Tag Archives: racism

Uncovering Hidden History on the Road to Clanton

Lance Warren | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,650 words)

 

We turned left at Maplesville and headed for Clanton, drawn by word of a Confederate flag and rumor of a lynching. Ida B. Wells wrote about the killing 125 years earlier. Now, we’d read in the paper, stars and bars flew nearby, well in view of drivers on Interstate 65 near the geographic center of Alabama. The flag adorns the Confederate Memorial Park and Museum in nearby Marbury. The lynching is all but forgotten.

One month earlier, the park grounds had seen cannon fire. Re-enactors presented a “skirmish” displaying military maneuvers that never took place in Marbury, the site of no battles. The park’s director, a man named Rambo, explained that the event offered the public an opportunity to see how Confederate forces engaged the enemy. “All of the people are trained living historians,” he beamed, reflecting on the re-enactors, “and they love to spread the knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of people learn of history through Hollywood.”

We were there to make a film — An Outrage — a documentary about the history of lynching in the American South, and the legacy of this orphaned past. Good people in Clanton, Marbury, and beyond hadn’t learned about history that wasn’t taught. Others had succeeded in muffling open secrets that had fallen out of fashion. My wife, Hannah Ayers, and I had driven 723 miles from our home in Richmond, Virginia, to find killing fields across the region. We wanted to see how these places looked today. We wanted to explore memory, interrogate history, and ask what happens when the two do not agree.

Hard rain darkened the sky. It squeezed the spindly Route 22 to Clanton. The trees were tall, lining the way on both sides. They formed a silent swaying wall. We knew they held secrets, secrets herded into shadows, secrets long hushed.

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The Secret Women’s Organization Providing for Black Communities

At a moment when there’s so much distressing news about bad men, it’s a relief to read an article about some inspiring women.

At Lenny Letter, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge writes about her weekend in Chesapeake, Virginia for the 150th anniversary of the United Order of Tents, a somewhat secret society of black women established just after the end of the Civil War, which has long provided financial and other kinds of support to black communities.

The organization was founded by two former slaves, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. Lane had been a nurse on the plantation where she was enslaved, and over the years, that has influenced the group’s makeup and mission.

Tents members are from all social classes — Lodis Gloston was a school principal before she retired; others work in government or real estate, and some are working class. In the past, Tents members were often nurses, another link to the organization’s founder, Annetta Lane. And even at this conference, there is a small but vocal group of health-care workers.

This connection to health care is central to the Tents’ mission.

But health care is merely one focus. For generations, those women have worked together to provide so much more.

Most astonishing about the Tents is the fact that about a generation out of slavery, in 1894, they established a rest home for the elderly that they ran continuously, with no outside financial help and with no bankruptcy, for over 100 years, until 2002. In addition, at a certain point in the mid-century, the Tents served as a mortgage house for black families and churches who would not have been able to apply for loans from white banks. The Tents, therefore, literally helped build the institutions and homes of their communities.

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On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

***

When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

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Harvard’s About-Face on Michelle Jones’s Acceptance

In a collaboration between The New York Times and The Marshall Project, journalist Eli Hager recently published an investigation into Harvard University’s eleventh-hour flip-flop on its acceptance of ex-convict Michelle Jones to its doctoral program in history. Jones, who spent more than two decades in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son — conceived non-consensually when she was 14 — became a stellar academic and published scholar while incarcerated. She was set to attend Harvard this fall, but after her acceptance, two professors questioned whether she had adequately portrayed her crime in her application — something that was not required — and also whether the former prisoner was up to the challenge of an Ivy League environment.

Jones was supposed to be released in October, but received a two-month reduction of her sentence so she could start a Ph.D. program on time this fall. She applied to eight, with Harvard her first choice because of historians there whose work on incarceration she admired.

While those historians embraced her application, others at Harvard questioned not only whether Jones had disclosed enough information about her past, but whether she could handle its pressure-cooker atmosphere.

“One of our considerations,” Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”

Alison Frank Johnson, director of graduate studies for the history department, dismissed that argument as paternalistic.

“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard,” she said. “Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?

“We’re not her priests,” Johnson added, using an expletive.

Jones will be attending New York University instead.

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Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America

Sorayya Khan | Longreads | September 2017 | 23 minutes (5,871 words)

My mother was white and my father was brown, my mother Dutch, my father Pakistani. If she’d had a choice, she would have been brown. She tried, sitting near swimming pools during short summers in Vienna and long ones in Islamabad, but her attempts came to a full stop with basal cell carcinoma, when sunscreen replaced sun as her best friend. My father’s brown was constant, except that when he grew older and gray, in the right light and on the right part of him, his color lightened. I, on the other hand, am in between. I pretended I didn’t know I was brown until we moved from Austria to Pakistan and I saw it all around and made it mine. But the truth is that it took leaving behind Pakistan to claim the country and color as my own.

Color is a fact, a given, for my American-born children. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide our children were ready for the news: You’re brown. Almost as soon as they could talk, they put their little arms next to mine and decided they were darker. They were always right, because when summer came and my color deepened, so did theirs and our skin tones never matched. Next to their father’s, their arms and legs were not a match, but close enough. “That’s okay,” my sons said about my outsider status and patted my arm because they must have thought I needed comforting. Soon enough, they asked, “Where are we from?” I’d say, “You are from where we are from, Pakistan. And also from where you were born, here.” Naeem, my husband, would remember my mother and add, “Also from Holland, where Nani is from.” There is no flag for their combination and, anyway, the white in that equation, the one-fourth of them that is my mother, was ignored even then. “She’s the brownest person we know,” I heard them say once, as if they knew all along that color is a state of mind, not pigment.

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Weighing Justice With a Jury of Her ‘Peers’

Susana Morris | Longreads | September 2017 | 20 minutes (4,997 words)

I received the notice for jury duty with mild annoyance. I hoped I wouldn’t get picked as I put the date of the summons on my calendar. I thought about how jury duty would throw me off my work schedule; how I didn’t want to participate in this particular part of civic life in small town Alabama; how I didn’t want to help someone, probably another Black person, go to jail.

But I didn’t spend too much time worrying. It was summertime and the date, during a week in the middle of September, seemed an unpleasant blip on the road far ahead. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to enjoy the remaining pieces of a waning summer in my sleepy southern town.

Eventually the summer break gave way to the fall semester, though the weather stayed oppressively muggy. Living in a college town where God and football are rivals for people’s undying devotion meant there was also an air of jubilance and anticipation everywhere. I care little for football and even less for their God, so I did not have much to look forward to except the return of my regular paycheck and the eventual end of sultry weather. Otherwise, the date of my summons — September 12th — loomed unpleasantly before me.

***

It was 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. The decade had rushed by impossibly fast, but there it was, on the news and emblazoned in public memory like an unwanted tattoo. I had been a college senior when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened and now here I was, a grownup with a job. Maybe it was growing up with my mother always reminding us that “the days are being shortened for the sake of God’s elect” — those chosen for salvation — plus our being unaware of the day or the hour of God’s return, but even though I was scared, I was not shocked about terrorism on American soil. Or maybe it was having grown up in Caribbean immigrant communities where America was loved more pragmatically than patriotically. Curiously, when I moved to the white, rural South in 2007, far away from New York, D.C., and the Pennsylvania field where the third plane went down, there seemed to be more anger, more panicked rhetoric about terrorism and violence than in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. At first it didn’t make sense. What would terrorists want with a state in which memories of the Confederacy were wistful and sweetly savored? Still, on the tenth anniversary, there didn’t seem to be any commemorations in town, aside from faded t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming, “These colors never run,” and “Never forget.”

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Building a New Society for Black Americans, First in Mississippi

As Southern novelist William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In racially divided America, this is as true as ever. James Baldwin would recognize his era in ours, where police routinely kill unarmed people of color and the Klan still marches past their beloved Confederate statues, unobstructed by police. When it comes to racism and violence, America still looks much like it always has. But the past holds certain ideas whose potential has thankfully never passed either.

In the Oxford American, Katie Gilbert reports from Jackson, Mississippi, where a coalition is working to empower black communities through economic and political independence. After trying to help create a majority-black nation in the Deep South in the 1970s, mayor Chokwe Lumumba pursued a similar goal on a smaller scale: turning Jackson into a model of a new, more equitable autonomous society driven by cooperative economics, and no longer divided by race, class, and violence. After the mayor died, his son Antar Lumumba and a group of engaged citizens have taken the helm of what’s called the Jackson-Kush Plan, advocating their own farming, manufacturing, and alternative currency. Its goal is nothing less than transforming society.

In one of his first questions to Antar, Rhodes bored directly into the discomfort that plenty of Jacksonians still felt about the Lumumbas, pointing to the history of the PG-RNA and the sense that Antar’s platform had been born out of some sort of bigger plan—or “agenda,” as the more suspicious tended to put it. “One of the concerns that came up in the last election,” Rhodes said, his eyes on Antar, “was about whether or not, for lack of a better way of saying it, Antar Lumumba is going to be an anti-white mayor, and push away white folks, and gonna bring in nationalists, and it’s going to be Jafrica and all these kinds of things.” Some murmuring and laughter broke out around the room. 

“I appreciate you asking that question, Pastor Rhodes,” Lumumba began. In his job as a criminal defense attorney, he said, he worked with many people who don’t look like him, and had plenty of success. But his voice was climbing stairs, building up to something higher. “I’ve been labeled as a radical,” he continued. “My father was labeled as a radical. You were told that he would divide the city and what was demonstrated was something entirely different.” Antar would tell me later that he and the MXGM members helping to run the campaign had made the concerted decision to embrace the loaded “radical” descriptor that had been hurled at his father and at him in his previous campaign. His pace quickened a few steps, riding on its own momentum. “Honestly, when people call me a radical, I take it as a badge of honor. Because Martin Luther King was radical.” Applause spread through the room. “Medgar Evers was radical.” The applause intensified, and so did Antar. “Jesus Christ was radical.” The applause didn’t break, so he spoke louder to be heard. “The reality is that we have to be prepared to be as radical as circumstances dictate we should be. If you look outside these doors and you see a need for a change, then you should all be radical.” I heard shouts of “Amen!” He went on, “And the reality is that we haven’t found ourselves in the condition we’re in because someone has been too radical for us.” He inflected these last few words. “I would argue we haven’t been radical enough.” The applause carried on like an unbroken wave. 

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On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect, and Human Dignity

Britney Wilson | Longreads | September 2017 | 18 minutes (4,410 words)

 

He pulled up on the wrong side of the street fifteen minutes late for my pick-up time. I was sitting outside, in front of the New York City office building where I work, in a chair that the security guards at my job have set aside for me. They bring it outside when I come downstairs in the evening and take it back inside whenever I get picked up, so I don’t have to stand while I wait anymore. I was on the left side of the street; he pulled up on the right. I stood when I saw him, and taking a few steps closer to the tide of people rippling endlessly down the sidewalk that early evening, I waved one of my crutches in the air trying to get his attention. He looked up and down the street. I wasn’t sure if he’d seen me.

“Excuse me,” I said, taking a few more quick half steps forward, trying to catch the attention of a passer-by, “do you see that Access-a-Ride across the street?”

“The what?” the passer-by asked.

“The Access-a-Ride,” I repeated. “That little blue and white bus across the street.” I pointed my crutch in its direction, and his gaze followed its path.

“Oh,” he said. But just as I was about to request the man’s assistance, I saw that the driver had finally spotted me. He put his hand up as if to tell me to stay put.

“Nevermind. I think he sees me,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”

My Access-a-Ride driver, a skinny older Black man with glasses and a graying beard, exited the vehicle and crossed the street toward me. I bravely parted the latest oncoming wave of pedestrians and made my way to the curb to meet him.

“Come on,” the driver said when he reached me, urging me to step right out into traffic on Broadway and cross with him, but I was reluctant.

“I’d rather wait for the light to change,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I’ll stop traffic for you,” he said, moving toward the middle of the street, his right hand extended making a “stop” motion toward the oncoming cars. I tried to pick up my pace while also being careful not to place my crutch tips on anything slippery, or get too close to other pedestrians rushing to the other side of the street.

“Take your time. I’ll make them wait,” he attempted to reassure me. I wasn’t reassured.

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‘Is This Gonna Happen Every Day in Charlottesville?’

At Catapult, Black UVA alum Taylor Harris writes about explaining the racist violence on the Charlottesville campus to her six-year-old daughter, who hadn’t yet personally encountered racism or ever learned about racist violence.

Only a day before the “Unite the Right” protest that led to white supremacists beating Dre Harris and killing Heather Heyer, her daughter and husband had been right there, buying ice cream. Harris wrestles with informing her daughter, because she doesn’t want to rob her of her innocence.

We’ve talked about her beautiful brown skin and thick, curly hair, and she has a sense for why Rosa sat and Dr. King died. But we’ve never discussed anything this present, this evil, this close to home.

Did I tell you she calls this city beautiful? She, gorgeous with her huge brown eyes and tight curls. She is proud that her daddy teaches at the university, the one she has no idea was built by her people. We don’t start there, though. We start with that day and what happened on 4th Street on the downtown mall and why those white people were rallying in her hometown in the first place. We use the word racism.

And what happens next isn’t fair. What happens is that burden folds itself over her shoulders, a mantle I don’t want her to carry, and she says:

“Uh oh. We’re black people.”

I cannot bring her back.

“Is this gonna happen every day in Charlottesville?” she asks.

Which part? I want to ask. The racism, the destruction of black neighborhoods, the hidden pockets of public housing among great wealth? Yes. But a racist rally and a car crash? No.

Here she is, learning norms, feeling her way through fear, wondering if she’s next. She’s 6, you know. Her school supply list still calls for blunt-tip scissors. I heard the terrorists hid weapons in bushes.

We have dinner plans that night, and as we get into the minivan, she murmurs, “I just can’t believe what happened in Charlottesville.” She still conjugates some of her verbs incorrectly, and this time I don’t fix it when she says, “Is Mimi white or brown? Would they have foughted Mimi?” She wants to know if her light-skinned grandmother would have been in harm’s way. Look at the world opening like a pop-up book before her.

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I Want to Persuade You to Care About Other People

Danielle Tcholakian | Longreads | August 2017 | 23 minutes (5,681 words)

 

A few years ago, my middle brother and I were in Boca Raton, Fla. for Thanksgiving, visiting my mother’s parents. We’re very close with my grandparents, and one of the things I appreciate about my grandfather is that he has taken me — us — seriously for as long as I can remember. I spent every summer with him and my grandmother out on Long Island from when I was born into my teenage years, and I still can’t recall a time when I didn’t feel entitled to vigorously share my opinion with my grandfather, regardless of whether he would agree with it. When he would include me on forwarded political or (debatably) humorous e-mails with his Boca Raton pals — mostly politically conservative, Jewish guys like him — I would reply-all to any I found false or offensive in any way, lecturing men at least half a century older than me. He never yelled at me for telling off his friends and never took me off the email list for those forwards.

During the 2008 presidential election, I was in college, and I convinced him and my grandmother to vote for Barack Obama. It was the first time in our relationship, as far as I can recall, when my opinion wasn’t only given consideration, but prompted real change. I vividly remember running out to my friend’s Chicago porch after watching the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin to call my grandpa and crow, “Who you gonna vote for now, Papa?” And I remember his good-natured laugh, his heavy sigh, his admission that yes, I was right. He was going to vote for my guy — in Florida, where it mattered.

Another thing I love about my grandfather is how he’s open-minded in a way that’s unusual among men of his generation. He’s no free-love hippie: This is a man who will drink at least one Coca-Cola a day for the rest of his life; who wears his socks pulled up so tautly, I don’t understand how they never fall; who worked hard for every dime he earned; who to this day insists Costco hot dogs are a great lunch; who plays tennis six days a week and pickle ball the seventh; and who spends a good two to three hours every day reading the paper. My grandfather lived through segregation, quietly. He is not a rabble rouser. But he has always been tickled by the rabble rouser in me, always willing to hear my liberal side out. After I worked as a journalist for Metro New York covering Mike Bloomberg as mayor of New York City, the things I learned of Bloomberg from his staff reminded me of my grandpa in that way. Make a convincing argument, and he’ll listen to it.

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