In the spring of 1963, James Baldwin was interviewed for the documentary, Take this Hammer, which followed the local African-American community in San Francisco. Seated, wearing a crisp collared shirt, an ascot tie, and smoking a cigarette, the author spoke about the creation of a class of pariahs in America.
Well, I know this. Anyone’s who’s tried to live knows this: That what you say about anyone else reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now, here in this country, we’ve got something called a nigger. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known. I had to know by the time I was 17 years old, what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me, it has to be… Something you were afraid of, you invested me with…
For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.
Cashawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic on Twitter in 2013 to draw attention to the accomplishments and resilience of black women in the public eye like Michelle Obama. With T-shirts, tote bags, videos, and news headlines, #BlackGirlMagic soon went viral. Like “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song written by Nina Simone, and “Black Lives Matter,” the affirmation “Black Girls Are Magic” creates positive associations with blackness and reconstitutes its possibilities. “Say it loud!” James Brown sang in his 1968 song “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In other words, let us not cower — let us like ourselves.
Affirmations like #BlackGirlMagic are important corrective tools, especially now, with a president in office who weaponizes language to stir up policies that are hurtful for communities of color. Still, I worry that a focus on black women’s extraordinariness obscures the unfairness of what we overcome. I wonder if, along with a litany of archetypes that have lingered in the public imagination, #BlackGirlMagic fortifies an idea that black women can endure anything, that we don’t need protecting.
Despite the bloodshed in Charleston and Charlottesville, and the national embarrassment of President Trump’s not-so-subtle exoneration of white supremacist terrorism, the fight over the removal of Confederate monuments continues.
Statues of Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest stand in visible spots near downtown Memphis. The city has long had a majority black population. Earlier this month, the City Council voted for the removal of the monuments, but the state legislature, a body of mostly white Republican men from the middle and eastern parts of the state, invoked the Heritage Protection Act, which prevents the removal, rededication, or renaming of monuments to any “military conflict” without a waiver. The state refused the city’s request for a waiver last year and will vote again this October. The Memphis Flyercalls this reckoning the “Battle of Memphis.”
At the Intercept, journalist Liliana Segura details the crimes of General Forrest, who traded in slaves before the Civil War, and led a massacre of mostly black Union troops that led to his censure after the war. The state needs to ask itself serious questions about why Forrest was ever honored. Segura shows the agency of the Tennessee’s black citizens, and reveals the state’s disdain for the citizens of Memphis.
In an essay rich with lyricism and brutal honesty, Kiese Laymon tells the story of his early years teaching at an elite liberal arts college in New York. When a new friend is arrested on a parole violation, the author learns to see class differences and power dynamics in a new way.
Brown, the first person I met in Poughkeepsie, was a felon because he was black, scared, desperate, and guilty. I was black, scared, desperate, and guilty but I came from folks with a bit more money than Brown. Though I wasn’t the grandchild of grandparents who passed money or land down to my parents, I was a child of what folks called “the black middle class.” My mama was one paycheck away from asking Grandmama or me for money neither of us had the week before payday.
There was no wealth in my family of black middle class women. There were only paydays.
I knew that my student Cole, a dealer of everything from weed to cocaine, could be a college graduate, college professor, college trustee in spite of being scared, desperate, and guilty because he was a white child of wealthy parents. Cole could literally become president of all kinds of American things, or president of nothing. Either way, he’d be fine. He wouldn’t be free, but materially, Cole would never suffer.
Reactions to Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Detroithave beenpolarized, and the considerable backlash may have caused its opening weekend box office to suffer.Bigelow’s films are known for their tightly-choreographed combat scenes and their fictionalization of brutal historical events. In Detroit, Bigelow takes on the story of the Algiers Motel incident, where three young black men—Carl Cooper, Fred Temple, and Aubrey Pollard—were tortured and killed by police officers in the motel’s annex. In the early morning hours of July 26, 1967, a few days into the unrest that would eventually become known as the Detroit rebellion, the three young men, along with many others, took refuge at the motel amid a city-wide curfew. Police forces received reports of sniper fire and raided the Algiers, finding a group of black men socializing with white women. There were interrogations, humiliations, assaults, and eventually murder. No gun was ever found on the grounds of the Algiers, and the police involved were found not guilty on all charges associated with the incident.
Conversation about the film has touched on questions about who has the authority to tell what stories. Bigelow is a white woman from the West Coast who said she knew herself not to be the “ideal person” to make the movie. But she and former journalist Mark Boal, the film’s screenwriter, worked with black academics, historians, and eyewitnesses to ensure a certain level of accuracy in the story. Jelani Cobb, a historian and staff writer at TheNew Yorker, Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard were among those reportedly consulted.
Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”
With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.
“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”
First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.
I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.
At the request of a high school friend, Lacy M. Johnson began investigating an area north of St. Louis where toxic waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1974. The resulting piece for Guernica finds Johnson diving into the human costs of America’s decision to end the war on Japan with expedient nuclear force.
The years of experimentation leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the years dealing with the nuclear fallout, have taken a lasting toll on the home front. Areas in St. Louis county near the Westlake Landfill Superfund site have higher incidence of lupus, rare cancers, neuropathy, and congenital defects than the general population. Although the EPA has maintained that the site is minimally hazardous, some residents have formed advocacy groups to raise awareness and demand immediate removal of the waste.
When Karen and her husband bought a house in North County for their own growing family, they chose one not far from the neighborhood where she’d splashed through the creek as a girl. But in the summer of 1999 she ran across a parking lot in the rain and then couldn’t get out of bed for days. Maybe she had come down with the flu, she thought. She visited her doctor, who didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Karen’s blood work showed signs that antibodies were attacking the proteins in the nuclei of her cells. “Lupus,” the doctor told her, years later. He prescribed steroids to manage the symptoms of the disease, and mostly it did manage them. She felt healthy more often than ill. But in July 2012 she collapsed at her daughter’s softball game and didn’t bounce back, didn’t return to work, or to feeling healthy. Her doctor said this might be the new normal.
Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.
In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
At the start of the summer I turned down an invitation from a friend to see a play in Manhattan called 3/Fifths. Written and produced by James Scruggs, a black man, featuring a mostly black cast, 3/Fifths is a work of interactive theater that immerses its audience in a dystopian theme park called SupremacyLand. The actors mill about the stage wearing mammy costumes or blackface. They tie ropes into nooses and stand behind prison bars while encouraging the audience to join in on race-themed carnival games. The goal is, to me, straightforward satire, and 3/Fifths seems earnest enough. Theater-goers can experience what it feels like to walk around in a heightened, racially-charged world with the hope they can connect the dots between past and present horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
I didn’t really feel like spending an evening like that. Living as a black woman in the aftermath of the presidential election, unable to block out the news cycle of police shootings, acquittals, and assaults, my nervous system is frayed enough by new and old wounds. I’m in my thirties with a job, student debt, dreams still on the horizon, aging parents, family spread out all over the country, and a niece about to go to college. I don’t need a simulacrum of my experiences to understand what’s at stake.
The use of satire and comedy to have difficult conversations about race has a long history and isn’t problematic in and of itself. Kara Walker does it in silhouette and sculpture; playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins did it in his play An Octoroon; Ishmael Reed has done it in his novels; Dave Chappelle became a household name doing it. It’s just that on the day of the invitation I was feeling exhausted, more in need of fun and laughter than anything else. When I declined, I said something to my friend like, “Take me to the show the playwright makes about black joy.”
Just a couple of months before, I learned of the visual artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, then on display at the Whitney Biennial, from the writer and artist Hannah Black’s widely-circulated open letter to the curators, which was co-signed by 47 artists, curators, and critics. I knew of Black’s work from an essay she wrote in the White Review that touched on Brandy’s 2002 album Full Moon. Brandy is probably one of the most important American pop vocalists of the past thirty years, and is underappreciated in the mainstream. Black’s piece treated Brandy’s work with the care I felt she deserved, so I felt a sense of trust in Black’s approach to black aesthetics. In her letter, Black demands the removal of Schutz’s painting, an abstraction of a 1955 photograph of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till in his coffin at his funeral. His bludgeoned, disfigured face is rendered in impressionistic brush strokes.
Schutz — a white woman born in 1976 in a suburb of Detroit, and educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Columbia University — does not own the subject matter, Black argues.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Black goes on to explain the reverence that black Americans have for Till.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning.
It was, after all, Till’s grieving mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted her son’s remains be returned to Chicago after his lynching in Money, Mississippi and drowning in the Tallahatchie River. It was his mother who demanded his remains be displayed in an open casket during a funeral that was widely photographed. She wanted the world to “see what she had seen,” to bear witness to the horror, to grieve for her boy. Only the black publications Jet and the Chicago Defender published the photos. The image enraged and emboldened black folks, and it is considered among a long list of catalysts for the Civil Rights activism of the mid-twentieth century.
In “Getting In and Out,” Zadie Smith writes about the consumption of black pain for Harper’s by looking at Schutz’s painting and Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. Smith doesn’t mention Emmett Till much, and she doesn’t mention his mother, without whom we would have nothing to discuss. Smith never writes the words “Tallahatchie River,” nor does the word “Mississippi” appear. She says that Schutz’s painting didn’t provoke any profound feeling in her when she went to see it at the Biennial, and that doesn’t surprise me; it’s a mediocre painting, technically fine but emotionally removed. What surprises me about Smith’s essay is that she questions the “logic” and sentiment of Black’s letter, and writes it off as absurd. I found Black’s letter heartfelt. Its request that the “painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum” felt less important to me than her care for Emmett Till’s story, and the ongoing, present-day brutality against black bodies.
I think the conversation about race in America is a shared one, with multiple points of entry. In my mind pretty much anyone can talk about it, or make art about it, because everyone is somehow a part of it — impacted, implicated, or some combination therein. Race doesn’t really matter here in a straightforward sense. It’s too arbitrary a construction, as Smith painstakingly points out, and complicated by too many factors.
I was born in Memphis in the 1980s, so I am both a black American and southern. I remember the story of Till told to me as a child by adults who still used hushed voices. I went to integrated public schools, and then university on the east coast, and have a middle class life. I have always moved among blacks and whites, Latinx and Asians, and everybody else freely. My mother was also born in Memphis, but she remembers colored water fountains, trips to the zoo only on feeding days when there were no animals to see, swimming pools that were drained instead of integrated. Her sense of racial terror is at once more at the surface and deeper than mine—there are things she fears that I never will. She remembers Till’s lynching. My grandmother was born in the Mississippi Delta, picked cotton, and had a male cousin who was lynched. So the story of racial suffering is my grandmother’s even more than my mother’s or mine. We could go on like this, parsing out generational differences and class dynamics forever.
About Zadie Smith: I love her. I have considered her one of my favorite contemporary writers for at least a decade. In her third novel, On Beauty, she talks about American blackness in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or removed as if she thought us boorish. Her 2009 essay “Speaking in Tongues,” where she lets herself gush over Obama’s ability to code switch, and “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” are two of my favorite pieces of writing of all time. Writing about her first encounter with Zora Neale Hurston’s book, I love how Smith is able to be her critical, writerly self, and still engage with her blackness, bringing all parts to the page to create this beautiful cohesive whole.
Fact is, I am a black woman, and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, “Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,” it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem “extraliterary.” Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient buildup of culture reside that is (for convience’s sake) called “Blackness” are the parts that my own “Blackness,” as far as it foes, cannot help but respond to personally. At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of the speech…She is my sister and I love her.
But in the Harper’s essay, except in the places where she talks about the genius of Jordan Peele and the black artists at the Biennial whose work was overshadowed by the Schutz controversy, it doesn’t really feel like Smith is engaging in the subject matter with much care or heart. It disappointed me. I do not think it is because she is British-born and I am African American. She said in the piece that she assumed a transnational black identity when questioning herself about whether she was black enough to commemorate Till in a piece of art. I agree with parts of this. Blackness has long been a transnational project, a conversation that transverses and troubles national boundaries.
It is just that the question is wrong. All human beings have rights, in my mind, to the vast array of human experiences. But why does it seem like everyone wants to mine black pain? When I think about work like Open Casket and 3/Fifths, what I wonder is whether there any rules, or any sense of decorum around our experiences. Does anyone pause before making this type of work, or have reverence for it? Do they consider who may be hurt or exhausted by it if it is rendered incompletely? What are the goals of the work? The work that the 1955 photographs of Emmet Till did in Jet is clearly different from the work Open Casket could do at the Whitney. I wonder, what is the point? I also wonder, what is sacred?
I don’t know why Smith seems so removed in her Harper’s piece. When she talks about the paranoia of blacks, an “indulgence” that Get Out exploits, or says that white people revile black bodies less in 2017 than they did a half century ago, I honestly don’t know what to think. I do not know what white folks in America think of me now — some times it feels like nothing and sometimes it feels like utter disdain. When I hear of a young black woman from my university waking up to bananas strung up on her campus with nooses, when I hear Diamond Reynolds crying “You just killed my boyfriend,” despite all of my attempts to avoid that footage, I know it isn’t as simple as love and happiness and friendship and being the “same people.” So when Hannah Black got together with a bunch of other art world folks to stage their intervention, I listened because it felt like care.
Zadie Smith is entitled to her experiences; her writerly exploration of race can be rendered how she feels it must and I will still think of her as my sister. But I wished she had engaged this subject matter with her heart. I needed her to think of the logic of Black’s letter from a place of shared pain, shared experiences, and shared anger. I needed her to really listen to it, before dismantling it.