Tag Archives: race

The Last Book I Loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Do you guys remember back in college when you’d pick up your books for a new class and the first thing you’d do is skip to the back and be thrilled to find out that 100 of the 500 pages you were expected to read were citations and bibliography? No? Just me?

miss-anne-in-harlem-jacket300wSo last night, on the train home, I found myself in the exact opposite position, eagerly anticipating the last 150  pages of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan, about the highly problematic, complex, fascinating lives of prominent white women in Harlem in the 20s. I was downright devastated to find instead 150 pages of index and acknowledgments. Noooooo000000000.

It is a rare piece of historical analysis, without traditional plot or suspense, that can grip a reader like that. Slow clap to Kaplan for pulling it off and making it look easy.

I was wary of Miss Anne from the title alone. Do we really need to go looking for ways that white people’s contributions to history, particularly black history, have been overlooked? Really? Those are the buried contributions we want to spend time and energy uncovering? Look! More stuff that you thought black people did but actually it was white people! And a white historian writing about and profiting off of a book about white people writing about and profiting off of black identity politics in the 20s? Are we really not going to address the irony? This book had the potential to go seriously, seriously awry.

And yet.

Oh my god, you guys, it was so good. As you might imagine, I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed, forgotten-by-the-sands-of-time/ignored-by-the-patriarchal-powers-that-be stories of women shaping, influencing, wielding power. This also applies to people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other members of marginalized groups whose contributions are often painted over by a whiter, straighter, male brush. The story of Bayard Rustin is one example; a gay black activist who organized the March on Washington and is literally standing behind MLK Jr during the “I Have a Dream” speech, but whose name is often left out of the textbooks. Or all these women I read about when I was traveling Peru.

The assumption that history was built by (white, straight, rich) men, is undermined when you get into the nitty gritty of who was actually working, writing, creating. With each such story that ultimately gets told, it feels like a slow expansion of the canon, and goddamn does the canon need expanding.

That very tension between untold stories of fascinating women and appropriation of black culture is literally and intentionally the central struggle of Miss Anne and all of the women it chronicles. Kaplan selected six white women, “Miss Annes,” to illustrate the variety of roles that white women inhabited (mostly uncomfortably) during the 1920s in Harlem.

The women she picks range from writers and journalists to “philanthropists”–like Charlotte Osgood Mason, who financed significant work by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke while maintaining a dictatorial grip on their social calendars–to playwrights and poets who attempted to “capture the black experience”. Many of them thought of themselves as boundary-breakers and reached into Harlem for certain freedoms they weren’t allowed in upper middle class white society. Some of them craved the spotlight, others were content to work in obscurity (until now) on behalf of the betterment of blacks. There is no unifying thread in their experience, except for their whiteness and femaleness in a period of history mostly discussed from a black male point of view.

It was an era when primitivism ruled and white Americans took tours of “exotic” Harlem to experience the “carefree” music and dance of black dance halls. Some of the women in Miss Anne subscribed to the worst of those primitivist theories. Some of them didn’t. Race novels like Imitation of Life, Passing, and Let My People Go, grappled with the meaning of racial identity, especially when identity was not visibly obvious. The notion of “volunteering for blackness” existed in opposition to passing for white. The dueling concepts of “race pride” and “race is a useless social construction” were constantly being debated in the press, on stage, and in salons. Can you choose how you identify? What happens if it’s in conflict with how others identify you? Why is choosing blackness different than passing for white? What obligations do you owe the members of your group?

In short, it was messy as hell, and to her credit Kaplan ignores none of the mess. Thank God.

There’s only one thing I would add to Miss Anne. If you recall from writing history papers in college, the trick at the end was always to pull the past into the present with some trite sentence like, “And that is why these issues are still ones we are discussing today.” Only better than that, obviously. While Kaplan successfully draws strong lines from 1920s race and identity politics to the present day, there is one piece missing from the puzzle; Kaplan’s story herself. By opening the door to discussing her role as a white historian telling black stories and describing black experience [Note: She is considered an expert on Zora Neale Hurston], she could have added that last complicating layer to an already super complicated, delicious, multi-layered history cake.

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Happy 80th Gloria!

Gloria Steinem turned 80 today and is still killing it all over town. Gail Collins wrote a particularly excellent birthday card at the New York Times, but I also committed my thoughts on Gloria to paper (er…screen? We have got to get some new idioms) for Role/Reboot.

Screenshot_3_25_14_12_23_PM-2I was recently talking to my mom about how segmented the “movements” are these days. Where are the great thinkers? She said, Where are the great leaders pushing us forward to be better? The Martins? The Glorias? She’s right, I think, that there really aren’t singular “public faces” to movements anymore. Maybe Sheryl Sandberg comes the closest, but even her momentum and appeal is limited to certain demographic wedges. Individuals become flash points, like Sandra Fluke, or Trayvon Martin, but their influence doesn’t sustain over decades.

The way we consume media has become so fractured and specific that for one person to try to galvanize a large swath of the public is rarely feasible anymore. We’ll change the channel to one of the 900 others, or close the browser and open a new one. There are pockets now, specific strains of ism or anti-ism, that we choose subscribe to based on our politics and affiliations. When Tina Fey skewered Jezebel on 30 Rock, which side did you fall on? When Ta-Nehisi Coates berates the President, who do you think is right?

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we have these sub-affiliations, I think it’s just an indication of how fucking complicated these issues are. I just finished Lynn Povich’s The Good Girls Revoltabout the 1970 sex discrimination lawsuit at Newsweek. In the recollections of some of the participants was a certain reluctance to admit that, actually, they hadn’t wanted the jobs they were suing for. Most of them certainly did (and  they all deserved the opportunity to compete for them), but some felt that the movement was so all-encompassing that to opt-out or question any part of it was to undermine it. They didn’t want to jeopardize the group to protect themselves, even though their interests didn’t always line up 100%.

It was an interesting angle that I wasn’t expecting Povich to address. It’s not all rah-rah. One person or committee or caucus can never speak for everyone, so the goal has to be about creating options, not dictating how we utilize them.

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Filed under Gender, Media, Politics, Republished!

The Cool Kids

Got your geek out goggles on? Good, you’re going to need them. This week the Schomberg Center organized a conversation between Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, That Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, “Flawless”). 

In an hour long discussion full of epic brilliance, the powerhouse pair address among many, many things: how white people think of black people as one homogenous class, how most literature neglects the sexual agency of grown women, how Americanah is Adichie’s “Fuck you” book, what it was like to write the rape scene in Yellow Sun, how splitting the check represents (or doesn’t) love, 12 Years a Slave, Barack and Michelle, policing blackness, and of course, hair.

See for yourself:

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And may I also say that I called the Their Eyes Were Watching God/Americanah connection. Ten points for Gryffindor.

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“If you’re feeling attacked, it probably means you’re having your privilege challenged”

If you haven’t spent much time with the Batty Mamzelle essay “This is what I mean when I say ‘White Feminist'”, you should.  If it hasn’t entered the canon of intersectional third wave feminist texts, it’ll be inducted any day now. It is brilliant.

As a feminist who is white, I do not want to be a White Feminist, which Cate defines as follows:

“White feminism” does not mean every white woman, everywhere, who happens to identify as feminist. It also doesn’t mean that every “white feminist” identifies as white. I see “white feminism” as a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices. It is the feminism we understand as mainstream; the feminism obsessed with body hair, and high heels and makeup, and changing your married name. It is the feminism you probably first learned. “White feminism” is the feminism that doesn’t understand western privilege, or cultural context. It is the feminism that doesn’t consider race as a factor in the struggle for equality. 

For visual learners, she included this amazing Venn diagram, and I’ve added my notes with yellow arrows:

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I know I have flirted the line with White Feminism. I was in White Feminism territory when I posted on Facebook about blackface. I was in White Feminism territory when I failed to consider how a movement like SlutWalk may not work for women of color whose experience with hypersexualization (see #FastTailedGirls) is different than mine. And I know that, when my White Feminism tendencies come out (and if you grew up with White Feminism, were taught White Feminism, and read White Feminism, it can be hella hard to retrain yourself), I am epically embarrassed to be called out. When you are working hard to be the best ally you can be and you take a misstep (even a well-meaning one), it’s hard not to go straight for a defensive crouch. But you don’t know me. I’m not like that. I’m on your side. 

But that’s a selfish, unhelpful response. It’s not about you (me). As Cate writes “It can be very off-putting to feel attacked for a transgression that you know yourself not to be guilty of. But in the context of social justice and movement building, if you’re feeling attacked, it probably means you’re having your privilege challenged, not that you are a bad person.” All you can do is apologize, step back, analyze, and learn from it.

In a related story this week, Jeff Yang wrote for the Wall Street Journal about the selection of Ashley Wagner for the Olympic Team (4th place in the Nationals) over Mirai Nagasu (3rd). As he points out in his follow-up piece, we will likely never know for sure whether race, specifically, played a role in the selection, but it’s not unreasonable to ask the question:

My WSJ piece is focused on the idea of the “golden girl” — a term first applied to one of Olympic skating’s early superstars, Sonja Henie, and which has survived since then through the years as an appellation for a particular type of skater: Blonde, ivory-skinned, willowy, slender. The term “golden girl” is akin to the term “great white hope”: It is a racialized archetype that infuriates people when you actually call it out as a racialized archetype.

Remember guys, if you’re feeling defensive, you’re probably just having your privilege challenged.

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Sasheer Zamata and “Preferential Casting”

As you’ve probably heard, Saturday Night Live hired a black female comedian this week, Sasheer Zamata, 6 years after their last black female performer (Maya Rudoph) left the show. You may not have heard that, in addition to Zamata, SNL announced that they had hired two new black female writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones.

After the Zamata announcement, I went and watched a trillion of her youtube clips of her stand-up and sketch work. This is my favorite:

Why do I think it’s important for cultural touchstones (which, whether you like it or not, SNL is) have diverse writers and casts? Because a straight white dude would never do a bit like that. Ever. And it is brilliant, and insightful, and kind of uncomfortable, and funny as hell. We need this kind of comedy to be part of the mainstream. That’s not to say that straight white dudes can’t contribute (Louie CK’s rape joke remains one of my favorites), only that a diversity of experience (like for example, having different colored skin, growing up in a different neighborhood, having immigrant parents, etc) creates a diversity of content, and that diversity of content is what eventually leads to empathy with people who are, on the surface, not like us.

This week for Role/Reboot I wrote more about Sasheer Zamata’s casting, with a nod to Cindy Gallop and Mitt Romney’s “Binders full of women”:

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What I Read in 2013

I read a lot in 2013. Some combination of new proximity to my local library, an enthusiastic book club, and my first shot at the quiet and uninterrupted solitude of single-living has resulted in me cranking through the stacks at record pace.

I believe who we read is in many ways as important as what we read. Which voices do we bring into our homes and absorb into our worldviews? Are they just like us? Older? Younger? Poorer? Richer? Colorful?

Some organizations, like VIDA, formalize this count by comparing bylines by gender at major publications. Here’s how my 2013 reading list shook out:

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Included in that blue chunk in the top right were new books like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanahas well as a few overlooked classics, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

Not that 40 is by any means some sort of definitive line in the sand, but I think it’s interesting that most of what I read (with the notable exception of Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent trilogy) was written by real live grown-ups. You know, not 25-year-olds.

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Lastly, was any of it true? I find that, as I get older, my preference for non-fiction gets stronger. I read more journalism, less bloggery, watch more documentaries, fewer blockbusters, read more memoirs, fewer pieces of fiction. Seems like the real world is plenty full of good stories without having to make them up. Cases in point include Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) and Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc). I still read a buttload of fiction, but I only expect the slice of non-fic to get fatter every year.

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So what were my favorites? Read everything I mentioned above (especially the Boo and Adichie). For wild cackling on the train, I suggest Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? For when you have six solid hours on the couch and you need an epic American tale, pick up East of Edenwhich I finally read and adored this year. For the quirkiest love story of the year about an autistic astronaut and his bald wife, read Lydia Netzer’s Shine, Shine, ShineTo deepen your love of great American cities, read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives (New Orleans), You Were Never in Chicago (Neil Steinberg), or Detroit (Charlie LeDuff). And when you really want to be stunned by what magic tricks a book can do, dare yourself to try Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.
 
What did you read and love in 2013, and what’s next?

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“I won’t date _________ people” = Racist? Yes.

This week for Role/Reboot I wrote about the always controversial subject of racial preferences while dating. It started because a friend (who is Asian) asked if I thought it was racist to not want to date other Asians. So began a long and fascinating conversation about trying to avoid people with similar neuroses, whether those neuroses stem from being Asian, whether “Asian” is too broad a bloc to eliminate (what about South Asians? What about fifth-generation Asians? What about adopted Asians? Will they all have the same neuroses we’re trying to avoid? Probably not…)

My perspective is that you can’t make assumptions about values, beliefs, experiences, or even appearance on race. Consequently, if you say ” I don’t date ______,” the thing you’re objecting to is the census category itself (which is pretty arbitrary…) That, to my mind, is racist. Here are my thoughts in a little more detail:

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The feedback has already been really fascinating, and there is at least one major question I didn’t address in the original piece: what about when people of a minority or marginalized group prefer to date within their group for the purposes of solidarity and preservation of culture and traditions?

I left this out intentionally because I don’t really feel qualified to answer it, having never identified as part of a marginalized group (except for ladies, which is a moot point here). I don’t have a culture or set of traditions that it is important for me to preserve such that my dating choices would be affected. “Whiteness” is not a culture. Jewish and black friends (at least, these are the only two groups that have spoken up), both argued for an asterisk on my argument that recognized that, in the case of marginalized groups, there might be value in trying to preserve a culture or strengthen a community that might otherwise peter out if not sufficiently maintained.

What do you guys think?

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