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“But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” –James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook” from The Fire Next Time
Today I remember Freddie Gray. I remember his life cut short by the Baltimore Police Department. I remember his spine nearly severed as he was flung around the back of a police van. I remember the hours it took before he received medical treatment. I remember the week his family watched as life left his body. I remember the zero convictions of the officers who killed him. (We soil the memory of Freddie Gray to see mere indictments as a victory. Indictments that relieve killers of culpability are a paltry consolation prize for the dead and the survivors.) I remember the anger boiling over on the streets—the flames, the rocks, the broken windows. I remember the media obsessing over “thugs” and “violence” and “black rage,” and yet neglecting the root cause of this rage, police brutality against black bodies.
I remember Freddie Gray on this day because white students at the institution where I work mock his suffering. They flaunt his suffering—wear his suffering as a literal costume, display his suffering like a trophy, smile at and spread his suffering. I am writing a book about the legacies of lynching, but it doesn’t take a scholar of white supremacist violence to see that past rhyming with this present. I can’t help but think, as I prepare to teach James Baldwin’s short story, “Going to Meet the Man,” today, how freely and comfortably these students trivialize and celebrate black death. I am left wondering (But am I? Is there much to wonder at anymore? Don’t I know by now?) what they think of their African American classmates and professors, and the black Charleston community they are actively displacing through gentrification. And so, I turn back to my lesson plans with an unsatisfying sigh that fails to expel the disgust and anger I feel. There is a mountain of grim work ahead.
For the last 10 months, I’ve been working as a community organizer in Charleston and North Charleston. I work for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), which is a local nonprofit made up of 28 congregations and organizations in the area. We’re an interfaith organization and consists of Catholic parishes, Baptist and Methodist churches, as well as the synagogue and a mosque. We work together and are united in our pursuit for justice.
My job as an organizer is to build relationships with members of the community so that we can make systemic changes. We go through an annual process with three focus areas. First, we conduct house meetings throughout the area to listen to community problems. Members of the community share personal stories about how a community problem is affecting them. Then we vote on the top problem that emerged out of our house meetings. Secondly, we research the problem by meeting with experts to make sure we are finding best practices. Thirdly, we conduct an investment drive to ensure that we are financially stable. Using this process, CAJM has made some lasting changes in the community. Our work has resulted in two hundred extra pre-K slots added per year throughout the Charleston County School District and schools that now use programs to teach students conflict resolution. We have also worked with the four local police departments to implement an objective scoring tool in interactions with juveniles, and we’re currently pushing Charleston and North Charleston to audit the police force for racial bias.
I became interested in community organizing when I did my Capstone project for African American Studies. I researched the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. My research led me to focus on the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly how the church served as the institution where leaders organized. I noticed that the church wasn’t functioning in the same way in today’s movements. As a part of my analysis, I researched Civil Rights leaders and their methods of organizing. Out of all of the leaders I researched, Ella Baker influenced me the most. Baker and her work with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and her advice to the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) stuck out to me. Baker argued, “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” What she meant was that everyone has a place in organizations, and successful movements don’t need one leader telling them what steps they should take. It was this paper and research that encouraged me to look more into church-based community organizing.
Brandon Chapman is a community organizer for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 with degrees in African American Studies and Political Science.
The African American Studies Fall 2017 Film Festival asks out loud how the US film industry has engaged with white liberal complicity in white supremacy over the past fifty years. We begin with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), which is too focused on self-congratulatory, white liberal glad-handing to realize how ignorant the white characters are to their own racist assumptions. To quote a line from James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, what the film’s writers fail to imagine is that “As the parents of a world-famous man [Sidney Poitier’s character], they [the black parents], indisputably, out-rank their [white liberal] hosts, and might very well feel that the far from galvanizing [white] fiancée is not worthy of their son.” In George Romero’s classic zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), the specter of whites unable to believe in black heroism and magnanimity proves to be as dangerous as the zombies themselves. The racist views of the film’s white characters ultimately leads to the demise of the black hero, who is deemed essentially equivalent to the zombies he protects them from. This then begs the question, ‘who are the real monsters in the film?’ (Watch Key & Peele’s “White Zombies” sketch for an amusing flipping of the script.) And then there’s Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which combines the premise of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with the genre of Night of the Living Dead to make the insidiousness of ‘polite’ white supremacy a thing of horror that plagues the main character. The festival ends with a documentary about perhaps the most eloquent and incisive critic of white liberal complicity, the inimitable James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro (2016) indicts white America for its willful blindness to the horrible crimes collectively committed against black people, all the while finding in the fact of Baldwin’s life reason to avoid drowning in pessimism and despair.
The screenings, which will be at 6:00 pm in Maybank 100, are free and open to the public, and each will be followed by a discussion led by a CofC faculty member. Popcorn and soda will be served as well.
October 9: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
October 23: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
October 30: Get Out (2017)
November 6: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Statement Condemning White Supremacist Violence in Charlottesville – African American Studies Faculty
The white supremacist and white nationalist violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend made visible, with terrifying clarity, a truth at the heart of US history: white power, when confronted with threats, real or imagined, reacts with violence and death. As scholars who study the history and culture of African Americans, we recognize that black life is far richer and far more beautiful than a litany of abuses. We choose to frame black life beyond the reach of what Toni Morrison called “the white gaze,” but the fury of a white mob in 2017, wielding torches, brandishing pipes and assault rifles, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, and ramming a car into a peaceful anti-racist march threatens to impinge upon life beyond the white gaze. With images of that furious mob flooding our televisions and news feeds, we could not help but see in those faces a hatred tinged with arrogance reminiscent of the smiling white faces gazing out of lynching photographs from the Jim Crow era. This family resemblance reminds us that what happened in Charlottesville is as American as that small college town’s favorite son, Thomas Jefferson, which is to say, what happened in Charlottesville is as American as enslavement and lynching and convict leasing and debt peonage and mass incarceration.
The African American Studies Program condemns the white supremacist, neo-Confederate, and neo-Nazi ideologies harbored by the mob in Charlottesville as well as the violence these ideologies breed. We mourn the dead, and we wish healing to those anti-racist protesters who have suffered injuries of all stripes. We also recognize that what happened in Charlottesville was not exceptional or unique, after all, we remember all too well the massacre that happened just blocks from our offices two summers ago. Our students have already begun to return to campus in advance of the fall semester, and as much as recent events have shaken and disgusted us, we are deeply concerned for our students who are grappling with these acts of violence and their political aftershocks. In moments like these, the value of African American Studies as a discipline cannot be overstated. We, as educators, remain steadfast in our responsibility to provide the analytical tools, conceptual frameworks, and historical contexts to make our contemporary moment legible, if not comprehensible. We also remain committed to supporting our students, most especially those students of color for whom the violence in Charlottesville is no mere abstraction but a threat to their very existence. This violence may be a harbinger of even more terrifying things to come, but the tradition of radical protest that undergirds so much of African American history and culture keeps us pushing back and pressing forward.
The annual Excellence in Collegiate Education and Leadership (ExCEL) Awards program honors members of the College and community who promote excellence and contribute to the College’s core values of diversity and inclusion.
The 2017 Outstanding Faculty of the Year for the School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs was our very own Professor Mari Crabtree!
Another exciting ExCEL award is the Outstanding Students of the Year Lucille S. Whipper Award which was awarded to AAST major Aisha C. Gallion.
Award recipients were acknowledged on April 5, 2017 at the ExCel Awards Program held at the Sottile Theatre. The African American Studies program is very proud of all of our faulty and students and their accomplishments on and off of campus!
The African American Studies Program’s Spring 2017 Film Festival explores the complexities of political and cultural (dis)connections between African Americans, Asian Americans, and Asians in film. Taken together, these films raise questions about the possibilities for trans-Pacific and domestic political alliances among people of color as well as the line between Afro-Asian cultural syncretism and appropriation. The film screenings will be held in the Septima Clark Memorial Auditorium (Education Center Room 118) and will begin at 6:30 pm.
[Note: Liz Wayne and Xine Yao, the hosts of the PhDivas podcast, deserve all the credit for the title of the film festival, “When Bruce Lee Meets Bruce Leroy.” In an episode of the podcast by the same name, they discussed the potential for what Vijay Prashad has called a polycultural politics between African Americans and Asian Americans.]
Gateward, Frances. “Wong Fei-Hung in Da House: Hong Kong Martial-Arts Films and Hip-Hop Culture.” In Chinese Connections: Critical Perspectives on Film, Identity, and Diaspora, edited by Tan See-Kam, Peter X Feng, and Gina Marchetti. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.
Hewitt, Kim. “Martial Arts is Nothing if Not Cool: Speculations on the Intersection between Martial Arts and African American Expressive Culture.” In Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections Between African Americans and Asian Americans, edited by Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Ho, Fred. “Kickin’ the White Man’s Ass: Black Power, Aesthetics, and the Asian Martial Arts.” In Afro-Asian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics edited by Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Ona-Jua, Sundiata Keita. “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation, and Kung Fu Films, and Challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity.” In China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema edited by Poshek Fu. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Prashad, Vijay. Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Whaley, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley. “Graphic Blackness / Anime Noir: Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks and the Adult Swim.” In Watching While Black edited by Beretta E. Smith-Shomade. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
Wilkins, Fanon Che. “Shaw Brothers Cinema and the Hip-Hop Imagination.” In China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema edited by Poshek Fu. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
In conjunction with Professor Mari Crabtree’s First-Year Seminar, “When Bruce Lee Meets Bruce Leroy: Afro-Asian Political and Cultural (Dis)Connections,” the African American Studies Program has invited Dexter Thomas to deliver a lecture titled “‘Niggers and Japs’: The Logic of Japanese Hip-Hop Nationalism.” Thomas is a journalist with VICE News who has previously worked at the Los Angeles Times, and he is also a PhD Candidate in Asian Studies at Cornell University. His research examines Japanese hip-hop, most especially in the 1990s, and his lecture will focus on the right-wing Japanese nationalist rhetoric in the work of some Japanese hip-hop artists. He will explore how the infusion of Japanese nationalism into this music is largely the result of a problematic distortion of the black nationalist themes and imagery used by African American hip-hop artists like Public Enemy. The lecture will be held on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm in Robert Scott Small 252.
This lecture was made possible by the generous support of the Asian Studies Program, International Studies Program, First-Year Experience Program, and Music Department.
“Reflections on Black History Month”
Mari N. Crabtree
I have made the study of African American history and culture the heart of my professional life. It was coming to the revelation that, as Ralph Ellison put it, “The nation could not survive being deprived of [the African American] presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom” that first drew me to Black Studies as an undergraduate. This revelation has been a guiding light for me ever since. And precisely because it has been a guiding light, I share the ambivalence about Black History Month articulated by the African American Studies Program’s motto: “Not Just in February.”
At the root of that motto is the sense that, although some attention to the black experience may be better than none, something so critical to the history and culture of the United States as the African American experience warrants attention well beyond the shortest month of the year. After all, the black experience cannot be safely compartmentalized away from the history of the United States or, for that matter, neatly disentangled from the rise of global white supremacy. We, as a nation, so often compartmentalize and disentangle. What Carter G. Woodson established as Negro History Week to recognize the significance of African American achievements in the face of unrelenting white supremacy has often been used as an excuse to ignore African American history for the rest of the year. We marginalize and erase to comfort ourselves, to deny reality, to shirk responsibility for our past and present, but we do so at our own peril. For deluding ourselves with such false comfort invites more than just distortion—as bad as that is—but, worse, mutual destruction.
My ambivalence towards Black History Month also stems from a tendency to celebrate heroes and “firsts” during February while removing these “heroes” from the movements they led and the broader social, cultural, and political contexts out of which they arose. On the one hand, this tendency reinforces the misperception that to study history one simply memorizes a series of events and studies the lives of “important” people—I assure you, that is not what I spent seven years in a PhD program doing. On the other hand, celebrating “firsts” often does not force a deeper engagement with ideas, with the question of justice, with the meaning of liberation. So often even the best-intentioned Black History Month celebrations oversimplify the past, reducing movements to milestones and martyrs, as though a speech or a law or a singular act or a chosen leader could resolve centuries-long struggles for justice, as though “progress,” whatever that means, is inevitable.
Ta-Nehisi Coates said as much in his memoir, Between the World and Me, when he wrote that his grandparents “rebell[ed] against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.” Celebrations of Black History Month often pull fragments from the black experience to create easily digested, pre-packaged trivia—shards of experience to commit to memory rather than understand in connection to broader historical debates. Denuded of context and therefore their connection to broader historical trajectories, these shards lose the full force of their meaning, or, worse, they become excuses for distorting their meaning.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that Black History Month has no place for celebration. (I am also not saying that the African American experience can or should be reduced to struggle and hardship—we must always remember joy and laughter, love and ingenuity.) I simply ask that we scrutinize what we are celebrating and we reflect upon the stakes of uncritically celebrating heroes and firsts.
We might take a page from Russell Rickford, whose article titled “King 2.0 and the Management of Dissent” exposes the Martin Luther King, Jr. we have come to know during Black History Month as an imposter. Rickford reminds us that the way we remember (and so often distort) historical icons tells us as much about the present and its politics as it does about the past. The imposter King, who so many Americans have embraced, serves to stifle the struggle for justice while reassuring the nation that the Civil Rights Movement resolved the “race issue.” This imposter King is defanged of his radicalism, stripped of his anti-war and anti-poverty stances. His confrontational and disruptive tactics are erased, as is the vitriol directed at him in life and death. The imposter, by design, urges us to abandon the struggle for justice because his ascent to the status of a “safe” national hero implies that the need to dissent and protest is over. But, as Rickford points out, in our times the urgency of taking up the mantle of the black freedom struggle is as pressing as ever, which is all the more reason to take a hard look at the tendency to uncritically celebrate. The struggle has not ended. And, if anything, Black History Month should inspire further action and harden our resolve to dismantle systems of oppression…not just in February either.
The late Conseula Francis (1973–2016), the former director of the African American Studies Program, was deeply committed to mentoring and supporting junior faculty, and one of the many ways in which she championed the work of junior scholars in the field of African American Studies was to establish the Emerging Scholar Lecture Series. We still feel the loss of Conseula every day, and to commemorate her unflagging commitment to our program and to the work of junior scholars, we have named this lecture series in her memory.
This year, Vanessa Agard-Jones, an assistant professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, will deliver the Conseula Francis Emerging Scholar Lecture on February 20, 2017. Her current book project, Body Burdens: Toxic Endurance and Decolonial Desire in the French Atlantic, uses ethnographic research to explore pesticides, sexual politics, and postcoloniality in Martinique. She analyzes the physical toll of toxins on the body as well as the metaphorical toxicity of colonialism in a post-colonial political context. Her other publications include Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line (2008) co-edited with Manning Marable and articles in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, the Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, and the New West Indian Guide, among others. Prof. Agard-Jones’s lecture is titled “‘After the End of the World:’ A Black Feminist Analytic for the Anthropocene” and will be held at 6:00 pm in Alumni Memorial Hall (Randolph Hall). Please join us for her lecture as well as a seminar discussion of her work at 3:00 pm in 9 College Way, Room 201.