A real-life Lucious Lyon: The former slave who built a Beale Street “Empire” and transformed Memphis

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, United States on 2015-04-09 01:27Z by Steven

A real-life Lucious Lyon: The former slave who built a Beale Street “Empire” and transformed Memphis

Salon
2015-04-04

Preston Lauterbach


Bob Church (Credit: University of Memphis Special Collections)

Memphis — and music as we know it — wouldn’t be the same without Robert Church’s legacy of vice, virtue and power

Depending on which critic or fan you ask, Fox TV’s “Empire” is somewhere between Shakespeare’s drama “King Lear” and Norman Lear’s campy “Good Times.” Less apparent to the show’s legions of viewers is how the story of Lucious Lyon and Empire Entertainment echoes the original black empire, a real-life dynasty of vice, virtue, and power, built in the heart of the old Confederacy just after the Civil War by a former slave who became monarch, Robert Church.

Like Lucious Lyon, who must plan for the future of his empire after being diagnosed with a crippling, often fatal, ailment, Bob Church had plenty of reasons to consider his legacy. It wasn’t so much that a specific death sentence loomed over Church—he just happened to find himself in life threatening situations, often. By his early 30s, Church had survived two gunshot wounds to his head, a steamboat disaster, a Civil War naval battle that he escaped by swimming the Mississippi River and an assassination attempt that backfired when a shotgun aimed at him exploded toward the shooter. Had Bob Church not been the combination of tough and lucky that saved him in these fateful scrapes, legendary Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, might be just another strip of concrete. Instead, it gained such an extraordinary reputation that Memphis entertainer Rufus Thomas would crack, “If you could be black on Beale Street one Saturday night, you’d never want to be white no more.”

Beale Street’s birth as an alternate universe for black America, a center of political clout and cultural fertility that changed America, all began with Church…

…Understanding the uncertainty of the vice-lord life in a hell-roaring river town, Church knew he must cultivate an heir. His eldest son Thomas lived in New York, passing for white, some have said. Thomas wouldn’t do. Eldest daughter Mary had become a steadfast leader in her own right, the first black woman on Washington, D.C.’s board of education and a founder of the NAACP. She could not be compromised. As with Lucious Lyon’s three sons, there was some competition among the Church children—they all would have liked to keep his money—but unlike “Empire’s” twisted succession plot, old man Church had no doubt who to choose: his youngest son, Robert Jr…

Read the entire article here.

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“I was living in a racial closet”: Black filmmaker Lacey Schwartz on growing up white

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States on 2015-03-26 18:47Z by Steven

“I was living in a racial closet”: Black filmmaker Lacey Schwartz on growing up white

Salon
Sunday, 2015-03-22

Marissa Charles


A photo of Lacey Schwartz and her mother, in “Little White Lie” (Credit: PBS)

Schwartz talks to Salon about race, privilege, family secrets and her new PBS documentary “Little White Lie”

For the first 18 years of her life Lacey Schwartz knew she was white. With her dark skin, curly hair and full lips, she was a nice Jewish girl from Woodstock, New York. And then — she wasn’t.

Twenty years ago, Schwartz applied to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and — even though she didn’t tick a box giving her racial identity — she was admitted as a black student. “I know some people looked at that situation and they think, ‘Why weren’t you outraged? Why wouldn’t you protest it?’” Schwartz, 38, said. But for the filmmaker, it was an opportunity to open herself up to something that deep down had been niggling her for most of her life, a question that became the the heart of her documentary “Little White Lie,” which airs Monday on PBS.

Ever since she was 5 years old, when a classmate demanded that she show him her gums, Schwartz knew she looked a bit different from everyone else in her very white town. But her parents, Peggy and Robert Schwartz, had an answer for that — a photo in their family album of her paternal ancestor, a dark-skinned Sicilian Jew. The real answer was far less complicated, buried underneath a lifetime of secrets and lies that helped spell the end of her parents’ marriage. (Spoiler alert: Schwartz is the result of an affair her mom had with an African-American family friend. She demanded answers from her mother when she was 18, but didn’t talk to her father about it until her mid-30s when she made the film.)

In “Little White Lie,” Schwartz confronts her family, exposing the secret and revealing how she has spent her adult years straddling two racial identities. We talked to Schwartz about ditching law for filmmaking and what it’s like to be black and white in America.

What made you want to become a filmmaker?

When I was in law school I started thinking about the issues that I wanted to work on and how film was an effective way to speak about the issues I cared about…

…Your story is like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” because it seems so obvious that you’re black, and yet everyone was saying that you were white. Growing up, when you looked at yourself in the mirror, did you ever have an inkling?

Absolutely. I saw my difference. It’s so crazy for me to find a picture of me when I was a kid and remember that I was so insecure about my hair and my skin and all those things. I definitely felt self-conscious of not being like everybody else that was around me…

…For you, what does it mean to be black?

I think it’s twofold. Part of it is about my own consciousness about being a person of color and being of the world and seeing things. I lived so much of my life having the outlook and thinking that I was white and being somewhat oblivious to the rest of the world, and so I think for me, it’s about gaining that consciousness of difference and really actually recognizing how other people see me.

Part of it’s also being part of the community and the connection. It’s shared experiences on a variety of different levels. When I got to college, that connection, realizing that — even though I hadn’t grown up identifying as being black — there were ways in which I really felt connected to being part of a community…

Read the entire interview here.

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Our real police/race problem: Diverse forces, white resentment, and America’s persistent divides

Posted in Articles, Economics, Law, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2015-01-03 22:22Z by Steven

Our real police/race problem: Diverse forces, white resentment, and America’s persistent divides

Salon
2015-01-02

Jim Sleeper

Why diverse police forces can’t seem to trump the economics of racism, or the twisted politics of white resentment

Nearly two decades before last month’s murders of New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a black man, the murder of a black NYPD officer, Charles Davis, anticipated claims we’re hearing that police-community problems aren’t really “black and white” and the only color that really counts is blue.

Yet the problems do remain “black and white” for reasons of economic exploitation and isolation that run deeper than race itself and that are gathering force, despite rising numbers of white/Asian and white/Hispanic marriages and of multiracial children, even in the families of police officers themselves. Unless we can face the reasons why more “diversity” in police ranks is a far-from-sufficient condition of justice, American society will remain more racist than many others, and thereby hangs my tale…

Read the entire article here.

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The “Dear White People” syndrome: Why movies are obsessed with light-skinned black characters

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2014-11-05 19:11Z by Steven

The “Dear White People” syndrome: Why movies are obsessed with light-skinned black characters

Salon
2014-10-23

Morgan Jerkins

This isn’t the first film to relegate dark-skinned actors to the sidelines — but it may be the most frustrating

For Princeton University’s recent Black Alumni Conference, an advance screening of “Dear White People” took place at the town’s Garden Theater, and I was one of many who could not wait to see it. Throughout the film, I could hear many black alums scoff at some of the micro-aggressions that we’ve all experienced and heard about, or laugh at all the things that we’ve all wanted to say in response to white people when these experiences occur but may have never had the gall to do so. The film is a bold attempt. But I could not help wondering why a light-skinned biracial woman was the lead female protagonist, the champion of civil rights on the fictitious Winchester University’s campus.

Frankly, as a light-skinned African-American female, I am tired of seeing women who look like myself presented as the epitome of complexity when it comes to setting forth the many different layers of the black experience for a mainstream audience. Yet we all know why this happens. A lighter-skinned black person is more marketable to an overwhelmingly white-dominated space. Not to mention, white appeal equals more marketability. The brown skin with a yellow undertone is the color “nearest [to] the light,” as Goethe once wrote, or in this case, to whiteness. White moviegoers want to see their reflections. Film is a form of escapism tinged with a dash of possibility from this perspective. A white character can be a villain or a hero while exemplifying a wide variety of emotions, and for a light-skinned black character with a name as equally “safe” as Samantha White, it all makes sense. She was able to show her radical and revolutionary side while effortlessly switching to her vulnerable side, via teary eyes, deliberate hesitations in speech, and even hairstyle changes to reflect her character development…

Read the entire article here.

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I raised my sons to be racially neutral

Posted in Articles, Family/Parenting, Media Archive, United States on 2014-10-19 22:47Z by Steven

I raised my sons to be racially neutral

Salon
2014-10-18

Terry Baker Mulligan

Two mixed-race boys, one lighter skinned than the other. Did I make a mistake telling them they were the same?

One Saturday night in St. Louis about decade ago my younger son, then a teen, was driving around town with two white friends. I’m black and my husband is white, so our two sons are biracial. This particular son has his father’s straight hair and aquiline nose. His skin is brown like mine.

The friend in the back seat behind my son stuck a paint pellet gun out the back window and shot a stop sign. He didn’t see two police cars parked just ahead. The cops hustled out of their squad cars and did the “Whoa, what the ‘F’ are you doing?” routine. The kids were taken to the police station, the gun was confiscated, and eventually all the parents were called to come to the station.

Back up about eight years. As a young family, we usually didn’t talk about race or even acknowledge it, because at the time we didn’t see the need. Then one night at the dinner table I got my first reality check when our younger boy, who was 7 at the time, said, “Dad, I want white skin and braces. And a new first name, like Michael.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Is race genetic?

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2014-10-15 15:28Z by Steven

Is race genetic?

Salon
2014-10-12

Laura Miller

Advances in genealogy and DNA analysis tell surprising and disturbing stories about the heritage we think we know

A bestselling European novelist, while on a recent American book tour, was approached by a woman clutching a manilla folder. “We’re related!” she told him, opening the folder to reveal old black and white photos, documents and a family tree. She pointed to a dour-looking 19th-century lady posing stiffly in a black dress and explained that this was her great-great-grandmother, the novelist’s great-great-great-aunt.

He was kind and patient, but clearly no more than mildly interested in the materials she treasured. Maybe he had more relatives than he knew what to do with back home. Maybe the whole thing was too reminiscent of the years when his homeland was occupied by a foreign power pathologically obsessed with establishing “pure” lineages. Or maybe he just believes in looking forward rather than back. He had, after all, books to sign, cities to visit and even more books to write once he got back, and perhaps defining himself by a future he can shape seems a lot more appealing than dwelling on the past he can’t.

Many Europeans see genealogy as a peculiarly American preoccupation — and of course billions of people in places like China view it merely as a human one, the way we make sense of our place in the world. Christine Kenneally, an Australian journalist and the author of “The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures,” has talked to adherents of both sides and has a lot of ideas about “what gets passed on,” as she puts it. Where Kenneally comes from, the “bad blood” of convicts transported from Britain to the antipodes was once regarded as a cause for shame, something best not talked about by their descendants. No longer: she recalls working on a school project in which her classmates happily dug up convict ancestors to boast about.

A good bit of “The Invisible History of the Human Race” is devoted to defending genealogy and the desire to know one’s lineage. Apparently, many historians look down on the amateur penchant for tracing family trees; it is not research but “mesearch,” too small-picture, too personal to constitute true scholarship. To the layperson, disproving this canard (which Kenneally does neatly) hardly seems a battle that demands to be fought, but when Kenneally takes up the subject of DNA and race, she enters more hotly contested territory. What does it mean to link the slippery concept of race to the scientific study of genetics and the historical facts that constitute an individual’s ancestry?…

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. himself serves as an excellent example. He’s “black,” that is, African-American (as well as a professor of African-American Studies), although the aforementioned DNA analysis revealed that 60 percent of his genetic material is of European origin. Does this make him less black? Not on that infamous evening in 2009, when Gates was arrested by a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts while attempting to enter his own house.

Yet what Gates learned about his genetic ancestry did change how he understood his identity, and he would later announce on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that he and the officer who arrested him share a common ancestor in the Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages. That’s the gist of much of the genealogy- and genetics-based programming that Gates has hosted for the Public Broadcasting Service, shows like “African American Lives” and “Finding Your Roots”: We are all more connected than we realize…

Read the entire article here.

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America’s sex and race failure: Why Raven-Symone and an Ohio couple are struggling

Posted in Articles, Gay & Lesbian, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2014-10-10 18:07Z by Steven

America’s sex and race failure: Why Raven-Symone and an Ohio couple are struggling

Salon
2014-10-08

Brittney Cooper, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

How a TV star shunning labels, and a lesbian couple with a Black baby illustrate the fight to assert one’s humanity

This week, iconic Cosby (grand)kid Raven-Symoné caught up with Oprah, telling her in an interview: “I don’t want to be labeled gay… I’m a human who loves other humans. …I’m American not African American.  I don’t know what country I’m from in Africa, but I do know I have roots in Louisiana. I’m an American, and that’s a colorless person.” It would be tempting to frame these recent remarks on race and gay identity from the Cosby Show and Disney star as just more ideal and myopic millennial musings on race. But I think her comments tell us something about the operations of contemporary notions of the “human” that are worth unpacking.

Let me begin by saying that using one’s Louisiana roots is perhaps the worst place to begin in an argument about how the term “American” is a “color-less” one. Both sides of my family have lived in Louisiana since the earliest census records I could find. That census, the 1870 census was the first to record the names of all the black people that had been freed within the last decade. With great care, citizens were designated with a “C,” “M,” or “W,” for “colored,” “mulatto” and “white” respectively. Well into the late 20th century, my grandmother referred to Black people as colored.

Certainly, Raven-Symoné’s arguments bear the trace of the postracial rhetoric so prominent among certain (though not all) segments of millennials.  But her desire to not acknowledge or carry the “African” designation in “African-American” is far from new. To be clear, many Black people who are Americans, are not “African American” in the sense that we mean that term today, namely as native born Black people. Voluntary rather than forced migrations of diasporic Black people from the Caribbean and from West Africa have been a characteristic of the U.S. Black population since the early 20th century.  The side eye I’m giving to Raven-Symoné is not about a desire to demand that all Black people in the U.S. take on the moniker “African American,” but rather about the fact that her framing suggests that it is the connection of Africa to blackness that has her wanting to disavow a hyphenated identity…

…Among the many things I find troubling in her statement is the idea that America is color-less. It is a society built on a foundational color schema in which black skin is figured as the condition for unfreedom and white skin as the condition for freedom. Louisiana itself had a notoriously restrictive definition of the one drop rule as Dr. Yaba Blay discusses in her book “One-Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race,” Louisiana law classified all people with “one-thirty-second or less” of Negro blood would be “deemed, described, or designated” officially as ‘colored, ‘mulatto,’ ‘black,’ ‘negro,’ ‘griffe,’ “Afro-American,’ ‘quadroon,’ ‘mestizo,” ‘colored person,’ or ‘person of color.’ Well into the 1980s, i.e. well into Raven Symoné’s lifetime, this law was used to designate putatively white people as black…

…This kind of rhetorical move is also salient coming on the heels of recent reports of an Ohio lesbian couple opting to sue their sperm bank for erroneously giving them black donor sperm.  I get suing for negligence and shoddy service. But for this queer couple, the presence of their Black daughter disrupts their ability to exist comfortably in the space of whiteness that defines their community, a community that they admit is deeply homophobic. Having chosen to be a queer family in the midst of a heteronormative white universe in Ohio, their Black child has now disrupted their access to white power and privilege. This biracial black girl is growing up with distraught, devastated queer parents who love her despite her blackness. Having internalized antiblackness, they note their discomfort with taking her to a black neighborhood for haircuts and their fear of the racist reprisal of neighbors and family members…

Read the entire article here.

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Elliot Rodger’s half-white male privilege

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Communications/Media Studies, United States on 2014-06-16 02:28Z by Steven

Elliot Rodger’s half-white male privilege

Salon
Thusday, 2014-05-29

Joan Walsh, Editor at Large

The killer’s Asian heritage matters. So does his ugly class entitlement. Misogyny crosses lines of race and culture

The widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging. Why, then, has it been so hard to get his race right?

From the left, headlines (including on Salon) have labeled him “white,” though most stories at least nodded to his Asian heritage (his mother was ethnic Chinese Malaysian). Chauncey DeVega’s fascinating piece on Rodger’s crime as evidence of “aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome,” a malady that includes other white male mass killers from Columbine’s Eric Klebold to Newtown’s Adam Lanza, didn’t mention his status as half-Asian.

When commentators noted the omission, DeVega (whose work I admire) doubled down in a follow-up piece,“Yes, Elliot Rodger is white!” He argued that Rodger “constructed an identity for himself as ‘Eurasian’ and proceeded to internalize American society’s cues and lessons about power, privilege, race, and gender. He then lived out his own particular understanding of what it means to be white and male in the United States.”

Not that I have a lot of sympathy for Rodger, but it twists his already twisted story to label him simply white…

…“The media, as usual, has oversimplified his identity and experience of race in typically binary terms, which miss the complex nuances and grey areas of that identity and experience,” University of California, Santa Barbara, sociology professor G. Reginald Daniel told me via email. (Daniel is also the editor in chief of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies.) “My feeling is that some of his many issues are related in part to his struggles with or questions about how ‘white’ he was or was not allowed or perceived to be.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Owning my mixed-race identity: Why I don’t have to choose sides

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Canada, Media Archive on 2014-03-26 19:35Z by Steven

Owning my mixed-race identity: Why I don’t have to choose sides

Salon
Wednesday, 2014-03-12

Eternity E. Martis
London, Ontario, Canada

People can’t seem to understand that I’m not either black or Anglo-Pakistani, but all of the above

My mother is Anglo-Pakistani and my father is Jamaican (and a quarter Chinese). I grew up with my mother and her family, a chubby, curly-haired, dark-skinned child eating chana masala, aloo paneer and chicken makhani.  As a child, I didn’t know I was any different from the rest of my family. But as I grew up, I realized that I was different, because I looked different.

My mom is fair-skinned with pin-straight hair. My uncle and several other members of my family are also fair with clear, light green eyes. I did not get any of those traits — I’m the darkest-skinned person in my immediate family, and the only one who’s mixed-race. As a child, I envied my mother’s skin; I longed to be white. She didn’t have to feel uncomfortable in the spaces white people inhabited. She wasn’t sneered at, followed around department stores by an employee as if she was a thief, or pushed off the sidewalk when she was walking to school by white kids. Life seemed easy for her.

I despised my father; his absence humiliated me. Not only did I loathe his withdrawn parenting, but I hated his genes. I inherited his dark skin and large nose. All six of his kids did. They were markers of my presumed inferiority, giving people a reason to treat me unkindly, giving boys a reason to rate me a “4” for my “monkey face” while my other female classmates received a generous “9.” It also didn’t matter that I was my mother’s child; nowhere did people recognize me in her…

…Someone asked me why people who are mixed with black try to distance themselves from their black ancestry, as if we are ashamed. It has nothing to do with shame; on my part, I find myself more in touch with s side now that I am older. However, I do want to bring awareness to mixed race politics and break down rigid categories of race. I do not have to be black because I am mixed; I do not have to be white because I am mixed. I do not have to be Pakistani because I am mixed. I do not have to choose a side, because I am everything…

Read the entire article here.

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“Dreadful Deceit”: Race is a myth

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-12-16 02:06Z by Steven

“Dreadful Deceit”: Race is a myth

Salon
Sunday, 2013-12-15

Laura Miller, Staff Writer

A historian argues that one of the defining elements of American culture is merely a “social fiction”

Jacqueline Jones’ provocative new history, “Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America,” contains a startling sentence on its 265th page. It comes after Jones quotes Simon Owens, the last of five African-Americans whose life stories she describes in the book. Owens — an auto worker, labor activist and writer who died in 1983 — stated, “I understood as a Negro first, in the South, the North, in the union, in the NAACP, in the C.P. [Communist Party] and in the S.W.P [Socialist Workers Party].” Jones adds, “Because generations of white people had defined him and all other blacks first and foremost as ‘Negroes,’ he had no alternative but to acknowledge — or, rather, react to — that spurious identity.”

That racial identities are “spurious” is the foundational argument of this fascinating book. Race is a cultural invention, rather than a biological fact (on this scientists widely agree), and Jones, a history professor at the University of Texas and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, wants to show how pernicious and persistent this falsity is. In the book’s epilogue, she points to an article from the 2012 edition of the New York Times titled “How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race,” based on a study showing that living in high-crime neighborhood or having chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension can cause insomnia. But, as Jones observes, these are problems deriving from poverty, not race, and so the article “blatantly conflated socioeconomic status with the idea of race.”

Of the five people whose life stories are told in “Dreadful Deceit,” the first is essentially voiceless: an enslaved man named Antonio, abducted from his homeland in Africa and murdered while being “corrected” by a colonial landowner in 17th-century Chesapeake. As Jones relates, Antonio’s race “had no practical meaning” to the man who purported to own him, Symon Overzee. Describing in well-researched detail the economic and political milieu of the time, she argues that what created Antonio’s vulnerability to Overzee was not his skin color or any other physical trait but his uprootedness, “without a tribe or a nation-state to protect and defend him in the Atlantic world.”…

…None of the life stories in the book supports this argument more forcefully than that of Richard W. White, a Civil War veteran elected to the office of clerk of the Chatham County Superior Court in Georgia. One of his opponents in the election filed suit against White, charging that he was ineligible to hold office in Georgia because he was “colored.” White, who was relatively new in town and “from unknown parts and of unknown lineage,” appeared to be “white.” The evidence marshaled to prove that White was not white consisted, as the judge freely admitted, of “the reputation of the person in his community, that is what he says of himself — what others say of him — his associates and his general reputation.” In other words, Jones underlines, a man’s race in this community “would be a matter not of ethnicity or heritage or appearance or biology. It would be, purely and simply, a social fiction — one without any appreciable basis in physical reality.”…

Read the entire review here.

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