“Passing,” Reviewed: Rebecca Hall’s Anguished Vision of Black Identity

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2021-11-28 17:12Z by Steven

“Passing,” Reviewed: Rebecca Hall’s Anguished Vision of Black Identity

The New Yorker
2021-11-08

Richard Brody

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson star in Rebecca Hall’sPassing,” a drama of images and self-images. Photograph courtesy Netflix

With a remarkable fusion of substance and style, Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel unfolds inner lives along with social crises.

Rebecca Hall’s directorial début, “Passing,” based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, is one of the rare book adaptations that brings a literary style to the screen. The film’s sense of style is more than mere ornament; it embodies the confrontation with circumstances—practical, emotional, historical—at the heart of the story. “Passing” (coming to Netflix on Wednesday) is a period piece, set in Harlem during Prohibition, just before the Depression. The movie achieves an ample, resonant reconstruction of that era, but it doesn’t feature colossal sets or give the sense that entire neighborhoods were transformed for the purpose of shooting. Instead, Hall uses sharply defined locations imaginatively and conjures the time through her original way with light, texture, and gesture, all redolent of a storied yet troubled past. The result is an emotional immediacy that’s all the sharper for its subtlety, all the more intense for its contemplative refinement, and that, above all, gives apt expression to the film’s mighty and agonized subject.

The movie stars Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield, a woman of about thirty who lives in a Harlem town house with her husband—Brian (André Holland), a doctor—and their two sons, one a child and the other on the cusp of puberty. She’s an activist who works as a volunteer for a (fictitious) charitable organization called the Negro League while also running the household. A light-skinned Black woman, she’s taken for white by white people in the course of her errands outside Harlem on a hot summer day. At a hotel café, Irene encounters Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), a friend from high school whom she hasn’t seen in a dozen years. Clare, too, has light skin—but, unlike Irene, she intentionally passes for white. She’s married to a wealthy white banker named John (Alexander Skarsgård) and lives her entire life amid white society. Clare’s reunion with Irene (whom she calls Reenie) awakens a long-suppressed desire to exist among Black people, to affirm her own identity without shame or fear. Clare imposes herself on the Redfield household, befriends Brian and the boys, takes part in Negro League social events run by Irene—and, in doing so, knowingly confronts the grave risk that John will find out that she’s Black…

Read the entire review here.

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The Rediscovery of Florence Price

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2021-11-28 02:10Z by Steven

The Rediscovery of Florence Price

The New Yorker
2018-01-29

Alex Ross

Price’s Second Violin Concerto explores unstable harmonic terrain. Illustration by Paul Rogers

How an African-American composer’s works were saved from destruction.

In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, of St. Anne, Illinois, were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. The Gatwoods looked her up on the Internet, and found that she was a moderately well-known composer, based in Chicago, who had died in 1953. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home. The couple got in touch with librarians at the University of Arkansas, which already had some of Price’s papers. Archivists realized, with excitement, that the collection contained dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost. Two of these pieces, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, have recently been recorded by the Albany label: the soloist is Er-Gene Kahng, who is based at the University of Arkansas.

The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky “knowing the worst.” Indeed, she had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause—Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent.

The musicologist Douglas Shadle, who has documented the vagaries of Price’s career, describes her reputation as “spectral.” She is widely cited as one of the first African-American classical composers to win national attention, and she was unquestionably the first black woman to be so recognized. Yet she is mentioned more often than she is heard. Shadle points out that the classical canon is rooted in “conscious selection performed by individuals in positions of power.” Not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history…

Read the entire article here.

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When those of mixed ancestry—and the majority of blacks are of mixed ancestry—disappear into the white majority, they are traditionally accused of running from their “blackness.” Yet why isn’t the alternative a matter of running from their “whiteness”?

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2021-06-22 22:07Z by Steven

To pass is to sin against authenticity, and “authenticity” is among the founding lies of the modern age. The philosopher Charles Taylor summarizes its ideology thus: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.” And the Romantic fallacy of authenticity is only compounded when it is collectivized: when the putative real me gives way to the real us. You can say that Anatole Broyard was (by any juridical reckoning) “really” a Negro, without conceding that a Negro is a thing you can really be. The vagaries of racial identity were increased by what anthropologists call the rule of “hypodescent”—the one-drop rule. When those of mixed ancestry—and the majority of blacks are of mixed ancestry—disappear into the white majority, they are traditionally accused of running from their “blackness.” Yet why isn’t the alternative a matter of running from their “whiteness”? To emphasize these perversities, however, is a distraction from a larger perversity. You can’t get race “right” by refining the boundary conditions.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., “White Like Me,” The New Yorker, June 10, 1996. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/06/17/white-like-me.

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White Like Me

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-06-22 13:39Z by Steven

White Like Me

The New Yorker
1996-06-10

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Anatole Broyard, date unknown. Photograph courtesy The New School Archives and Special Collections / The New School

Anatole Broyard wanted to be a writer, not a black writer. So he chose to live a lie rather than be trapped by the truth.

In 1982, an investment banker named Richard Grand-Jean took a summer’s lease on an eighteenth-century farmhouse in Fairfield, Connecticut; its owner, Anatole Broyard, spent his summers in Martha’s Vineyard. The house was handsomely furnished with period antiques, and the surrounding acreage included a swimming pool and a pond. But the property had another attraction, too. Grand-Jean, a managing director of Salomon Brothers, was an avid reader, and he took satisfaction in renting from so illustrious a figure. Anatole Broyard had by then been a daily book reviewer for the Times for more than a decade, and that meant that he was one of literary America’s foremost gatekeepers. Grand-Jean might turn to the business pages of the Times first, out of professional obligation, but he turned to the book page next, out of a sense of self. In his Walter Mittyish moments, he sometimes imagined what it might be like to be someone who read and wrote about books for a living—someone to whom millions of readers looked for guidance.

Broyard’s columns were suffused with both worldliness and high culture. Wry, mandarin, even self-amused at times, he wrote like a man about town, but one who just happened to have all of Western literature at his fingertips. Always, he radiated an air of soigné self-confidence: he could be amiable in his opinions or waspish, but he never betrayed a flicker of doubt about what he thought. This was a man who knew that his judgment would never falter and his sentences never fail him.

Grand-Jean knew little about Broyard’s earlier career, but as he rummaged through Broyard’s bookshelves he came across old copies of intellectual journals like Partisan Review and Commentary, to which Broyard had contributed a few pieces in the late forties and early fifties. One day, Grand-Jean found himself leafing through a magazine that contained an early article by Broyard. What caught his eye, though, was the contributor’s note for the article—or, rather, its absence. It had been neatly cut out, as if with a razor…

Read the entire article here.

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The Confederate Flag Finally Falls in Mississippi

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Mississippi, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2020-07-05 19:40Z by Steven

The Confederate Flag Finally Falls in Mississippi

The New Yorker
2020-07-01

W. Ralph Eubanks, Visiting Scholar in Southern Studies
University of Mississippi


Even after the civil-rights movement changed Mississippi and America, the state held on to its flag, asserting that it had everything to do with heritage and nothing to do with hate.
Photograph by Dan Anderson / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Even after digging deep into my memory bank, I can’t remember the team that played at my first home football game, in 1974, when I was a student at the University of Mississippi. What reverberates from that day into my consciousness is both a sound and a vision: the abrupt thud of a bundle of flags, bearing the bright and unmistakable pattern of the Confederate stars and bars, landing at my feet. Acting on impulse, I pushed this unwanted object down a row in the stadium with my foot. Confederate flags always looked and felt like a threat, whether on the back of a pickup truck on a lonely country road or in the hands of angry white men and women on the sidelines of a civil-rights march. Given their abrupt arrival near my body, and years of conditioning as a black Mississippian, I could not resist the urge to shove them away as if they were an intruder or a bully.

Later that sunny fall afternoon, after a more amenable recipient got hold of the bundle of flags, they were passed down the row where my date and I were sitting. Both of us were dressed according to game-day tradition, me in a blazer and she in a dress and heels. When the flags reached us again, we leaned back, our hands gripping the wooden bleachers, to keep from touching what we viewed as objects of intimidation. We didn’t want to spread them. Soon, though, we were lost in a sea of the Confederate cantons that mirrored the image of the Mississippi state flag. In spite of how perfectly we conformed to the dress code, we felt as if we did not belong in the stadium. But we refused to leave—we wanted to prove that we had a right to be there…

Read the entire article here.

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Brit Bennett Reimagines the Literature of Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-06-23 19:49Z by Steven

Brit Bennett Reimagines the Literature of Passing

The New Yorker
2020-06-15

Sarah Resnick


Photograph by Miranda Barnes for The New Yorker

In her second novel, the author uses a familiar genre to explore startling visions of selfhood.

In “The Vanishing Half,” the story of two sisters divided by the color line yields new models of identity and authenticity.

In 1954, a pair of identical twins—creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair—flee a small town in Louisiana and the narrow future it affords: nothing but more of the same. Desiree and Stella Vignes are sixteen and headed to New Orleans. They scrape by for a while, and eventually Stella applies for a position as a secretary at a fancy department store, a job only white girls get. She doesn’t mention she’s black, and no one asks. She’s apprehensive—has she done something wrong?—but her sister is adamant: why should the two of them starve “when Stella, perfectly capable of typing, became unfit as soon as anyone learned that she was colored?” Stella gets the job. Every morning, on the ride to the office, she transforms into her double, Miss Vignes—“White Stella,” as Desiree calls her—and every night she undergoes the process in reverse. It’s “a performance where there could be no audience. Only a person who knew her real identity would appreciate her acting, and nobody at work could ever know.” For a while, the twins are brought together by the joint pleasure of pulling off the performance. But gradually the gap between them widens: “Desiree could never meet Miss Vignes. Stella could only be her when Desiree was not around.” One day, Stella disappears, leaving her sister a note: “Sorry honey, but I’ve got to go my own way.”

The Vanishing Half” (Riverhead), the second novel by Brit Bennett, tells the story of the Vignes sisters’ diverging paths. In doing so, it belongs to a long tradition of literature about racial passing. From the antebellum period until the end of Jim Crow, countless black Americans crossed the color line to pass as white—to escape slavery or threats of racial violence, or to gain access to the social, political, and economic benefits conferred by whiteness. Narratives that dramatized this passage became a fixture of popular fiction, written by black and white, male and female authors alike. Charles W. Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen wrote about it, as did William Dean Howells and Kate Chopin. “Imitation of Life,” the 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, was twice made into a movie (in 1934, by John M. Stahl, and in 1959, by Douglas Sirk). These stories repeat some version of a generic arc: the “tragic mulatto,” often a woman, chooses to leave home and pass for white; in time, anguished by the betrayal of her black identity, she returns to her family, only to be met with a harsh fate—sometimes death…

Read the entire article here.

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Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2019-11-22 23:06Z by Steven

Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness

The New Yorker
2019-11-15

Jay Caspian Kang


Noel Ignatiev, the author of “How the Irish Became White,” believed that whiteness was a fiction, and that true stories could dispel it. Photograph by Pekah Pamella Wallace

In 1995, Noel Ignatiev, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in history at Harvard, published his dissertation with Routledge, an academic press. Many such books appear, then disappear, subsumed into the endless paper shuffling of the academic credentialling process. But Ignatiev was not a typical graduate student, and his book, “How the Irish Became White,” was not meant to stay within the academy. A fifty-four-year-old Marxist radical, Ignatiev had come to the academy after two decades of work in steel mills and factories. The provocative argument at the center of his book—that whiteness was not a biological fact but rather a social construction with boundaries that shifted over time—had emerged, in large part, out of his observations of how workers from every conceivable background had interacted on the factory floor. Ignatiev wasn’t merely describing these dynamics; he wanted to change them. If whiteness could be created, it could also be destroyed.

“How the Irish Became White” quickly broke out of the academic-publishing bubble. Writing in the Washington Post, the historian Nell Irvin Painter called it “the most interesting history book of 1995.” Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and death-row inmate, provided an enthusiastic back-cover blurb. Today, many of the ideas Ignatiev proposed or refined—about the nature of whiteness, and about the racial dynamics that unfold among immigrant workers—are taken for granted in classrooms; they influence films, literature, and art. But Ignatiev found it hard to accept the academic rewards that came with his book’s success. Committed to radicalism, he spent much of his time in academia doing what he had done on the factory floor: publishing leaflets and zines about the possibilities of revolutionary change…

Read the entire article here.

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The National Geographic Twins and the Falsehood of Our Post-Racial Future

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2019-10-27 16:59Z by Steven

The National Geographic Twins and the Falsehood of Our Post-Racial FutureThe National Geographic Twins and the Falsehood of Our Post-Racial Future

The New Yorker
2018-03-14

Doreen St. Félix, Staff Writer


National Geographic has made a rare, and refreshing, admission of past racism. But its most recent cover story undermines this corrective. Photograph Courtesy National Geographic

On Monday, National Geographic opened its April issue with a sombre letter from the editor, Susan Goldberg, presented with the even more sombre headline “For Decades, Our Coverage was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” “The Race Issue,” which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inaugurates the magazine’s yearlong “Diversity in America” series. In the letter, Goldberg—who is the first woman and the first Jewish person in the top post since the magazine’s founding, in 1888—informs her readers that John Edwin Mason, a historian of photography and of the African continent, having studied the magazine’s archive, found that, through failures of omission, overwrought inclusions, a melodramatic tone, and other editorial choices, National Geographic had mismanaged its reportage on nonwhite cultures. As Goldberg summarized, “until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States . . . . Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché.”

The magazine’s admission is rare, and vindicates readers who, like me, have always had a visceral reaction to National Geographic’s covers and ethos. A recent project at the Times was similarly refreshing—offering obituaries for the indefatigable journalist Ida B. Wells, the writer Sylvia Plath, and thirteen other women who hadn’t been memorialized in the paper at the time of their deaths. The Times, which calls its project “Overlooked,” uses oddly passive language in presenting its past missteps: its archives offer “a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers,” the copy reads. Mason uses more pointed language: “National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism . . . . and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”…

Read the entire article here.

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The Artistry of the Soprano Julia Bullock

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, United States on 2019-10-15 20:10Z by Steven

The Artistry of the Soprano Julia Bullock

The New Yorker
2019-11-16

Russell Platt, Composer and Adjunct Associate Professor of Music
Blair School of Music
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee


Julia Bullock combines a rare onstage aura with a style that is exacting but not fussy, with hardly an unturned phrase. Photograph by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty

It is rare to find a classical singer who can truly project an aura onstage. Those who are young must seem to carry the wisdom of age; those who are older must avoid the risk of royal self-regard. And there is no instrument to hide behind, no violin to seduce, no piano to pound—a singer’s body is, or course, her instrument. But Julia Bullock, a young soprano who performed her Naumburg Foundation recital last Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum, definitely has it, and she is off to a fine career.

Bullock, an African-American singer from St. Louis who trained at Eastman Bard, and Juilliard, won first prize last year in the Naumburg International Vocal Competition. Over the years, the Naumburg, through its various awards, has had a penchant for honoring interesting singers who don’t fit easily into the standard operatic categories: trailblazers such as Regina Sarfaty, Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Hendricks, and Lucy Shelton, for example. I can’t yet imagine Bullock walking the boards as Tosca or Violetta, but she has made several strategic forays into opera—such as the title role in Purcell’sThe Indian Queen” at Madrid’s Teatro Real and at the English National Opera, and, later this month, she will appear in Saariaho’sLa Passion de Simone,” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (directed by Peter Sellars). But her recital had its own kind of drama, not the less effective for being so refined…

Read the entire article here.

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An Intimate History of the British Empire

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom on 2019-10-11 01:56Z by Steven

An Intimate History of the British Empire

The New Yorker
2019-10-09

Maya Binyam


Hazel Carby as a child. Photograph Courtesy Hazel Carby

In “Imperial Intimacies,” Hazel Carby weaves together the story of colonialism and the story of her family.

After Carl Carby arrived in England from Jamaica, in 1943, he wore starched shirts, polished dress shoes, and neatly knotted ties. He was from the colonies, but his mannerisms evinced a restrained, British sensibility. Like most early immigrants from the Caribbean, he was expected to provide a service: his entrance to England was predicated on his employment as a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force, which recruited around six thousand people from England’s “black colonies” to fight in the Second World War. At a dance in Worcester, he met Iris Leaworthy, a young, white Welsh woman who worked as a civil servant in the Air Ministry, and the two bonded over the surprising similarities of their upbringings. Both had grown up in poverty. As schoolchildren, each donned a starched uniform and, on Empire Day, a holiday designed to instill in children a feeling of belonging to a great nation, waved the Union Jack. When England went to war, both of them enthusiastically offered their service. The pair soon married, and had a daughter named Hazel. To her, Carl spoke little of Jamaica. “It was as if he had been born an airman in the Royal Air Force,” Hazel Carby writes in “Imperial Intimacies,” her new book of political history, which came out last month…

Read the entire review here.

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