Category: Racism

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1825-1911

I had the misfortune to read the remarks made by the current president at a luncheon in honor of Black History Month today.

In an attempt to scrub them from my brain, I thought I would share some information about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th-century African American writer. I wrote a chapter of my thesis for my  master’s degree on her serialized novel, Trial and Triumph (1888-1889), so I hope you will indulge me quoting myself at times.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1825 to a free black mother, Frances Ellen Watkins spent the years after her mother’s death with her uncle, William J. Watkins, a minister and abolitionist. Little is known about Watkins’s father; some have speculated that he was a white man. She received a first-class education at her uncle’s school and worked as a seamstress and in a bookstore before joining the faculty of a school for free African Americans in Ohio in 1850. After three years of teaching, Watkins left education to begin her life’s work as a speaker, poet and activist for the equality and advancement of African Americans. In 1860 she married Fenton Harper and retired from public life. They had a daughter, Mary. After Fenton’s death in 1864, Harper returned to her speaking and writing. She was a member of the Underground Railroad, and after emancipation traveled extensively in the South. She joined a number of organizations of both African Americans and women, continuing to speak until she was eighty years old. During the course of her life, Harper produced at least eight volumes of poetry, one short story, three serialized novels, one full-length novel and numerous articles. Harper dedicated her life to the advancement of her race; as Foster says, “To Harper, literature was not separate from life. Her writing was but one of the ways in which she sought to live her convictions and to work for the betterment of the world within which she lived and the people with whom she identified” (135). Her commitment to a number of social causes—temperance, suffrage, civil rights—comes across in all of her writing, forcing her readers to recognize the intent of her work to shape society.1

1 Maryemma Graham, “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 50: African American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance Ed. Trudier Harris, (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1986) 164-173.

Foster’s novel, Iola Leroy (1892), falls in the tragic mulatto genre: Iola, a mixed-race young woman, born free, who could “pass” as white, is sold into slavery after the death of her white father. Iola Leroy was one of the earliest novels written by an African American.

I chose the shorter, and earlier, Trial and Triumph for my study because the protagonist, a young African American woman named Annette, has aspirations of becoming a poet. I was interested in how 19th century women writers portrayed themselves — women writers — in their fiction.

In Trial and Triumph, Harper has her young poetess turn away from her writing to pursue “race work.”  Readers in the 19th century expected their literature not only to entertain, but also to uplift. There was supposed to be a moral purpose to the story. Harper embraced this trope and turned it to her purpose, using her writing to inspire pride, hope, and self-respect in her audience.

Noting that “The literature they read was mostly from the hands of white men who would paint them in any colors which suited their prejudices or predilections” (240), Harper shows her reading audience the importance of the text they hold—written by a black woman, a member of the traditionally voiceless—to the battle for social equality. By authoring their own texts, African Americans have the opportunity to shape the images displayed in popular culture.

Trial and Triumph is such an interesting text, for its blending of genre, for its African-izing of the common stereotypes of white women, and for its unflinchingly optimistic portrayal of the prospects of Black America.

Harper creates the character of Annette, who is both a poet and an activist, in part to argue that a race capable of contributing to the cultural tradition of its nation surely has the intellect to contribute to that nation’s political processes. Literature is concerned with the nature and state of humanity. It addresses moral, philosophical and political questions of human experience and examines the phenomenon of society. Harper’s work stands as testament to the humanity of her race and thus argues for the inclusion of African Americans, including African American women, in the political life of America.

It’s Going To Be a Rough Week

I’m struggling today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to come up with a plan of attack for surviving the week.

I admit my instinct is to hibernate, to put on a cozy sweater, brew a pot of coffee, and snuggle up with a book, ignoring the world outside.

That might be the healthiest thing to do, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.

The public schools have a holiday today, and I get a holiday from work. I have mixed feelings about this holiday. Yes, I agree completely that King deserves a holiday in his honor. Our country needs to pause every year (more than annually, but certainly not less) to remember the struggles of our own people for justice and equality. But I don’t agree with the way most of us observe the day, especially not the schools.

Private schools mostly have school today, and most of them devote the day,  or at least part of it, to special programming. My high school, back in the 1990s, devoted the day to learning about the teachings of MLK Jr. and talking about race. Today, many schools shy away from true discussion and instead devote the day to service. Again, I have nothing against teaching children that community service is noble, but I don’t think it’s the right use of the holiday.

I had one conversation with my 6-year-old about the day, asking what she knew and explaining why I felt it was important. I had hoped to show her some video, or read a book with her, or do something more than just one conversation, but life got in the way today.

I spent the day bouncing around the Internet, trying to consume important information: I read the history of the WEB Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, MA. I read a lot today about John Lewis. I picked at King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and turned on the video of his “I Have a Dream” speech. I read post after post on Facebook of my network struggling right along with me. Searching, searching, searching for a way to make sense of where we are today, in 2017. How did we get here?

I also spent time nursing a sick baby and playing games with an energetic first-grader. I cooked a pot pie. I took down the Christmas tree. I promoted the vigils I’m working on. I did laundry and dishes and still didn’t manage to get the dining room picked up.

I sat down to write, hoping the act would help me sort out the jumble of my head. Usually, it does. Usually, I can count on writing to make sense of my thoughts.

It doesn’t seem to have helped much.

I want to make a pledge to write every day this week. I think my brain is going to need it, even if I don’t figure it all out by the end of the post.

Maybe, at the very least, I’ll figure out a fitting way to spend my day on Friday.

This Is Where It Gets Hard

The Election was three weeks ago. Though I can’t really say the shock has worn off, life has continued. There was a fundraising dinner, Thanksgiving, a stomach bug. Deadlines loom at work, Christmas shopping hangs over us, and there are always bills to pay. Life keeps marching.

It is so hard to keep up momentum. It is so hard to process all the news stories. I am still living in a state of hyper-vigilance, made more acute by being trapped under a vomiting baby with nothing to do but scroll Facebook. And I. Am. Tired.

But this is the hump time. This is when I have to push really hard to get over inertia. Because my standard has been existence for a while now. Work, care for children, enrich as able, care for dwelling, nurture family relationships, sleep, repeat. And that’s just not enough. There is so much that needs to be done.

In the battle against inertia, I offer the following:

Hillbilly Ethnography by John Thomason

Thomason offers a review of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, which has been getting a lot of press lately because it offers a glimpse into the demographic that is being blamed for Trump’s election.

According to The New York Times’s review of the book (I have not yet read the book, but I am leaving it on my to-read list), Vance offers a glimpse into the “white underclass” that he rose out of, and ultimately decides that, while they have the deck stacked against them, their misfortune is largely their own doing. He is a conservative, and as such, believes that hard work and determination are the answer. After all, he got out and went to Yale, so anyone can do it.

The book is so appealing to the so-called liberal elite who were blind-sided by Trump because it explains the pain of the white working poor. Many are calling for more understanding of this group, for the rest of the nation to listen harder to their troubles.

And then there are those who, like Thomason, point out that this group is, in fact, deeply racist, whether they intend to be or not, and that needs to be named and dealt with.

Aside: Calling a large group of people racist is always problematic, but in America, it needs to be placed within the context of our racist society. An individual who is also white and working poor may not intentionally discriminate against a person of a different race, but still plays a role in supporting the racist institutions in our country. One example of that is voting for a candidate who claims he will “Make America Great Again” by invoking images of the past when whites ruled the country and minorities were rarely acknowledged. The white Trump voter has the ability to ignore the very real racial divisions that vision of America endorses. 

The major problem with Vance’s book, Thomason argues, is that the role of race and of the white nationalistic theories that support the world view of the hillbillies he is depicting, goes largely unexamined:

Vance’s view of Appalachian culture feels more opportunistic than sincerely white nationalistic. It allows him to portray Appalachian and Rust Belt poverty as an exceptional phenomenon, rather than a symptom of broader trends that could not be so easily ascribed to culture. As such, it conveniently justifies the existence of his book. This opportunism makes the book’s racial determinism all the more insidious: it makes it more palatable to audiences that might normally be on guard against explicit white nationalism.

I am still really struggling with these two opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, we’re never going to make any headway with the “white underclass” if we just keep telling them how racist and privileged they are. On the other hand, we’re never going to make any progress against racism if we don’t name it and talk about it.

I am still trying to figure out what the right approach is and what my responsibility to reach my fellow white Americans is.

Institutional Racism and Intersectionality: A Primer

There’s been some turmoil in the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group, a “secret” group of Hillary Clinton supporters that was born in the weeks before the election and ballooned to more than 3.5 million members as of this writing. While I think the group started out primarily female, it now includes Americans from every gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. It was inevitable that conflict would arise.

The post that has gotten a lot of attention (thank you, Husband, for drawing my attention to it), is one in which a Black woman calls out racism in the group and says she is leaving because she doesn’t feel welcome. The poster takes pains to point out that it is not bigotry or overt attacks that she has experienced, but rather the insidious, institutionalized racism that so permeates American culture.

The comments on this post–over 3,000 when I saw it earlier this evening; I’m not able to find it easily on the page right now–run the gamut from supportive to confused to hostile. There were some who begged the woman not to leave, but to “stay and teach us.” And there were comments from others pointing out that it is not the job of women of color to educate white women on what it’s like to be a woman of color.

This post is an attempt to help those white women who are genuinely confused about this woman’s experience and who do want to be educated. I hope, if you’re reading this, you will use the information here as a starting place. I hope this post gives you enough information to figure out what you don’t know, a place to begin your Google search, and that it will spark a desire to know more. And that what you learn here and in your future research will inform and influence your actions in our fight going forward.

To start off with, let’s take a look at what racism looks like in America.

First, let’s agree that America is a racist society. It’s in our soil, and we’ve been eating the fruits of that soil for generations. It’s in us, all of us, white and non-white alike. We eat racism, drink racism, breathe racism. It’s there, whether we want it or not. And we have to work really hard to get rid of it.

The first step to getting rid of it is to recognize and name it.

This next bit comes directly from the Racial Justice curriculum created by my colleague, the Rev. Da Vita McCallister, for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. You can read about her ministry here. In short, she is insightful, compassionate, and absolutely dedicated to eradicating racism. She is the one who taught me that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. She is the one who awakened the social justice spirit inside me.

Racism exists in four realms: Personal, Interpersonal, Institutional, and Cultural.

The first two are pretty easy to identify and are what most people think of when you say “racism.”

Personal Racism is the thoughts that exist only in your head. You may never admit to them, you may never utter them aloud, but they exist within you. Personal Racism is what you carry around with you every day: It’s thoughts like, “She doesn’t belong here;” “Why do they always have to make it about race?” “I don’t understand why they can’t just be more like us.”

Interpersonal Racism is the racism that exists between two or more people. This is where the insults, the discrimination, and the bigotry live. Interpersonal Racism is the graffiti of racial slurs sprayed on elementary schools, the taunting on the playground. You know Interpersonal Racism when you see it.

The next two realms can be harder to recognize, and they have been getting more attention in the national debate lately. This is what people have trouble with.

Institutional Racism is racism that is written into law and policy. It is the school-to-prison pipeline that leads to a prison population that is 61% Black or Latino compared to a general population that is 30% Black or Latino. PBS has an excellent fact sheet that explains the statistics. Institutional Racism is the company policy against dreadlocks. It is the difference in outcome when a white motorist is pulled over by police versus when a black motorist is pulled over. Institutional Racism sometimes doesn’t look like racism because it is embedded in the very laws that we rely on to structure our society.

If you don’t believe in Institutional Racism, start with examining the statistics linked above, and then look into statistics about who lives in the the “worst” parts of cities, who is most impacted by environmental disasters, who holds the most real estate. Institutional Racism is revealed in statistics.

Cultural Racism is easiest to see in the television and movies we consume. Black=bad and white=good. How often is the bad guy a person of color? How often is the one character of color in the show an amalgamation of every racial stereotype associated with the character’s ascribed race? These portrayals of race in media seep into our subconscious in the exact same way that the impossible beauty standards of supermodels do.

While Personal and Interpersonal Racism should  never be tolerated (and are what were espoused by our president-elect during the campaign), it is Institutional and Cultural Racism that are really sinking our country right now. And that is what the poster on Facebook was calling out.

(“Microagression” is another term to research. And if you are confused about “privilege,” which is another important term in this discussion, start with Peggy McIntosh’s seminal essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” written way back in 1989.)

Now that we understand some of the ways in which racism works in American society, let’s move on to the more complicated issue of intersectionality.

I dug out my Critical Lit anthology from grad school to brush up on this one.

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s fractured under the stress of unrecognized intersectionality. My frustration when I read comments on posts like the one I’m talking about stems from the fact that WE ALREADY HAD THIS CONVERSATION.

Intersectionality is the idea that different minority identifications interplay with one another. In this case, the first layer of minority is “woman.” Women are treated unequally in society, so they band together to work against the patriarchy.

But within this group of women are Black women (and Latina, Asian, Filipino, etc.). And the Black women find themselves marginalized within the Women’s Liberation movement. And when they speak up about it, they are dismissed by the white women who are running things. In the exact same way the white women are dismissed by the men running the patriarchy.

Add in another minority layer of “lesbian,” and just imagine what your experience is like.

So I pulled out Barbara Smith’s essay,  “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” written in 1977 criticizing the monoculture of the Second Wave Feminist Movement. 1977. These ideas are not new. But they are important enough to quote in blocks. I am using the the text found in The Critical Tradition: Classic Tests and Contemporary Trends, edited by David H. Richter, 1998, Bedford Books: Boston:

All segments of the literary world–whether establishment, progressive, Black, female, or lesbian–do not know, or at least act as if they do not know, that Black women writers and Black lesbian writers exist.

For whites, this specialized lack of knowledge is inextricably connected to their not knowing in any concrete or politically transforming way that Black women of any description dwell in this place. Black women’s existence, experience, and culture and the brutally complex systems of oppression which shape these are in the “real world” of white and/or male consciousness beneath consideration, invisible, unknown.

This invisibility, which goes beyond anything that either Black men or white women experience and tell about in their writing, is one reason it is so difficult for me to know where to start. It seems overwhelming to break such a massive silence. Even more numbing, however, is the realization that so many of the women who will read this have not yet noticed us missing either from their reading matter, their politics, or their lives.

This is why that Black woman wants to leave the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group. Still, almost 40 years after Smith wrote these words, the testimony of Black American women is dismissed, buried, and unheard. White women still do not even see Black women, and they don’t believe them when they report racism in what is supposed to be a progressive community. And this is why it is so disrespectful to ask the woman who was brave enough to name the racism to help educate us white women who have never experienced a single moment of racism.

A quick search seems to suggest the full text of Smith’s essay is not available online for free. JSTOR has it, if you have access to that. You can buy it at Amazon or, I’m sure, find it at a library (interlibrary loan is a thing, too). It’s worth reading in full.

This is just an introduction. There is so much more to read about how racism permeates our very existence in America. If you are confused about why Trump’s blatantly racist statements struck a chord in a large section of the voting population, start reading. Search out writings by people who don’t look like you, and listen to them. Believe them when they report a different experience from what you know. Share them with people who look like you; boost their signal. Don’t talk over them.

And then join in the fight.


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