AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
AFAM 162 - Lecture 20 - The Politics of Gender and Culture
Chapter 1. Events Surrounding the Invasion of Cambodia [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Now you remember from last week that we’re in the moment of phasing out of the 1960s, moving into the 1970s, but of course, human actions, inactions, chronology, is not simply as neat as dates on a, on a calendar as a timeline. A lot of the social confusion, violence, and cultural excitement actually, of this era, of the late sixties, is right there in the 1970s. And this lecture’s actually trying to canvass some of the political turmoil and its, its marriage to popular culture in the early 1970s. By way of context though, let me start in the spring of 1970. On April 30th–and actually, let me focus–it’s, frankly, just focus on two weeks in 1970. On April 30th, President Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia, escalation of the war in Southeast Asia in general, and the need for one hundred and fifty thousand more troops to find a lasting peace. In response, the campus at Kent State in Ohio, the ROTC building is set on fire. The Ohio governor dispatches National Guard to make sure that the campus remains peaceful. Onto May 4th, this attempt to keep the peace on Kent State evaporates, when twenty-eight Guardsmen open fire on Kent State students, killing four and wounding nine.
Immediately–immediately being a day–five hundred colleges are shut down across the country, or they’re disrupted from protests. Our country, according to college protestors, our country is now attacking us. It makes tremendous headlines. On May 14th, ten days–[student sneezes] bless you–ten days after Kent State, at Jackson State University, a historically black university, during a student protest, state and highway patrolmen open fire with automatic weapons into dormitories. Allegations are that someone was sniping at them. No evidence was ever found to that, to that end. They opened fire without any warning, killed two students and wounded nine. The scale of national attention is not commensurate with what happens at Kent State. So for, in the African American community, there is a sense that the police state, in this case, state and highway patrolmen, could kill our college students without anybody worrying too much, but at Kent State, also inexcusable, that if you kill the students, it becomes a national catastrophe.
Meanwhile, in New Haven, just about two blocks from here–well, actually, all throughout New Haven–the Black Panther Party and the FBI are at a standoff. Black Panther Party and fellow travelers had come to New Haven, essentially to protest the murder trial of Bobby Seale, who’s accused of authorizing the murder of Alex Rackley, member of the Black Panther Party, people believed to have been an informant to the FBI. Fifteen thousand people descend upon the green, Panthers, Panther supporters, sort of anarchist hippies, called the Yippies, by–led by Abbie Hoffman, fellow travel–travelers of all sorts. And there was a real fear that the city is going to be collapsed into a race riot. The university, under the leadership of Kingman Brewster, the president at the time, does something that people never expected, and actually opened its doors to the Black Panthers. It created a mechanism, it felt–Brewster felt, that would relieve some of the pent up anxiety and tension over what’s happening around the country and then locally.
Classes are canceled; there’s student strikes. I think two or three pipe bombs go off at Ingalls Rink. It’s a level of chaos that you, that you are not familiar with. Kingman Brewster declares that he actually doubts–and I’m paraphrasing here–whether a black person can get a fair trial anywhere in America. Immediately, the alums start phoning in, calling for his resignation, for his outlandish statement. It’s a national event, student unrest; it’s a local story as well.
Chapter 2. Marvin Gaye Album: “What’s going on?” [00:05:24]
In this spirit of what’s going on in the country on the college campuses, and the nation, the call for federal troops–excuse me, for more military troops, the invasion of Cambodia, you have an astonishing, almost sort of a call and response by a lot of cultural artists. Most famous in this regard–well, most famous to me at least, in this regard–is Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye, who had made a career at Motown by piecing together and performing love songs, branches out a year later in May of 1971 with something really quite different. So he’s known for, for this:
<Ain’t No Mountain High Enough excerpt plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: I mean, really catchy love songs, really quite–you know, they’re actually important in the history of the evolution of rock music and the Motown sound. But by–when we get into 1970, Gaye is wrestling with, well, partly exhaustion from churning out these saccharine laden songs, but also he’s wrestling with what’s going on in the country, and he wants to aspire to do something quite different. And he earns, secures himself a new contract with Motown and he’s given creative license, which is astonishing. This is the big sort of rupture in Motown. He’s given creative license, and he turns–and he generates a concept album. The album’s called What’s Going On? It’s dealing with Vietnam, it’s dealing with economic despair, with incredible inflation going on in the country. It’s dealing with ecological despair, and this is a few years before Earth Day would actually take effect, when people are wondering what we’re doing to this particular planet. In fact, I’ve often, when I’ve given this lecture–as of one time, I hadn’t given a, a cultural politics lecture for years, and I finally realized it was time to do so. And I listened to What’s Going On? Just to see if I wanted to play a clip, and I realized, I could actually just put the CD on, leave the room, have you guys understand the nineteen, early 1970s by the time the album was over. But, well, I have to get up and say something.
So you have a moment of escalating war in Vietnam, fear of, of destruction of the planet, ecologically speaking, environmentally speaking, hyperinflation in the United States, poverty, urban decay. And Marvin Gaye starts writing these pieces, or produces these songs. They merge one into another in What’s Going On? and, in fact, if you do want to learn about the 1970s, just go out and–I used to say buy the album at the record store, then you could buy the CD, and now it’s just, you know, go to iTunes, I suppose. Although you should patronize Cutler’s, the local record store. [Students laugh] One of his signature songs from the album, “What’s Happening, Brother?” It’s the story of a returning vet, comes back from Vietnam, trying to figure out what is happening on the street, really trying to get back into the mundane routine of life. I’ll play a clip of it.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: If you have the lyrics sheet in front of you, it’s self evident. For those of you who don’t, the guy’s just come back from war. He’s wondering, if he’s reading the newspaper, if what he’s reading is true, and he’s talking about civil rights here, of things actually getting better. Can’t find a job though, money is tight. “I don’t understand what’s going on around here.” And then just wondering, you know, are they still doing stuff they used to do, going to the dances? Do you think anybody has a chance to succeed, in this case, a ball club? “I want to know what’s going on, what’s happening.” Someone who’s lost and trying to find his way. Very soon, you get an answer in the same album, in the song “Inner City Blues.“ Harkening back to Gil Scott-Heron, “Whitey on the Moon.”
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Sending people to the moon? Spend it on people who don’t have anything, please, instead. People taking all of our money. This is exactly Gil Scott-Heron’s lament from the same era. He closes the song, throwing up both my hands in a lament. Now if you think I’m stretching this just a little bit, I mean, this is just one album, after all, let me share with you a personal story. It’s happening in 1971, seventy-two, and seventy-three. I was too young to remember it, actually, but in 1990–let me think, when would this have been–1997 or so, I was living in Los Angeles. My father and mother had come to visit me and my wife, and we’re driving. We go out to–he’d lived in L.A. for a while when–during this era–we drive out to visit some old friends of his in Los Angeles, have a great night. Come back, we’re driving back and I happen just to put on this album. I listen to it all the time. He and my mother riding in the back seat and after a while, I realize what–something doesn’t sound quite right. And then I realize, what I’m hearing in the back seat is weeping, I mean, flat out weeping. I turn down the music, ask what’s going on, and my father just says, “I can’t–you know, I just can’t talk, can’t talk about it.” Get back to the house. I’ve never seen this guy cry in my entire life. I don’t know what, what is actually happened.
I sit down with him and my mother says, “Wendell, just tell him what’s going–what happened there.” And my father essentially had a flashback. He was a Vietnam vet himself, fought–flew in the Air Force. And he’s saying that album just brought everything back. I mean, “You just don’t, you just don’t understand,” he tells me, “what it was like.” People going off and trying to–risking their lives for their country, and being treated the way they were treated upon their return. And Marvin Gaye really understood the sense of confusion that many people, not just the vets, but certainly in his case, the vets come back trying to figure out what is going on in this country, what do they actually fight for? Feeling a sense of moral confusion as well. My father even talked about the, you know, the economy and the ecological landscape, all in that same moment. He goes, “That album really captured it all. Marvin Gaye understood what was going on.”
Now this album, What’s Going On?, fluctuates between the international critique and also things happening in U.S. cities, again, this economic despair, I keep coming back to it. It’s really one of the defining elements of the time.
Chapter 3. Shaft: The Celebration of Black Masculinity, Virility, and Culture [00:15:36]
You also have, during this moment, this rise of, in, in line with the Black Panther Party, certainly, this rise of a celebration of black masculinity, black virility, and also black cultural celebration. Quite a different one than the Harlem Renaissance, certainly, but a black cultural celebration all the same. Take these elements together, sort of this culturally rich moment, the notion of abiding economic troubles, and also determination that we, in this case the black man–and I use that phrase quite intentionally–are going to turn the system over. We’re going to be something different. You end up with an incredibly popular movie and character. The character’s name is John Shaft, and the movie is Shaft. I’ll play for you some lyrics, show you a clip, and then explain a bit of what is actually happening in this piece.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Every year I play this, I forget to do a vocal boost, because the lyrics–Isaac Hayes’s voice is so deep, that you lose out on the lyrics.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Thank you. [Students laugh]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: “Right On!
Student: “Shut your mouth!”
Professor Jonathan Holloway: “But I’m talking about Shaft.” All right, you get it. Anyway, I mean it is, it is humorous, especially when looking like this, and being what I am, and singing this song. [Students laugh] But, but the song was incredibly important. Isaac Hayes breaks out as well, out of the Motown sort of trap, and comes out with this album that electrifies people. He’s talking about a kind of individual they had not seen before, they had not been around before. And then the movie comes out. I mean this was the soundtrack to the movie.
<<Shaft movie, soundtrack plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: So you’re walking through New York, Time Square, which used to be a complete cesspool.
<<Shaft movie, soundtrack plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: I’ll fix it.
<<Shaft movie, soundtrack plays>>
[Shaft]: Come on, get out of the way.
[Man 1]: Want a time piece, brother?
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Now I played the extended clip here. There’s a couple of moments that are rather important. One is just the street scene that Shaft is walking through. New York City, Time Square, is not the place you’ve come to know with its, with its sort of carnival atmosphere. It was a place of, you know, triple X movie theaters, prostitutes, drug use and such. And John Shaft comes up, emerges in this landscape, and walks through it, a man on a mission. Thirty-four seconds into this clip, into the start of the movie, you may have seen it or not. I don’t know if the lights were down enough yet for you, but he crosses the street and someone comes up about to hit him. He stops the car and gives them the finger. You know, in the grand scheme of things, especially with what we see today in our movies, in our YouTube clips, this is, this doesn’t even register. This was a mind blowing moment in American cinema, when this movie comes out. A black man, walking through a place like he owns it, giving the finger to a white guy in a car, and he continues walking. He’s walking through, his long, leather black coat. Certainly reminiscent of the Panthers, but he looks a little bit different. And it turns out, when this guy tries to sell him a hot timepiece, that he’s a cop. So the question is, who’s the man?
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Yeah, thank you! [Students laugh] Well played, yes. That Shaft is the man. He’s virile, he’s masculine. As the lyrics say, “he’s a complicated man.” And so you have a new kind of visual representation of blackness. [Student sneezes] Bless you.
Chapter 4. Blaxploitation Film: “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song” [00:22:48]
Now Shaft is one of the, the finer productions of a, of a cultural moment in cinema called Black–Blaxploitation. Pardon me, I have to multitask a little bit here. Blaxploitation begins in 1971, begins, you know, all in this moment. It begins with the movie, really an art piece by a man named Melvin, Melvin Van Peebles. The movie’s called Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. The movie is–I find it very difficult to watch, just from the kind of messages it’s giving, and also because of its cinematic qualities, and because it’s in some way–well, I don’t care for the movie. But anyway, it’s incredibly important.
It starts with the unnamed narrator, or protagonist, I suppose, seen being raised by prostitutes, he becomes a hustler. He give witness to a moment of po–police brutality. He kills a bad cop and because he committed one of the ultimate offenses, he has to go on the run. And the movie is essentially him–it’s a flight movie. He’s going through all these different scenes, trying to keep one step in front of the man. And the man, as it turns out in this case, is powerfully corrupt. There’s a lot of power; but that power has corrupted him. And you see Melvin Van Peebles, he’s the lead in his own movie, you know, going through I mean any kind of slice of life you can imagine, representing the 1970s: drug use, sex scenes, pimping, prostitution, crime, always trying to stay one step in front of the man.
And the movie becomes an inspiration for the formula that becomes Blaxploitation. It’s a movie that dismisses assimilation, that declares the system’s corrupt. It is a reflection of Black Power militancy, no matter what it’s a counter to white hegemony. This is how you could characterize most of the Blaxploitation films. There are wrinkles; we’ll get to that in a moment. But I want to play for you one of the last few clips of the movie. What you’re seeing here, it’s a, it’s a strange close up, the camera looking down in a shallow creek, panning up to see a, to see a, a gutted, a gutted police dog that had come to hunt down the narrator. You see it from a slightly comfortable distance. And again, it’s a, it’s a movie that’s about flight.
<Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: It’s actually hard to watch because of the dissonance and the rough film quality. Well, the movie’s shot on a five hundred thousand dollar budget, shot in the course of two weeks, has an all black crew. So it’s giving a message about sort of a non-assimilationist black pride and it’s actually doing it as well. And the movie–oh and I think it aspires for an X rating, which had a different connotation early seventies than it does now, because that way they could get outside of the union system, and then have an all black crew. Shot for five hundred grand, grosses two million–ten million dollars, excuse me, ten million dollars, a tremendous return on investment. And this is what really launches this five year period of the genre. They are often low budget, Shaft being really a different creature in this regard, it’s a high budget film. Most of them are low budget. They make a ton of money. The production values aren’t that wonderful. They’re mostly action films. They’re very simplistic in its construction: black is good, white is black–bad. They are hyper-masculine, and they’re misogynist.
So when people think about Blaxploitation, is it about black identity, about a certain kind of blackness? Is it about cultural production? Or was it a co-opted capitalist venture?
Chapter 5. Blaxploitation Film: “Super Fly” [00:28:16]
After Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, most of the Blaxploitation film–films become studio productions. No matter what you decide Blaxploitation is, it’s important to think about the images that it presents. They all weren’t about revolutionaries or tough upstanding men. They’re about different kinds of people. I’ll play a clip from the movie Super Fly as a way to access this particular part of the narrative.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: So this is a song celebrating the pusher.
So who is the pusherman? I’ll play the opening montage from Super Fly.
<Super Fly plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: The main character is getting out of his car. That is the main, lead character.
<Super Fly plays>>
[Man 1]: [Inaudible]
[Man 2]: Yeah
[Man 1]: [Inaudible] Motherfucker. We going for life, we got that shit.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: The filmmakers didn’t need a set; they had New York City. Used as a perfect backdrop.
<Super Fly plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: So I played this extended clip the same way I played Shaft. I mean these movies are coming out at essentially the same time, but they’re telling quite a different story. Walking through different parts of New York City, certainly. Shaft walking with power and authority, since he is the man, and the pusherman doing something really entirely quite different. Still, also walking through New York City and its economic–sights of economic devastation. Right before this clip, you see the pusherman getting out of bed. He has, as the lyrics in the Curtis Mayfield song, “the baddest bitches in the bed,” getting out of bed with a white woman, which is of course important for all the racial narratives about that kind of coupling possibility, living in a very fancy apartment, and he’s really trying to get out. He’s made enough money, trying to get out of the system. Then he’s got to get these petty thieves who are trying to take some of his, his dope.
The story is then about a pusherman trying to exit the high life. He’s going to make one final score and retire. But he, as the story goes through, he discovers that the people who are actually the drug pins, kingpins in New York City, the ones he has to make this final score with, are the police. The commissioner of the police is the biggest kingpin, drug kingpin in the city, and the pusherman comes to the heroic conclusion, by framing, or setting up, the police commissioner. So you have here perhaps a hero, perhaps an antihero. It’s really quite unclear, but you certainly–I mean in terms of what’s being celebrated here–but you certainly have the lingering part of Blaxploitation, that the man, when it is the white man–not John Shaft of course–the man, usually a person of great authority, structurally in the system, is the cause of degradation in the black community.
Chapter 6. Blaxploitation Film: “Foxy Brown” [00:35:43]
Now, I’ve talked about the fact that Blaxploitation is celebrating manhood of a complicated nature. It’s also doing something quite different. You know, people often point to Pam Grier as a wonderful example of a Blaxploitation film star. You know, she’s always winning in the end. One of her first movies in this regard, Foxy Brown, is a story about Foxy. Her brother is set up by drug kingpins. This is one of the great narratives of Blaxploitation. Her boyfriend is killed by the man, and she’s going to infiltrate the mob to exact her revenge. And the way she infiltrates it is becoming a prostitute. In fact, at the beginning of the movie, before this stuff un, un, unwinds, you have Pam Grier getting out of bed with the phone ring, phone rings. And within a few seconds, she’s bare chested. I mean this is what Blaxploitation and white–and, and female power is suggested by Pam Grier, her sexuality is her power. Anyway, I want to play the last couple of minutes from Foxy Brown. It has a twist on this narrative of who’s the man, in fact, how Black Power is interwoven in this, in interesting ways.
<Foxy Brown plays>>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: What you’re seeing here is the drug kingpin’s boyfriend being stopped. Black mobsters have taken over. Posing as the police, and now they’ve caught him.
<Foxy Brown plays>>
[Kingpin]: What are you going to do? What do you want? What are you guys going to do? What are you crazy? What do you–
[Black Mobster]: He’s ready, sister.
[Kingpin]: No, you–You’re crazy. You can’t do this! You can’t do that! No! No, Foxy! Oh no, you can’t. <>
Professor Jonathan Holloway: And this is the drug kingpin, as it turns out, the person behind Foxy Brown’s boyfriend’s murder, her brother, her brother being set up as well. The alarm’s been tripped.
<Foxy Brown plays>>
[Man 1]: Hold it right there, spook.
[Man 2]: You’re going to be a spook for real pretty soon. Hands up.
[Foxy]: Don’t pinch the fruit, faggot.
[Man 2]: You watch your mouth or I’ll–
[Woman 1]: No Eddie, later. I want to know what she’s doing here.
[Man 2]: I’ll take that thing now.
[Foxy]: Sure, I brought it for you, Ms. Pimp. Like I said, it’s a present from your faggot boyfriend.
[Woman 1]: See what it is, Eddie. [Man 2 opens the bag] What is it?
[Man 2]: I don’t know, it looks like a pickle jar or something
[Woman 1]: Bring it here. [Package explodes. Foxy pulls her gun out and shoots Man 1 and Man 2. Woman 1 grabs a knife. Foxy shoots at her.] Why don’t you kill me too? Go on, shoot, I don’t want to live anymore.
[Foxy]: I know. That’s the idea. The rest of your boyfriends are still around. And I hope you do them a long time. And then maybe you get to feel what I feel. Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.
[Woman 1]: screams
[Voiceover]: Super bad.
[Foxy]: The party’s over, Oscar, let’s go.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: So you have in this clip justice being exacted along the terms that in the Black–Blaxploitation vernacular made the most sense. But still, what kind of messages are being offered here? And when you were in the movie theater, I mean the production value, the acting and such, you know, in the, the gun being pulled out of the afro, these are all humorous, but in the movie theater, these are moments of celebration. This is a whole different kind of cultural logic that people had not seen before, not on a screen, and they wanted to celebrate it.
Chapter 7. Stevie Wonder [00:42:40]
It’s an era of great struggle for the nation, truly. We’re still not out of that moment. And you’d see it articulated with its great cultural products of the age. It’s a moment of despair, it’s despair that’s certainly likely what urged Stevie Wonder to write some of the most socially conscious lyrics of the era. And are–and these are, you won’t be surprised, these are not the ones that are heard on the radio when people play back, you know, Stevie Wonder reflections.
Wonder had negotiated a new contract, just like Marvin Gaye had done before, that broke him out of the studio system in Motown, and re–and the result was about a six year cycle of albums that was nothing short of astonishing. I mean, one, that the albums are released, so many are released in just a five year window–actually, just a four year window when you think about it. Albums are Music on My Mind in 1972. He’s only 21 years old. Talking Book released the same year, in seventy-two. Innervisions is released in seventy-three. Fulfillingness’ First Finale in seventy-four, Songs in the Key of Life in seventy-six. This is not the Little Stevie Wonder of–he’s coming out with Motown with–I’m forgetting the name of the song–playing his harmonica, but a Motown sort of dance tune. This is not the Stevie Wonder in later years of, you know, “Don’t drive drunk,” thing. This is Stevie Wonder of a different kind of political vintage. You can hear it here in this song “Big Brother.”
Professor Jonathan Holloway: The sound quality’s much better. I had the settings off on this, I apologize. But in this song itself, he’s going on,
He concludes the song with,
This is a different kind of Stevie Wonder, of course. Now, Wonder is using lyrics that are call and response to Jesse Jackson. Now we’ve not talked about Jesse Jackson pretty much at all in this course. We’ll be talking about it, I think, next week. But Jackson has made a name for himself with a famous call and response, “I am somebody.” “I am,” and the audience says, “Somebody.” Trying to boost up in these rallies sort of the notion of self esteem. And Wonder’s saying, “No, my name is Nobody. My name is Secluded.” Incredible economic violence and despair. “You have killed all of our leaders. I don’t have to do nothing to you to cause your own country to fall. The nation is going to collapse in upon itself. “
So you have then across in the early years of the 1970s, and this lecture’s really focused on about four years, three years, three or four years in the 1970s, a moment of incredible cultural production, but of a type that sends, well, a range of messages, I suppose. It’s talking about black virility and at a moment of rising black feminism, which we’ll be talking about on Wednesday, sends very interesting message, interesting in quotes, interesting not in a good way, messages about the role of the black woman. Still wrestling with tensions over who the man is, what the man looks like, what the man does. Who’s to be blamed for the excesses? In a sense, profoundly co–confusing messages about the cultural celebration of people who are putting drugs into the community and destroying that community. As you walk out, I’ll be playing Village Ghetto Land from Wonder in 1976. He was inviting people to come with him down to his dead end street,
Not the most uplifting lecture, I know, but this is the cultural moment of the early 1970s. We’ll overlap and we’ll start talking about black feminism in the same moment and see a series of conflicting messages about blackness in the early 1970s. Class is over. <>
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