Black History Month, day 10

Whenever research digs up a racist attitude by someone from history who was formerly admired, we rehash the “that was a different time” argument and ask, sometimes rhetorically, whether we can rightly judge people of the past by today’s ethical standards.

I agree that it is important to assess people of the past in the context of their own times, as much as possible. Context is an inseperable part of meaning. Referring to one’s co-worker as a “Negro” today would strongly suggest racism; in 1965, it was the anti-racist term of choice.

However, sometimes we wrongly assume that the context was more different than our own than it actually was. We say “She was a person of her time,” as if to say that she would have had to have been an extremely unusual person to have held views at all like our own. We might even hint that a person’s hypocrisies, so evident to us, were invisible to him.

We can’t claim that about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, because Benjamin Banneker wrote him a letter in 1791, when Jefferson was Secretary of State, lamenting “that [he] should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which [he] professedly detested in others, with respect to [himself].” Banneker, you may know, was an astronomer and surveyor who helped set the boundaries of Washington, D.C. He was best known in his own time for the almanacs he created and published. He wrote to Jefferson the same year he completed the first almanac, and enclosed a copy–as a gift? As proof of his ability? In the flowery style of the time, he expressed his hope that as regarded the conviction that black people were inferior, Jefferson was “far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others”–and then, naturally, he quoted the Declaration of Independence.

[Y]our abhorrence [of slavery] was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature; but, Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.

As we know, Jefferson was unmoved. He neither changed his views nor freed the people he had enslaved. And to a friend, he snidely described Banneker’s eloquent letter as proof that he had “a mind of very common stature indeed.” Sadly, it was Jefferson’s mind that was too limited to accept influence, even that of Banneker’s modest manner and logical argument.

Benjamin Banneker’s 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson

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Black History Month, day 9

One hundred years ago, citizens of Omaha; Chicago; Washington, D. C.; Longview, Texas; Elaine, Arkansas; and 15 other places around the United States were terrorized by beatings, arsons, and murders. Their attackers, mostly white men, were angry that black men were working. Literally. Unemployment was high, and if a white man couldn’t find a job, he had a scapegoat in his black neighbors. By the time that terrible summer ended, hundreds of African Americans had been murdered and thousands displaced.

Public domain. Reprinted from the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot (1922)

I never learned about any of this in school or anywhere else when I was young. I heard about race riots, but they were about black anger and destruction: viewed sympathetically, at times, but also patronizingly (“Burning down their own neighborhoods!”). I did not know that race riots were ever instigated by white people until years after my graduation from high school and college.

It wasn’t unknown information. Even Woodrow Wilson, who was openly white supremacist, blamed the 1919 riots squarely on white mobs. But in the 65 years between then and my high school years, it disappeared from the history curriculum–if it was ever there.

Black History Month, day 8

I was so sleepy last night that I fell asleep while writing this. I’m not feeling so well tonight either, so tomorrow I will post two.

Did you ever read the fairy tales where someone spins flax into gold? El Anatsui reminds me of that person. With the help of many assistants, he gathers up the trash left by civilization and weaves it into something rich and beautiful.

The artist’s website

Often his material is related to alcohol. It’s the tops of beer bottles, the labels of liquor bottles, which evoke both the problem of alcoholism in the community today, and the role of alcohol in the transatlantic slave trade that had such a drastic effect on his homeland.

One doesn’t have to be a scholar of West African folk art to recognize kente cloth and appreciate its beauty. But looking at Anatsui’s work is enriched by knowing that kente is a characteristic art form of the people of the region. (El Anatsui was born and raised in Ghana, and has made Nigeria his home since he was about age 30.) Different weaves are considered men’s or women’s patterns, to which he is surely referring when he calls a piece “Men’s Cloth.”

There’s also an element of collaboration in his sculptures, or perhaps I should say “installations,” since he delivers the enormous metal weavings to the exhibit site and gives the curator considerable discretion in how to drape them. Like fabric, each has infinite possible forms. His letting go of control over them is a model the viewer can emulate.

Black History Month, day 7

Darn. I am too tired to write a proper post. I want to give this wonderful artist his due, so I’ll just post a teaser for now and write more about him in tomorrow’s post.

I love this photo for three reasons. It pulls back far enough to convey how fluid and soft Anatsui’s sculptures appear (they are in fact made of thousands of tiny bits of scrap such as bottle caps). It shows the scale of the piece. And–oh, my heart–it is a portrait of our late, beloved friend Bean.

(Thanks to Gilad Kfir for taking this gorgeous photo of them, and his kind permission to use it here.)

Black History Month, day 6

Reading about Elizabeth Catlett for yesterday’s post made me curious about Mexicans of African heritage. Catlett was an immigrant late in life, like other artists from the U.S., but Mexico does have a small population of people whose ancestors include Africans. As in the United States, many are descended from people who were enslaved, though the Spanish conquistadores brought comparatively few slaves to Mexico from Africa, preferring to enslave the indigenous population. The state my family and I lived in for six months in 2016, Oaxaca, actually has the 2nd-largest percentage of people who identify as afromestizo, people of mixed race that includes African roots, but I had no idea until now.

A significant number settled in the Costa Chica (little coast), defined here as the stretch of Pacific Coast “from the port of Acapulco, Guerrero to Huatulco, Oaxaca.” Huatulco is a beach town my family visited and loved so much when we were living in the city of Oaxaca–which is inland, a short plane ride over the mountains from the coast–that we just had to squeeze in a trip when we spent three weeks in Oaxaca city the next year. Next time we go, we’ll know to seek out afromestizo music and dance there, and not just swimming and snorkeling.

Even if you haven’t lived in Mexico, you have encountered Mexican afromestizos. The actor Lupita Nyong’o identifies that way, having been born in Mexico City and holding dual Mexican and Kenyan citizenship, though she is ethnically Luo (Kenyan) on both sides. That explains her first name, a nickname for Guadalupe, which for obvious reasons is a common Mexican name. The afromestizo probably known best to people who know a scrap of Mexican history, though, is Vicente Guerrero, a hero of the War of Independence, Mexico’s second president, and namesake of a street in probably every city in the country, as well as a state.

I didn’t know much else about him, so I looked him up. One of his notable achievements before being deposed by his vice president and assassinated: freeing Mexico’s enslaved people.

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña

Portrait of Vicente Guerrero, by Anacleto Escutia after an anonymous portrait. Chapultepec Castle [Public domain]

Black History Month, day 5

I love this picture book of the song that came to be known as the “African American national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The words by James Weldon Johnson are thoughtfully, sometimes devastatingly paired with linocuts by the great printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett.

I have not been able to find out how these pairings came about. The song came first (Catlett was born 15 years after it premiered, and the prints were made in 1945-6, when she was 30-31 years old, which, by the way, blows my mind) but did she make the prints specifically to accompany this song? Or did she choose them out of her oeuvre almost 50 years later? Or did an editor choose them? I’m curious, though ultimately it doesn’t matter. The words illuminate the art as much as the art illuminates the words.

Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the lyrics and music, respectively, for a Lincoln celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, where it s sunny by an enormous chorus of children. Thirty-five years later he wrote:

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Elation/exquisite anguish. The lines of Catlett’s prints express this paradoxical combination just as the Johnsons ‘ song does. A beautiful book. (The music for piano and voice is printed in the book as well.)

Black History Month, day 4

When I was a wee little thing, entranced by tall tales and morbidly drawn to sad endings, I loved the story of John Henry. Then as I grew up, more and more meanings accreted to it. First, “humanity versus machine,” and then, various racial meanings. John Henry was a black hero. What did the story mean as a metaphor for African American experiences? It held so many possibilities: pride in blackness, exploitation of black labor, the triumph of the spirit even when the body doesn’t stand a chance against the machine of racism . . .

I was so excited when I learned that Colson Whitehead had devoted an entire novel to it, since as I wrote yesterday, I’m a fan of his writing. And next month, a man at the congregation I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, will be presenting an Adult Religious Education program called John Henryism and the Health of African Americans.  His name is Dr. Sherman James; he’s a member of the UU church in Little Rock, and he’s among us all year while he is a Fellow at Stanford pursuing his research in social epidemiology. Dr. James proposed the “John Henryism Hypothesis” to describe how “a strong behavioral predisposition to cope actively with psychosocial environmental stressors” is part of the cause of the high rate of hypertension and other stress-related illnesses among African Americans.

Of various moments of racial-awareness awakening, one that has long remained in my memory was reading an article seeking to explain why high blood pressure is so common among African Americans. It earnestly proposed cultural explanations such as the soul food diet, a genetic tendency toward sensitivity to salt, etc., and I read in disbelief as the reporter danced around the elephant in the room. You know how you yell helpful/angry suggestions at the screen sometimes? You can do that with a newspaper too, with the added benefit of being able to shake the pages for emphasis as you shout, “Um, poverty? Racism? Hello?”

So other than the pleasures of having Dr. James as a member (however transitory) of our church just because he’s an interesting and pleasant person, I’m excited about his professional work, and I’m so glad he’s bringing it to an audience here.

Black History Month, day 3

I learn as much about history through fiction as through non-fiction–probably more. That’s not because it’s historical fiction (it seldom is) but because fiction is such a powerful way into other people’s minds and experiences. Several years ago I made a personal reading list to remedy the lack of African-American writers (and history) in both my formal and informal education, mostly fiction. If you’re like me and love sci-fi/fantasy, you won’t be surprised to learn that one of the books from this genre, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, had a particular impact on my understanding of history.

Whitehead is a kind of literary surrealist. He takes historical facts, like the Underground Railroad, and adds some dreamlike twist, like the actual subterranean rail line in The Underground Railroad. Or in John Henry Days, he draws a connection between the legendary John Henry and a modern-day self-imposed endurance contest, his character J. Sutter’s junket-a-thon: how many literary junkets can one freelance journalist string together? And Zone One is quite straightforwardly true to life if you accept that zombies are taking over New York City. Maybe most sci-fi is essentially surrealist, which explains one reason I like it (I’m a fan of surrealism in visual art as well).

The Intuitionist has a comically bizarre premise: that elevator inspectors are a powerful political and politicized force. Accept the premise, and the book becomes a heartbreakingly realistic (and sometimes hearteningly hopeful) portrait of African-Americans’ options for their own identity and dignity within a culture where whiteness is held to be superior. I knew as soon as I read it that I would want to pick it up again in a couple of years–that it would have changed me in the meantime and that I’d want to check in on those changes and learn something new from the second reading. It’s about time to do that.

Black History Month, day 2

 

I could do an entire month’s worth of daily posts just on collage by African-American artists. Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, of course, and so many other artists of our own time who are taking collage in fascinating directions.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is new to me, and I love, love, love her work. It’s mostly painting, with Xerox transfers and other collage elements, and frequently makes striking use of negative space. In the piece I Refuse to Be Invisible, invisibility seems to threaten each figure. Faces and hands, flat, recede into the design. The woman in the orange stripes seems less real than her clothes. The face of the woman turned toward us, though, defies being disappeared. She will be seen, and on her own terms.

I need to see this artist’s work in person!

As I’ve done before, I’m challenging myself to blog about African-American* history, thought, and culture every day this month.

Today’s post arises from my having just finished the audiobook of Letters to a Young Artist, by the actor, playwright, professor, and author, Anna Deavere Smith. She reads it herself, naturally, and I’m glad I heard it in her voice, though I am going to buy a paper copy as well. It’s a book I’ll want to reread, thumb through, underline bits of, pull off the shelf frequently, and give copies of to friends.

She’s writing to a painter, and many of her examples come from acting and writing, but the advice–no, the wisdom–goes far beyond any particular art form. In fact, what the artist M. C. Richards once said kept running through my head as I listened to Smith’s direct, engaging, humble yet confident words: All the arts are apprenticeships; the true art is our life. It’s life wisdom she’s imparting here, as valuable for minister-me as artist-me, and most of all for human-me.

Not having a print version before me, I can’t properly remember the things I wanted to underline and share. (I couldn’t even place electronic bookmarks, because I was driving.) But if you’re looking for a hopeful, urgent response to the crisi/es that we 21st century people face, try listening to the voice of Anna Deavere Smith.

*or African, or African diaspora

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