AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)
AFAM 162 - Lecture 25 - Who Speaks for the Race? (continued)
Chapter 1. Introduction and Synthesizing Material Covered So Far [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: We’re at that moment. Pardon me a second here. You know, I always find it shocking that you, you get to spring break, and you come back, and you’re like, “Oh my god, six more weeks. How am I going to survive?” And the next thing you know, we’re at the last week of class, the last lecture. And since it is the last lecture, I want to do a quick survey of the course, and this is truly a quick survey of the course through a whole host of keywords. This is not meant to sum up the entire course, and I’m not saying that all these keywords are going to help you understand your final paper or ace, you know, the in-class exam, for those of you who are going to be taking it. But they, I think, will–they are there to spur more reflection and thought about critical moments, themes, ideologies for the class. And then I do want to bring us up to our contemporary moment and wrestle for a little bit about some of the lessons, discussions, ideas from the past, and how they resonate in our present time. So–is this working? Excellent. Okay.
So it should–unless you’re coming to the class for the first time today, not pre-frosh, who might be here, but people in the class, if, if I have to linger over citizenship, I wish you much luck for the end of the term. Citizenship is one of the, the fundamental issues that I’ve been talking about throughout this course, whether it’s the active attempt to deny citizenship in the, in the pre-emancipatory moment and the post-emancipatory moment, or whether it’s just the various ways individuals, state actors, ideologies, have worked to police who could belong and not belong in the American pantheon. Representation, I’m talking about it, how—I, I mean, think about it in the way that we use cultural symbols to represent other things, the ways in which different ideologies of the self, in terms of racialized self-representation, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, all of these things representing a whole body, as it were, of political positions and ideologies.
One of the great things that is there through the beginning of the course and all the way to the present day is really the wrestling and the balance between where does one’s rights as an individuals run into–[Student Sneezes] Bless you–run, run into larger issues dealing with the social fabric, individual liberty versus social equality. And you can certainly translate that into, metaphorically, into states’ rights versus federal rights as well. This is a major thing that we’ve been talking about, I’ve been trying to impart to you the last couple of lectures, certainly, but it’s been there throughout the course, the great divide between the rhetoric of our political leaders or our political activists, politically engaged people, and what social reality is. This is certainly an important thing to wrestle with, think about, in the last twenty or thirty years–well, gosh, now thirty or forty years, in our post-Civil Rights Movement era. But how can we talk about race as it’s lived on the ground, and not–as a politician or activist? How can I talk about race as it’s lived on the ground without being tarred, correctly or incorrectly, as being racialist or racist in my thinking?
Dealing with issues of leadership of course, and uplift. These come together, certainly if you think back to earlier part of the course and the complicated politics, often class politics and gender politics, all woven through with race politics, about what does uplift mean? What does it mean to lead the race? Uplift them to what, uplift them from what? Uplift them, but so far. These are all these kinds of things we talked about. Chronologically speaking, mainly I talked about them at the turn of the century going into the twentieth century. Part of uplift, part of uplift is respectability, people acting in a respectable fashion, but that’s certainly not a phenomenon that limits itself to the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century. I mean, think of the images of the civil rights activists that we saw, that, that we’ve grown up with: you know, young men and young women having to dress in a certain way, comport themselves in a certain fashion. Think of the stories I talked about with the Little–Little Rock Nine or the, the men who integrated the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and started the sit-in movement. Think of the way that Martin Luther King had to present himself, felt the need to present himself, the test case individuals who end up–their cases go up to the Supreme Court. They had to reflect or embody the kind of values that they felt the nation could understand. These are the most respectable people, and how can we deny them their citizenship rights?
The gender, of course, and its see–and it’s seeming invisibility. Throughout the course and its readings, I know in sections as well, issues have–of, of gender have been ever present. They’re always present, and in some weeks more explicitly than others, but the way in which women’s and men’s rights or, quote, sensibilities–I use that term very gently in a fully loaded fashion–shift how we deal with individual rights, social equality, certainly, who can be a citizen? Thinking of things on the ground, you have the migrations, the Great Migration her–happening in the early part of the twentieth century, the much larger migration as far as numbers happening in the 1940s and 1950s, and coming along with the relocation of African American bodies is also the relocation of African American culture, forms of cultural expression, politics, organizing logics, traditions, and also resistance, and unrest, and riots, and bloodshed.
At different moments in the course I talked about cultural politics, whether the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Renaissance, and introduced the idea, at least for this course, about the belief by many of the leaders of the Renaissance that practicing cultural politics in this way, talking about exceptional cultural talents of the race, was absolutely a politicized act. That by recognizing the cultural gifts of black people in the world, think to the connections, the complicated connections, to African cultural roots, but by talking about the cultural gifts of African Americans, the nation would understand these people have made a contribution and they needed to be recognized in such a way and have their citizenship rights respected.
Certainly throughout the course, we’ve been talking about political radicalism, but, you know, keep in mind this is chronologically contingent. The NAACP were a bunch of crazy radicals–The leaders of the NAACP were a bunch of crazy radicals in 1909, always espousing middle-class norms, but still radicals. By the time you get to mid-century, they aren’t necessarily the radicals, you know, and they’re trying to silence people like Rob–Robert Williams, saying blacks need to arm themselves. It’s like, “We can’t have that in our association.” And then by the sixties and seventies, you know, they’re yesterday’s news as far as the young radicals are concerned. What is radical is contingent upon time and place.
Certainly when you think about the civil rights movement in particular, as I, you know, remember, I slowed down the pace of the course dramatically, because the iconography of the Civil Rights Movement is so powerful, it’s one of the defining characteristics of our, of our modern–I mean modern in the last forty years, let’s say–of our modern conception of what it means to be an American. It means that we all supported Martin Luther King, after all. We all overcame, you know, the struggles that people with a less sharp vision created. Well, the fact is, that’s all a myth. There’s only a minority of a minority who were on the front lines with King and other people, and of course, King being iconographic himself and many other people involved. And there’s profound resistance, individual, institutional, cultural, to change in the movement. But the iconography gives us a kind of simplified notion of the civil rights history that does a disservice to all the real struggles on the ground, and all the complications that come along with being a human being.
Talk of the triumphs of–I mean, two great iconographic moments were the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Moments where it seems that African Americans finally had their full rights as citizens. But you need to understand, this might connect across the way to political rhetoric versus social reality. So you can pass all the laws you want to pass, but unless you enforce those laws, it doesn’t mean anything. So the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were signed and ushered in a, a new day for all American citizens. There’s no minimizing that fact; it did. But you also have to look at enforcement, you have to wrestle with the phenomenon that, say, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board, saying “we need to end, end segregation with all deliberate speed.” And these things are still tied up in court cases, to this day. Enforcement being very critical when it comes to citizenship rights and the law.
Heading more towards our contemporary moment, of course, where we’ve been for the last four weeks of the course–no, I’m sorry, last two weeks of the course–with greater focus is post-civil rights America. What does it mean to be post-civil rights? Historians are actually actively debating this right now, wondering if we ever got to a post-civil rights moment, and also wondering, did the civil rights–and I’ve already mentioned this in the course, did the Civil Rights Movement begin, say, in fifty-four? Can you actually identify the beginning? Did it end in sixty-eight? Can you identify an ending, actually? So, we all use the phrase post-civil rights, I mean, I use it as well. But we need to understand that it’s loaded with complications. It’s a highly nuanced term that’s never thought about in a nuanced way or used in a nuanced way, except for you guys after this glass.
Racial symbolism has been there from the very beginning, the founding of this country, before the founding of this country. It is a phenomenon that exists as long as people have eyeballs. Now, it is a defining characteristic of this country. It’s–John Hope Franklin, the historian I mentioned in the last lecture, who headed up the President’s commission on the, the National Conversation on Race, you know, said this is America’s original sin. This is the scar that really defines the country. Angela Oh disagreed with him to the, to the extent to which he thought–she thought that that was a really useful way of thinking about things, but the fact is, as I mentioned in the very first lecture, that–arguing you cannot understand American freedom, one of our most core values, without understanding slavery. And you can’t understand slavery without understanding its racial dynamics.
Chapter 2. Barack Obama: The First African American President [00:12:39]
Of course, racial symbolism carries forward till today and that’s what I’ll actually be talking about a fair amount in today’s lecture, about just that. And, in fact, as I think about it, this used to be the last keyword I’d have on the screen. There’s many other words I could pick and choose, but I thought this was a nice way to get into the lecture on racial symbolism. But now we’ve got this one to deal with, “post-racial.” What does it mean? What can it possibly mean? I mean, the, the, the, the simple answer is that we’ve now come to a place that as a country, we’ve elected an African American President. Who that “we” is, is contingent, of course, and even an African American President is contingent, of course. But now that we have done this great thing, we can now get past this great burden that has–that we have of being consumed with racial politics, everybody. And, goodness, I’m forgetting the talking head that said as much, but after Barack Obama’s election, it’s like, “Look, African Americans, basically you’ve got nothing else to complain–I don’t want to hear any more whining.” Who was that? Somebody here knows this. It wasn’t Chris Matthews. He thought for a second he was going to be able to forget Barack Obama’s black, for about an hour, he was that–that was a triumphant moment for him. I’m forgetting who it was, but it was actually a quite famous comment that, “All right, you have nothing else to complain about. You’ve, you’ve got your guy in office.”
What does it mean to be “post-racial?” I actually had a conversation about this the night after Barack Obama was elected. I was in Commons–Calhoun was in renovation then–and there was one other student. I was getting there late, and there was one other student from Calhoun in the section, so I sat down across from her. I’m like, “Wow, this is quite a remarkable moment, isn’t it?” And she said, “Professor Holloway, we just, you know, we, of our generation (which is a reminder of yes, I was twice her age), you know, we don’t think about these things this way. We’re post-racial.” And, you know, I don’t want to overburden the race, but this is an African American student I happened to be sitting across from. And she goes, you know, “This is something that your generation (thanks, once again, for reminding me I’m twice your age) that you guys are all con–consumed by.” And the–What she wouldn’t know is, you know, I don’t remember any of this stuff. I was too young for that consum–consumptive moment of the Civil Rights era. That’s the moment of my birth. So she was like, “We just don’t talk about these things. We don’t think about these things.” And I walked away from that conversation thinking, “My god, she’s actually right.” That we don’t talk about these things and we don’t think about these things, but is, is that what it means to be post-racial? And if it does, I’d say we’re actually in a whole bunch of trouble. Is it a generational change, or is it something a little more complicated? And I’ll argue that it’s more complicated.
So that was the night–the day after Obama was elected, and then of course he’s inaugurated. And it was fascinating to me, I mentioned this once before in the lecture, that this–I mean inaugurations, regardless of who’s taking office, pretty phenomenal moment, and a moment I get very patriotic about, even if I don’t like the person who’s taking office. The peaceful transition of power, it’s an astonishing thing. But as the–and the, and the inauguration, I mean the pomp and circumstance and all the, you know, the symbolic weight of the moment is, I think, really quite powerful. This inauguration was really quite different. It was texturally rich in a way that an–other inaugurations weren’t, and this from somebody who studies the African American past. You have Aretha Franklin singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” You know because I’ve offered the prompt, I think that’s kind of important, for reasons I’ll let you explore. You have Reverend Joseph Lowry, a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of King’s inner-circle, gets up to offer his prayer. And a fascinating thing happens, sort of after the fact. From the first moment he gets up there and, and starts talking, I’m like, “Wow, this is really powerful. I know exactly what he’s doing. He’s reading, narrating, the first words of the, quote, National Black Anthem.”
And what was astonishing to discover is that in a way that I, I just sort of found amazing, in a sense that I was so close to the topic, I didn’t think that others didn’t get what was going on, but that the inaug–that, that many people, white Americans, and other Americans, different types, and certainly some black Americans as well, had no idea what he was talking about, when he was reciting the lines to Lift Every Voice and Sing. And it made it clear to me, is that that inauguration, from a textual point of view, was experienced in very different ways. There’s the obvious point of view: there’s a black President, you know, overwhelmingly–overwhelming majority, a super majority of African Americans voting for him, a, a mixed bag depending on different categories beyond that, of who voted for Barack Obama. So it’s the obvious way in which the inauguration’s experienced differently. But from a textual standpoint, and the way in which the inauguration was really quite historically minded, was really quite something, and the way that that history was experienced or acknowledged differently, that many people basically didn’t understand the subtext of Aretha Franklin’s performance, or the subtext of Reverend Lowry’s performance, or even the night when Obama was elected, at Grant Park in Chicago, his invocation of words that are sort of central to the Civil Rights Movement heritage, quotes Martin Luther King, but never references King. It’s really quite something, actually, the way in which Obama or his inner-circle are making all of these connections often to the African American past, without referencing it. Maybe that’s post-racial, I don’t know.
Now when Obama was running for office, so two years ago, in this course at the one of the very first lectures, I was saying, you know, “Look, I’m not going to talk–”–you know, Hillary Rodham Clinton and, and Barack Obama were shaping up to be the major contenders for the Democratic Party, the nomination, and I told the class, “Look, I know this is rather important. Of course it’s important. It’s an historic elec–election for the Democrats no matter what. I’m not going to talk about it at the beginning of the course. I’ll talk about it in the last lecture.” What I wasn’t telling the students is like “when Hillary Rodham Clinton will probably heading–be heading towards the nomination, and Barack Obama will have dropped out.” In my head, it’s what I was thinking. Thinking of the history of, of, like the “Angry Hands” advertisement with Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms, I frankly presumed it was just a matter of time when we started going to the ballot boxes and the, the voting booths that, although people were curious and excited about this eloquent junior senator, that when it came to actually casting the vote that–I thought that Hillary Clinton would basically run away with it.
And then Obama goes on what was an eleven state tear, something like that, crushes the history of what Jesse Jackson had done. And I’m realizing during the course, like “Oh boy, I’ve got to rewrite the end of my course.” This is act–something, something different is happening here. And then, as we are heading towards spring break, that moment of, you know, “Boy, we’re all so tired and we’ve just got to struggle through the last six weeks of the course,” then the news starts to break about Reverend Wright, Obama’s pastor in, in Trinity Church, Rev–Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his racial views, a church that he’d been leading for a long time and Obama had gone to. And what happened next was actually, I thought, rather predictable. There’s lots and lots of hot air, all sides of the political–all spots in the political spectrum weighing in about Reverend Wright’s racism, or his racial honesty, and everything in between, and where–what’s Obama thinking? What happened after that was, I thought, quite astonishing though. Obama gives his so-called race speech in Philadelphia, “A More Perfect Union,” that two years ago in the edition–actually, even last year, I believe, in the edition of the, the Manning Marable reader–was it even in last year’s edition? No, it wasn’t there yet. They, they re-purposed the book, and that’s in the documents now.
Now there was the expected repudiation of some of Wright’s views in Obama’s speech. People expected that. But, remarkably, there wasn’t an apology. It’s kind of astonishing. Obama addressed in his speech Wright’s ideas, as one would expect, distanced himself from some of them, but he gave a lecture really, and I think lecture is the appropriate word, on the scar of race throughout American history. It was an acknowledgement that everyone had to be more honest about racism, everyone, about the racism they express or feel, and that they had to recognize that race was often used as a veil, as it were, to mask other issues. Think back to Du Bois where, you know, people who were black hid behind a veil, or put–society put a veil in front of them. Obama’s talking about a different way, that race is the actual veil that’s shielding, hiding, obfuscating other issues. Obama also said that there were lingering scars that we as a nation had to admit to. We had to admit to all of this and recognize that the feelings were still very real, and that Wright’s views made sense, even though they might sound repugnant to many people, that they made sense to many people as well in the African American community. And that if we’re ever to get beyond any of this, it was time that we actually be honest about this scar, and how we can make a better world. It’s a powerful speech.
I was actually on spring vacation and really trying to be on spring vacation. I was in Florida with my family. And I knew that he was going to give this speech, but I also knew that I had, you know, rented a boat that I was going to–by goodness, I was going to take that boat out, and so I was going to miss the speech. And I get, we get back after the day, and there’s messages on my email, email and my voice mail, from different reporters wanting comment. I’m like, “Oh, guess the speech actually was well-received, or controversial, or something.” I didn’t know the first thing about the speech. Then I start seeing–looking at the email more carefully–or the headlines, I’m sorry. “The most important political speech in the nation’s history.” “The most important speech since Gettysburg.” “More important than I Have a Dream.” I’m like, “Oh my, what the heck did this man say?” I’ve got to find out. So right away I go to CSPAN, and they already have it posted. So I, I watch, listen to the speech, and what I found so astonishing in this–I mean, I already told you the things I thought were important about it, but a major reason that it was astonishing is that our national discourse on race is so impoverished that they didn’t know how to handle a very honest and rich speech that’s full of complication and nuance. People didn’t know what to do with it, and certainly didn’t know what to do with it from a, a politician running for something. Who gives a speech like that when you’re running for office?
Chapter 3. How is Race Used? [00:25:17]
The fact is, race is easy at its surface. It’s–allows us to ignore more complicated realities. It allows us to engage in simple coding of behaviors, of people, of types. It’s a social convention, essentially, that, that is in each of us, racial thinking. And I’m not ab–I’m not absolving myself of that either. I’d be a liar if I were. What I want to do for the rest of the lecture is talk about how race is used, something historically, certainly. It’s all grounded in history, but also bringing it up to the contemporary moment. I don’t want to, I don’t want to overburden the importance of the speech. It was, I think, an important speech, certainly, but I want to build off of sort of the way we can use moments like this to think historically, and with nuance, and also about our contemporary moments.
So I want to look, talk about how race is used. Now we know from other moments in the course, but also on Monday’s lecture specifically, that race is used to criminalize. I mean, this is something I’ve made quite plain, and you have–I don’t have it today; it would just be repetitive, but in the case of O.J. Simpson, certainly with the Time magazine cover and darkening his features to make him look more like a criminal.
Race is used in that way, okay, but in this case, thinking about the way that race is the veil that hides other things. O.J. Simpson’s race allows us to ignore the fact that we’re talking about a really wealthy man in that case. Was it about a superstar and his ex-wife? Was it about a black person and his–and a black man and his white wife, ex-wife? Or was it about someone with a lot of power, cultural capital and money, and someone who doesn’t have it? Race would, I mean, we got so fixated on race in that trial, we ignored the class dynamic. And I only linger on this for a half second, because at the same time, I think in California, a rather similar set of circumstances transpired with a black man and his white wife. He did not have money. Curious sets of, you know, evidence, abuse, and whatever. The guy was put in jail and never heard from again. Can’t ignore the role that money plays in a situation like that, but race allows us to walk around it. Race is used in that way. It’s used to distract.
It’s used, of course, to sell products, and these are some images that you may remember–things like them from Ethnic Notions very early in the term, being used to sell Cream of Wheat. It says here, “Maybe Cream of Wheat ain’t got no vitamins. I don’t know what them things is. If they’s bugs, they ain’t none in Cream of Wheat, but she sho’ good to eat and cheap. Cost about one cent for a great big dish.” Sung by Rastus, which is one of the, the caricatures of the, the happy servant, the loyal servant. Now Cream if Wheat isn’t sold this way now, but in the early 1970s, it had just moved away from this. I remember, this was when I was eating Cream of Wheat. Certainly, you know, the vernacular dialect had disappeared at that point, but Rastus Anonymous was still there, selling Cream of Wheat. More famously, you have Aunt Jemima: pancakes, southern cooking, the matron, the, the mammy figure, with her natural knowledge of how to take care of people.
As you head into the 1980s and nineties, people think, you know, “This might be a little dated, this, you know, Aunt Jemima figure. Maybe we should revisit it.” And they did, and so Aunt Jemima lost the doo-rag, and the, you know, the handkerchief, and the other conventional dress, got an up-do. You can’t see on the pic–the, the, the quality of the image is poor–a nice set of pearls, so when she comes back from work, like she can still make great pancakes for you, but, but she got updated, she got professionalized. People were getting a little bit queasy about the lingering vestiges of what many people felt was the racism being used to peddle pancakes. And I’ll be honest, I mean I grew up with Aunt Jemima in the house, and for the love of god, I didn’t understand why. I mean, I didn’t have the words or the education then to really understand what, what I was feeling, but something I found really–it kind of bothered me. And I was not a little Malcolm X running around, you know, trying to, you know, beat down the man and do these things. It just didn’t feel right, but I didn’t know why. Then my family switched to Vermont Made, which is loaded with all kinds of other kinds–you know, it’s, it’s all bad syrup, frankly, but, but–and I don’t know what Aunt Jemima pancakes taste like, because I don’t eat them anymore, but I know people do swear by them.
But if you don’t want pancakes, maybe you want rice. There’s Uncle Ben. Growing out of the same tradition of Rastus and Aunt Jemima, loyal and happy servant, and they’re all smiling, right? Well, Uncle Ben has been peddling rice pilaf, basically, a whole variety of rice products, for the longest time, and then the ad people started getting a little nervous about Uncle Ben and thought, “Maybe this is not really–let’s distance ourselves from Uncle Ben.” And so he disappeared from the packages. Then about five years ago, he reappeared. I think, I think Proctor and Gamble, they own pretty much everything, decided, you know, “It’s time. I think we can do this. I think we can have a more historically rich and nuanced understanding of Uncle Ben.” And so much like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben got a job. And I did not check before today’s lecture; it was certainly the case last year. If you go to—and don’t do it now, I mean half you guys…But, if you go to Uncle–you know, Google Uncle Ben, you get the website. It’s a beautiful website. You walk into the CEO’s office and guess whose office? It’s Uncle Ben’s office! He’s no longer Uncle Ben, though, he’s just Ben. Still doesn’t have a last name. The first name being a very important tradition of, of southern social hierarchy is that black men and women are always talked to by their first name, whether it was actually their first name or not, you know.
So Ben is, Ben–it’s, it’s not CEO Gates; it’s just Ben. And the website, it is, it was really quite a work of art, but in the version five years ago, you could walk around his desk and open up the day planner, and it would talk about him, “wink, wink,”–and I’m very closely paraphrasing–having libations with the southern sen–southern, southern senator. You know, “this is the way we do business,” or something like that. I thought, “Wow, so somebody thought it was appropriate–”–I mean, they’d already given Ben a big raise. He’s the CEO. They thought it was appropriate, though, to harken back to a tradition of good old boys and behaving inappropriately, and now CEO Uncle, Uncle CEO, is one of these boys. I mean, think back to Birth of a Nation and the story of the black Reconstruction governments, and they’re eating chicken legs–oh no, turkey legs, and drinking, and taking their shoes off. It’s in that same kind of tradition. That’s kind of astonishing. I went back last year, that thing’s gone. The rest of the site is still there, but that part is gone. So someone raised a fuss. I mean, when, when they brought Ben back, there was a whole bunch of, like “Wow, this is a crazy idea.” But still Ben is–at least, at least through last year–I didn’t check the website last night, and I don’t shop for Uncle Ben’s, so I don’t know if he’s still smiling at us in the, in the aisle ways. I suspect that he is.
Now this is–corporate makeovers are not limited just to the African American experience. There is a campaign to freshen Betty Crocker, the face of Betty Crocker, and you see her through the ages from 1927 until she ends up, well, looking like a wise Latina, perhaps, in 1996. And when, when, when this makeover came about, there was a lot of discussion, like wow. I mean Betty Crocker didn’t say, you know, what ethnic identity she was supposed to have. She was just Betty Crocker. People think that looks like, you know, a very professional Latina. And heck if you look at the demographics of this country, that may be a smart marketing trend, going, going ahead a couple of decades. So race is used to sell things, absolutely, and this is just barely the tip of the iceberg. It’s still being used to sell things.
Race is also used to suggest progressive commitment to equality. University, University of Wisconsin, year 2000, put out a magazine for something like “Bulldog days,” frankly, for their version of it, “Badger days,” I don’t know. I’m making that up. But, but this was a brochure they’d hand out, a magazine, talking about all those great things that Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin, has and does. Exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a university. I’ve absolutely no quarrel with the content of the magazine. So that’s the image, that’s the copy of the image, and if you look, follow the–my mouse, you see all of these happy students at probably a football game. And then you see him, a happy African American student at a football game. That’s, that’s great. Here’s the real image. He’s not there. Now, you have to go back ten years. Photoshop was very new, okay. This was just being rolled out. And the idea–now we–you’ve grown up with–I mean, everything is Photoshopped, right? It wasn’t in 2000. This was a new technology, and so they took–someone who was looking at the magazine said, “You know, it’s funny, because the light’s all coming from a certain angle here, but it’s coming from a different angle over here. And, you know, it just kind of–just the, the biometrics don’t seem quite right,” and someone slipped the actual–this is what the cover is.
Now actually, I have a friend I recruited from the University of Wisconsin, Professor Blackhawk. Some of you may know him. He actually brought–and I meant to bring it today, I forgot–one of his friends at Wisconsin is still there, and gave to him to give to me the actual copy. I mean, I actually have one of these things. It’s very cool. And then here’s the real image. Now this young man, as it turns out–and this was taken at, at, like a student bazaar. He was a very happy University of Wisconsin student. He was a student leader. He was engaged in all kinds of things. There’s no doubt that he was enthusiastic about being at Wisconsin, but the fact is, he wasn’t there at that moment. And you can see, they actually turned the face in the opposite direction, did all of these different things. Now Wisconsin is not trying to say black folks aren’t welcome. They’re trying the opposite. “Look, there’s a black person at the football game! We are a school that–”–I mean, and, and, it does not, it’s not a diverse school. It’s not a diverse state, but they are really trying, in this publication at least, symbolically, to try to do something different. Race is used in socially progressive ways, even if sometimes accidentally.
This is a statue at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, very close to Woolworth’s where the sit-in movement began, and this is a representation of the four men who are now university heroes. And if you go to downtown Greensboro which was, after the textile mills closed, there’s nothing in downtown Greensboro. My grandmother lives nearby, so I was driving around and come across–you can’t see here–February One Street. I mean, “That’s a weird name for a street,” and it turns out it’s right at the intersection of the Woolworth’s building. And Woolworth’s building–oh and there’s placards in the, in the ground, representing the four men walking there, and this is the, the Woolworth’s building, the site of the Woolworth’s building, that the city fathers wanted take–they wanted to eliminate the history of the Woolworth’s building and the sit-in for the longest time. It’s an embarrassing part of Greensboro’s history. Preservationists said, “You’ve got to save this thing,” and then people got together and, for years, were working on building an international civil rights center and museum. It took well over a decade and they actually just opened up this February, on the fiftieth anniversary of the sit-in. I haven’t been to it yet, but I’m looking forward to going.
But, so, what does this matter? How, how is race being used here? There is nothing in Greensboro any more. Southern cities, now that industry has gone, are re–trying to rebuild their downtown cores by creating heritage sites. A place of social, and political, and racial shame is now being turned into–and the, the New York Times review said it’s a fantastic museum–a place to draw in tourist money. Birmingham is the same way. The, the attack dogs that Bull Connor released, had released, to go after the student pro–the, the, the protestors , you know, at the park, there–it’s now a memorial. You have the, the, the, German shepherds frozen in a very modernistic pose. People travel throughout the South in bus rides, sometimes organized by universities, to witness these places. There’s a lot of money at stake. Race is being used. It’s used in a conflated way to honor and to sell a product. This is an image that needs no narration. You know, it’s King at the “I have a–”–March on Washington. An advertisement, “Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect.” It’s by Alcatel, a wireless phone service in 2001, and a suggestion. You know, even whether it’s Photoshopped or just a, you know, created image, that if only King had a good cell phone service, we’d have something different.
Now you all grew up after, I guess, Forrest Gump was out, but this was very controversial when it came out, very popular but controversial, with historians, like “What are you doing, you know, playing around fast and loose with history like this?” As Forrest Gump–this was, they leave characters all over the place, and wondering what–how history would have been different, you know, in this case, had King had a different product, and just as Forrest Gump was, you know, there at all these places, you know, changing history quite by accident. Americans are really bad historians, so professional historians get anxious when they see something like this, even though it may be clever. Now King is certainly a political football, whether it’s the California Civil Rights Initiative or, you know, progressives, conservatives, they all use King. In the Oakland school district–goodness, about, I want to say seven or eight years ago now–there was a major debate about Ebonics. The question is, Ebonics, would it be recognized as a form of American dialect, and if it was–English dialect, and if it was–there would be actual institutional support for helping these kids who speak Ebonics, nonstandard American English, to help them with extra support and tutoring, you know, in Ebonics vernacular, as a way to be–eventually mainstream them. Clear representation of King, you know, “I has a dream,” that would be, you know, King if he were speaking in Ebonics. And the text is very small down here and it says,
African Americans gathering together to purchase this advertisement, railing against other African Americans and blacks and whites, of course, on both sides of the line, about who can speak for the race and what that race is going to say. It’s a contemporary history, race, this is a satellite image of Katrina washing ashore. Now there’s a lot to be said about race and Katrina. I don’t have time to do that, but I want to show you two images from the moment and talk about the way that race factored into it. We all know, of course, you go to, you know, Yahoo! Web pages, you know, any sort of web pages for breaking news, and they have a scroll of pictures, and here’s two hundred pictures from a certain event and you can hit the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And they all have a little bit of script, very short description. Now there are journalistic practices about what the photojournalist is supposed to say, the photographer, to describe what he or she is seeing. There are standards about what constitutes finding something, what constitutes stealing something or looting something. So I don’t know the facts of these two pictures, about what the, the photographer saw, but this image runs, and it shows two white people having found food in Katrina. And, you know, there’s carrying bags like orange juice or groceries, something like that, in that bag, floating along the way. Two people who found food. The next image, as it happened, was this one, a citizen who, who looted a store, carrying a, a, a twelve pack or twenty pack of Pepsi, and who knows what in the bag.
The fact is, he may have looted a store. The fact is, they may have found the food. I’m not disputing this, okay? I’m not engaging it, but the pictures ran right next to each other, and we are all so hardwired to presume that the person writing this sentence, or the editor putting together, has tripped over a racial fault line, that they can’t see anything but a criminal in this image, and a citizen in the previous one. And this was part of the rhetoric of, of Katrina, certainly in the way it was reported in the news. Black and brown people are talked about refugees, although they were citizens. But a reason I point to this is to talk about the way that we are consumed with thinking about race, to a point that we become quite blinded by it. I don’t have the time for it right now, but let me encourage you to go to, go to YouTube and put in “Mike Myers, Katrina and Kanye West,” or just “Katrina and Kanye West,” and you’ll see more of what I’m talking about: race being used to heighten our emotions, used in ways that either are clarifying or destructive, depending on your point of view.
Race is very much past and present. Even in our “post-racial” age, we have controversies like this one in the New York Post: two cops having blown apart a chimpanzee, “We’ll have to find someone else to write that next stimulus bill.” The artist saying, “I had no racist intent at all. It was just, you know, it was an attempt at humor, talking about, you know, the bill was so crazy, it must have been monkeys sitting in a room.” You know, there’s a phrase about–where you put a hundred monkeys in a room, you get Shakespeare eventually that–working typewriters–but, but that this is what he was going after. He may have been absolutely honest, but the way that this was perceived, with the long history of connections between African Americans and apes, and the fact the President is behind signing stimulus bills, that the–and there’s a history of New York police, cops, shooting unarmed black citizens, or attacking in other ways, that somebody in the editorial process in the New York Post missed the boat entirely. Did not see that this might have been wildly misinterpreted if the artist had no racist intent.
There was no confusion about the intent here. Emails sent out by the mayor of Las Alamedas, California, talking about, you know, now that Obama’s elected, we’re going to have a watermelon patch on the White House front lawn. What does this image accomplish, aside from the mayor apologizing and stepping down? You know, is it satire? Sure, it’s satire, but is it also a Rorschach test of how you have someone like, looking like, Barack Obama taking office, and people don’t know what to make of it, don’t know what to do? Now we talked about in this course, at the very beginning, racial symbolism, you know, the money we carry in our pocket. You know, and again, it’s not showing up well, but, you know, John C. Calhoun in the corner there. Let’s not believe that this is past history. Let us recognize the Republican Women’s Group in I–Inland, California sent this out in the newsletter, of Obama bucks. He’s got a watermelon, the Kool-Aid, a bunch of ribs and KFC. This is our current state of affairs. Race is used in, in the American landscape, in our “post-racial” age, to get us through circumstances that we don’t want to call them as being say class-driven, or driven by gender anxiety, or driven by political anxiety. Oh, it’s all going to be coded in racial ways. But because, you know, we don’t want to be seen as racist, we can’t talk about it. We can show it, but we can’t talk about it.
So I really want to end then, and just bear with me a couple minutes, we’ve gone through this entire course thinking–sharing a history of social, political, intellectual, cultural history, of the different ways citizenship has been wrestled over, the way race has been used. The TAs, I hope you will actually join me in giving, giving them a round of applause for helping us through this way and through these incredibly interesting and, and, and vexed conversations. Congratulations. Thank you so much for your help.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Now I always do something a little bit unusual here. Are–Freshmen, are there freshmen here? Raise your hands. Stand up, please. Yes, stand up. Stand up for goodness’ sakes. I’m out of time, I don’t–I’ve got to be quick about this thing. This is one of your last classes of freshmen year, and I hope that your experience here has been exciting and wonderful, and I also hope that people will join me in congratulating you in navigating which–what has been a horrible year at Yale for all these reasons we know. And I hope that you will leave this year armed to become a better citizen at Yale. So congratulations, freshmen.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Sit down now. Seniors here? Stand up. Stand up. I know, because I walked over to Julia. This is one of your last classes at Yale. You’re going to get a lot of people congratulating you. I’m not congratulating you at all. A lot of people are going to be telling you how great and wonderful you are. Oh, in the back, can you step over one foot because you’re blocking the camera right there. There we go. People are going to tell you how wonderful you are, and you are wonderful, but the fact of the matter is, you now have a responsibility when you leave here, I think. You may disagree with everything I said. That is actually quite fine with me, but I hope that you will engage what I said, and what the TAs have said, and what you said in section, that you will understand it’s incumbent upon you to make this a better place, to make it, in Barack Obama’s word, a more perf–perfect union. And you’ve been armed with the history, even if you disagree with it, a history that I hope will make you think and challenge others when they start spouting off in the most unpredictable, or maybe predictable, ways. So I want to congratulate you personally for being here, sticking through it, getting through Yale, and I hope everyone else will congratulate you as well. Congratulations.
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Sophomore, juniors, I ain’t got nothing for you guys. [Students laugh] So I really raise the closing question, the question that animates this lecture: how is race used? And I simply want to ask you, how will you use it? Thank you very much. Thank you.
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