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
Address on 3 Poets of the Harlem Renaissance Delivered on the 72nd Anniversary of the Poetry Society of Georgia
The address presented below was delivered February 16, 1995, at Christ Church Parrish Hall in Savannah, Georgia, on the occasion of the 72nd Anniversary of the Poetry Society of Georgia by author-poet Aberjhani. In addition to its discussion of works by Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen, it is notable for its reference to what at the time was considered a second major African-American cultural “renaissance” surpassing the first: The images, with photographs by David Duncan, are from the Georgia Guardian, a now defunct weekly newspaper formerly published by the Savannah College of Art and Design:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would first of all like to say that I am extremely pleased and honored to present this evening’s program during a time as special as the society’s 72nd anniversary. Being here tonight, celebrating Afrocentric poetry and the society's 72nd anniversary on the same program certainly holds as much significance for me personally as it does for the Poetry society of Georgia Historically.
Too often, when we hear the phrase African-American poetry, we reflect in very singular terms upon that body of literature as if its sole qualification were the fact that it was written by an American black man or woman. In other words, we speak of such poetry as if the poet's color was the sole factor defining it, and, as if all African-American poets necessarily write from the same literary perspective.A
Suppose we take a moment to correct ourselves and recognize something very important. Those voices which make up the very rich canon of African- American poetry are, in fact, as diverse, distinct, and often universal as the very fertile culture from which they spring.
One of the most celebrated eras in African-American literary history is the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of creative forces that began in the mid-1920s and boomed throughout the 1930s and 1940s. And it should be noted that although the cultural phenomenon was centered primarily around the artistic pulse that was Harlem, New York, there were many branches extending to such cities as Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
Many of the names from that era are well-known to us: Jesse Redmon Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Claude McKay. Even a quick perusal of works by 3 of the poets just mentioned.––Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes-- would demonstrate the diverse nature of the poetic voice among black poets. And their differences are not only in personal style, but in such elements as theme, content, subject matter, rhythm, and structure.
When reading, for example, the works or Countee Cullen, one encounters a mind more concerned with the classic Greek concepts of such themes as truth and beauty. In the works of Langston Hughes, the concern is not only for afrocentric folk wisdom and humor, but also for the many musical sound patterns inherent in black speech. And Hughes, as a matter of fact, was so intent on capturing these patterns in his poetry that he traveled throughout the country largely to participate in conversation with different African Americans and record their language and stories. One such place was on the docks of our very own Savannah River, where he met with longshoremen and probably worked a day or 2 to earn some pocket money for the road.
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The Renaissance in 1995
When we come to the literary art of Jean Toomer, we meet a poet similar to Langston Hughes in his love for the flowing rhythms of the blues and black folks’ gospel, but quite different in his thematic approaches. Jean Toomer is a rarity among the black poets of his era because his poetic vision was not so much racial, political, or even social as it was mystical and cosmic in scope. His sense of African-American destiny was linked as much to an awareness of universal forces as it was to an awareness of historical change.
The same kind of diversity apparent in these 3 poets is also present in the literary voices of those who followed their lead in the decades afterwards. For the sake of time, I won't go into any detailed analyses of these poets' work but I will mention just a few. Among such individuals as Gwendolyn Brooks writing in the 1950s, Nikki Giovanni in the 1960s, and Audre Lorde and Ntozake Shange in later decades, up to the present, we again witness a variety of poetic styles, voices, and subject matter. The same can be said of writers such as Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Eugene B. Redmond.
In the October 10, 1994 edition of Time Magazine, the writer Jack E. White made public what many black poets were already stating in private. Namely, that we are presently enjoying the resurgence of a second black renaissance. [The headline on the cover reads, “Black Renaissance, African-American artists are truly free at last.”] Maya Angelou's inauguration poem is only one example. The fact that Rita dove has served twice as the nation's poet laureate is another and yet a third indicator is the Pulitzer Prize for poetry awarded to Yusef Komunyakaa.
In an article titled The Beauty of Black Art, Mr. White makes this observation: “Black artists are now embarked on one of the most astonishing outbursts of creativity in the nation's history. Never before -- not even during the legendary great Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or the bristling Black Arts Movement of the '60s -- have black artists produced so much first-rate writing, music, painting and dance.”
In the midst of this now official renaissance, there are many distinguished voices indeed, a number of which reside in Savannah and some of which we shall hear tonight. As with the past, the concerns, the rhythms and the temperaments expressed are unique to the poets themselves. Again, quoting Jack E White’s observance in time magazine, today’s black artist recognizes race as an element to be acknowledged and most assuredly treasured, but not one to which he or she must necessarily feel restricted. Our pens draw nourishment from many sources: Africa, Europe, Native America, Asia––the public world of our professional lives and the personal world of our spiritual selves.
So: with all due respect to the past, we now step happily forward into the present.
© February 1995
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.