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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Forum Council did not oversell its claim. The Du Bois-Stoddard debate turned out to be a singular event, as important in its way as Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2019-09-04 21:34Z by Steven

The Forum Council did not oversell its claim. The Du Bois-Stoddard debate turned out to be a singular event, as important in its way as Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon. The reason more people don’t know about it may be its asymmetry. The other historic matchups featured rivals who disagreed politically but wouldn’t have disputed their opponent’s right to exist. [Lothrop] Stoddard had written that “mulattoes” like [W. E. B.] Du Bois, who could not accept their inferior status, were the chief cause of racial unrest in the United States, and he looked forward to their dying out.

Ian Frazier, “When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist,” The New Yorker, August 19, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/26/when-w-e-b-du-bois-made-a-laughingstock-of-a-white-supremacist.

Tags: , , , , ,

When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2019-09-02 19:58Z by Steven

When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist

The New Yorker
2019-08-19

Ian Frazier, Staff Writer


In the Du Bois-Stoddard debate, one man was practically laughed off the stage.
Illustration by Christian Northeast

Why the Jim Crow-era debate between the African-American leader and a ridiculous, Nazi-loving racist isn’t as famous as Lincoln-Douglas.

W. E. B. Du Bois, the twentieth century’s leading black intellectual, once lived at 3059 Villa Avenue, in the Bronx. He moved to a small rented house there with his wife, Nina Gomer Du Bois, and their daughter, Yolande, in about 1912. When I’m walking in that borough I sometimes stop by the site. It’s just off Jerome Avenue, not far from the Bedford Park subway station. The anchor business at that intersection seems to be the Osvaldo #5 Barber Shop, which flies pennants advertising services for sending money to Africa and to Bangladesh. All kinds of people pass by. You hear Spanish and Chinese and maybe Hausa spoken on the street. The first time I went to Du Bois’s old address, I wondered if I might find a plaque, but the house is gone, and 3059 Villa is now part of a fenced-in parking lot. Maple and locust trees shade the front stoops, and residents wait at eight-twenty on Tuesday mornings to move their cars for the street-sweeping truck. A fire hydrant drips, slowly enlarging a hole in the sidewalk. Even unmemorialized, 3059 Villa is a not-unpleasant spot from which to contemplate the great man’s life.

About a forty-minute walk away is the Bronx Zoo. In 1912, it was called the New York Zoological Park, and it was run by a patrician named Madison Grant from an old New York family. Though he and Du Bois lived and worked within a few miles of each other for decades, I don’t know if the two ever met. As much as anyone on the planet, Grant was Du Bois’s natural enemy. Grant favored a certain type of white man over all other kinds of humans, on a graded scale of disapproval, and he reserved his vilest ill wishes and contempt for blacks.

As Du Bois would have remembered, in 1906 the zoo put an African man named Ota Benga on display in the primate cages. Ota Benga belonged to a tribe of Pygmies whom the Belgians had slaughtered in the Congo. A traveller had brought him to New York and to the zoo, where huge crowds came to stare and jeer. A group of black Baptist ministers went to the mayor and demanded that the travesty be stopped. The mayor’s office referred them to Grant, who put them off. He later said that it was important for the zoo not to give even the appearance of having yielded to the ministers’ demand. Eventually, Ota Benga was moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyn, and he ended up in Virginia, where he shot himself…

…In March, 1929, the Chicago Forum Council, a cultural organization that included white and black members, announced the presentation of “One of the Greatest Debates Ever Held.” According to the Forum’s advertisement, the debate was to take place on Sunday, March 17th, at 3 p.m., in a large hall on South Wabash Avenue. The topic was “Shall the Negro Be Encouraged to Seek Cultural Equality?”

In smaller letters, the ad asked, “Has the Negro the Same Intellectual Possibilities As Other Races?” and below that the answer “Yes!” appeared with a photograph of Du Bois, who would be arguing the affirmative. Alongside the answer “No!” was a photograph of Lothrop Stoddard, a writer, who would argue the negative. In the picture, Stoddard projects a roguish, matinée-idol aura, with slicked-down hair and a black mustache. The ad identified him as a “versatile popularizer of certain theories on race problems” who had been “spreading alarm among white Nordics.”

The Forum Council did not oversell its claim. The Du Bois-Stoddard debate turned out to be a singular event, as important in its way as Lincoln-Douglas or Kennedy-Nixon. The reason more people don’t know about it may be its asymmetry. The other historic matchups featured rivals who disagreed politically but wouldn’t have disputed their opponent’s right to exist. Stoddard had written that “mulattoes” like Du Bois, who could not accept their inferior status, were the chief cause of racial unrest in the United States, and he looked forward to their dying out…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2019-05-18 23:29Z by Steven

Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means

The New Yorker
2019-05-13

John Jeremiah Sullivan


Giddens plays and records what she describes as “black non-black music,” reviving a forgotten history. Photograph by Paola Kudacki for The New Yorker

The roots musician is inspired by the evolving legacy of the black string band.

To grasp the significance of what the twenty-first-century folksinger Rhiannon Giddens has been attempting, it is necessary to know about another North Carolina musician, Frank Johnson, who was born almost two hundred years before she was. He was the most important African-American musician of the nineteenth century, but he has been almost entirely forgotten. Never mind a Wikipedia page—he does not even earn a footnote in sourcebooks on early black music. And yet, after excavating the records of his career—from old newspapers, diaries, travelogues, memoirs, letters—and after reckoning with the scope of his influence, one struggles to come up with a plausible rival.

There are several possible reasons for Johnson’s astonishing obscurity. One may be that, on the few occasions when late-twentieth-century scholars mentioned him, he was almost always misidentified as a white man, despite the fact that he had dark-brown skin and was born enslaved. It may have been impossible, and forgivably so, for academics to believe that a black man could have achieved the level of fame and success in the antebellum slave-holding South that Johnson had. There was also a doppelgänger for scholars to contend with: in the North, there lived, around the same time, a musician named Francis Johnson, often called Frank, who is remembered as the first black musician to have his original compositions published. Some historians, encountering mentions of the Southern Frank, undoubtedly assumed that they were merely catching the Northern one on some unrecorded tour and turned away.

There is also the racial history of the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where Johnson enjoyed his greatest fame. In 1898, a racial massacre in Wilmington, and a subsequent exodus of its black citizens, not only knocked loose the foundations of a rising black middle class but also came close to obliterating the deep cultural memory of what had been among the most important black towns in the country for more than a century. The people who might have remembered Johnson best, not just as a musician but as a man, were themselves violently unremembered.

A final explanation for Johnson’s absence from the historical record may be the most significant. It involves not his reputation but that of the music he played, with which he became literally synonymous—more than one generation of Southerners would refer to popular dance music simply as “old Frank Johnson music.” And yet, in the course of the twentieth century, the cluster of styles in which Johnson specialized––namely, string band, square dance, hoedown––came to be associated with the folk music of the white South and even, by a bizarre warping of American cultural memory, with white racial purity. In the nineteen-twenties, the auto magnate Henry Ford started proselytizing (successfully) for a square-dancing revival precisely because the music that accompanied it was not black. Had he known the deeper history of square dancing, he might have fainted…

…Giddens’s father, David, who is white, taught music and then worked in computer software for most of his career. “As a teacher, he got all of the hardened kids,” she said, meaning behaviorally challenged students. He met Rhiannon’s mother, Deborah Jamieson, when they were both students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Theirs was a rare interracial marriage in a city where, cultural diversity aside, the Klan murdered five civil-rights activists in 1979. Rhiannon’s parents divorced when she was a baby, around the time that her mother came out as a lesbian…

…Giddens talks about her “black granny” and her “white granny.” At one point, her black grandfather and her white grandmother were both working at the Lorillard Tobacco factory in Greensboro. Once, when her white granny needed help with her taxes, she went to Giddens’s black grandfather to get it. But Giddens dismissed the idea that her life was defined by a two-sidedness. “It’s the South, isn’t it?” she said. “The point is that they are different—but the same.”…

…The prospect of gaining a wider, and blacker, audience is, one imagines, always an option for Giddens, who could, if she really wanted to, cut a pop record and presumably ascend to a higher sales bracket. But she has been unwilling to compromise her quest, which is, in part, to remind people that the music she plays is black music. In 2017, she received a MacArthur “genius” grant, a validation that has reinforced her tendency to stick to her instincts. “You do what you’re given,” she told me on the phone recently. “I’m not gonna force something or fake something to try to get more black people at my shows. I’m not gonna do some big hip-hop crossover.” She paused, and remembered that she is about to do a hip-hop crossover, with her nephew Justin, a.k.a. Demeanor, a rapper who also plays the banjo. “Well,” she said, laughing, “not unless I can find a way to make it authentic.” She told me that she does not really like hip-hop. This threw me into the comical position of trying to sell her on the genre. “The stuff I like is the protest music,” she said. “I like Queen Latifah. But the over-all doesn’t speak to me. I’m not an urban black person. I’m a country black person.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The photographs remind us, repeatedly, that the racial delineations imposed by society are often arbitrary and flimsy, always fraught.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2018-08-10 02:48Z by Steven

The express ornaments of black culture that appear in some of [Genevieve] Gaignard’s images—braids and Afros, head wraps and African prints—like all surfaces, can be borrowed. The photographs remind us, repeatedly, that the racial delineations imposed by society are often arbitrary and flimsy, always fraught.

Katie Ryder, “An Artist’s Costumed Alter Egos Cross Racial Lines,” The New Yorker, July 17, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/an-artists-costumed-alter-egos-cross-racial-lines.

Tags: , ,

An Artist’s Costumed Alter Egos Cross Racial Lines

Posted in Articles, Arts, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2018-08-10 02:41Z by Steven

An Artist’s Costumed Alter Egos Cross Racial Lines

The New Yorker
2018-07-17

Katie Ryder


“Synchronized,” 2018.Photographs by Genevieve Gaignard / Courtesy Shulamit Nazarian

Counterfeit Currency,” a show of self-portrait photography, installation, and collage by Genevieve Gaignard, at the FLAG Art Foundation, in Chelsea, opens with a large photo of the artist on a Florida beach at dusk. As in each of her pictures, Gaignard portrays a character of her own invention, here with long, blond hair and jet-black roots, outfitted in regional strip-mall kitsch. She is stretching a towel behind her, printed to resemble a huge hundred-dollar bill; concealing her torso is a trompe-l’oeil T-shirt showing a cartoon, bikini-clad body, whose peach-beige skin tone closely resembles that of her own.

Gaignard, a woman of mixed race (her father is black, her mother white), makes photographs that play with the outward signifiers and stereotypes of race, class, and femininity, combining and remixing them into sometimes exaggerated but steadily ambiguous costumes. From character to character, she undergoes significant but not quite Shermanian transformations, with no facial prosthetics and minimal makeup, and with each portrait hinging in part on Gaignard’s ability to cross legible boundaries…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,

Notes on a Lifetime of Passing

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing on 2017-09-27 04:20Z by Steven

Notes on a Lifetime of Passing

The New Yorker
2017-09-22

Trey Ellis, Associate Professor
Graduate School of the Arts
Columbia University, New York, New York


How do we remember how we crafted ourselves to an audience the last time we met? Luckily, I’ve had years of practice.
Photograph by Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty

Thanks to my parents transplanting me often from one ethnic mix to another, I’ve become something of a code-switching connoisseur.

I share the head of the table in the conference room in Columbia’s Faculty House with a distinguished professor from the University of Southern California. We are the featured guests for the latest Columbia University Seminar, a prestigious academic lecture series that has been running continuously since 1945. I am the invited “respondent/discussant” for the presentation of the Dartmouth professor Mark Williams’s paper “Passing for History: Humor and Early Television Historiography.” All the serious, eminent professors and doctoral candidates lining each side of the table nod and take notes when Williams references visual and televisual “indexicality.”

As soon as he finishes, we clap, and immediately the array of eyes home in on my own. Outwardly, I spend a lot of time thanking everyone who can possibly be thanked. Inwardly, I obsess about my lowly and decades-old B.A., my ignorance of the word “indexicality,” and how one of the assembled Illuminati at any moment, surely, in the middle of my talk, will burst to his feet and shout, like Congressman Joe Wilson at Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, “You lie!

See, I’m not a real professor, but I play one in arts school.

I was invited to respond that night because I’d written a screenplay about the period discussed, and because, thirty years earlier, soon after graduating college, I had written an essay called “The New Black Aesthetic,” which over the years has allowed me a back-door entrance into proper academic conferences such as this one. My actual job, teaching screenwriting as an associate professor of professional practice in the School of the Arts at Columbia University, is technically academic, but really arts-academic, which is to say academic-adjacent. Nevertheless, as I enter my tenth year of passing for a real professor, I find myself less and less inclined to correct those who mistakenly call me one.

You see, passing is like that. The real Harvard Business School professor and TED Talk rock star Amy Cuddy’s advice to “fake it till you become it” is a corollary to long-term passing. Or, as the veteran screenwriter William Goldman phrased it in the title of his second acidic Hollywood memoir, “Which Lie Did I Tell?”..

…So, at that Columbia seminar, despite my terror of being outed, the subject of the discussion was delicious to me. Thanks to Professor Williams’s work and exhaustive research by the rock critic R. J. Smith, I learned about Korla Pandit, a.k.a. Cactus Pandi, a.k.a. Juan Rolando, a.k.a. John Roland Redd. Pandit was a kitsch fixture of Los Angeles television in the nineteen-fifties, a mesmerizing, bejewelled-turbaned Indian swami in a sharp Western suit. For fifteen minutes every evening, first locally and then nationally, he wordlessly seduced the camera, swaying and staring, almost as unblinking as the lens, while effortlessly noodling on his Hammond organ or a piano, no sheet music, never looking down, as fluid Orientalist melodies undulated from the keyboards as if Pandit were about to conjure endless ranks of grinning, dancing cobras.

Housewives swooned before his image: exotically light-brown, crowned in his tight bejewelled turban, never, ever speaking. The ultimate mystery man, from 1948 to 1953 Pandit was becoming fabulously famous. Then, after a contract dispute with his syndicator, he was replaced by another keyboard player who went on to use the very same sets, only this guy was always smiling instead of cool and smoky, in a white tie and tails, a lit candelabra reflected in the black gloss of the grand piano’s lid. Pandit resented Liberace for the rest of his life.

Both of them were passing. Liberace as straight when he was gay, Korla as an Indian when he was a black St. Louisan, born John Roland Redd. Redd had moved to Hollywood in the nineteen-thirties, and, like all black musicians, had to scrounge for gigs, since he was barred from the union. He then simply changed his name to Juan Rolando and started playing all over town. A few years later, his identity crossed the South Pacific to become Korla Pandit, a New Delhi-born musical prodigy, classically trained at the University of Chicago. The prodigy part was true: he was a brilliant and sought-after pianist for radio and high-profile Hollywood gigs. In the nineteen-forties, he and his white, blond wife (they married in Tijuana, where interracial marriages were legal) regularly partied with Errol Flynn and Bob Hope

Read the entire essay here.

This essay appears in the forthcoming collection of essays “We Wear the Mask.”

Tags: , , , ,