But He was a Product of His Time

“He was a product of his time”

People from all walks of life frequently use this phrase in the defense of historical figures and artistic productions. The phrase rests on the premise that it is unethical to apply what is determined to be contemporary social norms or values onto past actions and ideas. This assertion is wrong. The phrase, in application, is a universal justification for hatred and violence under the guise of outdated social norms. What is more insidious, however, is how the phrase is used as a scapegoat for real historical analysis. The application of this sentiment by those in academia and in everyday conversation is reflective of many tools used to devalue the experiences and histories of marginalized groups.  

Current historical education is frequently criticized for the tendency to focus on individuals. This is paired with a tendency to heroify these chosen few. This way of thinking is reflected in how people discuss groups like the founding fathers, or the great philosophes of the enlightenment, as if their character and insight ought to be unquestioned to this day. Dominant groups unwillingness to confront the complexity of reality in our education and discourse is what allows for this veneration. The “product of its time” sentiment is one tool used to simplify history. It presumes that participation in racialized and gendered violence is irrelevant if it conflicts with the idealized version of a figure or work. This can be exemplified by the conflict in academia over John Locke, and many figures like him. In most textbooks and profiles he is summarized as an english philosopher and author of Two Treatises of Government, where he argues for government based on the public’s sovereignty and natural rights. He is hailed as an influential enlightenment thinker, whose ideas were credited in influencing the glorious revolution of 1689 and the Declaration of Independence. He also invested heavily in companies that ran the transatlantic slave trade and worked on documents that outlined the “absolute power and authority” of masters over their slaves. This quote was not included in the profile. The dominant historians that shape historical narratives consciously omit these contradictions. These silences hinder our engagement with the figures and ideals that shape our society. This pattern reoccurred more recently in public discourse in the me too movement. As discussions on sexual assault became more widespread, many observers criticized the expressions of rape culture in “classic” 80s movies.  In both scenarios, people rebutted the criticism by arguing they are simply the products of their time. In both scenarios this is a veiled attempt to silence factual criticism and prevent engagement with the racialized and gendered violence that has always been and continues to be a part of the western worlds legacy. 

This returns to another trend present in incomplete historical narratives: the assumption of the subject. The product of its time defense assumes that the subject ia a member of the dominant group while completely ignoring the voices of minority groups and other discenters. In addition, this reading removes both the agency and the culpability of the presupposed subject. Take, for example, founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Many have tried to complicate their image as crusaders of liberty and freedom by acknowledging that they were slave owners. This is often met with the product of his time rebuttal. People using this defense are inherently asking how was he supposed to know it was wrong?; in this case it, is slavery. This removes the agency of Washington and Jefferson by asserting that because slavery existed, we should expect them to particitpate in slavery. This presumes that the people of the time had no choice but to participate in and protect the institution of slavery. During this time there was an easily identifiable group of people who objected to slavery: slaves. But the voices of enslaved people are not considered relevant. People using the rebuttal are silencing the activism and humanity of enslaved people. They are assuming Black voices have never mattered and further, that we should not expect Black voices to matter.   

The product of its time response is especially disturbing because it acknowledges that the violence occurred, but dismisses it as unimportant. It is used in situations ranging from a bigoted comment to crimes against humanity. This utilization was on full display when a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from Los Angeles in late 2018. A headline of a response article written reads “Christopher Columbus: A product of his time or guilty of genocide?” The article proceeds to analyze whether or not Columbus’s action constitute genocide. Another article published by Staten Island Live in 2013 is titled “Christopher Columbus, no saint, was product of his time”. The authors of these articles are presuming that being a product of one’s time is a reasonable justification of mass murder, enslavement, and rape. It reflects an unwavering acceptance of Columbus’ treatment of indigenous people; there is no expectation for indigenous people to be treated like human beings. They are calling for silencing the reality of Columbus’ violent legacy on the grounds that racism was normal. This excuse is baffling. Furthermore, all of these unconvincing defenses are in response to calls for honest historical narratives. They are defenses against discussing reality. They are thinly veiled attempts to classify recognition of racism and violence as unwarranted attacks. 

This returns to the idea that it is unfair to apply “modern” ethics to the past. This claim is again incorrect and dangerous. It is not modern ethics to treat Africana people as human beings, nor is it unfair to apply this standard to all of time. Africana people in the western world have constantly vocalized their history, their humanity, and their resistance. It is a choice not to listen.

Slave Play: Radical, Spectacle, or Both?

Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris is, quite literally, all the rage on Broadway at the moment. Critics are hailing it as, “The most radical Broadway play in years,” “A funny, scalding walk along the boundary between black and white in America,” and “Brash, smart and gleefully confrontational, this is the kind of play that starts arguments.” Publicity surrounding the production has been immense, with celebrities flocking to performances. Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, Janelle Monáe, Gloria Steinem, Rihanna, Zendaya and Harry Styles are merely a handful of the A-list stars who attended the show, with most, if not all, of them giving high praise aligned with the critical acclaim. The playwright, Jeremy O. Harris, is well on the rise to superstardom himself, being dubbed “the queer black savior the theater world need.” 

At 30 years old, Harris is, “the youngest black male playwright to be produced on Broadway.”  He grew up in Virginia, before attending DePaul University’s acting conservatory program. After not getting past the first round of cuts, he decided to drop out and move to Los Angeles. Harris candidly asserts that he, “could be anyone in L.A,” and it was there that he, “performed being a playwright until I became one”. Soon after, he applied to the MFA playwriting program at Yale University (one of three master playwriting programs you can apply to without an undergraduate degree), and was accepted. The first iteration of Slave Play, was a staged reading, produced on Yale’s campus in 2017, where it, “caused a bit of sensation.” The piece premiered off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop in fall of 2018, before debuting on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre this past October. 

Slave Play centers around three interracial couples in various states of turmoil, due to the fact that the Black partners are unable to derive pleasure from their white companion. In an attempt to remedy this, the couples participate in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” a fictitious form of psycho sex therapy in which they replicate slave-master, plantation relationships. Response to the play has been prolific, charged and divisive. Harris claims that he wrote the, “play about black people self-actualizing inside of a history that makes it very difficult to self-actualize outside of the rules and socialization that come with being a black body who has inherited the trauma of chattel slavery.” Harris passionately speaks about his commitment to diversifying theater audiences, making his producers guarantee that 10,000 tickets be sold at an affordable price of $39. Slave Play also made headlines for the “Black Out” performances earlier this fall, in which Black artists, performers, journalists and student organizations received tickets to select shows, where the audience remained entirely Black.

Regardless of the disparate responses to Slave Play among both Black and white audiences, it raises some interesting questions involving theater spectatorship and consumerism. Such questions can also relate more broadly to all forms of Black art. Is Black art required to operate in a certain way? Does it have to pick a side? Should it exist explicitly for Black people and to resonate with the Black experience? Or should it adhere to the white gaze, in an attempt to combat privilege? Can it accomplish both these tasks? Jeremy O. Harris says in this current moment, “it can feel like you have to make black art for all black people,” and that he believes in making, “black art for your black self.”

Although this argument could potentially hold some ground in music or film, it is nearly impossible to make theater without considering white consumption. For the majority of its history, commercial theater exclusively catered to white people: white plays, white actors, white audiences, white everything. Even instances where the story onstage is about non-white people, consumption of the content remains overwhelmingly white, largely due to the financial and social inaccessibility of theater. For Harris to claim he did not account for white people when writing something incendiary and shockingly violent against Black people, is irresponsible. The whiteness of theater is an unfortunate, yet unavoidable truth. 

In his piece, Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures, E. Patrick Johnson analyzes the historic development of a formal, institutionalized Black performance studies field, as well as the informal, cultural resonance of the discipline. Johnson states that, “black performance provides a space for black culture to reveal itself to itself—to come to know itself, in the process of doing” (449). There is no doubt that Slave Play reveals an atypical narrative of Blackness. However, Johnson does address how potential upset among Black people factors into this revelation. Johnson goes on to cite scholar bell hooks, who claims, “Performance…cre­ated a cultural context where black people could transgress the boundaries of accepted speech, both in relationship to the domi­nant white culture, and to the decorum of African-American cultural mores” (452). It is fair to say that Jeremy O. Harris is existing firmly within this idea of disrupting mainstream conventions of both whiteness and Blackness, but at what cost?

Does the transgression hooks speaks of, remain productive if it operates as Slave Play does: through the reproduction of anti-Black violence and intergenerational trauma? Johnson poses the inquiry of, “What is this “black” in black perfor­mance studies?” (461). He goes on to insightfully ask, “How do we go about creating an ethics of such an endeavor without policing boundaries, silencing opposing or dissenting or dissident voices, while, at the same time, holding true to a politics of social change and transformation that moves us forward in the liberation of black peoples?” (461). There is no clear, easy answer to this question. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a Black liberation in which Black violence and trauma are commercialized and capitalized on Broadway. That is not Black art for, and by, Black people. That is not radical, subversive or liberatory. That is shameful spectacle. 

Works Cited

  1. Criscitiello, Alexa. “Getting To Know Acclaimed SLAVE PLAY Author, Jeremy O. Harris.” Broadway World. Wisdom Digital Media, 5 October, 2019. Web. 
  2. Feldman, Adam. “Slave Play.” Time Out New York. Time Out America, 6 October, 2019. Web. 
  3. Fierberg, Ruthie. “Why Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play Is Inextricably Linked to Rihanna.” Playbill. Playbill Inc., 30 October, 2019. Web. 
  4. Heyman, Marshall. “Inside ‘Slave Play’s’ Starry Opening Night With Jake Gyllenhaal, Zazie Beetz and More.” Variety. Variety Media, 7 October, 2019. Web. 
  5. Johnson, E. Patrick. “Black Performance Studies Genealogies, Politics, Futures.” Performance Studies Handbook. Editors D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera. Sage, 2005. pp. 446-463. ProQuest Ebook Central. 
  6. Jones, Chris. “Review: ‘Slave Play’ on Broadway mixes race and sex and is as challenging as you’ve heard” New York Daily News. Chicago Tribune, 6 October, 2019. Web. 
  7. Kumar, Naveen. “A Playwright Who Won’t Let Anyone Off the Hook.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 28 November, 2018. Web
  8. Marks, Peter. “‘Slave Play’ is a funny, scalding, walk along the boundary between black and white in America.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 6 October, 2019. Web.
  9. McNulty, Charles. “‘Slave Play’ writer Jeremy O. Harris has arrived. Broadway may never be the same.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 29 November, 2019. Web.
  10. Porter, Juan Michael. “Despite the Hype, I Hated ‘Slave Play’ [Op-Ed].” ColorLines. Race Forward, 15 October, 2019. Web.
  11. Wheeler, André. “Jeremy O Harris: ‘People say I wrote Slave Play for white people.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 6 November, 2019. Web. 

Photography: The Disconnects Between Subject, Photographer and Viewer

The advent of smartphones has granted everyone the power to be a photographer and to capture their stories through the art of photography. Those who take and edit their own photos have perfect control over the images they present to the world through social media and other means of sharing. However, when someone else is behind the camera, this level of control is relinquished and the photo falls subject to many of the photographer’s biases often leaving a lot of room for interpretation surrounding the goals of the photo. It is the disconnect between the photographers intentions whether conscious or not and the resulting photo that makes photography such a unique and useful medium especially for Africana theorists given that this divide is often quite large. The intentions of the photographer are often just as or even more important than the subject of the picture itself and complicating the narratives of the photographers allows for a greater understanding of the moment captured in the photo and of history at large. 

The lack of a physical record of the photographer’s intentions means the researchers often have to work backwards basing their work heavily on the physical characteristics of the photo or sometimes a caption. They can use how the photo has been interpreted throughout history in tandem with the photographer’s supposed intentions to draw greater conclusions about the subject matter.  Dixa Ramírez in her analysis of the photo captioned “Come into the house honey, dat picture man’ll steal you,” argues that the picture relies on the physical characteristics of what the woman was wearing to draw a connection to the mammy caricature that arose as a result of slavery in the United States despite the photo being taken in the Dominican Republic. The caption is supposedly what the woman was saying to the child and urges the viewer to listen to the photo instead of simply observing it. The caption serves to guide the viewers, but simultaneously limits the room for interpretation. To reconcile this, Ramírez presents an alternative method to examine photos like these which she calls “mote refusal”. In doing so, she is rejecting the initial intentions of the photographers and imposing and sharing hew own ideas and beliefs onto it.

One of the choices that a photographer gets to make is the angle at which the shot is taken. This impacts what is included in the photo, but also how the viewer interacts with it. It is also important to consider what the photographer is willing to sacrifice through using a particular angle. Charles Moore’s photograph of Vera Pigee’s hair salon taken in 1961 seems to simply highlight that there much was more than hairdressing happening in her salon. However, the angle of the photo provides more insight into the intentions of the photographer. There is a poster containing information that dates the photo.  It is not the focal point of the photo, but nonetheless provides useful insight to the dedicated viewer. This was included over the bottom part of the room showing that the photographer valued the information present on the poster and would rather include it over what was in the lower part of the room. The photographer also does something interesting where although it was taken in a mirror, due to the angle, the photographer remain unseen. This puts the main focus onto the woman in the chair getting her hair done while Pigee teaches her how to register to vote. It also more effectively transports the viewer into the photo because they are simultaneously receiving a straight on view of the action, but it is also from the perspective of as if the viewer was beside Pigee, involved in the action. Seeing what the subjects would be seeing instead of simply observing them allows for this greater level of connection between viewer and subject and helps to bridge the gap between them. In this case, it was likely intended to encourage others to creatively use whatever resources available to them to fight for civil rights. 

The ways in which the gap between subject and viewer has been examined as a result of the photo is also often a topic that should be examined. Kevin Quashie uses this gap present in the 1968 photo of the awards ceremony of the 200m dash to convey his greater message about the importance of quietness as a means of analysis. This photo is taken from a slightly lowered angle which works with the pedestal the athletes were standing on to put the viewer physically below them. This photographer made the conscious decision that their fists were more important than their feet and point the camera upwards. This also creates a contrast between Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ fists the clear night sky. According to the photography technique of leading lines, in this case the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the clenched fists due to the high levels of contrast and the slightly diagonal lines of their arm. The viewer then makes their way down through the rest of the photo as opposed to working across the photo.  Quashie goes on to discuss the impact of the photo and that it likely went far beyond and maintained a greater cultural impact than expected by the photographer. He critiques how it has been analyzed over the last 50 years, and proposes an alternative way of examining it through the lens of quietness. He is shocked that the interiority of the photo is easily overlooked when it is so clear in the photo in the way that their heads are bowed in prayer and emphasizes the importance of considering all the features of a photo, even the ones that are not as instantly eye catching. 

Given that the accessibility of photography has continued to increase, it will likely continue to have a great impact on Africana research. It is important to consider many of the different ways that a photo can be analyzed in order to convey something more than what is directly visible. 


Hamlin, Françoise. “Africana Studies and History: Building Archives.” Providence, RI 11/21/2019

Präkel, David. Basics of Photography 01: Composition. London : AVA Publishing, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=_kbRUmMrZycC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:”DavidPrakel”&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjb0Obrg5rmAhUjc98KHTvMAEgQ6AEwAHoECAUQAw#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Quashie, Kevin Everod. The Sovereignty of Quiet beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Ramírez, Dixa. “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects.” Small Axe , July 2018, DOI 10.1215/07990537-6985831.

Go Pro or Bust: Capitalism in Sports

 The social impact athletes can make has been proven through the sports careers of figures like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. Ali and Robinson’s decisions to risk their bodies and careers was their way of using their national platform to raise awareness for Black issues. More recently, Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has turned into arguably the most polarizing athlete in the last decade for pursuing a similar path. In what started as a protest against police brutality in 2017, has resulted in Kaepernick being absent from the National Football League for 3 years despite an overwhelming consensus that his talent in unquestionably fitting of a job with at least one of the NFL’s thirty two teams. Racism is far from a new issue in sports, yet the NFL, more than any other American sport, resembles the social and economical structures of slavery. This piece will discuss capitalism’s discriminatory mechanisms and how these factors ultimately drove NFL owners to exclude Kapernick from the league. When Black athletes like Kaepernick are silenced, it extends to the communities they represent, and has long-lasting effects on Black men and boys’ struggle with identity.  

American sports have always been supported by a foundation of  capitalistic ventures that center around the experience of the paying customer. Even at the college level, the money generated through  sports dominated by Black athletes (football and basketball) often funds all the other university sports teams and many academic amenities. For decades, the money made through college basketball’s March Madness has extended to just under $1 billion dollars, but the student-athletes that sustain this economic foundation are punished for even accepting any money or gifts. [1] Lucia Trimbur’s work in Studying Sport in the University illuminates these racial undertones within sports, and from college amateurism to professional leagues the same lesson is learned: “Sport was never the domain of its practitioners but has always been a profit-driven venture.” [2]  In Kaepernick’s case, his kneeling during the national anthem and unwillingness to waver from his protest threatened the NFL’s revenue based on their majority white audience and military sponsorship. The U.S. military’s sponsorship has been documented at about $6 million dollars in a three-year span from 2011-2014 in order to encourage patriotic gestures and ceremonies.[3] The social influence of the NFL’s platform is clear based on the advertising value spent by corporations like the U.S. military. For this same reason, Kapernick’s perceived insubordination was highly visible and in conflict with the NFL’s core values. In a league where all owners and more than 50% of coaches are white, Kaepernick’s exclusion was swift, and even though attempts by other players to show solidarity were made (in more palatable ways), most players accepted the current reality that they would need to remain silent to protect their careers. [4] With their families’ livelihoods tethered to the pocket books of NFL owners, Black football players, who typically come from underserved communities,  face the ultimate fear of failing to provide for their loved ones.What’s old in this scenario is the slave dynamic founded upon white-dominated ownership that threatens to dispose Black bodies when they’re no longer driving profits. 

When Black athletes decide to put their person over profits, is when the white masses begin to recant all of the praise given to athletes. Kawhi Leonard, a basketball player for the Los Angeles Clippers, made not of his load-management decision that would limit the games he played in a season in order to preserve his body in the long-term. This decision was met with concern from the NBA’s leadership who faced backlash from spectators and TV partners due to the value that could be lost from Kawhi’s abstinence. [5] Black athletes face contempt even when they reclaim their power, and this contempt is rooted in the same perverse antiblack behaviors as discussed by Grant Farred in his In Motion, At Rest where he states, “First, the black body asserts itself at rest, of its own choosing, and draws attention to itself thereby disordering all around it.” [6] Kawhi Leonard and consequently Colin Kaepernick have done just that by resisting the antiblack pressures to exploit their bodies without regard for the self.  Most recently, Colin Kaepernick decided to abstain from a workout offered to him by the NFL. This decision complicated the matter as the public became divided over Kaepernick’s  last minute workout changes. Figures like the highly-publicized sportscaster, Stephen A. Smith, concluded that Kaepernick did not have honest intentions to play in the NFL. [7] Once again, we find Black sports figures being attacked for not falling in line with the status-quo. This is a key moment where the NFL’s ability to skew the narrative was most vital as they were able to shift the tone of his righteous acts to an insubordinate tone because he would not submit to the harsh reality and racist power dynamic of the NFL. The idea lingers that if he wanted to play he would have conformed to all the workout contingencies laid out by the NFL. However, this acceptance would inherently erase the perspective & autonomy of Kaepernick. In the end, Kaepernick did film his workout which was sent to all teams, and he also demonstrated that even after three years, his body is in top physical condition. His purposeful exclusion is a contemporary means of resistance as he already proved his ability without succumbing to the exploitative waivers and irregular scheduling the NFL proposed.

 The mystique of sports figures are undeniable, and for better or worse they are some of the most highly visible and prominent role models in American society and especially for Black communities. For Black athletes, there is a heightened sense of responsibility because their dream-like salaries place them among an elite class in America. If you are a Black boy growing up in American society, being an athlete or rapper are the hallmark careers you are conditioned to pursue. As a result, Black boys define their identity through sport, but for a profession where less than a percent ever make it professionally, this is a dangerous pitfall.  Black representation is only celebrated in these domains, and still this limiting ideology has detrimental effects to for Black men as a whole. In Tough Love by Lucia Trimbur, she hones in on the identity formation that transcends the athletic arenas. [8] For Black athletes and coaches alike, sports can become a transitional platform for “advocating personal responsibility and discourses critiquing systemic injustice”. [9] For Colin Kaepernick, his stance against racial injustice was a fight that now has been misdirected from its foundation. When we should be praising Kaepernick for successfully  using his privilege (financially and socially) to combat racism, skewed narratives have left a polarizing debate on Black agency. This is a loss for the Black community as another leader’s image is now tainted, and while he started a crucial conversation, the results have not materialized into the radical change that could have transpired if more players were of the mindset to stand united.  Ultimately, this is the result of social conditioning at an early age that convinces Black boys that their career opportunities are limited, and to live the American Dream they must join pro sports or bust. 

Works Cited

[1,2,6] Trimbur, Lucia. “Studying Sport in the University: Some Problematics and Problems.” American Studies 55, no. 3 (2016): 71–84. https://doi.org/10.1353/ams.2016.0105.

[3] Eckstein, Jakob. “How The NFL Makes Money: TV Is King, Streaming and Gambling on Horizon.” Investopedia. Investopedia, November 18, 2019. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/062515/how-nfl-makes-money.asp.

[4] Sonnad, Nikhil. “The NFL’s Racial Divide, in One Chart.” Quartz. Quartz, May 28, 2018. https://qz.com/1287915/the-nfls-racial-makeup-explains-much-of-its-national-anthem-problems/.

[5] Nadkarni, Rohan. “Unpacking All Sides of the NBA’s Load Management Conversation.” Sports Illustrated, November 7, 2019. https://www.si.com/nba/2019/11/07/kawhi-leonard-nba-load-management-problem.

[7] Bennett, Anita. “ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith Slams Colin Kaepernick: ‘He Wants To Be A Martyr.’” Deadline, November 17, 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/11/stephen-a-smith-slams-colin-kaepernick-he-wants-to-be-a-martyr-1202788136/.

[8, 9] Trimbur, Lucia. “‘Tough Love’: Mediation and Articulation in the Urban Boxing Gym.” Ethnography 12, no. 3 (2011): 334–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138110372590.

Tracing (In)Visible Histories & Traditions

Visibility can pose complicated advantages and hefty challenges for black subjects. It illuminates histories and the identities held by our foreparents and can thus help us locate, honor, value, and understand them. This blog post will explore visibility and the obstacles it presents as well as benefits it affords subjects who find it. A discussion on black trans visibility between Juliana Huxtable, a black trans woman and artist, and Che Gosset, a black trans femme archivist, and scholar will serve as one site of this exploration of visibility. The blog will then advance to a discussion of mythic/historic (mis)representations of black subjectivity from a white, European perspective via a reading of Audre Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”. Finally, this blog will consider moments of refused visibility and how subjects practice them often out of necessity. Darlene Clark Hine’s theory of the Culture of Dissemblance is one example of this concealment, and Dixa Ramirez’s concept of Monte Refusal is another. In bringing these instances together, this blog seeks to develop a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for moments of (in)visibility within the histories of black subjects.

            To begin this exploration, this blog will sit in on a conversation between Juliana Huxtable and Che Gosset. This conversation appears in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. Gosset and Huxtable discuss several matters ranging from queer performance/performativity to conceptualizations of desirability/beauty, but the central theme is the issue of visibility that Huxtable encounters in the (art) world as a black trans woman. One of the first questions Gosset asks Huxtable is about whether she feels there is a black trans radical tradition. Huxtable responds, describing from her point of view the implied definition of tradition as “…a handing down, or rituals, hand-me-downs, and traced languages, and documentation of all that.” (Gosset & Huxtable, 40, emphasis added). Here, Huxtable calls her audience into her thinking about traditions—how having a visible history or documentation of rituals, languages, etc. is central to any tradition. This holds significance because, for many black trans and queer people, locating these histories and finding any documentation of tradition proves difficult if possible. Through Africana methods, and in addition to the work being done in and through social media Huxtable discusses later (G&H, 40), perhaps these histories and traditions can be re/un-covered. Gosset and Huxtable also discuss visibility and its limits specifically in relation to Huxtable and her work. Huxtable talks about how her work appears visible in some museums, but that this “…visibility is being used to sabotage actual engagement with real questions of structural negligence and discrimination and violence.” (G&H, 44). Huxtable also describes how her work is often more popularized/in demand when it depicts her in highly sexualized ways. (G&H, 45). This consumption of work by a black trans woman and artist by the predominantly white art world perpetuates disheartening violence in its refusal to acknowledge the discrimination and violence she, and other black trans and queer artists encounter. A reevaluation of or challenge to these institutions and communities with a foundation in Africana to be more intentional about providing a more genuine and protected visibility to Huxtable and artists like her could help counter the sabotage that threatens them.

This exploration continues through a reading of Audre Lorde’s masterfully written and scathing Open Letter to Mary Daly, which helps display the importance of intentionally and thoughtfully making visible the being, work, and voices of Africana subjects. In this letter, Lorde critiques Daly’s sparse inclusion of images, voices, and writings of black women. When referring to Daly’s discussion of Goddess figures and how they have been obscured, Lorde notes the fact that all the goddesses portrayed are white. She then refers to this as “a conscious decision to narrow [Daly’s] scope and to deal with only the ecology of western European women.” (Lorde, 67). This kind of conscious decision may not have been viewed by Daly as harmful, but it does perpetuate an erasure initiated by white patriarchal structures. Lorde also describes how Daly is “dealing with non-European women, but only as victims and preyers-upon each other.” (Lorde, 67). This uninformed and irresponsible method produces a violent misrepresentation of Lorde’s “mythic background” for Daly’s audience. While making only some of the history/ecology of black women visible, Daly fails to include any images or representations of black women in positions of power, thus distorting the historic possibilities visible to black women and other audiences. Scholars must avoid distortions like this when attempting to piece together these histories in order to make traditions or ancestors more visible to audiences.

Briefly, in revisiting a few sites of refused visibility, this blog seeks to allow for a reconsideration of the value visibility may hold for subjects attempting to exist freely and out of harm’s way. If one considers both Huxtable’s and Lorde’s desires to seek out and reify their elders/ancestors and the traditions they practiced, one should not argue that this search lacks productivity. Abundant value rests in this practice of seeking, and the rewards for those that discover something fruitful can provide a kind of hope, proof of possibility for subjects. However, one must also consider how actively refusing visibility could be valuable or even necessary to those being sought out. Dixa Ramirez’s concept of Monte Refusal for subjects in (and beyond) the Dominican Republic provides one example. These subjects subvert imperial/colonial and capitalist gazes and violence and in doing so, conceal their true actions, location, and temporality. They become undiscoverable to those who hope to impose violence upon them. Darlene Clark Hine’s theory of the Culture of Dissemblance practiced by black women during—and beyond—the 20th century presents another example. Under the constant threat of rape and other forms of violence, black women “created the appearance of openness and disclosure, but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.” (Hine, 380). Both instances of refused or incomplete visibility may make locating the histories of some subjects more difficult for those looking back in attempts to concretize their contemporary experiences with moments in the past. However, for the subjects at the time (or in a place) refusing visibility is often done out of necessity. Perhaps something people who study or seek out the past must come to comfort with is that some of the records just aren’t there to be found. This should not be interpreted as a devaluing of the searching, as previously stated. One should remain conscious of the limits of archives, especially with respect to subjects who had to evade archives for protection.

In attempting to weave together various moments of seeking and concealing, this blog hoped to encourage a rethinking of ways current scholars encounter moments of (in)visibility. Visibility remains a complex thing for subjects to navigate, as it can do a lot of good for subjects who can exist within it and free from innate threats upon their being. Perhaps the refusal of visibility provides subjects with a more possible continued existence, even if at the expense of the explicit documentation that they were here, working, living, and being.

Performance, Resistance, Quiet, and the Queens

Amienne Spencer-Blume

Looking at the Queens, 20th century Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s 27 wives, and their performances merely within the framework of the stage, their position within public awareness, and socio-political resistance brushes over the individual women’s humanity. In effect, the Queens’ everyday aesthetic, bodily, social, and political performances acted as both resistance and signifiers of interiority. Reading Dotun Ayobade’s pioneering understanding of the Queens next to scholar Kevin E. Quashie’s conceptual understanding of quiet as a metaphor for black individuals’ inner lives deconstructs an objectifying imagination of the Queens that conflates multiple dimensions of these artists’ lives and renders them monolithically vapid. 

While the Queens and Fela who were representational of Afrobeat turned the stage of the Afrika Shrine nightclub into a site of countercultural production through their performances,[1] the Queens used artistic identity performance as a means of self-protection, self-expression, and protest when traversing different spaces offstage. Human interiority or quiet is not apolitical or “[…] immune to or isolated from the social world,”[2] but rather the origin of expression and performance. However, failing to see the Queens’ inner lives as important contributions to their artistic or political output renders their identities superfluous. This simplification externalizes performances, removing the performers’ personal ownership over their public representation. Quashie develops this argument by reading the highly acclaimed Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as not merely an act of resistance but also a moment of religious intimacy.[3] While the Afrika Shrine as a whole signified collectivity, individuals and therefore their inner lives constituted the heart of its creative production, as Quashie infers the interior to be “[…] the source of human action […].”[4] In this sense, Kalakuta Republic, Fela’s domestic commune, harbored a culture of “collective self-fashioning” constituted by “individual dynamism,” who’s dimensions one can understand by turning to the Queens’ inner motivations to join Fela and the Afrobeat movement.[5]

In the 70s, art as a profession was not highly respected and especially young, female singers and dancers found refuge in Fela’s commune away from Nigeria’s subjugating public spaces under masculine governance, exposed to state brutality and military violence.[6] In a society in which such women, predominantly undereducated and from working-class families, lived at the bottom of the social hierarchy, attaining a higher status within the artistic community signified not only the breaking and overcoming of boundaries but also relieved individuals of the psychologic strain of social condemnation.[7] In the context of quiet, the lack of personal visibility or mattering creates the appearance of inconsequential life which in turn forces “expressiveness and demonstrativity” to counteract invisibility.[8] In Fela’s orbit, however, the Queens found emotional, social, and political confirmation. 

Outside of their artists’ abode, the Queens used specific public spaces such as airports and police stations to protest the state independently from Fela Kuti. Such protest could occur in form of “yabis,” verbal abuse towards officials that is performative in its execution. [9] The Queens’ agency in such attacks on the government stemmed from personal frustrations, choices, and goals and, as Ayobade infers, were “[…] tied to the protection and pursuance of self-interests and self-definition within and beyond the collective.”[10] Clearly inner motivations, performance, and resistance are inseparable but the difference in centering interiority or exteriority determines whether a person appears human or objectlike, engaged in performance or controlled by it. 

Aesthetically, the women came to create and embody ‘the Queens’ not only onstage but also in everyday spaces by the use of signifying makeup. This enactment was as much protection as expression as it granted them a larger degree of freedom, personal visibility, and power in everyday life and public spaces.[11] The makeup functioned as a personal mask as well as an ensemble signature. While the Queens undoubtedly used performance in areas of their lives extending beyond the stage, Quashie argues that the appearance of constant performativity may not shroud lived interiority. The way the Queens mobilized their makeup for both performed resistance and self-protection speaks to the multiple dimensions of experienced life Quashie delineates with the metaphor quiet. Beneath the makeup, the women’s interior lives unfolded unseen by third parties in a ‘oneness’ with themselves.[12]

Ayobade’s mapping of the Queens’ agency emphasizes their influence and lives beyond Kalakuta or the Shrine. Broadening the spaces considered as sites of performance can be likened to expanding research and analysis into the dimensions of quiet. By directly interviewing some of the Queens, Ayobade amplifies their voices and perspectives, and circumvents the “social public lens” that bypasses human interiority, or quiet, as a determining factor for the Queens’ performances.[13] Seeing a Queen as an individual and not as a placeholder allows her to “[…] be a subject more than an emblem […].”[14] The same way focusing only on resistance in the interpretation of Smith and Carlos’s Black Power salute at the Olympic games renders them representative and impersonal, considering merely the Queens’ onstage performances renders their personal agency offstage invisible, essentializing and thingifying human performers as in a constant state of performance. 

Ultimately, the Queens used performance as a means to an end that was highly personal. Gaining social standing, belonging, and respectability “[…] was linked to larger concerns about status and stature beyond the stage” – concerns that played out in the realm of inwardness defined by quiet.[15] In this sense performance is not only a form of cultural- but also self-reflexivity in which structured aesthetic and bodily practices expressed agency and power, making it impossible to see the Queens as mere bodies present in the Afrika Shrine.[16] The Queens’ protest offstage was simultaneously self-expression, something not present in the context of Fela Kuti’s controlled stage performances.[17]This key understanding serves as a doorway to view the Queens not as in a static condition of resistance but rather as individuals. Further, the women used self-determined everyday performances as a tool to distinguish themselves from the group ‘Queens.’[18] Performance studies scholar Lisa Biggs’s characterization of everyday performativity as something you learn to do in order to make your person legible to others decidedly connects quiet, reflective interiority to the Queens’ everyday socio-political resistance.[19] The angle that quiet provides sheds light on the multi-faceted dimensions of the Queens’ lives, when and how they resisted, when they did not, and finally on that the Queens were “[…] resistant in context, but not in essence.”[20] Under the umbrella of Africana Studies, the qualities of being both performers and also black Nigerian women as the Queens come together, in unison, to forge greater understanding of black life in the midst of Nigeria’s worlds of art and social and political unrest.

[1] E. Patrick Johnson, “Black Performance Studies: Genealogies, Politics, Futures,” in The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies, ed. Madison D. Soyini and Judith A. Hamera (SAGE Publications, 2005), 448.

[2] Kevin E. Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6,8. Quote on 120.

[3] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 2, 11.

[4] Dotun Ayobade, “’We Were On Top of the World’: Fela Kuti’s Queens and the Poetics of Space,” Journal of African Cultural Studies (2017): 9; Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 8.

[5] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 9,13.

[6] Dotun Ayobade, Brown University, An Introduction to Africana Studies, 10/22/2019.

[7] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 2, 11.

[8] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 120.

[9] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 10.

[10] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 14.

[11] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 6, 12.

[12] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 119.

[13] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 4.

[14] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 7. 

[15] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 8, 13.

[16] Johnson, “Black Performance Studies,”1; Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué, “Guest Editor’s Introduction to Bodily Practices and Aesthetic Rituals in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Africa Forum,” African Studies Review 62, no. 2 (June 2019): 4.

[17] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 3-4, 11.

[18] Ayobade, “On Top of the World,” 14.

[19] Lisa Biggs, Brown University, An Introduction to Africana Studies, 09/24/2019.

[20] Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 24.

The Politics of Respectability and Homophobia in Black Churches

Following emancipation, African Americans continued to practice their religions, and for many that was Christianity. However, white churches would not allow black people to worship alongside them, so they formed their own, defying the racism that plagued Christian churches. Instead of harboring sentiments of prejudice and discrimination in their walls, black churches come from a tradition of equality and freedom.  In more recent years, American Christianity broadly has been asked to take a stance of homosexuality and the LGBTQ community. Black church organizations across the country have largely not accepted LGBTQ people, despite being founded on principles of equality. However, the black churches’ rejection of the LGBTQ community coincides with a practice of the politics of respectability to combat racism in the United States.

In Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s Righteous Discontent she constructs the term politics of respectability in order to describe the behavior of black Baptist women in the early twentieth century. The women Higginbotham writes about practice respectability in order to combat the racist portrayal of them perpetuated by white Americans. These women both reformed their own behavior individually and as a community in order to eradicate negative images of black people in the United States. The politics of respectability is a way in which black people adhered to white hegemonic culture in order to resist the racist notions placed upon them. As Higginbotham gestures towards, the politics of respectability were integral in the culture of the black church. The women she highlights were in the black Baptist church and started the Women’s Convention at the Black Baptist Convention. In this community, their practice of respectability politics included abiding by Christian morals and ideals. Specifically, Higginbotham describes how they adhered to the Christian principle of following the law while maintaining personal autonomy, meaning the racist structures did not determine who black people were as people. For African Americans, she writes that “submission to Jim Crow laws, it was reasoned, abrogated the civil rights of blacks, but it could not abrogate the power of self determination” (Higginbotham, 191). The strategy is not without its flaws and as Paisley Harris points out in her essay “Gatekeeping and Remaking,” the politics of respectability is limited by the notion of equality based on a set of behaviors. Nonetheless, Higginbotham’s term is extremely important in understanding black churches in America.

Black churches across America have historically not accepted members of the LGBTQ community. Harkening back to the early twentieth century when black churches formed in response to rejection from white churches, these institutions did not welcome those outside of the heteronormative hegemony. Angelique C Harris in her essay “Homosexuality and the Black Church” argues that the rejection of LGBTQ people in black church communities stems from the efforts of black people to distance themselves from aberrant sexual behavior in order to dismiss white ideas of black sexuality. She asserts that the homophobia within black congregations is motivated by “deviant sexuality” more broadly rather than homosexuality (Harris A, 265). Although she does not employ this terminology, Harris’s ideas beckon to Higginbotham’s politics of respectability. Similar to the behavior of the black Baptist women, Harris depicts black churches at large trying to keep their sexuality respectable and in line with the accepted expressions in white culture. In addition, Higginbotham states how they denounced behavior of black people that deviated from the norm; “the black Baptist women condemned what they perceived as negative practices and attitudes among their own people” (Higginbotham, 186). By the same token, Harris explains the black churches’ rejection of LGBTQ people in their congregations as combatting the negative stereotypes concerning the sexuality of black people by subscribing strictly to heteronormativity in their community.  

What is gained by utilizing Higginbotham’s framework of the politics of respectability? Although the concept does not justify the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community within black churches in the United States, the politics of respectability help make sense of the phenomenon. Initially, it seems extremely contradictory that black churches would not accept those who identify as LGBTQ. Although their oppression is not the same, both black and nonheteronormative people have endured trauma and terror at the hands of white hegemony. One might assume that houses of worship formed with equality and freedom in mind would extend those virtues to all people, not just those who are gender or sexuality conforming. But alas, many black churches do the opposite. The politics of respectability explain why this contradiction occurs. The framework suggests the phenomenon is a result of mode of resistance by black churches. In addition, the limits of the politics of respectability could help to dismantle the homophobia in black churches. As the twentieth century continued, black people moved away from the politics of respectability as the main strategy of resistance against racial oppression, but even today black churches continue to not accept LGBTQ people. As of 2008, “all seven of the historical African American Protestant denominations… still view homosexuality as ‘an abomination’” (Harris A, 263). If members of the church understood the roots of their homophobia in a resistance strategy that has proved limited, then they might reconsider the way they interact with members of the LGBTQ community in their congregations. Ultimately, the issue is extremely complicated, especially when the dominant white Christian teaching is also not accepting of the LGBTQ community. However, maybe the equality and freedom that black churches were built on could be extended to those outside of heteronormativity if people understood how the politics of respectability is at play in their historically homophobic attitudes.

An Examination of Structural Racism through “Prison City,” Wisconsin

In Dr. Tricia Rose’s Lecture “How Does Structural Racism Works in the Era of ‘Racial Equality’,” Rose defines structural racism in the U.S. as the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural racism appears in every aspect of United States’ society, from education to housing, and each of these aspects connect on multiple axes. The criminal justice system and the United States’ “democratic” electoral system is one of these connections. As well,he structure of the United States’ criminal justice system contributes to a system in which African Americans tend to have less economic and political power than their white counterparts. This essay will argue that the structural racism embedded in criminal justice and electoral systems of the United States, and the connections between the systems, create a cycle of oppression for African Americans in the criminal justice system. This essay will discuss these issues through an exploration of prison gerrymandering and its consequences in Waupun, Wisconsin.

Waupun, Wisconsin, located about an hour and a half drive outside of Milwaukee is home to three correctional facilities: Dodge Correctional Institution, Waupun Correctional Institution, and Burke Correctional Center. For this reason, locals and people nationally refer to Waupun as “Prison City.” For generations, these correctional institutions have provided employment and fueled the economy of the city. In the city with a population of 11,269, there are 1460 staff members in all the correctional facilities combined. This means around 13% of the city’s population work in the correctional institutions. While the city and its residents profit off of the lives of the incarcerated peoples, they strip those same people of their most fundamental rights.

With its small population and multiple correctional facilities, Waupun suffers from intense “prison gerrymandering.” Prison gerrymandering refers to the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated peoples in the population of the city or district in which they live while incarcerated, and not in the community in which they lived before their incarceration. As a result, cities with large correctional facilities, such as Waupun that tend to be in rural, almost exclusively white, and conservative-leaning are electorally overrepresented. Conversely, the communities that incarcerated individuals come from tend to be urban, primarily communities of color, and liberal-leaning are electorally underrepresented. 

The problems created by prison gerrymandering are further exacerbated in 48 out of 50 states in which incarcerated peoples are disenfranchised; once convicted of a felony, incarcerated individuals lose their right to vote while incarcerated and oftentimes after their release. Since most incarcerated people are people of color, and so are most people who are disenfranchised. This means that not only are districts made of primarily black and brown residents not getting the representation they deserve, the people who make up those districts have no representation in government. In Wisconsin, the state disenfranchises 1 out of 9 African Americans compared to 1 out of 50 Wisconsinites. This severe prison gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is part of the cyclical system of structural racism that decreases African Americans’ political and economic power.

Waupun is a prime example of how prison gerrymandering exploits African Americans to increase the region’s political power while disregarding not only African Americans fundamental rights, but also basic necessities of life. As Robert Alexander, an incarcerated person in the Waupun Correctional Facility says, prison gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is “almost like your body being used.” In two alderpeople’s districts in the city, the prison population makes up the majority of the population of their district. In district 2, represented by alderperson Peter Kaczmarski, incarcerated peoples make up 63% of the population. In district 3,  represented by alderperson Ryan Mielkle, incarcerated peoples make up 79% of the population. Since the incarcerated peoples cannot vote, it makes it much easier for certain alderpeople to win their elections and end up representing fewer people than their districts’ population figures may suggest, and in turn overrepresent their voting-eligible constituents. In the last election cycle, alderperson Mielkle won his bid for reelection with only 43 votes. Since the people in the correctional facilities cannot vote, their representatives ignore their basic needs. When asked what he would say to alderperson Kaczmarski if he could, Kenneth McGowan, an incarcerated person at the Waupun Correctional Facility, said “The drinking water in prison is horrible. I’m talking about you have to have your light on in your cell when you’re drinking water because when you push the button, sometimes it comes out brown.” The local and national government strip incarcerated black and brown people of their basic necessities for life and dignity, catching them in a cycle of structural oppression..

With the 2020 census just around the corner, discussing prison gerrymandering and its consequences is vital. The census has counted incarcerated peoples this way since the first census in 1790. However, after decades of mass incarceration and the prison population boom, prison gerrymandering and felony disenfranchisement and their consequences threaten the fundamental ideals such as liberty and equality stated by our founding documents and common narrative. If the legislature does not address prison gerrymandering and its consequences, they will remain the same for at least the next decade.

Works Cited

“Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws Across the United States.” Brennan Center for Justice. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/criminal-disenfranchisement-laws-across-united-states.

Gauthier, Jason. “Overview – History – U.S. Census Bureau.” Overview – History – U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/.

Initiative, Prison Policy. “The Problem.” Prison Gerrymandering Project. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/impact.html.

“Political Prisoners?” NPR. NPR, October 2, 2019. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/764809210?storyId=764809210?storyId.

“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Waupun City, Wisconsin.” Census Bureau QuickFacts. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/waupuncitywisconsin.

2019. Aclu.Org. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/votingrights/wi_flyer.pdf.

2019. Doc.Wi.Gov. https://doc.wi.gov/DataResearch/DataAndReports/WCIInstitutionalFactSheet.pdf.

Rosa Parks is Due a Statue and More: Examining Legacy, Narrative, and Power

On December 1, 2019, the mayor of Montgomery and the governor of Alabama unveiled a statue of late Civil Rights activist, Rosa Parks. The unveiling coincided with the second annual Rosa Parks Day in Alabama and marked 64 years to the day when Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Unfortunately, in this time of remembrance and honoring, media outlets are perpetuating a false narrative of events. Major media outlets covering the story have rehashed the narrative many of us grew up hearing about the organizing labor of the bus boycott and the movement for Civil Rights that Parks unwittingly sparked. This continued mass miseducation 1) intentionally ill informs younger generations, both pro- and anti-Black Freedom activism, in order to restrict future organizing efforts to the means and frequency that white Americans are comfortable with and can control, and 2) erases the organizing contributions of Black women in the movements for Civil Rights. This is the reason why it is of critical importance to gather and share diverse narratives of the Civil Rights Movement because it creates a more accurate history.

Power shapes the construction of dominant narratives. The insidious nature of how power is woven throughout historical narratives can create problems for those who work towards subverting power dynamics maintained within the status quo [1]. CNN’s reporting on the statue unveiling carries on the simplified and limiting narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. This article from December 1, 2019, features a 2005 memorial video that narrates Parks’ life and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. The CNN announcer describes Parks’ protest to not give up her seat as Parks “resist[ing] just as any of us would want our daughters to resist– polite, soft-spoken and tough as nails.” Political leaders and white Americans in the 1950s did not see Parks’ protest as respectable or reasonable [2]. The insistence that the major figures of the Civil Rights Movement were acting in a respectable way overshadows the dangers and deaths of many Black people in the fight for equality. This constant recycling of this narrative perpetuates an image of the Civil Rights Movement in which the activists were all just good-natured citizens who did not employ respectability in a strategic way. This allows for a current climate to exist where those in power push forward the narrative that the only acceptable forms of activism are those that align with white-set standards. It is a narrative that dominates popular conversation now as it did 64 years ago. It works to dilute the radical nature of Parks and other organizers.  

Another aspect of this narrative to interrogate and challenge is the view that Martin Luther King Jr. was the sole architect of the Movement. Journalists reference Martin Luther King Jr. as the organizer or leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in articles from popular news sites including the same CNN article, Fox, ABC News, and Al.com (which is the main news source many major outlets cited). The myth that one “great man” was responsible for the success of the Civil Rights Movement eclipses the contributions of women and young people organizers who constantly put themselves at risk as well in the fight for Black Freedom [3]. To young and ill-informed media consumers, this presents social change as only possible under the guidance of one male leader who is uniquely positioned or destined to lead, rather than make clear the large scale grassroots work of activists that strategized and propped up King as a central figure. In design, this narrative is meant to demoralize future agents of change.

  Furthermore, this dominant narrative also overshadows Parks’ lifelong career as an activist and strategist. Earlier that same year of the Bus Boycott in 1955, Parks attended Highlander Folk School- a known organizing hub and educational space for activists [4]. This training at Highlander was in the midst of her career with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) [5]. Rosa Parks was a strategist and activist for most of her life, yet the media even in 2019 portrays her as a footnote in the Civil Rights Movement when she was an actor that forced social change to happen. This also serves as a means to delegitimize her work. Harkening back to the CNN video, the narrator describes Parks in reference to “any of our daughters.” During the Boycott, Parks was a 42-year-old woman which further demonstrates how this dominant narrative that continues to be perpetuated in the media aims to delegitimize her contributions. This is dangerous because it not only can be demoralizing for future activist, especially girls and women, but it also denies the public of an accurate recounting of history and Parks of her full accolades. Popular media’s deliberate push to minimize Parks showcases how power dictates narratives and works to stifle future movements.

Rosa Park deserves all of her praises and then some, and simultaneously, of the few Black women’s names we know, we do know hers. This in no way means to legitimize the whitewashed narrative of her that dominates the media and public memory, yet I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge the contributions of Black women such as Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (who left the case after her and her husband were threatened with violence and economic retaliation) who all were part of the Browder v. Gayle court case that ended Bus segregation in Alabama. It is also significant to note, that Mary Louise Smith was at the Parks Statue unveiling and that she and the other four plaintiffs received granite markers alongside the Parks Statue. This information was not as present in most articles, only appearing in the Huffington Post, Al.com, and the Associated Press as of the morning of Dec 2. What is to be their legacy? What does it say that they receive markers and not statues for their contributions? How do we commemorate the thousands of activist and Black people who contributed to and died for the masses of movements for Black Freedom?

To honor Parks’ legacy, young activists have to seek out the fuller history of the Civil Rights Movement beyond popular media sources and act. She would want to know that her work and the work of her contemporaries did not go in vain.

[1], Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), xxiii.

[2] Jeanne. A Theoharis, More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, (United States: Beacon Press, 2018), 101-102.

[3] Ibid., 154.

[4] ibid., 192.

[5] ibid., 190.

Housing Crisis: Black and White?

Places once called home by many are turning into distant memories. Gentrification, the process by which generally poorer communities are transformed to a higher value, are forcing many African Americans to leave their homes. This leaves many individuals and small businesses displaced as they are unable to afford the higher costs of living and rent. This situation highlights the racial divide as many more white affluent residents move in and people of color are forced to leave their neighborhoods. James Baldwin called this term “Negro Removal” in the 60’s. Gentrification can give rise to greater challenges in areas who have other economic and political issues. Policies need to be enforced that help keep individuals in their homes and maintain affordable housing while also bringing new economic opportunities to its residents. Projects that help to improve communities should be undertaken to develop better neighborhoods for the individuals that call it home.

Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of Black World 21st Century is alarmed by the effects of gentrification in black communities. Between 2000 and 2013, 111,000 African Americans were displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods. Some of these cities included: Washington D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York City. Articles like one posted in The Economist believe discussions about gentrification are overblown and that there is no data to prove that there is displacement. Higher education level, median household income, and median house value can be measures of gentrification. NYC has seen the largest jumps in these measures.

Gentrification highlights the housing discrimination that exists in US cities. In a Raleigh neighborhood new white home buyers had an average income that was three times higher than the income of a typical household already in the neighborhood. The white people in this area make up 17% of the population but have gotten nine in ten of the new mortgages. This ties into Tricia Rose’s lecture which discussed redlining and lending discrimination. Both are practices that fuel racial inequality. Structural racism crates huge wealth gaps between blacks and whites. Gentrification makes it harder for African Americans to buy a home because the prices are often too expensive which drives more black people out and higher number of white people into these areas.

Additionally, gentrification can remove cultural identity and the sense of community. Communities may not be socially or culturally integrating even though they are physically integrating. Ties to one’s community are important and these relationships can be broken as a result of gentrification. As wealthier white people move into D.C. they are unable to understand some of the cultural aspects and therefore want to change features of the city that native Washingtonians are used to. This can lead to greater racial tension due to cultural misunderstanding. These cultural shifts are changing the way in which people live on top of where they live.

The impacts of gentrification not only affects housing but can also threaten the health of those affected. Gentrification has many negative health implications for vulnerable populations. Some of these health outcomes include shorter life expectancy, higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and infant mortality. These health conditions can be linked to the stress that comes with the uncertainty of one’s housing situation. In a city like Washington D.C where new construction is happening and cost of living is rising many native residents are forced to leave their homes. However there are many who chose to stay and fight to keep their homes. The demographics of the city are changing, with the percent of black people dropping to 48% in 2016 from 72% in the 90’s. The amount of affordable housing in D.C. is decreasing makes it increasingly harder for individuals to keep their homes. Washingtonians who are faced with this financial hardship deal with “survival stress”. Displacement of individuals can be tied to stress that leads to greater risk for certain diseases. This exacerbates the already existing health disparities that African Americans face. People are unfairly displaced from their communities and not only have to worry about their living conditions but also their health conditions. 

On the other hand gentrification has the potential to bring better opportunities to a city. For example in North Adams, MA gentrification is welcomed. North Adams is a small, de-industrialized town. A manufacturing plant was turned into a fine art museum. This helped to increase the cities economy, draw in tourists, and lower unemployment. Some cities need some sort of gentrification to bring in new opportunities that will help the city prosper. Gentrified communities opened up opportunities for well educated minorities as well. 

The idea of using outside resources for economic opportunities is challenged by Patsy Lewis’ Rethinking Development and the Regional Integration Project. While Lewis’ argument is centered around small Carribean nations the same thinking can be applied to American cities. Lewis calls on governments to more efficiently use the resources that they have available in order to create new economic opportunities for their people. It is important not to be dependent on others for stability. Not all cities need gentrification and fancy new buildings in order to attract people to the city. Businesses, housing, and schools can be redeveloped and invested into instead of completely changed. This creates improved spaces while also maintaining parts of the city that make it unique. Redeveloping a community for the residents that already live there while keeping the prices affordable will decrease the number of people who move out.

There is complexity to the concept of gentrification. What exactly does a gentrified neighborhood look like? Can gentrification bring positive changes to a community? There are several factors that come into play. Large businesses and organizations may see gentrification as a mean for economic growth without considering the people they are affecting. Gentrification could bring about positive change, like improved economy, and better schools but there are many negative impacts that can outweigh this growth. The process of gentrification is pushing many African Americans out of their neighborhoods. The process can be gradual and seen as a natural doing. Turning poor neglected communities into more affluent ones hurts the black population, leaving fewer of them to be able to reap the benefits. Since many of the individuals are from lower socioeconomic status their voices and opinions are often pushed to the side. It is important for communities to band together in order to keep what is theirs. Gentrification adds a financial burden as many can not support their families and the rising cost of housing. It is an unfair practice that for the most part disproportionately affects African Americans. The displacement of African Americans can also be the underlying cause for increased levels of stress that can lead to other comorbidities. Building up a community utilizing its own resources can boost the economy. This will keep the sense of community and culture intact.