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Danielle is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Velamag, The Rumpus and Blackberry.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett Was Born Today in 1862

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Today marks the birthday of Ida B. Wells-Barnett — the educator and journalist who pioneered investigative reporting techniques still used today to uncover details of lynchings across the South. Wells-Barnett ran a newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, and also helped found the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women.

Wells was born enslaved on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She moved to Chicago in 1894 and died there in 1931.

In its series “Overlooked,” launched last March, the New York Times ran obituaries of important figures whose deaths had previously gone unmentioned in the paper. Wells-Barnett’s was among the first wave of belated obituaries:

Wells was already a 30-year-old newspaper editor living in Memphis when she began her anti-lynching campaign, the work for which she is most famous. After [her friend, Thomas] Moss was killed, she set out on a reporting mission, crisscrossing the South over several months as she conducted eyewitness interviews and dug up records on dozens of similar cases.

Her goal was to question a stereotype that was often used to justify lynchings — that black men were rapists. Instead, she found that in two-thirds of mob murders, rape was never an accusation. And she often found evidence of what had actually been a consensual interracial relationship.

She published her findings in a series of fiery editorials in the newspaper she co-owned and edited, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. The public, it turned out, was starved for her stories and devoured them voraciously. The Journalist, a mainstream trade publication that covered the media, named her “The Princess of the Press.”

Readers of her work were drawn in by her fine-tooth reporting methods and language that, even by today’s standards, was aberrantly bold.

“There has been no word equal to it in convincing power,” Frederick Douglass wrote to her in a letter that hatched their friendship. “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison,” he added.

He was referring to writing like the kind that she published in The Free Speech in May 1892.

Wells-Barnett’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster is organizing and fundraising for a monument to the journalist to be built in Chicago.

Read the obituary

 

The Far Right’s Fight Against Race-Conscious School Admissions

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: Attorney Bert Rein (L), speaks to the media while standing with plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher (R), after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in her caseon October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. The high court heard oral arguments on Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin and are tasked with ruling on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Late in the afternoon on July 3, the Department of Justice announced it was rescinding 24 documents issued by the Obama administration between 2011 and 2016. The documents  offered guidance to a range of constituencies, including homeowners, law enforcement, and employers. Some detailed employment protections for refugees and asylees; seven of the 24 discussed policies and Supreme Court rulings on race-conscious admissions practices in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. In its statement, the DOJ called the guides “unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.”

No immediate policy change will come from the documents’ removal. It’s more of a signal, a gesture in a direction, a statement about ideology. The Trump administration has already enacted several hard-line positions on immigration. And the Sessions-backed Justice Department has made a habit of signaling, by way of gesture, its opposition to affirmative action, and its belief that race-conscious policies, specifically, often amount to acts of discrimination.

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The term “affirmative action” is ambiguous and has never been strictly defined. It’s a collection of notions, gestures, and ideas that existed before its present-day association with race. According to Smithsonian, the term was likely first used in the Depression-era Wagner Act. This legislation aimed to end harmful labor practices and encourage collective bargaining. It also mandated that employers found in violation “take affirmative action including reinstatement of employees with or without backpay” to prevent the continuation of harmful practices. The reinstatement and payment of dismissed employees were affirmative gestures that could be taken to right a wrong.

Nearly a decade later, in 1941, under pressure from organizer A. Philip Randolph, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to prohibit race-based discrimination in the defense industries during the buildup to WWII. It is considered the first federal action to oppose racial discrimination since Reconstruction, and paved the way for President John F. Kennedy, who was the first to use “affirmative action” in association with race in Executive Order 10925. Kennedy’s order instructed government contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed,” regardless of “race, creed, color, or national origin.” President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the scope of Kennedy’s order to add religion when he issued Executive Order 11246 in 1965. Two years later, Johnson amended his own document to include sex on the list of protected attributes.

It was Republican president Richard Nixon who expanded the use of affirmative actions to ensure equal employment in all facets of government in 1969, when he issued Executive Order 11478. Nixon ran for office in 1968 on “law and order” and “tough on crime” messaging. He believed what he called “black capitalism” –- the idea of thriving black communities with high rates of employment and entrepreneurship — would ease the agitations of civil rights groups and end urban unrest. At the time, Nixon’s rhetoric won the support of a smattering of black cultural figures such as James Brown. “Black capitalism” was little more than a co-optation of some of the tenets of Black Power, which itself had come from a long-established line of conservative black political thought that emphasized economic empowerment and independence, self-determination and personal responsibility. In his version, Nixon envisioned only a slight role for the federal government; without the push of significant government investment, the policies and programs he created didn’t result in sweeping change. Still, shadows of Nixon’s thinking on black economics endured: They’re present in multiple speeches Obama made to black audiences during his presidency; Jay Z’s raps about the transformative, generational effects of his wealth; Kanye West’s TMZ and Twitter rants. Also, the backlash Nixon faced is remarkably similar in tone and content to today’s challenges to affirmative action, which typically involve a white person’s complaints about the incremental gains made by members of a previously disadvantaged group:

In 1969 Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act authorized the SBA to manage a program to coordinate government agencies in allocating a certain number of contracts to minority small businesses—referred to as procurements or contract “set-asides.” Daniel Moynihan, author of the controversial Moynihan Report, helped shape the program. By 1971 the SBA had allocated $66 million in federal contracts to minority firms, making it the most robust federal aid to minority businesses. Still, the total contracts given to minority firms amounted to only .1 percent of the $76 billion in total federal government contracts that year.

Yet even these miniscule minority set-asides immediately faced backlash from blue-collar workers, white construction firms, and conservatives, who called them “preferential treatment” for minorities. Ironically, multiple studies revealed that 20 percent of these already meager set-asides ended up going to white-owned firms.

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A sense of lost advantage and power seems to animate both historical and recent challenges to race-based policies and practices. In Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978) the first affirmative action case the Supreme Court ruled on, Allan Bakke, a white University of California at Davis medical school applicant, sued the school after being twice denied admission. The school had created a system to set aside a certain number of spaces for students from marginalized groups. The Court decided practices that relied on quota systems were unconstitutional, but it upheld the use of race in admissions decisions as long as it was among a host of other factors. Rulings in subsequent cases, such as Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and most recently, Fisher v. University of Texas (2016) supported the use of race in admissions and reiterated the federal government’s interest in the diversity of the nation’s institutions. In the most-recent case, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the Court’s swing vote.

Plaintiffs in affirmative action challenges tend to argue race-conscious admissions policies violate rights granted by the Fourteenth Amendment, especially its clause guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws.” Ratified 150 years ago last week, the Fourteenth Amendment established birthright citizenship and defined citizenship’s parameters. Its ideas originated in the years leading up to Reconstruction, during “colored conventions” held among African American leaders and activists,  and form the underpinnings of Brown v. Board Education (1954) and some provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One of the most prominent opponents of affirmative action, Edward Blum, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, actively seeks and recruits aggrieved plaintiffs and attorneys to challenge race-based policies in school admissions and voting practices. Blum was the force behind the complaint of Abagail Fisher, the white student at the center of Fisher v. University of Texas. According to the New York Times:

In the Texas affirmative action case, he told a friend that he was looking for a white applicant to the University of Texas at Austin, his own alma mater, to challenge its admissions criteria. The friend passed the word to his daughter, Abigail Fisher. About six months later, the university rejected Ms. Fisher’s application.

“I immediately said, ‘Hey, can we call Edward?’” she recalled in an interview.

The case went to the Supreme Court twice, and though Ms. Fisher was portrayed as a less than stellar student, vilified as supporting a racist agenda, and ultimately lost, she said she still believed in Mr. Blum. “I think we started a conversation,” she said. “Edward obviously is not going to just lie down and play dead.”

Blum’s first lawsuit came about after he lost a Congressional election in Houston because, he felt, the boundaries of his district were drawn solely along racial lines. He is now behind lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which allege the schools’ admissions policies discriminate against Asian American applicants. It is interesting and bold to use white women and Asian American students to dismantle programs meant to address America’s legacy of discrimination. Both groups have benefited significantly from Reconstruction and Civil Rights-era policies and legislation. Do Blum, Sessions, and their supporters believe race-based policies are irrelevant, illegal, or improper because for many, they’ve worked? I sense something more nefarious at play, such as a mounting sense of loss and growing resentment that the demographic shifts in our country also mean inevitable shifts in who holds power.

The Sessions-helmed Justice Department’s signals and the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the high court, have, I’m sure, heartened activists like Blum. For the Nation, Eric Foner wrote about how the Fourteenth amendment’s ambiguity is what allows it to be used in a way that is so at odds with the spirit of its origins. It is that ambiguity, he says, that will allow, someday, in a different political climate, for another era of correction.

Sources and further reading:

‘Wild With Love’: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on the Portraits of Henry Taylor

"i'm yours," 2015 ©Henry Taylor; Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

In a story for Vulture that is excerpted from a forthcoming monograph, author Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah profiles the figurative painter Henry Taylor, who had five new paintings exhibited at last year’s Whitney Biennial. The two artists talk about Los Angeles, time’s passage, migrations and arrivals, the history of portraiture, and what it means specifically for black painters and their subjects.

Some of my favorite places in the piece are about the nature of work—how one’s vocation can be a calling, an almost holy redemption, and how work and working has evolved for black Americans throughout the generations.

…His father took him out to tag along on his painting jobs on Saturday mornings. It would seem obvious that this early education in using paint (albeit industrial- and commercial-strength paint) and paintbrushes was the firmament for Taylor’s work and his work ethic. Henry Taylor never stops working. He not only paints black labor, black labor practices (jazz gods like Miles Davis, feats of black athleticism like Alice Coachman acing the high jump), and black laborers, he works like a laborer too. From afar, his practice has come to appear antic, but when you look up close, it’s clear that Taylor has a traditionalist’s belief in habit, consistency, and keeping the hours of a man with a day job. He works like someone who has paid his bills by throwing paint on walls for more than 40 years. But what was an industrial skill for the father has become a creative act for the son.

When I remark to Taylor that although they painted different things, doesn’t it mean something that he and his father both painted? Doesn’t it matter that his paternal grandfather in Texas was alleged to have been such a strong draftsman that he was able to supplement his income by counterfeiting? So isn’t Henry, then, just the passage of time, the arrival of options that can finally intersect with the talent? Instead of answering me, Taylor started to weep. “Only recently have I started to think about that.”

The last time he spoke to his father, his father had wished Taylor well and expressed his pride that he was graduating from CalArts. The call had surprised Taylor. He was surprised that his father even knew that he was graduating. Because he had never expected his father to understand what painting meant to him.

It was his sister, Anna Laura, who, after going to his first show and seeing what her brother had been up to, seemed to best understand where the inner lives of their people and their parents’ stories had landed. Anna Laura was the one who called Randy, their older brother, and told him, “You gotta come here. Randy, Randy. You gotta come see Henry. Randy, Henry can paint. And Randy, Henry’s paintings will scare you to death.”

Taylor thinks about them, his people, often, and in Oxnard, his fears about the limitations of his body and how much time he has left to capture them pervaded our conversation. These deep emotions can often come on like a penumbral shadow and overwhelm him. They are the burdens that come with being the keeper of the flame.

As we pulled away from his aunt’s house, there was the sense of evaporation, with what is left behind being mostly the memories he tries to capture. “I can paint portraits easy. What keeps me up at night is trying to really paint this.”

Read the story

A Reading List for Reconsidering the Fourth of July in 2018

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 31: Lindon Demery carries the flag into the arena before the start of competition at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on March 31, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. The Bill Pickett Rodeo is the nation's only touring black rodeo competition. The rodeo celebrates western heritage and the contributions that black cowboys and cowgirls have made to the sport of rodeo. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Growing up, I thought the Fourth of July was a sweet, soulful holiday. My memories of it are mostly fond. With my mother, I’d shop for a matching red, white, and blue top-and-bottom set and new jelly sandals. There was a barbecue every year a few streets over from our home in Memphis, at my uncle’s baby blue-shuttered house. It started in the afternoon and went on until late into the night, when the lightning bugs came out. While my cousins and I played with gold sparklers, I could hear my mother’s laughter grow higher pitched and louder as the music changed to slower cuts, the kind that dragged.

The first year I got to see the city’s official fireworks show, in a park overlooking the Mississippi River, my older sister and brother must have been on break from college. The three of us headed there around dusk. My new jelly sandals were yellow and let my big toes stick out.

We walked across a wide lawn down on Mud Island, a man-made peninsula between the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers that had opened for public recreation in 1982. Three miles north of Mud Island is another site for public recreation, Tom Lee Park, named for the African American riverboat worker who saved the lives of 32 white passengers in 1925 when the M.E. Norman steamboat capsized. He’d witnessed the accident in his small boat and dove into the water, making 5 trips. The town erected a statue in his honor that called him “a worthy Negro,” and as payment, he was given a sanitation worker job and a house in the Klondike neighborhood of North Memphis.

My mother grew up in North Memphis, close to Klondike, in the 1950s and 1960s. She remembers the city’s amenities as contested space — its colored-only days at the zoo, the public library, the public pool.

That summer I was with my siblings — walking across a lawn to Mud Island in those yellow jellys, watching the fireflies, anticipation and balmy sweat on my skin — we found ourselves behind a dusty blue pickup truck. Three shirtless white men sat on back of it. One had blond curls and a bottle of what I thought to be beer in his hand. “Hey niggers,” he said to us with a smile, waving, so casually. The truck then picked up speed, and they were gone. My siblings and I continued our walk towards the river.

As long as I’ve been alive, being American has felt just like this. Tense, sweet, fraught and confused. I’ve known in my bones from a young age that our country was held together by a string that could at any moment break. That hate was always around the corner, always bubbling up under the sweetest of our days.

At Broadly, in “How to Celebrate the 4th of July When America Is a Constant Disappointment,” Leila Ettachfini says “racism, sexism, homophobia, the institutionalized manifestations of each of these” have been ’emboldened’ over the last few years, making it more difficult for wider swaths of Americans to ignore. How should we celebrate a holiday that demands a patriotic response given the current circumstances? Ettachfini provides a list of great suggestions, such as writing letters to children still separated from their families at the border, subscribing to an independent press outlet, bringing petitions to gatherings, or collecting donations for “a cause that our government and/or other American institutions have abandoned or actively worked against, like the Flint, Michigan water crisis or abortion access.”

I’d add that reading the words of people who have made it their life’s work to understand the American conundrum, who clarify and re-inscribe citizenship, democracy, and freedom, can also be a balm in these times.

1. “A Radically Woke and Deeply Conservative Commencement Address.” (Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic, June 2018)

Friedersdorf writes up the commencement address American classicist Danielle Allen gave at Pomona College last month, in which she offered a close reading of the Declaration of Independence. Allen is careful to note the action encoded in its sentences. “It’s not just about individual rights — about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — it moves from those rights to the notion that government is something that we build together to secure our safety and happiness.”

2. “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday.” (Ethan J. Kytle & Blain Roberts, Atlantic, July 2018)

After emancipation, many African Americans celebrated Independence Day without ambiguity.

From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.

…The most extraordinary festivities were held in Charleston, South Carolina, the majority-black city where Southern secession and the Civil War had begun. At the 1865 commemoration in Charleston, one speaker noted the altered meaning of the holiday for black Americans, who could at last “bask in the sunshine of liberty.”

The martial displays at this and subsequent celebrations underscored his point. Each year, thousands of black South Carolinians lined up early to watch African American militia companies march through city streets. Led by mounted officers, some of whom were ex-slaves, these black companies were often named for abolitionists and other black heroes. The 1876 Fourth of July parade included the Lincoln Rifle Guard, the Attucks Light Infantry, the Douglass Light Infantry, and the Garrison Light Infantry.

3. “A Great Escape, A Dwindling Legacy.” (Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times, February 1998)

Isabel Wilkerson’s travel piece on Bronzeville, the historic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that she calls “ground zero” of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South, is a reminder that the movement of migrants has made much of what we hold dear possible.

In South Side blues joints in the 1940’s, the height of the exodus, migrants like Muddy Waters churned out gut-bucket blues from Mississippi, down-home folk music that grew worldlier in the big city. A row of recording studios, perhaps the most famous of which was Chess Records, sprang up along Michigan Avenue to capture the music and send it across the world.Newsletter Sign Up

The former nightclub owners Phil and Leonard Chess sent their right-hand man, Willie Dixon, a blues bassist from Mississippi who wrote most of the label’s hits, to scout talent in the streets of Bronzeville. Bo Diddley was one of the blues men Dixon found. During the glory days of the 1950’s and 1960’s, he and Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Etta James and many others passed through the studio, belting out the blues with nightclub realism in an echo chamber in the basement. Eventually young musicians like Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton heard the music and drew inspiration. The Rolling Stones, who took their name from a Muddy Waters song, made their first American recording at Chess in 1964.

4. “The Border and the American Imagination.” (Michelle García, The BafflerJuly 2018)

García traces a history of the current “immigration crisis,” including how we talk about it.

The horror on the border is described as an “immigration crisis,” the violence seemingly the consequence of migrants’ presence. “Immigration crisis” frames the violent reaction—the armed troops sent to the border, the unarmed Guatemalan woman shot in the head by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, the psychological torture of children. But “immigration crisis” ignores the fact that fighting Mexicans (or their easy substitutes, such as Central Americans) was essential to the construction of the United States, its identity the culture of violence it celebrates.

5. “Your Patriotism isn’t Love. It’s Blindness.” (Abraham A. Joven, The Rumpus, July 2017)

Joven encourages us to not look away.

Love, you see, looks unflinchingly into the morass and calls on hope. It does not disavow the wreckage or avoid it. True love is a wise change agent that leans on the better angels without naivety.

On Mourning, Learning a More Sober Fandom, and Letting Go

DEERFIELD BEACH, FL - JUNE 23:Hip-hop mourns rapper XXXTentacion after fatal shooting at roadside memorial. The Rapper Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, who performed under the name Xxxtentacion was shot, June 18, 2018 on June 23, 2018 in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Credit: Hoo-Me.com / MediaPunch /IPX

Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, the singer-rapper known as XXXTentacion, died after an apparent armed robbery on June 18. He was 20 years old. His first album, 17,  debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 last August, and a follow-up, ?, landed the number one spot in March. The popularity of his emotionally raw lyrics and sparse, cutting beats did not wane when allegations of strangulation, head-butting, kidnapping and other forms of physical and sexual abuse were made public last September.  In fact, XXX’s appeal only grew; fans as well as music industry insiders seemed to double down on their support. When the streaming service Spotify announced a plan to classify XXX and R. Kelly’s music as “hate content” and curtail promotion of the two artists, representatives of established hip-hop acts and label heads protested. Spotify abandoned the policy less than a month later, citing its “vague” language as one of the reasons for retracting.

I wrote about the accusations XXX’s former partner made against him in a post last month on Kelis, Nas, and hip-hop’s #MeToo problem. At the time, I hadn’t yet spoken to enough people younger than me, like my 16-year-old nephew, to try to understand the hold XXX’s music had on them. I hadn’t thought enough about how, when I was 15, I’d lose myself on the dance floor to 2pac’s “How Do U Want It,” finding respite from everything going on at home. Pac had already been accused and convicted of sexual assault by then, and though I didn’t yet have the language of feminism to help me process things, I have enough faith in my own intelligence to believe there was more to my love of Pac than simply ignorance or self-hate. He had a ferocious creativity and communicated a sense of striving and overcoming, and he was defiant of the hypocrisy of respectability. I needed to tap into all that to survive those times. Like XXX, Pac often toyed with the possibility of his own early death, and he lived racing towards it. At 15, I read this, too, as defiance.

Still, adult-me is resolutely angry about the harm these and other hip-hop men have caused. I am also curious about what it is in XXX’s desperately sad body of work that his fans cannot bear to part with. I can wager guesses, because we live in desperate times. This is a burning house with a weaponized high court, menacing ICE agents, screaming toddlers at the border and the killing of innocents in our interior. We want our heroes to transcend these circumstances, but often, they simply reflect our own horror right back at us.

Reporter and critic Stephen Kearse tries to make sense of XXX’s enduring appeal in a thoughtful essay for Pitchforkfor which he speaks to some of XXX’s listeners.

I sought out XXXTentacion fans expecting to meet reactionaries and trolls mired in bad faith and adulation—a cult, essentially. Instead I found folks who make the same choices and suspensions of disbelief as other fans and listeners, consumers enthralled by and navigating the same badlands of treacherous content as the rest of us. These fans’ relationship to XXXTentacion was—and, perhaps more than ever, is—entirely based on the music and its importance to them, and everything outside of that was dismissible hearsay. For them, “the charges” against him took the form of a vague stigma without a particular origin.

I was alarmed by their skepticism, but the way XXXTentacion’s fans conflated newsgathering, rumors, and #inspiration was no different from radio DJs or Reddit users opinionating into the void. Stigma is the opposite of prestige, but it functions the same way, providing a readymade lens for interpreting art regardless of new terms or information. This doesn’t mean that XXXTentacion and his fans were beyond reproach or that the widespread reluctance by the press to embrace his music was unwarranted. But it does reveal the limits of music being treated as a lifestyle—to embrace or reject wholesale—and artists being worshipped rather than engaged with, challenged, doubted.

If our current cultural moment is predicated on a more honest reckoning with who we idolize and who is harmed by that idolatry—the abused, the assaulted, the discarded, the ignored—perhaps we should also consider the how just as emphatically.

Kearse says a large part of our problem is the nature of fandom itself — how we adore our favorites so unequivocally. He wonders how we can love what we love soberly. By the end of the essay, Kaerse describes how his own approach to listening to and critically engaging with music has changed.

Taking abuse allegations seriously has altered how I discuss music, professionally and personally. I don’t leave artists’ controversies out of reviews or shy away from the hard questions in interviews. I don’t mount convoluted defenses for questionable lyrics, even for dead or respected artists. I respect and acknowledge the apprehension of other listeners when a song or line or tweet grates. Above all, I no longer stan, for anyone. I realize this could never be the universal approach to ethical consumption—contrary to the saying, not everybody’s a critic. But it’s a system of constant engagement, with artists, with their actions, and with myself. Even for my faves, finality never comes.

Is this sober approach to fandom enough of a stand? Kaerse’s piece reminded me of the work of Pearl Cleage, whose essay “Mad at Miles” from a now out-of-print  volume of the same name, grapples with the crimes jazz innovator Miles Davis admittedly committed against actress Cicely Tyson. Certainly, the fans of Davis occupy a more rarefied space in the American imaginary than those of any Soundcloud rapper. It’s nearly impossible to conceive of a world where Kind of Blue isn’t heralded. In her piece, Cleage spends time with Davis’ music and takes care to consider its utility, asking, “Can we make love to the rhythms of ‘a little early Miles’ when he may have spent the morning of the day he recorded the music slapping one of our sisters in the mouth?”

While Kearse gives us a blueprint for ethical consumption of the work of artists who cause such harm, Cleage suggests there can be none.

XXXTentacion’s death has caused another surge in his music’s popularity. I listened to “SAD!” for a while on a trip last week. On the track, the rapper threatens suicide if a lover leaves. That’s an abuse tactic, and it me hurt to listen. I wondered if my nephew, who makes beats and had been mournful of the late rapper’s death, was okay, so I reached out. That is all I know to do.

Further Reading:

Oral History Project Grounds Story of Monticello in the Lives of the Enslaved

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's House, in Virginia.

For Smithsonian magazine, author Andrew M. Davenport discusses the work of Getting Word, an oral history project that, since 1993, has collected histories of African American families who lived at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello.

By identifying descendants of families owned by Jefferson—like the Herns, Gillettes, Grangers and the many branches of the Hemings family, among others—and carefully recording their oral histories, the project’s founders, Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, Dianne Swann-Wright and Beverly Gray, and their successors have learned from dozens of American families from the mid-18th century until the present.

The fact of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship is now considered a “settled matter” by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, due to the work of Getting Word and years of scholarship by historian Annette Gordon-Reed. A space where Hemings is thought to have lived is now open, for the first time, to Monticello’s public.

At one point, according to Davenport, “about 400 enslaved laborers” called Monticello home. Getting Word conducted more than one hundred interviews and additional supplemental archival research over the years; they’ve unearthed a sprawling black community at the plantation, made up of individuals whose lives most people know little about.

In the summer of 2016, [descendants] Velma and Ruth had been contacted by Gayle Jessup White, a community engagement officer with Monticello and the only descendant of Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings family employed there. From their aunts and uncles, Velma and her cousins had heard stories about descent from Monticello’s African-American community. They had heard stories that one female in each generation was supposed to be named Sally for Sally Hemings.

White had been researching her third great-grandfather, Peter Hemings, an older sibling of Sally Hemings and a talented man who served as a cook for Jefferson after being trained by his brother James, who had studied the art in France and is widely considered the finest chef in early America. Peter also learned to become a brewer and a tailor. In a letter, Jefferson once described Peter as a man of “great intelligence.”

No surviving papers in Peter’s hand have been found. White learned that Peter and his wife, Betsy, enslaved at Thomas Mann Randolph’s Edgehill plantation, named one of their children Sally, after Peter’s sister. She would become Velma and Ruth’s great-grandmother, the mother of their grandfather Anderson. White’s great-grandmother was Anderson’s sister. In a memorable phone call, White confirmed the stories Velma and Ruth had heard and invited them to participate in Getting Word.

Later, Davenport describes how Getting Word got its start and considers how the project will likely change how the nation engages with narratives of its founders.

African-Americans were by far in the majority at Monticello. Monticello was a Black space. People of African descent shaped the entire landscape: how the food tasted, what the place sounded and felt like. Though Jefferson considered himself the patriarch, and though most every American identifies Monticello with Jefferson, it is important to recall that people of African descent, from the time the first brick of his “autobiographical masterpiece” was laid until Jefferson’s death, were in the majority…

“Jefferson was not a great man unto himself,” says [descendant] Jay. “He had unpaid, enslaved individuals who were extremely skilled and talented. And for the most part, they’re all from the same families. These five to eight families from the beginning to the end.”

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Alabama’s History Haunts, But It Also Instructs

BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 12: Voters head in to cast their ballot as the doors open at a polling station setup in the St Thomas Episcopal Church on December 12, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Alabama voters are casting their ballot for either Republican Roy Moore or his Democratic challenger Doug Jones in a special election to decide who will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In an essay for Harper’sscholar and writer Imani Perry tells a textured story of Alabama that moves through time and critical places throughout the state like Mobile, Birmingham, Selma, and Uniontown. “Alabama changes,” writes Perry. The author, an Alabama native, mourns, yet finds the space for hope. She predicts what recent, local events—such as Doug Jones’ black voter-powered fall 2017 Senate victory, or the opening of the nation’s first lynching museum—could mean for the whole of America, if we pay attention.

If you drive from Mobile to Birmingham, you can take the interstate, 65, which would bring you through Montgomery, the capital, the home of Rosa Parks, the site of the bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s onetime church. Or you can take local Alabama roads. The roads less taken are instructive. On another route, about an hour west, is a little-known place called Uniontown. It is in the Black Belt of Alabama, a region of double meaning: named for rich soil and the poorest people, slaves and later the barely emancipated Black sharecroppers and convicts leased out to do the hellish work of clearing land. The Black Belt is drier than the rest of Alabama. Yet thick forests remain even this many years after the wreckage that was king cotton. There are legions of cypress, oak, and loblolly trees, purple blazing star flowers, and all sorts of animals, especially the massive bucks that hunters pridefully kill.

Nearly two centuries ago, statesmen carved Alabama out of Mississippi, and then pushed out the indigenous—Cherokee and Creek—at the edge of bayonets. In swarmed the slavers hungry for cotton wealth in the nineteenth century. And that sensibility, although with some labor, still breathes.

The Black towns in the Black Belt are now dumping grounds—of fantasies and waste. In random assortment through the woods there are abandoned cars rusted to the color of dried blood, and stacks of old unwanted papers. But worst is what comes from out of state. Matter of fact, our nation has turned Uniontown, Alabama, into one of its trash cans, burying it in the refuse of thirty-three states. “Landfill” is too clean a word for what they do. And that’s not all. As part of Uniontown’s sewage system, liquid waste is spewed into the air to land on the hard Alabama clay earth. The town is showered in shit.

Uniontown is 90 percent Black and nearly all poor. A fact of modern living is that the least valued carry the heaviest burden. They’ll die first, at least that’s what the wealthy are banking on. And the dead are killed once again. The graveyard of generations of Black Uniontown residents, since before the Civil War, stands right outside the landfill gates, where descendants worry about the graves being disturbed, despite the corporate promise to treat the departed with respect. It has become harder to honor them. And, in truth, we are all probably somewhat ashamed to face them.

Alabama’s tough earth is either black or red, like what is found in much of West Africa. In preparation for a lynching museum in Montgomery, helmed by the civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, jars of Alabama earth have been collected from the sites of lynchings all over the state. Lined up, they are a hauntingly beautiful array of colors, from jet black to rust and copper. The red clay soil of Alabama, a form of ultisol, is produced by intense weathering, season after season with no new soil. My grandmother’s grandmother, like many old-time Black Southern women, used to chew and swallow that dirt—a mineral-rich taste that strengthened weak blood. Change the joke, slip the yoke, then they find a new yoke. Propose strangulation by trash and shit when the ropes will no longer do, and everyone, even the holier-than-thou North, will pitch in with their leavings. That is what the nation does to my state.

Except for on the King holiday weekend in January. And then the ossified sculpture of Alabama is brought out, shiny, stoic, and noble, and broadcast nationally. It often takes the form of a symbolic ritual of civil rights memorialization in Selma, Uniontown’s neighbor, especially during election cycles. The candidates theatrically walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a celebration called the Jubilee, in remembrance of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. But there are no weapons aimed at them, there is no Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam.” There are self-congratulatory crowds announcing, “Look how far we have come,” and, holding on, gripping, are organizers trying to find a way to use the iconography, to reshape it as a weapon for freedom. Alabama organizers have literally never stopped fighting. But the nation’s eyes haven’t thawed enough to see it.

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Author Carmen Maria Machado on the Next Phase of #MeToo

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In a profile for Vulture, writer Carmen Maria Machado, whose short story collection Her Body and Other Parties is in development as a TV series similar to “Black Mirror,” discusses the broad spectrum of behavior that causes harm to women, the nuances of “benevolent sexism,” who gets to define the #MeToo movement, and how it should progress.

“What is #MeToo, really?” Machado thought aloud, over a duck egg balanced atop a tower of crisp potatoes. “What does it mean at its core? Is it about power? Is it about gender? Who decides?” She’s thinking about these questions as she writes her next book, which will also explore the thornier regions of #MeToo, but has nothing to do with Díaz, or any man. In March, she wrote a long Facebook post about her abusive ex-girlfriend and the anguish she’d felt about not naming her sooner. This relationship will be the subject of her untitled speculative memoir, forthcoming from Graywolf next year. “There is no council saying, ‘This is the meaning of #MeToo,’” she continued. “There’s no magic council of women in really long robes.” So how did she define this moment that we’re in? “It’s about previously unspoken elements of sexual harassment, rape, and power being brought to light,” she concluded.

But what comes after? “God, what should we do with them?” she said with a laugh. Clearly, men who have committed crimes should be held accountable, but for all the rest, she imagined a sort of fantastical body-swap experiment. “If all things were equal, if it was fair, men would get to experience what we get to experience. In terms of having their art utterly devalued at every turn. In terms of not being taken seriously. Obviously,” she added dryly, “I don’t think that will happen.”

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Series Exhumes Out-of-Print Books by Black Authors

A row of vintage worn books

Since last January, author Michael A. Gonzales has been writing a monthly column for Catapult called “The Blacklist,” in which he rescues out-of-print texts by black authors from obscurity. Gonzales so far has uncovered little-known works of satire, crime fiction, and urban realism from the middle to the end of the 20th century. In each installment, he interviews those close to the work — usually editors, friends, or the authors themselves if they’re still living — for insight into the book’s creation.

The second piece in the series was on Henry Dumas, author of several collections of poems and short stories, as well as the posthumously published novel, Jonoah and the Green Stone. Dumas was killed by a police officer in a New York City subway station in 1968 at age 33.  The novel was acquired by Toni Morrison for Random House while she was an editor there. With a detailed, painterly touch, Gonzales brings color and drama to the story he tells about the book and the atmosphere that nurtured it into being:

It was poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe who introduced his friend Toni Morrison to both Dumas’ work and Redmond. Having moved to New York City in 1971 to teach, Troupe was already a well-known poet and essayist on the West Coast. “I didn’t know Dumas personally, but I loved his literary voice,” Troupe said from his home in Harlem. “His voice was different from the other young poets; it was elegant, but also as haunting as voodoo. I gave Toni the two books (Poetry for My People and Ark of Bones) published by Southern Illinois University and she freaked out. She loved them and wanted to publish them at Random House.”

In a 1975 review, the New Yorker called the prose in Ark of Bones a “collection of extraordinary short stories,” while also declaring that “Dumas was that rarity—a passionately political man with a poet’s eye and ear and tolerance of ambiguity . . . one of the saddest things about his book is that it leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that there were even better books to come.”

On the night of his murder, Dumas, who in photos was a lean, goateed man, had just left a rehearsal with jazz futurist Sun Ra and his Space Arkestra, and was headed downtown, perhaps to hear more way-out musical sounds at the Vanguard or Slugs. Although he also loved gospel and the blues, it was at Slugs where Dumas and Sun Ra met in 1966. “Everybody should try to be what they are,” Sun Ra told the young scribe, whose tapes of the interview were released posthumously as The Ark and the Ankh in 2001. According to the Redmond-penned liner notes, “The two men were very close and Sun Ra waxed alternatively angry and depressed when he received news of his protégé’s death.”

In the latest installment, Gonzales highlights Rhode Island Reda detective novel written by Charlotte Carter. She was a Chicago-born poet who’d been inspired to write crime fiction, in part, by the work of Chester Himes. While introducing us to Carter’s novels, Gonzales also draws a lineage of black crime fiction.

According to Paula L. Woods’ seminal collection of Black crime fiction Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes, the first published Negro mystery story ever published was “Talma Gordon” by Pauline E. Hopkins in 1900 in Colored American Magazine. Still, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Black women began contributing to the genre en masse with novels by Eleanor Taylor Bland, Barbara Neely, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Grace F. Edwards lining the bookstore shelves.

Nevertheless, it was [Charlotte] Carter’s jazz-loving, sexually liberated protagonist that resonated with me from the moment I’d bought the book at the now-closed Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Lower Broadway. “A terrific novel, from those witty, subversive opening sentences, to the edgy, melancholy and very satisfying ending,” read Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson’s blurb on the book. Tracing [protagonist] Nanette’s origins, Carter says, “I was with a man (Frank King) who I subsequently married actually, and he was writing crime fiction. One day we were on 6th Avenue in the 20s, in what used to be known as the Flower District, and we saw a young woman playing saxophone with a hat in front of her to collect tips. When we got home, Frank said, ‘You should do a book about a female saxophonist. It would be kinda funny, but you like mysteries so much, why don’t you do that?’ And, that’s how it started; I never would have done it without him.”

The Blacklist goes a long way towards highlighting the complexity and variety of literary art by people of color. This kind of excavation work often goes unnoticed and unheralded — it is in the vein of Walker’s headstone for Hurston, Nina Collins’ rescue of her mother, Kathleen’s short stories, Brigid Hughes’ recovery of the work of Bette Howland. It’s an exciting series to follow, and I anticipate that some of the work highlighted will make its way back to the marketplace.

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A Woman’s Search for Salvation, Love, and Family

Women reading the Holy Bible., reading a book.,reading

In a vivid personal essay for Kweli Journal, author Jodi M. Savage writes about growing up in New York City with her Pentecostal evangelist grandmother. The church gives their family a community to belong to and allows the narrator’s grandmother to build a life of leadership and influence.  But it could also be stifling and punishing for the women of its congregation. The author figures out how to honor her grandmother’s memory while bearing witness to the church’s limitations.

Granny raised me on mustard greens, hot water cornbread, and a super-sized portion of Jesus. Although I mastered the Rubik’s cube of rules for sanctified living, religion robbed me of my voice and left shame in its place. You could say that it all started with my teenage neighbor Bobby.

When I was a kid, I let Bobby paint my fingernails red. I knew it was a sin by Pentecostal standards, but my nails looked so pretty and shiny in the sunlight. A few days later, our street had our annual block party. Everyone had moved their cars off our Brooklyn street that morning; one end was blocked off with a Cutlass Supreme and the other with a Nissan Maxima. We played in the street all day until late into the night—volleyball, tag, double Dutch, hide-and-seek. Folks played spades and dominoes on the sidewalks; roamed from yard to yard sampling each other’s food; and blasted reggae, reggaeton, old school R&B, and hip hop from speakers all at the same time.

As I played across the street from my house, Bobby barreled into me on his bike. His front wheel and handlebars collided with my groin and stomach, sending me flying several feet away. I limped home to tell Granny what happened. She suddenly noticed my red fingernails for the first time. Again, we were Pentecostal, which meant we weren’t allowed to wear fingernail polish. Anything red was considered to be a special kind of sinful—carnality of the whorish variety. Instead of consoling me, Granny whipped me with an extension cord. That was the day I learned that one’s own pain is secondary to religious dogma. I learned to keep quiet when people hurt me, or else risk punishment for revealing something far worse—something sinful.

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