Finding My Great-Grandfather in a Box of Memories

Last year my mother was searching for something in storage when she found a chest that my paternal grandmother had given her when her mother, my great-grandmother (Grandma Della) died. It was filled with old bills, cards, letters, photographs, Bibles, and various knick-knacks that belonged to my Grandma Della. Although it appeared to be junk, I asked her to send the contents to me. The historian in me just knew there would be a great find among all that stuff, and I was right. I found my great-grandfather–not literally of course, but figuratively.

I was very close to Grandma Della. I was always at her house. Among other things, she taught me how to bake and crochet. She passed away while I was in college. Her husband Jim died when I was 5, so I can’t recall very much about him. I called him Jim, not grandpa or granddaddy, but apparently everyone else did too. He had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week before died. Even though I wanted to visit him, I was not allowed inside his hospital room. I remember his funeral. He was a World War I veteran, and the American flag draped his casket at the gravesite.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

I found some wonderful pictures inside the box, including Jim in his World War I uniform, Grandma Della and Jim together and with their young family, and my great-uncle James as a baby (born in 1923).  My interest was piqued, so I began to gather the documents, Grandma Della’s stories, recollections from other relatives, and research from Ancestry.com to flesh out Jim’s story.

Jim was born in Kemper County, Mississippi in 1894. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France. A year later he was discharged from the Army. He and Grandma Della married in December 1919; she was still a teenager. She told me that Jim had come to “court” her, riding his horse with his Army uniform on.

Jim, circa 1950s

Jim, circa 1950s

Grandma Della and Jim raised seven children (and some grandchildren too). They worked  hard and were able to buy several acres of land and build a small house.  Grandma Della was a cook. Jim was described in city directories and census records variously as a laborer, yard man, and a janitor. He apparently had lingering physical and psychological issues resulting from his time in the military. As late as 1939, his physician noted in a letter requesting disability that he had difficulty walking and pain in his knee and shoulder. He also experienced nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and “all manner of bad dreams.” A contemporary diagnosis would probably be that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because of Mississippi’s reputation for almost totally eliminating the black vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I was surprised to find evidence that my great-grandparents were registered voters, at least as early as the mid-1950s. The box contained poll tax receipts and sample ballots. If they were able to vote, perhaps it was because Jim was a World War I veteran.

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

I suppose grandchildren can never really know about the lives of their grandparents. After all, Jim was almost eighty years my senior. But I feel as if I know him a little better now, and I certainly enjoyed searching through the box of memories.

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Foto Friday: Springfield Race Riot

In honor of Black History Month, 2 Dope Sistahs will be posting pictures of our visits to historical sites for Foto Friday. We begin today, one day early, with photos I took in Springfield, Illinois, home of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Springfield, Illinois was the site of a race riot in August 1908. The outrage from the riot led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.

A scene from the Springfield Race Riot

A scene from the Springfield Race Riot

Please click here for more on the history of the race riot.

"Acts of Intolerance"

“Acts of Intolerance”

This sculpture by Preston Jackson was inspired by photographs of the riot’s aftermath.

Springfield Race Riot marker

Springfield Race Riot marker

Historical marker, Union Square Park, Springfield, Illinois.

Springfield3

Close-up of sculpture.

Springfield2

Close-up of sculpture.

The Worst Moments of 2013

Da Hype 1

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin

There were a number of really rough moments for me in 2013, but the absolute worst moment has to be the announcement of the Trayvon Martin verdict. (See 2DS posts on “Keep Calm” and “From Don Imus to George Zimmerman”) It was really difficult for me to grapple with the reality that George Zimmerman had not been convicted of murdering this young boy, who was guilty of “walking while black.” It felt as if a heap of new injustices had fallen on black people. I felt suffocated and was depressed. It didn’t help that the verdict was followed by a number of deaths of young black women and men who were shot and killed while knocking on white people’s doors, seeking help (e.g. Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell).

The Martin verdict was announced while I was celebrating 100 years of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Angie Stone, India Irie, and Patti Labelle each took the stage, and all three felt compelled to recognize his life. As news of the verdict spread throughout the crowd, the crowd shuttered in utter surprise. We were hurt.

That night, I was delighted to see my favorite singers, ecstatic to celebrate with my sorority sisters, but in pain for the Martin family in particular, and for black people in general. So, I cried in the middle of a concert.

Da Realist 1

The Trayvon Martin case–the lead-up to the trial, the trial itself, and the reaction to it–was difficult for me as well. I wrote about it at least three times last year. No matter how many times I hear awful stories like his–and it happens far too often–I am always deeply affected by how much black life is devalued.

Da Realist1, Jesse, and me in front of W.E.B. DuBois statue on Fisk University's campus

Da Hype 1, Jesse, and Da Realist 1 in front of the W.E.B. DuBois statue at Fisk University

However, my worst moment was when I found out that Jesse, one of my best friends, had died. Both Da Hype 1 and I wrote about our friendship with Jesse last year. (See 2DS posts I Had Such a Friend, For Jesse, & Foto Friday: Someone You Love).

On May 20, 2013, Da Hype 1 called me crying and screaming  unintelligibly. I had to get her to calm down so that I could understand her. She was so upset because she had just received a message that Jesse had passed away. For some reason I thought she had misunderstood the message. Jesse was in the hospital awaiting a liver transplant. He’d had a surgery (for some other issue), but he was not dead. He was getting better, stronger, right? I don’t remember whether she read me her message or if I looked on my phone and saw the same message, but I felt like someone had knocked the air out of me. After that, we continued to talk. I attempted to console Hype the best I could. She was in her car, and she still had to drive home.

Somehow we managed to pull ourselves together. Hype drove home safely, and I just sat on the couch staring into space for a long time thinking about my friend. I will never forget Hype’s heart-piercing scream that day. It broke my heart.

Revisiting a Civil Rights Icon, Daisy Bates

DaisyBatesThe recent Supreme Court ruling invalidating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has 2dopesistahs thinking about the sacrifices of activists who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. For my current research project, I revisited (re-read) The Long Shadow of Little Rock  by civil rights icon, Daisy Bates.

Daisy Bates became a national figure in 1957 when nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were chosen to integrate previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bates had been actively pushing the school board to implement and stick to a plan of desegregation to comply with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In this memoir, Bates chronicles her experiences as she coordinated the activities of the students and documented the attacks on the students while in school.

In a show of massive resistance, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on the first day of school to prevent the Little Rock Nine from attending classes. Eventually, the Nine were able to attend school after Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched 1,000 Army paratroopers to protect the students, but not before an angry, anti-integration mob had threatened the students’ safety both individually (Elizabeth Eckford) and collectively.

Adult Daisy Bates

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (1914-1999)

Little Rock residents who supported the integration plan were singled out for harassment by those attempting to maintain the Jim Crow status quo. Supporters received threatening calls, and others lost their jobs. Daisy Bates had crosses burned in her front yard, and gunshots pierced her living room window. Finally, in 1959, she and her husband L.C. were forced to close the State Press, the weekly newspaper they began publishing in 1941, because of lost advertising revenue. (Daisy Bates was able to begin publishing the paper again in 1985, but this was after her husband’s death.)

In the foreward to the first edition (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt writes that she wishes Daisy Bates “had been able to keep from giving us some of her sense of her bitterness and fear in the end of the book” (xvi). However, I thought it was remarkable that a person who had endured the loss of her livelihood, threats to her safety, and attempts on her life remained so hopeful. Bates had a right to “question America.”

I had forgotten how compelling this book is, and I highly recommend it. It is an excellent read. And if you have an interest in books written by members of the Little Rock Nine, both Melba Patillo Beals and Carlotta Walls Lanier have written memoirs.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968

martin-luther-king-jr-injustice-anywhere

January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968

_______

Links to digital resources on the life of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement:

The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

Do the Right Thing: The Central Park Five

balanceOn January 1, 2014, Bill de Blasio was sworn in as  the 109th mayor of New York City, the first liberal to hold that office in twenty years. The selection of the leader of the nation’s largest city always garners national attention, and November’s election was no different. Aside from the focus on his proposed policies, de Blasio’s multiracial family (his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray, and their children Chiara and Dante) was fodder for pop culture.

However, it was not de Blasio’s personal life that interested me, but his ideas of reform and righting wrongs. He has pledged to end the stop-and-frisk policy and to “settle the Central Park Five case because a huge injustice has been done.” Although in this case, justice delayed is justice denied, I am hopeful that de Blasio will “do the right thing” and end the city’s legal battle over this case.

In 1989, New York mayor Ed Koch called the sensational, racially charged Central Park Jogger case “the crime of the century.” On the night of  April 19, a 28-year-old, white investment banker–later identified as Trish Meili– was brutally beaten and raped while jogging through Central Park. The police quickly set their sights on a large group of African-American and Latino teens who were in Central Park, some of them harassing and even beating others in the park.

From the larger group of young men in the park that night, the police focused on Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise. The young men, who were between 14 and 16 years old, became known as “The Central Park Five.” Although they all denied their participation in a rape at first, after being interrogated by police for hours on end (between 14 and 30 without attorneys or parents present) and being deprived of sleep, food, and drink, the frightened young men began to turn on each other.

The 2012 Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park Five,” tells the story of these young men. They contend that their confessions were obtained under duress, that they only parroted stories fed to them by the police, falsely believing that their “confessions” would allow them to return home to their families. However, the confessions–although recanted–sealed their fates. The Five were charged with a number of felonies including rape, attempted murder, sodomy, sexual abuse, and robbery.

Kevin Richardson was convinced that “the truth is gonna come out.” There was no DNA evidence that linked the five teenagers to the crime. In addition, their confessions told conflicting stories about where the crime took place and even the manner in which it was committed. Nevertheless, in two separate trials in 1990, the young men were convicted and sentenced to serve between 5 and 15 years in prison.

McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana were all released having served nearly

The Central Park Five (2012), a film by Ken and Sarah Burns.

The Central Park Five (2012), a film by Ken and Sarah Burns.

seven years in prison, leaving only Kharey Wise in prison. In 2001, Wise crossed paths with Matias Reyes. Years earlier the two had an altercation at Rikers Island Correctional Institution while they were being held there. Matias, a serial rapist, had confessed to a series of rapes and a murder when he was apprehended in August 1989. After talking to Wise, Matias, who had “found religion” during his incarceration, realized that Wise had been convicted of a crime he committed. He decided to “do the right thing” and confess to his involvement in the Central Park Rape. In addition, the DNA evidence matched Reyes to the rape.

In 2001, the defense requested that the guilty verdicts of the Central Park Five be overturned. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, and in 2003, the “Central Park Five” filed suit against the prosecutors and the police department for $250 million. At this point, the case remains unresolved, with the next hearing scheduled for January 21. No amount of money can give these men back the youth they missed in prison. So, it’s not exactly justice, but it’s a start. Let’s hope that Mayor de Blasio will “do the right thing.”

Related Articles and Posts:

The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Racial Politics in Hollywood

Notes on The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Anyone who really knows me knows that I absolutely hated-yes, hated-The Help. Let me be clear: I am talking about the novel and not the movie. And, that is because after having painfully read the novel, I refused to see the movie. There, I said it, and even wrote it for all of the world to see!

While I have many gripes with the novel, what bothered me most was the way in which the author, Kathryn Stockett, trivialized the Civil Rights Movement by centering it entirely around black people’s desires to share the same toilets with white folks. That troubled me. There came a moment in my my reading where I stopped and said, “So . . . this book is about sh!t?” I then proceeded to call Da Realist 1 and yell at her about this book and how I thought it was full of sh!t.

Let’s examine this notion further. There is the woman agonizing about her 17 year old son who was in jail for using a white-only bathroom. Either he was illiterate and incapable of reading the “White-only” sign or he suddenly forgot Jim Crow laws that prevented him from behaving properly in the segregated Mississippi. You choose. Either way, I found it odd because black folks did not forget segregation–that was their way of life, and  forgetting it could be a death sentence. The murder of Emmett Till served as a reminder to all, of what happened when black people did not acquiesce to the rules of the segregated South.

Then, there were the domestic workers, who were bothered by not being able to share the bathroom of the families for whom they worked, and were forced to use out houses. To the credit of one white family, they built a separate bathroom inside their home for their maid’s use because “Everybody knows [black people] carry different kinds of diseases than [white people] do” (8).

Lawn of toiletsThen, the antagonist in the novel, Hilly Holbrook, is working to introduce into Mississippi legislature, a law which she titled, The Home Help Sanitation Initiative. This initiative would promote separate help quarters in every white person’s home, as a way of preventing the spread of “Negro germs.” Skeeter, the protagonist, is so kindhearted to the “Negro maids,” that she decides to play a trick on Hilly and posts in the newspaper she works for that unwanted toilets can be dropped off at the Holbrook home. Hilly awakens to a lawn full of toilets. Enough bathroom talk yet?

Wait! I can’t forget the pie Minny made with her own excrement. (For those who have not read the novel, I’ll end it here. Enough is enough, damn it!)

This novel, situated within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, only offered readers a cursory glance at high profile leaders like James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. and it failed to recognize the larger issues of segregation and racial violence that blacks experienced. For example, The Little Rock Nine so desperately wanted equal access to education, that they braved violent mobs who spat upon them, hit them, and threw various types of food and drink on them. I could go on and on about this book and what it failed to accomplish, but I already feel the need to take my blood pressure.

But here is the thing: for some strange reason, I thought the author was black throughout most of the novel, though I later found out otherwise. I only include this to dispel any argument that one might have that I am responding to this novel negatively because I resent the fact that the author is white. On the contrary. I believe that anyone can write about any subject matter they choose. In order for the characters to be believable, however, you need to actually know and understand the culture about which you are writing. For me, Stockett did not know and understand the culture of black women maids who served in the homes of white families.

As the movie was released, I learned that I was not alone in my disdain for this novel. Da Realist 1 won’t even call it by name (she calls it The Terrible, Awful book) and The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement, arguing that “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” (Read the ABWH Statement on The Help here).

The truth is, when the novel came out and the movie was later released, every white woman I came across wanted to know if I had read The Help. (They thought they wanted to discuss it with me, but believe me, they did not.) I was at my daughter’s dance class and all of the mothers, who happened to be white, kept asking me if I read the book and wanted to hear about how much I loved it.

Stop. Rewind. Now, read that last sentence again and replace dance class with gymnastics class, and you will understand how everywhere I had gone, white women were talking about how wonderful this novel is. I was so sick of hearing about that damn book! Da Realist 1 was even approached by a white employee at a book store who wanted to discuss the book. When she told him that she did not care for it, he became hostile. This is when black people should be skeptical: whenever soooooo many white people like a work that addresses race, it should be cause for concern.

The Help, the book and The Help, the movie both fit the formula for books and movies that address racial issues in a way that white people can be amused and entertained. The Help has a white woman protagonist, who makes white people feel comfortable, and provides them with someone with whom they can identify. After all, everyone would like to believe that they are Skeeter and not Hilly.

Hollywood Rule: There must be a kindhearted white woman or man in the story who comes to the aid of black folks and supports them. Otherwise, white people feel convicted and uncomfortable with the story, even if the story is non-fiction. And, for the record: I’m not saying that these kindhearted white folks did not exist; they just may not have existed in every story and in every black person’s life. This bit of news may come as a shock to some white people.

12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

Image from movie, 12 Years a Slave

So, why am I discussing The Help now, 2 years after the release of the movie? While looking for a place that was still showing 12 Years a Slave, I came across these comments about the movie, posted on moviefone.com:

“Horrible waste of time and money. It was realistic but how many times do we need to sensationalize the same tired story of the unfair whites and the poor blacks. It is a fact of life that happened a long time ago. Each time this story is told, it brings about additional racial tension in the USA.”

“Interesting take on a past that some ppl will try and hold emotions for. Not enough emphasis on the many white ppl who sacrificed a lot, including their life, to help the black cause. IN a time when racial division is on the rise movies like this do not help.”

“I forgot to star this movie. One star. Again, too intense and too much violence against people. Doesn’t matter black or white. I don’t like seeing people getting beat up so much, not entertaining.”

“It was definitely gritty. Just a horrible, depressing film and story. Not uplifting, but alarming. Particularly considering what is happening in the US politically as the white republicans try to rewrite history and turn back the clock.”

“Boring Fell asleep The same thing we’ve seen before.”

“Too long, gratuitous violence,how many times did we have to watch beatings and whippings…..did not like this movie.”

“Boring..very predictable…save your money and rent it”

While I cannot identify the race of those who made these comments, similar comments can be found around the internet, articulating white people’s discomfort with movies that address slavery as the subject matter. The same outrage does not occur as the the result of so many movies representing the horrible experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, and that is probably because Americans have always been willing to acknowledge the atrocities that occurred outside of our borders, while avoiding those that occurred within.

12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, is a hard pill for some white people to swallow because of the obvious injustice and violence experienced by Solomon Northrup and his fellow slaves. His story was not a safe one to tell, like that in The Help.

First, 12 Years a Slave is non-fiction, and it forces readers to deal with the harsh cruelties of slavery from the perspective of a true story. One cannot hide behind the the label of fiction when reading the narrative or watching film, which is why the above comments are comical at best. The white people that Northrup came across were vicious, violent, and conniving thieves. Why should he have depicted them in any way other than he experienced them?

Second, as one of the comments indicate, this story is not uplifting in the way that many white viewers need it to be. Brutal beatings are not uplifting, but then again, I did not go to a movie on slavery and expect it to be.

But, I beg us to rethink the narrative of a happy ending, especially when it comes to narratives on racial violence in slavery and Jim Crow. For example, I am not certain how a narrative–a true narrative–of a man who was kidnapped and robbed of 12 years of his “freedom”, ownership of his body and how it gets used, his time/experiences with family because of excessive greed and white privilege, was brutally beaten, forced into chattel slavery, and then released, can not be a story of triumph.

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave

Furthermore, if only those who had fallen asleep had stayed awake long enough, they would have found out that even during slavery, Brad Pitt would come and save the day for black people.

Black Children: The Faces of the Civil Rights Movement

The Little Rock Nine

The Little Rock Nine

Emmett Till; 16th Street Baptist Church Victims: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson; Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas,Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Kalmark, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo Beals; Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis . . .

2013 marks the 50th year since the historic March on Washington, and as I reflect on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I cannot help but be disillusioned by current events in this nation surrounding the rights of black people.

In August, I was dismayed by the Supreme Court’s decisions surrounding Affirmative Action and Voting Rights. Their response to both cases reflect a nation postured to reverse the slow gains that the Civil Rights Movement had already achieved. As disillusioned as I was about those cases, nothing seemed more demonstrative of the reversal of this country’s progress toward treating black people as human, than the violence that black children have experienced in recent years.

Black children are no strangers to being victims of racial violence. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), for example, were but children when they were brutally beaten by slave masters, raped by them, and/or witnessed some heinous act of violence committed toward someone they loved. They represent the many children enslaved who were victims of violence and/or painfully watched someone they loved become victims of violence.

Once emancipated, black children continued to be witnesses to and victims of violence throughout much of the twentieth century. Malcolm X, for example, often recounted the death of his father. Earl Little was brutally beaten and placed on railroad tracks to be run over by a trolley car when Malcolm X was only six years old. Earl Little, an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey, was vocal about racial oppression and was targeted by white supremacists and attacked by them for audaciously speaking out against racial violence. Prior to his assassination, he and his family barely escaped their burning home set afire by white supremacists. Earl Little’s murder, coupled with the fact that the insurance company refused to pay his family the life insurance that he purchased for himself, created a situation in which Malcolm X’s family spiraled into poverty. These are the circumstances–a violent racist America–that gave birth to a child who became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Also known as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, and Malcolm X).

Emmett Till was brutally beaten and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman

Emmett Till was brutally beaten and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman

Malcolm X, though not around to see what happened to his father, was affected by the violence nonetheless. This violence made a significant impact on a young boy’s life, especially after his father’s death created such a degree of anxiety for his mother that she was eventually committed to a mental hospital. Whether they were victimized directly or whether they witnessed racial violence, this is the violent America that was a reality for black children.

My mother often tells a story in which she was a young girl in the 1940s, riding in the car with her parents and her mother’s cousin. They were travelling on Rt. 301 in Upper Marlboro, MD and they noticed two black sailors being brutally beaten on the side of the road by a couple of white men. My grandfather got out of the car and began to fight the white men off of the black sailors. My grandmother and her cousin helped by pelting the white men with rocks. All the while, my mother sat in the back seat of the car in fear of what would happen should other white people–particularly police officers–arrive on the scene. Had other whites arrived, what followed could have been catastrophic, and my mother was well aware of the consequences.

From L-R: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

From L-R: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

Black children were not only victims of white violence against black people as witnesses, but they also directly received the wrath of white supremacy by being the target of their violence. From Emmett Till, who was killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman to the four little girls who died as a result of the 16th Street Baptist Church, black children were the casualties of a war against black people. They were brave and they were s/heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, who deserve to stand equally as prominent for their valor as other players of black liberation movements.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin

What became quite evident very recently, as we watched the court case on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin unfold in the media, is that despite a history that makes clear that blacks have been victims of white violence, the American judicial system refuses to see us as such. (See post on Trayvon Martin, “From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race and Victimization”). What disturbs me most is that we cannot even identify children as being victims of violence, and they are generally the group that is afforded the protection of any civilized society. America wept, and rightfully so, for Newtown, but could not weep for Trayvon Martin because the state of Florida successfully vilified him. Many accepted the notion of Martin as a perpetrator of a crime and not a victim.

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis was murdered in FL for playing his music too loud. The shooter claimed he saw a gun (which did not exist) and he stood his ground by shooting.

As we commemorate milestones in black history and struggle through our present day injustices, we must consider the children who have died and continue to die for Civil and Human Rights. In fact, we must honor their memory.

May we continue to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin. May we continue to honor the memory of Jordan Davis. May we continue to honor the memory of countless others who die each day because America refuses to imagine them as victims of crime. They are the most recent children who are victims of white supremacist ideologies that refuse to acknowledge us as human.