Mar 03 2016

AAHS Publishes Laura Scott’s Story…

March is Women’s History month. It’s fitting that the Afro-American History Society (AAHS) has published my essay on Laura Scott in its spring newsletter. I am so excited that Laura’s story will be read by a whole new group of people.

You can read the newsletter HERE

Bertillon Card of Laura Scott (1908) - from my collection

Bertillon Card of Laura Scott (1908) – from my collection

 

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.

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.

 

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.

Dec 03 2015

A Love Letter to Chicago Organizers…

I haven’t watched the videotaped execution of Laquan McDonald. I’m done with the televised spectacle of Black Death. This is my personal silent protest.

I don’t begrudge those in the streets in fact I am grateful to many of them for not going gently into the quiet night of apathy. My disgust and rage at the fact that the video was publicly released over the objections of Laquan’s family won’t let me engage in the ways that I regularly would.

As I’ve watched the many opportunists vie for facetime over the past few days, it’s become more urgent to narrate a history of continued protest and refusal regarding police violence in Chicago. There are people who have been consistently in the streets in this city for months now. This is a love letter to the incredible anti-police violence and anti-criminalization organizers/activists in Chicago.

For decades, Chicagoans have been organizing against the brutality and impunity of the Chicago Police Department. In the months since the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, young people of color from across the city have consistently organized demonstrations, protests and actions to underscore the violence of the CPD. These protests are the visible outgrowths of grassroots campaigns that have sought and won reparations for police torture survivors, are calling for community control of the police, are insisting on an end to stop and frisk, are demanding a Federal investigation of the Homan Square police facility, are organizing for redirecting funds from police to other social goods, and are seeking individual justice for Damo, Roshad, Rekia, Ronnieman and more.

In other words, day in and day out in this city, we are resisting police violence. The press in Chicago largely ignores this ongoing grassroots organizing but they are quick to jump on moments like the release of the tape depicting Laquan McDonald’s execution to condescend to, moralize against, and incite Chicagoans who are working toward justice. We resist the local press’s continuing efforts to demonize and pathologize young people in this city (especially those who identify as Black and Brown). We are sick of it. We reject their depictions.

So my friend and comrade Tom Callahan and I collaborated on this visual love letter to Chicago organizers. We hope you appreciate it. If you, please share it with others who want to better understand Chicago’s resistance to criminalization and police violence.

Nov 11 2015

No Fear: On Black Children and Racism

In 1968, seven-year old Lonnie Bell rode a bike around his “urban renewed” gentrifying Chicago community. Riding down the street, he was having fun in the afternoon. Suddenly, a police car came upon him. Two police officers approached. They accused Lonnie of stealing the bicycle. He was promptly put in the backseat of their squad car and the bike in the trunk. One of the witnesses to Lonnie’s arrest was a 17 year old neighbor who had actually lent him her bike. She and other children intervened to prevent the arrest. She told the cops that the bike was hers and that she had lent it to Lonnie. Their attempts to secure the release of their friend failed. The police ignored them and drove away with Lonnie in the backseat. The 17-year old neighbor rushed over to Lonnie’s house to alert his parents of his capture.

Mr. Bell, Lonnie’s father, accompanied by two neighbors, Mrs. Myers and her husband Michael, made their way to the 18th police district. It was around 6:15 pm when they arrived. Mr. Myers, an attorney, asked the desk Sargeant if Lonnie was in custody. The cop said that the child was not at the station. So they waited for an hour with no news of Lonnie. At 7:30 pm, the desk Sargeant announced that Lonnie had been returned home.

What happened between 5:30 pm when Lonnie was picked up by police and 7:30 pm when he was purportedly returned home? Mr. Bell rushed to find out. The police told neighbors that as they were driving to the station, a report came over the radio saying that an armed man was on the loose. With 7 year old Lonnie in the car, the cops drove to where the armed man was spotted. They patrolled the area in their car. Finding no one, they locked Lonnie in the squad car and set off on foot to apprehend the armed man. They didn’t find him so they drove Lonnie to the rear of the station. Once there, they decided not to take him inside and drove him home instead. It’s unclear what prompted them to change their minds.

I read about this incident in a Chicago publication called “Second City Magazine.” The article contended that such incidents made it important for communities to police the police. As I read about Lonnie’s ordeal though, I could only focus on one thing: ‘fear.’ I imagined a terrified Black child falsely accused of being a thief at 7 years old. I could picture his scared face as he was locked in a squad car while the police searched for an armed suspect who could very well have harmed him while he waited alone. Then I thought of his father’s terror at not finding his son at the station. I put myself in his place waiting for over an hour for any news of my son’s whereabouts. And though she wasn’t mentioned in the article, I saw Lonnie’s mother frantically pacing at home praying for her son’s safe return.

I drew a straight line from Lonnie in 1968 to the racist backlash experienced by Black students at Mizzou yesterday. On Twitter last night, I felt fear produced by racist death threats and unsubstantiated reports of KKK presence on the University of Missouri (Columbia) campus. I worried for the safety of the Black students who might be targeted. I prayed that no harm would come to them.

I thought too that my fear, Lonnie’s fear, Black Mizzou students’ fear are illegible to most people who don’t consider us human. I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about being Black and afraid. Not afraid for myself but rather fearful for those who look like me. Who besides other Black people understand or care? Speaking the words gives more ammunition to our terrorizers and tormentors, no? But the fear is real and ever-present. I reject the cancerous tough love gospel which insists that Black people must ‘buck up’ and be preternaturally brave because to live Black is to live in and with unending danger and terror.

I don’t know if I am using the right words. I don’t know if fear adequately describes what I mean. What do you call a thing that robs you of peace and rest and time? Maybe there are no words. Maybe it’s only emotion. I don’t know. Whatever it is, I wish I could live free from and of it.

Sep 01 2015

Image of the Day: Women Prisoners at Sing Sing

Fascinating stereoview print from the 1860s…

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Aug 12 2015

“The Outrage in North Carolina:” The Savage Brutalization of Phillis

When I was creating the No Selves to Defend exhibition last year, I knew that it would have two anchors: the stories of Celia and of Marissa Alexander. As I began to conceptualize a new exhibition about Black women and state violence (with several friends), I remembered the story of Phillis, a newly emancipated young Black woman. I knew that she would be an anchor of ‘Blood at the Root.’

Harper’s Weekly described how Phillis was brutally and savagely beaten by a group of men in North Carolina in 1867.

Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1867 (From My Collection)

Harper’s Weekly, September 14, 1867 (From My Collection)

Below is an excerpt from the Harper’s story tiled “The Outrage in North Carolina.” TW: It is very difficult to read.

“There has been no minor incident of late occurrence at the South which has caused a more general expression of indignation throughout the country than the whipping inflicted by a set of ruffians in North Carolina on a poor, defenseless, colored girl who had fallen into their power. No single act of inhumanity has more clearly indicated the animosity yet existing in Southern hearts against the former slaves; or shown how unwise it would be to trust the government of these people in the hands of their former masters.

The order of General Daniel E. Sickles approving the sentences inflicted on the perpetrators of the outrage, reviews the evidence and furnishes the following history of the affair. The General says:

“The evidence in the foregoing cases discloses a deed of lawless and inhuman violence. It appears that the daughter of one of the prisoners, having attempted to beat a young colored girl, met with resistance which became successful, and resulted in the chastisement of the white by the black. This unlooked-for reversal of a long-accustomed relation filled the neighborhood with consternation and rage. Couriers passed to and fro from farm to farm inflaming the temper of the people, and concerting measures to produce terror among the negroes. A meeting of citizens convened at a school-house near the residence of the parties. The accused were among those assembled. The magistrate, Jenkins, was invited to lend the sanction of his presence, and did so. Phillis, the young freedwoman, was sent for. Dragged before the self-constituted conclave of angry men, whom she had been accustomed since infancy to call masters, some of whom she now heard urging her incarceration, while one swore she should be hung, and all agreed she must be imprisoned and whipped, the frightened girl exclaimed that she had rather be whipped than go to jail. This was taken as the expression of assent which they desired. Some sort of writing was drawn up, called an indenture, by which Phillis having signed it, was made to bind herself as apprentice to one Mrs. Harmon, who thereupon consented that her so-called ward should be flogged. Quite enough was thought to have been thus conceded to the mockery of legal formalities, and the impatient assemblage, consisting of all the prisoners who have been convicted except the magistrate, hastened to execute the penalty awarded.

Phillis was conducted into an adjacent wood, where, at a spot some sixty yards remote from any road, she was halted and told to take down her dress. She not obeying with alacrity, one of the prisoners snatched it off her shoulders. Stripped to her waist, except of her chemise, she was then whipped by five of these men in succession, by whom, according to the testimony of one of them, one hundred and twenty-six (126) lashes were inflicted upon her half-naked body with rods three feet long and one-half to three-eighths of an inch thick. Her garment was cut through and through; blood run from the wales raised on her lacerated back; one gash in her flesh three days after showed four inches in length; the heavy blows fell upon her person at random; she was pushed, she was pulled, she was kicked in the abdomen; till at last it seems that one of the accused, an applauding by-stander, not utterly insensible to the sufferings and the sex of the wretched victim, was so far touched by the spectacle of her torture that the cry was wrung from him: ‘Boys don’t hurt her breast!’

Having satiated their savage vengeance, her tormentors, fatigued by their exertions, withdrew: not, however, without considering the proposal of one of the number to return and give her ten more lashes each to stop her screaming. Finally the poor child, wounded and groaning, was permitted to make her way to the house of her mistress, where for days she suffered, scarcely able to crawl to her unremitted task, or even to wear her clothes without pain.

In the revolting crime thus briefly outlined all of these prisoners are shown to have been eager participants. In the interest of outraged justice it is to be deplored that the perpetrators have been adjudged to undergo punishment so inadequate to the enormity of their offense.”

The sentences were as follow: Jenkins, the magistrate who authorized the whipping, was removed from his office, fined $25, and confined at hard labor for one month; Dunning, Cook and James and John Early were confined for two months at hard labor and fined $25 each; the other guilty participant, George Mitchell, was fined heavily and imprisoned for three months, the common jail at Plymouth, North Carolina, being designated as the place of confinement.

Phillis’s story is remarkable for two reasons: 1. it was published in a popular newspaper; 2. the men who were responsible for her savage assault were actually made accountable in some way.

On Friday, Blood at the Root will open. I hope that you will come out to see the exhibition. You’ll get to see an original copy of the newspaper article about Phyllis and much more. RSVP HERE.

Aug 04 2015

Blood At The Root Opens on August 14

I wish that I had time to regularly post here. This year has been one of the busiest I’ve experienced in some time. I have been running my organization, supporting several others, organizing campaigns, teaching, and developing new programming. Regular blogging has become a casualty.

Currently, I am working with a wonderful group of friends to curate an exhibition about state violence against Black women. The exhibition titled Blood at the Root opens next Friday August 14. You can RSVP HERE for the reception. The exhibition will run through October.

poster by Monica Trinidad

poster by Monica Trinidad