuring of society which embraces economic as well as social justice can bring about the goal of black liberation.

"Racism in the United States has never been just about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. That, of course, does not mean there is nothing to do and no struggle worth waging. Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty, hunger, and all of the ways in which oppression and exploitation express themselves is critical to people’s basic survival in this society. But it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize, and build movements and organizations. It is also how our confidence develops to counter the insistence that this society, as it is currently constructed, is the best that we can hope to achieve. People engaged in struggle learn to fight for more by fighting for and winning something. But the day-to-day struggles in which many people are engaged today must be connected to a much larger vision of what a different world could look like."

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Many readers of speculative fiction have a conflicted relationship with H. P. Lovecraft. I'm certainly one of them. There's a power, an allure, to the Cthulhu mythos that's hard to set aside - yet there's also the pervasive racism that makes so many of the specific works that form that mythos so difficult to read.

Victor LaValle's powerful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is both a retelling of Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and a response to its appalling racism. I'd come across some reviews of LaValle's piece some time ago, and decided to reread Lovecraft's story before reading the novella.

"The Horror at Red Rock" has been called by some one of Lovecraft's most overtly racist works. It is set in a part of Brooklyn that Lovecraft populates with a "hopeless tangle and enigma" of "Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro element," "unclassified slant-eyed folk," and "swarthy, evil-looking strangers." The protagonist is a police detective named Malone, who works the human smuggling beat in Red Hook, investigating "the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island." In the course of his work, he encounters a reclusive scholar named Suydam who seems to be unaccountably involved with the more corrupt and violent elements of Red Hook society.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle inverts the characterisation of Red Hook, painting it as a vibrant multicultural community that suffers under the structural racism of American society and the callous brutality of the police, whose job it is to keep the people of Red Hook away from white New York.

The protagonist here is a young black man named Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler with a minor musical talent who skirts the edges of the occult world. Raised in poverty and always under the threat of race-based discrimination and assault, he accepts an invitation to play at a party being held by the eccentric and mysterious Suydam - and is introduced into the world of Cthulhu.

The general course of events outlined in Lovecraft's story unfold in similar fashion in LaValle's novella, but from the joint perspectives of Tester and Malone. A tragic act of police violence finally drives Tester to Suydam's side snd he becomes his primary lieutenant, Black Tom.

In LaValle's work, it is the promise of revenge for years of oppression by whites that draws members of the Red Hook community, including Tester, to embrace the worship of Cthulhu, and ultimately leads Tester to choose the end of human civilisation over the continuance of white supremacy. As Black Tom tells Malone at the climax of the story, " I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.


[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2016/02/11/lovecraft-country-unearths-monsters-both-real-and-imagined/

Alex Brown, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books
http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/caught-after-dark-in-lovecraft-country/

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Andrea Hairston's novel Will Do Magic for Small Change is a celebration of the power of storytelling, the connection between past, present and future, and magic - the everyday magic that comes from such acts as taking a step into the unknown, opening your heart or trusting your sense of yourself - and how these things can heal, can make something that was broken, scattered, whole again.

Hairston gives us two narratives interwoven by magic, imagination and love. The first, set in 1980s Chicago, centres on a young black girl, Cinnamon Jones, child of poverty, myth and art. Her father is in a coma, shot while trying to help two lesbians. Her brother has died of a drug overdose that may have been suicide. Her mother, a city bus driver, is increasingly unable to cope. But in her blood is the magic and mystery of her grandparents, a hoodoo woman and a medicine man. What pulls Cinnamon forward is a love of theatre, the friends she meets at an audition - Klaus and Marie - and the gift from her brother of a mysterious book that writes itself, the story of an alien wanderer come to earth.

The second narrative is the story of this Wanderer. Starting in the late 1890s, the alien is caught up in the flight of a Dahomey ahosi, or warrior woman, after her defection from the Dahomeyan women's army. The warrior, Kahinde, names the alien after her dead twin brother Taiwo, for whom she left the king's army. Joined by Kahinde's sister-in-law Samso and her infant daughter, they travel to the new world of America seeking a place where they can write new stories of their lives.

Intersections of past and present, love and fear, the deep truth of storytelling, theatre, art - the tale of the wanderer becomes the tale of Cinnamon's life and as it finds completion, the path to Cinnamon's future is woven together and unfolds before her.

A magical book, with layers of meaning I'll be contemplating for some time to come.

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The subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly's extensively researched book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tells the reader exactly what she will find within its covers.

Shetterly is well positioned to tell this story, as the daughter of a black engineer who worked at NASA's Langley Research Center during the 60s and 70s. Her father knew some of the women who feature prominently in the book, her childhood was spent in Hampton, in the same neighbourhoods these women had brought their own families to a generation earlier. In her preface, Shetterly talks about her own memories if her father's work, and pinpoints the enormous importance of telling the stories of these women.

"Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine."

So often, the face of science has been presented as that of a white man. To read the stories of these brilliant black women who persevered through the dual sets of assumptions they faced as mathematicians and engineers in a world where people of colour were associated with low or unskilled work and women with limited opportunities when single and even fewer when married is to understand how important it is to challenge that image.

Shetterly anchors her research into the hundreds of women, black and white, who held mathematical and scientific jobs at Langley on a narrative focused on the lives and careers of a handful of women: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and others, all of whom worked in the all-female, all-black West Computing Unit at Langley. These first of these women were originally hired to meet the research needs of what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during World War II, but their role was to continue well into the age of the Moon missions.

While recognising the rare opportunities - and unusual economic security - that the growing airspace industry offered women, Shetterly does not ignore the gender politics involved. While the 'computers' - the women mathematicians who performed all the calculations on which the male scientists and engineers depended on to be able to do their work - were often as well educated and as skilled as the men entering the field of aeronautics, they were still women working in a male field where men were individually valued and encouraged to advance, and women were seen in the perpetual role of anonymous support from which it was hard to emerge.

"Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers. The most promising of the acolytes were tapped to assist their managers in the operations of the laboratory’s valuable tunnels and research facilities, apprenticeships that could open the door to high-profile research assignments and eventual promotion to the head of a section, branch, or division. ...

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. She might spend weeks calculating a pressure distribution without knowing what kind of plane was being tested or whether the analysis that depended on her math had resulted in significant conclusions. The work of most of the women, like that of the Friden, Marchant, or Monroe computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all."

After the war, the anticipated downturn in employment at Langley did not take place. While in so many other industries, the return of men from the war pushed women (particularly white, middle-class women who had not worked before the war) out of the jobs they had taken on and back into the home, such was not the case in the aeronautical industry. Driven by the Cold War, research into aeronautics and space flight, the Langley 'computers' had become an integral part of the research process.

"Black or white, east or west, single or married, mothers or childless, women were now a fundamental part of the aeronautical research process. Not a year after the end of the war, the familiar announcements of vacancies at the laboratory, including openings for computers, began to appear in the newsletter again. As the United States downshifted from a flat-out sprint to victory to a more measured pace of economic activity, and as the laboratory began to forget that it had ever operated without the female computers, Dorothy had time to pause and give consideration to what a long-term career as a mathematician might look like. How could she entertain the idea of returning to Farmville and giving up a job she was good at, that she enjoyed, that paid two or three times more than teaching? Working as a research mathematician at Langley was a very, very good black job—and it was also a very, very good female job. The state of the aeronautics industry was strong, and the engineers were just as interested in retaining the services of the women who did the calculations as the aircraft manufacturers had been in keeping the laundry workers who supported their factory workers on the job."

Along with the potential of stability in a well-paid professional field that allowed them to use their education and abilities, however, the Cold War also brought the chill of the "Red Menace" which was increasingly associated with any progressive political movement, including those advocating civil rights and racial equality. The politics of race that turned the NAACP into a suspect organisation were also a part of life at Langley for the black women and men who had found careers there. While the book's narrative line is primarily focused on the women of the West Computing Unit and the part they played over three decades in the advancement of air and space travel, Shetterly relates events in the lives and career experience at Langley of both black women and the few black male engineers to contemporary developments in the civil rights movement, placing their story within the cultural, political and legal shifts of their times.

This approach makes clear the ways in which the story of how these brilliant women mathematicians became central to the successful development of the space program was deeply entwined with international politics, national pride, cultural change and the push to end segregation in the American workplace. In tracing the shift from NACA to NASA, Shetterly's account also follows the changes experienced by the black women mathematicians who had built careers at Langley.

As engineering projects diversified and became more specialised, the women of the West Computing Unit were moved out of the pool and into the various departments and working groups. Once there, the contributions made by some led to advancement from mathematician to the more respected, more influential and more highly paid rank of engineer. But though few of the 'girls from West Computing' reached such rarefied heights, their work was an essential part of the R&D that led to the first Americans in space.

And this is the real importance of Shetterly's book, that it makes prominent the contributions of black women, that it presents them boldly. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

"For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America."

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Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease is an examination of how institutionalised racism and social constructs of "abnormal behaviour" have influenced the changing psychiatric definitions of certain mental illnesses - specifically schizophrenia and the now out of fashion dementia praecox - and resulted in a situation in which "... African-American ​patients ​were ​'significantly ​more ​likely' ​than ​white ​patients ​to ​receive ​schizophrenia ​diagnoses, ​and ​'significantly ​less ​likely' ​than ​white ​patients ​to ​receive ​diagnoses ​for ​other ​mental ​illnesses ​such ​as ​depression ​or ​bipolar ​disorder."

In noting that black men entering treatment (voluntarily or otherwise) for mental illness are far more likely to receive a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia than any other racial group, Metzl argues that allthough "Everyday ​racism ​seems ​a ​reasonable ​explanation ​for ​these ​findings," the situation is actually more complex. In the preface to his book, Metzl states:
This ​book ​makes ​a ​broader ​claim: ​from ​a ​historical ​perspective, ​race ​impacts ​medical ​communication ​because ​racial ​tensions ​are ​structured ​into ​clinical ​interactions ​long ​before ​doctors ​and ​patients ​enter ​examination ​rooms. ​To ​a ​remarkable ​extent, ​anxieties ​about ​racial ​difference ​shape ​diagnostic ​criteria, ​healthcare ​policies, ​medical ​and ​popular ​attitudes ​about ​mentally ​ill ​persons, ​the ​structures ​of ​treatment ​facilities, ​and, ​ultimately, ​the ​conversations ​that ​take ​place ​there ​within.


Focusing on how the diagnosis of schizophrenia was used to classify people admitted to Ionia State Hospital in Michigan from the 1940s onwards until it closed as a mental institute in the late 1970s, Metzl examines the changing use of this diagnosis. Initially given primarily to nonviolent white criminals and distressed housewives - who were seen as ill but not dangerous - by the 1970s it was predominantly assigned to black men supposedly characterised by "masculinized belligerence."

In his book, Metzl looks at the origins and evolving definitions of schizophrenia in the context of social changes, and particularly racial politics and the civil rights movement in the USA, especially in Detroit which was part of the catchment area of Ionia Hospital. As Metzl notes:
American ​assumptions ​about ​the ​race, ​gender, ​and ​temperament ​of ​schizophrenia ​changed ​beginning ​in ​the ​1960s. ​Many ​leading ​medical ​and ​popular ​sources ​suddenly ​described ​schizophrenia ​as ​an ​illness ​manifested ​not ​by ​docility, ​but ​by ​rage. ​Growing ​numbers ​of ​research ​articles ​from ​leading ​psychiatric ​journals ​asserted ​that ​schizophrenia ​was ​a ​condition ​that ​also ​afflicted ​"Negro ​men," ​and ​that ​black ​forms ​of ​the ​illness ​were ​marked ​by ​volatility ​and ​aggression. ​In ​the ​worst ​cases, ​psychiatric ​authors ​conflated ​the ​schizophrenic ​symptoms ​of ​African-American ​patients ​with ​the ​perceived ​schizophrenia ​the ​civil ​rights ​protests, ​particularly ​those ​organized ​by ​Black ​Power, ​Black ​Panthers, ​Nation ​of ​Islam, ​or ​other ​activist ​groups.


As Metzl further comments in the preface:
As ​but ​one ​example, ​the ​title ​of ​this ​book ​comes ​from ​a ​1968 ​article that ​appeared ​in ​the ​prestigious ​Archives ​of ​General ​Psychiatry, ​in ​which ​psychiatrists ​Walter ​Bromberg ​and ​Frank ​Simon ​described ​schizophrenia ​as ​a ​"protest ​psychosis" ​whereby ​black ​men ​developed ​"hostile ​and ​aggressive ​feelings" ​and ​"delusional ​anti-whiteness" ​
after ​listening ​to ​the ​words ​of ​Malcolm ​X, ​joining ​the ​Black ​Muslims, ​or ​aligning ​with ​groups ​that ​preached ​militant ​resistance ​to ​white ​society. ​According ​to ​the ​authors, ​the ​men ​required ​psychiatric ​treatment ​because ​their ​symptoms ​threatened ​not ​only ​their ​own ​sanity, ​but ​the ​social ​order ​of ​white ​America. ​Bromberg ​and ​Simon ​
argued ​that ​black ​men ​who ​"espoused ​African ​or ​Islamic" ​ideologies, adopted ​"Islamic ​names" ​that ​were ​changed ​in ​such ​a ​way ​so ​as ​to ​deny ​"the ​previous ​Anglicization ​of ​their ​names" ​in ​fact ​demonstrated ​a ​"delusional ​anti-whiteness" ​that ​manifest ​as ​"paranoid ​projections ​of ​the ​Negroes ​to ​the ​Caucasian ​group."


Metzl further quotes Bromberg and Simon on the 'sypmtoms' of this protest psychosis: “antiwhite productions and attitudes. . . . It becomes apparent that the intellectual dissociation represents in part a refusal to accept the syntactical language of standard English. . . . Often the prisoners draw pictures or write material of an Islamic nature, elaborating their ideas in the direction of African ideology with a decided ‘primitive’ accent. . . . The language used may be borrowed from the ancient ‘Veve.’ . . . Bizarre religious ideas are Moslem in character, either directly from Mohammedan practice or improvised.”

Key to Metzel's argument is the fact that "... the ​rhetorics ​of ​health ​and ​illness ​become ​effective ​ways ​of ​policing ​the ​boundaries ​of ​civil ​society, ​and ​of ​keeping ​these ​people ​always ​outside." Marginalised groups have historically been characterised as more likely to be diseased or defective, either physically or mentally, and discontent with society or one's assigned status in it, no matter how merited, as a marker of mental health issues. Metzl lists some of the ways in which this has manifested or been observed with regard to both political dissidents and racialised groups, points particularly pertinent to an examination of the psychiatric labelling of black makes during the 1960s, a period of civil rights activism and black power movements that combined both political protest and a heightened presentation and awareness of racial discontents.
Scholars have long argued that medical and governmental institutions code threats to authority as mental illnesses during moments of political turmoil. Much of the best-known literature on the subject comes from outside the United States. International human rights activists such as Walter Reich have long chronicled the ways in which
Soviet psychiatrists in so-called Psikhushka hospitals diagnosed political dissidents with schizophrenia. Meanwhile, Michel Foucault often cited French hospitals as examples to support his belief that the discourses of the human sciences produce and discipline deviant subjects in the larger project of maintaining particular power hierarchies. Foucault also importantly developed a theory of "state racism," whereby governments use emancipatory discourses of what he called "race struggle" as excuses for the further oppression of
minority groups. Meanwhile, the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon called on his experiences in Algeria to describe a North African syndrome in which political and medical subjugation literally
created psychiatric symptoms in colonized subjects. Fanon's important schema, discussed at length below, focused on the ways in which racist social structures reproduce themselves not only in political or economic institutions, but also in the "damaged" psyches of people it needs to control.


As Metzl notes, however, the history of ascribing specific kinds of mental illness to black patients predates the civil rights movement by a considerable length of time. He notes the early history of the diagnosis of mental illness among blacks in America, which usually worked in support of
... existing beliefs [that] "Negroes" were biologically unfit for freedom. This troubling argument emerged from the work of American surgeon Samuel Cartwright, who wrote in 1851 in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that the tendency of slaves to run away from their captors was a treatable medical disorder. Cartwright described two types of insanity among slaves. Drapetomania resulted when "the white man attempts to oppose the Deity's will, by trying to make the Negro anything else than 'the submissive knee-bender' (which the Almighty declared he should be) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the Negro." According to Cartwright, such unnatural kindness led to a form of mania whose sole symptom was the propensity of slaves to run away. Similarly, dysaesthesia aethiopis, which is Cartwrights term for the "rascality" and "disrespect for the master's property" that resulted when African Americans did not have whites overseeing their every action. Cartwright theorized that both conditions resulted from biological lesions and he advised treating both with whipping, hard labor, and in extreme cases, amputation of the toes.


Metzl includes in his arguments a brief overview of the development of the understanding of schizophrenia as a mental illness. Originally known as dementia praecox, one school of researchers characterised the disease as "... a biological illness caused by underlying organic lesions or faulty metabolism ... [that] resulted from irreversible biological changes..." Others theorised that dementia praecox "...was not a biological disorder, but was instead a psychical splitting of the basic functions of the personality." This splitting "...was accompanied not by violence, but by symptoms such as indifference, creativity, passion, and even fanaticism." This theory led to the use if the term schizophrenia, from the Greek words for "split" (schizo) and "mind" (phrene).

Metzl notes that the differences in theorising about praecox as opposed to schizophrenia resulted in the condition being interpreted very differently based on the psychiatrist's beliefs concerning its etiology. Those who followed the idea of schizophrenia as an illness of personality instead of biology tended to describe patients in terms that "...remained largely, though by no means entirely, free of connections to violence, invasions, crime, impurity, and other eugenic staples." Patients with schizophrenia were in general not seen as dangers or as threats, but as persons needing nurturing in order to find the "sensitive and tender nature" hidden behind a patient's "cold and unresponsive exterior." Leading clinicians "... advocated teaching patients how to function as adults through activities that substituted 'objective The reality for phantasy' such as occupational therapy, physical exercise, and the encouragement of participation in 'dances, concerts, and other opportunities for social contact.' "

Those who understood schizophrenia to be essentially the same as the organically caused dementia praecox, however, were more likely to see it as a racialised disease:
... in 1913, Arrah Evarts, a psychiatrist from the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., wrote an article in the Psychoanalytic Review titled "Dementia Praecox in the Colored Race" in which she described dramatic increases in the illness in "colored" patients.

.... Evarts linked the appearance of praecox in these and other patients to the pressures of freedom - pressures for which "Negroes," she argued, were biologically unfit. Speaking of slavery,
Evarts wrote, 'This bondage in reality was a wonderful aid to the colored man. The necessity of mental initiative was never his, and his racial characteristic of imitation carried him far on the road. But after he became a free man, the conditions under which he must continue his progress became infinitely harder. He must now think for himself, and exercise forethought if he and his family are to live at all; two things which has [sic] so far not been demanded and for which there was no racial preparation. It has been said by many observers whose words can scarce be doubted that a crazy Negro was a rare sight before emancipation. However that may be, we know he is by no means rare today.'


However, as the clinical use of the diagnosis of dementia praecox declined and the conceptualisation of schizophrenia as a disease of personality became the prevailing one, this tendency toward a racialised diagnosis declined. As Metzl points out, "Prior ​to ​the ​civil ​rights ​movement, ​mainstream ​American ​medical ​and ​popular ​opinion ​often ​assumed ​that ​patients ​with ​schizophrenia ​were ​largely ​white, ​and ​generally ​harmless ​to ​society."

As the civil rights movement and other events highlighting the unrest among black people in this the U.S. entered the consciousness of the public and the psychiatric profession alike, a shift began to appear in the perceptions of mental illness. Metzl notes that the release of the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) in 1968, on which many symptoms of mental illness were seen as maladaptions to the patient's environment, both reflected and in some ways codified an understanding of schizophrenia as a violent disorder commonly seen among black patients. By the 70s, anti-psychotic drugs marketed for treatment of schizophrenia were often advertised with imagery that suggested angry black men, inner city tensions, or "primitive" thought processes - the latter imagery often suggesting or openly using traditional African art or artefacts.

In examining the language used to discuss research into psychiatric conditions beginning in the 60s, Metzl observes that "... data analysis suggests that authors of research articles in leading psychiatric journals preferentially applied language connoting aggression and hostility to African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. The spike in such associations raises the specter that the DSM-II codified ways of talking about blackness in addition to talking about mental illness. To be sure, the DSM claimed to seek neutrality. But, in the real world, doctors and researchers used the manual’s charged language to modify, describe, and ultimately diagnose the category of black under the rubric of the category of schizophrenia."

This developing construct of schizophrenia as a disease of blacks led into madness by hostility and delusions triggered by the "antiwhite" ideas of prominent black leaders was not limited to psychiatric circles. Increasingly during the 60s, the media began using the imagery of schizophrenia and psychosis to discuss racial unrest among blacks in America.
For instance, an electronic newspaper archive search for articles with the terms schizophrenia and schizophrenic in combination with terms such as Negro, racial, civil rights, and, by comparison, with Caucasian, feminism, and Equal Rights Amendment, reveals a series of significant numeric trends starting in the late 1950s. As but a few examples, the electronic archives of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune show the terms Negro plus schizophrenia or schizophrenic returned 36 results dated 1930 to 1955 and a staggering 259 results dated 1956 to 1979. A search for Negro plus paranoid or paranoia similarly returned 12 results dated 1930 to 1955 versus 358 results dated 1956 to 1979. Caucasian or white plus schizophrenic or schizophrenia returned no results from 1930 to 1955 and only 1 from 1956 to 1979, and feminism or women’s rights plus schizophrenia or schizophrenic returned no results from 1930 to 1955 and 10 results dated 1956 to 1979.


Metzl goes on to note the way in which this imagery of schizophrenia was used to differentiate between "good" blacks, who did not raise anxiety in mainstream, white, society, and "bad" blacks, who were angry and appeared poised to destroy the social order: "Schizophrenia also provided a framework for dividing civilized blacks from unruly ones, the Martin Luther Kings and Jackie Robinsons who espoused nonviolence from the LeRoi Joneses, Stokely Carmichaels, and Rap Browns who did not."

During this period, the black press, and black leaders and theorists, also adopted the psychiatric imagery of schizophrenia, but for them it was seen in reverse. Rather than categorising the revolutionary black man as violently mentally ill, and his protest, his frustration and his anger as the symptoms of his disease, black writers saw the situation of a black man living in a white supremacist society as the cause of a kind of survival schizophrenia and revolution the healthy road to a cure. "In their pages, schizophrenia also became a rhetorically black disease. But, instead of a condition caused by civil rights, schizophrenia resulted from the conditions that made civil rights necessary. Civil rights did not make people crazy, racism did. Instead of a mark of stigma, schizophrenia functioned as a protest identity and an internalized, projected form of defiance."

It is when Metzl turns his attention to his historical research into the medical files of hundreds of patients at the Ionia State Hospital, originally known as the ​Michigan ​Asylum ​for ​Insane ​Criminals, which operated between 1885 ​and ​1976, that we see the real-life consequences for black, primarily male patients.

In looking at the charts of schizophrenic patients from earlier time periods, prior to the beginnings of the civil rights movement, he found that these patients were not seen as particularly violent. While a minority of patients were described as hostile, suspicious or paranoid, these patients were most frequently described as confused, withdrawn, and cooperative. Further, differences between the symptoms of white and black patients with schizophrenia were for the most part insignificant; black patients were more likely to be suspicious, white patients to be suicidal.

Further, it was the assumption that patients, even those remanded to the Hospital because they were classified as criminally insane, were to be treated with the eventual goal of recovery and release. "During the first half of the twentieth century, the idea that even criminally insane persons might improve with treatment and return to their lives functioned as a viable concept. The goal of institutions such as Ionia was not merely to warehouse people, but to recuperate them."

In examining the medical records of Black men admitted in the 50s and early 60s and diagnosed with various personality disorders, Metzl observed that these diagnoses were often changed to one of schizophrenia in the late 60s and early 70s, even though the other contents of the records made it very clear that there had been no change in their symptoms, no new manifestations of disease. Despite the move toward deinstitutionalisation of the period, which led to the downsizing and eventual closing of many hospitals for the mentally ill, these black men were considered dangerous and were among the few patients kept in custody. Indeed, when Ionia Hospital was finally closed, this same group of black men were transferred to another facility for the dangerously insane. At the same time, white women who had been admitted with diagnoses of schizophrenia were being re-diagnosed with depression and released to the care of their families.

Metzl makes it clear - and quotes extensively from representative case files in so doing - that the black men in treatment at Ionia Hospital were not healthy persons unjustly confined. Rather, he is exploring how the ways in which the assessment of the men's condition, and their prospects for release, were affected by changing ideas about blackness, illness and violence.
This is not to suggest that many of the men did not suffer from debilitating mental anguish—indeed, the men lost lives and dreams and loved ones, and were often deeply in need of treatment and care. But the associations implied by that anguish changed over time. In institutional terms, “Negro symptoms” such as hallucinations, delusions, and violent projections came to mean different things. ... Thus did African American men at Ionia develop schizophrenia, not because of changes in their clinical presentations, but because of changes in the connections between their clinical presentations and larger, national conversations about race, violence, and insanity.


Metzl concludes with a brief exploration of the way in which imprisonment has replaced commitment to care facilities for those who enter the justice system with a mental illness.
Many mental-health professionals feel that something is deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates so many mentally ill persons, or that posits prisons as primary treatment centers. The illnesses themselves too often become life sentences. Symptoms so frequently get worse, and the prison rhetoric of containment precludes improvement, recovery, or reintegration. We are not apologists for crime. Yet, most mental-health providers believe that even nightmare scenarios, in which mental illnesses contribute to criminal acts, demonstrate the importance of treating such illnesses proximally, in the community, rather than distally, after the deed is done.
...

The notion of recuperation fell by the wayside as hospitals became prisons. Sentences grew ever longer, moats deeper, and barbed wire sharper. Empathy gave way to fear, fear to anger, and anger ultimately to indifference. “Everything changed when mental health was taken over by Corrections” was a refrain I heard again and again during oral history interviews with staffers who worked at Ionia during the transition to Riverside. “Corrections told us to stop caring for people,” an elderly gentleman who worked as an attendant told me, “even though in some cases we had these people in the hospital for years. Corrections made clear that our job was just to keep them quiet. No one gave a damn about their needs."


This is a difficult but important book, especially in the current rising wave of racial unrest that may well presage a second wave of revolutionary human rights activism among people of colour. One of the most important take-aways from this book for me has been how psychiatry and white fear interacted to reinforce the caricatured social image of black people as violent savages - which is the exact racist imagery that both triggers and is used to excuse the violence against black bodies and black lives we are seeing all around us. This is one part of how these images gain credence and blot out the truth.

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Earlier this month, I learned of a free giveaway offer for Chesya Burke's new novel, Strange Crimes of Little Africa, which will be coming out from Rothco Press on December 1st. I was lucky enough to be one of those who received a no-strings-attached electronic ARC, although in the interests of full disclosure, the publishers did ask after the fact if I would be willing to post a review. Since I do that for almost all the books I read, that's no problem.

Strange Crimes of Little Africa is set in 1926, in Harlem, in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance and the flowering of jazz. The protagonist is Jaz Idewell, a young black woman studying anthropology at Barnard College. Jaz is bright, sure of herself, and proud of her position in Harlem society as the daughter of the first black cop in New York, a man that her neighbours look up to and respect. Inspired by her father's profession, she has an interest in criminology, and even fancies that she might become not just a lady cop, but a detective.

She has a good life. Her best friend is fellow Barnard student Zora Neale Hurston (yes, that Zora Neale Hurston) and she has loose connections to other members of the Harlem Renaissance. She's connected, happy, and even the white professors and cops in her life seem to like her.

Then it all begins to unravel when she finds herself witness to the discovery of a body long-hidden, and realises that the dead man is her uncle, missing for 15 years. In her desire to solve the mystery of what happened, and clear the name of her cousin, arrested for the murder, Jaz, with Zora at her side, will explore the dangerous corners of Harlem life and discover hard truths about herself, her family, and the society she lives in. This is not just a historical murder mystery, this is also the nuanced and poignant portrayal of a young woman forced to suddenly grow up and see the world as it is, not as she wants it to be.

Burke has talked about the research she did to make the setting as historically accurate as possible. By making Zora Neale Hurston, who was indeed studying anthropology at Barnard in 1926, and well-known black numbers boss "Madame" Stephanie St. Clair and her enforcer "Bumpy" Johnson, characters in the novel, Burke both enhances the realism and gives us a rich perspective on urban black life in the 1920s in America.

I want to talk a bit about how reading this book affected me as a white woman. As I've mentioned above, Jaz Idewell is intelligent, courageous, caring, a bit inclined to jump to conclusions and charge right into situations, and more than a bit naive. She's flawed - which makes her human - but she's interesting and admirable, which makes her a great character, and one that I found very easy to identify with. But the world that Jaz lives in is a world full of both casually personal and crushingly systemic racism and sexism, and to the best of my knowledge, Burke doesn't sugarcoat it.

So as a white reader - or at least, this white reader -proceeds through the book, identifying with Jaz, and getting a second hand look at the treatment Jaz receives as a black woman, everything from the daily microaggressions to the huge and heart-breaking events of intentional cruelty, there's a buildup of resentment, frustration and rage.

This is something that I've experienced before, this fierce and honest generosity on the part of an author that allows me to see, at a remove but still from the inside, a form of oppression that's not something I experience myself. I've seen it in the work of Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Thomas King, Leslie Feinberg, and others. And I do believe that Burke intended this for her white audience, and I hope others will embrace this as I have tried to, as a gift of sharing experience and a path to understanding.

Strange Crimes in Little Africa works on many levels, as a mystery, as a rite of passage narrative, as an introduction to a vibrant place and time in American history, and as a meditation on what it was - and still is - like to be a black woman in America. And it's clear that Burke has at least one sequel in mind.

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Franz Kafka once wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, is such a book. It is framed as a message to his son about his own experiences, thoughts and perceptions of race and racism in America. A message written at a time when the experience of race and racism is front and centre in American culture, as it was for James Baldwin when he wrote, as part of The Fire Next Time, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." An attempt to explain how the past became the present and what that may mean to the future.

But where there was hope mixed in with the history and the horror in Baldwin's message, Coates does not see through to or articulate a better future when he considers what it is his son is seeing today.
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
What Between the World and Me really is, at least in the eyes of a white woman who is not the audience Coates has foremost in his mind, is a hammer aimed at the cold stone heart of racism in North America, a howl of rage against the inequities of centuries of abuse, another tear in the flood of salt soul water that has poured from the black bodies beaten, raped, tortured, shot, hanged, denied, defamed, derided, devalued, disappeared.
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.


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In Black London: Life before Emancipation, Gretchen Garzina looks at the history of black people in England, a history that - despite the common belief of many - stretches back for centuries. In her Introduction, Grezina sets out her intention to document the black presence in England which, as stated in a quotation from scholar Peter Freyer, 'goes back some 2,000 years and has been continuous since the beginning of the sixteenth century or earlier.’ Grezina goes on to identify the scope of the sources she draws on:
While nearly five centuries have passed since the beginning of that continuous presence, a vivid trail of diaries, memoirs, public records and pictures remains. The satirical prints sold by seventeenth-, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century booksellers still appear in shop windows on the King’s Road and in Bloomsbury; the dozens of novels containing black characters from the same period are still in many libraries. My task in this book is to reconstruct London, and indeed the entire country, by altering our vision.
Beginning with the presence of black entertainers and servants in the courts of Queen Elizabeth, and the slave trade which she supported - although she also expressed concern at the number of black people entering England, slave or free, who threatened the livelihood of white Britons - there have been black people living and working in Britain. What Gerzina achieves here is to paint a detailed picture of their lives, of the range of black experiences, from honoured courtiers to enslaved workers.
... once the lens through which we view the eighteenth century is refocused, the London of Johnson, Reynolds, Hogarth and Pope—that elegant, feisty, intellectual and earthy place of neo-classicism and city chaos—becomes occupied by a parallel world of Africans and their descendants working and living alongside the English. They answer their doors, run their errands, carry their purchases, wear their livery, appear in their lawcourts, play their music, drink in their taverns, write in their newspapers, appear in their novels, poems and plays, sit for their portraits, appear in their caricatures and marry their servants. They also have private lives and baptize their own children, attend schools, bury their dead. They are everywhere in the pictures we have all seen and the pages we have turned. They were as familiar a sight to Shakespeare as they were to Garrick, and almost as familiar to both as they are to Londoners today.
Grezina also explores the legal cases touching on the issue of the legitimacy of slavery in Britain, illustrating the slow evolution in law of abolitionist ideas. She spends considerable time on the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart case which, despite its narrow applicability - resolving only the question of whether one man, James Somerset, was to be considered slave or free under British law - became a significant precedent and influenced the politics of slavery far beyond the effect specified by the judge, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (who was the great-uncle and guardian of Dido Elizabeth Belle [2])
All over Britain and America, slaves, abolitionists, lawyers and judges cited the Somerset case as ending slavery in Britain, a precedent which many saw as applying to America as well: slaves who crossed into free states with their masters, even temporarily, tested the legality of slavery. Despite Mansfield’s many pains to reassert the deliberate narrowness of his decision, he seemed powerless to stem the tide of misinterpretation, demonstrating ‘a legal world where things are not what they seem, a world of deceptive appearances and unforeseen consequences’.... Despite the decision, slaves were still sold and sent out of the country for years afterward, often quite openly.
As unrest grew in the American colonies, British colonial governors began to offer escaped slaves and freedom in return for enrolling in the British armies. These freedmen fought for the British side and after the Revolution, many - though not all - were evacuated, along with other British Loyalists. Ironically, many of these free blacks sailed alongside white Loyalists departing for other British colonies with their slaves. In all, approximately 14,000 free blacks were transported to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, St Lucia, Nassau and England. Unfortunately, the British Empire was not prepared for such an influx of free black displaced British citizens.
Up until 1783 Britain’s black population consisted mainly of servants and former servants, musicians and seamen. Suddenly, with the end of the war with America, England felt itself ‘overwhelmed’ by an influx of black soldiers who had served the loyalist cause and who crossed the Atlantic for their promised freedom and compensation. Refugees from slavery shuttled between the West Indies, America, Canada, Europe and Africa looking for freedom, homes and work in a western world still financially dependent upon slavery and the slave trade. There was, it seemed, no safe harbour, no one to trust, no way to escape the effects of the African diaspora and 250 years of the triangular trade.
British response to the increase of the black population was, ultimately, to try to get rid of it. Grezina details the disastrous history of the scene to resettle as many blacks as possible from Britain to Sierra Leone, noting that "From beginning to end, even with the most altruistic and charitable of motives, England’s involvement with the Sierra Leone colony had involved intrigue, greed and poor planning." After suffering years of mismanagement, chaos, and neglect, the situation in the colony finally began to improve with the arrival of a second group of black settlers from Nova Scotia.

Ironically, once the government plan to send blacks from Britain to Sierra Leone was embarked upon, the momentum of the abolitionist movement in Britain began to build up speed. In the last section of her book, Grezina examines the key events marking the movement's progress, ending in the adoption on March 25, 1807, of a bill stating that as of 1 January 1808 the slave trade was to be ‘utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful’.

Grezina's work is well- and widely-researched, highly readable, and full of detail that brings to life both the experience of black people in the heart of England and the struggle for freedom.


[1] Peter Fryer, Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction
[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_Elizabeth_Belle

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Paul Robeson is one of my personal heroes. Artist and activist, he gave his voice to the people, to entertain and also to speak for them. He was famous for his performances as an actor on stage and screen, as a singer of enormous talent - just to hear a recording of his voice is to be transported by it (and if you have never heard him singing what became his signature piece, Ol' Man River, the go and do it right now, I'll still be here when you get back) - but he was also an important International voice for peace, equality and justice.
Robeson was and remains important because his conception of justice was based on something as simple as our fundamental right to dignity. A true American, he had a Whitman-esque belief in the commonality of human experience, regardless of background or race. (“I realised that the fight of my Negro people in America and the fight of the oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle,” he said of his political awakening.) The ability of his politics to contain multitudes made him a icon to rebels in the Spanish civil war, to miners in Britain, to anti-lynching marchers in the American south and to all those who heard in his voice a spirit of defiance undimmed by the persecution of his people – and by “his people”, I mean us all. (http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/11/voice-thunders)
The passion and eloquence and power that made him a voice to be heard, also made him a voice to be feared by governments caught up in Cold War hysteria and concerns about growing resistance to social injustice around the world.

Jordan Goodman's new biography, Paul Robeson: A Watched Man, is
... a story of passionate political struggle and conviction. Using archival material from the FBI, the State Department, MI5 and other secret agencies, Jordan Goodman reveals the true extent of the US government’s fear of this heroic individual. Robeson eventually appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he spiritedly defended his long-held convictions and refused to apologise, despite the potential damage to his career. (http://www.versobooks.com/books/1493-paul-robeson)
Goodman gives Robeson his due as an artist, but places particular focus on his activism and on the ways in which the American government tried to restrict his movements, silence his voice and tarnish his message.

I take great joy in hearing that Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, has announced that his next film project will be a biopic of Paul Robeson. It's more than time for people to be reminded of who he was, and for his message to rise again.
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One thing I'm loving about what's happening in the world of sff anthology editing these days is the growing number of projects devoted in one way or another to supporting the concept of diversity. Because, as editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older note in the Introduction to their anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History,
We grew up reading stories about people who weren’t much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. When we looked for faces and thoughts like our own, we found orcs and deviants and villains. And we began to wonder why some people’s stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to.
The brief for this anthology was simple: to publish stories of speculative history, set between 1400 and the early 1900s, stories that are grounded in real events, that focus on marginalised people, and that have a speculative element. The stories in this anthology for the most part do this very well. They speak in the voices of the ones who did not have the power to tell their history, who were subsumed and made to disappear into the dominant narrative of the powerful, the colonisers, the privileged.
Most written chronicles of history, and most speculative stories, put rulers, conquerors, and invaders front and center. People with less power, money, or status—enslaved people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, laborers, women, people with disabilities, the very young and very old, and religious minorities, among others—are relegated to the margins. Today, mainstream history continues to perpetuate one-sided versions of the past while mistelling or erasing the stories of the rest of the world. (http://longhidden.com/)
The stories collected in Long Hidden are examples of resistance to this dominant master narrative of history. And there is much good reading here.

Worth noting is that this excellent and prigressively-themed anthology comes from a small press - Crossed Genres (http://crossedgenres.com/) - that seems to be doing some intetesting projects. I have several more of their books in my TBR pile, and a few more on my To Be Acquired list.

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Randall Kennedy (an African-American professor at Harvard Law School who specialises in, among other things, race relations law) has written a very interesting book about the word that no white person can say without risking denunciation as a racist of the very worst kind - even though, as Kennedy notes in the book, racism can do as much, or more harm, when clothed in polite condescension or specious arguments pretending to quote scientific or historical "fact" as it can when broadcast through an aggressively abusive epithet.

In a wide-ranging discourse (which is unfortunately limited to the use of the w9rd in the USA), Kennedy examines the range of cultural meanings of the word, depending on who is using it, and when, and to whom, and for what purpose, the legal ramifications of using it in various circumstances, and shares his own opinions on the question of whether a white person in modern America can use the word in a non-racist way.

My only complaint is that I wanted more discussion of all of these things, and a more broadly based analysis.... The book seemed too brief to adequately examine the vast impact of the word.

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The sad truth I must face as someone who has tried to maintain a book journal for a year now is that I read too many books (at least for someone who wants to do something other than read, work, sleep and snuggle with my partner), which leaves me less time than most of them deserve to talk about them. Here are some very good books I read in this past year. I enjoyed and learned greatly from them all.


The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Overture and the San Domingo Revolution, C.L.R. James

This book has been called a masterpiece of Marxist historical analysis, the best account of the Haitian (San Domingo) Revolution of 1791-1803 ever written, a seminal text in the study of the African diaspora, and a good many other fine things. It is not an easy read, and it certainly helps to be familiar with the course of events of the French Revolution (as a French colony and a major link in the African slave trade for the French empire, the course of the revolution in San Domingo was inevitably affected by events within Revolutionary France and by its relationships with the United States, Britain, and Spain). But it’s a good read.


Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith

This is an immensely important book. Lest my simple words fail to express how important it is, I will instead point to some reviews.
I am most intrigued by the simplicity with which Smith links sexual violence to land to bodies to spirituality, in such a way that you can see the cause and effect of colonization on each link which then influence the other links. It is a circle that is hard-pressed to be broken or to know where to begin the healing and repair. What makes Smith's text so powerful is her illustration of a cycle of violence and genocide that has a long history and what looks like a long future, especially when colonial attitudes of violence, rape, and power are being internalized in our Native communities. "All women of color," Smith notes, "live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race." Megan L. MacDonald, American Studies Program, Purdue University

Conquest examines the relationship between the violence of state institutions and experiences of interpersonal violence. Smith argues that a culture reliant upon dominance and intimidation for social cohesion will inevitably result in violence within interpersonal relationships. Through a series of thematic chapters, Smith demonstrates how people of colour, and Aboriginal peoples specifically, have been further victimized by the state through racist and sexist policies and surveillance structures that maintain control over every aspect of their lives. Zoe Aarden and Deborah Simmons


The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, ed. Benjamin Drew

During the 1850s, the American abolitionist Benjamin Drew travelled to various communities in Upper Canada (now, roughly, southern Ontario) collecting accounts from people who had escaped slavery in the U.S. and settled in Canada to avoid being captured and returned (including Harriet Tubman). Some of these narratives discuss the conditions under which they lived prior to their escape; others simply recount the flight to Canada and their experiences on settling in a new country. The accounts are fascinating, sometimes harrowing. One element that struck me in many accounts is that the narrators did not try to pretend that they did not experience racism in Canada, but they did almost universally agree that this was not a matter of great concern to them; they appeared to believe that in Canada there were laws that would protect them – or in the worst case, allow them redress – should they suffer harm from any racist acts. Another element was the frequent insistences that virtually all the refugees they knew, including themselves, had been able to make good livings and support themselves and their families, and to live temperate and law-abiding lives. The book’s introduction suggests that the assertions of self-sufficiency may have been in part a response to various undertakings in the northern US at the time, some of them fraudulent, to collect money that would supposedly be sent to Canada to help support refugees, while both arguments could have been intended to counter racist propaganda arguments from Southern slave owners that Blacks needed the institution of slavery to protect them from themselves.


Memoirs of a Race Traitor, Mab Segrest

Recounting the experiences of a white Southern-born lesbian doing anti-racist work during the 70s and 80s in the American South, the book puts a primary focus on race issues, but doesn’t forget how gender and sexual preference issues intersect with them. An interesting and honest book, and one that I found personally interesting – as a white queer who was involved in the late 70s and early 80s in a coalition of people from both the black and queer communities fighting against one of the KKK’s perennial attempts to establish a greater presence in Nova Scotia. Very different situations, circumstances, histories and personalities involved, but just enough of a similarity that it struck me close to home at some points.


My Dangerous Desires, Amber Hollibaugh

An excellent collection of Hollibaugh's writing (with a foreword by Dorothy Allison!), with essays and interviews that address various aspects of the relationships between class, gender, sexuality, political activism, and desire from the perspective of a working-class femme lesbian activist and sex worker, among other things. Many of these essays are deeply personal, grounding the theoretical concepts she is exploring in an analysis of her own roots, influences and life journey. Some of the pieces are conversations with other writers, such as Deirdre English, Gayle Rubin, Jewelle Gomez, and Cherrie Moraga, including the groundbreaking "What We're Rollin' Around in Bed With."


Talking about a Revolution, South End Press Collective (ed.)

A collection of interviews with some of America’s truly great radical left activists and intellectuals – Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Barabara Ehrenreich, bell hooks, Peter Kwong, Winona LaDuke, Manning Marable, Urvashi Vaid and Howard Zinn – about their experiences and hopes for progressive social movements in America and about the spirit of revolution. Much food for thought if you aspire to be a revolutionary, in any sense of the word.

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I've recently finished reading Dionne Brand's A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging.

Her publisher describes this book thusly:

Drawing on cartography, travels, narratives of childhood in the Caribbean, journeys across the Canadian landscape, African ancestry, histories, politics, philosophies and literature, Dionne Brand sketches the shifting borders of home and nation, the connection to place in Canada and the world beyond.

It is a profound meditation on the "sense of place" of a people who had all common ways of establishing that sense obliterated in slaving posts (like the infamous The Door of No Return on Senegal's Gorée Island) and the Middle Passage.

Most other diasporic groups know where to find their ancestral home, have some idea of how to go home again, even if the road is barred by political changes, migrations of other groups onto ancestral soil, despotic regimes, poverty, or a host of other human causes. As a member of the Hebridean diaspora, I know the lands of my ancestors have passed into other hands since they were forced out of their homes and into overcrowded boats bound for the Colonies. But I know my name and my clan. I know which island they were driven from. I could go back.

Descendants of Africans sold into slavery cannot.

I knew this intellectually before I read this book, but Brand allowed me to glimpse, as through a glass, darkly, the feeling of having been torn away from the heartroot with no chance of reconnection, and left me grateful for the lessoning of pain.

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