Thursday, June 22, 2017

Zadie Smith on biracial artists, black protest, and suffering

This past week, I heard various folks talking about Zadie Smith's review "Getting In and Out" about the film Get Out. The movie really moved people, and apparently Smith's review did as well.

What I heard less people mention about Smith's review, though, concerned her discussion of that painting Open Casket of Emmett Till by a white artist Dana Schutz that was protested by some "black" artists. The protest was led in part by the artist Hannah Black.

Smith does some soul-searching in her mention of the painting, wondering whether she (Smith), a biracial writer, would, if she were a painter, be allowed to freely depict "black suffering." Smith wonders whether her children, who have a white father, would be allowed to freely take on black suffering if they were artists. Smith also wonders what it means that Hannah Black, who's biracial and non-American, takes the lead on protesting white artists who appear to over-step presumable racial boundaries. Smith hesitates on giving conclusive answers.

At one point, Smith writes, "when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an 'octoroon' still count?"

By the way, Jordan Peele, director of Get Out, is also biracial.

Oh, Smith also wonders why the piece by Schutz was singled out since there was perhaps a more controversial image of black people by a white male artist at the museum. I tend to come across far more writings by black and biracial women critiquing white women for alleged appropriation than I do of such charges against white men. I wonder if that helps to explain why Schutz was singled out over that white male artist.

Whatever the case, the questions that Smith raised about the relationship of biracial artists to black protest, black suffering, and appropriation were fascinating.

Big Sister as Superhero

When I was a really young boy, my older sister Phillis would sometimes do far out, incredible things. For a few brief seconds, I’d forget that she was my sister, and mistake her for a superhero.

Yesterday, she invited me to tag along with her to a reception at a conference for attorneys who advocate for employee rights. The organization has over 1,000 members. Big sis is introducing me to various people. At one point, she stops as she sees who she's been looking for. "Let's go," she says, as she walks toward someone. "She's the president."

The two greet each other.
“This is a great conference. You’re doing a great job,” my sister says.
“Thank you,” responds the president.
Then my sister presses, “We’re really going to have to do something about diversity. We need to recruit more black attorneys. We can do much better than what we're doing.”
“I agree. You’re right,” says the president.
“I feel so strongly about it that I want to talk to you more about what we can do. Is it ok if I visit you at your office?" Not waiting for a response, she follows up, "I’m going to arrange to come visit you at your office,”
"Yes, yes, please do," says the president.

My sister lives in Maryland. The president’s office is in Alabama.

That brief exchange took me back for a second. My sister had momentarily vanished, and here again was this superhero.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The good news and the trouble with black poetry

Just six months into 2017, and there's been all kinds of good news with black poets. Vievee Francis was awarded the Tufts Poetry Award. Tyehimba Jess was awarded the Pulitzer. Kevin Young was named poetry editor for The New Yorker, and Terrance Hayes was named poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine. Tracy K. Smith was named U.S. Poet Laureate, and the folks at Poetry magazine, among many others, are doing important work to celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks's centennial.

All good news. But...yes, there's a but...

...can we say that we feel good about all that's happening with African American poetry and American poetry in general? Nah, we can't.

For one, consider a finding from Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young. They revealed that from 2004 - 2015, "24,000 MFAs were awarded for around 900 possible jobs." That's not a good look for the field of poetry. Between 1975 and 2015, universities established 300 creative writing programs. Those programs were not created because those institutions love poetry.  Rather, Spahr and Young observe, universities understood that those writing programs "are cheap to run" and "tuition generating."

When it comes to black poetry, we can count a large number of successes with awards and with academic appointments over the last 20 years in particular. We can't, however, point to as many well-funded black poetry programming projects for young people. It's been more likely for select black poets to receive prizes over $10,000 than for entire communities to receive that support for black literacy or black literary art programs.

 And even though there are many scholars out there doing good work on poetry, we have to say those numbers are small in comparison to various other areas. There are some "special" issues on poetry in scholarly journals, but editors will tell you that they don't receive many articles on poetry with their regular submissions. My general sense is that many scholars aren't necessarily opposed to poetry, but they tend to devote their research and writing energies to other things.

And there's more -- a nagging sense of intra-racial class discrepancies in African American poetry (sure, it's probably in all of poetry). You get a glimpse of the discrepancy when you consider how much funding has come to what some refer to as print-based poets vs. spoken word artists or simply poets who reside outside certain influential networks.

So how do we reconcile the troubles and good news concerning poetry? First, we'll have to do better about accounting for what's happening. So far, we've done better circulating information about the good news. Many people sent me emails about this or that poet winning an award. Folks are silent about the challenges so many aspiring poets face or the absence of adequate programming on the arts in low-income communities. Those of us who study the arts and who live and work in black communities will want to address some of these issues more thoroughly.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Shifting Black Self and Auto/biography Studies

By Joycelyn K. Moody

I’m nearing the end of my work editing A History of African American Autobiography for Cambridge University Press. This book is comprised of 22 chapters on Black life writing by African Americanist scholars representing a variety of academic specializations and over 130 Black life writing subjects.

The volume uses the expansive term “life writing” to accommodate Black self-portraiture ranging from visual art objects and diverse print culture forms (think both slick magazines and election candidates’ circulars) to treasured family reunion stories as well as Civil Rights Movement narratives told by Black grandsons and granddaughters who have never yet walked a picket line.

Thinking about the audience for A History of African American Autobiography, I am eager to share definitions and analyses of life writing and its best-known name autobiography in part because this literary genre is one of the oldest practices of literary expression for Africans who, voluntarily or not, formed the African diaspora. Black life writings themselves reveal that the generic choice resulted from an (ongoing) impulse to reconstitute the self within in its new environs. The impetus remains strong in Black people in large measure because life writing offers a means to articulate the self in a new space, to tell the story of transition from one (geographical, psychological, spiritual, etc.) setting to another, to describe the current conditions, be they material or metaphorical, in which one now endures.

Ultimately, as this Cambridge History documents, to study Black life writing is to immerse one’s self in carefully wrought life stories written using cunning strategies of Black self-fashioning. These days especially, Black auto/biography studies forms a rapturous and wide range of expressivities Black people have invented (and continue to develop) to chronicle in each case the experiences of the most interesting person they know: themselves.

Whatever any given Black life writing might say about the intersectional and illusive self at its center, Black auto/biographical subjects continue to record the deft moves Black people must make, thrill to make, in an antiblack world.

Joycelyn K. Moody is Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature and Professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she researches and teaches African American literature.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Jay Z’s Next Chapter—Beefing with the Exploitative Bail Industry

By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II

Like many people we were excited to see Jay Z inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. We also enjoyed his tweets listing many other rappers he valued. At the same time, we were particularly intrigued by less publicized news concerning Jay Z: his advocacy writing.

On June 16, writing under his name Shawn Carter, the rapper published an article for TIME magazine making a case against the “exploitative bail industry.” In his article, Jay Z makes the case that large numbers of people, especially African Americans, are incarcerated because they can’t afford a private attorney, not necessarily that they have committed a crime.

“When I helped produce this year's docuseries, Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” wrote Jay Z, “I became obsessed with the injustice of the profitable bail bond industry.” He also noted that “When black and brown people are over-policed and arrested and accused of crimes at higher rates than others, and then forced to pay for their freedom before they ever see trial, big bail companies prosper.”

Jay Z’s article for TIME coincides with Father’s Day weekend. Accordingly, he announced that he would be supporting advocacy organizations “to bail out fathers who can’t afford the due process our democracy promises.”

What if Jay Z’s advocacy work taking on the injustices committed against African Americans constitutes a second act, so to speak, or another chapter in what has already been a remarkable life and career narrative arc?

Rappers have critiqued the justice system and its biased treatment against black people in their music for years dating back to NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” Even Jay Z’s critically acclaimed 2003 song “99 Problems” addresses the systematic problem of police profiling.

On September 15, 2016, The New York Times released a video “The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail” narrated by the rapper and critiquing the failures of the 1980s drug offenders program. Earlier this year, it was announced that Jay Z is producing both a film and documentary about the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin.

Jay Z’s induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame stands as a testament to the rapper’s ability to break down barriers and open doors for other rappers and the culture in general. His advocacy work represents another blueprint for hip hop culture--this one demonstrating how others might raise awareness and actively combat institutional racism.

A Notebook on Jay Z

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Some notes on "Twitter and Tear Gas" by Zeynep Tufekci

I initially planned to open with an extended personal narrative, but why bury the lede? So here's what's up: if you're interested in extending and deepening your thinking concerning the relationships between social media, digital connectivity, and contemporary uprising and protest movements, from Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, you'll want to check out Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017) by Zeynep Tufekci.

Interestingly enough, I discovered Tufekci on Twitter, deciding to follow her after I noticed her name in reference to news articles on this or that event. At some point, I noticed that she was authoring a book, so I decided to check it out. I live in St. Louis, so I've been inclined to think about the triumphs and shortcomings and decline of protest movements in local terms since the shooting death of Mike Brown and the organizing related to Ferguson. I've read quite a bit since that time, but Tufekci has given me a much larger view of things.

Twitter and Tear Gas primarily concentrates on movements around the world--in Egypt, in Turkey, and in other places, more so than on protests associated with Black Lives. But there are all kinds of parallels and shared lessons from all these "networked protests."

One main strength of the book emerges from the fact that Tufekci is such a reliable, well-traveled witness. She's attended several protest sites and interviewed hundreds of people. The book embeds many of their voices and observations as events are unfolding or as they reflect on their participation. So there's an important journalistic, on-the-ground reporting feel to the book. At the same time, Tufekci brings in academic analyses, drawing on ideas from various fields such as sociology, cultural studies, and of course technology. In short, she places the movements in historical context, which includes events related to online, digital developments.

A surprising and welcome component of the book is Tufekci's discussion of the Civil Rights Movement in relation to these contemporary protest movements. Twitter and Tear Gas illuminates the innovative tactical and logistical efforts of civil rights organizers, drawing links and making distinctions concerning modern-day organizers. Tufekci also highlights how earlier organizing, like student and antiwar movements of the 1960s, served as precursors for  the protests we've witnessed over the last 6 to 7 years in various countries (100-101).

Tufekci discusses the swift and far-reaching impact of ingenuous protestors like the group of political novices who formed @TahrirSupplies -- a coordinating group that arranged medical supplies and services for activists in Egypt in the fall of 2011 (54-60). Reading about the "logistics and practical details" of various groups was enlightening and inspiring.

Tufekci does much more than offer feel-good stories though. At every turn in the book, we learn of the limits of some of the principles widely celebrated by many contemporary activists. For instance, while many participants promote the value of leaderless movements, Tufekci convincingly illustrates the ways that leaderlessness in fact stifles major objectives. We've all noticed what happens as movements lose steam in part because of the absence of decision-making and what is known as "tactical freeze" where "new movements are unable to develop and agree on new paths to take" (77). Some of those disheartening outcomes are the result of leaderless movements.

Tufekci's clear-eyed perspectives on the struggles of movements to progress are vital for those of us trying to understand the challenges and for those seeking to improve or develop their own organizations.

I'm only half way through the book right now, so I'll report more when I'm done (my summer work schedule has drastically slowed my pace of reading and blogging). But I was enjoying some what I've been learning as I read, which is why I decided to post these initial notes and impressions concerning the book.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Victor LaValle's angry, brilliant, black woman mad scientist

What a powerful idea. Novelist Victor LaValle's is telling a story about an angry, brilliant black woman mad scientist. She's seeking vengeance for the shooting death of her son. So, like Victor Frankenstein, she reanimates her child.

That's the premise of LaValle's comic book Destroyer, illustrated by Dietrich Smith and colored by Joana Lafuente. The book is produced by Boom! Studios. The first issue was released this month.

We've seen several daring leading black women in comic books lately. Michonne from The Walking Dead.  Riri Williams (Ironheart), a 15-year-old taking over the reigns for Iron Man. The Dora Milaje -- former bodyguards for T'Challa -- from Black Panther. Storm and Misty Knight are also now appearing in Black Panther and the Crew. LaValle's protagonist Professor Josephine Baker corresponds in some ways to those characters, but ultimately moves somewhere else as well.

We've observed so many black mothers mourning the violent deaths of their sons over the years. But LaValle raises the provocative question: what if one of those black mothers was also an extraordinary scientist interested in seeking revenge?

In an interview, LaValle explains how his protagonist resurrected her son:
Dr. Baker is driven mad so she reanimates his actual body, the one that was returned to her after the police inquiry. Rather than taking the body to a morgue to be processed she brought it to her lab. She has used the most advanced technology available to her—technology she invented—melding artificial intelligence with nanobot technology and, finally, a little old-school sorcery.
It'll be interesting to see where he goes with the story.

Comic Books

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Pre-publication coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power

On June 12, Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted the cover of his upcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book is set for release in October. What follows is the pre-publication coverage concerning Coates's work.

• June 12: Ta-Nehisi Coates Announces New Book  - Oliver Craighead - The Fader
• June 12: Coates unveils cover for Obama-era book We Were Eight Years in Power - Oliver Gettell -EW

Ta-Nehisi Coates