#Ferguson: What’s White and Wrong with Obama’s AmeriKKKa

Though to learn the history of civil rights as told through the lens of our failed education system, you would think all of White America suddenly realized, “Here ya go black, brown, yellow, and red folk… Why don’t you take a little of this extra freedom. We ain’t using it right now and thought you might like to have some…”

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#Grateful for the Life of Maya Angelou

Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Hold Paula Deen Accountable If You Care About Justice

Clarence "Sunshine" Thomas
Clarence “Long-Dong” Thomas

In my last post I made an appeal to forgive Paula Deenfor her use of the word “nigger” because I was feeling a sense of charity given that my general attitude toward her was already one of low expectations. I glossed over key points also due, in part, to generate a post with brevity and levity. The mild sense of sympathy I felt, however, was countered by a generalized snark and outright cynicism that comes from living as an African American woman living in the South and being a frequent observer (and occasional target) of some individuals behaving like rude, misanthropes all up, in, and through the public sphere. Granted, Southerners are generally very polite people — profusely so, in fact. Southern hospitality is an ethos that most strive to uphold. Though let us not forget, by its very definition, hospitality is a stance that is meant for dealing with strangers or outsiders. Southern hospitality is only an outward appearance; something I call, bless your heart and watch your back. Therefore, for the most part, feelings of snark overtook charity — Christian charity — Southern style.

At any rate, it’s the thing I’ve learned to cope with, dealing with all the craziness of living and working in the South. My first instinct to blow off the gravity of Deen’s actions is the result that comes from years of battle fatigue while trying to avoid bitterness, hypertension, and the gout. For years, I’ve been teaching, learning, working, and living with folk who are oblivious to the privileges and luxuries they derive from inadvertently creating the range of minor inconveniences and insurmountable disasters in the lives of the people of color surrounding them. It happens regularly, without thought, as a simple matter of routine habit. It’s something you simply become accustomed to when you’ve been living in the Carolinas for as long as I have. But of course, as we all know, feelings are emotions. And emotions have a tendency to distort clear thinking. So I write this post to say that my last post (June 25, 2013) is wrong… or at least not entirely correct. That’s right. McFarlane was wrong.

Forgiveness is a good thing, but redress is too. The reason my earlier post missed the mark is because I, like most others, was focused on the media hype. Whereas attention to the more sensational aspects of Paula Deen being politically incorrect and quite possibly rude is one thing, the fact of the matter still remains that Deen was engaging in flat out employment discrimination, which far exceeds the problem of poor interpersonal skills or bad manners. The deposition that brought Deen’s behavior to light involves sworn testimony about Deen using the power of her corporation to place white employees in the front of her business while keeping black employees in the back. In other words, Deen practiced racially discriminatory institutional policies as a matter of workplace procedure. What this means is that Paula Deen actively assigned people to differential labor categories on the basis of race — if not soley, at least partially. In so doing, Deen actively made the decision to foreclose on people’s lives, thereby limiting individual employees’ economic and social chances in life — both long and short term — including (and by no means limited to) their ability to secure reasonable housing, attain decent educational opportunities for themselves and their children, as well as achieve dignified retirements free from poverty. This is the significant issue at hand and flaws in Deen’s individual personality are only tip of the ice burg.

To look at the case of the Paula Deen, here is racism and this is how it works. It works through the material benefits and tangible privileges received by one phenotypical group at the expense of another, wherein you work other folk to death and hurt their children and their children’s children into perpetuity . However, the claim of employment discrimination is seen as altogether different from proving it, says the U.S. Supreme Court. We can thank Clarence Thomas for this little nugget of injustice. Back before Thomas was on the Supreme Court, he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (through the auspices of a Ronald Reagan affirmative action appointment, no less) it became federal policy to disregard claims of racial discrimination based solely on outcome. Merely demonstrating (statistically, or otherwise) that all the employees who happen to be African American get assigned to the back kitchen is irrelevant. The burden of proof demands more than that. Recent politicization of the judicial branch has resulted in numerous close split decisions. This was the EEOC policy that was legitimized once Bush 40 appointed Clarence Thomas to the high court. From the SCOTUS bench, Thomas continues to rule with other conservatives. Thomas’ record of decisions for key racial discrimination cases tends to favor the accused/offending parties. Burden of proof  rest with victims. The plaintiff/victim must not only show damages or unfavorable outcomes, but must prove it’s being done on purpose. Paula Deen’s funny little nigger jokes show how she intentionally disqualified black employees from receiving fair labor compensation. The point is this: it does matter that Deen used the n-word, but not for the reasons the media would have us believe. The outcomes of personal and symbolic racism, such as the derogatory language used by Deen in the institutional context of a public, corporate establishment effectively translates into actual and real institutional racism and substantively proves intent to discriminate. In this particular context, Deen’s use of the word “nigger” equals the kind of racism that causes infant mortality and malnutrition, premature death from stress and overwork, destroys families, shatters dreams, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and social unrest, and fundamentally undermines what it means to live in a civil society based on democratic values. Therefore, if we really care about what we allege America to be, then we have no choice but to hold Paula Deen accountable for saying nigger— even if it was in the context of telling stupid jokes.

When all is said and done (and I think we can all agree at this point that a lot was said and even more was done), the bottom basic point is that Paula Deen ought not be allowed to use the power and wealth of corporate systems to institutionalize social caste groups—not if we are to live in an ethical, fair, and meritocratic society.

Quvenzhané Wallis and the Sad Truth

If you’re like me, the way you watch tv has shifted and your consumption of movies and television is now heavily mediated through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. More and more of us are likely to be in the know about the latest infotainment buzz through trending tweets and the latest status feeds. In fact, since I haven’t been too gung-ho about pricey visits to movie theaters these days,  I hadn’t even heard of Quvenzhané Wallis until last week. I learned of the precocious child actor like most others when she became the youngest person ever to earn an Oscar nomination for her lead acting role in the critically acclaimed fantasy drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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In a ceremony on the night of November 14, 2012, Quvenzhané was acknowledged and honored with the key to her hometown, Houma in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Of course, though not too surprisingly, the media commentary that followed in regards to the young actor’s breakthrough film performance was heavily burdened by the usual laziness of poorly thought-out racist mainstream media tropes in the form of celebrity gossip, ignorance, and out-and-out refusal to pronounce Wallis’s first name correctly. No surprises there. This sort of thing happens like clockwork and is understood as par for the course among even the most casual African American media watchers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB8CGNbrI4c But I admit that I was taken aback and was quite unprepared for the social media firestorm that ensued on Oscar night when the satirical news organization, The Onion, issued a tweet referring to this little girl as a cu*t. Now let’s get this straight: that’s the “c” word that rhymes with “hunt” and not “hoot” and is definitely not the type of descriptive one would normally expect a decent human being to use in the labeling of a small child, not even in the most extreme circumstances. Likewise, the Onion tweet was not a hoot – wasn’t in the least bit funny. And as though on the hunt, the Onion’s slur of choice (along with the fake news organization’s snide and snarky follow up apology) was issued in the same mean spirit as the sexually predatory racial politics that black women in this country have faced for centuries. Though unlike the verbal attacks that many black women have come to expect and subsequently learn to live with, few of us were ready for this particular incident because… well… because Wallis is a child. And children, we thought (hoped?), are supposed to be off limits when it comes to show-business’ usual racism and misogynistic feeding frenzies. But then again, she is a girl…  and a black girl at that. Unfortunately, violence against women is normal in our culture and youth exploitation is ordinary. It continues to be the case that for most African Americans – whether child or adult – neither cuteness nor the genuine innocence of childhood will fully provide our folk refuge from the casual viciousness of racism. The basic ideas of merit and the routine presumption of innocence in the case of black folk hold little sway in the history of US politics and culture. Because the fact still remains, no matter how smart, how talented, or how earnest you are or strive to be, in the eyes of far too many white adults, if you are both female and black you can only ever be nothing but a c-word(even if you’re an adorable, Academy Award nominated prodigy). And that’s the sad truth.

Galvanizing Cuteness

Facebook MLK gun control meme
Facebook MLK gun control meme

Much has been made about the president publicly shedding tears in response to the latest spate of horrific gun violence, especially since many of the victims were such small children. Because my scholarship deals with the centrality of cuteness in the shaping of public and institutional policies concerning race, I make a critique about visual culture operating at the very nexus of American public race policy. As a critical race theory, the rhetorics of cute have the power to galvanize the public. I believe the persuasive effects of cuteness are deployed for the political contexts of commerce and energize Derrick Bell’s notion of  “racial interest convergence.” Whether framing public debates about Civil Rights legislation through the outrage generated by the church bombing of four little girls, the heinous lynching of Emmett Till, and underlying the logos of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Ruby Bridges in “The Problem We All Live,”  cute shapes public policy.

Cute is a longstanding strategy for winning over the dominant interests in public debates and motivates white economic investments to push for substantive political changes. Interestingly enough, the decades-apart public anger precipitated by the killings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was not necessarily amplified by the visuality of cuteness, but was more about the gestures of cuteness as a performative act reflecting childish (and legal) innocence. Till and Martin, after all, were both going about the normal business of adolescence and visiting the candy store. The sheer cuteness of behaving as any child is expected to, at least in the cases of Till and Martin, provides a posthumous racial pass of sorts. Dominant perceptions of African American masculinity in the white public sphere are not so readily second-guessed, especially by the ordinary television media.

 "The Problem We All Live With," Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for "Look," January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.
“The Problem We All Live With,” Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for “Look,” January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

Or consider the groundswell of public sentiment in support of stricter gun control laws (as in the case of the Trayvon Martin killing).  And, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the heartbreak surrounding the tiny victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school is sobering. The media tributes honoring the mostly white classroom of innocent first-graders and educators in the small Connecticut town has been relentless. All this is to say, that I’m just as moved by this recent gun massacre as anyone else and wish that  color were not a part of this discussion. Though unfortunately, the rhetorical power wielded by the ongoing tributes to this group of slain youngsters does speak to dominant sentiments and racial perceptions regarding cuteness.

I’ve even heard some people personally criticize Obama for supposedly not demonstrating enough grief over the epidemic of gun violence prematurely snatching the lives of hundreds of Chicago’s mostly brown and black children. But how would we even know this to be true? It could be that Obama has publicly demonstrated pain over the deaths of this particular group of kids, but it simply eludes coverage. And what about in his private moments with Michelle and his daughters? From all accounts, the loved ones of many of these children were personally known to the first family. Some of the more extreme online memes claim that Obama actually delights in the drone attacks by  Afghan children have been killed as opposed to American kids tragically cut down by gunfire. This latter idea is utterly ridiculous as it commits the logical fallacy of moral equivalency in a most reprehensible fashion. On the other hand, the issue of Chicago gun violence is valid. Not because of Obama’s supposed lack of personal grief, but for how it calls attention to the lopsided racial narratives of commercial “news” coverage.

This racial rhetoric of cuteness continues to operate in surprising ways and draws focus to matters of racial discrimination and privilege. This is why I believe the materiality of cuteness is racially determinative of people’s life chances and helps us better understand the technological and ethical interplay of aesthetic judgements of human worth.

Legacy: Alligator Bait, Civil Rights, and Art

For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.

By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.

Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.

A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.

Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens.  Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.

South Carolina Politics and Racial Decorum by Anastasia of Beverly Hills

GOOD GRIEF! I will NEVER stop being absolutely flabbergasted by the power of EYE SHADOW in the New South. In case you haven’t noticed (in SC), a woman who goes out without her mascara is about as bad as a woman who leaves home without her bloomers!

Because of the exaggerated gender-norming etiquette down here people will assume you’re lazy, no-count, and simply write you off if you dare attend some public spaces bare-faced. True story. It’s jacked up, but I know how it is. I try to resist this conservative politics by playing with these ethics of “pretty-southern-lady” conformity.

In order to experiment with this concept and as a demonstration of my civic duty, today I chose to vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. I did so wearing full make-up face and dressed to the nines (like any *decent* Southern lady would, of course). I made an effort to dress stylishly, yet conservatively.

When I got inside there was less than a dozen other people. All white men (save one woman) and not a single person under 60 years old! The woman standing beside the door immediately greeted me with a huge smile and, for some reason, introduced herself to me as the wife of one of the men and that she was only there because of him. Seriously!! Of course, I responded with equal warmth, a huge smile, and nodded how I “completely understand” (whatever that was supposed to mean).

Now! anybody who knows me knows I *like* to play with make-up, clothes, and cute hair-do’s (so sue me!) —  I wore my favorite wellies, Karen Millen cape, and carried my Kate Spade handbag. I decided to accessorize with a pair of bronze/silver tone Akwaba doll earrings, plus an assortment of colorful, big bangle bracelets. It was raining hard when I pulled up to the polls, so when I got out of my car I decided to use my scarf to cover my head — as though it was an hijab. Once I walked in the door, for dramatic effect, I slowly unwrapped my scarf to reveal PURE AFRICAN CORNROW HAIR TWIST SPLENDOR! LOL! You would’ve thought a talking Panda had just entered the polling place.

It was hilarious. Every single one of those old white folk went out of their way to show EXTREME cordiality. I promise you, each and every one of them individually welcomed and greeted me! The whole room became chatty and smiley. And I was glad to oblige their hospitality! So I entered the booth, voted for the “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrowsuper PAC candidate, Herman Cain.

AND HERE’S THE KICKER: When I exited the booth, one of the greyest, biggest of all the white men actually stopped me, SHOOK MY HAND, HUGGED ME, leaned in, and stage whispered, “So, who’d you vote for?” Then he slyly added, “Only joking.” The place broke into raucous laughter and everyone applauded as I left the polls!

Where else in America does this happen? South Carolina: too small to be a country, too big to be an insane asylum! Now here’s the question, folks. Has the South changed? You tell me.

African American Fabrics

SlaveryMASK is a lavender batik featuring a motif of shackles and a slave wearing a bit-mask.

With all the technological breakthroughs in digital textile design, so much is available nowadays to fabric enthusiasts.  Formal artistic training is optional, while creativity and imagination are key. And though the skills and expertise involved in textile design are usually relegated to the domestic sphere of “crafts,” I believe the special body of knowledge that is derived from this area of creative expression truly reflects our humanity in a very real and profound sense.

Of course, black people have been deeply connected to the material history of textiles in this country and were involved in every aspect of the industry from the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton fiber, to the innovation and manufacture of finished goods. Needless to say, American slavery and the triangular trade that generated it was a brutalizing and dehumanizing process and yet, somehow, African Americans understood that even the most mundane and routine design interventions were necessary to help counter the highly organized systems of power and exploitation they faced. Without question, through the refashioning of a fundamental notion of what it means to be a US citizen, African American influence in the textile technologies (along with their inestimable impact in the areas of music, storytelling, and metalwork) was critical. African enslaved persons deliberately and methodically invented and arranged ingenious networks of emancipatory codes and sign systems into their day-to-day rhetoric of American civic life even as they employed the very technologies that helped to enslave them.

 Adam Banks points this out brilliantly when he writes about Ozella McDaniel Williams who, until her death in 1998, carried with her the knowledge of how to painstakingly place different color knots on quiltwork in order to direct freedom seekers out of slavery and towards a mnemonic path to freedom through the Underground Railroad.  And even  David Walker, who composed the seminal “Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,” purposely designed the document at a size that could be easily concealed once sewn into the fashions Walker sold at his early 19th century clothing store. This way the idea of freedom and emancipation could spread without risking detection by those who would rather thwart liberty.

For all these reasons and more (namely, the fact that my sewing pastime has had me on the lookout for all sorts of cute new materials), I am so digging what Kweli Kitwana is doing with fabrics. Based on her keen awareness of African American history and cultural signifiers, she is designing fabric with some of the most unusual prints I’ve seen in a while. Scenes from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era (as well as some traditional West African motifs) are reinterpreted with fresh, contemporary colors — not the same old primaries and earth tones. Kitwana also has a very clever sense of irony in her designs. With her occasional selections of gothic slavery scenes juxtaposed against pastel backgrounds or arranged as flower petals, her fabric prints display a thematic gravitas that is hard to deny, despite their distinctively attractive character.

Here are some of my favorites:

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