For The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo profiles Nigerian fashion designer Amaka Osakwe, whose delicate yet adventurous creations from the line Maki Oh have been worn by Michelle Obama, Solange, and Lupita Nyong’o. Nigeria, a massive country with bustling metropolises, an expanding middle class, and a fashion-forward cadre of cosmopolitan “repats,” is still conservative about sexuality and female agency. Osakwe’s work pushes hard against those old mores while still embracing some of the country’s traditions in textiles and dressmaking.
Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.
Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.
Owning land provides families with a legacy and, hopefully, some stability, but how do farmers keep their family farming their land? At BuzzFeed, Bim Adewunmi talks with blueberry farmers around tiny Covert, Michigan, to see what life is like for farmers of color. Only 1.46% of America’s farmers are black. Many Covert growers inherited their profession and have enjoyed a rewarding rural life, steady income and something to give to their children, and land, as one farmer tells Adewunmi, is power. But they still struggle to interest their kids and grandchildren in the job.
Farming is physically demanding, financially risky, costly and tenuous, and the market, like the weather, is constantly shifting. When parents raise their kids to go to college, save money and have more opportunities at their disposal, it isn’t surprising that younger generations leave home to work instead of stay on the family farm. As one farmer said, “We worked hard to show our kids what we considered a better life, and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities. They’re doing exactly what we told them to do.”
“He worked on the Hawkins farm for a time,” she says of her husband. “He always loved blueberries, so when we bought this place, he put his own blueberries out there. They’ve been here since 2001, I believe.” Harold died of cancer a few years back, and Carol assumed responsibility for the business. It is safe to say, however, that she never wanted to be a farmer. “If this wasn’t right here at the house,” she says, gesturing out of her kitchen windows, “I would’ve sold it a long time ago, is all I can say. It was my husband’s thing. I was just… I didn’t wanna be a farmer.” She giggles, but it’s a laugh filled with resignation. When I press her about the potential significance of holding on to her late husband’s legacy, she holds firm. “Uh-uh. I keep it because it’s here at the house. You see, it’s a ‘U,’ right here. And I just don’t want anybody else out there. So that’s why I keep it. And it does pay for my son’s college, the berries. So…” This time when she trails off, her laugh is knowing.
Unsolicited family legacy aside, Carol Baber’s most pressing headache is labor. All her berries are handpicked. Blueberries are graded — the handpicked ones generally get the best price at market, but they are also the most labor-intensive to produce, and picking conditions must be dry (“Nobody wants a wet berry,” Steven tells me, sagely, when I ask), which means picking during the hottest, most arid hours of the day. And that’s before the other maintenance issues that concern a blueberry farmer: weeding, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, and so on. “It’s hard for me because I don’t have any equipment,” Carol says. The Hawkinses help out with spraying (she buys the materials), but “it’s really hard to keep the grass down. So I’m working on trying to get a tractor.”
There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.
In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.
That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.” The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.
Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”
It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.
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.
No, I just start writing. I don’t have any plan. I wait to find out where it goes. Sometimes I do an outline, but even then, that’s not really a plan, because I don’t really follow it. The novel is bigger than your head. A novel is a gigantic, rambling, incredible thing. All you can do is start. Roy Lichtenstein, who I knew quite well actually, would say the reason most painters fail at art—not at painting, but at art—is because they know what the picture is going to be before they approach the canvas. So the whole idea that there are things you should say or want to say or have to say—fuck that.
Charcoal Joe is your fourteenth Easy Rawlins book. You once said that the eleventh novel in the series, Blonde Faith, was going to be your last, yet you continued writing. Why do you keep returning to Easy? What is it about him?
When I finished Blonde Faith, I couldn’t see another book coming out of Easy. I couldn’t even imagine it. I realized, finally, that I’d reached the border of my father’s life and was entering into the world of my life. I decided if I wrote from that vantage point, from that point of view, I could write the novels exactly the same but with my experience forming it, rather than the experiences of my father and his generation.
Do you have an end in mind?
I don’t know if I have an end plan. It depends who lives longer, Easy or me.
Hawa Allan| Longreads | July 2017 | 3500 words (14 minutes)
Words are said to have settled meanings, yet their formal definitions are often eclipsed by the images they give rise to in our minds. An “immigrant,” for example, is defined as a person who moves to live in a foreign country. Yet in the United States this word has often come to symbolize persons of Mexican, or Central or South American descent. The term “white immigrant” has a dissonant ring; those who move to the U.S. from parts of Europe or Australia are often casually referred to as “expats,” connoting a leisurely freedom of movement not typically conferred to an immigrant. A “black immigrant” is deprived of easy free associations. Black immigrants are unmarked, indivisible from African Americans whose lineage extends to the country’s inception.
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has been working since 2006 to identify the distinct legal issues black immigrants face, and the burden of racial discrimination they share with African Americans in the United States. Last year, BAJI published a report with NYU Law School that provides a detailed statistical analysis of the country’s estimated 3.7 million black immigrants. This population is often caught at the intersection of racial profiling and the unforgiving immigration laws that target those with criminal records for removal. Although black immigrants make up 5 percent of the unauthorized population in the U.S., they make up 20 percent of the population facing deportation on criminal grounds. Black immigrants, according to the report, have suffered disproportionately under Clinton-era immigration legislation aimed at sorting “good” immigrants from “bad” immigrants associated with crime or terror.
I recently spoke with BAJI’s Deputy Director Carl Lipscombe about the state of black immigration in America. This is the first in a series for Longreads about the challenges faced by lawyers working during the Trump administration.
Hawa Allan: What is the mission of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration?
Carl Lipscombe: BAJI tackles issues affecting black immigrants using a few different approaches. One way is organizing. We work with members of our community on issues that are important to them and we empower them to take action on their own behalf. We also do advocacy, working in partnership with other organizations towards policy change on local, state and federal levels. We have staff in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, and we also have a policy manager based in Washington D.C. who educates elected officials about broad topics affecting black immigrants. And we have two attorneys on staff that I supervise and who provide direct legal services to members of our community.
HA: So there are three aspects to BAJI’s work — public policy advocacy, organizing, and direct legal services. Was this three-pronged mission present at BAJI’s inception or did it develop organically over time?
CL: We were started in 2006 by civil rights and racial justice leaders, veterans who saw immigration as a continuation of the racial justice struggle. They soon realized that the immigrants’ rights movement was definitely not black-oriented. There were rarely black people at the center of immigrants’ rights cases, which were very Latino-focused, so they added the aspect of engaging black immigrants with the struggle for immigrants’ rights.
HA: At least anecdotally, I’m aware of tensions between black immigrant communities African American communities, although persons outside both groups tend to lump them together on a purely visual basis.
CL: I think the issues are still the same. There is obviously a distinct impact of harsh immigration policies on black immigrants, but both groups face criminalization, economic inequality, lack of access to adequate health care, and educational inequities.
HA: I suppose I was thinking about how competition over already meager resources can tend to pit groups that should otherwise be aligned against each other. How black immigrants, being newcomers who are uninitiated in America’s racial issues, think they can somehow “rise above” discrimination.
CL: Yes, I think those are historic tensions. But from our perspective, a lot of these tensions are manufactured by elected leaders, and by corporations in order to pit black people against one another. I think these tensions are fueled by outsiders and from the media. In reality, black immigrants and African Americans are similarly situated in certain contexts. When a black person is walking down the street and a cop stops them, they’re not going to be asked “Are you an immigrant or are you African American?”
HA: Of course.
CL: Last fall, we released a report on the State of Black Immigrants. Even though black immigrants have high educational attainment rates on par with Asian immigrants, they still have the highest unemployment rates and the highest poverty rates among all immigrants. They are over represented in the deportation system, we believe, largely because of their race. Black immigrants represent only about five percent of immigrants in the country but over twenty percent of those in deportation facilities.
Apart from refugee communities, black immigrants mostly live interspersed with African Americans in cities and face the same issues when it comes to criminalization: over-policing and the ramifications of broken windows policing.
HA: When you’re organizing, do you find you’re trying to convince black immigrants and African Americans that they have more in common than they think?
CL: We’re getting people to realize that we have a shared struggle. We have this amazing program at our national conference held every couple of years called the African Diaspora Dialogues, which gets people in small groups — black immigrants and African Americans — to share their migration story and how they experience race in the U.S. So we do a certain amount of work to break down those barriers.
HA: In terms of police brutality, some of the major figures who have symbolized the gravity of this issue include black immigrants, like Amadou Diallo, who was from Guinea, and Abner Louima from Haiti. And there was a more recent case on the West Coast…
CL: Yes, a Ugandan immigrant, Alfred Olango outside of San Diego. One thing that I find striking is that over the last couple of years, there have actually been quite a few black immigrants who have been killed by police. But their cases haven’t gotten as much publicity. Alfred Olango’s sister called the police because—he wasn’t necessarily violent, she just called them to calm him down.
HA: He had a mental health issue.
CL: And he wasn’t threatening her. She didn’t feel as though she was physically in danger but thought maybe the police could help her. Alfred was killed within moments of the police arriving. He was a black refugee, he was a chef, he was from Uganda, and the spin, the immediate spin, was “Oh he had a mental illnesses.”
HA: Right, the media narrative…
CL: It was also reported that he had been arrested before for traffic violations. Because he has been arrested before it means the police should show up and kill him?
HA: When organizing around police brutality do you find that you have to provide a different level of awareness to black immigrants as opposed to African Americans?
CL: I think because of the amazing work of Black Lives Matter over the last few years and the attention that police abuse has gotten, people get it. And that’s across the board. All black people get it. Any time I’m in a taxi or I’m on one of those ride-hailing services and I talk to the drivers, who are often black immigrants, and I tell them what I do, they talk about police brutality. What I find interesting is that they always talk about immigration along with policing. So I think people get it.
HA: I was wondering whether black immigrants who are very recent residents of the United States don’t have the same understanding of how their presence is threatening to the police.
CL: America has a very unique brand of racism. I think that a lot of black immigrants are just not used to it in their home countries where are ethnic tensions, xenophobia, even racism to a certain degree — but racism in the U.S. is very different.
HA: I’m thinking about bodily movements, gesticulation. People especially from the African continent…many have rather large presences, right?
CL: Yes, our communities talk with our bodies. Our voices are loud sometimes and those types of things can seem threatening — black people who are animated.
HA: Make yourself smaller and make yourself safer. But as a newcomer to this American situation you don’t have that kind of education, and that can put you in danger.
CL: I was born here and I grew up in the Bronx. I was taught how to deal with the police by my family. I was told to always carry my ID to the point that I thought I had to carry ID by law. I was taught to always speak respectfully to the police so that nothing happened to me, so I didn’t get arrested or worse. A lot of immigrants aren’t taught this. They aren’t taught to cower to the police or to be afraid of the police.
HA: I was just thinking about Amadou Diallo reaching for his wallet…a simple movement like that obviously doesn’t justify the violence that followed. But I imagine him thinking that all he had to do was to prove who he was and everything would be fine.
HA: From the report on the State of Black Immigrants, I was surprised to learn that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service doesn’t track immigration data by race, only by country of origin.
CL: I was at a conference recently where the history of immigration was being discussed. There were a number of court cases defining whiteness, and it’s surprising, given the history of our immigration laws, that we don’t track this data by race. It actually makes research on black immigrants very difficult because we have to use a combination of USCIS data and census data.
HA: Which makes the category of “black immigrant,” as defined in the report, both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.
CL: Specific communities were particularly difficult to track. For example, it is very hard to get an accurate number of Afro-Latinos in the country because some Afro-Latinos don’t self-identify as black. Latinos generally don’t self-identify as black in U.S. Census surveys.
HA: It’s fascinating that a country that was organized around race, both in the context of slavery and immigration, wouldn’t be tracking this data.
CL: Well, if they did track this data by race, it would make it a lot easier for attorneys to sue for discrimination.
HA: So BAJI was founded in 2006, and I understand that particularly damaging immigration laws discussed in the report came into effect in 1996 — crystallizing the link between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement. Would you mind discussing this legislation: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)?
CL: I think it’s important the two bills are taken together. The first one, IIRIRA, expanded the criminal grounds for deportation as well as mandatory detention. Originally, there were only less than a dozen offenses that could get one deported. And even in those cases, judges had discretion over whether or not to detain someone and to ultimately deport them.
After 1996 those grounds expanded to about two dozen. IIRIRA expanded the grounds for deportation and AEDPA was terrorism-related. It established a means of restitution for victims of “terrorist activity” and enabled the federal government to detain individuals believed to be involved in terrorist activities.
Up until the passing of these laws, the U.S. removed on average maybe a couple of thousand people a year. While Obama was in office, we removed on average 375,000 people a year. Obama removed more people in eight years than in the entire history of the U.S. going back to 1892.
CL: What a lot of people don’t realize is that the definition of “felon” under immigration law is expansive. A teenager who throws an orange at a teacher—if they are charged with assault — would be considered an aggravated felon.
HA: In your view, are these the laws that created this nexus of racial profiling and the over representation of black immigrants in deportation proceedings?
CL: Yes, they are. These laws were passed during the Clinton years, but the administrative infrastructure for their enforcement was really set up during the Bush years, after 9/11 when immigration was moved under the newly-established Department of Homeland Security.
HA: Immigration effectively became an issue of national security.
CL: Yes, and Obama further funded Bush’s administrative infrastructure.
HA: And now, of course, we have Trump.
CL: Yes — now we have Trump.
HA: His rhetoric might be bolder—
CL: But he’s using the same laws and infrastructure as Obama.
HA: After immigration was placed under this anti-terror rubric, we now have the so-called Muslim ban. With respect to the Supreme Court recently reinstating certain portions of the ban, does BAJI have any specific response?
CL: Yes—well, for a start, Trump wanted all citizens from those countries to be banned from entry, which he didn’t get and which is good. But I think the Supreme Court did create confusion by carving out an exception for individuals that have a “bona fide” relationship with a person or entity in the U.S. The definition of that term is very unclear. The administration last week issued guidance on what they considered a bona fide relationship to be. It’s limited to immediate family and fiancés and stepchildren, so grandparents will be unable to enter the U.S. As you know, a lot of this community, particularly the black community, don’t come from nuclear families. We come from cultures where the entire community is involved with child rearing and care-taking.
HA: There was a very interesting editorial in the Washington Post that used the recent Supreme Court decision as a basis for refuting the idea that lawyers alone could save us in the age of Trump.
CL: Oh yes, I saw that.
HA: When the travel ban was first instituted, there were a lot of lawyers who went to airports to represent affected persons. Then lower courts decided the travel ban was unconstitutional. There was this hope, especially with figures like Sally Yates, that maybe the law could curb the excesses of the Trump administration.
CL: I agree with that general sentiment — that the law is an important protection for immigrants and a strategic tool that can support those in crisis — but we definitely need more than the law. If we’re really going to change the system, we need to organize, we need to change the leadership, we need to change those who are creating the laws and those that are enforcing them in this harsh, egregious way.
HA: Of course people have focused on Trump’s statement about Mexicans being rapists and the idea of criminalizing immigrants in general, but can you speak to his statements about not only Somalis but also Haitians with regard to TPS (Temporary Protected Status)?
CL: Historically, when we’ve talked about Latino immigration, the context has been the “valedictorian” and the “Dreamer,” the business owner and the immigrant worker—the person who is here to work. But the narrative about black immigrants has been similar black people in general: That Black immigrants are charity cases who are here to take advantage of whatever resources there are in the U.S.
HA: So when Donald Trump’s administration said they were going to review whether or not to extend temporary protected status for Haitians who fled here after the earthquake….
HA: I wanted to ask you about your personal history. I see that you started off as a labor organizer and then you were a public defender, and then you moved onto doing communications for social justice organizations.
CL: I started off in labor organizing when I was in college. I was active at Brooklyn College with adjunct faculty that was organizing. I was in student government and they came to us for support. I started getting interested in the labor movement because I just saw the power of unions and that we could actually make changes in our workplace and shift power dynamics. After undergrad, I interned with an organization called Jobs With Justice, which is a coalition of unions, students, faith groups and community organizations.
What I liked at Jobs With Justice was that we worked at different intersections. It was broadly a worker’s rights and economic justice organization, but we worked on those issues as they impacted immigrants and black people and the environment and healthcare and so on. So I was exposed to these different issues. And I have always had an interest in fighting on behalf of black people and immigrants, that’s why I got into this work. When I got burnt out from organizing I decided to go to law school.
HA: Is that because you wanted to address these issues from a legal perspective?
CL: I think that legal advocacy and organizing compliment one another. When I was an organizer, we often had to work with lawyers on policy — experts and what not — and I found a lot of them just didn’t understand my community, and saw it as their jobs to tell us what we can’t do and what isn’t possible.
When I was an organizer, I felt as though the job of lawyers was to take our power away. They took power away from communities rather than adding to it. And I thought to myself that it would be great to have that skill set and to really be able to use it in a way that merged with organizing and complimented organizing. So I became a public defender after law school. And I’m from the Bronx, so I was fortunate enough to be able to work as a public defender in the Bronx.
I saw that there just weren’t attorneys who were experts in the issues affecting black immigrants. There weren’t many attorneys who were expert at litigating in immigration court, or representing immigrants with criminal backgrounds or with mental illness or histories of substance use.
When I was a public defender, I realized a lot of my clients were black immigrants and I didn’t know that there were legal organizations devoted to black immigrants. There were a lot of organizations focused on Latino immigrants and Asian immigrants but not black immigrants. I was the first person at BAJI with a legal background, so I was able to get our legal program off the ground.
HA: Progressive movements often have to be reactive because they respond to the immediate needs of people who have the least access to resources to defend themselves. Right-wing movements, to the extent that we can call them movements, tend to be more ideological: the purpose of taxes, or questions about “liberty.” They’re not immediately responding to the needs of particular groups of people.
Is there a sense that BAJI in particular, or progressive movements in general, are implementing a vision for moving society forward? Is this even possible when progressive movements are constantly on the defense?
CL: You’re right that progressives are responding to crises. We’re trying to protect the few decent laws that we have on the books, or at least prevent the worst from happening. But at the same time this work is tied to a broader vision of the world that we want see—a world where black people, immigrants, Muslims, woman, trans and queer communities are able to live with freedom and dignity.
I think that we need to keep our eye on the long-term goals. There are times when the people we work with are facing an emergency and we want be there for them, but we do it in the context of fighting for our dreams. Working with other organizations, and being a part of the Movement for Black Lives and other similar groups, I can say the same thing for them. We’re all working toward a broader vision.
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.
In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy with an appeal: “I am a thirteen-year-old colored boy and I like to spell. Do you think you could help me and get the Lynchburg bee opened to all children?”
The long road to the National Spelling Bee has always begun with local contests, often sponsored by a local newspaper. Nine publications, organized by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, banded together in 1925 to create the first National Bee in Washington, D.C.
Decades later, George Jackson was protesting the policies of the local newspaper that sponsored the Lynchburg, Virginia contest, which excluded black students from participating in the official local competition — the necessary step that might send a lucky, word-loving Lynchburg child to nationals. There was more at stake than a coveted all-expenses-paid trip to the capital, an expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and a $1,000 cash prize. For local and national civil rights activists, keeping black children from the spoils of spelling fame was an extension of Jim Crow educational policies that should have ended, in theory, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
While the Warren Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” would no longer be the law of the land, there were still “Negro” schools and white schools educating children across the South less than a decade later. A patchwork of local responses met the desegregation orders that followed the Supreme Court ruling, including deliberate foot-dragging, some real confusion about how to undo what years of white supremacy had wrought in the nation’s schools, and full-throated defiance to educational equity.