Monday, March 31, 2008

Blackface, Ghetto, and Class

Some of you know that I do my research and writing in the different ways that class is manifested in Black culture, particularly in the literature. I was reviewing my e-mail messages and came across a query from an academic listserv about what does it mean for suburban upper-middle class Black youths to pretend to be from the ghetto. The person posing the inquiry wanted to know if the youths were engaging in "blackface."

Of course, I find this line of inquiry problematic. For one, I couldn't discern what the writer meant by "blackface." Two, the question denies class diversity among blacks; implicating somehow that urban, middle-class Black youths are not black because to pretend to be from the ghetto somehow blackens them. And three what does it mean to "act ghetto"? Are there certain behaviors among blacks from urban, potentially, less economically advantaged areas that are intrinsically different from Blacks from the suburbs?

I wonder is there anything worth while in engaging this line of inquiry. Besides, I find the use of the word ghetto in relations to Black communities really problematic. My mother, a woman without the credentials of some of my colleagues, always told me that me and no other Blacks had the right to claim the word ghetto to describe U.S. Black communities. That, in fact, we had been hoodwinked by White sociologists who were as ignorant as we were. Then my mother sat down with a stack of books and had me read about the origin of the word ghetto, its relations to Jewish ghettos in Europe, and how such ghettos functioned. She asked me one thing: "what's the difference?" I noticed immediately that Jewish ghettos were communities that functioned despite racism. There were bankers, butchers, tailors, newspapers, etc. Post-integration Black, urban communities, I argue, have ceased being ghettos.

But to get back to the scholar's line of inquiry: blackening one's face, as Bert Williams did, was a performative act used to appease white audiences in portrayals of Blacks with which whites were comfortable. So when black middle-class youth are "acting ghetto," who is their audience? Other black upper-middle class kids? White upper-middle class kids? Who? Are they performing "blackface"?

As my son prepares to move into the District to go to Howard U. I have noticed that his physical posture is slightly changing. The inflection in his speech is shifting. He's not speaking as clearly. He's dropping the last syllables of each word. I know what this is about. It's not an easy prospect for a sheltered, upper-middle class (upper income with his parents' combined resources) African American young man to get off the metro train and stroll up Georgia Avenue to Howard U. amidst the folk. (Which is why Howard runs a shuttle from the metro to campus, but my son refuses to take the shuttle). Real or imaginary, he knows that he is different from too many of the folk in the community around Howard, and as a matter of survival he is attuned to the cultural codes that set him apart. Well, he's not doing blackface, he is intuitively shifting his posture and demeanor to fit in, or at least to be as inconspicuous about his privilege as possible; just as he did when he enrolled in school and realized that to survive he had to adapt.

So maybe my esteemed colleague on the listserv is referring to something quite different in his reference to blackface. All I know is that Black men have no choice in this culture but to be chameleons, able to adapt whichever posture is necessary for survival. That is the beauty of the performative natures of our existence. If it is acting blackface, then so be it. But I don't think that such a negative appellation is necessary to describe cultural shifting and performance.

My colleague's entire line of inquiry reminds me how privileged some Black academics are, and how their line of inquiry almost always implicates their own bias and elitism about class; a conversation that we woefully need to have aloud.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Narratives of Black Bourgeois Desire is Done

Okay family and friends, it is done. My manuscript has been completed, printed, boxed, burned on a CD, and ready to be mailed to the publisher as soon as the post office opens in the morning. I have met my deadline. It took everything that I had not to post the manuscript tonight. But I looked up and it was 7:15 p.m. and the post office in DC closes at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday. I'm only 10 miles from the post office, but I just didn't have the energy to rush north on I-395 to get to the post office before it closed. Oh, do I miss the 24 hour post office in Detroit.

Now I can relax for one day because I owe a friend on this blog list a manuscript by April 30, 2008. It's on the Black Arts Movement. I've printed a draft of the manuscript, and I will begin revising it tomorrow.

All's quiet on the eastern front. I'm burned out. And I'm going to bed. I will post tomorrow.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Love DC and Congressman John Lewis

Okay, so have I ever shared with you how much I love D.C. ? I'm sort of addicted to the government buildings, Smithsonian museums, and Busboys and Poets, but my worse addiction, I must confess, is the Library of Congress.

Now I was a library addict before moving to D.C. My addiction is strongly rooted in my family dysfunction; some of you know what I'm referring to: a mom who considered going to the local library a family outing, and traveling to Woodward Avenue to the Main Library of the Detroit Public Library system was a field trip unsurpassed. Well, in this regard, my family was very dysfunctional, so much so that the one place I always felt comfortable beyond measure was in a library.

No matter where I travel throughout the world, I always find myself at a library. Although I have conducted research at the British Museum and spent time at the Bibliotheque Nacionale, neither library can measure up to the Library of Congress.

There's something about sitting at a desk in the Main Reading Room either waiting for my books to be delivered, taking notes, or cite checking that gets my blood going. Since my first visit to the Main Reading Room in 1985, I have been in love, yes, and addicted to the Library of Congress.

So today I drove over to the Library of Congress to cite check my manuscript one more time. Since 9/11 the protocol at the Library of Congress has changed. There are more Capitol Police around and folks seem a little more uptight, but hey, I smile regardless of what's going on because I'm in heaven once I enter the Jefferson building.

Five hours later, with my stomach growling and 3/4 of my cite checking complete, I stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue to grab something to eat. I stop at Cosi because I haven't been in the Cosi on Capitol Hill since I returned to the area in 2005. It's before the dinner hour so it's not too crowded even though the typical Capitol Hill crowd is milling about. I force myself to pass by Trevor's Bookstore. I need to produce, not consume books, I tell myself.

As I'm paying my bill at Cosi, I glance out the window and I am certain that I see Congressman John Lewis walking by. I pay my bill and exit Cosi. I can't let the Congressman pass by without saying hello. I say hello, he pauses, we exchange polite pleasantries. I notice that he has his dry cleaning in his arms. I'm feeling slightly intrusive and apologize, saying to him: "You can't go to the dry cleaners without folks stopping you." He doesn't seem to mind as he tells me that he's in town to preach a sermon at the National Cathedral this Sunday. "Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the last time that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon," he tells me. He jars my memory, and I say, "That's right." I cannot ever forget Dr. King's dates of birth and death: his date of birth is the same as my mother's and his date of death is the same as my aunt's date of birth. I tell Congressman Lewis that I will be at church tomorrow.

I love D.C. Where else can I stand on a street corner and have a normal conversation with a congressman without a formal introduction, without pomp, and without ceremony? As I strolled up Pennsylvania Avenue to my car, I decided that nothing will ever take me away from D.C. again. In fact, I've been contemplating for years just moving close to the Library of Congress so that I can spend my days off conducting research and writing. I think that I just might do that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hillary Clinton and Religion

I am sharing with you some information forward to me from one of my students at Howard University. Food for thought in light of Clinton's current lambasting of Barak Obama's connections to Reverend Wright.

Hillary's Ties to Religious Fundamentalists

By Barbara Ehrenreich, Posted March 20, 2008.

When it comes to unsavory religious affiliations, Hillary Clinton is a lot more vulnerable than Barack Obama.

There's a reason why Hillary Clinton has remained relatively silent during the flap over intemperate remarks by Barack Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. When it comes to unsavory religious affiliations, she's a lot more vulnerable than Obama.

You can find all about it in a widely under-read article in the September 2007 issue of Mother Jones, in which Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet reported that "through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the "Fellowship," aka the Family. But it won't be a secret much longer. Jeff Sharlet's shocking exposé, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power will be published in May.

Sean Hannity has called Obama's church a "cult," but that term applies far more aptly to Clinton's "Family," which is organized into "cells" -- their term -- and operates sex-segregated group homes for young people in northern Virginia. In 2002, writer Jeff Sharlet joined the Family's home for young men, foreswearing sex, drugs and alcohol, and participating in endless discussions of Jesus and power. He wasn't undercover; he used his own name and admitted to being a writer. But he wasn't completely out of danger either. When he went outdoors one night to make a cell phone call, he was followed. He still gets calls from Family associates asking him to meet them in diners -- alone.

The Family's most visible activity is its blandly innocuous National Prayer Breakfast, held every February in Washington. But almost all its real work goes on behind the scenes -- knitting together international networks of right-wing leaders, most of them ostensibly Christian. In the 1940s, the Family reached out to former and not-so-former Nazis, and its fascination with that exemplary leader, Adolph Hitler, has continued, along with ties to a whole bestiary of murderous thugs. As Sharlet reported in Harper's in 2003:

During the 1960s the Family forged relationships between the U.S. government and some of the most anti-Communist (and dictatorial) elements within Africa's postcolonial leadership. The Brazilian dictator General Costa e Silva, with Family support, was overseeing regular fellowship groups for Latin American leaders, while, in Indonesia, General Suharto (whose tally of several hundred thousand "Communists" killed marks him as one of the century's most murderous dictators) was presiding over a group of fifty Indonesian legislators. During the Reagan Administration, the Family helped build friendships between the U.S. government and men such as Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova, convicted by a Florida jury of the torture of thousands, and Honduran general Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, himself an evangelical minister, who was linked to both the CIA and death squads before his own demise.

At the heart of the Family's American branch is a collection of powerful right-wing politicos, who include, or have included, Sam Brownback, Ed Meese, John Ashcroft, James Inhofe, and Rick Santorum. They get to use the Family's spacious estate on the Potomac, the Cedars, which is maintained by young men in Family group homes and where meals are served by the Family's young women's group. And, at the Family's frequent prayer gatherings, they get powerful jolts of spiritual refreshment, tailored to the already-powerful.

Clinton fell in with the Family in 1993, when she joined a Bible study group composed of wives of conservative leaders like Jack Kemp and James Baker. When she ascended to the Senate, she was promoted to what Sharlet calls the Family's "most elite cell," the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast, which included, until his downfall, Virginia's notoriously racist Sen. George Allen. This has not been a casual connection for Clinton. She has written of Doug Coe, the Family's publicity-averse leader, that he is "a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God."

Furthermore, the Family takes credit for some of Clinton's rightward legislative tendencies, including her support for a law guaranteeing "religious freedom" in the workplace, such as for pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions and police officers who refuse to guard abortion clinics.

What drew Clinton into the sinister heart of the international right? Maybe it was just a phase in her tormented search for identity, marked by ever-changing hairstyles and names: Hillary Rodham, Mrs. Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and now Hillary Clinton. She reached out to many potential spiritual mentors during her White House days, including new age guru Marianne Williamson and the liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner. But it was the Family association that stuck.

Sharlet generously attributes Clinton's involvement to the underappreciated depth of her religiosity, but he himself struggles to define the Family's theological underpinnings. The Family avoids the word Christian but worships Jesus, though not the Jesus who promised the earth to the "meek." They believe that, in mass societies, it's only the elites who matter, the political leaders who can build God's "dominion" on earth. Insofar as the Family has a consistent philosophy, it's all about power -- cultivating it, building it and networking it together into ever-stronger units, or "cells." "We work with power where we can," Doug Coe has said, and "build new power where we can't."

Obama has given a beautiful speech on race and his affiliation with the Trinity Unity Church of Christ. Now it's up to Clinton to explain -- or, better yet, renounce -- her longstanding connection with the fascist-leaning Family.

Chinua Achebe and It's Been a Long Time

Sorry for being so silent lately. But I went on Spring break and sequestered myself in a friend's condominium, with all meals provided by him, to complete the editing of my book manuscript, which will be published by the University of Illinois Press. Since I have training as a copyeditor, I find it difficult to let a manuscript go. Only a firm deadline will get me to release a manuscript, which is why I have always felt more comfortable with writing jounalism than scholarly pieces because journalists are pretty darn frim with deadlines: the paper is going to press, no ifs, ands, and buts about it.

But, I am placing the manuscript in the mail on Monday, and as I write this blog, chapter one is printing. Already I noticed that I inadvertently deleted the epigraph. I'll have to go back in and replace it. Oh, the book is about class and African American women's literature. It has been derived from my dissertation, a manuscript that I was determined not to shelve, but to give some other life outside of dissertation abstracts and microfiche since I sacrified my first born to get the dissertation written.

Had a wonderful time this past Monday night at the Washington Post attending a tribute to the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, and also to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the publication of "Things Fall Apart." Achebe was warm, engaging, and intriguing, and despite his confinement in a wheel chair it felt as if he were walking around the room touching everyone on the head and opening our consciences. He discussed the absence of language that he discovered among African characters in European fiction and how the impetus for his writing came out of this absence of language. Achebe argues that the longest sentence spoken by an African character in a European novel is in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and that sentence is eight words long. Otherwise, according to Achebe, African characters grunt or emit animalistic sounds from their mouths, but they do not talk.

Those of us who are familiar with the debate about language know that it is not only the absence of language among African characters in European fiction that fueled the literary imaginations of African writers, but also the debate about the absence of literature written in indigenous languages that has incited not only strident conversations but also chasms among some African writers that at times they seem unable to bridge. One only has to think of N'gugi wa Thiongo's conversations and writings about language to get a sense of how important language is to African writers. And the struggle continues.

There was a similar tribute to Achebe in New York City last month which I had purchased a ticket for, but was unable to attend because of a lack of transportation that fit the demands of my schedule. However, I would have loved to have attended that tribute because Morrison, too, examines the absence of language in African American characters in U.S. white writers' fiction in "Playing in the Dark." Just like African characters in fiction by European writers, African American characters are seen but not heard.

But enough for literature. All is well on the homefront. Rumor has it that my son has received a university scholarship to Howard's business school. His father and I are still trying to confirm this gracious award. The kid has worked hard, and he has never disappointed either me or his father. We are so proud of him. In the meantime, he is just trying to hold the ballast in the water and sail to port. He has some difficult classes his senior year, thanks to his overly ambitious mom strongly recommending that he register for such courses. But he is rising to the occasion and making my future prospects for retirement feasible.

I will be writing regularly now that the pressure of getting my book manuscript completed has subsided. So look for my daily blogs again. And please post comments, I'd love to read them.

Friday, March 7, 2008

June Jordan, Victoria Mxenge, and Black Women's Struggle for a New World Aesthetic

Since I am so thoroughly involved in completing two manuscripts and teaching, and am unable to pay attention to anything beyond what is before me right now, I will share with you what my current endeavor is this morning.

One course that I teach every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Howard University is contemporary black poetry. The course was designed prior to my arrival on the faculty, so while I do have control over the content, I do not have control over the parameters, which are community and the Black Arts Movement. I have always been interested in the Black Arts Movement since I heard my mother say B.A.M. when I was a little girl in reference to my bestfriend's older sister, therefore, I make the course meet my desires to delve in depth into the movement.

Currently, my students have been assigned June Jordan's posthumously published collected edition of poems, "Directed by Desire." Our class discussion alerts me that they are not reading, but the good thing about poetry is that we can read it aloud on the spot and then analyze the poems. In reading Jordan's poem, "To Free Nelson Mandela," I have been reaquainted with the murder of Victoria Mxenge, who was an attorney in South Africa and whose husband was assassinated, arguably for his involvement in the African National Congress (ANC). Mxenge spent the rest of her life investigating her husband's death, being a political activist, and becoming a role model for younger generations. She was brutally murdered in the driveway of her home before her children. "In 1987 a Durban magistrate refused a formal inquest into Victoria Mxenge's death ruling 'she had died of head injuries and has been murdered by person or persons unknown' " ("Biography of Victoria Mxenge,"

I always contemplate the unsung sheroes in the fight for not only a New World aesthetic and consciousness, but also for the liberation of Africans, Africans of the Diaspora, and all persons who are oppressed. The struggle continues as we acquaint yet another generation of our children to the fights of our ancestors.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Latino Voters and African American Candidates

Once again, please bare with me while I get my book manuscript in shape to get off to my editor at the University of Illinois Press and complete an essay for a journal in American studies.

Take a look at the article below and originally published in Time magazine regrading Latino Voters and African American Candidates. I would love to read your comments.

The Black-Brown Divide
Hillary Clinton has done well with Latino voters in the early-primary states. Is that because her opponent is African American?
By Gregory Rodriguez, New America Foundation
TIME Magazine | February 4, 2008

I imagine he said it as if he were confessing a deep, dark secret. And, of course (wink, wink), he had no idea his little confession would make the rounds. But when Sergio Bendixen, Hillary Clinton's pollster and resident Latino expert, told the New Yorker after her win in New Hampshire that "the Hispanic voter -- and I want to say this very carefully -- has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates," he started a firestorm of innuendo that has begun to shape how the media are covering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the heavily Hispanic Western states.

After the Jan.19 Nevada caucuses, in which Latino voters supported Senator Clinton by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1, some journalists literally borrowed Bendixen's analysis word for word before going on to speculate about Barack Obama's political fortunes in such delegate-rich states as California and Texas. Ignoring the possibility that Nevada's Latino voters actually preferred Clinton or, at the very least, had fond memories of her husband's presidency, more than a few pundits jumped on the idea that Latino voters simply didn't like the fact that her opponent was African American.

The only problem with this new conventional wisdom is that it's wrong. "It's one of those unqualified stereotypes about Latinos that people embrace even though there's not a bit of data to support it," says political scientist Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University, an expert on Latino voting patterns. "Here in Los Angeles, all three black members of Congress represent heavily Latino districts and couldn't survive without significant Latino support."

Nationwide, no fewer than eight black House members -- including New York's Charles Rangel and Texas' Al Green -- represent districts that are more than 25% Latino and must therefore depend heavily on Latino votes. And there are other examples. University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto has begun compiling a list of black big-city mayors who have received large-scale Latino support over the past several decades. In 1983, Harold Washington pulled 80% of the Latino vote in Chicago. David Dinkins won 73% in New York City's mayoral race in 1989. And Denver's Wellington Webb garnered more than 70% in 1991, as did Ron Kirk in Dallas in 1995 and again in 1997 and '99. If he had gone back further, Barreto could have added longtime Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who won a majority of Latino votes in all four of his re-election campaigns between 1977 and 1989.

Are these political scientists arguing that race is irrelevant to Latino voters? Not at all. Hispanics, coming from many countries, are hardly monolithic; but all things being equal, Latino voters would probably prefer to support a Latino candidate over a non-Latino candidate, and a white candidate over a black candidate. That's largely because they are less familiar with black politicians, as there are fewer big-name black candidates than white ones, and because, stereotypes not withstanding, many Latinos don't live anywhere near African Americans. California, for example, which has the largest Latino population in the country, is only 6% black. Furthermore, in politics, things are never equal.

"It's all about context," says Rodolfo deala Garza, a political-science professor at Columbia University. "It always depends on who else is running. Would Latino Democrats vote for a black candidate over a white Republican? Hell, yes. How about over a Latino Republican? I'm very sure they would." Guerra says name recognition and the role of mediating entities such as unions, political parties and Latino elected officials are also important. For a well-known black politician or incumbent, there is little problem winning Latino voters. But when the candidate is not well-known, it helps to be endorsed by mediating institutions that people trust. Part of Obama's problem in Nevada was that, apart from the late endorsement by the Culinary Workers' Union, he didn't have a lot of that institutional support. And though he has begun to build those relationships in California -- including the endorsement of the Latina head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor -- he may not have enough time to attain the kind of recognition among Latino voters that Clinton enjoys.

But if there's one thing we're learning in this historic year, it's that voters are even less easy to pigeonhole than candidates.

Copyright, TIME Magazine

Read Rodriguez's another article Clinton's Latino Spin

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Higgenbotham

Sorry for not blogging more. I am up against a March 31st deadline for my book, and I am determined not to miss the deadline. It is entitled "Narratives of Black Bourgeois Desire." The University of Illinois Press is the publisher.

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending an event hosted by the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University honoring the publication of the African American National Biography (AANB) edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Higgenbotham, director and professor, respectively, at Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute.

I always enjoy hearing Gates speak even when I don't necessarily agree with his politics. I always marvel at the way he can galvanize a team and get a project done. Some of you may know Gates as the editor of Africana Encyclopedia and founder of

The AANB has more than 4,100 entries, a mosaic of African Americans who have made contributions to the history and culture. An online version will be launched soon.

Please note that the Drs. Gates and Higgenbotham are still looking for contributors for the online version of the AANB. Here's the URL, please check it out.