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Black History Month, day 21

I love children’s literature. If I didn’t have a child to read to, I’d just have to sit in the children’s section of the library without one. And of course, we have a large bookshelf full of the books we loved as kids.

The characters and the authors of these books are overwhelmingly white. Most of them were written before 1975, many long before, and few publishers then sought out people of color, or encouraged them when they came along. For that matter, as of 2001, one editor writes here, there were still very few African-American writers and illustrators in the field, and a 2007 book by an education professor observes the same thing. And yet, John Steptoe, who wrote and illustrated the gorgeous Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters during his sadly short career, said plainly: “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”

When children read, they need to see people who look like them. This truism, once doubtful in my mind, has become a rock-solid fact since I began spending my days with a small child. The munchkin identifies strongly with people in the books she reads, and most of all with people like herself. To illustrate: she frequently, even obsessively, points to a character on each page and says “I want to be that person.” It is almost never an animal, and it is almost never a boy: it’s a girl. If the girls are only minor characters, she identifies with one of them, putting herself on the margin of the story (thank you, J. K. Rowling, for Hermione Granger–your wizarding world is still male-dominated, but you did put one smart, brave, complex girl in the marquee). If there are no girls in the story, she chooses no one. Fortunately, things have come a long way since A. A. Milne and J. R. R. Tolkien, and female characters are no longer merely a token presence in children’s books. But whom would she see who looked like her if she were black?

I would love to hear about your favorite children’s books that are by African-American authors and illustrators, and/or feature black characters.

Here are some of mine. An * means they have prominent characters who are black, an @ means they’re by a black author or illustrator, though of course I often don’t know anything about them but their name. In some cases, like Bette Greene and Ezra Jack Keats, I know they aren’t African-American, but I might be missing some who are.

* Island Counting 1 2 3 by Frané Lessac. Our favorite counting book, with terrific illustrations of an unnamed Caribbean island, and lots of fun things to find (e.g., on the “four” page there are four vanes on the windmill, four donkeys, four leaves on each plant, etc.).

@ Everywhere Babies, a board book I love for many reasons, but one of them is that families of all types and colors are featured without any comment, just as if families just come in all gender combinations, age combinations, and colors! Imagine!

* ABC A Family Alphabet Book, written by Bobbie Combs, illustrated by Desiree Keane and Brian Kappa. All of the parents are same-sex couples, and many are black.

* The Snowy Day, A Letter to Amy (naturally a childhood favorite), and the others about Peter and friends by Ezra Jack Keats

* Bear on a Bike, written Stella Gladstone and illustrated by Debbie Harter

* @ Lift Every Voice and Sing, words by James Weldon Johnson, illustrations by Elizabeth Catlett

* @ I Want To Be, written by Thylias Moss, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

@ for that matter, anything illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

@ Freight Train and anything else by Donald Crews

* Chicken Sunday, Patricia Polacco (Polacco, who is white, has several books with prominent African-American characters–this is the only one of them I’ve read)

* the Max and Kate stories that are featured in each issue of Ladybug.

Moving on to books for older kids:

* Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, Bette Greene

* Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Louise Fitzhugh

And the best African-American picture book we haven’t seen:

A Little Bit of Soul Food, Amy Wilson Sanger. As far as I know, Sanger isn’t black, and if this book is like the others of hers we have, it shows no people, but they are such great portrayals of one aspect of a culture–its food. Yum Yum Dim Sum and My First Book of Sushi are perennial favorites in our house.

I bought for Munchkin, but haven’t read with/listened to with her yet, Hip Hop Speaks to Children. She seldom wants to listen to music, preferring audiobooks in the car. It looks great, though.

Your nominees?

Black History Month, day 20

It’s my drawing day, so I went looking for figurative drawings by African-American artists and found some beauties.

“At Rest,” by Charles White

“Study for Willie J.,” by Charles White

Self Portrait, by Samella Lewis. She was 19 years old.

“Morning Is Here, No Dawn,” by John Thomas Biggers (photo #4 in the slideshow).
Actually, this one is a lithograph, but wow, what a draftsman.

Also, just today we went to SFMOMA and I was intrigued by the very different kind of work of Mark Bradford: very large collages, or assemblages–or given his process, maybe the term is disassemblages–made of many layers of found paper. By the time we got to that floor, the munchkin was very anxious to get to the children’s room, so I only got a peek. I will have to go back and spend a long time looking at these without a child in tow.

Black History Month, day 19

Pitchers and catchers are reporting. Looks like it’s time for a visit to the Negro Leagues.

Professional baseball was not really officially segregated; it didn’t have to be. After 1900, teams maintained their no-blacks status through a “gentlemen’s agreement,” to use one of the more bizarre misnomers in our language. Baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, deserves a lot of the blame, as various managers tried to add black players to their teams (sometimes even passing them off as Indians or white) but were prevented from doing so by Landis. In the 19th century, baseball teams had frequently been made up of a mix of races.

If baseball had been integrated during his lifetime, Josh Gibson would very likely be remembered as the best player in major league history (as it is, he’s widely considered the game’s greatest catcher). In a short career–he died at age 35, a few months before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers–he posted incredible stats, even allowing for the purported inaccuracy of Negro League and Caribbean records. He is sometimes referred to as “the black Babe Ruth,” but given Gibson’s approximately 800 career home runs (Ruth hit 714; the MLB record holder, Barry Bonds, hit 762) and his career batting average of .359 (Ruth’s was a mere .342), the Babe ought to be called “the white Josh Gibson.”

A particularly nasty strain of racism in baseball implies that black players don’t make good pitchers or catchers–not coincidentally, the brains of the team. Apparently the advocates of this point of view never heard of Gibson, or pitcher Satchel Paige either.

Black History Month, day 18

Some of the theological issues that engage me most are theodicy, the interplay between our lived experiences and our theologies, humanism, and naturalistic theism. As I prepared a talk last fall on humanism, theism, and naturalism, it became clear to me that I should be reading much more from black humanists. From the little I’ve read so far from such theologians as Anthony Pinn and William R. Jones, humanism as a whole (and the variety I know best, Unitarian Universalist humanism) could learn a few things from African-American humanists:

  1. An emphasis on the evil done by human beings. Banjamin Mays is critical of humanism but makes an illuminating point that among African-Americans, it may be that humanist perspectives “do not develop as the results of the findings of modern science, nor from the observations that nature is cruel and indifferent”–here I would interject, “as they frequently have done among more privileged people”–“but primarily because in the social situation, the [black American] finds himself [or herself] hampered and restricted . . . Heretical ideas of God develop because in the social situation, the ‘breaks’ seem to be against the Negro and the black thinkers are unable to harmonize this fact with the God pictured by Christianity.” I am white and privileged in many other ways, yet this echoes my experience growing up Jewish and, from hearing the accounts of survivors of the Holocaust from a very early age, being fully aware of the almost unimaginable depths of human evil. As a result of its clearsightedness about human evil, black humanism offers…
  2. …a liberationist perspective that, in contrast, has tended to be weak in the (mostly white) humanism I have encountered within Unitarian Universalism.
  3. A positive declaration of what it means to be humanist.Like Unitarian Universalism as a whole, humanism within UUism can get stuck defining itself by what it is not. I haven’t read Pinn’s Why Lord?, but according to the author(s) of the Wikipedia article on Pinn, in it he “notes that Black humanism has no interest in disproving the existence of God”; it is “not overly concerned with God as a negative myth, but rather God as a liberating myth that is nonetheless unsubstantiated.” Thus “African-Americans need not waste their time disproving God’s existence, but are simply better off seeking their liberation with the human tools of ‘desire for transformation, human creativity, physical strength, and untapped collective potential.’”
  4. And the final, perhaps most obvious lesson of black humanism is: There are a lot of black humanists out there. Why aren’t more of them finding a home within Unitarian Universalism?

Black History Month, day 17

I gave blood today (thank you, Stanford Blood Center!), which always puts me in a good mood and gives me reason to reflect on Charles Drew, the surgeon who developed blood-preservation processes such as the separation of plasma that made blood banks possible.

Charles Drew (Drew is sitting on the table on the right). Collection of the National Library of Medicine.

His research came just in time to save thousands of lives in World War II–the “Blood for Britain” program sent US blood donations to English soldiers and civilians, and would not have been possible a few years earlier. However, when the US entered the war, the US military requested that the American Red Cross only accept blood from whites, and they complied. When humanitarian groups protested, the policy was changed so that all blood was accepted, but it was segregated so that white people would receive only white people’s blood, black people only black people’s, a ludicrous and dangerous form of discrimination that Drew publicly protested.

Drew died at age 45 in a car accident. The legend that he bled to death for lack of medical treatment–specifically, being refused blood–at a whites-only hospital  is just that, an urban legend that sounded probable enough but, according to reliable witnesses, was not true. It got its legs not only because the painful irony makes a compelling story, but because of its plausibility: African-Americans were routinely turned away from hospitals, with many deaths as a result. Spencie Love, author of One Blood, pairs the story of Charles Drew with that of Maltheus Reeves Avery, another man who died of car-accident injuries in the same county, in the same year, because the hospital to which he was taken–a different one–had no remaining “black beds.”

African-Americans’ warranted mistrust of doctors and blood banks still keeps many African-American potential donors from giving blood, piling tragedy upon tragedy.

A bright spot in the story, however, is that hundreds of millions of people have received donated blood since the development of the blood bank. It is a safe bet that if you’re reading this, someone you love is alive today because of Drew’s research.

Black History Month, day 16

You write today’s post: who’s your favorite black writer?

I asked my wife and she didn’t hesitate: “James Baldwin.” I thought Octavia Butler would have given him a run for his money, since Joy is a big sci-fi reader and loves Butler.

Both of those would be high on my list, as is August Wilson, but I’ll say Toni Morrison for the way she gets inside so many different kinds of people in creating her characters.

Over to you.


(ETA: Thanks, Thea. I’d originally written “Olivia Butler,” may OB’s spirit forgive me!)

Black History Month, day 15

Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow, picks up the tale told by Slavery By Another Name. As she writes in her eloquent opening paragraph:

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

She goes on to write, “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history.” Today’s disenfranchisement of African American men has come about through a system that is formally color-blind: the criminal justice system.

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind [with Jim Crow]. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.

And the new criminals–almost ten times as many as there were before the “war on drugs” was declared–are disproportionately black. Here are some things I thought before I heard Alexander speak last November, and what I now believe to be the truth.

What I thought before: black people use and sell drugs at a rate disproportionate to their numbers in the population. Sure, there’s racism in the criminal justice system, but one reason the prison population is disproportionately black is that African-Americans commit a large percentage of crime.

What I think now: black and white people use and sell drugs at about the same rate.  The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports of its studies of secondary-school students: “Contrary to popular assumption, at
all three grade levels African-American students have substantially lower rates of use of most licit and illicit drugs than do Whites. These include any illicit drug use, most of the specific illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.” (Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key Findings, 2006) “Contrary to popular assumption” has to be the biggest understatement of the year. Why was this report not the top story of every newspaper in the country?

What I thought before: the “war on drugs” was declared because drug use was on the rise. It’s misconceived, but we had to do something about all that crack.

What I think now: drug-related crimes were falling when Reagan declared the war on drugs in 1982. The word “crack” was barely known–it certainly was not a media buzzword, or an epidemic of black neighborhoods.

What I thought before: the penal population has gone up somewhat over my lifetime.

What I think now: In the past thirty years, the population in the penal system has not risen gradually or modestly, but rocketed from 300,000 to over 2,000,000.

What I thought before: the United States’s  high rate of imprisonment is due at least in part to its having a higher crime rate than other countries.

What I think now: “Between 1960 and 1990 . . . official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the United States were close to identical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate fell by 60 percent, and the German rate was stable in that period” (7). We don’t have a higher crime rate–we just deal with crime via much higher rates of incarceration.

What I thought before: Racism is present in the criminal justice system, the way it is present everywhere. It’s a problem that concerns me, but calling it the equivalent of Jim Crow is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish.

What I think now: The criminal justice system has been pressed into the service of an agenda that has changed form over the years but has not diminished: the social control of racial minorities, especially African-Americans. The means was once Jim Crow; now it is mass incarceration, which is truly, not just rhetorically, the new Jim Crow.

I’m devouring this book, even though every bite burns going down. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you get a chance to see Michelle Alexander in person, don’t miss it; her presentation was riveting.

Black History Month, day 14

I knew that terrible conditions continued to oppress black Americans after Emancipation, of course. I knew that lynchings and the unequal application of the law kept a boot on their necks. I knew, for that matter, that slavery is still going strong around the world. But I didn’t know half the stuff documented in Slavery By Another Name, aired yesterday and available for viewing here now.

If you want to place someone beneath the notice of the public, declare them a criminal–it will give you lots of leeway for abusing them without anyone being willing to intervene. If they haven’t done anything illegal, make new laws that criminalize things they are already doing. The former slaveholding states would tolerate neither the equality of black people with white nor the loss of all that free labor. And so the law against vagrancy–the inability to prove that one has a job–was “dredged up from legal obscurity” and used to sweep black men into prison. (Once again, in our own wave of high unemployment, we have political leaders  proposing penalties for being poor: Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation, recently spoke approvingly of the 18th century law against voting if one did not own real estate. Last November would have been my first election! And actual prison sentences for debt are on the rise, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, and despite federal debtors’ prisons’ having been abolished 180 years ago.)  Defendants were required to pay for the expenses the state incurred in convicting them. If they couldn’t pay the fees to ” the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses,” they were in debt and had to work it off–again, laws created in order to manufacture criminals, i.e., slave laborers.  Furthermore, contract laws were in place to penalize anyone attempting to leave a job before an advance had been worked off”–another form of thinly-veiled enslavement, practiced frequently today in countries such as India and the United States.

I wrote 1865-1945 because the author of the book Slavery By Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon–another journalist with the Wall Street Journal–focuses on the scope of 80 years. It seems to me that this practice is far from over, but that’s for an upcoming post.

For today, please be aware that there are more slaves in the world today than there were in the entire 400 years of the African slave trade. Chocolate and flowers are industries with a lot of slave labor. If you want to give a Valentine to children in West Africa and women in South America, buy the chocolate or flowers that profit their ethical bosses, not the exploiters. Look for the fair trade symbol. One World Flowers is a good option for roses, and your local natural foods store probably carries non-slave-produced chocolate brands, such as Divine, Tcho, Theo, and Equal Exchange. (Whole Paycheck is not my favorite food store, but they are a good source for fair trade chocolate.)

Black History Month, day 13

Our country’s biggest contributions to world music are jazz, blues, rock and roll, and hip hop. All four arose largely–in the case of jazz, blues, and hip hop, almost exclusively–from the African-American community. Thanks, black America, for putting my country on the musical map. I especially thank you for funk, too, though I don’t think I can make the case that it has had quite the influence of jazz.

So I don’t think there’s been a decade of US history that was not characterized by black music that would change the musical world. Still, the 20s and 30s were extraordinary. I wrote about some art and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance yesterday and the day before. Another star of the Harlem Renaissance was Duke Ellington, whose music I won’t try to describe; “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” at least when I try it.  Ellington himself advised “You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it” (great advice for an artist in any medium), so let’s just let the music speak for itself. If you have an Ellington recording in the house, won’t you go put it on and soak up some of your heritage as a world citizen? And if you don’t, here are a few great recordings: Ellington himself playing “In a Sentimental Mood” with John Coltrane:

Or if you like your jazz tamer, and/or like to hear the words, here’s Ella Fitzgerald a few years earlier:

My favorite rendition is when my wife plays it, but I’m sentimental that way.

Another Ellington classic, played by Ellington:

And here, sung by Billie Holiday:

Black History Month, day 12

Romare Bearden, image by Roy DeCarava, (c) Sherry Turner DeCarava 2012, courtesy The DeCarava Archives.

Yesterday I alluded to the music and art of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the poetry. I first encountered the art of Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden when I took a collage class in high school, and when I set up this blog, his was one of the names on my blogroll of artists. He had an amazing gift for texture and color, as well as the juxtaposition that is built in to collage (his most frequent medium), and used them to tell stories, evoke the sound of music, portray a place or people . . . His pieces are complex, accessible, rich in allusions, and both emotional and philosophical.

In Early Morning, for example: the woman’s arms both fit with the rest of her and set up a contrast that speaks of other places, maybe the places where her thoughts are now. The arms are languid, flat like a Matisse collage; they contrast with her tired face, which is portrayed more realistically and itself has a contrast between the Madonna gaze of the eyes and the determined set of the jaw. Her head scarf, apron, and dress speak of the kitchen, while her arms suggest a more romantic setting where she might be dancing, sleeping, or making love. And still, that right arm is not only part of her, but part of the background–of the wall, in fact.  As if she is there and not there, as one might be at a moment when duty calls one way and longing another and especially here in early morning, when one’s mind is still half in the night’s dreams. All of that from one figure, and a background figure at that. This is why I feel the way August Wilson does about the effect of Romare Bearden’s pieces: “I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”

Only in writing this post did I learn that Bearden’s centennial is being celebrated right now, between September 2011 and September 2012. If you’re near Cincinnati, Tampa, or New York, check out one of the exhibits in honor of this anniversary; looks like others are in the works. Folks in my part of the world, you can see his mural “Berkeley: The City and its People” anytime by popping into the chambers of the Berkeley City Council.

The above is my favorite picture of Bearden. I love the way the photographer, Roy DeCarava  (another terrific African-American artist), made the photo look like a collage too.

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