Tuesday, April 23, 2013

More of the same: "Slavery By Another Name"

We are reading Toni Morrison's Beloved this week, and the section on Paul D's experience on a chain gang reminded me of a book (and documentary), titled Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, that reports on the systematic use of imprisonment and chain gangs to suppress blacks after Emancipation and to coerce unpaid labor. This work is also relevant to Ellison's Invisible Man, specifically, the character Brother Tarp, who served on a chain gang for many years. His "souvenir" leg chain connects his experience to the experience of slavery, which is also symbolized by a leg chain on display at the narrator's school (modeled on Tuskegee) that comes earlier in the novel.

The book, Slavery By Another Name, by Douglas Blackmon, won a Pulitzer in 2009 (see blurb below). PBS aired the documentary in January 2013. For more on the book and to view the documentary, go to http://www.slaverybyanothername.com/

Pulitzer Prize

New York, NY (April 20, 2009) — Columbia University awarded its 93rd Annual Pulitzer Prize in the General Nonfiction category to “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A. Blackmon (Doubleday), a precise and eloquent work that examines a deliberate system of racial suppression and that rescues a multitude of atrocities from virtual obscurity.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Confederate Flag: Heritage or Racism? One of my favorite American binaries!

Confederate flag at old N.C. Capitol coming down

A Confederate battle flag hung inside the old North Carolina State Capitol last week to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is being taken down after civil rights leaders raised concerns.
The decision was announced Friday evening, hours after the Associated Press published a story about the flag, which officials said was part of an historical display intended to replicate how the antebellum building appeared in 1863. The flag had been planned to hang in the House chamber until April 2015, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of federal troops in Raleigh.
“This is a temporary exhibit in an historic site, but I’ve learned the governor’s administration is going to use the old House chamber as working space,” Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz said Friday night. “Given that information, this display will end this weekend rather than April of 2015.”
Kim Genardo, the spokeswoman for Gov. Pat McCrory, said the exhibit that includes the Confederate battle flag will be relocated, possibly across the street to the N.C. Museum of History.
The decision was a quick about-face for the McCrory administration, which initially defended the display. Many people see the flag as a potent reminder of racial discrimination and bigotry.
State Historic Sites Director Keith Hardison had said Thursday the flag should be viewed in what he called the proper historical context.
“Our goal is not to create issues,” said Hardison, a Civil War re-enactor and history buff. “Our goal is to help people understand issues of the past. … If you refuse to put something that someone might object to or have a concern with in the exhibit, then you are basically censoring history.”
North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William Barber was shocked Friday when he was shown a photo of the flag by the AP.
“He is right that it has a historical context,” Barber said. “But what is that history? The history of racism. The history of lynchings. The history of death. The history of slavery. If you say that shouldn’t be offensive, then either you don’t know the history, or you are denying the history.”
Barber couldn’t immediately be reached Friday night, after the decision to take down the flag.
Sessions of the General Assembly moved to a newer building a half-century ago, but the old Capitol building is still routinely used as a venue for official state government events. McCrory’s office is on the first floor, as are the offices of his chief of staff and communications staff.
The Republican governor was in the House chamber where the Confederate flag hangs as recently as Thursday, when he presided over the swearing-in ceremony of his new Highway Patrol commander.
The presentation of the Confederate battle flag at state government buildings has long been an issue of debate throughout the South. For more than a decade, the NAACP has urged its members to boycott South Carolina because of that state’s display of the flag on the State House grounds.
Prior to taking his current job in North Carolina in 2006, Hardison worked as director at the Mississippi home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which is operated as a museum and library owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group has led the fight in the South for the proud display of the Confederate flag, which it contends is a symbol of heritage, not hate.
Hardison said the battle flag was displayed with other flags described in the diary of a North Carolina woman who visited the Capitol in 1863. A large U.S. flag displayed in the Senate chamber is reminiscent of a trophy of war captured from Union troops at the Battle of Plymouth.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to recreate this?” Hardison said. “I think we were all thinking along the same vein. … The Capitol is both a working seat of government, in that the governor and his staff has his office there. But it is also a museum.”
Hardison pointed out that the national flag used by the Confederate government, with its circle of white stars and red and white stripes, is still flown over the State Capitol dome each year on Confederate Memorial Day. The more familiar blood-red battle flag, featuring a blue “X” studded with white stars, was used by the rebel military.
David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of the book “Still Fighting the Civil War,” said the battle flag can hold starkly different meanings depending on a person’s social perspective.
“The history of the Confederate battle flag, how it was designed and formulated, how it has been used through the years, clearly states that it is a flag of white supremacy,” Goldfield said. “I know current Sons of Confederate Veterans would dispute that, saying ‘Hey, I’m not a racist.’ But the fact remains that the battle flag was used by a country that had as its foundation the protection and extension of human bondage.” (AP)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Audience Awareness

The three-fifths compromise that counted slaves toward slaveholding states' representation in Congress--a good example of setting aside differences in politics, says the president of Emory University, and one we should follow today!


A student in my African American lit. class told me that the chapter on the Civil War in her little sister's Virginia high school US history textbook is titled "The War of Northern Aggression."

I guess we don't study history to avoid making the same mistakes because . . . we didn't make any!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mississippi ratifies the 13th Amdendment!

....in 2013. To be fair, Mississippi voted to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, way back in 1995. But someone forgot to let the folks in Washington know, so it didn't count. Now the state filed the paperwork so Mississippi is on record as supporting the abolition of slavery.

In the article linked below, one legislator gushes about the 1995 vote: "It was unanimous. . . . Some didn’t vote, but we didn’t receive a ‘nay’ vote." A lot to be excited about.


Photos of African Americans during the Civil War and after Emancipation

Perfect timing for our discussion of Frances E.W. Harper's Iola Leroy (1892)! Harper's sentimental/uplift novel represents the role of enslaved African Americans during the Civil War and immediately after Emancipation. And here's a new book of rare photographs of African Americans, taken during the Civil War and after Emancipation. These photographs have never been collected before. The book's authors searched archives to find them. The following link will take you to a blog that discusses the book and that posts photographs from the book:


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sssshhhh, don't tell anyone, but President Obama is black

Washington Monthly
January/ February 2013 Introduction: Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term
By Paul Glastris

In the summer of 2011, under siege from both the left and the right for his efforts to broker a budget deal to avoid a debt default, Barack Obama defended his leadership with a telling historical analogy. He noted that the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of which hangs on his Oval Office wall, outlawed slavery only in rebel states while allowing the practice to continue elsewhere in the country. This compromise, Obama noted, was necessary to keep Union-allied slave states like Kentucky and Missouri behind the war effort—and it was the Union’s military superiority that ultimately enabled the freeing of all the slaves. Yet had partisan media outlets like the Huffington Post been around when Lincoln signed the Proclamation, Obama joked, the headline would have read: “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.”
Obama was making a fair point about the wisdom and necessity of compromise—a point later reflected in a memorable scene in the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, when the president, accused by abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of lacking a moral compass, responds that knowledge of true north is not enough to navigate past the swamps that stand between you and your destination.
Yet if compromise was a vital component of the Proclamation, it is worth remembering who precisely was asked to sacrifice. It wasn’t the abolitionists, whose only real stake in the outcome was their moral convictions. It was African Americans, whose day of liberation was deferred. And the waiting, of course, would continue. For after the glory of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment came the failure of Reconstruction and, with it, the stripping of black political and economic rights. The brutal reimposition of a white supremacist system under Jim Crow would survive another century and affect the trajectory of black America far beyond that.
On the eve of Obama’s second inauguration, a day that falls almost exactly 150 years after the Proclamation went into effect, we thought it appropriate to devote this issue of the magazine to the subjects of race, history, and the condition of minorities in America today. For while it is true that Obama, as measured by his November vote totals, retains the overwhelming support of Americans of color, that support was accompanied by yet another political compromise. America, it seemed, would reelect its first black president, but only if he didn’t talk about race.
Obama mentioned race fewer times in his first two years in office than any Democratic president since 1961, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Gillon. When he has talked about it, it often has not gone well. When he said last year that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon” Martin, the young man who was killed tragically in Florida, he provoked a fierce backlash, not only from the predictable sources—Rush Limbaugh and the National Review—but also from more moderate groups that had previously condemned Martin’s killing. Obama’s simple expression of sympathy became instantaneously polarizing, a political liability both to himself and to those who would advocate for black issues. Perhaps chastened by the experience, Obama has since returned to his tried-and-true strategy of assiduously avoiding the topic of race.
This politically imposed cone of silence around the president makes it all the more difficult for the nation to acknowledge and confront discrimination in our society—and if you doubt such a thing still exists, consider the eight-hour lines this past fall at some polling stations in minority neighborhoods in Ohio and Florida after Republican-led governments narrowed early-voting laws. Or consider the AFL-CIO-sponsored poll showing that nationwide, 24 percent of Latino voters and 22 percent of African Americans waited longer than thirty minutes to vote in November, while only 9 percent of whites did.
The don’t-talk-about-race stricture also makes it hard for the country to have an honest conversation about the many realms of American life in which minorities suffer disproportionately—even if overt discrimination isn’t the driving cause. Nearly all Americans lost significant wealth in the Great Recession, but as a percentage of income blacks and Hispanics lost far more. Modern health scourges like obesity and diabetes are hitting all of America hard but African Americans harder. Our China-like rates of incarceration are slowly beginning to trouble the consciences of the opinion-making class, but they have long been a devastating reality in the lives of black families, where every third father or son is, has been, or someday will be behind bars.
It has never been easy to engage the sympathies of America’s white majority on issues of racial inequality, even in the best of times—and these are far from the best of times. Many whites today are of the view that the civil rights era removed the main obstacles to minority self-advancement, and that whatever disparities remain are largely the result of bad personal choices or unhelpful cultural mores for which contemporary whites cannot be blamed. But it is also the case that many whites, perhaps even most, have a lingering sense that it is not that simple—that our country’s past mistreatment of minorities has consequences that are still playing out, even if the chain of causality is not altogether clear.
One aim of the stories in this issue is to clarify those historical causal chains. Why, for instance, do middle-class blacks today have substantially less wealth than whites at the same income level? It is not a lesser propensity to save. Rather, as Thomas Sugrue explains (“A House Divided”), many working-class white Americans spent the late 1940s through the early ’60s riding the great escalator of upward mobility, building wealth they could pass on to their children with the help of a booming economy and federally subsidized mortgages and college educations. Meanwhile, black Americans were not allowed on board because of various discriminatory laws and practices. When, in the late 1960s and ’70s, the federal government began eliminating these barriers, the great postwar economic escalator was already beginning to break down. Union jobs were disappearing. Wages were stagnating. And the homes African Americans were buying in the inner cities, often from whites who were leaving for the suburbs, were about to decline rather than rise in value. In other words, past discrimination and bad timing, not bad habits, best explain today’s racial wealth disparities.
If whites and minorities were once on different economic and social tracks, they sure aren’t anymore. Downward mobility is now a shared American experience, especially since the Great Recession. Family breakdowns we once associated with poor blacks are now common among working- and middle-class whites (see Isabel Sawhill, “The New White Negro”). This merging of racial trajectories is not exactly good news. But it does provide an opening for the president to lead, even if he doesn’t have much latitude to talk openly about race, for the simple reason that it is now more possible to argue that policies that would help minorities would also profoundly benefit the majority.

To finish reading this article and to access other articles in the magazine, go to: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/toc/januaryfebruary2013/index.php#042295

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Frederick Douglass--still on the move

Douglass Statue Prepares For Move to U.S. Capitol

Photo by lreed76
By DCist contributor John Muller
As United States Marshal of the District, Frederick Douglass took to walking from his home in Cedar Hill in Anacostia to his office in City Hall, just around the corner from where his seven-foot bronze likeness was first unveiled in the fall of 2008.

In another step towards the statue’s legislated move from the lobby of One Judiciary Square at 441 Fourth Street NW to Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol, political and community leaders and Douglassonians will convene next Monday evening, February 4 at 6:30 p.m., for a public pep rally in recognition of the Lion of Anacostia.

Before the statue made its public appearance, in 2008 the city submitted proposals to the U.S. Mint advocating Douglass and fellow Maryland native Benjamin Banneker grace the city’s thematic quarter. Exposing its own historical illiteracy, though, the city’s application needed some quick fact checking by high school teachers to amend that Douglass did not move to the nation’s capital to help abolish slavery. (A Douglass quarter is planned for 2017.)

“At the close of the war he moved to Washington and became deeply interested in the practical work of reconstruction,” wrote George Washington Williams, one of the nineteenth century’s foremost black historians, in 1883.

It is understandable that an often one-dimensional telling of Douglass as a runaway slave turned abolitionist is what holds the public’s consciousness. But Douglass lived nearly thirty years after the Civil War; twenty-five of which were spent partially or entirely in Washington.

During these years Douglass launched the last of his newspaper ventures, was appointed to the city’s Legislative Council, served on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, raised money for the city’s colored schools, advocated “District Suffrage,” buried his wife, his namesake, far too many grandchildren and scores of his old line allies; radical abolitionists, journalists, suffragists, educators, ministers, runaway slaves, diplomats and Presidents.

When Douglass settled in Washington in 1872, post-emancipation Washington was envisioned by radical Republican Congressmen and Senators as becoming a fully politically, and socially, integrated “Example for all the Land,” as Northwestern University Professor Kate Masur details in her award-winning 2010 book. Rights of enfranchisement and public accommodation for black folk were codified. With the arrival of the country’s first generation of black Civil Rights leaders, towering figures of their day, into the halls of Congress, Washington was the place to be for those on the make. One of the most prominent men of “New Washington” was Frederick Douglass.

Robert Smalls, a former slave, war hero and Congressman, recalled when meeting Douglass that as a child in Charleston, South Carolina Douglass’s 1845 autobiography was passed around among the slaves illegally.
This younger generation of black political leaders and social reformers, looking for guidance, turned to the elder Douglass who in turn shared his experiences, influence, money and blood, sweat and tears to improve the lot of not just the city’s black elite but also the orphans who ran the streets of late 19th century Washington.

For marrying Helen Pitts, the daughter of a white abolitionist, in 1884 against the wishes of both their families, Douglass upturned Washington society. His marriage was met with mixed emotions in the daily papers and divided the black press.

The Washington Grit, edited by black nationalist John Edward Bruce, let loose, “Barnum could make a mint of money out of this couple if they would consent to go on exhibition. We do not believe that it adds anything to the character or good sense of either of the two races to intermarry with each other, and when it is done it will generally be found that moral depravity is at the bottom of them.”

Representing black Washington’s more conservative temperament, the Washington Bee, known for its standard tag line “Honey for Friends, Stings for Enemies,” did not object to the interracial union. On February 2, 1884, the Bee’s tag line championed the protection of civil liberties, its editorial on Douglass and Helen Pitts saying as much. “If [Douglass] felt disposed to marry a white lady, it does not prove that he is opposed to the colored ladies of our city,” the Bee said, offering a rebuttal to black women who could not help feeling slighted. “Mr. Douglass will be different from other men who have white wives. He will not try to hide his identity with his race, but he will still be Frederick Douglass, the defender of civil and political liberty.”

In the parlors of Cedar Hill and on the back lawn literary readings hosting neighbors, students from Howard University, Washington poets and old friends from Rochester, New York were held with regularity.
Known to carry a pistol in her purse since witnessing the lynching of a close friend in Memphis in the late 1880s, Ida B. Wells was a frequent guest at the Douglass home in Anacostia. Unlike many black women of her time, and Douglass’s own children, Wells befriended Frederick as much as Helen. In Wells’s autobiography, compiled by her daughter, she writes, “The friendship and hospitality I enjoyed at the hands of these two great souls is among my treasured memories.”

The sweeping styles of Frederick Douglass, one of the 19th century’s most prominent Victorian men of letters, are various. From taking in a baseball game to horse playing with his grandchildren to stringing a song from his memories of the Wye House plantation in Maryland’s Talbot County, the time Douglass spent in Washington was a regeneration of the former adolescent slave who walked the streets of Baltimore in the 1830s picking up torn Bible pages scattered in the gutter. A fugitive slave for nearly a decade, hunted by United States Marshals in the immediate aftermath of John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1859, Douglass was no longer an outlaw when he and his family settled in post-emancipation Washington.
The full portraiture of Douglass, the most photographed man of the 19th century according to new research, is not complete without a full exposure, recognition, and discussion of his time in our city.

Throughout February (designated Black History Month because Dr. Carter G. Woodson sought a week in February to honor the birth months of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln), there are a handful of Douglass-related events at the D.C. Public Library and local bookstores and museums. On Saturday, February 2 and February 23, I am leading a tour ($30) of Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia, while seven days a week free public tours of the Douglass home are offered at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Historic Anacostia.

John Muller is the author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Kodak Moment

Fascinating article about how Kodak developed film stock to photograph only white skin, rendering black people nearly invisible. And, conversely (or maybe similarly), how Polaroid designed a camera that "boosted" light exposure exactly enough to capture black skin so that South Africa's apartheid regime could photograph blacks for the passbooks used to control their movement. Talk about technologies of race.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Read what Frederick Douglass read

Here's a link to full-text, original copy versions of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Segregation--alive and well in 1963

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Today is the 50th anniversary of George Wallace's fiery declaration, in 1963, during his inaugural address as governor of Alabama. 1963--nine years after Brown v. Board declared segregation unconstitutional. Also the year I was born. As Americans, how could we not still be living with the legacy of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction to produce any sort of racial equality, and the long era of segregation (with the lynching, KKK, and disfranchisement that went along with it)? How can we be post-racial if we're barely post-segregation? That's not to say that racial categories and attitudes haven't changed. It's just to say you can't wipe out history that fast. It was current events for a lot of folks still around.

Here's an NPR Radio Diaries story remembering Wallace's speech:


Friday, January 11, 2013

Does Race Have Anything to Do with Skin Color?

 As Marlon Riggs said, "Black is, black ain't."

State of the ReUnion

Pike County, OH – As Black as We Wish to Be

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

Listen to the episode:  http://stateofthereunion.com/home/season-3/pike-county-oh

"The Abolitionists"

We missed the first episode, but we can still catch the next two. And you can watch the first one online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/abolitionists/. Could it be better timing for Engl. 254?

137 bullets

Associated Press article on Cleveland police shooting of two unarmed black citizens: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=167387058.

137 bullets.

The n-word, the violence, Hollywood and slavery: "Django Unchained"

An interesting take on Tarantino's new movie Django Unchained. I haven't seen the movie yet, and I'm not necessarily endorsing the views of this column, but it does address several of the objections people have made to the film:http://www.theroot.com/views/slavery-film-sanitized-no-more

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Counting Americans: The US Census Racial Categories

Because "race" is a social construction and doesn't exist as fact, the U.S. Census is always trying to figure out how to categorize and count people by race. Looks like the census categories might change again: http://www.policymic.com/articles/22164/why-more-races-could-appear-on-the-2020-census

Emancipation Proclaimed--and then what?

What happened to slaves after emancipation was proclaimed? An interesting op ed in the New York Times related to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/dying-for-freedom/

Why we still live with the legacy of slavery.