Why It’s Time for a New Rhetoric about Race

[This will probably be the last essay I post in this particular sequence, and it makes for an appropriate conclusion. The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is an Asian-American, a graduate of the Citadel, and a veteran who served in Afghanistan and Kosovo. From this complex cultural position he is able to expose some of the folly of racial rhetoric in the United States generally, especially highlighting the inadequacy of the black-white binarism to which racial rhetoric is all too frequently reduced in Charleston and South Carolina. Along the way he makes some very intriguing comments about the contrast between the silences and omissions surrounding the history of slavery in this place, and the psychological recognition of the need to talk about trauma in order to deal with it in a healthy way.  SKL]

Why it’s Time for a New Rhetoric About Race

Disclaimer:  In this exam essay, I will reference some of the points that I have made in my final paper – I will try to make it as self-contained as possible, so either could be read first, but as I have written the final paper first, I am somewhat operating under the assumption that some things have already been said and/or elaborated on already.  Either way, I would think they should fit together better than as necessarily independent.  Also, this essay has been written less in an “academic” format, and more in a slightly “editorial” format, though I recognize that it is an academic work for academic purposes – it may waver a bit between both. 

In approaching this class, “Representations of Slavery,” I believe that, to a certain extent, I may have come from a slightly different perspective than many other students.  I was born in the United States, serve in the United States Army, and studied, in large part, U.S. History as an undergraduate History major.  With all that being said, it does not obfuscate the fact that I am, too, a first/second (depending on how you define these terms) generation immigrant – that is, my parents were born overseas, and both immigrated to the United States after the age of puberty.  Because of this, I have a certain amount of distance and remove from the subject of African slavery in the United States – in fact, in my parents’ native continent, modern sex slavery is a much more present issue than African slavery.  I am neither descended from slaves, nor do I have the so called “white guilt” for real or imagined participation of my ancestors in the institution of African slavery.  Not only that – my parents’ culture is that of the colonized/oppressed – therefore, to a certain extent, I lack, too, the “imperialistic” guilt of Europeans/westerners when viewing the third world.

Nevertheless, conversely to that – I am a participant in many “Western” institutions of “imperialism,” as some would call it – the American Army, with which I have completed “expeditionary”[1] missions, as a part of NATO, ensuring that “Western” influences prevail in otherwise ideologically perilous situations – so perhaps, then, if I have assumed and assimilated to the Western institutions of projection, perhaps the guilt should be equally assimilated.

Where this is relevant is that academically and intellectually, some of my greatest interests have always been in “Othering” and the ways in which “Othering” is accomplished and expressed – and moreover – unconsciously expressed – this I find the most interesting.  Perhaps it is because of my location as an “other,” I am “other” to the binaristic rhetoric of the United States and other nations’ perceptions of it (again, I point to my experiences with the Afghan National Police), I am not only of immigrant stock – but also a Northerner living in the South for over a decade; I am “other” both in the military and academic communities – somewhat unfairly assumed to be a “liberal book-learnin’ hippie” by my military colleagues, and a “conservative gun nut baby killer” by my academic colleagues – perhaps my interest in “othering” stems, subconsciously in my case too, from a long lifetime of attempted assimilation, making me acutely perceptive to the ways in which people or groups are constructed as “the other” in order to exclude them so that I could counter them wherever I encountered them – heady thought for a kindergartener, I suppose – but maybe not so much when put in terms of “why does everyone else think I’m different, and how do I show them I’m not?”

Regardless of “why,” my point is that I have had a lifelong interest with mechanisms of othering and exclusion, and learning to tease out the subtleties of them, and learning to read what was in the silences and omissions – it therefore came as no surprise for me to think about and be thinking about the various reverberations of slavery and the slave trade in Charleston that are visible even in 2014 when we encountered them in class – and their presence – to that end, I believe I could even add some things.  The class illuminated certain details and histories of events that I was aware of – but didn’t necessarily “expose” the subliminal racism of many elements, some celebrated, of daily life in Charleston.

Some things to add – the obvious one, of course – The Citadel: it might be interesting to make a bit of a study about why The Citadel and other similar military institutions of which the Ashley School for Boys is the only remaining were originally opened.  The Citadel opened in 1842 …  The idea of these military schools was, in part, to assuage the anxieties of the wealthy (but by this point, if I recall correctly from your lecture – outnumbered) whites in Charleston and other parts of South Carolina.  The architecture of The Citadel, specifically the Moroccan-inspired towers, parapets, and crenelations are all based on fortresses, like those off the coasts of West Africa, where slaves were held and “softened up” for their journeys and their lives of subjugation – and the specific architecture of The Citadel, is, if I recall correctly – based on the Charleston Slave House itself – a place where “incorrigible” slaves that would not behave on the auction block were taken to be beaten, abused, and tortured into compliance before being taken back for sale.  None of this is secret – but none of it is in any of The Citadel’s official histories.

The idea was – take poor white boys, maybe lower-middle class, and offer them an education and a title – “raise them up” – and give them the potential for entrance into the upper-class by giving them commissions, and they would be beholden to the wealthy that educated them.  Trained, then, as soldiers – they would lead and form the core of the South Carolina militias that could protect the wealthy whites from slave uprisings – I am typing this in The Citadel’s library at the moment, and I look around at the cadets studying for finals, some of them African American – and I wonder how many of them know this subaltern history?  I learned it as a cadet – curious to know “the truth” of the real history behind the institution – the “official story” simply sounded a little suspicious – these beholden boys would be housed and trained and educated in buildings built – consciously, to remind every slave in Charleston (the original Citadel, as I’m sure you know, was in Marion Square) of the terror of their experiences in similar buildings – so that the moment the militia walked out the gates – uproarious, rebellious slaves would be struck with terror at the thought.  It’s actually quite brilliant when you think about it – it works on almost every level – white lower class boys who feel beholden to their wealthy masters – subliminal suggestions of horror, terror, and torture – an easy way to raise a loyal and feared army.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that The Citadel still exists to educate white boys to be the militia of the elite against the blacks; for starters, a lot of wealthy South Carolinian families now send their boys to The Citadel – the institution has taken a slightly different meaning today.  Nevertheless – I used to work during my time as a cadet, for the school’s newspaper.  The Satire section was an interesting place,where one could write essentially anything one wanted and hide behind the guise of “satirizing.”  Apparently no one in charge had ever read Swift …

Anyway, the point of all this is that for one particular article I wrote an editorial – still in the mode of “satire.”  I chose to write on “the definition of The Citadel,” something that every incoming freshman was required to memorize and be able to recite on command, I’ve reproduced it here:

The Citadel is an institution of higher learning to mold our minds, morals, and bodies so      that we may be fit officers and better civilians of our country. More than that, however, it      is a fortress of duty, a sentinel of responsibility, a bastion of antiquity, a towering                 bulwark of rigid discipline, instilling within us high ideals, honor, uprightness, loyalty,             patriotism, obedience, initiative, leadership, professional knowledge, and pride in                 achievement.

I do not know when this definition was written.  Taking into account The Citadel’s actual history – I found, even as a cadet, this “definition” kind of troubling – it really does say it all, doesn’t it?  The parts that were most troubling to me were “a bastion of antiquity” and “obedience.”

All that to say this – but the background was necessary, I suppose – that this is where I was coming from reading narratives of slavery and the legacies of slavery, not just as a Charlestonian for the majority of my adult life, but also as a Citadel alumnus, aware of the history and tradition of the institution where I had received my degree, and an Institution in Charleston.

The slave story really is there, amid all the silences and omissions, isn’t it?  Reading the slave narratives and narratives of slavery, what it meant to me was the impression about silences and omissions – going back to Hermanian methodology of trauma recovery – it struck me, if this is so pervasive and so intertwined with our lives in Charleston – why aren’t we talking about it?  And not only that – and moreover – as the course progressed from more straightforward narratives to more post-structuralist works – what struck me was – and pardon my language, but “what is this ‘unspeakable’ bullshit?”  I suppose I need to digress some more into background here – as a consequence of military service, as a rule – I’ve been subjected to many lectures and lessons about PTSD – how to recognize it, how to deal with it, how, as a leader to address it – it has been a major component of my professional life.

In those contexts, one thing that has been made abundantly clear, however (and I would assume, though until doing research, I did not know the name “Judith Herman” – that much of the military’s counter-PTSD doctrine is derived from a Hermanian methodology) is the necessity of “talking about it,” even when you can’t make sense of it – even when you think you can’t – you need to talk about it.  What was troublesome to me, therefore, was the fact that the post-structuralist narratives were becoming more sparse, not less as we tried to get to a point of remembrance and mourning.  How are we to successfully remember and mourn as a collective, as a national identity – if we’re progressively becoming more silent on the topic, not less?  As a soldier, I had been trained, had I needed it, to talk about it as much as I could, even when it didn’t make sense, even when it sounded repetitive or clichéd or “should be unspoken.”  I don’t know that I have personally been as conscientious about that – I tend not to talk about it much; it’s for me, not for anyone else, but that’s neither here nor there.

What reading narratives of slavery “meant” to me was seeming to indicate that there was something wrong with the way we talked about it … for one, we weren’t talking about it enough – that much was obvious, and that much we’ve discussed in class over and over.  But something else was bothering me, something else was tickling me.  I wasn’t sure what it was, and I still wasn’t sure when I read Cion, and when I prepared my presentation with it – and when it seemed like the two books I had enjoyed the most in the class were the ones that seemed to, overall, be the least well received by the class.  It didn’t strike me until I heard the interview with Tess Taylor and Gayle Jessup White on the TakeAway, as I have spoken many times about and written about.  I was only half listening at first – it was a fifteen-minute interview sometime between 9:00am and 9:50am – what made me perk up, however, was the way Gayle White, in particular, was talking about being black.

She was talking all about her experience of being black, what it meant to be black.  The constant and daily anxieties about how you look to other people, how you act – her anxiety about her son, a senior at MIT, but also “6’ 1”, broad shouldered, with rich colored skin.”  She was talking all about how he was a “nice boy,” how he loved his mother and helped old people with their groceries – but how she was constantly worried about a “wicked person” stereotyping him as black and something bad happening to him.  Tess Taylor chimed in at some point, talking about how “she’s not afraid to tell people, ‘this is my perspective as a black person.’”

Now here were these two women – the only reason – the ONLY reason they were on the radio together is because they shared an ancestor – one, “white” European common ancestor – who just so happened to be Thomas Jefferson.  Yet, to hear them talk about being “white” and being “black,” it was almost as if they were talking about two people who had absolutely nothing in common – the way they talked – you’d never guess, if they hadn’t told you – that there was a common, if fairly well-known, white man in their blood.  The fact that they spoke like this, the fact that there was no protest of any kind anywhere, the fact that this was all, simply “accepted,” this is what struck me.  “White and black.”  So simple, so easy to understand – so binary, so opposite – so artificial.  Being neither white nor black, I hadn’t much thought about what it meant to be white or black, I knew, of course, on an intellectual level – binaries are almost always artificial, “white” and “black” both have little actual meaning, and are inaccurate as a matter of racial or ethnic distinction, no human being’s skin color is either white or black.

I’d been searching for an approach to a term paper – and there it was right there – “black” and “white” mean so many things to so many people, and we spend so much time trying to define what they are and what they mean to us, when we talk about the binary, we talk about the negative associations with “darkness” and “blackness,” we talk about Othello.  We talk about how the binary is dangerous because it inscribes negativity on “black people.”  But we rarely talk about, and rarely talked about in class – “what the hell is a black person, anyway?”  “African?”  “African-American?”  We recognize the negative effects of the binary construction, but when we do so – we continue to think and speak of it in terms of the binary.

What we need to do, is to get rid of the binary altogether.  Practically speaking – the 2012 U.S. Census data shows that 13.1% of Americans consider themselves “Black or African American only.”  Compare that to 77.9% of “White, only.”  Of the classification “Two, or more races”? Only 2.4%.  This kind of data is a goldmine to a politician.  While it of course varies according to location – 13.1% – that’s the kind of number that, if you’re good enough?  Is a write-off.  Using the “black/white only” binary – you can simply ignore the one in favor of the other.  That’s just one practical application.  Yet – of those blacks – are we really to believe, that of that 13.1%, none, who classify themselves as “only,” none of them have any white blood in them?  From their masters, from their handlers, not to mention intermarriage, etc.  Only 2.4% of mixed ethnicity?  Is that 2.4% where all of the “passing” stories come from?  Has the “tragic mulatto” been so tragic that only 2.4% of them have survived?  And that’s ignoring all of the other mixed ethnicities like my own children might presumably one day be – 2.4%.  That is where the binary has gotten us.  Imagine instead – then something like, say – 56% mixed European (“white” only), 1.3 % (say, based on Asians, or something) African only (recent immigrants), and 35% at least two or more races – it makes it a little bit harder to “write people off,” no?  That “miscegenated class,” rapidly overtaking the “onlys” – that cannot be countered, that cannot be “accounted for” or “written off,” that growing class of uncertainty because they can’t be easily classified into structures by the powerful – what might that do to our political reality – to speak of only one practical implication?

And all that would be required is a simple change in the way we think about race – you don’t HAVE to be black or white ONLY, and you don’t have to check that block on the Census.  We all know, not all of those “black only”s are full-blooded Africans – why must we, and why do they construct themselves as such?  The black/white binary is artificially inscribed by the oppressors to make it easy for them to oppress – why do we continue to use it and embrace it – those of us who purport to want to end oppression?

I am running out of time – so a final thought – yes – many “African Americans,” through the work of the “whites” have lost their “original” ethnic and racial identities – what do we do about those people?  I would submit we need to look again not just at our classification of “black,” but our classification of “native American.”  Why should not the children of slavery be considered native to America?  They were born of an American institution, and their ethnic heritage is a direct result of the land.  I don’t have enough time to go into what we might do to distinguish them from what we now already call Native-Americans – maybe nothing?  Maybe we’re all – those of us born here, born because of this place – and not fitting into the traditional binarization, maybe that is what it means to be an American – and moreover – native to this land – for without it, we would not exist.

One way or another – something is wrong with the way we talk about race – and we need to keep looking at it, and we need to keep talking about it – only that way, not through silence – but through remembering and mourning, can we ever hope to fix it.  That is what it means to study slave narratives to me, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2014.


4:01-7:02 PM


[1] One must admit, a curiously imperialistic expression for overseas actions.

Filed under: Jubilee Project

To Steward a New Charlestonian Identity for My Daughters–Katherine Matthews

[{In this essay Katherine Matthews directly addresses the way in which the “Narratives of Slavery” course disturbed her sense of self as a white Charlestonian, raised, as she says, “in the environment of cotillions and country clubs, of family plantations and secret societies.”  Her deeply thoughtful essay covers a lot of ground before ending by referring to the distinction between an antiracialist agenda and an antiracist one–the former encouraging amnesia, the latter requiring active engagement with history (here, the legacy of slavery). SKL]

Reflections on Dr. Lewis’s class “Narratives of Slavery”

I’m from Charleston. Not from one of the places around Charleston that try to lay claim to the Charlestonian identity. Not “from” Charleston in the sense that I moved here 30 years ago from “off.” I’m a native Charlestonian.  I grew up in downtown Charleston.  South of Broad. I could see Fort Sumter from the front porch of my childhood home.  This is my inner voice of five months ago, portraying my attitude as a  native Charlestonian. There is a certain sort of arrogance that native Charlestonians have that is tied directly to the city. Charleston is a special place: quietly charming, oozing southern hospitality and refinement. Native Charlestonians are members of an exclusive club with societies, traditions, and a way of life that is religiously preserved and fiercely protected from outsiders. I was raised in the environment of cotillions and country clubs, of family plantations and secret societies.  My playmates shared their names with prominent streets and buildings. From birth it was instilled in me that being from Charleston was a unique asset that only a small group possessed.  I was always proud to be a Charlestonian. I’m not so sure anymore.

Somehow I made it through the entire public education system in South Carolina without fully recognizing Charleston’s role in the slave trade. I can, however, tell you about Civil War battles ad nauseam. The requisite field trip to Fort Sumter was cloaked in pride as the site where South Carolina started the War of Northern Aggression.  Where was the discussion on Charleston’s role as a slave port? Where was the shame? The brief spurts of activism in my youth were all centered on feminist ideals and how sexist Southern society could be. I remember protests about Citadel admission policies and a brief period of defiance where I refused to go to the Yacht Club with my dad because Club policy refused membership to women. It never occurred to me to protest the fact that the Yacht Club lacked even a single African-American member.

I grew up in a city that was built on slave labor. Charleston plantation owners could afford to build such grand houses because they were not paying the workers tending their crops. Historic preservation is critical to the character (and economy) of Charleston, but it is more than just pretty houses and quaint gardens. It is a vacuum where the reaches and implications of the slave trade can be explored. Unfortunately few take advantage of this.  Everyone wants to see the Aiken-Rhett family’s art gallery; not everyone wants to see their slave quarters.

When I decided to take a Graduate level English class, I wanted to find a topic that had not been overdone in lower-level English courses, and I wanted to think. As a mother of two young children and a full-time employee, my mind is often exhausted by the grind of everyday life. I missed being pushed to think critically and being exposed to topics outside of my comfort zone. I got all of that and more from this class.

I sat down the first week of class to read I Belong to South Carolina, and I was immediately engrossed in the narratives of slaves who lived and worked in my home state. That was the perfect text to kick off the course as it made slavery very real.  Reading these testimonies and recognizing the places the slaves lived in and escaped from drove home the fact that South Carolina was intimately involved in the repression of human beings.  The narrative that I remember most is “Recollections of a Runaway Slave” where he describes the “Sugar House” in downtown Charleston – a torture chamber for slaves for masters who didn’t want to do the dirty work themselves. I immediately researched the Sugar House and found that it was located in the same area as the “Old Jail.” This was the same “Old Jail” where I had attended numerous company Christmas parties without any idea of the legacy of that site. Reading the first-hand, local narratives really brought to life the pain and oppression that slaves endured at the hands of white South Carolinians. This was not the slavery of Gone with the Wind.

Along the same lines, the discussions and readings about the Zong massacre also made the reality of slavery very vivid and real. Everyone has seen the diagram of the Brookes slaver with bodies lined up almost on top of each other. Discovering the story of the Zong brought that picture to life–I could envision how dark the slave quarters must have been, and as the slaves’ eyes adjusted to not being able to see, their other senses must have been heightened, making the moaning of their fellow captives and the stench of death and disease even more unbearable. A crack of light perhaps promises fresh air, or a trip above deck, but in fact is the doorway to their death.  I couldn’t help trying to get close to what the victims of the Zong must have experienced. The idea that living human beings could be recklessly murdered without repercussion still causes me great distress, and the fact that this incident has not been widely publicized shocks me. After class that week, I had family in town including three nieces of high school and college age. None of my family, including those studying American history, had ever heard of the Zong. How can I change this?

In addition to bringing slavery out of the abstract and making it very real, this class has expanded my idea of slavery being a “black and white” issue. Books like Equiano’s narrative and even the much maligned Someone Knows My Name provide a global narrative of slavery that exists outside of the American South.  Recognizing that slavery is a global issue, not a regional one, is important as it is a tie that binds many cultures and countries together (not in a good way).  Coming to terms with slavery is not uniquely a “white Southern/black African-American” issue. It involves the larger group of colonial nations and even Africans who held slaves prior to the arrival of the Europeans.  The dialogue around slavery and the education about the lasting effects of the slave trade must include everyone.

Equiano’s narrative also demonstrates the longevity of the slave trade. I don’t know why I always boxed in the issue of slavery into the 5 years pre- and post-Civil War.  The slave trade existed more than a century before the Civil War, and it exists now more than a century after.  The long history of slavery is a scar that seems to be covered up. To understand the depths of the impact of slavery, we must realize the long history of humans owning other humans. This was no flash in the pan, and the effects are still felt in the exploitation of class, race, sex, and gender.

This class has also pushed me to revisit topics that I thought I already knew. I was surprised at first to see Beloved on the reading list. All of the other books in the class were so unique and unfamiliar, that reading something I already covered in high school English class seemed strange.  It’s odd that my memory of the storyline of Beloved consisted of matricide and ghosts. Nothing about slavery bubbled to the top. How could we have had a class discussion in AP English about Beloved without diving deep into the topic of slavery? We had a lot of heated debate over whether Beloved was a ghost or not, but I don’t recall anything more than a cursory discussion of slavery. Reading Beloved at the end of this course was disturbing; the accumulation of everything we had read and discussed as a class made reading Morrison’s classic novel uncomfortable and sad.

One of my favorite supplemental readings was the excerpt about Judge Waring from Caryl Philips’s Atlantic Sound. I fully recognize after reading Seddon’s article that my affinity for this reading is probably the result of my searching for a white hero somewhere in the bleakness of white characters in all of our other readings.  I will need to spend some more time thinking about what this implies about my white female perspective and how I can push myself even further to abandon what Appiah would call my “tightly scripted identity” (Seddon 47).  However, I again found it surprising that as a Charlestonian I would have never heard of this local hero.

In wrestling with my shame about the huge hole that slavery represented in my knowledge of history, I found both comfort and unease that I am not alone. I had not recognized until now how the history of slavery is covered so narrowly in American history (mostly around the Civil War) and had not realized the impact that this has on everyone. I found the discussion in Seddon’s article about antiracism and antiracialism very appropriate as I thought about why such a global issue is effectively swept under the rug. Seddon cites David Goldberg’s definitions of the two terms: “Antiracism requires historical memory, recalling the conditions of racial degradation and relating contemporary to historical and local to global conditions…antiracialism suggests forgetting, getting over, moving on, wiping away the terms of reference…rather than a recounting and redressing of the terms of humiliation and devaluation” (Seddon 40). Antiracialism is what I have experienced; antiracism is what we are striving for as members of this class.

How do I feel?  I am now very conflicted in my identity as a white Charlestonian. The pride I had in my Charleston heritage has tarnished, and I am ashamed by my city’s role in the horrible institution of slavery. I now realize that many of the traditions and institutions that I was brought up to admire link directly back to the oppression of other human beings.  It would have been much easier to remain in my safe bubble of elitism, but I am so thankful that I have been forced to be uncomfortable and really think about my role in historical and ongoing slavery. In almost every discussion we have had on the class readings, Dr. Lewis has asked the question “Is it OK for this author to write about that topic?” i.e., “Is it OK for a Canadian male to write in the voice of an African female?”  I have asked that question back to myself – is it OK for a southern, white, female to dive into a class on slavery and attempt to gain empathy with the plight of slaves, and I think the answer is a resounding “yes” and more people should be doing this.

Where do I go from here? I am sad that class has come to an end, but I am inspired by what taking this class has done for my awareness of such an important issue. I am motivated to continue to explore the complex web of the global slave trade through further reading but also through opportunities like speakers, movies, and cultural events where I can be part of a collective group exploring these issues.  I have a responsibility to my daughters to make sure they do not fall into the same trap that I did and to steward them to a new Charlestonian identity that is balanced and historically comprehensive. I will need some time to work through my dilemma of my Charleston identity, but I feel fortunate that I now recognize the need to reconsider it.


Filed under: Jubilee Project

I Am a Black Woman, or Why Teaching May Be the New Slavery

[In this response, Ashley Rhett eloquently situates her own experience as a teacher in Charleston in 2014 in the longer context of the historical experience of black women in South Carolina and the US, and their representation in narratives of slavery. She explains how intensely, how intimately the texts speak to her, how difficult it is to separate herself from them: how they get under her skin. “Every black woman,” writes Ashley,  “is just one degree of separation from a mad woman in the attic.” SKL]

I Am a Black Woman, or Why Teaching May Be the New Slavery

I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher.

I opened the first day of Spring semester the same way I opened the first day of Fall: with poetry. I tell my students, “I love women and I love poetry. In fact, the only thing I love more than women is black women, so I’ve selected for us a book of poems by a beautiful black woman named Tracy K. Smith called Life on Mars. I don’t think there’s anything people can do that’s more intimate than share a book of poetry or a poem together. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to share a poem a day with you.” And then I sit down. And then in my best poet voice, I read “The Weather In Space” aloud… twice. I love it, and I try to make them love it too. It seems to work.

Two days later, I am called into the principal’s office to face allegations of being a racist.

I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher. If I love myself and the skin I’m in, little white girls feel so intimidated by me that the school administration conducts an inquest into my classroom. Interview my students. Ask them about my racist remarks.

The head of my department tells our principal that she believes that I am a victim of reverse racism. “I don’t think so,” she shoots back, closing the subject forever.

The next day, I don’t read any poems. A little blonde girl smiles. A black girl asks me why not. Something in me, very small and very precious, struggles for breath. I try to explain to the class why a situation like this makes us all lose, but my words fall flat. No one is really listening. We all know, me most of all, that the darkness has already won.

Several weeks later in a parent teacher conference with the mother of the young girl who started the rumors, I am told, “She thinks that you don’t like her. That’s why she’s being so disrespectful to you in your class. Maybe if you just explained to her that you do like her, then the rest of the year will go better for both of you.”

Or maybe if you cared about your daughter’s character, you would explain to her that sometimes an apology is as close as anyone ever gets to escaping their guilt. Maybe if you told her that it is not my job to like her. Maybe if you explained to her that her attempt to destroy my reputation and my career successfully destroyed any possibility of rapport between us. Maybe. But I don’t say any of that. “Sure. I’d love to talk to her,” I say with a smile and reach across the table to shake hands with an enemy.

I am a black woman. I am a public school teacher. I am a slave. I’m amazed by how much I see myself in every narrator, how I could literally reach into the text to touch a face or tug a sleeve and feel my own garments move. But I know I’m not a Baby Suggs holy or a thick loved Sethe, perhaps not even a faithful Ella. My suffering is too small to have made me righteous, too gentle to make me desperate to protect what I love, and too brief to prove my mettle.

Today I’m told that a kid I’ve been teaching since he was thirteen years old looked at a group of kids and said, “What are you niggers looking at?” I can’t decide what bothers me more: that someone I love would say something so cruel, that those black kids chose not to kick his ass, or that damn misplaced preposition. There’s so much to be outraged about, even when we think the past is over and done. It never is. But oh that it would be!

In the midst of all these things, I find myself, a black woman, a public school teacher, and a slave in a class that is seeking to study the narratives of slavery. I’m tired and giddy with caffeine most nights. I’m always amazed by how little I know about this topic. If it’s not in my blood, its traces are on my skin. I struggle to spell names like Fanon. I try to separate myself from the content. I tell myself that taking it personally interferes with learning. Still at night, my book pressed against my chest, I dream of the sea and its dark impenetrable depths. I hear wood creaking and waves breaking. Mysteriously, I am able to see my reflection in the blackness of those waters.

What would you have me to say? My whole life I’ve just been saying what has been expected. This time I don’t know what that is. This time I don’t know if I want to oblige. My skin is penance enough. It’s 2014, and it’s still penance enough.

I’m sitting up late tonight, anxiety and fear coursing through my body like the currents of a river about to overflow her banks, breach her boundaries, wreak havoc on a peaceful land. Tomorrow our class is going to read Equiano. After that, Morrison. My students picked her, not me! Still, I must be a masochist. A part of me thinks that I’m doing the right thing for myself by keeping these dirty little stories from being told. Another part of me pushes back with the thought that it’s more significant that these stories are being lived. Every black woman is just one degree of separation from a mad woman in the attic. If we let her out, we have to take her place. Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. Either way, we want the big house to finally go up in smoke. We don’t have to be there to see it. We’ll settle for the stories. People are more comfortable with the ones white women tell, I think.

I tell my colleagues that the only thing that separates teaching from slavery is that teachers don’t have to be afraid of the people they serve. It’s a little lie I tell myself: that I am not afraid. But I know. I know that I’m the ghost of slavery present, concealing myself in hallways or behind desks, obscured by the eerie blue light of some projector, a wraith. The mirror of the present isn’t as haunting as the one that brings the past into view, but it is a ghost nonetheless.

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

The Weather in Space

Is God being or pure force? The wind

Or what commands it? When our lives slow

And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls

In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm

Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing

After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—

Faces radiant with panic.




Filed under: Jubilee Project

Dr. James Lohmar Lectures at Riverside, California

On Tuesday, May 20, Dr. James Lohmar gave an invited public lecture at the University of California Riverside, under the title “Gore Caesars: Toward a History of Horror.” This summer Dr. Lohmar has been a Mullen Fellow at the University of California Riverside. As a Fellow he has been conducting research in the Eaton archive, known for its holdings on the Fantastic in the Arts, including the horror genre and comics. His research in the Eaton Collection is on the coverage of horror cinema in such publications as Famous Monsters of FilmlandCinefantastique, and Gore Creatures.

Students Present Research at Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference

from: http://today.cofc.edu/2014/04/17/students-present-research-colonial-academic-alliance-undergraduate-research-conference/
17 April 2014 | 3:03 pm By:
Contact: Vince Benigni, communication professor, 843.953.7019

Ten College of Charleston students presented research April 11-12, 2014 at the annual Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Conference in Towson, Md.  These scholars represent the best research papers submitted by students from all majors. The conference is the signature academic and outreach event sponsored by the Alliance, under the auspices of the Colonial Athletic Association, of which the College is a new member in 2013-14. 

The conference included a keynote presentation by Don Thomas, a former NASA astronaut who now heads the Hackerman Academy of Mathematics and Science at Towson University.

“The Colonial Academic Alliance Research Conference provided an excellent opportunity for us to showcase the different types of research and creative projects on which College of Charleston students and faculty collaborate,” said Dr. Trisha Folds-Bennett, dean of the Honors College. “The group of students chosen to represent us were energetic, engaged, and professional. Professor Andrea DeMaria and I were both impressed with their contribution to the conference, and thank the Office of Academic Affairs for funding the trip.”

Student presenters from the College of Charleston included:

Jami Baxley (classics and archaeology; James Newhard, faculty adviser)

Alexandra Cattran (physics and astronomy; Linda Jones, faculty advisers)

Lance Cooper (political science; Gibbs Knotts, faculty adviser)

Colin Cotter (chemistry & biochemistry; Gamil Guirgis, faculty adviser)

Hannah Evans (English & African studies; Simon Lewis, faculty adviser)

Grace Moxley (chemistry and biochemistry; Andrea DeMaria and Beth Sundstrom, faculty advisers)

Jackelyn Payne (health and human performance and communication; Andrea DeMaria and Beth Sundstrom, faculty advisers)

Sarah Turner (biology; Allison Welch, faculty adviser)

Aleisha Walker (teacher education and sociology and anthropology; Christine Finnan, faculty adviser)

John Wise (religious studies; Katie Hladky, faculty adviser)

Gestures won’t defeat Boko Haram

Written by Professor Chris Day for the Post & Courier

Posted: Monday, May 26, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Nigeria does not have a kidnapping problem. It has a Boko Haram problem. The armed group’s abduction of hundreds of young girls is a shameless abuse of human rights. But the recent social media obsession with the issue misses that the four-year-old insurgency is a direct reflection of the country’s more fundamental ills – systematic corruption, failed development and grinding poverty.

This makes the decision by the United States to send 80 troops to Chad to help find the missing girls all the more frustrating. It is a nice gesture. But it is little more than a humanitarian fig leaf that masks the avoidance of more meaningful, albeit thorny political engagement needed to deal with Nigeria’s violence.

What distinguishes Boko Haram is its intersection with political Islam and its use of violence. The group is a splinter of a broader political movement that unsuccessfully sought to impose Sharia law in parts of northern Nigeria. It gained strength through linkages with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates, and the group populated its decentralized structure with fighters recruited from northern Nigeria’s alienated, unemployed youth that were radicalized with anti-Western messages.

What started as attacks against government officials expanded to high profile bombings, shootings of civilians, and kidnappings – in other words, terrorism. In response, Nigeria’s security forces have been incompetent and ham-handed. Overtures towards dialogue are met with mistrust.

While Boko Haram’s leaders use radical Islamic discourse, it is a mistake to paint the group as “Islamist,” per se, as if violence is a manifestation of being Muslim. Prominent Muslim leaders worldwide have denounced the group. Either way, the motivation to deal with Boko Haram should not be based on the professed religion of its members, but on the violence that they commit.

The United States has a mixed experience with using military force for humanitarian ends. Operation Provide Comfort in 1992 saved thousands of Iraqi Kurds stranded on the Turkish border, setting the scene for more “operations other than war.” Later in the decade, the U.S. led NATO into the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo. But interest in Africa was curtailed by the Somali debacle of “Black Hawk Down” fame, where the relatively successful Operation Restore Hope went off the rails when the army meddled in Mogadishu’s warlord politics. Soon after, Operation Support Hope helped Rwandan refugees in Zaire, but long after the genocide was over.

Africa has never been a priority for American foreign policy. But for the past decade the U.S. has entered into military partnerships with several African governments. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, helps secure and stabilize Africa by building and training professional armies. African allies assist the U.S. in regional counterterrorism efforts. American boots hit the ground to provide logistical assistance for specific operations, like the current hunt for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In Nigeria the U.S. has several choices. The cold approach of doing nothing has obviously been ruled out.

Going in with guns blazing brings enormous risks. Nigerian politics is amongst Africa’s most incomprehensible and can chew up and spit out even the most seasoned analyst, policy maker, or soldier. Getting bogged down in shambolic Nigeria would be a nightmare. Any intervention must have clear goals, a reasonable chance of success, and guarantee it will not do more harm than good. And the American public is already worn down by a decade of war fatigue and is allergic to any military entanglement.

The current next-to-nothing humanitarian path is politically visible but actually meaningless. It is like delivering food aid to refugees fleeing violence instead of addressing the political causes of the violence itself. It has the self-absolving veneer of trying to “make a difference” but does little to solve the underlying problems deeply rooted in Nigeria’s decaying state.

A potential upside to the current approach is that troops could be using the mission as cover for something bigger – hopefully they are taking good notes.

Either way, Nigeria is a fragmented, violent country and Boko Haram requires more than reconnaissance for a rescue mission that may or not materialize. This is merely meddling with no strategy and is more reminiscent of a movie screenplay than good policy. Nigeria’s abducted girls, and indeed all the country’s victims of insurgent violence, deserve much more.

Christopher Day is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston.

The Curse of CAR: Warlords, Blood Diamonds, and Dead Elephants

Written by Professor Chris Day for the Daily Beast
Christopher Day

World News


The Curse of CAR: Warlords, Blood Diamonds, and Dead Elephants

To end the hideous civil war in the Central African Republic, sanctions against leaders may help, but we also have to stop the trade in gems and ivory that’s funding the warlords.
The rule of lawlessness in the Central African Republic, fueled with money from blood diamonds and poached ivory, has hardened religious identities, divided Muslim and Christian communities with murderous enmity, and allowed warlords to prevail in an atmosphere of impunity.The state in CAR, which has never been strong, is now all but nonexistent. Make no mistake, even though the world is paying little attention, the crisis in the country demands a broad response to halt violence, establish order, and help hundreds of thousands of people at extreme risk.The U.N. Security Council and the White House recently imposed sanctions on five key players in the conflict that is currently swallowing the country They target former presidents Francois Bozizé and Michel Djotodia, as well as strongmen from the anti-Balaka militia and Séléka rebels.

GALLERY: Stranded at Bangui Airport: The Refugee Crisis in Central African Republic (PHOTOS)

This is all well and good. Financial strangleholds are a step in the right direction because they address the political and economic dimensions of CAR’s crisis. But broadening the response to what is required and doing so competently means understanding the conflict’s broader dynamics and its distinct traits. Although the Séléka forces are largely Muslim, and the anti-Balaka largely Christian, the structural roots of the crisis and the forces that drive it are more complicated and have little to do with religion.

Those who are paying attention to CAR generally do so out of concern for the country’s violence. Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, with many of them living in an airport-turned-wasteland beneath the wings of derelict jets.

What began as skirmishes between anti-Balaka militias and Séléka forces have expanded as fighters on all sides cast ever-widening nets around anyone guilty by association. Political manipulation of religious identity in CAR is nothing new, but it thrives in institutionally weak environments.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, with many of them living in an airport-turned-wasteland beneath the wings of derelict jets.

In this sense, CAR’s conflict follows broader patterns of political violence in Africa. Full-scale civil wars are giving way to fragmented armed groups with decentralized power bases in remote border regions. Fitting this profile, Boko Haram unleashes madness upon Nigeria’s northeastern states because the central government lacks control of its hinterlands and overcompensates with heavy-handed repression. The current instability in South Sudan is emblematic of the country’s chronic struggles to tame peripheral power centers, which have historically ethnic contours.

In CAR, the disintegration of the state has opened the way to privatized violence and the pursuit of economic agendas by entrepreneurial militia commanders and foreign mercenaries. Power has withered at the center and devolved to an archipelago of fiefdoms where warlords rule without the burdens of governing. These warlords want to control areas with alluvial diamonds and exploit opportunities for ivory poaching, cattle rustling, and bush-meat trafficking in the country’s periphery.

Sanctions targeting the conflict’s bigger players can help because these actors have wider regional political connections. But the local actors that operate on a smaller scale also sustain the commercial networks that feed global demand for gems and tusks. And their disproportionately violent impact on ordinary Central Africans calls for a hard look at who’s buying these blood-drenched baubles.

CAR’s gems have funded Séléka and anti-Balaka fighters. The Kimberley Process for tracking conflict diamonds officially suspended CAR one year ago. But the country’s gems still are moving and materializing in places like Dubai. A new Kimberley Process working group to monitor CAR might help focus attention on the guilty and choke the diamond flow.

Poaching in CAR is killing more than just elephants. African park rangers are part of the regime’s security apparatus but ill equipped to fight against the raiders. Foreign security sector support can and should include efforts to interdict poachers. But it is also time to curtail the demand for ivory in Asia. Raising the profile of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s global moratorium on the ivory trade might change the dynamics of this market.

In March 2013 the Séléka rebellion toppled the frail Bozizé regime. But the Séléka was incapable of ruling once it seized power. Its caustic mixture of homegrown rebels and regional mercenaries could neither stay cohesive nor project authority over CAR’s vast expanse—larger than California. And, unusually, Séléka leader Michel Djotodia failed to win acknowledgment from other nations as CAR’s sovereign head of state.

African leaders used to recognize almost anyone. No one batted an eyelid when 27-year-old Sierra Leone Army Captain Valentine Strasser fell backwards into Freetown’s Executive Mansion in 1992. Zimbawe’s rigged election in 2002 was met with a collective regional shrug. Even Idi Amin was Chairman of the Organization of African Unity in 1975.

Djotodia’s non-recognition signals a change in Africa’s regional norms, where seizing power violently is now widely viewed as illegitimate and reversible. Djotodia stepped down in January under a pall of political abandonment, and 5,000 African Union troops, backed by French forces, now help CAR’s National Transition Council establish a new government. That the Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza is a woman is another exception to the rule.

Max Weber said, “the existence of the war lord… depends solely on a chronic state of war and upon a comprehensive organization set for warfare.” Although imposing sanctions on the conflict’s biggest villains is a crucial first step, the forces driving CAR’s violence are unlikely to diminish before September’s scheduled deployment of blue helmeted peacekeepers from the United Nations. The region’s smalltime warlords will grow more intransigent, not less, and the conflict more intractable.

CAR’s victims require much more help than they’ve seen so far, and they need it soon.

Dr. James Lohmar Lectures at Riverside, California

On Tuesday, May 20, Dr. James Lohmar gave an invited public lecture at the University of California Riverside, under the title “Gore Caesars: Toward a History of Horror.” This summer Dr. Lohmar has been a Mullen Fellow at the University of California Riverside. As a Fellow he has been conducting research in the Eaton archive, known for its holdings on the Fantastic in the Arts, including the horror genre and comics. His research in the Eaton Collection is on the coverage of horror cinema in such publications as Famous Monsters of FilmlandCinefantastique, and Gore Creatures.

Archaeology Student to Attend Fulbright Summer Institute

Aerial image of Binchester Roman FortCollege of Charleston sophomore Sarah Legendre is participating in a Fulbright Summer Institute, one of the most prestigious and selective summer scholarship programs operating worldwide. Legendre, an Honors College student and double major in geology and archaeology, will spend four weeks at Durham University in the UK.  (read more)



College of Charleston Highlights the Future of Studying the Past

Avkat Archaeological Project.

Satellite and Geospatial Imagery from the Avkat Archaeological Project.

You won’t always find James Newhard exhuming delicate artifacts with a trowel or handbroom.

For Newhard, director of the College of Charleston’s program in archaeology and associate professor of classics, the task of studying ancient civilizations is just as easily accomplished with the aid of geospatial 3D modeling, airborne drones, and 3-D or Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). He works to find archaeological applications for cutting-edge technologies.  (read more here).

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