Black History Month 2017 odds-and-ends
I’d planned individual posts about each of these topics but February 2017 was not going to be my month. Nonetheless, I hope that you might take inspiration from this post to check out one or more of the things I’ve been enjoying and/or studying this month. Black history is not my area of expertise or something that I’ve been unusually occupied with over the years, so I can’t really explain why the interest hit me so hard this month. I did put a little Richard Armitage connection in here, though.
You may or may not be aware that one of the “hot spots” of historical inquiry in the last decade has been the question of the role slavery played in the economic development of the United States (and the world generally, but I’ve only followed the U.S. debates).
If you’re asking yourself, why should a Richard Armitage fan care about this topic? I’ll give you a one-word answer: cotton!
One ongoing matter of concern for the textile manufacturers of Manchester (i.e., Milton) was the source of the cotton they used to make their product — by the eve of the Civil War (about fifteen years after the series takes place), U.S. cotton supplied 77 percent of British cotton manufacturers’ raw material. That cotton was largely planted, tended, and harvested by enslaved laborers on large plantations in the South. At least forty minutes of every hour of productive labor in slave states was performed by slaves. When the Union blockade prevented the transport of cotton to England, manufacturers had to adjust. Their machinery was tuned to the length and form of American cotton fibers — the raw materials from Egypt or India with which they briefly replaced it had different lengths and thicknesses. I’d recommend a book, if you’re interested: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton (2014). There’s another connection, as well — men of Mr. Thornton’s social class who had an interest in free labor (and the corresponding classical liberal political convictions) tended to oppose slavery and support abolitionist political movements, not so much out of altruism but because slavery created a restriction on the free movement of labor.
Anyway — why historians get interested in a particular question at a particular time is always complicated. In this case, I think the interest in the relationship of slavery and capitalism — although it got a big boost in 1954 with Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, a book that even I read as a sheltered, European-focused undergraduate — has had three motors. First, a general revival in interest in the history of capitalism and economics in the wake of the Great Recession. Second, increasing awareness and publicity for the movement to grant reparations to the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S., which in turn has generated the charge from opponents that slaves made little significant economic contribution to our history. Third, there has been a revival, culturally, of the “slavery wasn’t so bad / masters took good care of their slaves” argument in the last ten years or so, to the extent that it’s beginning slip into public school textbooks, which in turn has caused historians to re-examine the power relations of slavery in light of economic factors as a way of searching for the truth.
So, in the midst of all this, a book I’ve been waiting for a while was finally published this January: Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (2017). What’s groundbreaking about this book lies first in its specific examination of slaves as economic commodities, digging into various kinds of financial records to determine the economic value of an enslaved person at any given time in his or her life — and afterwards. I knew that slaves were insurable property, but I did not know, until meeting Prof. Berry, that there was a traffic in deceased slaves’ cadavers, which were sold to medical schools in order to get as much “value” as possible from them.
Secondly, the book is significant in that it excavates specific evidence about how enslaved people responded to measures intended to measure their value. How do you think you’d respond to being appraised? This book answers this question for African-Americans before 1865.
If you needed another reason to check out this book — Berry is one of the most quality people I ever met in academia. I really admire her work, her industry, and her character. And she writes well. This book is going to win awards.
Interesting: a new photo of Harriet Tubman, one of the most well-known figures of the Underground Railroad, was recently discovered. After escaping slavery herself, Tubman made thirteen trips back into the U.S. South, guiding approximately seventy fellow slaves to freedom. The new picture is a big deal because only a few photos of her have ever been verified. In this photo, too, she’s quite a bit younger than in most of the pictures we associate with her — this is how she might have looked when she was conducting the activities for which she became famous.
The Oscars are this weekend and Moonlight is among the Best Picture nominees, as is one of its actors, Mahershala Ali, for Best Supporting Actor.
Although it’s not going to win — although it’s the best of the three Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen — this is quite simply an exceptional film.
I’d wanted to write a review but had never found my way into a post about it. It’s very theatrical — like Love, Love, Love, it shows the characters at three separate stages in their lives — but unlike Love, Love, Love, there are different actors playing the roles in each “act” of the play. We follow Chiron from his childhood to his adolescence to his adulthood, as he deals with his increasingly drug-addicted mother and the unfolding of his own sexuality. (Ali plays Juan, a mentor or father-figure to the boy, Chiron.) The film is fantastically well cast, and visually, it’s really meditative and evocative — I think it’s as much a meditation on the nature of poverty in the U.S. as it is about black boys growing up (and growing up gay in an ethnic space that is incredibly hostile to homosexuality). I almost found myself missing Florida. The very structured nature of the piece, which must have been necessary for theater, creates a sort of dramatic simplicity for the viewer that allows one simply to be moved, by the pictures, by the characters, by their conflicts, by the solutions they find.
I know that’s a really vague description of the film, but this was one that I simply enjoyed without thinking about it. Which I think was the intent.
The film ends hopefully, but not in a cliché, which left me hugely grateful. I often find that films I am enjoying self-destruct in the last ten minutes. It’s hard to write an ending.
And I was annoyed, thinking when I left the theater, that there are obviously so many talented African-American actors whom I’ve never heard of.
This is a known story, but NPR talked about it again this week: how former slaves searched for family members they had lost.
Did you wrinkle your forehead over Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement? I thought this interpretation of it was interesting. Since the release of Lemonade (2016), she’s the American artist I’ve been most interested in. I am not a huge fan of her musical style in general (although I did love “All the Single Ladies”) but what she says with it is impressive and provocative.
The book I’m reading as the month closes: Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name (2004). I picked it up because I’m still in the queue for his new book about the murder of Emmett Till, and the sensitivity of this book was said to be one reason that Carolyn Bryan chose him for her confession of perjury regarding what Till did that day in her family’s grocery store.
The first line of the book is riveting: “Daddy and Roger and ’em shot ’em a nigger.” The author is quoting a childhood friend of his.
In the book, Tyson tells the story of the murder of Henry Marrow — after an incident remarkably similar to the Till story — and the acquittal of his killers, another parallel. Only it was 1970, not 1955 (it kept shocking me that the later chapters of the book referred to times and events that I remember personally) — and Tyson was a little boy in Oxford, North Carolina, where the murder occurred. His father was pastor of the United Methodist Church. The community was still segregated. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the town fathers closed all of the public facilities (parks, pools) rather than integrate them. Marrow’s murder led to brief riots and an organized boycott of all white businesses by the city’s black residents — and it was only after his death that the city schools were integrated.
There are a number of interesting aspects of this book (despite its origins as an M.A. thesis at Duke, which you will still notice from time to time in the narrative — Tyson will tell you the entire history in detail of every person involved in the story whether you want to know or not). One is the child’s perspective in comparison to the adult writing the story: what Tyson noticed as a child and how things seemed to him, vs. the events he was able to document in 1994. A second is the complexity of the situation — we tend to think of the Civil Rights Era as dominated by straight white/black conflict and clear hierarchies, but the way that the participants in this particular incident got to their stances in 1970 is truly interesting. For instance, an important character in the story was the descendant of free blacks, including an ancestor who’d served in George Washington’s army — a piece of the puzzle we don’t usually think about in the twentieth century).
But I think the most significant takeaway from this book is one that seems to be bubbling in the American subconscious at the moment about the role of nonviolent direct action vs. violent protest. We celebrate MLK Day in January and plenty of streets are named after him, but the price for that has been a rhetorical “disinfection” of anything potentially divisive about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually said. The price for making him a figure of unity is that we’re gradually erasing anything he said about disunity. As a result, phrases from his most famous speech, like “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” [“I have a dream,” 1963] are used to argue that we should pretend he wanted us to ignore the effects of race on our society entirely — the exact opposite of what he wanted to say, and indeed said, in Why We Can’t Wait (1963), which advocates strongly for interventions to redress the historical effect of racial inequality.
What Tyson concludes: the integration of Oxford, NC, had both nonviolent and violent elements — but in the end it succeeded not because of nonviolent protest, but because the threat of violent protest (“Black Power,” as he terms it) was always simmering in the background and erupted at least once to show what it could do.
And really, nonviolent direction action is a misnomer. When is real protest, protest that changes something, ever caused by people asking politely for equality? Rather, the plaintiffs have to show that they’re so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they are willing to suffer for it. The civil rights protestors were always subject to violence that authorities and bystanders were only too prepared to inflict. John Lewis, the current poster figure for nonviolent protest? The police hit him so hard they fractured his skull.
Tyson reminds us, in short, not to forget — in our enthusiasm for praising nonviolent protest as part of social change — how the power structures are actually organized.
This is getting long, so if you’re still reading and will tolerate it, one more piece of data.
When I was a girl, I had a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune. I’m not sure how I got it (my mom might have bought it for a nickel in the library used book sale or something, or gotten it at a rummage sale, hoping to feed the small Servetus’ gigantic book maw). I really wanted to write about it but I can’t find it in the house and I can’t identify it precisely to order it.
You should read her biography, though — it’s here. She was born in 1875 in South Carolina.
What I remember from the book I read: Her parents were sharecroppers / former slaves; she had sixteen siblings; she had to walk ten miles a day to school and back, which she did because she wanted to read. She got her higher education on scholarship in the North. She wanted to be a missionary but the agencies didn’t want black missionaries so she became a teacher instead. She got married but her husband was kind of a dud. She devoted her life to women’s education and she was more interested in practical / vocational than scholarly education. (When I was in college, later, I learned that that was a contemporary debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.) She financed her schools by baking and selling sweet potato pies to tourists in Florida until she gradually had enough money to open a school, room by room, and hire teachers. She was a very strict teacher. Even white people wanted to donate to support her school. She also used this technique to found a hospital since the local hospitals wouldn’t treat black folks. Eventually her school became a university and she was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Everywhere that Mary went — well, she never had any money, she just rubbed her pennies together, cleaned up a nasty room, baked some pies to get some money together, and started educating left and right.
Inspiring story, and I still remember it forty years later.
Although Bethune was a leading African-American figure of her day, I think most people have not heard of her these days. However: the influence that biography and her story had on me definitely makes my ears perk up when I hear another story of an inspiring African-American woman. Here‘s one I hadn’t known until this year: Septima Poinsette Clark, called “the Queen Mother of the Movement,” who founded many of the citizenship schools. Their purpose was to try to teach black adults enough literacy to past the literacy tests that whites instituted to prevent them from registering to vote. Students in these schools developed the leadership that drove the Civil Rights Movement on a local level.
So, while I plan to keep reading, Black History Month is almost over for this year. Happy Black History Month 2017!