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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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.

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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.

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