Sunday, December 11, 2011

Black Art ≠ Protest Art: A Contrarian View, Indeed

In the 2 months that my book Living with Lynching has been in print, readers have asked questions that have stayed with me, partly because I wish I had given more complete answers in the moment. One such question came from Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University professor of African and African American Studies and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Because I insist that protest is too limiting a framework for understanding the lynching plays that I examine, he asked why I think scholars so often use a protest literature lens. My answer was way too tentative and vague. I have very clear ideas about why this pattern persists. In short: because it has become “common sense” to think of black art as a reaction.

However, what parades as “common sense” sometimes creates a barrier to critical thinking. Michael Omi and Howard Winant have shown this very clearly regarding race in the United States. Because ideas supporting the racial status quo pass as common sense, certain assumptions and conclusions seem natural, despite not being even close to accurate. This has certainly become the case with approaches to black art.

The degree to which “black art = protest art” has become the kind of common sense that hinders critical thinking is perhaps best exemplified by the disproportionate attention that Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? has received. Somehow, it works for Harvard University Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The LA Review of Books, and respected scholars, such as Werner Sollors, that Warren defines a vast body of literature as simply a “response to the disfranchisement of blacks in the south, which set the stage for the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation.” Warren claims that resisting oppression was the only reason that countless literary works emerged, and too many have accepted this as a legitimate assertion. Of course, many have done so with the understanding that this overstated rhetoric simply makes his polemic possible, but even that acknowledgment (and the recognition that Warren's stature gives him cultural capital within the publishing industry), does not fully explain the solemnity with which this book is being engaged. I therefore humbly submit that an important reason for this book’s existence, and people’s willingness to have earnest discussions of it, is this: most in the United States accept as common sense that black artists who embrace that identity can only respond.

The tagline for Mark Anthony Neal’s show Left of Black is "A Contrarian View of Blackness," and thinking about his question has reminded me that a similar perspective produced Living with Lynching. I argue that lynching plays were not so much responses to white-authored violence as they were efforts to preserve community insights. These playwrights worked to equip African Americans to continue to believe in what they already knew about their communities, that they were made up of men and women who lived according to the standards that the nation claimed to respect. Even though these dramas acknowledge that the mob is a threat, they are not about convincing white people that racial violence is wrong. Contrary to what so many believe, not everything that black artists, philosophers, and even activists do is about white people.

Unfortunately, this is an argument that americans seldom hear and that few feel empowered to make. In fact, while writing this book, I kept encountering people who not only had trouble accepting my claim, but they also feared for my career because I was making it. With my best interests at heart, one colleague warned, “Well, we’re talking about lynching, Koritha. Can you really say that it’s not about responding to whites?”

There is no doubt in my mind, though: blacks who lived and wrote in the midst of mob violence do not simply teach us about anti-lynching efforts; they teach us a great deal about lynching itself. If you want to understand lynching, you cannot just look at the evidence that perpetrators left. You also need to pay attention to what targeted communities had to say. And one of the things that they said, if we will only listen, is that mob violence was a response to black achievement.

The plays show that African Americans were busy minding their own business, and sometimes, this led them not only to survive but also thrive in the “Progressive Era.” When they achieved certain kinds of success, white supremacists reacted violently. So, the literature preserves evidence of black community activities, but because those activities beckoned the mob, most scholars now claim that the art itself was a response to the mob. Not so! And, as my book demonstrates, lynching playwrights were not the only ones who made this clear.

I allowed myself to be tentative and vague regarding these issues on Left of Black, and I am haunted by what I did not say while being interviewed. So, I will now be bold enough to reveal the loftiest goal I had while writing this book. I hope that Living with Lynching will do for the study of lynching, racial violence, and the Jim Crow Era what books like John Blassingame’s The Slave Community (1972) did for the study of “the peculiar institution.” Blassingame’s research, and the work of those inspired by it, made it unacceptable to teach slavery using only documents produced by slave masters and other whites. Historians began recognizing that understanding the institution required new methodologies that allowed them to engage the perspectives of the enslaved.

If readers are at all convinced by what I present in Living with Lynching, it should be very hard to claim that you understand racial violence unless you can see black art as much more than protest.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


As a literary historian and cultural critic committed to understanding how targeted communities survive racial violence, my work seldom focuses on comedy. But, of course, humor has been important for the survival of those grappling with colonialism, slavery, and their many legacies. Without making claims about its ties to these larger historical trajectories, I want to make a declaration: The Mis-adventures of Awkward Black Girl, a comedy series available on YouTube, is one of the few things that has made me laugh out loud in a long time.

What I find most brilliant about this show is its refusal to invest in any sort of propriety. Yet, it is not driven by the cliché premise of Oh, look. I’m being shocking and irreverent! Instead, the web series simply explores everything that its protagonist, J (portrayed by the show’s creator Issa Rae), would find vexing. In the process, hilarity emerges from sheer honesty. J asks questions that many of us have wanted to ask. For example, “What’s the protocol for repeatedly running into someone at a stop sign? (Episode 1). And, “How many fake laughs are acceptable before it becomes too much?” (Episode 1). Or, when unable to escape an annoying conversation, “Did I die and go to simple bitch hell?” (Episode 6).

The refusal to invest in propriety strikes a chord because it enables the show to represent a black woman protagonist with much more complexity than mainstream outlets allow. Perhaps the best example is that which opens the series: J’s voice-over introduces her character, and we quickly find that she enjoys violent rap songs saturated with Ns and Bs. She asks, “Am I the only one who pretends I’m in a music video when I’m by myself?,” and we find her driving while performing along with a song about Ns wanting to sex her from behind (Episode 1). Clearly, this character’s portrayal is not going to be governed by whether or not this is a “positive” image of a black woman.

The music only gets worse—in every way—when J is responsible for its creation! As a coping mechanism, she composes violent rap lyrics. She despises one of her co-workers, and her songs reveal what she would like to do to this woman. No need for viewers to be concerned, though. As J explains, “it’s not violence if you don’t act on it” (Episode 6).

Because the writing focuses on the truth of J’s character, the episodes are all about situations that she finds awkward, and her workplace proves to be a treasure trove. Once again, J’s voice-over offers much of the comedy; her tone is very matter-of-fact, giving the impression that she is simply making observations. J describes the company she works for: “Basically, we sell bulimia in pill form” (Episode 2). Among her co-workers is “The Loud Black Bitch.” Though we only briefly encounter this character, her disregard for others encourages viewers to accept the description. The show is not so scared of a stereotype that it avoids suggesting that a few such people might exist. But, one of my favorite characters is “Boss Lady,” the white woman supervisor who loves to bond with J by speaking slang, wearing her hair in cornrows, and talking about her attraction to black men. Then, of course, there is Amir, the “walking rainbow of racism” who gets away with it “because no one knows what he is” (Episode 3).

The show engages interracial dating in Episode 7, and J’s new best friend (her awkward soulmate, Cece) declares herself “an interracial expert” and gives J horrible advice. Still, non-verbal communication is the most amusing element of this episode. For example, when J and her white date walk into a restaurant, they draw lots of stares. As the camera scans the room, a black man with his arm around his white girlfriend shakes his head and rolls his eyes. There is no voice-over commentary, no additional dialogue to underscore it—just the facial expression and clear message of the gesture. Beautiful! The well executed acting creates a moment that instantly brings to mind every conversation I have had about the frequency with which black men date white women and the very different reactions inspired when black women consider exploring similar options.

This first date with a white man does not go so well, partly because he takes J to a spoken word showcase. Again, we see evidence that this comedy series will not be governed by what “should” or “should not” be said. Via voice-over, J declares, “Rap and poetry had a baby called Spoken Word. I wish I could abort that baby.” And later, “God invented liquor because He foresaw spoken word. Praise Him!” (Episode 7). J’s disdain for the form is not a blanket statement. It has everything to do with the quality of work in this particular showcase—a fact that is undeniable as the episode features some of the performed pieces in their entirety.

You must see the short episodes on YouTube for yourself because there is no way to capture the show’s genius here. There have already been insightful articulations of why people love the series so much that viewers contributed more than $44K to ensure that Episode 7 would not be the last one. I simply wanted to add that the show’s “improper” elements are crucial because they enable a nuanced portrait of the protagonist. This works so well because the truth about people of color is that we are complex and often contradictory, despite the mainstream media’s centuries-long habit of portraying us in narrow and simplistic ways.

These complexities can come through when we can free ourselves, even momentarily, from a bias toward perfection. This is difficult, I know. After all, those whom U.S. society marginalizes are constantly told that propriety is the ticket to social acceptance and full citizenship. Thus, people who are homosexual, of color, and/or poor are taught to invest in standards of propriety and morality that privileged folk can disregard without losing acceptance or basic rights. No wonder we so rarely encounter characters—who are not white, heterosexual, and middle-class—that are allowed to simply be themselves and experience life, whether what they do, think, and say is admirable or not.

When I see J, I am thoroughly amused for more reasons than I can name, but I know that the show’s tendency to avoid shoulds and should nots is at the top of the list. Though I understand the investment in propriety, we need more artists who will let their characters of color have their complete experiences and all of their messy behavior and quirky thoughts. Too often, our stories are all about moralizing, as if there is no room for anything else—as if black communities (especially) are so lost that everything that engages black characters must also come with a guidebook for living. That's not the case. Despite mainstream depictions (including those on the news), we have plenty of strong families in the community that fit the traditional mold. And, we have some that don't fit the traditional mold but are still quite nurturing and full of role models. Healthy, loving families headed by gays and lesbians constitute just one of many examples.

So, I don't believe that every bit of artistic expression involving folk who are not white and/or heterosexual and/or solidly middle-class must offer life lessons. Some can just make us laugh out loud, which The Mis-adventures of Awkward Black Girl does exceptionally well.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The American Way: Mediocrity, When White, Looks Like Merit

A couple years ago, I attended a meeting with a high-ranking administrator about diversifying the faculty and graduate student population. The administrator had recently hired someone to focus on diversity, and she was also at the meeting. Early in the conversation, someone asked about the racial composition of the administrator's unit. The newly hired diversity officer reported that the staff of nearly 100 people was 98% white. I really appreciated her wording. Rather than say that there were only 1 or 2 people of color, she emphasized that there were 98 whites. When we talk about diversity, we don't do this enough. We leave whiteness unmarked—as if its presence is never up for discussion and certainly not to be questioned. Missing her point, the very powerful administrator later said, sure that he was being reasonable, “Well, we have to be careful because people wanting to get minorities into positions may relax standards.”

His comment reflects the accepted way of understanding what most Americans call "affirmative action." However, this view depends on a bold-faced lie, that “race” is a factor only when people of color are involved. Yet, real affirmative action has always been for whites. Whether the rules governing who could own land in Colonial times (these policies certainly didn't favor Native Americans) or the practices ensuring that whites received 98% of FHA loans between 1932 and 1962, real affirmative action has always been for those deemed white.

Do you end up with a staff that is more than 90% white because they are the most qualified the country has to offer? That’s certainly the hype that we’re taught to believe. However, I have been surrounded by whites all my life, and that has not translated into being surrounded by excellence. When a candidate is white, they can be considered a “good fit” even when their qualifications are not all that impressive, but a candidate of color has to be exceptional (and put whites at ease) in order to get the same designation.

Of course, I am not saying anything new, but the intractability of American -isms makes saying it as relevant today as ever. For the same reason, it is always helpful to re-visit books that have stated the case better than I can. For example, if you have questions about the validity of the term “white” and claims about the benefits that follow “whiteness” in the U.S. context, please see George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. It discusses (among other things) how maintaining the whiteness of institutions requires pretending that whiteness has nothing to do with how the institution works.

Recognizing the same dynamic, cultural critic Dwight McBride has argued that when you look at African American faculty members in the top English departments around the country, you find—with very few exceptions— scholars who "by any measure of 'quality' are achieving at the highest levels of distinction in the field." However, "canvass those same English departments of the same top institutions and consider the white faculty members there. What you will find is a range of faculty members from the very distinguished to the mediocre...." Therefore, “ of the ways in which we will know when black people in the United States are truly liberated and equal to their fellow white citizens will be when there are as many mediocre blacks in academia as there are currently mediocre whites” (2005: 8).

McBride’s words have long resonated with me, but my experiences keep telling me how far the United States is from that moment. In the five years before coming up for tenure review, I won two postdoctoral fellowships in competitions among PhD’s throughout the nation and from every scholarly discipline. Though neither of the competitions that I won excludes white candidates, they are designed to address the fact that white men are over-represented in the academy. I get the impression that, in the history of my very large and established English department, I am the first person to have won two national, year-long fellowships before tenure review. This has not always been treated as an honor for me and the university, though; sometimes, it has caused hostility.

The hostility has often been subtle and it has taken many forms; I will give only the most recent example. A renowned senior colleague told me that my fellowships were more like financial aid because they allowed me to get my first scholarly book written. The book will be the real sign of whether I have done my job well, he explained. (This was a couple months ago, after my book manuscript had already gone through several levels of favorable review, to which he was privy.)

It is incredibly difficult to win fellowships, especially the kind that I earned: that which requires no teaching. These fellowships are an honor and a straightforward investment in the potential that the foundation sees in you as a scholar. Therefore, the foundation essentially pays to relieve you of your teaching obligations to your home institution.

How does such an acknowledgment of the quality of my research get interpreted as financial aid??? In short, the unearned arrogance that comes with white privilege. It's like magic! This man believes that his achievements have had nothing to do with his whiteness, but he cannot imagine that my accomplishments are about anything but someone “cutting me a break” because I am black and a woman.

If I had been a white man who studies Shakespeare, these awards would have been deemed an honor to me and the entire department and university. There would have been NO suggestion that this was anything like financial aid. I am sure that my esteemed colleague has never thought of his own fellowships that way.

So, I agree with McBride that we will have made some progress when a wide range of merit is tolerable for people of color, as it currently is for whites. They can be anything from distinguished to mediocre and not have people question their qualifications. Yet, to the majority of those in power, even excellence—if it's not white—does not seem like merit. No wonder our institutions look like they do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Grappling with Midwestern Memories: A New Lynching Play

American dramatist Charles Smith has given the nation a new lynching play of remarkable nuance and beauty. The Gospel According to James was commissioned by the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre as a way of engaging the state’s history—specifically, the lynching in Marion, Indiana that James Cameron survived, later founding the Black Holocaust Museum. The show ran at IRT from March 22 to April 10, 2011. From May 14 to June 12, 2011, the same cast and crew will bring it to life for Chicago audiences. Though inspired by racial violence in the Midwest, The Gospel According to James focuses on the role of memory in all accounts of history.

As Smith says in the author’s note, “[the play] is not about the lynching. The lynching is only the starting point.” Therefore, from the moment that he began facing the challenge of writing about this violent event, Smith had been sure about one thing: “I knew that I did not want to reproduce the lynching on stage.”

In this way, his work resembles the earliest black-authored lynching plays. Scripts about racial violence written in the 1910s and 1920s—such as Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel (1914/1916), Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), Mary Burrill’s Aftermath (1919), and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s A Sunday Morning in the South (1925) and Safe (1929)—refuse to describe, let alone portray, physical violence.

Adding to this tradition, Smith creates a fictional meeting between the black man who escaped the mob’s wrath and the white woman who had been with him that night. It is now the early 1980s—more than fifty years after the double lynching of Cameron’s friends Abe Smith and Tommy Shipp. James Cameron (André De Shields) asks Mary Ball, who now goes by “Marie” (Linda Kimbrough), to speak to a man who wants to make a documentary about the events that changed their lives. Marie is not at all interested in this project.

Still, the play unfolds as Marie and Cameron share what they remember about the events that led to the mob dragging the black teenagers through town. As they tell their stories, 16-year-old James Cameron (Anthony Peeples) and young Mary (Kelsey Brennan) appear downstage, along with the others involved. Mirroring the audience, the mature characters watch their younger selves in each other’s versions, sometimes learning details that they had no way of knowing in their teens. More crucial to the playwright’s purpose, though, they often disagree with each other’s accounts even when they had been privy to the exact same information.

The Gospel According to James confronts its audience with the impossibility of knowing exactly what happened that night. Indeed, the play suggests that (pace some historians’ claims) facts are never simply facts; all historical narratives are shaped by perspective. And this is especially true of histories wrought with the complexities that always attend race, sex, and violence in the United States.

From the very beginning of the action, Marie repeatedly calls Cameron a liar. She insists that he knows that events did not unfold as he claims in his autobiography and in interviews. Indeed, she is sarcastic as she declares that he has given the nation “the gospel according to James.”

It is not until much later that the audience discovers why Marie insists that Cameron lied. In a moment of empathy, she admits understanding why he said that her boyfriend Claude, who died that night in 1930, had been “a good white man.” If Cameron had told the truth about how low-down, dirty, and cruel Claude had been (to her and to others), there is no way that town whites would have let Cameron live.

From beginning to end, Smith’s work maintains a palpable tension. Painful stories contradict each other as they vie for space in the world, as they compete to survive and to be remembered. The play never offers its audience the comfort that comes with feeling certain…about what happened or about what motivated those involved. And Smith suggests that this uncertainty clings to all histories. History is shaped by memory. It therefore reflects what people are willing to remember and what they insist upon forgetting.

Smith’s work also suggests that language—the medium through which we create and convey history—sometimes reveals an investment in a particular image. After Cameron’s teenage friends are murdered, Mary’s father, Hoot Ball (Christopher Jon Martin), goes home and tells his wife Bea (Diane Kondrat) what has happened. He had been a member of the mob, and using that position of privilege, he had also helped save Cameron’s life. Still, his wife is shocked to discover that teenagers were lynched in her town. Hoot immediately corrects her: “Lynched? This ain’t Mississippi. This is Indiana. They were hanged!”

After James and Marie have finished sharing what they remember about that night and how it affected the rest of their lives, they have more compassion for each other. And they ultimately agree that when people face the past, they must decide either to bear witness to their truth or shirk that responsibility by trying to forget. Marie chooses the latter. She gives Cameron a necklace, her only memento from that night, and leaves him to grapple with his memories and hers.

Alone, Cameron faces all of the people whose stories were told as he and Marie shared their memories of that night in 1930. Charles Smith leaves his audience with an appreciation of the responsibility that Cameron shouldered. Having survived what his friends did not, Cameron refused to forget; he preserved stories that help make our nation’s history. He spent the rest of his life encouraging the country to face all of its truths so that all of its citizens might heal.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Anna Deveare Smith: Lessons on Living and Dying

Anna Deveare Smith's Let Me Down Easy once again demonstrates that the usual terms are not sufficient for what she accomplishes on stage. As in her most famous theatrical work, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith portrays many real-life characters, but “one-woman show” is not quite right. She places Lance Armstrong before us with as much force as she depicts Eve Ensler or Rev. Peter Gomes, and she does so by impeccably reproducing their accents, inflections, and gestures, and yet “impersonation” is not what we witness.

Part of what takes Smith’s work to another level is its commitment to testimony. As countless theorists have found, testimony is life-affirming because, by definition, it involves direct address. When a human being shares her story and another listens, the interlocutor becomes a witness.

In signature Smith style, Let Me Down Easy is composed of a series of monologues based on verbatim excerpts from face-to-face conversations. The twenty stories represented on stage are drawn from 320 interviews that Smith conducted on three continents. The monologues address the power of the human body as well as its limitations. They also explore the mental and spiritual aspects of both maximizing one’s physical potential and facing one’s mortality. Taken together, the monologues offer a powerful commentary on health care, the lack of it, and the implications of both. Smith became a witness for all 320 interviewees. And, she gives audiences an opportunity to bear witness to the humanity of the twenty people featured in this incarnation of the show—people who “have come through something.”

Because these are stories of real life, Let Me Down Easy highlights inequalities. For example, in the monologue titled “Heavy Sense of Resignation,” Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, shares her experience of Hurricane Katrina. She explains that she had always insisted that limited financial resources did not keep the hospital from offering quality care. However, when it was clear that Charity was not being evacuated so that patients could avoid danger—while other hospitals were—she found it more difficult to maintain a cheerful bedside manner. Still, what she remembers most vividly is that her (mostly black) staff and patients were not surprised that authorities had apparently forgotten them. She confessed, “the fact that it wasn’t a shock was a shock for me.” As she shares her story, she still seems stunned: “It was the first time that I’d been abandoned by my government.” Very clearly, she was surrounded by people for whom this was not the first time.

While Smith channels Kurtz-Burke, we see the profound effect of stepping into another person’s point of view. With both her head and heart, she acknowledges that the country of her birth claims to value equality while treating its citizens very differently. More than that, she actually stopped to consider what that reality might feel like when, for an entire lifetime, one is not on the privileged end of that differential treatment.

Yet, without fail, Let Me Down Easy resists sentimentality; every emotion serves to inspire thought long afterward. This is particularly true of the show’s insistence that living and dying are inextricably linked. As palliative care specialist Eduardo Bruera puts it, people generally face death like they faced life. That is, if you were angry, you will probably be angry. Those who tend to retreat will probably withdraw, and those who blame will probably blame.

Having been touched by these stories, I went home thinking. If we die as we lived, then I am happy with many of the priorities I have kept, but there is always room for improvement. So, as I strive to live life in a way that will allow me to greet death with grace, Let Me Down Easy has inspired me to be more deliberate about becoming a witness for the experiences of my fellow human beings. How can I listen better today? How can I learn from others with both my head and heart? And how can I let that learning not only inform my outlook, but also shape what I believe merits saying out loud?

Let Me Down Easy has been recorded and will air on PBS during the 2011-2012 season of Great Performances. I hope it inspires you to take a similar challenge to live with intention.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blind Spots Created by Privilege

Over the years, I have been struck by the assumption that those who are not white, male, and heterosexual do not have professional standards. Of course, no one comes out and says this, but the power of this belief is everywhere apparent. The environment I know best is academia—the supposed bastion of intelligence and critical thinking. Yet, it is in this environment that I have heard several versions of the following:

A white male who does feminist scholarship explains why he has had problems getting his work published: "Well, women are suspicious of me. It's annoying, but I get it."

On the surface, this sounds liberal and critically engaged. After all, he seems to be acknowledging what feminist scholarship does not shy away from admitting: that gender matters. However, what really motivates this comment is, in my view, the height of sexism. The speaker assumes that women scholars could not possibly have intellectual reasons for not being impressed with his work. Supposedly, they only respond to gender. What is the basis of this assumption? Why, the fact that they can't see his brilliance, of course! Only anti-male prejudice can explain his not having been catapulted to the top of his field. He cannot even imagine the possibility that his work is simply not that impressive—that when readers encounter his work, it doesn't at all strike them as brilliant.

What allows such a blind spot, such unjustified arrogance? Partly, it is a refusal to admit that being white and male has helped with every achievement. Whites are constantly assumed to be qualified, so before they even start, much of their job is done for them; people have few problems deferring to them, and it seldom enters anyone's mind to question their qualifications.

There are very few professions in which those who are white (especially if they are also male) do not seem to be the obvious best choice, so when whites venture into those arenas, they are susceptible to deeming themselves to be especially admirable. An understandable self-image forms: I don't have to care about minority issues and/or women's issues, so the fact that I do means I'm exceptionally enlightened. (Again, that's understandable.) Unfortunately, it is also easy for those in this position to fancy themselves oppressed. When their whiteness does translate into an automatic assumption of competence, they think that they are encountering hostility. They think that the injustices about which women and "minorities" complain are happening to them. But there is an enormous difference between discrimination and not being assumed qualified because you are white and/or male and/or heterosexual.