How Race-Studies Scholars Can Respond to Their Haters

Posted in Articles, Campus Life, Media Archive, United States on 2014-06-29 19:39Z by Steven

How Race-Studies Scholars Can Respond to Their Haters

Vitae
A service of The Chronicle of Higher Education
2014-06-27

Stacey Patton, Senior Enterprise Reporter

Graduate school prepares students for a range of intellectual and professional endeavors. Unfortunately, responding to scholarly insults and academic shade-throwing isn’t one of them.

But for scholars in the fields of race and ethnic studies—including those who work outside the ivory tower—dealing with snide questions, nasty comments, and occasional name-calling is just part of the job description. Over the years, these academics have repeatedly told me that their work is uniquely misunderstood and dismissed by students, fellow faculty, and the general public. The election of Barack Obama, some say, has only made it tougher to defend ethnic studies: Amid declarations of a “post-racial” America, how do you explain why you study and write about racism?

Nearly every race-studies scholar—white professors included—can identify a phrase that drives them uniquely nuts: “Stop playing the race card.” “What about white studies?” “Racism is no longer an issue. Why are you beating a dead horse?”…

…“We were hoping for a black candidate.” —Matthew Pratt Guterl, Professor of Africana studies and American studies,  Brown University

…“Ethnic studies isn’t a real discipline.” —David J. Leonard, Associate professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies, Washington State University at Pullman

…“Do you have a Ph.D.?”  —Kerry Ann Rockquemore, CEO and president, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

Read the entire article here.

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Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Women on 2014-04-21 01:46Z by Steven

Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe

Slate
2014-04-18

Rebecca Onion

To prove that racial harmony was possible, the dancer adopted 12 children from around the globe—and charged admission to watch them coexist.

Beginning in 1953, almost 30 years after her first successful performances on the Paris stage, the singer and dancer Josephine Baker adopted 12 children from different countries, ranging from Finland to Venezuela. She installed what she called her “Rainbow Tribe” in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France and charged admission to tourists who came to hear them sing, to tour their home, or to watch them play leapfrog in their garden.

This little-known chapter in Baker’s life is an uncomfortable one. “I would begin to tell the story of Josephine Baker, and people would start to laugh,” says Matthew Pratt Guterl, the author of a new book on Baker’s later life, Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe. “And I would start to wonder what that laughter signified.” Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, has in essence written two books in one: the story of Baker’s family, and a meditation on the meaning of that laughter…

Read the entire review here.

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Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe

Posted in Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Women on 2014-02-15 03:52Z by Steven

Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe

Harvard University Press
April 2014
288 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
30 halftones
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674047556

Matthew Pratt Guterl, Professor of Africana studies and American studies
Brown University

Creating a sensation with her risqué nightclub act and strolls down the Champs Elysées, pet cheetah in tow, Josephine Baker lives on in popular memory as the banana-skirted siren of Jazz Age Paris. In Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe, Matthew Pratt Guterl brings out a little known side of the celebrated personality, showing how her ambitions of later years were even more daring and subversive than the youthful exploits that made her the first African American superstar.

Her performing days numbered, Baker settled down in a sixteenth-century chateau she named Les Milandes, in the south of France. Then, in 1953, she did something completely unexpected and, in the context of racially sensitive times, outrageous. Adopting twelve children from around the globe, she transformed her estate into a theme park, complete with rides, hotels, a collective farm, and singing and dancing. The main attraction was her Rainbow Tribe, the family of the future, which showcased children of all skin colors, nations, and religions living together in harmony. Les Milandes attracted an adoring public eager to spend money on a utopian vision, and to worship at the feet of Josephine, mother of the world.

Alerting readers to some of the contradictions at the heart of the Rainbow Tribe project—its undertow of child exploitation and megalomania in particular—Guterl concludes that Baker was a serious and determined activist who believed she could make a positive difference by creating a family out of the troublesome material of race.

Table of Contents

  • Prologue
  • 1. Too Busy to Die
  • 2. No More Bananas
  • 3. Citizen of the World
  • 4. Southern Muse
  • 5. Ambitious Assemblages
  • 6. French Disney
  • 7. Mother of a Wounded World
  • 8. Unraveling Plots
  • 9. Rainbow’s End
  • Epilogue
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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The New New Thing, Again

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2013-09-05 18:07Z by Steven

The New New Thing, Again

MPG: unofficial thoughts, whimsical critiques, and occasional cultural commentary
2013-02-08

Matthew Pratt Guterl, Professor of Africana studies and American studies
Brown University

Someone referred to mixed race children as particularly “beautiful” the other day, and it made me think of this:

In 1993, the cover of Time magazine featured a fresh-faced young woman, designated the “New Face of America.” For twenty years, this image has circulated as a referent for the new, new thing, for the mixed-race future gestating in a womb somewhere in the U.S.  Often, it is embraced enthusiastically, and “she” is offered up as an icon for a pretty and happy future.  Sometimes, the image is described as a way-too-seductive advertisement for race-suicide. (That last link is NSFW and, really, not safe for any decent human being).

“Take a good look at this woman,” the scrawl read, encouraging a close reading of her face.  “She was created by a computer.”  In truth, though, she wasn’t.  With brown eyes and light brown skin, she was imagined by renowned graphic artist Milton Glaser, conceived through software created by engineer Kim Wah Lam, a composite of hundreds of photographs taken by Ted Thai. A chorus line of willing employees in the Time Life building provided the visual DNA. The design team selected a handful of idealized “types,” borrowed features from them, and assembled the image by cutting the features out and stitching them together. The near future in digital flesh, “she” stood without clothes, with a slight smile and a direct gaze, and looked right into the eyes of the present tense.

Tellingly, every student sees “her” as “Mexican,” as if that national category were itself a precise synonym for mixture…

Read the entire article here.

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Seeing Race in Modern America

Posted in Books, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Science, United States on 2013-05-29 23:29Z by Steven

Seeing Race in Modern America

University of North Carolina Press
November 2013
Approx. 264 pages
6.125 x 9.25
10 color plates., 97 halftones, notes, index
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4696-1068-9

Matthew Pratt Guterl, Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies
Brown University

In this fiercely urgent book, Matthew Pratt Guterl focuses on how and why we come to see race in very particular ways. What does it mean to see someone as a color? As racially mixed or ethnically ambiguous? What history makes such things possible? Drawing creatively from advertisements, YouTube videos, and everything in between, Guterl redirects our understanding of racial sight away from the dominant categories of color–away from brown and yellow and black and white–and instead insists that we confront the visual practices that make those same categories seem so irrefutably important.

Zooming out for the bigger picture, Guterl illuminates the long history of the practice of seeing—and believing in—race, and reveals that our troublesome faith in the details discerned by the discriminating glance is widespread and very popular. In so doing, he upends the possibility of a postracial society by revealing how deeply race is embedded in our culture, with implications that are often matters of life and death.

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Jean Toomer and the History of Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2013-03-18 05:08Z by Steven

Jean Toomer and the History of Passing

Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 1, March 2013
pages 113-121
DOI: 10.1353/rah.2013.0016

Matthew Pratt Guterl, Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies
Brown University

Jean Toomer. Cane. With a new afterword by Rudolph B. Byrd, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. 472 pp.(paper).

In 2011, Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., issued a new Norton Critical edition of Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel, Cane, a work widely seen as one of the finest expressions of black culture in the twentieth century. Both men have written on Toomer, on race, and on literature. Byrd, recently deceased, was the author of the finely wrought Jean Toomer’s Years With Gurdjieff (1990). Gates is a famous scholar of African American studies. In op-eds for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in the pages of the New York Times, and on the radio stream of NPR, the editors, drumming up attention, accused Toomer of “passing” for white, a provocation rooted, they felt, in the evidence, but also sure to guarantee book sales and critical attention. “He was running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited,” Gates said to Felicia Lee in one of these paratextual interviews; “He never, ever wrote anything remotely approaching the originality and genius of Cane. I believe it’s because he spent so much time running away from his identity.” Gates then added, “I feel sorry for him.”

This damning conclusion that Toomer engaged in racial subterfuge is somewhat off-putting because it runs counter to just about everything written about Toomer since the 1980s. It also pushes back against the foundational assumptions of the “bi-racial” and “mixed-race” movements—both of which prioritize self-identification and self-fashioning outside of official categories—and challenges recent histories of race and passing. Still, because of the unique editorial authority of this pair, the new edition of Cane will surely become a consumer triumph.

“Jean Toomer may have been a bit of a cad and a man who had a fondness for the company of white women,” wrote Sharon Toomer, the author’s great granddaughter, in response to an interview with Gates in the New York Times, “but to say . . . that he decidedly passed for white is an explosive accusation that demands nothing short of evidence—€”not interpretation.” She continued: “In countless documents, Toomer said he wanted to be identified as an American. That is different from deciding to pass for white.” But how is it different? And what is that evidence? And what, finally, is that interpretation? Answering these questions brings us to the far edge of African American studies, African American history, and African American literature; indeed, it carries us across a threshold where, as Kenneth Warren recently suggested, the future of these robust and important fields is decidedly uncertain. Answering them also clarifies the purpose of this new edition of Cane, which appears designed to rewrite the past and redirect the future.

Every American historian should be familiar with Cane because the work captures so many themes and plot points of the post-WWI era. Uniquely structured even in an era of formal experimentation, Cane was a revolutionary text when first published, and it remains an object of extraordinary debate today. The loosely organized, scattershot novella gathers up familiar plot points of post-emancipation African American history and rearranges them into discrete vignettes, capturing a race increasingly adrift in an age of traumatic transformations: from rural to urban, from the violent medieval to the depersonalized modern, from locally grounded to wandering and migratory. Each little piece was saturated with symbolic or metaphorical detail. And the book, slender and enigmatically titled, looked different, too, with cryptic arcs and half-circles appearing in no discernable sequence, marking major thematic breaks. Readers of Cane knew they held in their hands something special and exciting, even if they weren’t entirely certain what to make of it.

Toomer believed firmly and consistently that he was neither white nor black, but both and much more. The tall, lanky descendent of P. B. S. Pinchback—€”the Reconstruction-era governor of Louisiana (a whimsical man who occasionally enjoyed playing at white)—€”Jean Toomer was, in the years prior to the publication of Cane, a questing soul in search of a racial identity outside of contemporary realities, hoping…

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