This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

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.)


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.

September 25, 2009

Night and Day (Updated)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 2:37 pm

Great post at Sociological Images about the contrast in how Germany has chosen to remember Dachau as a historical site and the way that we in the US have chosen to remember Laura Plantation as a historical site:

Plantations were many other things, but they were also the engine of slavery.  It is this that should stand out as the most important thing about them. Concentration camps were many other things as well (e.g., a military training site, a daily job site for German soldiers, a factory producing goods, and a strategic part of the war effort), but we have absorbed the important lessons from them so thoroughly that it is difficult to even imagine what an alternative tour might look like. In contrast, one can visit the [Laura] Plantation and come away not really thinking about slavery at all, in favor of how pretty the china was and oooh did you smell that candle as we walked by? Delicious. I need a coke, you?

UPDATED: Please read the discussion in the original post. Also, I have corrected the name of the plantation, as well as provided a link to the website. Here is a sample:

Here is a story that records the gradual disintegration not only of one of Louisiana’s oldest dynasties but also reflects the loss of Louisiana’s native and long-dominant Creole way of life.  In classic storytelling format, the tour highlights the most critical times in this family’s lives; times and events that best exemplify how different the Louisiana Creole was from the Anglo-American and also how this family responded to the ever-encroaching Anglo world.  Coupled with their life stories, displays of life-sized figures of Laura’s family members, their portraits, photographs, weapons, clothing, heirlooms, furniture and business & personal papers all bring the visitor up close and face-to-face with 4 generations of these Creole personalities.

A 90-minute specialty tour, specific to slavery is also offered:

This 90-minute tour covers the institution, practice and effects of slavery as it happened to the inhabitants of this plantation and in Louisiana, from the beginnings of the colony and into the 20th Century.  Special emphasis is on the contributions of Louisiana’s enslaved majority to Louisiana culture and history.

August 27, 2009

Flashback: Morning Stretch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — pprscribe @ 7:51 am

[Another post from my old blog, with new images.]

American Slavery is hard to wrap your mind around. For me, reflection on this topic is not enough. The concept does not exist in any real way in most people’s being. Intellectually, sure. But the knowledge and the idea of slavery does not translate to anything that goes deeper than skin for most people, myself included.

I do not have the skills to remedy this. I know that. There is a vast sea of information on the web about slavery. In draft form, this entry contained some of those resources. But instead of linking to them here, I think I’ll try something different. I want to try a little “social math” that I spoke of in a previous entry. Or maybe it’s more like “embodied math.” I don’t know. But I’m gonna try it.

There will be nothing to link to in this entry. Maybe a little later I’ll repeat it, adding links and resources like a good blogger should. But for now, take a chance with me and actually do the physical activity that I am asking of you here. After you’re finished, if you would like to help me out with my math or my anatomy lesson or my history (I could certainly use such help), then drop me a comment or email and I’ll make the necessary corrections. If you’d like to perfect my little activity, add more markers, etc. I’d welcome that too.

If you’d just like to comment to tell me to just stop whining and get over it, well, that’d hurt my feelings, but I’d get over that. (Your comment and my hurt feelings, not U.S. slavery.)

Just, do this. For me. For kicks. Out of curiosity. OK?

OK. Spread your arms and hands out to either side of you, parallel to the ground, as in a nice early morning streatch. Ready?

Start with the tip of your middle finger on your left hand: This is 1619, more than 400 years ago, when the first Africans were brought to what would later become the United States of America as slaves. (Some prefer/think more historically accurate the term “indentured servants.”)

Wiggle your fingers on your left hand–your pinkie…ring, middle, and index fingers and your thumb, flex your wrist a few times, bend your arm at your left elbow, and start up your left bicep. Slavery (and it is, very definitely, now slavery) is going on all this time, now well entrenched in the “new world.”

Now do a little windmill motion with your outstretched left arm. That good stretch you feel in your shoulder area is right around 1776, the birth of our nation.

Keep your arms spread out. Keep traveling across. Now you’re at your mid back, your spine, and it’s about 1828. The new nation is not yet 100 years old, but it is prospering. Slavery is in full force. America has yet to go to war with itself. Keep stretching.

You’ve crossed over and you’re on your right shoulder now. It’s 1861 and the American Civil War has officially begun. Just a tick farther on your right shoulder and it’s 1865 and all Blacks are officially freed.

"Reunion of former slaves, 1917." Bobster855,

"Reunion of former slaves, 1917." Bobster855,

Keep your arms spread out. Travel down your right arm to your right elbow. It’s about 1924. Jim Crow is in full effect. Just a tick earlier before your elbow was the destruction of a Black town in Tulsa and the defeat of an anti-lynching bill in the U.S. Senate.

Your arms may be tired, but I’m almost done.

At your right forearm it’s about 1954, and in the nation Brown vs. the Board of Education is decided, with the goal of ending school segregation “with all deliberate speed.” A little further down your mid forearm on your way to your right wrist, in the same general itch-spot, is my birthday in 1964, the assassination of Malcolm X the following year, and of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. three years after that.

Keep your arms spread out. Your right wrist now. That’s about 1978. This year marks the case of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, and “reverse discrimination” is determined to be against the law of the land.

Take a quick break for a minute from your stretch and crack the knuckles of your right hand. Now get your arms back outstretched. Here, just before your fingers, is about 1991 and the nation witnesses the police-led beating of an African American man and the riots the following year as the accused police officers are acquitted.

Almost done. Keep stretching.

"The Supreme Court." FaceMePLS,

"The Supreme Court." FaceMePLS,

Finally you’re at the tip of your right pinkie. That’s today, 2005. I’m posting this blog entry and you’re reading it. And your stretch is done.

—Well, not quite.

If you just stretch a little further, from the end of your right pinkie to the end of your right middle finger, you’re at 2028. That date is important because its the estimate given by the nation’s Supreme Court for when racial considerations in college admissions will no longer be needed in this country. We’ve got to get started today and work like the dickens to meet that goal. But it’ll be worth it and it should be possible if we just put our backs into it. The hard—and long—march to complete racial justice will then be achieved. Glory glory.

And all in less than half the length of a middle finger.

June 20, 2009

Must Be the Season for Apologies

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 11:16 pm

The Senate resolution apologizing for slavery (S. Con. Res. 26; pdf)  is only 5 pages long. Please read the whole thing:

…Whereas an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization
and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of
the wrongs committed and a formal apology to African-
will help bind the wounds of the Nation that
are rooted in slavery and can speed racial healing and
reconciliation and help the people of the United States
understand the past and honor the history of all people
of the United States…

May 26, 2009

Finding Words: A photographic trip through the National Underground Railroad Museum

"Underground Railroad Museum, exterior." PPR_Scribe

"Underground Railroad Museum, exterior." PPR_Scribe

The woman painting my nails, several miles to the north of the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me she had never been to the museum. But she thought it was a good idea. She was Black. I had no words to tell her what visiting the museum had meant to me. I did want to scold her for living a stone’s throw from the building but never having been there. Then I thought it inappropriate for many reasons, not least of which was because there I was on my Memorial Day weekend, celebrating my freedom by getting a $40 manicure. Who was I to scold. So I said nothing. She asked me how much it was to get in. I told her I could not recall, but that children and seniors get in for a reduced rate.

I chose A Ouibit of Red for my nails.

"View From Freedom." PPR_Scribe

"View From Freedom." PPR_Scribe

Did anyone visiting that day catch the symbolism of this view from the museum’s grand hall? Across the vast, open space I could see the Ohio River, and beyond that, Kentucky. Once, a river separated enslavement from freedom. A few generations separated me from feeling the relief ancestors must have felt looking back from the Ohio side. Behind me as I was getting this shot a group of field tripping high school students—Black, White and Hispanic—were relating to their museum guide what they learned about the major cash crops the enslaved Africans harvested. They recited words by rote memory and the guide, a young Black woman, praised each answer—even the incorrect ones.

"Juxtapose." PPR_Scribe

"Juxtapose." PPR_Scribe

I went through the museum reading the posted plaques. I opted against the recorded self-tour after being somewhat put off by the actors’ voices portraying US slavery-era Blacks. They sounded like cartoon characters. The woman who took our money and gave us our tickets (reduced price for children and seniors) had given us the children’s tour. I wondered if the voices on the adult self guided tour sounded any different.

I was somewhat annoyed by the juxtapositions of new and shiny and gleaming, and old (or, in many cases, replications of old). I walked inside the slave pen. Inside the pen was myself and (I am assuming by their dress) an Amish family. There were seven of us inside the log walls of the pen. I tried to imagine the pen filled with three, four, five times that number for days, weeks, months at a time. I could not imagine.

I was cataloging my reactions—for later retelling to friends and family back home and to visitors to this blog. “Antiseptic” was a word I kept using in my head. The actual artifacts were walled away in protective glass in a protective enclosed atmosphere in order to preserve them for future generations. The replicas were made to look old, but I have seen enough episodes of home shows on HGTV to know how they were likely artificially aged. Everything was clean. Antiseptic.

"Through Time." PPR_Scribe

"Through Time." PPR_Scribe

This time line marched history along a curved wall in perfect, orderly, well-lit fashion. The years in between were lost. The vastness of those years was also lost.

I imagined a walk outside the grounds of the museum and throughout the city’s downtown. Each decade would be a half mile or so on the path, with markers all the way telling of the key events and figures and laws and battles and speeches. People would walk along the path, hopefully growing tired before they even reached the Civil War.

Yet… That would probably still be fairly antiseptic. There would probably be several Dippin Dots kiosks along the time line path.

"Point of View, 1." PPR_Scribe

"Point of View, 1." PPR_Scribe

I thought a lot about the field trip groups making their way through the museum. Several of the exhibits were life sized. This allowed the children to literally place themselves into the exhibits.

A group of preteen boys that I followed through several rooms were having an extended discussion about what weapons they would have used to break free from slavery. Here, two of the boys caressed the barrel of the rifle and said they would have over powered this single guard and stolen his weapon and killed him and ran away “up North.”

One of the boys decided that he would have hidden a knife in his pants. Then another boy became enthralled by a long machete depicted in another exhibit and decided he would rather wield that weapon.

I longed to tell them all to STFU, but their chaperon was only steps behind me. She, a White woman, was listening to the self-guided tour. She appeared to be crying.

"Point of View, 2." PPR_Scribe

"Point of View, 2." PPR_Scribe

Another school group came through as I was lining up these shots. One of the boys ran over to the seated men and exclaimed, “Oh, lookit! I’m a slave!”

His classmate, a girl, looked at him with disdain and said, “You retard! Being a slave wasn’t a good thing!”

The boy stood up, glancing at me as he did. I suppose I gave him a look, or perhaps it was his rebuke by the girl (who he had probably been trying to impress). But he stopped smiling and laughing and walked quickly away from the exhibit.

I thought the girl’s choice of words could have been better. Hers were not more enlightened than the rifle-choosing boy who told the potential knife wielder that his own choice of weapon was “so gay.”

But at least she had words. Apparently I just had a look.

I sat next to one of the life-sized seated men and took my shot.

One of the exhibits appeared at first to just be a darkened room with a large clear center column containing what looked like thousands of colored glass beads. I walked through quickly, in search of my children who I thought had gone on ahead of me. I found one with her grandfather, then returned through the room to search for my other child. I found her looking at the time line with her father.

I walked back through the darkened room. I stopped this time to look. The plaque said that the room was dedicated to all the Africans who did not make the Middle Passage with their lives. The colored beads were meant to represent them, because their names have—like their lives—been lost. I walked back through the room and suddenly burst into tears. I stood in a corner and silently cried for a few moments before catching up with my daughter and my father-in-law.

I amended my mental blog post to remove the word antiseptic.

"Young Witness." PPR_Scribe

"Young Witness." PPR_Scribe

My children also cried. One cried while reading the account of Margaret Garner, the woman on whose account Toni Morrison’s Beloved is based. She told me through her tears…it was so terrible…why would a mother do something like that?

I tried to explain that this shows how horrible slavery was, that a mother would rather her children be dead than return to be slaves. Could she imagine how horrible that must have been? She told me she hated slavery, and I was glad.

Both cried during a short film that used actors to portray a mother, her young daughter, and teenaged son about to be separated as the young man prepared to run away from his family and the plantation.

I almost did not go into the little theater, prepared to be annoyed at the actors. But I, too, cried. We hugged each other and remained seated for a few moments after the film credits ended. I asked my daughters if they wanted to ask me anything about the film. One said, “It was all just so sad.” I was happy that she was sad. All I said was that I agreed.

My other daughter wondered if the young man in the film made it. I reminded her that this was just a reenactment, but that some Blacks made it and some did not.

They wanted to go upstairs to the fourth floor to the genealogy center to “look up all of Paw-Paw’s brothers and sisters.” But it was nearly time for us to leave. We went through one other exhibit, then headed for the gift shop.

One daughter chose as her souvenir a fair trade beaded bracelet made somewhere in South America. She opted for no bag, immediately put it on her wrist, and remembered without me telling her to say “thank you” to her grandparents for buying it for her.

One daughter chose a finger puppet of Harriet Tubman. She picked Tubman over the finger puppet of Frederick Douglass, someone who I think was supposed to be Che Guevara, and several other figures I could not readily identify. The puppet was affixed with a magnet so that, I suppose, after you are finished putting your finger up through Black Moses’s skirt and lodging it into her head, you can use her to put your shopping list up on the refrigerator.

I was troubled by this thought and tried to convince my daughter to look at the free trade bracelets that her sister had already chosen from. But she was having none of it. She wanted the Harriet Tubman finger puppet with a passion.

Her grandparents bought it for her. She opted out of the bag, immediately putting the puppet on her index finger. She thanked her grandparents and ran out of the gift store. All the way to our car in the parking garage she extolled us, with the Tubman puppet held up high, to follow her to freedom. She managed a surprisingly accurate quoting: I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves…

Although…her finger puppet Harriet Tubman’s words sounded much like Professor Minerva McGonagal talking to Harry Potter about the adequacy of his incantations at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Before I could become annoyed, I told myself that at least my daughter knew the words. That’s a start.

***More photographs from the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center***

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