Silent Sam, the Confederate Soldier's memorial at the University of North Carolina. Credit: CreativeCommons / Don McCullough.
Last year for the first time I visited Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation island off the New England coast beloved by many African Americans and others. President Obama and numerous black dignitaries were visiting and a series of Harvard-sponsored lectures highlighted the progress and plight of Black America. Drifting off by myself I noticed a discordant note: sitting near one ferry dock is a statue of a Confederate soldier. The work was put up a generation after the Civil War as a sign of white American reconciliation. Few black people I talked to noticed it.
What a difference a year makes. Several weeks ago, the nation was forced to confront the undead ghost of the Confederacy. A deranged, Confederate flag-loving, twenty-one year old slaughtered nine people as they prayed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young killer raved about blacks raping white women and wanting to take over the country. In the wake of the murders, calls mounted for the lowering of the Confederate battle-flag in South Carolina public places. On Friday, July 10, many state residents came together to see the symbol officially taken down in the state capital.
Several weeks ago, the American media was transfixed by a story of racial “passing.” Now the story has been pushed off the front pages by the true tragedy of the massacre of nine African American congregants in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The media saturation bombing of Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP, looks increasingly trivial. In a country where black folk are seemingly eternally subject to violence, the story of Dolezal now seems trite. But why was the nation briefly so focused on her story? Ms. Dolezal, born “white,” was accused of disguising herself as “black.” She had become a community activist and had married a black man. In addition, she had adopted black children. Her parents “outed” her as white. They stoutly maintain that they are “Caucasian” (but one assumes not in the same way as condemned Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). I find the jumbled facts of the case insufficient to explain the national furor. She and ISIS appeared on the front page of the New York Times on the same day. Dolezal may be personally mendacious and manipulative, but her construction of herself, however contrived, struck a raw nerve in the American psyche. The “white” woman turned ‘black” is even more transgressive than transgenders. Her professed bisexuality attracts less attention than her racial identification.
by: Ibrahim Sundiata on October 7th, 2014 | Comments Off
Police use tear gas on protestors as the unrest in Ferguson continued into its sixth day in August. Credit: Creative Commos/Wikipedia
Saturday before last I attended religious training. At the close, the leader gave a brief and moving sermon. He spoke of the unspeakable pain that he, as a white man in America, could never feel. He spoke of the shooting down in Ferguson, Missouri of a young black man, Michael Brown. The following day, I attended my church, where a visiting white cleric also pointedly touched on Ferguson. The avuncular preacher spoke of how much we still needed to do in Obama’s America. Racism is alive and well.
Almost every black man of my acquaintance has his testimony; these range from my Hong Kong-educated Senegalese financial planner to my twenty-something nephew. I have my own story. Thirty years ago, while running down a freezing street on Chicago’s North Side, I was stopped by police with guns drawn. I froze and raised my hands. I was given no answers to my questions about what was going on. Instead I was led through an alley to a brownstone. A woman, who looked shaken up, was in the doorway. “Is this him,?” the cops asked her. “No,” she replied. “He’s too old.” I was then a thirty-something junior professor at Northwestern University. Had I not stopped running initially, I am sure my career would have ended then and there. No black man can be sure he is proof against the crime of running or driving while black.
by: Ibrahim Sundiata on April 23rd, 2014 | Comments Off
Hirsi Ali. Credit: Creative Commons
I write this on Easter Sunday. A little less than a month from now, on May 18, 2014, Brandeis University will hold its sixty-third commencement ceremony. I shall not be there; I am south of the Equator in Brazil. Someone else also will not be there —Somali feminist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I am glad she will not be. An invitation extended to her was withdrawn by the president of the university, Fred Lawrence. Many of the faculty had signed a letter of protest and the Muslim Students Association had added its voice. Yet, the whole episode leaves me with bittersweet taste. I was left with a nagging question. Ross Douhat in the New York Times said that the university should just come out and confess its bias: “I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.” Elsewhere in the media the dustup at Brandeis was portrayed as a speed-bump in the battle over free speech. It was much more. In an age of identity politics can we criticize the formerly colonized or semi-colonized “Two-Thirds World” (in the faculty letter’s terminology)? How to address female genital mutilation in Somalia, slavery in Mauritania and the lynching of gays in Kenya? Especially when such occurrences are clothed with the authority of religion, how do we respond?
Credit: Creative Commons
In the last several months I have visited services in several faith communities – Jewish, Catholic and Muslim. Sunday before last I was in my own house of worship, Union Methodist, a historically Black congregation. After religious services, we gathered in the basement to discuss the vexed question of whether or not our pastors could or could not officiate over same-sex marriages. The meeting took no formal vote, but the overwhelming sense of the gathering was that all people had a right to equality. A thirteen year-old girl stood up and cried when she spoke of the bullying of a boy at her school. An elderly Caribbean woman denounced gay bashing. A middle-aged father of two spoke of how he had slowly come out to his two daughters. A Puerto Rican psychologist spoke movingly of how his early view of homosexuality had turned him away from a call to the ministry. A young man from the Deep South spoke of the long darkness in his soul as he wrestled with demons, sexual and otherwise. We had church.
(Credit: Creative Commons)
The “funeralizing” of Nelson Mandela has ended. It was part MLK Day, part rock concert. Pundits, starlets and TV personalities fought for air-time to proclaim their nearness to the departed leader.
But, for some of us who marched outside the Chicago consulate of apartheid South Africa in the dead of winter in years gone by, Mandela is more. He was part of a nonracial African National Congress that promised not only political power, but also economic justice. The anti-apartheid struggle was only about campus divestment campaigns and denunciations of the white minority rule in the UN. We must remember that workers, especially mine workers, long demonstrated against the workplace color bar.
Nelson Mandela was an almost miraculous man. Above all, the transition to majority rule from 1990 to 1994 was peaceful. This is a magnificent testament to Mandela’s perseverance, tact and political acumen. However, by the time of his passing the wealth gap between the new black elite and masses has become a chasm.
(Credit: Creative Commons)
Recently I attended a preview of Twelve Years a Slave, a film graphically showcasing bondage in Dixie. In one scene I watched a white man in a sadomasochistic frenzy rape a young black woman -blood and semen seemed to drip in equal measure. I left the theater shocked and angry. This was the ultimate form of human degradation. I trembled. We seem to be under a continuing curse of psychotic racism spurred by a bloodlust so strong that even God Himself cannot cure it. Slavery is our own “Original Sin.”
It took some days to erase the searing images from the movie. As a historian I began to reflect. The actor who played the central character, Solomon Northrup, is Anglo-African Chiwetel Eijofor. When he mentioned that he is of Igbo descent and had heard of slavery in the West Indies, my antennae went up. Slavery in Igboland was a central fact of its nineteenth’s century economy. It seems that Eijofor wished to isolate a particular variety of slavery, one far removed from African realities.Americans do talk a lot about race and history, but are bound up in a highly stylized version of it —-The Dixie Narrative. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the paternalistic image of U.S. slavery summoned up in Gone with the Wind and other works on the “Gallant South” had been consigned to the junk heap of history for most of us. The turbulence and violence of the 1950s and 1960s meant that the nation would, thank God, never again embrace any benevolent view of slavery.