This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

January 7, 2011

My Blogging 2010 in review

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — pprscribe @ 9:54 am

I was interested to receive the information below in my email in0box–especially since I have been considering shutting down this blog. Maybe I’ll restart the blog after all…

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 19,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 4 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 18 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 323 posts. There were 27 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 7mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was February 2nd with 106 views. The most popular post that day was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Questionned.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were racialicious.com, twitter.com, blogsurfer.us, search.aol.com, and happynappyhead.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for don’t ask don’t tell pros and cons, disco ball, dont ask dont tell pros and cons, black pin up girls, and mirror ball.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Questionned November 2009

2

Peace, Love, and Soooooooul Train: Old School Friday May 2009
10 comments

3

Working With Black Women, Part 1: My First Black Friends June 2009
7 comments

4

My People and Other People’s Children April 2009
3 comments

5

Finding Words: A photographic trip through the National Underground Railroad Museum May 2009
5 comments

June 1, 2010

Relaunch of This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life…

Filed under: Uncategorized — pprscribe @ 12:05 pm

…coming soon.

(Just in case anyone is still reading!)

April 4, 2010

Not Yet Risen

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — pprscribe @ 2:03 pm

January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968.

March 26, 2010

Like White On Rice

or, When a Bad Brand Goes (Even Further) Wrong

I was reminded of this 3-year-old post from my old blog after reading a piece from Stuff White People Do, entitled “describe racism as political incorrectness.” The original post was about an effort to re-brand a staple of US advertising lore as detailed in this story. I was (and remain) not impressed with the effort. By the way, out of curiosity I revisited Uncle Ben’s office to engage him in chat. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

[PPR_Scribe]: hello

[Ben]: Did you have my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice for dinner?

[PPR_Scribe]: no, not tonight

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: where are you?

[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.

[PPR_Scribe]: what are you doing?

[Ben]: Currently being fitted for a new blue suit. Upon returning and hanging up my new coat, will be in touch.

[PPR_Scribe]: so…you’re accepting an award, eating rice, and being fitted for a suit? at the same time?

[Ben]: State dinners would be more diplomatic if they always served my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice.  Can we pick up this conversation when I return?

[PPR_Scribe]: i have the feeling you really don’t want to chat with me at all…

[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.

[PPR_Scribe]: well, ok then. bye

[Ben]: Can you come by the office in person?

[PPR_Scribe]: um…no, i’m not really comfortable with that. why?

[Ben]: Out of office for rice harvesting season. My, those combines are loud. Will reply when I return.

[PPR_Scribe]: now you’re just being difficult…

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: (???)

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Uncle Ben’s Cabin

It is an oddity of the history of advertising that Black folks have been featured so often as part of companies’ brand identity. Apparently, at one point in time nothing could prompt a consumer to snatch a product off of a grocery shelf like a demeaning characterization of a smiling Negro. Of course, two of the better known Black characters are Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. (No relation? It’s hard to say as neither has ever had a last name. This blogger is trying to match-make them, though, so I hope they are not already kin…) I’ve talked before here about my relationship to the whole history of “racial naming.” Suffice it to say that for certain generations of Blacks, it is not endearing for White folks to refer to us as Uncle or Aunt (unless we are, in fact, their uncle or aunt.)

Uncle Ben’s image is most often discussed as part of the broader “Uncle Tom” racist caricature, seen in everything from advertising to film. This wonderful site sums up the image well. Aunt Jemima is often discussed as characteristic of the “Mammy” caricature. The same site linked in the previous sentence also provides a good description of Mammy depictions in advertising and elsewhere. The interesting thing about the pancake lady is that she underwent a make-over in the late 80s. Slimmed down, dressed up, no kerchief wrapped round her head. According to the company’s History web page, today “the Aunt Jemima products continue to stand for warmth, nourishment and trust – qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families. “

That’s Chairman Uncle Ben

Enter the rice man’s makeover. According to the NYT story:

A racially charged advertising character, who for decades has been relegated to a minor role in the marketing of the products that still carry his name, is taking center stage in a campaign that gives him a makeover — Madison Avenue style — by promoting him to chairman of the company.

You can visit his virtual office here. I didn’t last very long in his office. With each click the sour taste in my mouth grew fouler and fouler. I expected at any minute to see a cheesin’ and shufflin’, bow-tie clad older virtual Black man jump out from his task of sharpening pencils to greet me by name. This blogger was braver than I, actually using the “chat” feature to engage the new Chairman in conversation. (If you can call it that.) Here’s an excerpt of their exchange:

[Guest]: Hi
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.
[Guest]: That’s great.
[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.
[Guest]: I don’t like rice.
[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.
[Guest]: Wait — I thought you were in the packaging department!
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.

Obviously still some bugs to work out. But my guess is Ben’s neither overseeing efforts in the Packaging Department nor sipping wine at some event in England, but–like I said–in an inner office sharpening pencils or involved in some other non-task his higher-ups assigned him as part of his “promotion.” Back to the Times:

“This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe factor,” said Luke Visconti, partner at Diversity Inc. Media in Newark, which publishes a magazine and Web site devoted to diversity in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of baggage associated with the image,” Mr. Visconti said, which the makeover “is glossing over.”

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life. A crucial aspect of his biography remains the same, though: He has no last name.

Indeed.

And the “cringe factor” just multiplies and multiplies. For example, asks one commenter to this site, “Does anyone else see irony in the company’s name — MasterFoods?” And several commenters elsewhere in the blogosphere have re-dubbed the company “Massafoods.”

I am no advertising executive. But this does not appear to be a re-branding effort that is destined to bear much fruit. Or grains of converted rice, as the case may be.

Ben There; Dumb, That

I do not buy Uncle Ben’s Rice. Never have. (And at this rate, never will.) I also do not buy any Aunt Jemima products. And if any of the products below were still available today, I wouldn’t buy them either. I come by this aversion to financing my own denigration honestly. As a child when we would travel the country by car, my father would drive 50 miles out of the way to avoid having us stop at a Sambo’s Restaurant for a meal or bathroom break.

The restaurant, perhaps not surprisingly, is also involved in a re-branding effort. This site attempts to set the story straight. Sambo’s, we’re told, was based on the names of the eatery’s founders, and the use of the book’s characters came about only later. (The whole story of The Story of Little Black Sambo is an interesting tale in its own right, but beyond this blog post. Begin here for further reading.) I’m not sure how helpful this re-telling is for understanding the restaurant–or the book and its many incarnations, for that matter. Why and how did folks running the company think that adorning their restaurant with images of “picanninies” would be a good marketing move? How do they now think that hearkening back to India’s colonial past would be a better or more sensitive move?

Beauty and the Brand

Companies, universities, and all manner of other entities spend millions in efforts to establish, redirect, and update their images. The book that I discuss in my still-draft blog post about re-branding is about what is being called “the attention economy.” In the Information Age, the scarce commodity that becomes extremely valuable is human attention. Not money, not information, not even “knowledge.” And certainly not an awareness of history. What matters is eyeballs to content. And when that is what matters, image is everything. (The book I’ll talk about speaks of this in terms of “fluff over stuff.”)

So what do we make of companies’ apparent reluctance to totally excise images of slavery and Jim Crow in trying to focus consumers’ eyeballs on products on crowded grocery shelves? I have framed the Uncle Ben’s effort as a potential fiasco, a massive marketing mistake. But what if it is, instead, a savvy business move? What if the company has discovered via its focus groups that images that remind people of the good old days of subservient, happy Blacks (who could sho-nuff cook!) continue to be comforting and endearing to many modern consumers?

Perhaps advertising’s racist past not even past, but only an old package in need of re-branding.

For further information on this topic, see the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

March 19, 2010

The Magic of Hair Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 11:42 pm

I cannot believe I have never re-posted this from my old blog. Recently, due to jam-packed schedules, I was unable to take my daughters in for their usually-scheduled braiding appointments at the professional hair stylist’s. I did their hair myself. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed hair day. And I was pleased that I hadn’t lost the knack!

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Something magical happens to me on Hair Day. I am a person who lives in the mind quite a bit, so maybe it is the tactile, manual nature of doing hair—but it usually results in me being so…present. Oddly, at the same time I feel an almost otherworldly connection to all the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and Miss Johnsons before me when I do my daughters’ hair.

Hair Day?

Previously, I talked about what happens in our house on Hair Day:

The hours-long ritual that is washing and braiding my daughters’ hair is more than just a task that needs to be done. It is also an exercise in ethnic identity and pride building. First, the three of us decide on a style by looking through one of our hair books…It’s not that I am good enough to pull off many of these styles given my current level of very low skills. (Growing up, while my sister and girl cousins were doing each other’s hair, my nose was usually in a book.) But I can at least usually approximate the styles. And looking at the books gives us a chance to speak about the wide range and beauty of Black hair. These children are beautiful, I tell my daughters. Their hair is joy to behold….

(It’s been a while since I wrote that. I am getting more skilled at doing my daughters’ hair. But I am by no means yet an expert.)

Encounters

Last week was my kids’ spring break and one day we spent all afternoon at one of our area public libraries. Both my daughters were in the children’s section, seated at a table with their books. Soon another child joined them. From my chair a few feet away I noticed this little girl noticing my daughters’ hair. Her own hair was blond, straight, in a small pony tail at the nape of her neck. My daughters’ hair was in a style we have come to call “freedom hair” after a character in one of their books: large, picked-out, perfectly symmetrical afros.

The little girl reached over and patted one daughter’s hair. I held my breath. And sat erect in my seat.

“Look at your hair” she exclaimed. “Did your mommy do that?” My daughter lightly caressed her freedom locks. “Yes, she did,” she said, turning in my direction and beaming.

I exhaled. And relaxed my spine back into the curved wood of the chair.

Right, Under, Left, Cross, Pick Up…

My husband does not understand it, but when I first begin braiding I actually have to concentrate. I cannot discuss what I want to have for dinner that evening, or laugh at a witty commercial on TV, or opine about the merits of one summer camp over another. The simple rote act of correctly crossing three strands of hair to make neat rows of crop-like patterns requires all of my PhD-bound brain power.

Often I must comb out unsuccessful rows and begin anew. Almost always, my first attempts at sectioning hair into parts with the tip of my pink rat-tailed comb are ragged and rough. Sometimes early on I try to rush the process, combing through a section of hair before all the tangles are out—resulting in predictable pain and cries.

I have been known to poke a patient little girl in the ear lobe or eye with a comb, brush, or thumb.

But I do not give up. Mainly because I know that—if I just stick with it a little—this initial period of bumbling and fumbling will give way to something truly special.

Enter the Matrix

My mother is a pianist. She believes solo pianists should be old-school and memorize even the most complicated classical pieces (instead of appearing on stage with sheet music and a page-turner). When she would rehearse, she would say she had to practice until she was able to “get the music in her hands.” If she was able to sit down and play a piece that she hadn’t played in years, she would say that it was “still in her hands.”

That the closest analogy I can think of to what happens to me at some point during braiding. It is as if my hands take over some memory, some proficiency, some something that cannot be explained by my multi-year self-taught course in Black natural hair care. I do not always know exactly when I have reached this point. I usually only realize after: after I find that I have been looking up at the TV (instead of down, at my braiding) for one full minute at the SpongeBob episode where Sandy enters SpongeBob in a weight-lifting contest. Or maybe after I have near-simultaneously told one daughter where to find a missing puzzle piece, shouted to my husband what I want on my pizza, and completed another row of braids.

I am in the hair zone. I have entered the hair matrix. I am making hair magic.

My fingers are moving in effortless choreography to carve razor straight parts, create three perfectly even strands, and knit them together in strong, tight braids. My eyes have developed a sort of x-ray vision, discerning even microscopic masses of tangles which my suddenly gentle hands are then able to coax apart with not a single whimper. Whole sections of freedom hair are transformed into twists, braids, plaits, cornrows—of any thickness I please.

Some of the sections even look like the pictures in the hair books.

Crowns

Within the last year or so my daughters and I have added a new ritual to our hair styling–every time we do hair, but especially on Hair Days. After I finish, I fuss a little over the result, deem the style complete, then “crown” my daughter. This, apparently, is a step that I cannot skip or else my daughters will let me know about it. I must say, “I crown you ______, Princess of ______land” or “…Dutchess of ________ville” or “…Queen of __________.” As I bellow this phrase in my most solemn-sounding voice (no matter how silly I make the title or land) I must make a crowning motion with my hands, then turn my daughter around to inspect herself in the mirror.

Sometimes I wonder if I am going overboard with all this hub-bub about my daughters’ hair. But I usually conclude that positive hub-bub is just fine. Especially if it gives my daughters a confidence I never had to answer questions of curious children. Especially if they come to associate their hair with their regality.

And I have to admit that I love the special feeling in my hands that lasts for a few moments after I crown them. It lasts while my hands wash and put away the brush and rat-tailed comb…while my hands cap the spray bottles of special oils and empty the spray bottle of warm water. It starts to fade as my hands wash each other and dry themselves on the Hello Kitty towel hanging on the rod.

With that my hands are back to being the blunt clumsy instruments that merely poke at computer keyboards or wrestle a steering wheel. But I know that the memory and the magic are still there, somewhere inside them, waiting to take over from my mind on the next Hair Day.

March 6, 2010

A Presidential View

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:01 am

I am still taking something of a blogging break from serious and contentious news of the day. Usually when I feel worn down like this I retreat to music, fiction, or photography. I have been listening to a lot of music lately—and can’t wait to re-join Old School Friday soon to share some of my musical ministry here. I have picked up an interesting novel, and have a couple more on my list. So that leaves photography. These shots I modified from the White House’s Flickr photostream.

They are nothing momentous: Just moments.

I don’t know why I am partial to this image. Actually, yes I do. It shows the President writing with his left hand. I’ve written before about the pride I feel, on behalf of my leftie daughter, whenever I see Barack Obama use his left hand. But I also like to imagine the moments right before this shot was taken, when he asked this brother (personal aide Reggie Love) to hold up a minute so he could write on his back.

This guy’s folks will have this image forever. He’ll show it to his own grandkids one day, should he one day be a grandfather. This young man will never know a United States in which a Black President did not exist as a reality. I know that there are important policy issues that we should be attending to—and holding this president accountable for. But in doing so we should not lose sight of the radical-ness of this president’s very Being President.

This is another one of those captured moments that I want to imagine the moments just before. The kid in the baseball hat really wanted to play this whole thing cool. But you can tell he’s interested. (Though I wish he had taken his cap off.) The President has got his Dad-face on.

And of course, who doesn’t like Bo. The “Snowcopalypse” may have shut down the Capital and much of the rest of the country, but it was all fun and games, apparently, for the First Dog.

February 24, 2010

“I’m Still Standing…”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — pprscribe @ 9:01 am

“It’s been a long time; I shouldn’t have left you…” (Without a blog post to step to…)

“…All apologies; What else could I say..?”

“Funny how time flies when you’re having fun…” (Or working really hard)

“I’m (or soon will be) back in Black…”

(And at that time) “Don’t call it a comeback…”

“The B**** is (or soon will be) back…”

…I don’t know how else to sing it. I’m on something of a blogging hiatus. Follow me on Twitter—or drop my my house to help with laundry or my office to help me write. Otherwise, I’ll be back blogging soon!

February 9, 2010

Hi-Tech Fruit and Strange Lynchings

This is another post from my old blog. I was reminded of it recently when I read this excellent post at Sociological Images. Lately my mind has been on all things NOLA. (Our Colts’ loss to the wonderful and well-deserving Saints is only part of the reason.) So this post caught my eye. In particular, this slant makes me ponder my old post in a new way:

For someone who was harmed by a hurricane, using the imagery is a way of reclaiming the hurt they suffered, even appropriating the strength of the force that hurt them.  But, for others to use it, it is trivializing that same hurt, re-imagining the destruction they suffered.  It is not funny, from this perspective, to imagine that New Orleans could be hit again.

I was reminded while reading that of some of my (Black) family and friends using “slave” in an in-group, joking kind of way. I’m OK with that, but bristle when I hear others use it. For example, at a recent swim meet, one of the other parents (a White woman) said something about not doing “X” because we would get yelled at by the person in charge of the meet. She said, “We’re liable to get lynched behind that.” All of my crew sitting there—me, my husband, and my father—were taken aback. My father said, “Oh, you probably don’t want to say that.” The woman totally didn’t get it: She thought he was talking about not saying that the person would be angry with us. He kept at it: “No. I mean, you shouldn’t be saying that—to us [motioning to him, my husband, and me].” The woman, light dawning, turned all shades of red.

The in-group/out-group dimension was not something I considered when I first wrote this piece years ago. But I’m thinking of it today. And today I am (still) wondering: What’s in a song? What’s in a phrase?

"Broken Branch" PPR_Scribe

I. Some Background

The summer before I left home for college I raided my parents’ music collection, choosing dozens of albums (yes, albums: black vinyl, 12 inches, 33-and-a-third rotations per minute: LPs) that I wanted to “borrow” and take to Boston with me on my great adventure in adulthood.

One of those albums I chose from that raided collection was by Billie Holiday. One of the songs on that album from that raided collection was “Strange Fruit.”

That song is something I could not ignore. At the time, I was not too enamored of Lady Day’s voice: It seemed a little scratchy to me, and wispy…without the force, range and rhythm of female jazz vocalists like Ella and Sarah and Dinah and others who I was getting into at the time. (It didn’t help, I guess, that my image of Billie Holliday and what her voice must have sounded like was colored by my having first seen and heard her in the guise of Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues.”)

But that song, “Strange Fruit,” I had to listen to.

Since that time I have come to appreciate Billie Holiday. And I have continued to be fascinated by that song. I have recordings of it by at least three different artists. And a recent search of the song on iTunes revealed more than a dozen different versions, by a very strange and eclectic mix of artists. There is even a group, The Strange Fruit Project, hailing from Waco, Texas.

In addition, I am glad to see that there is a scholarly interest in the song as well as the phenomenon “Strange Fruit” so eerily bore witness to: the widespread lynching campaigns of African American men, women, and children in this country. (See resources below.)

II. But, What Does (Can) It Mean?

I have to admit, I am not sure what all these artists intend when they invoke these images:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

What is it about these words that makes the song relevant for an artist—of any background—living today? What does the history of the lynching of Black Americans mean to a 50-something White European rocker, or a 20-something Black American rapper?

Is it even about “lynching” at all?

III. Lynching as Metaphor

Whatever you think of Clarence Thomas, his was–hands-down–the most brilliant use of lynching as a metaphor ever. In one swoop he galvanized a deep memory in African Americans and scared off White Americans who saw themselves as exactly opposite of those Whites of days gone by who were the perpetrators of lynchings with ropes, guns, fire, and tree branches.

Hard to believe that almost 15 years have passed since Thomas’s confirmation hearings. A little memory-refresher from the 10/11/91 hearing session (Note the words I emphasize in bold):

Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing.

I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation. I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private live or the sanctity of my bedroom. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private.

In that evening’s hearing session he evoked this metaphor again in his now (in)famous and classic “high-tech lynching” statement:

There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

One book specifically takes on the idea of the use of “lynching” in metaphorical contexts, “Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory” by Jonathan Markovitz

...Examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from “Birth of a Nation” to “Do the Right Thing,” he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz’s original and brilliant reinterpretations of the media spectacles surrounding Bernhard Goetz, Susan Smith, and Tawana Brawley provide subtle and compelling examples of the continuing stakes of political battles waged over imagery of race and gender nearly a century ago. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” (Source)

If you do a little window shopping in the blogosphere and other media you’ll find Thomas’s “high tech lynching” metaphor/accusation invoked all over in all sorts of situations, by both those on the political left and those on the political right. In no case are any of these uses about actual people being burned, their genitals cut from their bodies, their necks broken from being snapped by a rope looped over a tree branch. In these cases, like that of Justice Thomas, the appeal is to the perception that “mobs” of media folks or government officials or university professors or other elite others in positions of power are using sophisticated tools and tactics to unfairly attack the ideas and integrity of some “victim.”

Whatever you may think of the individual cases, is this deployment of “lynching” as a means of description an appropriate use of history? Not: “effective” use–appropriate

I am all for the use of metaphor in rhetoric. But in most of these cases this particular use of lynching as metaphor sickens me. Comparing a “good name” or a well-paying job to skin, genitals and a beating heart is definitely a case of evaluating apples in terms of oranges.

Very strange fruit, indeed.

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Other Resources:

February 4, 2010

“You can’t let it go to the judges…”

…and other snippets of words of wisdom from the Black experiences in HBO’s “The Black List, Vol 1“:


Both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are now out on DVD (I think, only at Target stores). I highly recommend them. Volume 3 premiers on HBO February 8.

(Yes, I know I am breaking my ‘no video clip’ rule here at the blog.)

January 30, 2010

Justice Denied: Black Women and Reproductive (non)Choice

Sometimes justice can be so elusive, can’t it? Bad enough that often it is overdue. But then, when it finally seems within our reach, it sometimes slips away…or we’re only able to grab hold of a little piece of it… That’s how I opened this post when I first wrote it for my old blog years ago. I posted it during Black History Month and, as Black History Month is almost upon us, thought I’d re-post it here. I like to begin with something like this to remind myself that Black History Month, in 2010, should be as much about justice as it is about remembering and celebration.

(I am currently searching for updates to this story and will update this blog with any new information.)

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These days eyes tend to be directed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the future of the battle over abortion choice and access. In this social context, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that historically, for many women the central reproductive struggle has not involved abortion rights. Instead it has involved the right to conceive, bear, and provide for their children, as well as the right to maintain the authority to be parents of their children. From the buying and selling of the children of African-ancestry parents, to the forced placement into “boarding schools” of the children of Native American parents, to current day social service practices regarding the termination of parental rights that disproportionately affect parents of color—This country has a pretty shameful history when it comes to disallowing some people their rights to become and remain parents.

A particularly egregious example of this is the history of forced sterilizations in this country in the name of “genetic fitness”–otherwise known as eugenics.

The targets of these forced sterilizations were folks who evidenced various combinations of being Black, poor, uneducated, deemed to be “promiscuous” or potentially promiscuous, deemed to be “feeble-minded” or potentially so. These practices of sterilizing women and girls (and some men and boys) against their will and often without their knowledge sometimes went by the name “Mississippi appendectomies.” A particularly aggressive program, however, occurred in North Carolina. From an excellent multi-part program on the North Carolina efforts, “Against Their Will“:

They were wives and daughters. Sisters. Unwed mothers. Children. Even a 10-year-old boy. Some were blind or mentally retarded. Toward the end they were mostly black and poor. North Carolina sterilized them all, more than 7,600 people.

For more than 40 years North Carolina ran one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive sterilization programs. It expanded after World War II, even as most other states pulled back in light of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

Some of these folks are still alive, still seeking justice–which means, of course, that they have had to come forward and publicly share their stories:

In the file of Ernestine Moore, for instance, who was sterilized in 1965 in Pitt County at the age of 14, a social worker wrote that the people who lived near her were “of low incomes and low morals.” Moore was classified as feebleminded, even though she wasn’t.

In fact, the social worker wrote, “Ernestine has no appearance of retardation.” Upon reading what was written in her file, Ms. Moore, 54, told The Journal that North Carolina should “pay for the pain” and suffering she’s gone through since her sterilization.

In recent years, the state of North Carolina has agreed. But, as fate would have it, carrying out this justice has not gone smoothly. Issues abound, regarding such things as where to get medical records to prove forced sterilization, whether or not such records are still available or had ever been kept at all, and adequately staffing efforts to process claims.

All signs look like justice will be delayed. Again. And my cynical side is whispering that there’s a good chance justice may not come at all for these folks. Once again, they may have to make do with an official apology. For whatever (if anything) that is worth.

But. The hopeful side of me still has…hope. In the meantime, I will enjoy our State Fair this year much as I have every year since I began learning more about this country’s eugenics past: With the ghostly narration in my mind of contests aimed at promoting good human stock along with the best ears of corn or plumpest sows.

(Image ID: 14) Title: Kansas State Free Fair, Topeka, Fitter Families Contest examining staff and "sweepstakes" winning family; Archival Information: AES,Am3,575.06,55

From the excellent site Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement:

At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).

All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

I’ve mentioned before about how important it is for me to keep such history in my mind as I continue with my interests in researching issues of families and genetics. Late summer, right before the start of another school year is as good a time as any to give myself a booster shot of memory. Memory for the “non-placers” in the clean genes fairground competitions. Memory for the folks who were denied the chance to bear children to take to fairs in the first place.

January 22, 2010

Reporting from the mean streets of the cul-de-sac

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — pprscribe @ 7:12 pm

MOMMY! DADDY!” Daughter comes running into the family room the other day, shouting and panting hard. “We just saw a family looking at the house for sale across the street and they have two kids—a boy and a girl—and guess what else? They’re BLACK!

The Mister and I go running into the dining room to look out of the big picture window that looks out on the house across the street with the “For Sale” sign in the lawn. We strain, we peer, we jockey for position. The family comes out and stands in the driveway, apparently reviewing the visit with their realtor. They are just as Daughter described them. The Daughters and I move away, me fearing How We Must Look. The Mister stands there for a while. (Later he tells me he wanted to make sure they saw him.)

Later, away from the kids, we two adults confer. Was the relatively short length of time they were in there a No-this-is-definitely-not-what-we-were-looking-for amount of time? Or was it a This-is-perfect-write-the-offer amount of time?

We hope it was the latter…

*****

"School Bus Coming" PPR_Scribe

We were excited about moving to the quiet cul-de-sac. The house was perfect for us, and we were tired of looking. Our Black realtor told us there was another Black family living in the subdivision, as well as two Black families in the subdivision across the major road from us, and several in the one down the road. I worried just a tad at this news that, I am sure, she meant to deliver comfortingly or even bragging-ly. Was there a list kept of all the African American families in this suburb? Would we be required to submit Papers or keep the authorities of some kind or another updated on our whereabouts?

But the thought soon passed. I was not worried. There would be nothing so dramatic as cross burnings next to our mailbox. Maybe some sideways glances, but nothing more, right?

*****

It was just my luck that when the first neighbors came to our door to welcome us to the neighborhood shortly after we moved in, I just happened to be blasting Lil Wayne on our whole-house audio system. There I was trying to chat with a husband, wife, teenaged girl and pre-teen boy who all looked like they stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalog, there standing with a plate of homemade cupcakes and bottle of wine, all the while Wayne Carter quipped about Masarati dancin and bridge pu**y-poppin. Efforts to figure out how to turn down the volume of the high tech controls failed so we all stood there screaming (over Weezie) about moving here from Minnesota (…Sicilian bi*** with long hair…) though we were originally from this area back in the 80s (“...open the Lamborghini hopin’ them crackers see me…”) and what school did you say your kids would be attending (“…And I be the shit now you got loose bowels...”).

After they left I closed the door, cupcakes in hand, certain we’d never see our new neighbors again. But still, no drama, right?

*****

I will never forget the first time I did see our realtor-registered Black neighbors. I was driving out of the subdivision and she was driving in. We both almost lost control of our cars for trying to glance back to see each other. I hoped I managed a friendly wave and smile before righting my front wheels. That Halloween my kids and I trick-or-treated at these neighbors’ house. The Black woman from the car opened the door with her basket of candy treats. The two of us made eye contact and smiled at each other goofily over the heads of the waiting ghosts and ghouls, princesses and pirates. The other parents trick-or-treating with me probably wondered if we two were OK.

*****

We had this one neighbor who visited us early on while we were working in our garage, our garage door open. “Visited” is not quite the right word, and neither would it be quite correct to say we had a “conversation” or “chat.” He pretty much interviewed us: where each of us (my husband and me) went to college, what each of us did for a living. At one point he appeared satisfied. He then went into an extended riff on our fellow neighbors: which families were part of the original cohort that built these homes, who was retired, the one woman who was a single mom… Slowly I had a sense that I should try to bring the conversation to a close. But I was too late. The man started talking about the subdivision’s two Asian families: The one was OK, they were both university professors, but the other one “from Japan or something” couldn’t speak a lick of English and—he “wasn’t racist or anything”—but it’s just so hard to understand them—”though they seem really nice, polite”—so he just tries not to have to interact with them at all.

The Mister, who is less tactful than I am, got up and abruptly walked into the house. Leaving me to say, “__________.” (I leave that blank in the hopes that I come up with a sufficiently appropriate anti-racist come-back to insert later.)

That neighbor left our garage with me knowing I would never speak to him again.

*****

Finally, I thought, some drama.

A neighbor was telling me about the monthly parties the subdivision has. They’re called “Flamingo Parties,” she told me. You’ll know when and where we’re going to have one when you see the big, kitschy, plastic bright pink flamingo planted in someone’s yard, she said. Oh. And they’re adult-only.

Now at this point I must provide some background. I was a child of the seventies. My father was a psychology grad student, my mother a teacher and musician, and we lived on a college campus. My parents hosted a lot of “adult-only” parties. My sister and I often helped with the set-up: mixing the 7-Up/High-C/wine punch, setting the ashtrays out strategically, flipping through LPs and judging the album covers to decide which ones should be played. At one point I was tall enough to stand up in a chair and hang my parents’ favorite mobile from the ceiling of the hallway at the junction of the living room, dining room, and bedrooms. The mobile was a series of one-way signs, each hung vertically from one string so that the one way signs drifted slowly round and round. On each sign was a different word: straight, gay, bi, curious, observer…probably some others I cannot recall.

…Fun times.

I’d never heard back then of “flamingo parties,” but I imagined they just might be interesting. At any rate, I was about to find out!!!

Or, not. It was just a party. A bunch of adults standing around over small bits of food stuck through with thoothpicks and drinking imported beers and talking about plumbers and hardwood floor installation companies.

*****

No word yet about the house across the street and the Black family that visited it. We made an effort to try to get some friends of ours to look at the house. We’ve had fantasies about them moving across the street, registering with the proper authorities, and becoming our neighbors as well as our friends. I have known the woman in the family for years, since my first graduate school days. But quite miraculously, our husbands bonded, our kids bonded, and we re-bonded—and all of us bonded with each other. As hard as one-on-one relationships are, finding compatible family-on-family relationships are even harder. Trust.

But we all fell into deep friendship with each other.

I don’t think they are going to move into the house, however. I shouldn’t be so greedy, considering where they live now is only about 8 minutes away by car.

Whoever moves in I will try to be neighborly. I’ll bring a bottle of wine over and a box of store-bought cupcakes and make small-talk. If they ask me about the neighbors and the neighborhood I’ll be honest: On average everyone is pretty nice. And the cul-de-sac? Pretty quiet.

No drama.

January 18, 2010

#MLK

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — pprscribe @ 1:57 pm

As I have said here in the past, I am ambivalent about Twitter. I have been tweeting, and I even have a couple handsful of followers—who are not trying to sell me herbal v-eye-ah-grah and foolproof investment advice. But I would not yet say that I am committed to doing so long-term. We’ll just have to see.

But I am glad that I am at least familiar enough with the concept of Twitter to be able to get the humor of this Vanity Fair piece from Baratunde Thurston.

It was just the laugh I needed today while contemplating posting an angry, perhaps not-appropriate-for-MLK-Day post. I may still post it (working title: “Don’t Call It a Movement”). In the meantime while I try to get my heart and mind right I’ll leave you with this wonderful, hypothetical Tweet from Dr. King that pretty much sums that draft post quite nicely.

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