Feb 06 2016

Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness

I co-curated two exhibitions in 2015. The second titled ‘Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness through Racist Postcards and Imagery‘ opened in October and will end its run at the end of this month. I worked with my friends Rachel Caidor and Essence McDowell to create the exhibition.

From the 1890’s through the 1950’s, thousands of postcards depicting racist caricatures and stereotypes of Black people were produced across the United States and the world. Degrading images of blackness also found expression in advertising and other media. In this propaganda, Black people were portrayed as lazy, child-like, unintelligent, ugly, chicken stealing, watermelon eating, promiscuous, crap-shooting, savage and criminal. These images represent some of the historical attitudes and beliefs about Black people. The stereotypes continue to shape and shorten Black lives in the present.

The widespread dissemination of negative stereotypes of Black people through popular culture had a distinct function. In an era (1890s-1920s) when the social order was violently disrupted, these images were deployed to comfort white people in their racist beliefs while also reinforcing white supremacy. The status quo needed to be preserved and violence against Blacks needed to be legitimated (or legitimized).

After Emancipation, many newly freed Black people were hopeful that with hard work and determination, they could overcome racial discrimination and injustice. As such, formerly enslaved people actively sought educational, economic and political opportunities. Throughout Reconstruction, “more than a quarter million Blacks attended more than four thousand schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau (p. 23, Giddings).” Thousands of new Black businesses were founded. Tens of thousands of Black men registered to vote. Hundreds of Black newspapers were being published. The backlash against this Black success was swift and brutal.

In the 1890s, lynchings “claimed an average of 139 lives each year, 75% of them Black (Without Sanctuary, p. 12).” The decades spanning the early 1880s through the early 1930s have been called the ‘lynching era’ by some historians. Journalist and activist Ida B Wells theorized that: “Lynching was a direct result of the gains Blacks were making throughout the South (Giddings, p. 26). Wells wrote: “[L]ynching was merely an excuse to get rid of the Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down’ (Giddings, p. 28).” Backed by a criminal punishment system that maintained and enforced white power & supremacy, Black people were subjugated, oppressed and exploited.

In this context, circulating negative images of Black people made them more vulnerable to violence. It also validated white people’s theories of Black inferiority, criminality, promiscuity and overall immorality. The ideas of Black inferiority and white supremacy are firmly entrenched.  They formed the ideological basis of chattel slavery and continue in its afterlife.

Our exhibition illuminates the racist attitudes and ideologies that were/are endemic to U.S. culture and society. Relying primarily on postcards from my collection, this exhibition speaks to the legacy of anti-Black racism that still structures our present. The racist images underscore the ‘routine’ denigration of Black people. They illustrate how little Black lives have mattered in this country. They belie the need for a hashtag and a movement affirming that #BlackLivesMatter.

Postcards were accessible and low-cost means to disseminate anti-Black racist images and messages. It’s not coincidental that these types of postcards were most circulated from 1900 through the 1930s at the height of Jim Crow and spectacle lynching. The postcards offer further evidence that whiteness and white identity depended on Black subjugation and oppression. They illuminate the active “work’ of white supremacy to keep whiteness dominant. That work is a visible public project that allowed white people to define their own identities through the denigration and demonization of blackness. Black people did not escape this project unscathed. In a 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, the great writer James Baldwin explained that he moved to Paris in part to escape the stereotypes inflicted on Black people. He discussed the impact(s) of those racist images on Blacks:

“All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact – this may sound very strange – you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you (Interview by Studs Terkel, Almanac, WFMT, Chicago 12/29/61).”

By viewing these racist images in the 21st century, do we perpetuate Black oppression or resist it? Are we complicit in the demonization and degradation of Black people by showing these racist & stereotypical images? We asked ourselves and others these questions before deciding to curate this exhibition. We decided to move forward because we believe that this history is important to underscore and to understand always & especially in our current historical moment. How did white people justify their continued subordination of Black people post emancipation? They did so in part, we contend, by actively making Niggers through creating and distributing racist stereotypes of Black people. We use the word Niggers knowing full well that it is controversial. Yet it is central to what we hope to convey through this exhibition. As Hinton Als writes, “Nigger is a slow death.” We are tracing a history of slow Black death-making on behalf of white supremacy. Ultimately, visitors to the exhibition will have to decide for themselves the answers to the above questions.

Our exhibition introduces a new generation to postcards as historical documents and cultural artifacts for understanding anti-Black racism in the past and present. Dozens of postcards tell stories of how Black people were devalued over time. Together these artifacts illuminate the ideological foundations of anti-Black racism in the U.S.

Hundreds of people have visited the exhibition so far. One of those visitors was the supremely gifted artist Damon Locks. Damon was inspired to create “Sounds Like Now,” a sonic response to the exhibition. He shared these words about the audio collage:

“I have been listening and thinking and rethinking. Yesteryear and today have been blurring into each other. I have record after record where people express eloquently their fight for freedom, justice and equality. Regardless of when it was recorded, it sounds like now. Take the needle off the record, back up and start again”

Listen to Damon’s performance of the audio collage.

You can also watch the performance.

Sounds Like NOW from ryan griffis on Vimeo.

I was personally blown away by Damon’s creative intervention. As I have been taking people on tours through the exhibition, I am struck by how few of them are familiar with the postcards even while being well-versed in the stereotypes that they convey. I’d hoped that the exhibition would add to the discussions currently happening around #BlackLivesMatter and it is. For those who are interested, we have a private Facebook group that we plan to use to continue the discussions we’ve begun even after the exhibition ends its run this month. Finally, we are working on a book that will feature some of the postcards and our commentary based on the exhibition. Stay tuned for that. We hope to release it this fall.

Feb 02 2016

Image of the Day: The Negro in Chicago: a study of race relations and a race riot, 1922

Over the summer, I bought a first edition copy of The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot, by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations published in 1922. The book is filled with important information about the state of Black Chicago in the early 20th century. I particularly appreciated some of the photographs and maps in the book. I’m sharing a couple of images below.

Source: The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot, by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations (1922)

Source: The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot, by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations (1922)

Source: The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot, by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922

Source: The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot, by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922

If you are interested in a short primer on what led to the 1919 Chicago Riots, you can read a great zine written by my friend Lisa Dadabo about Red Summer here (PDF).

Feb 01 2016

Chicago’s Mental Health Movement Responds to Mayor’s ‘Reforms’

I wanted to share this press release from the Mental Health Movement here in Chicago because it offers an important critique of the so-called ‘reforms’ being offered by Mayor Emanuel. In addition, the release points the way forward to what Chicagoans must demand and fight for. Please read this and share it widely. To join the struggle, contact N’Dana Carter and STOP CHICAGO at 773 217-9598.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Mental Health Movement Response to Mayor Emanuel Statement on Mental Health Reforms

Mental Health Movement is concerned and frustrated that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s statement today on mental health reforms did not even mention the six remaining city mental health clinics. He continues to avoid owning up to his administration’s own responsibility for the deterioration of Chicago’s mental health safety net by closing six clinics in 2012 – primarily in African-American and Latino communities – and setting up the remaining six clinics for failure through cuts and inaction on ensuring adequate staffing and billing. This is an essential part of the context of why police, rather than trained mental health professionals, end up being called to respond to mental health crises.

City mental health clinics service thousands of Chicago residents every year and it is a disservice to those in need of mental health services, clinic staff and to Chicago taxpayers to ignore these clinics and allow them to crumble. Once again we call on the Mayor to make a long term commitment to keep the city’s six mental health clinics OPEN and PUBLIC, because these clinics provide a unique and vital safety net for those most in need. Such a commitment would have immediate benefits –reassuring current and prospective clients, improving staff morale and making it easier to recruit new staff, especially psychiatrists.

In addition, we call on the Mayor to open six mental health clinics in the communities where he closed clinics in 2012. The Mental Health Movement fought hard to stop those closures because we knew the serious impact of those closures. And in fact there was a spike in hospitalizations, hundreds of former clients unaccounted for, a growing mental health problem in Cook County jail and many individuals suffered serious consequences. Any closures of the remaining clinics would be likely to have equal or more devastating impacts.

We also oppose any plans to privatize the clinics. Privatization would result in another disruption of care with no demonstrated benefits in quality or savings. The importance of a public safety net is made clear by the closure of several private mental health clinics in recent years and the last minute save by Cook County Health and Hospital System to prevent the closure of the C4 network of mental health clinics.

We support Alderman Jason Ervin’s ordinance that would require the Chicago Department of Public Health to join at least three managed care networks, hire more psychiatrists, do a community outreach campaign to let people know about the clinics and to report to City Council about meeting those requirements.

We also plan to press for an ordinance that would require the city to open six more clinics to get vital services to people in need and reduce the number of awful and preventable tragedies like the shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones. The combination of racism, mental health stigma and deteriorating access to care in the communities that need it most is a deadly one that cannot be side-stepped with speeches and empty proposals.

Jan 29 2016

Marissa Alexander: One year later

I don’t have time to blog anymore. I’m working all of the time and my life is in transition. I miss the daily practice of blogging. I hope to get back to it in a few weeks.

This Wednesday marked the 1 year anniversary of Marissa Alexander’s release from prison into a 2 year sentence of home confinement/probation. She has one more year to go before she can claim more freedom. For the occasion, Marissa recorded a message to her supporters to update us on how she’s been faring. Watch her message below.

Regular readers of this blog know that I spent many months working to help #FreeMarissa as part of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander (CAFMA), a group that I co-founded. As a way to honor Marissa and to lift up the organizing of CAFMA, my friend Tom Callahan and I produced a short film that we released on Wednesday afternoon. Watch it below.

I am so grateful that Marissa is out of prison. I look forward to next year when she is free from home confinement and probation. I am grateful to the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign and to everyone who came together to make sure that Marissa could be with her children and family. Thank you.

Jan 25 2016

#No Tasers: Chicago Students Speak Out

Students from the Village Leadership Academy in Chicago did some research on the use of tasers by police. They produced the following video that tasers are in fact lethal weapons. They suggest that Chicagoans call Mayor Rahm Emanuel to insist that he not invest millions of dollars to outfit CPD as a “reform” to oppressive policing.

Jan 20 2016

Musical Interlude: Freedom by Taina Asili

I just came across this wonderful new song and video by Taina Asili called “Freedom.” Watch it, it’s beautiful and makes connections between oppressive policing and mass incarceration

Jan 20 2016

Laura Scott, Prisoner: An Addendum

I started my research on Laura Scott’s life four years ago. I came across her mug shot, purchased it and was curious about who she was. Last year, a woman named Barbara reached out to ask if she could publish an abridged version of the zine I wrote about Laura’s life in the newsletter of the Afro-American History Society. I agreed of course and it will appear in early March.

Later, Barbara shared some information that she found on Ancestry.com. She’d come across a Laura Scott born Nov. 1867 in Alabama living in Galveston, TX according to the 1900 Census. She was listed as married, a dressmaker and living with a sister-in-law named Mattie Bridges. Barbara added: “Awfully close to the facts about your Laura Scott. If the same person, Laura may have left for California after the devastating hurricane struck the city. Could also explain the train tickets to El Paso.” In my original research, I’d missed this possible clue about Laura Scott. Armed with this new information, I am able to revise what I previously wrote about Laura’s possible travels prior to arriving in California.

Revised Information

Laura Scott was born in Alabama in either 1867 or perhaps 1868. Her exact birth date is unknown because there are various ages listed for her on different documents. In addition, Laura Scott was divorced and the surname she used may not be her maiden name. San Quentin prison records list her age as 37 years old in 1905 and then as 40 years old in 1908. Her Bertillon criminal card lists her age as 40 years old in 1908. However, two years later, the 1910 Federal Census where she appears as a prisoner at San Quentin lists her age as 38. She is identified as being 28 years old in a 1907 Los Angeles Herald newspaper article covering her second trial. Searching Ancestry.com, according to the 1900 Census, a Laura Scott born in November 1867 in Alabama was living in Galveston, Texas with her sister-in-law named Mattie Bridges. It’s possible that this could be the same Laura.

Year: 1900; Census Place: Galveston Ward 7, Galveston, Texas; Roll: 1637; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 0127; FHL microfilm: 1241637

Year: 1900; Census Place: Galveston Ward 7, Galveston, Texas; Roll: 1637; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 0127; FHL microfilm: 1241637

It was common for many people in that era not to be certain of their exact date of birth. The question is whether it is more plausible that Laura Scott would inflate her age when she was younger or whether she would decrease her age as she got older. By all appearances, it seems that Ms. Scott paid close attention to her looks. Her outfits in her mug shot photos attest to this. Therefore one would infer that the San Quentin prison documents and the Bertillon card were probably more accurate than the 1910 Federal Census or a newspaper article.

When Laura Scott left Alabama, she was leaving behind a mostly rural, poor, and deeply racist society. It is possible that Laura left Alabama during a migration of black people that began in the late 19th century. For a black woman like Laura, Alabama must have felt deeply oppressive and constraining. An adventurous woman like Laura Scott would probably have seen Los Angeles as “the land of milk and honey” by contrast. For whatever reason, Laura Scott did not feel a need to remain in Alabama. At some point she made her way out West, perhaps stopping in Galveston, Texas. Information for the 1900 Census was collected in June of the same year. In early September 1900, Galveston was struck by a terrible hurricane that decimated the city and left up to 8,000 dead. If Laura was in fact living in the city at the time, it’s possible that this natural disaster led her to make her way to California. It is unclear, however, when she first arrived in California. We do know that she was living in Los Angeles in  1905 when she was arrested for larceny.

 

Jan 08 2016

Image of the Day: Women’s House of Detention

Women's House of Detention by Nan Lurie (1930s)

Women’s House of Detention by Nan Lurie (1930s)

Dec 29 2015

Calling 911 Shouldn’t Be A Death-Wish…

There’s a lot happening in Chicago right now. I am busy and don’t have much time to write. I did write a short piece for the Guardian about this weekend’s killing of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones by the Chicago Police Department.

Vigil for Quintonio and Bettie (Chicago, 12/27/15) Photo by Frank James Johnson

Vigil for Quintonio and Bettie (Chicago, 12/27/15) Photo by Frank James Johnson

From the essay:

To protect the lives and futures of black Chicagoans we need more than just changes in policing. We need to address structural and systemic oppression; that involves securing a living wage and guaranteed jobs; keeping our schools public and stopping closures and speeding up decarceration by ending things like cash bail.

To prevent these kinds of deaths from happening again, we will need community-based mental health services and to create alternatives outside of police to respond to crises. We also will need accountability, which is why local activists and organizers are calling for Rahm Emanuel’s resignation and that of Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez.

We understand that all of these solutions are interconnected; that they are essential to living lives free from violence and are critical to our liberation.

Extrajudicial killing of black people is the norm, not the exception. The stories bleed and blend into each other, colorless. Another day, another death to absorb and many are numb. Words are achingly insufficient in the face of so much brutality – now is the time for actions.

Dec 26 2015

Video: Blood at the Root Exhibition

I spent part of this year co-curating an exhibition titled “Blood at the Root: Unearthing Stories of State Violence Against Black Women & Girls.” The exhibition focuses our attention on the fact that all #BlackWomensLivesMatter and all #BlackGirlsLivesMatter. Relying on various artifacts, we narrate the experiences and resistance of Black women and girls (trans and non-trans) who have been brutalized, imprisoned and killed by the state and its agents.

Special thanks to my friend Gretchen Hasse for documenting Blood at the Root which closed at the end of October.