This article first appeared under the title Positioning Racism To Make It a Major American Export on LinkedIn:
To monetize or not to monetize racism? That is such a dangerous question and one most might readily dismiss as insultingly ludicrous. This is, after all, the revolutionary age of digitalized enlightenment, not the nightmare era of four centuries of slavery in America stretching from the 1500s to the 1800s (the 1900s if you count neo-slavery), nor the apocalyptic horrors of the Jewish holocaust.
Yet there are those who argue that when you look at the way advertisements and films from multiracial countries tend to exclude their darker-skinned citizens in favor of our more whiter-complexioned brothers and sisters, monetized racism has been going strong on a global scale for quite some time. We simply haven’t recognized it as a functioning sanctioned institution the way slavery once was.
Moreover, aside from technology’s era-defining impact, this is also the age in which we have seen the creation of a veritable library of stories and videos documenting the killing of unarmed African-American men, women, and children under highly-questionable circumstances during the administration of America’s first Black president. This in addition to the rise of a mass incarceration system which uses the imprisonment of African-Americans and Latinos as incentive for monetary gain.
So why bring any of this up now?
A Veteran of the Civil Rights Movement
Recently I enjoyed the privilege of speaking on the phone with an elder who has spent much of her life on the front lines of America’s Civil Rights Movement. She marched alongside such iconic leaders as U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the late Rev. Hosea Williams during the 1960s. Later, after 9/11, she often participated in annual reenactments of the March 7, 1965, crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Her voice in numerous previous conversations has often expressed a range of emotions when discussing racial conditions either in America in general, or at times more specifically in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia. Concern, pride, anger, faith, and amounts of fear have occasionally shaded her speech. This latest conversation was the first in which it filled with the kind of despair that borders on hopelessness.
“I just don’t understand it,” she said. “Everybody see what’s happening, the way everything we fought for has been turned around and is going backwards instead of forward. But they act like everything just alright.”
She offered as evidence on the local level the aggressive gentrification relocating droves of Savannah’s indigenous Black population to outlying areas, and multiple instances of overt racism displayed during the last mayoral election. Even more incredulous was the verdict of a mistrial, just across the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge and going up the road into North Charleston, South Carolina, in the case of Michael Slager. Video had shown so clearly Slager firing his gun some eight times with five bullets striking the fleeing unarmed Walter Scott in the back. Fifty-five witnesses had provided enough testimony to secure one the three conviction decisions allowed: acquittal, murder, or voluntary manslaughter. What was the problem?
It is a strange, scary, discombobulating, and worrisome thing.
Much of the language used to describe the expansion––such as “unique brand,” “audience-targeted content,” and distrust of “fake news outlets” ––is lost on her. However, images of America somehow exporting racism as a toxic national commodity alongside more practical items like medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and vehicles are not. The question for her and many of her generation is not how did we reach this point, but how did we manage to spiral backward to this point?
The Dylann Roof case, also just across the bridge and up the road, causes her to choke back tears and lapse into silence.
I am thinking at the moment of how different leaders and populations around the world are interpreting Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency as a signal to move as far to the political right as they can while calmly and efficiently promoting racism and religious intolerance. Their advertised concerns proclaim immigrants will invade their homeland––although for many the word homeland only became applicable after their own parents or grandparents immigrated––and change too drastically its cultural identity and economic balance (however shaky the economy already is).
That an ideology based on xenophobia has come to define the American character in the minds of so many is distressing. Though apparently not to those seeking to capitalize off the same. Emily Flitters of Reuters News reported one day after the presidential election, “The right-wing Breitbart News Network is expanding its U.S. operations and launching sites in Germany and France…as it seeks to monetize the anger and anti-immigrant sentiment unleashed by Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. The planned expansion is one sign of how the right-wing media landscape is shifting in the wake of Trump's campaign to provide a platform for the more radical views that helped fuel the Republican candidate's shock election victory…” (Flitters, Exclusive: Riding Trump wave, Breitbart News plans U.S., European Expansion, Nov 9, 2016).
It is also reminiscent of the campaign undertaken by White-American soldiers fighting in Europe during World Wars I and II. While different in scope and technique, certain core objectives (whether openly acknowledged as such or not) are the same when it comes to race and culture. Those past campaigns ultimately failed. What should Americans expect as Breitbart’s cyber-media operations and its imitators set up satellites around the globe?
The Harlem Hellfighters and the Battle Against Exported Racism
During World War I, because of goodwill missions like James Reese Europe’s military-sponsored jazz music tour, and the heroic combat actions of the Harlem Hellfighters, citizens in French townships found it confusing when coached to treat African-American soldiers as inferiors, untrustworthy degenerates, or demon-like mutants. It was difficult to reconcile the concept of Blacks as inherent menaces or as subhuman while benefiting from their life-saving actions as defenders and liberators.
For their courageous feats, members of the Harlem Hellfighters, known officially as the 369th Regiment of the U.S. Infantry, were awarded France’s Croix de Guerre. The unit’s triumphant return to New York City in 1919 and the parade held in its honor is considered one of the starting points of the Harlem Renaissance.
Writers of editorials for African-American newspapers during World War II vigorously supported their country’s efforts as part of a “Double-V” campaign calling for victory at home and victory overseas. Simultaneously, editorial cartoonists periodically illustrated the U.S. government’s schizophrenic hypocrisy indicated by of Black soldiers fighting to secure liberty in one nation when they were in fact still oppressed second-class citizens in their own.
The cartoon below by artist Jan Jackson was published in the June 16, 1945 edition of the Chicago Defender (a newspaper founded by native-Savannah publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott). It shows the battleship Mississippi docking in Japan’s Tokyo Bay while a band plays “Dixie” on the deck and a “Rebel” Confederate flag flutters in the background. With a shovel in his right hand, a Black soldier uses his left to pat a Japanese civilian on the shoulder while telling him, “I know just how you’re going to feel, Bub!” On the right is an image of a White man holding a shotgun and lynch rope instead of a standard military rifle. This depiction of the White male may be described in 2016 as stereotypical but in 1945 it could be considered realistic.
The Nobel Laureate and the President
Flipping the calendar forward to 2016 and 2017, we see developing a kind of racialized narrative that is both similar to and different from the brand of racism exported during the last century. Ironically, African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison helped many to familiarize themselves with the concept of monetized racism while discussing the subject with Stephen Colbert on his show November 19, 2014. In response to Colbert’s question about whether dwelling on thoughts of racism made him a racist, Morrison responded:
“Perhaps but more important than that, is there is no such thing as race. Not really. …Scientifically, anthropologically, racism is a construct, a social construct, and it has benefits. Money can be made off of it. And people who don't like themselves can feel better because of it.” (Morrison, The Colbert Show)
After Mr. Trump won the U.S. presidential race, New Yorker magazine published an essay by Ms. Morrison in which she stated this:
“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” (Morrison, Mourning for Whiteness, Nov 21, 2016).
A heavy emphasis on fear associated with “the other” has always been present in campaigns supporting demagogue-like figures. However, many observers have suggested that much of the strategy Breitbart implemented on Trump’s behalf was nothing more, or less, than part of a tsunami wave of political backlash washing over one country after another. If that truly is the case, one would think there’s no real need to export racism as a commodity made in America. But it appears demands for fine-tuning local models of it do exist.
Although Austria’s Norbert Hofer of the nationalist and anti-immigration Freedom Party lost his inspired bid to duplicate Donald Trump’s success, more extreme-right-leaning Europeans are lining up to take their shot at top leadership positions and a key part of Breitbart’s mission is to be of service to their radicalized political vision. The Jobbik party in Hungary, Italy’s Northern League, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, France’s National Front, and The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom all, among others, depend heavily on xenophobic pronouncements to promote among potential followers a sense of empowerment and unity based on shared identity.
Certainly, the president-elect’s victory was every bit as stunning as England’s exit from the European Union. But Brexit was quickly followed by We-Regrets-It and determining the wisdom or non-wisdom of Great Britain’s choice is an ongoing drama bound to play out for years.
The danger of duplicating a strategy based on right-wing extremism and packaging it for distribution to various countries may be that too much subtext gets lost in translation. Particularly important, but seemingly overlooked, might be the long-term impact of placing a greater emphasis on profits than on ethics or effective governance. Also vital is the question of what values are being communicated and transferred, not necessarily demonstrated, when an organization commits itself to sustaining and promoting practices long considered among the most reprehensible in which humanity can engage?
It would be great if one could ask the question, “Why endeavor to export racism when it is possible to gift the world more healing alternatives?" without the query being rhetorical. Maybe we should act as if it is not and start coming up with some serious answers.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of original nonfiction narratives about race relations, the cultural arts, history, and diversity in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. Follow on Twitter @Aberjhani
Known facts are not always representative of unknown truths. Does that mean they should be ignored? Not at all. It does, however, indicate a need to exercise caution when speaking or writing as if only a single interpretation of documented events in an individual’s life is possible.
Take the example of a recent Wikipedia article on “Common Misconceptions,” in which the author was kind and erudite enough to offer the following:
“African American intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois did not renounce his U.S. citizenship while living in Ghana shortly before his death, * as is often claimed. *** In early 1963, due to his membership in the Communist Party and support for the Soviet Union, the U.S. State Department did not renew his passport while he was already in Ghana overseeing the creation of the Encyclopedia Africana. After leaving the embassy, he stated his intention to renounce his citizenship in protest. But while he took Ghanaian citizenship, he never went through the process of renouncing his American citizenship, * and may not even have intended to.*”
Anything which helps prompt discussions about the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance is worthwhile and the above passage accomplishes that. This account corresponds with the one offered by David Levering Lewis’s in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Fight for Equality and The American Century, 1919-1963, part two of his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on the great leader and humanitarian (Lewis, pp.567-570). The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance is presented as one of the texts in which the “misconception” regarding Du Bois’s actions and intentions occurs.
The word renounce, it may be argued, need not include the stipulation of a formal declaration. Nonetheless, it is true that as far as we know the ailing 95-year-old Du Bois did not get around to going through a formal process of declaring and documenting the renunciation of his U.S. citizenship. What no one, including the author of this blog, can ever know is how many times he likely renounced it in his heart while waiting an entire lifetime to see if African Americans would ever be accepted by White Americans as equal citizens with equal rights in his homeland.
He died knowing it had never happened because at the time of his death, even though President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9808 had been signed in 1946 to outlaw lynching, Whites who were so-inclined could still get away with hanging, burning, shooting, or bombing African Americans at will and not suffer any legal repercussions for it. His own status as a renowned educator and political advocate had largely insulated Dr. Du Bois from such direct physical threats but their extended implications were far from lost on him. Moreover, some might contend that the U.S. Government’s refusal to renew his passport and block access to the medical treatment he needed so desperately was a kind of lynching.
Freedom and Dignity
Other events––big powerful important ones like the forced integration of the U.S. military in 1948, and organization of the March on Washington that would take place one day after his death––were already making definitive marks on history. But not the political, social, or ethical transformation that would confirm and secure the simple validity of Black People’s fundamental humanity. There were also activities throughout his adult life, particularly via his intellectual camaraderie with educators, social theorists, and political leaders across the globe, as well as his support of several Pan-African Congresses, where it was evident enough that he lived as a citizen of the world rather than as one of a single country.
It was and is more than a matter of semantics. Documented accounts are not necessarily known certainties and their meanings are as subject to interpretation as anything which has not been experienced or witnessed first-hand. At the core of the issue was a matter of reality when it came to how much a man or woman could claim to be a citizen in the first place if in fact his or her life could be erased on a whim solely because of the color of their skin. And at the heart of that reality for W.E.B. Du Bois was the battle to live, and eventually die, with as much freedom and dignity as possible. Ultimately, that battle ended in Ghana, Africa.
© September 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Luther E. Vann (1937-2016) was an artist born in the American southern city of Savannah, Georgia, but who enjoyed the benefits of learning his craft from artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Among his well-known instructors and mentors were Charles Alston and Romare Bearden. A number of indirect influences involved much more, including the music of jazz and various philosophical thinkers. Below is the second article in a 3-part series on Vann, creative inspiration, and histories of erasure. It is presented here in honor of the artist’s unique connection to the Harlem Renaissance and the amazing body of work produced over the course of full productive life:
In his introduction to section two of Luther E. Vann’s Elemental the Power of Illuminated Love, contributing writer Bill Dawers makes this statement:
“Even those already familiar with Luther’s work are likely to find the images collected here startling. (Doubly startling, I imagine, since so many of the works are still in the collection or the artist.) Certain thematic and structural elements are visible across the decades––the presence of the spirits, the grids, the convergence of multiple realities, the exploration of human interaction in public spaces.”
In the decades following his move back to Georgia, the month of May became one in which Vann’s life and career saw numerous milestones. It was May 1991, and again in 1994, that the city of Savannah’s Beach Institute hosted critically acclaimed exhibits by him. Although the historic Elemental show opened at the Jepson Center for the Arts in April 2008, the book launch occurred May 29.
Moreover, the legendary Barn Studio and Gallery show took place May 24, 2014. It would seem appropriate enough, then, to consider at this time the implications of the work that remains.
Visionary Artists and Thinkers
The synthesis of Vann’s cultural, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives within his paintings and sculpture––what Dawers referred as certain thematic and structural elements–– make him something of an anomaly in African-American art. He eschewed what could have been, for him, the easier path of producing––or, more accurately, re-producing–– popular images cast in a Southern motif.
He chose instead to make visual statements aligned with the observations of visionary artists and thinkers with whom he felt a kind of metaphysical kinship. Influences like Italy’s 15th-century Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, Spain’s 16th-century Renaissance painter El Greco, and African America’s 20th-century Harlem Renaissance talent Beauford Delaney probably would not surprise many people. Certain others might.
Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing
British author Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, was one of Vann’s favorite reads. He easily related to what it portrayed about a creative individual’s attempt to bring intellectual order to the fragmented landscape of her inner being by working with a collection of four notebooks to produce one definitive Golden Notebook. Those who might question such a link between Nobel Prize for Literature winner Lessing and Georgia Arts Festival winner Vann need only do two things: first read The Golden Notebook, and then study different images in Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love.
Just as Lessing’s character Anna Wulf drew on different aspects of her imploding biography to compose a more wholistic representation of herself, Vann fused personal spiritual meditations with more objective public observations to paint his evolving theories on humanity as “One.” This oneness was organic in the sense that our physical activities inevitably impact each other’s lives and our spiritual dispositions, or the lack of such, color the nature of our relationships.
The concept of conscious unity is important to the artist because these intertwining dynamics (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “an inescapable network of mutuality”) occur quite paradoxically within a universe that is actually a multiverse. While Doris Lessing’s novel may be described as an innovative work of feminist fiction, it contains numerous passages descriptive of experiences in Vann’s life and the place art occupied within it. Moreover, in Lessing’s introduction to the 1971 edition of the novel, she discusses how opposing characters reconcile their different perspectives:
“…They have also reflected each other, been aspects of each other, given birth to each other’s thoughts and behavior––are each other, form wholes. In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together, the divisions have broken down, there is formlessness with the end of fragmentation––the triumph of the second theme, which is that of unity...”
Lessing’s aesthetic declaration could be applied to many of Vann’s masterful works, such as “The Widow Remembers” or “For the Love of the Poet,” and prompt the viewer to discover how dominant and sub-narratives flow in and out of each other on their way toward wholeness. The freedom allowed by such a strategy could produce what Lessing referred to as “delicious intoxication” leading to “the recklessness of infinite possibility.”
For Luther E. Vann, Infinite possibility meant painting outside the lines of aesthetic and cultural assumptions. Even as he relished celebrating his adored African-American community on Millen Street in West Savannah, when it came to making some of his more profound statements either on canvas or off it, he reached so far beyond his earthbound surroundings that commentators often referred to him as a visionary.
Carl Jung and More Benevolent Consciousness
From the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s mapping of the human psyche the artist extracted an operational template which influenced the language he committed to paintings. You could say it helped him both to literally paint his place in the world at a given time, and to shape the purposes that defined his life as they unfolded throughout adulthood.
Jung’s teachings allowed him to view and embrace human beings beyond categories defined by racial, political, or social constructions. In Vann’s multiverse, whether lost in shadows or made radiant by grace, all living souls are on a mission to manifest and serve a self-contained, higher, and more benevolent, consciousness.
NEXT: The Jazz Factor: Chronicling legacies of black artists in Savannah (3 of 3)
Author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
An unidentified Black Man stands outside a tent in Tulsa’s previously-affluent Greenwood District. Following the 1921 riot many African American survivors were forced to live for months in tents and other makeshift accommodations. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Gregory E. Brown, Director of the Black Holocaust Society)
While New York City’s Harlem, which the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price referred to as “that most brilliantly lit terrain,” has been rightly celebrated as the focal point of the Harlem Renaissance, there were a number of other communities were African Africans managed to thrive during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s. One such community was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and June 2016 marks the 95th anniversary of its destruction.
The following excerpt from Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and the video from “MPortant Films” (with Tulsa Virtual Media Partners) show why the community was so exceptional why what happened there from May 30 to June 1, 1921, should never be forgotten:
“Prior to the massive waves of African Americans exiting the South to head North, many had been lured to the state of Oklahoma as early as the end of the 19th century in hopes of cashing in on its growing oil industry. By 1921, the state could boast the distinction of having more than two dozen towns populated and governed by blacks. Within Tulsa, approximately 15,000 African Americans made up the city’s district of Greenwood. Forced by segregation to rely upon their own means and resources, the citizens of the community became so successful that the district became known as ‘Black Wall Street.’
16 May, 2016
Kinamore: What purpose do you hope a book of this caliber will serve in the context of contemporary issues we face?
Aberjhani: Readers of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance should recognize that many of the issues identified in the 1920s and 1930s are still issues now. Racism is a reality today just as it was a reality back then. The question of the degree to which Blacks control their economic, political, social, and spiritual destinies around the world was relevant back then and is relevant now. The validity that society affords art and the value that society does or does not place upon the lives of creative artists working in any given medium was very much an issue during the renaissance and is very much an issue now.
Doubts and concerns regarding leadership were voiced back then and are concerns right now. I would therefore hope that Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance encourages people to, first of all, confront whatever issues they are facing in their lives with honesty and then to establish some form of public dialogue, if needed, regarding the issues. I would hope this book would inspire them to establish creative solutions to the various challenges in their lives.
Aberjhani (cont.): As much as we already know about the Harlem Renaissance, we are still discovering it and likely will be discovering it for some time. Names and events that were previously overlooked are surfacing every day. And it’s important for us to heed that fact because what W. E. B. Du Bois and Arthur [Arturo] Schomburg pointed out in the last century remains true; namely, that much of what we refer to as Black American history is, in fact, the history of the United States. With that in mind, this first edition of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance should be considered one step toward that greater discovery.
West: It is so important for our people to see, through books like the Encyclopedia, that history repeats itself but, as ever-evolving resourceful human beings, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to challenge and to change. It is also a delight to re-read and be able to re-enforce through this book, as Hughes wrote in his essay The Negro and the Racial Mountain, that “... we are beautiful and ugly too.” Honesty is empowering. One of the mandates of the New Negro Movement was to “uplift the race.” I know that the book does its job to uplift. I just hope, now, that the people who read it feel the power.
Complete List of Titles in the
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.