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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.

After the US Open, a History of Racial Caricature

2018 US Open Tennis Tournament- Day Thirteen. Winner Naomi Osaka of Japan in tears alongside Serena Williams of the United States at the presentations after the Women's Singles Final on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2018 US Open Tennis Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8th, 2018 in Flushing, Queens, New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Last weekend’s contentious women’s final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open has been much written about, by many writers I admire. Historian Brooke Newman’s story in the Washington Post focuses on the cartoon Mark Knight drew for the Herald Sun in Australia the day after the match. I wondered, reading comments as the cartoon made its rounds on Twitter, how anyone could deny its racist underpinnings and intent to degrade. Newman thoroughly traces a history of racial caricature, especially as it relates to Black women in the West.

Beginning in the late 18th century, as the abolitionist movement gave rise to widespread popular protest against the transatlantic slave trade, British cartoonists published numerous visual caricatures of people of African descent, particularly enslaved women. As sexualized objects of public consumption, the racialized bodies of nameless black women in these caricatures played a central role in public debates over the future of slave trading, slavery and the incorporation of free people descended from enslaved ancestors into the social and political worlds of Georgian England and antebellum America.

In late 18th- and early 19th century London, visual artists such as Isaac Cruikshank, James Gillray, Richard Newton and Thomas Rowlandson focused public attention on the unsuitability of women of African ancestry, not only as sexual partners for British men but also as free and equal imperial subjects. Caricaturists depicted African-descended women as simultaneously comical and frighteningly brutish, with jet-black skin, voluptuous bodies, thick lips and insatiable appetites. Black women, cartoonists suggested, posed a danger to the nation unless subject to white male control.

Similarly, in Jacksonian America, the lithographic cartoonist Edward W. Clay offered a scathing portrait of free black behavior, lampooning educated, urban African Americans for dressing in the latest fashions. His “Life in Philadelphia” series of 1828 to 1830 represents middle-class African Americans as pompous, buffoonish characters, unequal to the task of mimicking white social norms, speech patterns, courtship practices and clothing. The popularity of Clay’s cartoons prompted the publication of additional visual satires in the 1830s caricaturing the pretensions of middle-class African Americans in New York and ridiculing the claims of racial minorities to equal citizenship rights and legal protections.

In both 19th century England and the U.S., anti-abolitionist images played on and attempted to heighten public fears of interracial sex. Cartoonists insinuated that abolitionists, by trumpeting freedom and black equality, were radicals who sought racial amalgamation. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, racist imagery and cultural fears of miscegenation flourished in tandem with violence against African Americans.

As recently as February 2018, Australians were debating whether the time had finally come to shift blackface “Golliwog” dolls (also known as “Gollies”) from their prominent position in Australian shop fronts, or even to ban their sale entirely.

The Golliwog doll originated in an 1895 children’s book by Anglo-American illustrator Florence Kate Upton called “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a ‘Golliwogg.’ ” Inspired by caricatures of black-faced minstrel performers, the Golliwog had coal-black skin, unruly hair, large lips and leering white eyes and teeth. Because Upton did not own the copyright to the character, the Golliwog figure soon took on a life of its own. In addition to a line of dolls, the Golliwog became associated with a number of now-defunct 20th century consumer products, from English marmalade to Australian chocolate biscuits.

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The Myth of the Singular Voice

American actor Denzel Washington on the set of Glory, based on the book by Lincoln Kirstein, and directed by Edward Zwick. (Photo by TriStar Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

In an incisive essay for the Baffler, political scientist Adolph Reed considers how many pop culture creations made with Black audiences in mind — including films like Birth of a Nation, Selma, and Black Panther —  are narratives of singular, heroic, often male, achievement. “Tales of inspiration and uplift,” he calls them. Meanwhile, films like Glory, which hinged on its historical accuracy, were received by some with considerably less enthusiasm:

Occasionally on a boring flight, I’ll rewatch the Battle of James Island scene from the magnificent 1989 film, Glory. The scene depicts the first engagement of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first Northern regiment of black troops organized by the Army of the United States to fight against the Confederate insurrection. James Island was a fateful battle outside Charleston, SC, on July 16, 1863. I pulled up the clip on a recent flight and was moved yet again by the powerful imagery of black men finally able to strike a blow against the slaveocracy. Imagining what that felt like for the soldiers of the 54th is always intensely gratifying.

Watching it this time, I remembered how startled I had been when Glory was released to learn that many people, including blacks and people on the left, dismissed or even disparaged the film as a “white savior narrative”—a phrase that is now a routine derogation of certain cross-racial sagas of resistance to white supremacy. In Glory’s case, this complaint arose mainly in response to the (historically accurate) depiction of the regiment’s commanding officers as Northern whites.

This objection left me dumbfounded. After all, the 54th Massachusetts was a real historical entity. As a compromise to ensure political support, it was stipulated that its officers be white. Nonetheless, prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and the free black community of Boston, were enthusiastic about its formation and instrumental in recruiting its ranks.

Now I think I understand. I’ve long suspected that, to a certain strain of race-conscious or antiracist discourse, historical exploration in popular culture was less important than the propagation of tales of inspiration and uplift. These fables typically feature singular black heroes who have overcome crushing racist adversity against all odds. In recent years, a steady stream of films and other narratives have openly embraced that preference.

He suggests these escapist portrayals echo what is disturbingly superficial about our current drive to uplift diverse leadership and voices in media. “Winning anything politically — policies or changes in power relations — is not the point.,” Reed writes.

Decisions by blacks to support nonblack candidates or social policies not expressed in race-first terms are interpreted as evidence of flawed, limited, misguided, or otherwise co-opted black agency. The idea that blacks, like everyone else, make their history under conditions not of their own choosing becomes irrelevant, just another instance of insufficient symbolic representation.

The notion that black Americans are political agents just like other Americans, and can forge their own tactical alliances and coalitions to advance their interests in a pluralist political order is ruled out here on principle. Instead, blacks are imagined as so abject that only extraordinary intervention by committed black leaders has a prayer of producing real change. This pernicious assumption continually subordinates actually existing history to imaginary cultural narratives of individual black heroism and helps drive the intense—and myopic—opposition that many antiracist activists and commentators express to Bernie Sanders, social democracy, and a politics centered on economic inequality and working-class concerns.

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‘Mami’s biggest lesson’: On Storytelling and the Weight of Words

SANTA FE, NM - JUNE 17, 2018: Cumulus clouds form in the sky above New Mexico. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

In a personal essay for BuzzFeed, author Ingrid Rojas Contreras considers what observing her mother’s work in divination taught her about metaphor, yielding to experimentation, and the power of the right words.

When Mami first started to do readings, she gave her clients only the straight answers they sought: Yes, your husband is cheating on youNo, you should not go on that trip. Yes, he likes you, but he is not meant for you. Her readings were brief and to the point, and none of her clients came back. Sensing something was wrong with the way her message was being received, Mami experimented by disguising what she saw in a story.

There was a young woman, for example, who been disinherited by her father. Mami didn’t tell her the simple truth — that she needed to extend forgiveness to him before he extended forgiveness back to her. “Some truths are so simple, people dismiss them,” Mami said. “Nobody wants to be told: be a good person, be nice to your family, be kind. But sometimes that is the answer.”

Instead, Mami told the woman that the day her father had disinherited her, he had pinched one of her plants in anger, and until this plant was cleansed and released into the wild, her father would be deaf to her entreaties. Apparently, it was true that the father had been toying with a plant when he told his daughter she was to receive no more family money and was on her own. Mami and the woman wore surgical gloves and drove the plant to a nearby river, where they cleaned it with river water, said prayers, and it was at this point that Mami instructed the woman to forgive her father. The plant was a metaphor, but the woman would never know. Mami had given her a tangible task in the face of a broken relationship.

Whether the ritual worked or not is beside the point, in my opinion. In the attic, Mami told me, “You have to speak in metaphors, in paradox, in symbolism. You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without you ever having to name it.” Mami gave the woman a story, and the woman forgave her father, and eventually, he forgave her, too.

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Michael, Aretha, Beyoncé, and the Black Press

Johnson Publishing Company / Ebony Media Operations, Collage by Katie Kosma

Michael Jackson had special relationships with Ebony and Jet. Since their beginnings, the publications, founded by John H. Johnson in Chicago in 1945 and 1951, covered the lives of Black celebrities, professionals, and everyday people alongside a strong political undercurrent.

Jet was a weekly digest memorable to me for the Beauty of the Week centerfolds my uncles and cousins scattered around their homes and the Black music charts printed at the back of each issue. It’s perhaps best known for photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, published in 1955.

The lifestyle monthly Ebony was patterned after Life and Look. In its January 1960 issue, a remarkable story written by William B. Davis profiled several Black Americans living in Russia in the midst of the Cold War, asking, “Who are the Negroes in Russia? How did they get there? How are they treated? Are they really free?” A story on Miles Davis from December 1982 was mostly about his recovery from a stroke, but he also critiqued Rolling Stone. I like that magazine,” he said to Ebony, “but the last time I saw it, it had all white guys in it. How about Kool and the Gang? Earth, Wind, and Fire? They should write more about people like that.”

Throughout Michael’s 40 years in show business, Ebony published stories such as “The Michael Jackson Nobody Knows,” on important career milestones. In an interview from 1987, about the release of Bad, he utters a simple but heavy sentence: “I don’t remember not performing.” These stories humanize Michael and try to turn the narrative away from the spectacle and speculation growing around him. The coverage would become strategic when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about discovering this phenomenon in his essay “Michael”:

It’s fascinating to read the interviews he gave to Ebony and Jet over the past thirty years. I confess myself disoriented by them, as a white person. During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted only them, would speak only to them. The articles make me realize that about the only Michael Jackson I’ve ever known, personality-wise, is a Michael Jackson who’s defending himself against white people who are passive-aggressively accusing him of child molestation. He spoke differently to black people, was more at ease. The language and grain of detail are different.

What a pleasure to find him listening to early ‘writing version demos of his own compositions and saying, ‘Listen to that, that’s at home, Janet, Randy, me…You’re hearing four basses on there…’

* * *

Since Beyoncé’s fourth Vogue cover was announced, I’ve been thinking about how the Black press has always been where Black artists could have their work spoken about with integrity. Being Black could be simple matter of fact there, unencumbered by duty of explanation or self-defense. The burden of racism wasn’t the centerpiece or engine of every story. The humanity of subjects was not flattened, defanged, or made into spectacular monstrosity. Beyoncé hasn’t given a traditional magazine interview since 2013, presumably to get around some of these mainstream media tendencies. She has produced an increasingly complex body of visual, sound, and performance art, creating her own candid language. It made sense that the Vogue team would allow her “unprecedented control” of the editorial as reports claimed. The reports also let us know that for the first time in the magazine’s history, a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, would shoot its cover.

When the cover was revealed, however, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour told “Business of Fashion” that it was the Vogue team who’d been in control creatively. It had been their idea to initiate such a sea change for the magazine. Wintour, after all, was who’d made André Leon Talley the magazine’s first Black creative director in 1988. Writing about his tenure for the Washington Post, Talley said he “sounded no bullhorn over diversity.” Cover photography had been “entirely in the hands of others.” He takes a somewhat defensive position, but really, he doesn’t need to. Not even one Black photographer captivated the Vogue team enough in more than one hundred years. How could that have been mere oversight?

* * *


Condé Nast

In Mitchell’s finest image, Beyoncé is seated in a Southern Gothic tableau, in front of a plain white sheet, wearing a bridal gown and a crown of real flowers. It could be a still from Lemonade. I see the stare of a woman in refusal, though I’m not sure of what. Beyoncé’s artistry and vivacious attention to her own life is pregnant with history and memory — she’s at an apex of a long line of Black women in American entertainment. Dorothy Dandridge, whose singing voice was dubbed over in Carmen Jones. Lena Horne, whose work in musicals was sometimes deleted when the films screened in the South. Lauryn Hill, who disappeared from the spotlight at the height of her fame. The weight of all that is there, softly referenced in the images, directly in the cover story. But the critic Robin Givhan found an opaque, disappointing muteness in the cover image. “Nothing is divulged,” she wrote.

I think a lot about how journalists called Aretha Franklin a difficult person to interview. “Whatever you learn from Aretha when you sit down and talk to her, you’ve got to watch her onstage if you really want to know what she thinks and feels and agonizes about,” Ed Bradley said after speaking with her in 1990. In Respect, biographer David Ritz documented numerous times Franklin arranged interviews with Jet as counterpoint to an unfavorable report in another outlet.

Beyoncé’s Vogue photos are gorgeous, but I wonder what the editorial would have looked like if she’d truly trusted the publication’s creative team to support her. There’s still much to be desired in the way Black subjects, even the most distinguished and well-known, are portrayed in the mainstream. I’m fatigued by the hollow kind of diversity that tokenizes and the endless stories about racism and racial trauma. If I never again hear about how a Black or brown person has “taught” a white person something of moral value, I’d be pleased. In the not-so-distant past, glossies like Ebony, Jet, Vibe, The Source, and weekly papers like the Michigan Chronicle, and the Chicago Defender existed all at once. They had cachet and resources, and, importantly, a cauldron of Black editors and photographers and stylists who’d come up through the ranks. They created generative, textured counterpoints to mainstream narratives, and their teams were personally and institutionally invested in the growth, preservation, and rigorous interpretation of Black culture.

For better and for worse, and on the whole, they were trusted — to not denigrate, degrade, diminish, or exclude their subjects. To light them beautifully, to see, hear, and listen.

Ebony, Vibe, Essence and many local newspapers such as the Michigan Chronicle, the Chicago Defender, the St. Louis American and the Tri-State Defender are still publishing. Much of the archives of Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest are available digitally via Google Books. The Obsidian Collection is digitizing the archive of many legacy Black newspapers. Digital-first publications such as CASSIUSOkayplayer, the Grio, and the Root do excellent work. But the media landscape has contracted and consolidated. Some Black outlets have shut down. Many of those that remain are unable to publish with the cadence they once did. Much Black talent is scattered about. Diversity is universally in, at least in this moment. It has become a business imperative for mainstream publications. That’s a win and a progression. But it has come with a cost.

Twelve Longreads for Aretha Franklin

NEW YORK - JANUARY 09: Soul singer Aretha Franklin reviews a copy of her album "Aretha Franklin - Soul '69" at Atlantic Records studios on January 9, 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in a small house on Lucy Avenue in Memphis, south of where the Mississippi River borders the city, on March 25, 1942. By the age of 2, she moved to Buffalo, NY, and then by 4, Detroit, where she’d live most of her life and where she died this Thursday morning, at the age of 76. Her father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin presided over a congregation at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Aretha began singing there as a child, and through his connections, she met Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, Clara Ward, and Mahalia Jackson, all innovators who would influence the kind of musician she became. At 18, Aretha Franklin signed to Columbia Records, the recording home of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. She released seven albums, then moved to Atlantic in 1967, where she released the string of recordings for which she is most well known, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul, and Aretha Now. 

Franklin became commercially successful and critically lauded. She earned 18 Grammy Awards and dominated the now defunct category for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance with 23 nominations and 11 wins. (Anita Baker won it the second most, with 5 wins). What a female vocalist was and could be, inside and outside the soul tradition, was and is forever altered by what Aretha did behind her piano. “She is the reason why women want to sing,” Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone.

I love ethereal Aretha, when she sang atop the flutes in “Daydreaming.” But I also love how the bridges in  “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Ain’t No Way  sound like a crisis, a love panic, and the slow build and back and forth with her backing vocalists in “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Aretha Franklin’s catalog is vast and deep, spanning decades, registers, genres. Here is a list of my favorite longreads for and about her so far.

1.“Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul,’ Dies at 76,”  John Pareles, New York Times, August 2018.

The New York Times’ official obituary, with full exposition of the chapters of her life. 

2. “The 50 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs,” Rolling Stone, August 2018.

“Respect,” recorded in 1967, penned originally by Otis Redding, is number one.

3. “How Aretha Franklin Created “Respect,” Carl Wilson, Slate, August 2018.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that Aretha’s flip of Redding’s more conventional, male-dominant song of domestic conflict and desire into a hymn of sexual and political liberation paralleled the creative subversion in those sermons. Her most distinctive rewrite, the addition of the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me” bridge—which it’s still shocking to recall was completely absent from the original—has a touch of a preacher’s pedagogy, the moment when the celebrant might focus in on a scriptural passage and muse, “Think of this word, ‘respect.’ What does the Lord mean when he uses it? What does it mean, for example, within your own home?” But to keep proceedings from getting too heady, she immediately cuts in with language from the street: “Take care, TCB” (meaning “take care of business”) and “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me” (meaning … well, that’s up to you).

4. “Aretha Franklin’s Astonishing ‘Dr. Feelgood,'” Emily Lordi, The New Yorker, August 2018.

Emily Lordi, author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and American Literature, walks us through a live performance of Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood” at the Fillmore West.

5. “Aretha Franklin Was America’s Truest Voice,” Ann Powers, NPR, August 2018.

In this tribute, Ann Powers says, “Everything popular music needs to be is there in Franklin’s songs.”

6. “A Song for Aretha,” Nell Boeschenstein, The Morning News, February 2011.

The author recalls a life of listening to and watching Aretha.

I don’t claim to know what a woman’s got to do to make it in America these days, or ever. I am still only beginning to feel my way in that darkness. That said, when I look at, listen to, or think about Aretha Franklin, I recognize in her person what I want one day for myself. In her I see a certain awareness that life is difficult and life is wonderful and that, either way, you pick up and carry on with your shoulders as square and your voice as strong as you know how to make them. Either way, you pick up and carry on with an awareness that the world out there is larger than any me or you, her or him, but also that you and me, he and she is where it all began in the first place. In her I see a way of living that is equal parts heart and head, a way which never loses sight of priorities. She has remained stalwart in her conviction of self. And that means something these days, as I sometimes wonder whether being oneself even matters anymore.

We all have people we feel this way about. One friend says she learned to live from listening to Ella Fitzgerald. My mother says she learned from reading Eudora Welty. Joan Didion certainly showed an uncharacteristic amount of admiration for someone when she wrote of Georgia O’Keefe, “Some women fight and others do not. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O’Keefe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.”

For me, Aretha reigns with the strength she finds in vulnerability. Flaws, heartaches, mistakes, the stuff of life: These are the things she takes to heart, claims as her own. By claiming, she can then turn them around and offer back to us what she has learned. She can say, “Look at this. Feel this. This is us, don’t you see?” I wish for my own voice what Aretha’s has had from the beginning: a sense of self so strong that she had to open her mouth and sing to keep from exploding, to keep herself whole.

7. “Soul Survivor,” David Remnick, The New Yorker, April 2016.

Remnick’s profile of Franklin includes thoughts from former President Obama and a recollection of her December 9, 2015 performance of “A Natural Woman” at Kennedy Center Honors.

8. “Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018: Long Live the Queen of Soul,” Kelley Carter, The Undefeated, August 2018.

A heartfelt recollection from Detriot native writer and documentarian Kelley Carter:

I had backstage credentials and I wanted to see if I could get some time with her — just one quote for my would-be story. Because of the story about her failure to pay bills, she’d cut the Free Press off. No interview requests were granted. Not even to talk about her iconic song and its forthcoming anniversary. But in a room backstage at an awards show, I could be somewhat anonymous.

I raised my hand and she called on me. I’d heard a rumor that she loved the version of “Respect” that this blue-eyed soul group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Rationals, had recorded. A crew of white boys from Washtenaw County had taken an Otis Redding track and somehow did something to it that made Franklin and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, take notice. It was my chance to get something from her. And I would have taken anything from her to help push whatever my story on her ended up being.

I remember her looking out at me as I asked. I purposefully coughed over my affiliation’s name because I knew the disdain she had for the Free Press. She gave me what I was looking for. It was a quick reply; she was humored. “We added the sock-it-to-me’s to it,” she said, looking down on me from a stage in that small room. I could tell for a brief moment that she was thinking of her sisters, who had died long ago: Erma from throat cancer and Carolyn from breast cancer. I saw it in her face. The memory was dancing in her mind.

When I asked my mother, a longtime Detroiter, to tell me what the summer of ’67 in Detroit was like during the thick of the riots, the summer Franklin’s song hit No. 1, I was taken aback as she shared with me how men and women were running in the streets, shouting back at police officers, “Sock it to me!” as they were trying to stay alive, clearly inspired by Franklin’s anthem, which had hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in early June.

9. “The Man with the Million Dollar Voice: The Mighty but Divided Soul of C.L. Franklin.” Tony Scherman, The Believer, July 2013.

This deep dive into the life and preaching artistry of Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, casts a light on the talents of her parents.

If Aretha did grow up unhappy, her relationship with C.L. would have played a major role. The favorite child bore the weight of a demanding father’s expectations and constant, intrusive attention. Aretha craved C.L.’s approval. “[She]… would do anything to please [her father],” said a later friend. It was far from a healthy relationship. But as a performer, Aretha couldn’t have asked for a better teacher and model than the Rabbi. The tonal variety, for instance, that he wrung from his big voice found an echo in Aretha’s virtuosic shading. No less an authority than Ray Charles saw little difference between the two Franklins’ styles. “She’s got her father’s feeling and passion,” said Brother Ray. “When C.L. Franklin, one of the last great preachers, delivers a sermon, he builds his case so beautifully you can’t help but see the light. Same when Aretha sings.”

10. “Aretha Franklin Was More Than Just A Great Voice,” Tomi Obaro, Buzzfeed, August 2018.

11. “Aretha Franklin Was a Revolutionary Act in Pop,” Rashod Ollison, Virginian Pilot, August 2018.

I don’t remember my life without the sound of Aretha Franklin’s voice. It was a constant in my home. Her music was something of an altar for my mother, as she returned to Franklin through good and bad times. This became true for me as well. No matter the song, be it the mournful wail of “Ain’t No Way” or the stomping funk of “Rock Steady,” Franklin’s voice gave me a solid sense of place. This was especially true, given that my family moved so much when the rent became too high. But one thing never changed: Franklin providing solace through the surface noise of well-worn vinyl. Her 1972 “Amazing Grace” album, the legend’s glorious return to gospel during the peak of her pop career, has been a musical balm for years. I have never been without a copy.

12. “Lady Soul, Singing it Like it Is,” Time, June 1968.

In her first Time cover story, its writers try to understand soul.

But what is soul? “It’s like electricity —we don’t really know what it is,” says Singer Ray Charles. “But it’s a force that can light a room.” The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you’ve been and what it means. Soul is a way of life —but it is always the hard way. Its essence is ingrained in those who suffer and endure to laugh about it later. Soul is happening everywhere, in esthetics and anthropology, history and dietetics, haberdashery and politics—although Hubert Humphrey’s recent declaration to college students that he was a “soul brother” was all wrong. Soul is letting others say you’re a soul brother. Soul is not needing others to say it.

Where soul is really at today is pop music. It emanates from the rumble of gospel chords and the plaintive cry of the blues. It is compounded of raw emotion, pulsing rhythm and spare, earthy lyrics—all suffused with the sensual, somewhat melancholy vibrations of the Negro idiom. Always the Negro idiom. LeRoi Jones, the militant Negro playwright, says: “Soul music is music coming out of the black spirit.” For decades, it only reverberated around the edges of white pop music, injecting its native accent here and there; now it has penetrated to the core, and its tone and beat are triumphant.

For more:

On the Origins of the Word ハーフ, or Hafu (Half): Belonging and Not Belonging at Once

Miss Japan Ariana Miyamoto at the Miss Universe pageant Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the final installment of her Catapult column, “Mistranslate,” author Nina Coomes writes about the word, ハーフ, or hafu,“the Japanized pronunciation of the English word half. It is used primarily to describe biracial people who have one parent of European descent. While unraveling the word’s origins, Coomes thinks through evolving ideas of citizenship and beauty in Japan, and brings us along her journey to understand what it means to come from more than one place.

When I began writing these essays months ago, I wanted to write toward ease in an uneasy place. I was trying to reconcile my two tongues by going beyond the limits of dictionary definitions, telling stories of reverence and recognition along the way. I assumed my work would mean tying things together; taking what felt disparate and attempting to make it fit into a larger lexicon.

So I wrote the first essay, and the next, and the one after that, and what I thought was going to be a body of work focused on finding harmonies between two voices instead evolved into cacophony. I found myself scrawling a veritable dictionary of mistranslation in my notebook, the margins darkening as my handwriting turned frantic. It is actually laughable—I wanted to try to make my home in a place of mistranslation, and yet here I am surprised by the home I’ve begun to write.

Similarly, when I began writing about the term hafu, I initially thought I would write about an identity that was more than simply half of something, blending English and Japanese to explain the other. Instead what I’m finding is that I have no easy conclusion in any language. I am just beginning to sink my teeth into all the uncertainties I’m discovering.

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An Igbo Slaver’s Descendants Reckon With History

LONDON - MARCH 29: HMS Northumberland (L) escorts a replica 18th century wooden square rigger ship 'The Zong' (R) on a choppy River Thames on March 29, 2007 in London, England. Today's events form part of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade act. The Zong was at the centre of a court case in 1783, after 133 slaves were thrown overboard in an insurance scam. The resulting public outrage led to the rise of the Abolitionist movement. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

For the New Yorker, author  dives into the history of her great-grandfather, an Igbo slave trader and palm merchant who participated in the transatlantic slave trade. “African intellectuals tend to blame the West for the slave trade, but I knew that white traders couldn’t have loaded their ships without help from Africans like my great-grandfather,” the author writes. She reveals a complex caste system that pre-dated European influence, and shows how current generations of her family are accounting for their ancestor’s relationship to the suffering of many.

On the first day of the fast, members of my family met in small groups in London, Atlanta, and Johannesburg. Some talked on the phone, and others chatted on social media. Thirty members gathered under a canopy in my parents’ yard. With tears in his eyes, my father explained that, in Nwaubani Ogogo’s day, selling and sacrificing human beings was common practice, but that now we know it to be deeply offensive to God. He thanked God for the honor and prestige bestowed on our family through my great-grandfather, and asked God’s forgiveness for the atrocities he committed. We prayed over a passage that my father texted us from the Book of Psalms:

Who can understand his errors?
Cleanse me from secret faults.
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins;
Let them not have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
And I shall be innocent of great transgression.

During the ceremony, I was overwhelmed with relief. My family was finally taking a step beyond whispering and worrying. Of course, nothing can undo the harm that Nwaubani Ogogo caused. And the ohu, who are not his direct descendants, were not invited to the ceremony; their mistreatment in the region continues. Still, it felt important for my family to publicly denounce its role in the slave trade. “Our family is taking responsibility,” my cousin Chidi, who joined from London, told me. Chioma, who took part in Atlanta, said, “We were trying to make peace and atone for what our ancestors did.”

On the final day, my relatives strolled along a recently tarred stretch of road to our local Anglican church. The church was established in 1904, on land that Nwaubani Ogogo donated. Inside, a priest presided over a two-hour prayer session. At the end, he pronounced blessings on us, and proclaimed a new beginning for the Nwaubani family. After the ceremony, my family members discussed making it a yearly ritual. “This sort of thing opens up the mercy of God,” my mother, Patricia, said. “People did all these evil things but they don’t talk about it. The more people confess and renounce their evil past, the more cleansing will come to the land.”

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Understanding Adrian Piper’s Probing Body of Work

Adrian Piper. Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features. 1981. Pencil on paper. 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). The Eileen Harris Norton Collection © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) is showing a retrospective of the work of Berlin-based, American-born philosopher and artist Adrian Piper. “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016” is the museum’s largest exhibition of works by a living artist in its history. Piper’s video, installation, drawings, photography, and performances transformed the field of conceptual art — a field in which the concepts behind the art are more important than its physical objects  — by making space for subjectivity, context, and reflection. Her work confronts themes and theories of race, gender, privilege, space, and time with rigor and humor, inviting strict attention and engagement from its audience.

A number of esteemed critics have written up the show: Stories from Jillian Steinhauer, Antwaun Sargent, Jessica Lanay, and an exploratory profile by Thomas Chatterton Williams are all necessary reading. Earlier this month, the New York Times published an extended interview with Piper in order to “fill in the gaps” of existing coverage and consider her artistic practice and work in philosophy cohesively. Not only does the interview lend insight into Piper’s practice and its underpinnings, but in it, she offers a roadmap, a way of morally weighing the conversations and reckonings on race, gender, and power that are currently underway.

L.O.B.: You also demonstrate how philosophical controversies that lit up the 18th century are still burning strong today — as so many protest movements are also showing us, including Black Lives Matter. What strategies, if any, could that movement take away from your writings?

A.P.: My work in philosophy does not presume to tell anyone what to do. It addresses the foundations of ethics — metaethics — rather than normative ethics. So it does not prescribe any particular strategies for action to anyone. These can be meaningfully formulated only by those who are directly involved in and therefore maximally well informed about the circumstances under which action is required.

However, perhaps my work can offer a way of understanding what is at stake in the Black Lives Matter movement that may be of use. The basic argument of “Rationality and the Structure of the Self is organized around the distinction between egocentric and transpersonal rationality. Transpersonal rationality consists in hard-wired cognitive dispositions that define us as human beings: to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection and self-control. Egocentric rationality consists in placing these dispositions in the service of satisfying our personal desires and advancing our self-interest.

It is easy to conceive the Black Lives Matter movement as merely advancing the self-interest of African-Americans in surviving and flourishing within a society whose self-interest is systemically opposed to this. This reduces the impetus for protest to a conflict of interests between those who join or support this movement and those who resist it — as though all that were at stake were whether or not police are justified in being so terrified of an African-American teenager that shooting him in the back is a defensible preventive measure. To conceive the issue merely in these terms turns it into a contest as to whose interests are to prevail — those who see trigger-happy police as protecting their interests or those who see them as sabotaging theirs. This view of the situation lends itself to the conclusion that the United States is still fighting the same race war it was in 1860.

There is a lot of truth to this view. But it ignores the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is not fighting merely to protect and advance the interests of African-Americans. It is fighting to cultivate a fundamental level of humanity in all Americans. The transpersonally rational dispositions I’ve listed constitute the ancient foundation of the historically recent idea of a universal human right that extends basic freedoms, responsibilities, rights and resources to every human being, regardless of their interests — not merely to those whom the police are personally inclined to protect. That African-Americans have survived and flourished for 400 years by resisting an environment devoted to dehumanizing them demonstrates quite conclusively how highly their capacities for transpersonal rationality are developed. The statement that black lives matter is a reminder to those whose perpetuation of that environment has effectively dehumanized them to develop those capacities just as highly; i.e. that their own humanity also matters.

L.O.B.: You’ve said that an epistemic skepticism drives your work. Could you elaborate?

A.P.: As an attitude rather than a philosophical position, epistemic skepticism consists in always second-guessing your own judgments — about yourself, other people and situations; always monitoring those judgments to make sure you’re seeing clearly, have the facts right, aren’t making any unfounded inferences or deceiving yourself, etc. Women are particularly skilled at this because their judgment, credibility and authority start to come under attack during puberty, as part of the process of gender socialization. They are made to feel uncertain about themselves, their place in society and their right to their own opinions. If that socialization doesn’t work, they can’t be made to obey, to defer and to depend on others to make important decisions for them. Obviously this is a horrible, misogynistic practice, now known as “gaslighting” after the 1944 George Cukor film. But the benefit is precisely this self-critical attitude — of careful review of and reflection on the adequacy of one’s own thought processes.

This attitude actually does put into concrete practice the philosophical position of epistemic skepticism that has a very long and honorable history going back to Descartes and even further back to Socrates. It has had a very beneficial effect on my work in philosophy because my judgment, my credibility and my authority to make philosophical pronouncements started coming under attack from the moment I entered the professional part of the discipline. The challenges, slights and attempts at intimidation were unremitting. In part, I have the self-confidence my parents gave me to thank for surviving them. But there is no doubt in my mind that this female reflex of self-doubt and self-criticism also had a lot to do with it. I don’t deceive myself into believing that all of my philosophical views are right. But thanks to that reflex, they are well grounded.

Adrian Piper’s MoMA exhibition runs through this Sunday, July 22.

Read the interview


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.


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.


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: