Southern horrors, global terrors (i).
DAN GELLER AND DAYNA Goldfine's film Ballets Russes (2006), a paean to twentieth century classical ballet emphasizing its Parisian roots, features intoxicating performances by legendary artists such as George Zoritch and Nathalie Krassovska, evoking in places, the famed ballet paintings of Edgar Degas. The documentary's narrative shifts to the beleaguered experiences of Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American to join one of the world-renowned troupes, in a turn that meditates on the uglier, grittier side of an art renowned for its beauty. After several tension-ridden tours with her company through the pre-civil rights era South (including one on which Ku Klux Klan members in Montgomery, Alabama interrupted a rehearsal, menacingly demanding to know, "Where's the nigger?"), Wilkinson, who had become a soloist by her second season, left the company, notwithstanding her indisputable talents as a dancer and status as a six-year veteran. (ii) Through her traumatizing experience, which seems all the more visceral because it was captured in live footage, one sees instantly the vulnerability of her body and its potential annihilation as a vessel for dance.
The documentary throws into sharp relief the accessibility of Wilkinson's body to the irrational, brutal, and painful violence of a racist Southern system that insists on black subordination and exclusion. This scene of the Ballets Russes, featuring Wilkinson, starkly portrays how "Dixie" bursts forth, so to speak, in the most unexpected places, then, as now, with a haunting presence. It surfaces here as America's beast in the closet--its dirtiest linen aired for all the world to see--flouting and mocking the nation's fabled democratic ideals. The film offers a sobering reminder of the U.S. South's inescapable historical weight on the nation and the world and shows that weight's attempt to crash down on the black body with brutal force. In fact, white rioting in St. Louis, Missouri was the main catalyst for Josephine Baker's traumatic exit from the South, which eventually led her to Paris as a performer in the Revue Negre, where her body had an unprecedented freedom and safety to dance, a freedom that showed. One might consider why and how Paris and America were associated with such different possibilities and opportunities; as concepts in a mid-century black mind, they appear, for example, in the work of expatriate Southerner Richard Wright. Both for peace of mind and the safety of body, Paris was (at least back then) the preference for him and numerous other black writers and artists.
This essay stresses the importance of recognizing that many of the protocols for disciplining, dispossessing, containing, terrorizing, and policing the black body in this nation, from the classroom to the prison, were established in grammar books in the U.S. South and--through various historical mechanisms and transformations--were ultimately nationalized. Indeed, some key cultural texts of film and literature poignantly illustrate how the U.S. South has established and, at times, helped to nationalize some of the nation's most egregious affective postures of indifference to black pain and death. I highlight some of the ways in which Margaret Mitchell's epic novel Gone with the Wind, as well as the 1939 film based on it, ideologically feed such national narratives of black bodies as expendable.
In the present era, the infamous governmental indifference to the plight of a predominately black population in the city of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy epitomizes a crisis of major proportions related to foreclosures of black citizenship and basic human rights. It is crucial to understand the invisibility of blacks in New Orleans as a problem not only of their status in the nation but also in the region, as well as an extension of persisting systems in which black bodies in the U.S. South have been disciplined, contained, and even destroyed. This indifference to the life and limb of the black body in the South has been egregiously evident in countless instances ranging from brutal race riots and lynchings to the clandestine Tuskegee Syphilis Study that persisted over decades in Macon County, Alabama area. (iii) In Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, Michael Eric Dyson acknowledges the extent to which the burden of Southern history, including the region's historical racism, informed the indifferent treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He argues that, "At its core, this was a Southern racial narrative being performed before a national and global audience. If Southern whites have been relatively demonized within the realms of whiteness--when compared to their Northern peers, they are viewed as slower, less liberal, more bigoted, and thoroughly 'country'--then Southern blacks are even more the victims of social stigma from every quarter of the culture, including Northern and Southern whites, and even among other blacks outside the region" (21). He goes on to assert that, "Since their agency and angst had been minimized in the Southern historical memory, the black poor simply didn't register as large, or count as much, as they might have had they been white" (25). (iv) The salient public response of Dyson to this catastrophe, like Spike Lee's documentary film When the Levees Broke (2006), illustrates the growing concern among many black intellectuals regarding the implications of a range of current national policies for blacks throughout the nation and the world, also signaling a rising, if incoherent and dispersed activism.
In the wake of the storm, a fabled calm proved elusive as the levees broke and many people, mainly among the poor, suffered and died, and survivors attempted to find safety and shelter or flee the city. Many felt utterly forsaken and puzzled over how anything so tragic could happen and how there could even be room to question whether others--in the words of Margaret Walker's poem "For My People"--"cared", "wondered", and "understood." Immediately, a group of Southern blacks were homeless and in need of food and shelter, holding accountable a government whose media was faster to classify them as "refugees" than as "citizens." The image of masses of blacks outside the Superdome collectively shouting "Help," and embarking in an exodus of biblical proportions from the city on buses has perhaps not been matched in history more profoundly than by an image eloquently described by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk; this was the moment when masses of displaced ex-slaves shadowed the Union Army, demanding notice, safe harbor, and rescue--help and hope--in the midst of the Civil War. Du Bois writes, "But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swirl columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain they were ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens of thousands." (v) In fact, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the veil that Du Bois described at the outset of the twentieth century as standing between black people and the world has not yet lifted. The slow response to Hurricane Katrina indicated that there is a profound indifference to what he described as the persisting "Negro problem" in the United States, which he also, it should be noted, saliently linked to the South.
It was heartening that so many Americans reached out to support those who were affected by this tragedy by giving their time as volunteers in the region, as well as by donating money. But some others made no secret of their lack of concern about Hurricane Katrina victims. One truly "disgusting" attribute of the aftermath was the resentment evident among some Americans over the fact that those displaced by the storm (and who predominately were black) would receive federal assistance in the form of $2,000 debit cards, (vi) It was absolutely astonishing that the victims were in instances, mocked and maligned with using the terms of derogatory welfare ideologies and even racist "minstrel" epithets widely presumed not to be in use anymore; in other cases, they were accused of being more likely to spend the money on things like drugs and alcohol. Nothing illustrated more than this the cruelty and indifference of some Americans faced with scenes of black suffering. Indeed, the better response would have been, "But for God there go I," for the slow and disorganized federal relief in the wake of the storm poignantly revealed that this was threat for any American man, woman or child, at any time--regardless of their race.
Marco Williams and Whitney Dow's 2002 documentary film Two Towns in Jasper chronicles the gruesome and unthinkable history of a black man named James Byrd who, as recently as 1998, was lynched in Jasper, Texas by being tied to a car and dragged to death. The film's structure relies on whites to interview whites and blacks to interview blacks; this color line is said to be necessary because of the very different opinions among whites and blacks in the town about the incident. The film registers well the continuing patterns of segregation in the South and the persisting indifference to black suffering and annihilation. It illustrates that even when there is some national emphasis on black suffering, there are people who are unfazed and are unwilling to acknowledge the hurt or injury of a black body. There are still people who believe that to be black is, in some fundamental way, not to be human and deserving of basic human rights and protections.
Such willful indifference to black bodies in pain arguably helps to create a climate for their abuse, from their benign neglect as witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to their brutalizing by the police. The problem leads to the kind of "numbing horror" that Everett Carter links to reading a dialogue between Huck and Aunt Sally in one of the best known novels in American literature, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), which construes blackness as inhuman. "'Anybody killed in the steamship explosion?'," asks Aunt Saliva "'No'm. Killed a nigger. Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.'" (vii) Like this passage, Two Towns in Jasper demonstrates the hesitation to cultivate an affective response of basic empathy to the pain and suffering of the black body. Similarly, in the Joel Schumacher film, A Time to Kill (1996), the white prosecutor has to call up an image of his own little girl beaten and brutalized to clarify for an all-white jury in a Southern town what is so horribly wrong with two white men brutally raping and beating a nine-year-old black girl. Without this rhetorical intervention, it seemed impossible for members of the jury to imagine the hurt and suffering of a black child because white bodies are literally the only ones that matter and are visible to them. (viii) The sad fact is that in this nation--perhaps in light of a persisting black invisibility--the media seems to presume a lack of public interest or concern when it is black bodies that have sustained injury of some kind.
To meditate on the pervasiveness of pain, suffering, violence, and loss in black life in the contemporary era, particularly in the wake of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and in the midst of the continuing recovery process, is a sobering but necessary and even urgent imperative. Because Hurricane Katrina was a regional ecological disaster that became national, we have witnessed in our time a very concrete illustration of the U.S. South as a constitutive force in shaping discourses of race in the nation and the manner in which this region continues to exert its bearing on the status of black subjectivity. It is a moment that illustrates the importance of recognizing the geography of black identity including the complex role of geography in shaping this identity and more specifically, the significance of the U.S. South as a lens for interpreting such dynamics. It reveals the urgency of expanding ecological epistemologies in Black Studies and Southern Studies. Moreover, we should recognize in all of this, that the role of geography in shaping American identity generally needs more attention.
Some critics have understandably resisted placing the region front and center in dialogues about race, nation, and identity in an effort to unsettle notions of the region as romantic or as the locus of authenticity, ancestry, and imagined home in the African-American context. This perception of the South, which is subtended by its history of violence and terror against blacks, points to the complex metaphysical struggles of many African-Americans in thinking of the region, whatever the character and degree of their relationship to it. Many of the narratives of black suffering and death in the nation have focused on contexts such as the Northern inner-city, while the epistemologies examining how such phenomena impact a range of other contexts remain limited. Hurricane Katrina shows us how and why the South plays a role as a region in the reigning trauma narratives shadowing and shaping the contemporary black body and its forms of abuse. The horror of the hurricane and the poverty that it threw into relief before the nation illustrated that the problem of intense and widespread suffering among blacks is far more pervasive and multi-faceted than many people imagine. It illustrated that some of the systemic forms of black dispossession that have long existed in the South, and still do, have profound implications for blacks throughout the nation and even the world. Even patterns of seeking shelter and evacuation, as well as the differences in where whites and blacks evacuated to within the city, reflected the history of segregation in the South.
For some, the South remains the most persisting, enduring, and traumatizing scene of terror and violence against the black body in the history of the nation. The establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1866 is just one factor that has made it appear hypocritical to talk about defeating terror and protecting democracy abroad in order to mirror an imagined and never widely actualized domestic American democracy. The "pot and the kettle" battle over who can call the other black inevitably comes to mind for some, especially for those who are black or otherwise of a minority and have been most affected by democracy's elusiveness. Terrorism was perhaps manifested most ironically and absurdly in the incidents of black soldiers lynched upon returning home to the South after fighting for democracy abroad. Domestic terror of this kind remains very memorable for many still; it was facilitated by a Jim Crow system that endured over half a century and is a continuing reminder of the failures and limitations of freedom as an ideal in this nation. Current efforts to recruit large numbers of black men into the U.S. military to help fight this battle represent a bitter irony to those who are aware of this institution's history of segregation. Today's global and political landscape is very complex to be sure, but many are put off by America's refusal, in dealing with it, to be honest with itself about its own history of violence and aggression both domestically and internationally. Rhetoric suggesting that it all boils down to "spreading freedoms" and "spreading democracy" is terribly misleading.
It seems understandable that the academy itself, to some degree mirroring and reflecting this social logic, has become increasingly intellectually inhospitable to notions of democracy and inclusiveness on campuses. Many "Left" or liberal-leaning intellectuals have been targets of what amounts to intellectual harassment in recent years, through strategies that recall McCarthy era witch hunts. Black intellectuals have been no exception. Indeed, they have often felt to be especially expendable in such a charged intellectual climate or like casualties deserted on the battlefields in the wake of the culture wars. Today's all too commonplace charge of a "liberal" academy--a charge similar to that made against the media (notwithstanding a powerhouse like Fox News that frequently traffics in reactionary ideas)--comes as a slap in the face. The purported liberalism of academia has done very little to offset sweeping policy changes in institutional settings, which in some cases, have all but obliterated the presence of minority faculty and students. That the face of the academy looks increasingly less diverse is something that few people seem to notice or care about. Such nonchalance recalls the typical indifference to black pain and exclusion.
The vast majority of contemporary students came of age after 1980 in an era when anti-affirmative action sentiment and rhetoric on reverse discrimination became widespread and entered the political mainstream alongside a discourse of colorblindness that made it difficult for minorities to voice and legally contest grievances related to racial inequality and injustice, (ix) This is only one factor that has made it increasingly challenging and sometimes explicitly controversial to explore issues of difference and otherness related to race, class, gender, and other terms of difference in classroom pedagogies. It is crucial to think about the impact of today's political climate on the status of black intellectualism and on Black Studies as a field in all of its diverse and sometimes conflicting permutations. This issue must be made an issue of concern; doing so governs the very possibilities for effective interventions and contributions to public debates in the midst of a growing feeling of insecurity in academic institutions as black numbers radically dwindle and in the nation at large as many blacks and other minorities find their basic rights decreased or altogether violated in the effort to maintain national security in the "War on Terror." Of course a basic freedom that many academics are invested in "spreading" and protecting is academic freedom. It goes without saying that such retrenchments against this basic freedom in academia have wreaked immeasurable harm on the tenure system and in some ways, made a mockery of it. The question, it seems, is to what extent is academic freedom becoming yet another myth of freedom in the U.S.?
The U.S. South's constitutive links to postures of indifference to black suffering, pain, and death are consistent with the ways in which the heart and mind of the South have dialectically shaped the heart and mind of the nation. W.J. Cash linked the region to a unique and insistently exceptional metaphysics (i.e. mindset) in the schema of the nation. (x) It operates, as numerous critics have acknowledged, as a ghost in the machine of the nation so that its dominant religion, its history, its conventionally racially bifurcated social order, and its politics shape national agendas and discourses of race and ethnicity. Historically, it has very much functioned as what Leigh Anne Duck has elaborated as "the nation's region." (xi) For instance, vestiges of the U.S. South's conventional racial discourse have continued to set the tone for voting patterns within the national political arena in ways that have had dire implications for a range of minorities, including blacks, over the past several decades. This is true whether many Americans want to admit it or not. Perhaps not admitting this fact of Southern influence has been central to sustaining forms of oppression (or conversely, forms of privilege) in the contemporary era. Even today, many Southerners fail to vote in their own interests primarily because they link their interests to sustaining white privilege, at the expense of building a true democracy that might promote economic and social well being for themselves and others.
The U.S. South, with a preponderance of states that have been solidly and staunchly Red since the post-civil rights era, in conjunction with the rise of the "Southern strategy" under the banner of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, has had a tremendous impact on politics in the national arena. Driven by a segregationist philosophy, the "Southern strategy" paved the way for some of the most well known right-wing agendas of the past several decades and has infiltrated neo-conservatism at the national level for nearly the past forty years. These are dialectics that many Americans have failed to recognize or understand and that some have strongly endorsed. Race is also an indispensable factor in explaining American electoral politics; black voter disfranchisement, especially in Southern area such as Florida, was in part instrumental in installing a conservative leadership at the highest level of national government, (xii) This is the leadership that has pursued a controversial and unpopular foreign policy and that has been neglectful of persisting poverty at the domestic level, as evinced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Residue of the "Southern strategy" has been the source of unremitting black despair and poverty. Ultimately, faith convictions centralized in the South have been appropriated within the neo-conservative ideology that propels the U.S. military industrial complex and shapes the global "War on Terror" in both national and global arenas.
The outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election was an utter shock to many liberals and Leftists who had not considered how decisive the Southern vote would prove to be in reelecting George W. Bush, both in light of the region's Southern Baptist critical mass and reigning conservatism and in spite of Bush's low approval ratings and the distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's shocking documentary. This outcome and the part that "Values Voters" played in it should not have been so much of a surprise. Warning signs were in place as early as 2000 that Bush would attempt to dominate the moral high ground and court the favor of religious conservatives. He repeatedly identified himself on the campaign trail, in the wake of the sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky, as someone who would "restore dignity to the oval office." It was telling that he saliently promoted faith-based initiatives, rather than government interventions, as an alternative for addressing some social problems. The "Moral Majority" that emerged during the first years of Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s had already proven the utility of such platforms in politics and widened the space for them in the political mainstream.
If the nation's complex regional demography had been fully analyzed and considered prior to the election, then more proactive work might have been done to illustrate that liberal agendas are not incongruent with Christian faith, as they are often portrayed to be in the media. That "liberal" itself has been turned into a dirty word in the media by a range of pundits, by no means helps the cause to reconcile this concept with matters of faith. It is necessary, however, to understand that faith matters. The contemporary liberal failure to reckon with religion and widespread indifference to the central role that it plays in structuring social and political life for many in the nation, along with condescending and dismissive attitudes toward those who embrace Christian faith, have been quite costly. Moreover, such indifference to religion obscures the role that Christian faith has played in catalyzing and structuring liberal social movements such as the Black Liberation Movement. This has occurred even as the effort to mobilize Christianity to serve reactionary agendas has also obscured (or at times appropriated) the spiritual and moral dimensions of the black struggle for civil rights. This situation is extremely ironic when we consider that the civil rights struggle under the leadership of Martin Luther King was once linked to the most supreme and effective claims of moral and spiritual authority in the national arena.
In a sense, this conservative political movement spiraling out from the South must be interpreted as a bitter reaction to the centrifugal dispersal of the Civil Rights Movement from cities and rural areas of the U.S. South into the global arena. The curtailing of black civil rights gains through the propagation of legal claims of "reverse discrimination", colorblindness, and anti-affirmative action sentiment was every bit as calculated as the foreclosure of black social, economic, educational, and political progress after slavery as a result of white rioting and a range of other social and legal retrenchments in the Reconstruction era of the nineteenth century. It was a sin and crying shame that after several hundred years of slavery, African-Americans had only a little over a decade to advance before being shackled with a Jim Crow system that would take the better part of another century to defeat. As if history were bitterly and wickedly repeating itself, a line of reactionary policy-making like the "Southern strategy" emerged, yet again, within scarce more than a decade, which, whether or not it was intended to generate so much despair, effectively impeded the procurement of black civil rights in this nation. It is as a result of the heavy Southern imprint on politics at a national level that blacks in the United States have experienced major legal and political setbacks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Southern influence has not only helped to set the rhythms for national voting patterns, it has also saliently shaped many other agendas at the national level including the growing popularity of school vouchers and the decline in support for public education. It is important to remember, as Du Bois' itinerary on Reconstruction revealed, that the region's outlook on public education since the late nineteenth century has been decidedly negative, even hostile. This came about in part because the establishment of a viable system of public education during Reconstruction, from which whites and blacks alike would benefit, looked too much like the interracial democracy that so many Southerners bitterly and sometimes violently opposed. Patterns of white flight to private schools markedly intensified during and after the civil rights era to avoid the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. That privatizing schooling in the South became more of a norm is part of what helped to reinstate new and subtler forms of segregation in the post-civil rights era. When some Southerners said, along with George Wallace, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," they really meant it, even though Wallace himself recanted this position and managed to garner widespread African-American support in his bid for reelection as the governor of Alabama in the early 1980s. It is sobering to consider that in some instances, Southern schools with good and sometimes new facilities were closed down and the buildings left empty so as to avoid integration. St. John the Baptist Catholic School, my elementary school in Montgomery, Alabama, stood directly across the street from a ghost of a school like this. For the eight years I was there, I wondered why that perfectly good school building was empty; as a child, I just couldn't understand it. Indeed, some blacks in the South in the post-civil rights era, including my own family, opted to send their children to all-black private or Catholic schools to ensure their protection from the sometimes pervasive racism of the public school system, where black students often experienced "tracking" in education. In fact many African-Americans, like many white Americans, have held a deep distrust of public education systems, a lack of confidence most evident nowadays in the widespread support of school vouchers among blacks. Needless to say, these factors have also contributed to the lack of support for public education.
A rise in instances of violence and low performance are factors that have shaped legitimate concerns about safety and the possibilities for success in many of the nation's public schools for the past several decades, and have made the path of private education more appealing. Whether to pursue public or private education continues to be an understandable dilemma for many Americans. This dilemma was dramatized very powerfully in the national arena when Bill and Hillary Clinton, as the new First Family, contemplated and weighed the options of public and private schooling for their daughter Chelsea, who was twelve-years old at the time; ultimately, they chose the latter route.
The South has had a continuing role in sustaining rigid barriers to black education and a willful indifference and even lingering hostility to the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. However, these sentiments are more widespread in the nation than many Americans care to admit. They have helped to some extent to shape the current educational crisis. White families that flee ever farther out of cities to exclusive suburban homes and that stress value of private education and access to school vouchers for their children, while devaluing and maligning public education, typically believe that they are pursuing better opportunities. Having choices about where living and learning will take place is, of course, important. However, in some instances, such choices may be designed (unconsciously even) to ensure that they and their children will have little or no social contact with minorities. These choices can also reflect the ingrained racist mentality that was dominant in the Jim Crow South and is ultimately no different from the hostile reactions of many white Southerners to the integration of blacks in public schools. In general, maintaining what amounts to a modern day de facto segregation can be very expensive. Its practitioners pay a higher price for it than they can imagine; some are suffocating in debt and working themselves to death to purchase homes and sustain lifestyles that they cannot afford.
An even deeper and bitterer truth is that the assertion that the assertion: "I prefer to send my children to private school," is in fact, a big white lie and a catch phrase for: "I don't want my children to go to school with blacks." For some, lingering fears about school integration have been linked to age-old fears of interracial sex and miscegenation (i.e. going to school with them might lead to going to bed with them). Judging from this panic, one would think that some people view the kindergarten classroom as a potential sex orgy. Indeed, the way in which many people project who their little children might someday have sex with or marry is a testament to a Southern-inspired cultural imagination that is, on some levels, pornographic; to fear that one's white daughter will ever sleep with a black man, one has to imagine it. This fear of interracial sex and its use as a rationale for keeping races apart has been pervasive in the South since the late nineteenth century. It is a fear, however, that many Americans, whether Southern or not, also share.
I HAVE EMPHASIZED THE INEXTRICABILITY OF THE U.S. South to intellectual dialogues related to the imperiled status of the black subject in the contemporary national arena. Academia's longstanding indifference to studies of the U.S. South is also an important factor that sets the tone for the view of the region as fundamentally irrelevant to intellectual and political debates and dialogues of every kind. Factors contributing to this situation range from the marginal and devalued position that the region has frequently occupied in American letters, to its chronically low-ranking education statistics in the present era. Even now, views of the region including those of black Southerners have tended to be condescending. The South's complicated relationship to black intellectual history has been shaped in part by the fact that blacks have suffered in light of these perceptions in combination with the region's willful obstructions to black educational opportunities. The South, a harsh and frequently unwelcoming social world that remains deeply invested in white supremacy, paradoxically served as the locus of the vast majority of historically black colleges and universities and some of the most viable and distinguished institutions foundational in the production of black scholarship. That scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and John Hope Franklin maneuvered from the base of such black institutions in the era of Jim Crow and received credentials in predominately white institutions, in spite of this system, is one reason that black intellectualism in this nation has its rich foundations. Indeed, some of the intellectual foundations for Black Studies as a field, like some aspects of black culture in the nation, are traceable to the South.
Since the era of the Enlightenment, the presumption of black intellectual inferiority has loomed large in the Western mind and served as a foundational tenet of its philosophy. The persistence of such attitudes, even in the contemporary era, is profoundly evident in the popularity of books such as Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994) in the early 1990s. That the inherent condition of black intellectualism more generally is precarious has been registered in a long genealogy of African-American scholarship. This plight is understood as, not only fundamentally defined by race, but also complicated and exacerbated in relation to a range of other factors including class and gender. The current problem is centrally shaped by factors such as dwindling enrollments of black students in colleges and universities; the evaporation of minority enrichment programs, fellowships, and scholarships; retrenchments against fields such as Black Studies; the "digital divide"; and the failure to invest in public education. This crisis is also manifest in the overt hostility to the presence of black students and faculty in some institutions. Even now, black intellectuals can never make the assumption that their presence is wanted or valued in institutions. The unfriendly climate that black students and faculty sometimes encounter in American educational institutions has been residually impacted by the Jim Crow ethos that shaped education in the South. The persistence of crises directly and intimately associated with the black intellectual means that the capacity to address the overarching crisis related to the black condition will be marginal and provisional at best. The very perpetuity of black intellectualism is, of course, imperiled in a cultural context in which some black youth nowadays imagine that getting an education is tantamount to "acting white".
The status of black intellectualism is complicated all the more given its framing within a national context that itself seems to be (at a gut level) anti-intellectual. What does it mean, for instance, that we are situated in a culture in which the voices of entertainers are almost certain to be deemed more worthy of value and to carry more weight in public dialogues than those of any other intellectuals, including intellectuals situated in academia? The propensity in national media to offer a high level of cultural authority to entertainment is no less problematic because it gives voice and visibility to a privileged few African-American singers, rappers, athletes, and actors who make fortunes as celebrities, while many blacks continue to suffer in poverty. What does it mean that some of the nation's most distinguished and respected newspapers and magazines have been instrumental in helping to foment a climate that stokes public suspicion and skepticism, even paranoia, about what is going on at the nation's colleges and universities? How can students of any age be taught to truly value and respect education in a climate where such blatant disrespect and hostility for professors and teachers seems to reign? How can they be effectively prepared to compete in an increasingly technologically complex global society if education is so low on the list of national priorities? The media takes the greatest interest in colleges and universities in the nation when it comes to annually ranking them!
In more recent years, neo-conservative charges of excessive "liberalism" in higher education have helped to exacerbate this hostile intellectual climate. This initiative has gained salience, for instance, through the project of David Horowitz, from his "Academic Bill of Rights" to his The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. (xiii) Such platforms are misleading for the public and have had especially dire implications for fields such as Black Studies, creating a hostile intellectual climate on campuses for black students and faculty. I want to emphasize that the singling out of certain black scholars due to the nature of their intellectual work needs to be recognized as a verbal attack that mirrors and extends how the black body has been maligned, subjected to violence, and terrorized in the ways that mentioned in this essay's introduction. Horowitz's gross misrepresentation of Black Studies and of the work of some scholars in this field is deeply unsettling. It is downright scary when a movement, initiated by a man who took out an ad in campus newspapers across the country asserting in part that slavery was not as bad as people imagine it to have been, has gained such political momentum and credibility. Horowitz is responsible for crossing a dangerous line in publicizing faculty political party affiliations and in soliciting students to monitor and record the lectures of professors in classrooms. His agenda has saliently targeted academia and aims to send the tenure system the way of the dinosaur. It has implications for scholars everywhere, regardless of their politics. His tactics make the question of who is truly "dangerous" an open one.
Notwithstanding its sheer absurdity on some levels, his project has nevertheless had an inordinate impact in shaping pubic opinions and perceptions about academia; it needs to be taken much more seriously and given a more conscientious response than narcissistic rejoinders such as "Why Didn't I Make the List?" (xiv) Such responses indicate the continuing inability of some intellectuals, including those on the "academic Left", to formulate assertive and effective responses to the pundits who have proven to have the skill of the likes of P.T. Barnum in shaping pubic opinions about and perceptions of who academics are and what they do. It is urgent for more academics to use their resources in publishing and the skills that that they have cultivated precisely as academics in order to confront and offset this terrible propaganda. Although Horowitz's overall project appears suspect, his history, given his work in the Black Liberation Movement and later renunciation of such affiliations, is admittedly interesting. If he still cares anything at all about this struggle, it is certainly befuddling how he can imagine that his current project serves its interests.
THE BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS EMERGING in a modernity shaped by slavery and the ontology of the "Negro" as a concept and category for racial classification was inherently shadowed by the fear and sometimes reality of annihilation and death. An extensive economy of works registers the ubiquity of this psychic condition for blacks. While current problems related to the pervasiveness of the sense of annihilation in contemporary black life and its manifestations in crime and violence, poverty, addiction, and the ravages of HIV and AIDS (among various other traumas) are familiar, the foundations of this existential crisis seem far more primal. Perhaps no other geographic site in this nation has been linked as saliently as the U.S. South, during slavery and thereafter, with systemic and institutionalized violence against the black body and black psychic traumas. What I bring to attention in this essay is the extent to which the U.S. South has helped to nationalize and popularize the very kind of indifference to black pain, suffering, and death that continues to be so ubiquitous in our time. The region offered some of this nation's most virulent and enduring racialist epistemologies of blackness beginning with its intimate material association with slavery.
In spite of such struggles, a preoccupation with Southern romance and nostalgia has been commonplace in American scholarship, trivializing in effect the traumatic history of blacks in the region. Some of the most cherished narratives of the region as a place have been premised on an indifference to black pain and suffering. There continues to be flagrant and unapologetic glorification of Old South mythology that minimizes and flouts the trauma of slavery and implies it to have been something that was really not a "big deal." The continuing Southern cultural investment in symbols such as the Confederate Flag and events such as Civil War reenactments are among the most salient evidence of indifference to how slavery functioned as an institution that traumatized and dispossessed many blacks. How can one expect the vast majority of African-American to feel about symbolism linked to a war in which larger goals of a Southern victory and protecting and sustaining the Southern way of life were invested in maintaining and spreading the institution of slavery? Arguments that justify keeping the flag visible on public buildings typically invoke the importance of preserving Southern heritage. Some white Southerners, for instance, do not think or care that this flag's frequent display on pickup trucks in the South during the era of lynching has given it an irreversible association with the horror of lynching in black cultural memory. Black civil rights leaders who protest the flag's continuing presence are typically portrayed as troublemakers.
Montgomery, Alabama, where I was born and raised in the post-civil rights era, is a place known as the "Cradle of the Confederacy." Some of my friends who attended public schools routinely saw images of Confederate memorabilia in their school newspapers and heard Confederate songs at football games. During my senior year at Jefferson Davis High School (named for the first president of the Confederacy) in 1988-89, the inclusion of a Ku Klux Klansman in a group picture on the cover of the yearbook generated a lot of controversy and made news headlines. Such incidents illustrate that even when some Southern schools are integrated, they have often, and in subtle ways, made black students feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.
In the popular context, the most (in)famous production sanctioning mythology of the "Old South" and its inherent black subjection is, of course, D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. President Woodrow Wilson's famous description of the film as "like writing history in lightning" illustrates a willful indifference to its racist rhetoric: portrayal of black men as rapists, a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and justifications of lynching in the post-Emancipation South. The film led to a measured increase in violence against blacks, including lynchings, when it was released, demonstrating an utter obliviousness to the victimization of blacks under slavery and grossly misrepresenting the era of Reconstruction.
At a visual level, The Birth of a Nation materializes the verbal assault on blackness that thoroughly saturates Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman. It provided an analogue in film to the caricatured images of blacks in American material culture and minstrelsy. In one of the more egregious passages, for instance, in describing a black political candidate for the House of Representatives named Old Aleck, Dixon's novel's narrator comments that:
His head was small and seemed mashed on the sides until it bulged into a double lobe behind. Even his ears, which he had pierced and hung with red earbobs, seemed to have been crushed to the side of his head. His kinked hair was wrapped in little hard rolls close to the skull and bound tightly with dirty thread. His receding forehead was high and indicated a cunning intelligence. His nose was broad and crushed flat against his face. His jaws were strong and angular, mouth wide, and lips thick, curling back from rows of solid teeth set obliquely in their blue gums. The one perfect thing about him was the size and setting of his mouth--he was a born African orator, undoubtedly descended from a long line of savage spell-binders, whose eloquence in the palaver houses of the jungle had made them native leaders. His thick spindle-shanks supported an oblong, protruding stomach, resembling an elderly monkey's, which seemed so heavy it swayed his back to carry it (249). (xv)
That some contemporary scholars even today, insistently glorify the film The Birth of a Nation for its unprecedented technical innovation and epic proportions, while downplaying or ignoring its egregious racial representations, illustrates continuing nonchalance regarding the politics of this film. In some cases, such uncritical outlooks may even reflect a tacit endorsement of Griffith's historical perspective.
The 1939 film Gone with the Wind offers a less virulent and ostensibly less ideological portrayal of blackness than The Birth of a Nation. Similarly, the 1933 epic novel by Margaret Mitchell on which this film is based is also relatively more benign in terms of its representation of race and the Reconstruction era than Dixon's The Clansman. Yet, there is an ideological overlap between these works that cannot be ignored. For instance, that a form of linguistic violence is flagrantly perpetrated against blacks throughout Gone with the Wind reflects a kind of racial insensitivity regardless of its literary merits and ties to the earlier plantation tradition of American fiction that emerged during the latter nineteenth century. We have to raise questions about why it is that in this novel, written in the year 1936, Mitchell would so profusely refer to blacks with a range of derogatory terms including "darky"? Explanations that link the profusion of such language--used as liberally by the narrator as by the characters--to the novel's attempt to recapture the linguistic tenor and expressions of an earlier historical period seem inadequate. It is telling for instance, that the racialist implications in the descriptors that Mitchell takes creative license to use lacked currency in the contemporary African-American literature of her time. Mitchell described blacks with a vocabulary that contemporary black writers of the 1930s, even in writing about the past, typically did not use, reflecting her indifference to the egregious aspects of this speech.
Furthermore, like Dixon, Mitchell presents blacks (including salient characters such as "the mammy") as fundamentally inhuman, likening them at times to animals and particularly monkeys: "Then Mammy was in the room, Mammy with shoulders dragged down by two heavy wooden buckets, her kind black face sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkeys face" (409). Similarly, both novels describe blacks as malodorous. Dixon's narrator remarks in a passage of The Clansman that, "The square was jammed with shouting, jostling, perspiring negroes, men, women, and children" (246). Mitchell remarks in a scene leading up to Scarlett O'Hara's climatic vow "not to ever go hungry" again that, "The faint niggery smell which crept from the cabin increased her nausea and, without strength to combat it, she kept on retching miserably while the cabins and trees revolved swiftly around her" (420).
Mitchell's novel is masterful and compelling in terms of its form and style; that such passages in the novel, even over time, have done little to detract from the status of this work as "the most revered American saga and the most beloved work by any American writer" is, however, unsettling. In a national context in which citizens are led to ignore or to deem insignificant forms of physical and verbal violence against blacks, the novel can be revered notwithstanding a range of black characters whose descriptions should be insufferable.
Some of the most troubling aspects of Mitchell's epic novel are eliminated from the 1939 film adaptation. What does it mean, we need to ask, that the esteem for characters such as Melanie Hamilton and Rhett Butler can be entirely conserved, in spite of their several moral lapses concerning black subjects, because blacks in their world occupied a subordinate and socially abject status? The most morally upright and respected woman character in the novel, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, resists moving to the North primarily because her son Beau would be in a place where black and white children go to school together. In entreating her husband Ashley not to move the family, the ordinarily mild-mannered Melly remarks that, "If we went North, we couldn't let him go to school and associate with Yankee children and have pickaninnies in his class! We'd have to have a governess and I don't see how we'd afford it" (721). Furthermore, even Rhett, who has been largely indifferent to the Southern cause, reds justified and unapologetic about killing a black man for being insolent with a white woman in the post-War period. As Aunt Pittypat remarks, "They haven't proved it yet but somebody killed this darky who had insulted a white woman. And the Yankees are very upset because so many uppity darkies have been killed recently. They can't prove it on Captain Butler ..." (552). In 1955, allegations about a similar kind of incident led to the mutilation and death of Emmett Till. These episodes involving Rhett and Melly are implied in the narrative economy of the novel to be a reflection of the fortitude that enabled Southerners to resist what were, from the standpoint of the white elite, the ravages of Reconstruction.
The more sanitized dialogue of the 1939 film omits this incident as the reason that Rhett is jailed and under the threat of hanging, as well as the interracial schooling concerns as part of Melly's rationale for not wanting to move to the North; that such incidents are omitted in the film suggests that they are indeed commonly understood as unsavory and reprehensible. In the novel, Rhett's violence against a black man's body and what amounts to a very hateful speech on the part of the beloved and irreproachable Melly are both implied to be inconsequential and even justifiable and admirable. That both characters say and do very "ugly" things regarding blacks fails to discredit or detract from the overall view of them because their very speech and action in these instances are premised on a lack of black humanity. Therefore, Melly can think like a Southern racist and nevertheless remain, in Rhett Butler's eyes, "the only completely kind person I ever knew" (1011) and "a great lady" (1012). This novel reveals that the very virtue and goodness attributed to Melly--a woman who epitomized the gentility of the Old South that had shaped her--were by no means compromised by this opining. Indeed, the perception of Melly as a paragon of Southern womanhood and femininity was conserved, in part, after slavery through her recalcitrant rejection of blacks as social equals. In much the same way, many readers can praise the novel itself while overlooking the passages that are flagrantly racist, treating the violence that it does to blackness at a linguistic level as a non-issue. These dimensions of Mitchell's original characters can remain obscure and irrelevant because they are embedded in a novel that has been read by far fewer people than have watched the film. In turn, the film is mainly true to the novel that serves as its basis, while, in certain instances, radically compressing or revising some of its elements. That the mythos of the Old South in this saga has been contingent on the subjection of the black body matters not a whit.
Melly's resistance to going North is justified in part because it would mean having her son Beau sit in the same classroom with blacks: an attitude, as I've already suggested, that is still relatively commonplace in some sectors of this nation. Such feelings are patently evident in elements of the continuing resistance to public education owing to fears of interracial contact. The passage speaks to the continuing influences of the Old South in contemporary national culture. The ideological residue of Melly's comment is further unsettling to the extent that it serves as one point through which Alexandra Ripley's much-touted 1992 sequel Scarlett establishes narrative continuity with Gone with the Wind, published over fifty years earlier.
Scarlett's plot begins with Melly's funeral. Harriet Kelly--a British woman who comes to live on Scarlett's Irish estate Ballyhara--nevertheless refuses to allow her son to attend the local Irish village school: "Harriet's gray eyes were normally hazy with dreams; now they looked like steel. She was ready to fight anyone, anything for her son. Scarlett had seen the same kind of thing before, the lamb turned lion, when Melanie Wilkes took a stand about something she believed in" (812-813). (xvi) Scarlett has already identified her as a potentially ideal second wife for Ashley, in part because Harriet has a quiet strength reminiscent of Melly. Yet, hearing these sentiments is precisely what leads her to put the plan to get them together in motion and seems to assure her all the more that she has made the right choice. Ashley--like Rhett, Scarlett, and Melly--is one of the four main characters of Gone with the Wind but is a marginal and absent character throughout much of Scarlett, which is set mainly in Charleston, Savannah, and Ireland, while Atlanta serves as the central setting for Gone with the Wind. In evoking Melly, Harriet emerges as a crucial link between past and present. Ultimately, she also links what appears to be a hurried plot resolution in Scarlett, at least as far as the future of the widowed Ashley Wilkes is concerned. Tara McPherson has drawn attention to the ways in which Ripley's novel effectively downplays and excludes black characters altogether in light of a "lenticular" logic that precludes simultaneous representations of black and white bodies. (xvii)
STEEPED IN SOUTHERN IDEOLOGY, Gone with the Wind emerged as one of the most important national narratives of the twentieth century, although its role in this respect was not announced as ostentatiously as in the title of Birth of a Nation, which heralded themes at once regional and national. Its popularity has been sustained in spite the inimical and pathologizing descriptions of some of its black characters. The typically ignored linguistic violence of the novel is steeped in a rhetoric of devaluation and even dehumanization of the black body and reinforces a view of black pain and suffering as inconsequential and unimportant. In such passages, Gone with the Wind sends the message evident in the previously mentioned dialogue of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
This novel also illustrates how the U.S. South has been a fount of prominent ideological narratives that devalue the black body in the nation. Such poignant indifference to black suffering, as constituted in some of the South's most horrific history, inflects and shapes the national consciousness. As a result, it can be extremely useful in thinking about the devalued and imperiled status of the black subject in national and global contexts of the contemporary era. Indifference to how blacks in the U.S. have been treated (or mistreated) historically is one backdrop against which we can understand American racial politics and abuses abroad. Indifference to black pain and suffering in this nation, as witnessed in the slow governmental response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is strikingly similar to the kind of indifference to pain, loss, and suffering that many Americans bring to their outlook on a range of other people in the world. In their eyes, the suffering endured as a result of casualties from the "War on Terror"--including that of many Iraqi citizens--fails to register as real. Pain, suffering, and loss can remain invisible and unspoken or can be kept in denial. It was horrifying, for instance, that by the end of 2001 and even as the nation continued to mourn, some were actually more concerned about the amount of financial compensation that families impacted by 9/11 would receive than about the horrific losses that these people had suffered. In so many instances where we might expect to see an ethic of care and the application of concepts such as the "golden rule," we have mainly seen an indifference reflective of the narcissism that haunts our time. This is a shame, for in a volatile period like this one, we are all susceptible to walking a mile in the shoes of the least among us, whatever that might mean at any given time.
(i) A version of this paper was delivered May 19, 2006 at UC Irvine in the symposium "Black Thought in the Age of Terror", which explored the utility of philosophy for examining contemporary social crises with implications for blacks including the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I thank my interlocutors in the session for which I presented, which was chaired by the event organizer, Jared Sexton and included Ronald A.T. Judy. presented another version as a speaker in the Faculty Colloquium of the English department at UC Davis on March 16, 2007. I thank Margie Ferguson, Scott Shershow, Timothy Morton, Fran Dolan, Claire Waters, Parama Roy, and Mark Jerng for their rich comments and feedback, which have enriched this essay immeasurably.
(ii) Shortly thereafter, Raven Wilkinson joined a convent for eight months. She subsequently returned to dance but wasn't hired by another company. Eventually, she found work in the Dutch National Ballet. Wilkinson's experience is mentioned, for instance, in Gia Kourlas, "Dance: Where are All the Black Swans?" The New York Times, 6 May 2007.
(iii) The infamous Tuskegee Study, which was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932-72, assessed the long-term effects of the syphilis virus on a group of 399 black men in the Macon County, Alabama area, including a control group of 200 additional men who did not have the virus, by withholding standard medical treatment. This included penicillin, which emerged in the 1940s as an antidote for treating syphilis. The Associated Press finally exposed the study in 1972.
(iv) Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2006).
(v) W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Ed. Terri Hume Oliver, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).
(vi) Here I allude to the terminology of Laura Bush. Reacting to the government's slow response to the disaster, tapper Kanye West remarked on an NBC relief drive: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." The First Lady, Laura Bush, responded rather defensively and in an effort apparently designed to discredit and deflect such a critique, stated, "I think all of those remarks were disgusting."
(vii) Everett Carter, "Huckleberry Fun," Making Mark Twain Work in the Classroom, Ed. James S. Leonard (Durham: Duke UP, 1999).
(viii) I am inspired here by the work of Rebecca Wanzo on African-American women and affect.
(ix) By the 1990s, the blow delivered by a reigning ideology of colorblindness was felt on the major television networks whose elimination of "black shows," which by then had been largely relegated to U PN, led to a "brownout." Blackness became almost as elusive in prime time as it once was in the early days of television when the space of black representation was very narrow and many blacks actually called their family, friends, and neighbors to give the alert "Colored on TV!" The "Cosby era" became a thing of the past. That a show featuring a black family--and even black college students in the case of its spin-off, A Different World--had actually once occupied the coveted Thursday night prime time slot on N BC for almost a decade seemed like a distant dream. America moved on and fell in love with its new Friends and other shows on "Must See TV." The historical serviceability of blackness for entertainment in the national arena was no saving grace in this instance and no one seemed to care that blacks had all but disappeared from prime time. A similar phenomenon occurred in the fashion industry around this time with the "blonding" of models on the runway as a way of off setting the popularity of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, and Christy Turlington. Some read it as a reaction on the part of many fashion designers to the perceived arrogance of many supermodels, as well as their demands and popularity in the media, which appeared to bring them the status of veritable celebrities. Even more directly, this move was interpreted by some as a reaction to the infamous statement of Evangelista about herself and Turlington: "We don't fiogue [an allusion to the dance popularized by Madonna], we are Vogue [i.e. the magazine]. Christy and I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day." The effent of these shifts in the fashion industry and its new emphasis on blondness, as acknowledged by high profile models such as Veronica Webb--the first black model to receive a cosmetics contract--was the alienation of black models from fashion runways by the 1990s. These were models who already been made to feel very excluded.
(x) W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Vintage, 1991). Cash's classic study was originally published in 1941.
(xi) Leigh Anne Duck, The Nation's Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2006).
(xii) Clarence Thomas's confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which many African-Americans supported, put someone in power whose vote would be decisive in selecting a conservative candidate in the presidential election just nine years later and who was, in turn, empowered to make more conservative appointments to the nation's highest court.
(xiii) David Horowitz, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2006).
(xiv) The Duke University chapter of Students for Academic Freedom sponsored a lecture by David Horowitz on the campus in March 2006. In protest, a cohort of about twenty students attended and wore black T-shirts that read "Why didn't I make the list?" on the front and "Intimidation, Blacklisting, Litmus Testing, Narcing on Professors = Academic Freedom?" on the back. This was an important form of student resistance to Horowitz's propaganda; it tropes brilliantly on his methodology of compiling the list of allegedly infamous professors in his book. The color of the T-shirts alludes to his attempt to blacklist such professors in keeping with the strategies of McCarthyism. Here I am critiquing the recourse to self-referentiality in the question that the T-shirt raises on the front side, which almost suggests that not making the list oneself is the primary critique that one should have about it. In this sense, this approach seems to reinforce rather than unsettle the very concept of the list. I am suggesting that Horowitz' tactics will require a more concerted, widespread and sustained response in academia.
(xv) Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970) and Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, Special Commemorative 60th Anniversary Edition (New York: Warner Books, 1993).
(xvi) Alexandra Ripley, Scarlett (New York: Warner Books, 1991).
(xvii) Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
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|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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