Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy by Alisha Gaines (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-01-09 22:27Z by Steven

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy by Alisha Gaines (review)

Journal of Southern History
The Southern Historical Association
Volume 84, Number 3, August 2018
pages 787-789
DOI: 10.1353/soh.2018.0230

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. By Alisha Gaines. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 213. Paper, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3283-4; cloth, $80.00, 978-1-4696-3282-7.)

For many years, we have been told that passing is passé. Yet the recent media frenzy surrounding Rachel Dolezal proves that U.S. culture is still vehemently invested in defining the boundaries of whiteness and blackness. When I flashed a PowerPoint slide of Dolezal last spring in my African American literature class, students broke into a cacophony of groans, shouts, and exclamations of “she’s not black!” I was surprised that all but one of my students instantly recognized Dolezal’s image and that virtually everyone had an opinion about her. The plethora of recent books on racial passing—both on African Americans who pass as white and Anglo Americans who pass as black—further demonstrates this topic’s great fascination. Despite postmodern views that race is a construct, scholars often want to pin a racial passer into one category, usually as either a seeker of freedom from racial codes or a betrayer of his or her “true” race. Yet few have considered what passing tells us about our own investments in racial binaries.

I therefore turned with pleasure to Alisha Gaines’s thoughtful book, Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy, which joins a slim list of studies of “‘passing, in reverse'”: the phenomenon of white people who pass for and sometimes claim to become black (p. 17). Other books on this subject include Baz Dreisinger’s Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (Amherst, Mass., 2008) and some chapters in Julie Cary Nerad’s edited collection, Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010 (Albany, N.Y., 2014). Gaines mentions only one of these works, although I trust that she has consulted both of them.

Gaines’s book is well written and compelling. Her argument that white people’s attempts at “cross-racial empathy” and identification often fail because of their refusal to consider the larger structural and institutional causes of racism is certainly sound (p. 8). Moreover, her use of archival sources is exemplary. I have written about white-to-black passing, yet I still learned much factual information about the passers she studies, including Ray Sprigle, a journalist who published In the Land of Jim Crow (1949); John Howard Griffin, whose book Black Like Me (1961) eclipsed the accounts of all other would-be white passers; Grace Halsell, a white woman and a journalist who took on Griffin’s mantle and published Soul Sister (1969); and finally, the families who switched races in the six-episode television series Black. White. (2006). The book concludes with a short examination of Rachel Dolezal, whom Gaines refuses to consider as “transracial” because the theorization of this term “falls apart” (p. 170). She explains that “blackness becomes the space of racial play, performance, and affect, whereas whiteness does not” (p. 170). This ignores that some light-skinned African Americans did play with whiteness (Jean Toomer, for example) and that some white people crossed over into blackness never to come back (Clarence King and Mezz Mezzrow, for instance). Gaines focuses on creating a genealogy of “temporary black individuals operating under the alibi of racial empathy” in order to illustrate the frequent failure of cross-racial empathy and intimacy (p. 8). Still, I found myself wondering what conclusions Gaines might have reached had she looked at less famous individuals who passed permanently into blackness.

As I have argued elsewhere, passing is a slippery term with roots in deceit and disguise, magic and transformation. The examples Gaines has chosen to include support her argument that temporary assumptions of blackness cannot lead to structural or institutional change. The book might have benefited from a deeper excavation of previous scholarship on white-to-black passing and empathy, but even so, Gaines offers a valuable assessment of how white people problematically inhabit the…

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Review: Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2018-11-08 21:42Z by Steven

Review: Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions

The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History
2018-06-02

Vanessa Holden, Assistant Professor of History and African American and Africana Studies
University of Kentucky

Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

At the opening of Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America, Sharon Block poses two provocative questions: “What were the meanings of black, white, and red in the colonial eighteenth century; and how did Anglo-American colonists describe people’s appearance?” (1) To answer these queries Block presents a cultural history race in Britain’s 18th century American colonies. She makes a careful study of the descriptors advertisers and editors used in missing colonial persons adds for runaway African descent and their European and Native American servants.

Block argues that the terms “black”; “white”; “red”; and “yellow” did not have static meanings that neatly corresponded to racial identities for 18th-century Anglo-colonists. Those terms evolved into markers of racial difference right alongside American constructions of race that would not become commonplace until the 19th century. Block challenges readers to understand how humoral theory influenced European colonists’ ideas about physical appearance and how the form of the missing person ad reflected and shaped the meanings of signifiers like age, height, and health for colonial subjects.

Block engages thirty-nine colonial newspapers from all over the across colonial America for her study, drawing from them both quantitative and qualitative data to support her arguments. From their pages, she gleans categories and descriptors used by 18th-century subjects to describe other 18th century subjects. “Through a range of descriptive choices,” she writes, “advertisers communicated the features they deemed significant for readers to know and revealed shared assumptions about bodily norms.”(5) Block remains very critical of her sources throughout and highlights both the form and the content of the ads she analyzes. She is well aware that the ads are part of an archive of mastery and makes sure to note this throughout. Block remains clear that the norms she excavates from these advertisements are norms for Anglo-colonizers and takes care to acknowledge African and Native American understandings of physiology. That the descriptors and signifiers she analyzes allow Anglo-colonists to flatten individual human experiences and bolster colonial systems of power is precisely her point.

Read the entire review here.

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Making Race in British Colonial North America

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2018-11-08 20:53Z by Steven

Making Race in British Colonial North America

Black Perspectives
2018-11-08

Elise A. Mitchell, Ph.D. Candidate in Atlantic World History and Caribbean and Latin American History
Department of History
New York University


Uncle Sam challenging the interference of John Bull, the personification of Great Britain, in the Civil War, 1861 (Photo: Library of Congress).

When confronted with three eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements seeking a missing man from Connecticut named Ishmael Mux of “a white Complexion,” a missing Pennsylvanian named John Daily who had a “black Complexion, bushy Hair,” and a man who went missing on his way to North Carolina named Andrew Vaughan with a “red” complexion, most readers would presume that their complexions, “white,” “black,” and “red,” indicated their race. However, as Sharon Block shows in her latest book, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America, to eighteenth-century readers:

White, black, and red complexion did not automatically parallel European, African, and Native American heritages, respectively. In fact, Ishmael was described as mulatto; John as Irish; and Andrew was listed as an infantryman in the British 40th regiment, was born in Philadelphia, with no nationality or ethnicity specified. Skin and hair appearance were features related to, but not constitutive of, ethnic or national background (60-61).

This is but one of many examples Sharon Block uses to illustrate how the relationships between bodily descriptions, ethnicities, and racial meaning are not transhistorical, but developed through contextually specific discourses that have changed over time (83). Block, a digital humanist and historian of race, gender, rape, sexuality, and the body, examined thirty-nine British North American colonial newspapers published between 1750 and 1775 and analyzed over 4000 advertisements for missing enslaved and free people. Her ambitious study of these advertisements reveals how British North American colonists constructed race through quotidian discourses. Colonial Complexions is a crucial contribution to the history of race and a noteworthy model for digital age historical methodology…

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JewAsian: race, religion, and identity for America’s Newest Jews [Review]

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Family/Parenting, Judaism, Media Archive, Religion, Social Science, United States on 2018-11-01 02:37Z by Steven

JewAsian: race, religion, and identity for America’s Newest Jews [Review]

Ethnic and Racial Studies
Volume 40, 2017 – Issue 13
pages 2380-2382
DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2017.1329544

Hasia R. Diner, Paul And Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History
New York University

Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

Sociologists Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt, a married couple, he of Jewish background, presumably European, and she of Korean derivation, have, with this slim book, launched an important topic for further research and scholarly inquiry. The two authors explore here, using the conventional methods of sociological study, a trend, presumably new and emblematic of postmodernity. This trend can be accessed by even the most casual readers nearly every Sunday in the wedding announcements in The New York Times‘ Style section. Like JewAsian—obviously a neologism—The Times postings chronicle the not uncommon phenomenon of, for the most part, Jewish men, bearers of identifiable Jewish surnames, marrying women marked by their names and by the accompanying photographs identifiable as Asian, primarily individuals who themselves or their forbears hailed from China, Korea, and Vietnam.

The text of the wedding announcements, besides detailing the usually impressive occupations and educational backgrounds of bride and groom, and those of their parents, fit well with this fascinating book. Nearly all the nuptial notices indicate that a rabbi or cantor will be officiating at the ceremony, indicating that Jews, certainly the non-Orthodox among them who constitute the American majority, have embraced this emerging reality of marriages across lines of race, ethnicity, and religion. So too the fact that the brides in these marriages have chosen to have their unions solemnized by a member of the Jewish clergy, rather than by someone representing Christianity or Buddhism or any other religious tradition associated with Asian and Asian American culture, represents an important contemporary reality which Kim and Leavitt explore in their book.

The wedding announcements, like the much publicized union between FaceBook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, sweethearts since their Harvard days and like the data presented in JewAsian, point to the trend by which the non-Jewish, Asian women who marry Jewish men become integrated and absorbed into the fabric of American Jewish life. Kim and Leavitt, who for the most part leave out the details of their personal journey as an Asian and Jewish couple, focusing carefully on the pairs whom they interviewed, do appropriately indicate in the Preface that they met and fell in love while graduate students at the University of Chicago…

Read or purchase the review here.

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Why ‘The Hate U Give’ Is Not a Black Lives Matter Movie

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Social Justice, United States on 2018-11-01 02:14Z by Steven

Why ‘The Hate U Give’ Is Not a Black Lives Matter Movie

Los Angeles Sentinel
2018-10-18

Melina Abdullah, Professor of Pan-African Studies
California State University, Los Angeles

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Cofounder of Black Lives Matter and founder of Dignity and Power Now
Los Angeles, California

Some are touting ‘The Hate U Give,’ as “the first Black Lives Matter movie.” Red flags should have gone up the moment we learned that Fox, recently acquired by Disney, was behind the film with a massive public relations budget, footing the bill for hundreds of advance screenings with celebrity guests, marketing swag, and heavy media saturation – especially in Black markets. We might also wonder about the choice to have Audrey Wells, a White screenwriter whose credits include “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” adapt an urban Black novel for the screen. Angie ThomasNew York Times bestseller on which the film is based swapped out the book cover that originally pictured a chocolate-colored Afroed girl, for the light-skinned young actress, Amandla Stenberg, who plays the lead, Starr Carter, in the film. Stenberg’s braids hang long as she holds a placard that reads “The Hate U Give,” a reference to Tupac’s THUG LIFE acronym (The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everyone). Tupac, Hip Hop icon, poet, and son of a Black Panther, was intentional with his language. THUG LIFE, tattooed across his mid-section, was a scathing critique of the White-supremacist-capitalist system that treats Black and poor children with contempt, depriving them of resources, and ultimately causing the whole of society to suffer the consequences. The film betrays that analysis by entrenching old tropes. “The Hate U Give” makes Black people primarily responsible for their own oppression. The film asks viewers not to challenge a policing system that kills Black people at least every 28 hours, but to focus exclusively on “Black-on-Black crime,” even when unarmed Black boys are killed by White cops…

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Complex look at Frederick Douglass with a lesson for Trump era

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2018-10-15 01:05Z by Steven

Complex look at Frederick Douglass with a lesson for Trump era

The Boston Globe
2018-10-12

Eddie S. Glaude Jr., James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor; William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African-American Studies
Princeton University


Enrique Moreiro for The Boston Globe

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century. One would expect nothing less. Blight, considered a leading authority on the slavery period, has been thinking about Douglass for over 35 years. The Yale historian wrote his dissertation on him. And now with unprecedented access to a trove of material gathered by African-American art collector Walter O. Evans, Blight sheds light on the final 30 years of Douglass’s life in ways we have never seen. The resulting chronicle enriches our understanding of Douglass and the challenges he faced and offers a lesson for our own troubled times.

What surfaces is a powerful and flawed human being. We see him struggling to create himself under the conditions of slavery, waging war against the peculiar institution with words and action, raging against “the infinite manifestations of racism” (what Douglass called our “national faith”), and remaining a loyal partisan of the Republican Party until the day his heart gave out in 1895 at age 77. His is a journey from radical outsider to political insider, a prophet whose fires cooled as he aged, gained famed, and acquired access to the corridors of power.

But we also get a glimpse of the intimate spaces of Douglass’s private life that are haunted by the specter of his slave experience. Blight reminds us that slavery stole from Douglass “all filial affection . . . [H]e never found it easy to love, while always seeking love as much as anything else in life.” Perhaps this gaping absence or, better, need, along with his hatred of slavery and American racism, kept him on the road, even in old age. Douglass maintained a back-breaking speaking schedule. Constantly traveling, he left his family in the hands of his unshakable wife, Anna Murray, an illiterate, free-born woman who grew up on the east bank of the Tuckahoe River in Maryland. It was she who bore the burden of raising their family, managing the household (often under financial duress), and helping to navigate the life of the most famous black man in the world…

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Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination [Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Law, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2018-08-30 01:27Z by Steven

Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination [Review]

new york journal of books
2018-08-27

L. Ali Khan, Professor of Law
Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas

Tanya Katerí Hernández, Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination (New York: New York University Press, 2018)

“General readers, with no initiation in law, will learn quite a bit about racial discrimination, civil rights laws, and how academics grapple with theoretical difficulties underlying race relations in the realm of law.”

In Multiracials and Civil Rights, Fordham law professor Tanya Hernández demonstrates that discrimination perpetrated against blacks also targets mixed-race persons, called multiracials. Contrary to popular expectations, multiracialism has not alleviated racism. Deviations from the hundred-percent whiteness (a racial myth) continue to inform social constructions of race, racial awareness, discrimination, and the application of civil rights laws.

Historically, the one-drop rule has required that a person with any degree of black ancestry must identify solely as black. With diverse immigration and interracial procreation, multiracialism is on the rise. Since 2000, multiracials are free to identify with more than one race. Yet such is the sociology of racism that any fraction of blackness, visible or hidden, reduces multiracials into black persons, discounting their other racial traits.

The hundred-percent whiteness paradigm formulates and protects the white privilege, a source of unearned advantage, and offers measly concessions to any dilution of whiteness. Therefore, non-whiteness is potentially subject to racial discrimination actionable under law…

Read the entire review here.

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Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala – review

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Justice, United Kingdom on 2018-05-28 14:39Z by Steven

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala – review

The Guardian
2018-05-20

Afua Hirsch

Akala on stage
Akala: ‘a disruptive, aggressive intellect’. Photograph: Rob Baker Ashton/BBC/Green Acre Films

In a powerful, polemical narrative, the rapper charts his past and the history of black Britain

In 2010, UK rap artist Akala dropped the album DoubleThink, and with it, some unforgettable words. “First time I saw knives penetrate flesh, it was meat cleavers to the back of the head,” the north London rapper remembers of his childhood. Like so much of his work, the song Find No Enemy blends his life in the struggle of poverty, race, class and violence, with the search for answers. “Apparently,” it continues, “I’m second-generation black Caribbean. And half white Scottish. Whatever that means.”

Any of the million-plus people who have since followed Akala – real name Kingslee Daley – know that the search has taken him into the realm of serious scholarship. He is now known as much for his political analysis as for his music, and, unsurprisingly, his new book, Natives, is therefore long awaited. What was that meat cleaver incident? What was his relationship with his family and peers like growing up? How did he make the journey from geeky child, to sullen and armed teenager, to writer, artist and intellectual?.

Natives delivers the answers, and some of them are hard to hear. In one of the most touching of many personal passages in the book, Akala retraces the steps by which he was racialised – as a mixed-race child – into blackness, and by which he realised that his mother, who fiercely protected her children’s pride in their heritage, enrolling them among other things in a Pan-African Saturday school, was racialised as white…

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Passing or Transracial?: Authority, Race, and Sex in the Rachel Dolezal Documentary

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-05-18 15:32Z by Steven

Passing or Transracial?: Authority, Race, and Sex in the Rachel Dolezal Documentary

Beacon Broadside: A Project of Beacon Press
2018-05-10

Lisa Page, Assistant Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Rachel Dolezal
Photo credit: YouTube/Dr. Phil

For some of us, racial identity is elastic. We can pass. For white, for black, for Middle Eastern. For Latinx. I am one of those people. I know what it is to assimilate to a group you identify with, because I did it myself, against my white mother’s wishes. She hated me calling myself black.

For this reason, my response to The Rachel Divide, Laura Brownson’s new documentary about Rachel Dolezal, is complicated. Dolezal famously passed for black, for years, before her white parents outed her in 2015. I feel two ways about this. I completely get the outrage that followed the reveal. But I also have sympathy for Dolezal. I know what it’s like to turn your back on the white side of your family.

The film opens with clips of Dolezal’s activism, as president of the Spokane NAACP, which came to a screeching halt once she was revealed to be a white woman who darkened her complexion and wore a weave.

Dolezal doesn’t call that passing.

“Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness?” she asks, near the beginning of the film. “Do we have the right to live exactly how we feel?”…

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A Furious Voice, Forged In The ‘Fire’ Of Prejudice

Posted in Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2018-04-25 21:38Z by Steven

A Furious Voice, Forged In The ‘Fire’ Of Prejudice

Book Review
National Public Radio
2008-10-10

Jessa Crispin, Founder and Editor
Bookslut.com

If I Could Write This in Fire
By Michelle Cliff
Hardcover, 104 pages
University of Minnesota Press
List price: $21.95

While on a tour of the University of Virginia, Jamaican-American novelist and short-story writer Michelle Cliff is informed by a doctoral student that Thomas Jefferson never owned slaves. “‘Villagers,’ as they’re affectionately known,” says the student, “built [this] university, Monticello, every rotunda, column and finial the great man dreamed of. They liked him so much they just pitched in, after their own chores are done.”

It’s one of many unsettling moments in If I Could Write This in Fire, a collection of essays that is Cliff’s first nonfiction book. Everywhere Cliff goes, she sees people treating history as if it were a story they could rewrite at will: women at cocktail parties uttering, “Pinochet was not so bad”; guests at a dinner party disbelieving that the blacks in Birth of a Nation were white actors in blackface.

Cliff, 61, has always been an outsider — a lesbian born on a homophobic Caribbean island, an immigrant in the U.K. (where she studied) and the U.S. (where she settled), a mixed-race intellectual trying to make sense of a black and white world…

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