African American Studies

Q&A with Lynden Harris, editor of Right Here, Right Now

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, an arts collective that collaborates with underrepresented communities to create performances, exhibits, and media that explore difficult social issues. Her new book Right Here, Right Now , part of the project Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice, collects the powerful, first-person stories of dozens of men on death rows across the country.

Right Here, Right Now is born out of the collective you founded, Hidden Voices, and, more specifically, out of the Hidden Voices project “Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice.” Can you talk about how the “Serving Life” project came to be?

One of the men living on death row read an article about us and gave it to the psychologist who oversaw programs. That psychologist, who was very insightful and therapeutically oriented, emailed me and asked if we would develop a project for the men. At the time we were in the final stages of a statewide project called None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. I said if he could wait six months, we would come develop a project with the men. And I invited him to one of the performances. 

Late that fall we met with six men and together worked through the “Hidden Voices Process,” the stakeholder collaboration model we’ve developed over the years. By the end of two sessions, we had a pretty good idea of the outcomes everyone wanted to see, the outputs we might create together, and the outreach—who needs to speak and who needs to listen?

All these years later, we are still working off that initial visioning. The most important outcome the men identified for the larger community was: “We want them to know we aren’t monsters.” And I think that reality becomes very clear once one reads these stories.

Other “Serving Life” initiatives have taken the form of live performances or visual art exhibitions. What do you hope will be the effect of circulating these stories in book form?

As part of every Hidden Voices project, we create a story cycle: a series of extremely short first-person monologues that bring the listener on a journey through the many perspectives surrounding a pressing social issue. These story cycles can be read aloud by any group of people, sitting in a circle in a classroom or a church or in a breakout at a conference. Each individual story offers a particular insight into the issue at hand; for the Right Here, Right Now story cycle, each story points to a lived experience with what we might label racism, family violence, hunger, failed educational policies, police misconduct, housing instability, and more. But the men who shared these stories don’t look at their experiences through this lens of conceptual labeling; for them, the stories are simply life as it is lived, whether funny or violent, sweet or troubling. 

A most insightful colleague, Jayne Ifekwunigwe, participated in a reading and asked if I’d ever thought of publishing the stories. Gisela Fosado, the Editorial Director at Duke Press, asked if I could find enough stories to fill a book. So, I combed through pieces men had written, recordings of meetups, notes from phone calls, stacks of letters. I planned to choose 100 stories, but then I settled on 99. That was a number that felt unfinished, and I wanted to leave the reader with the sense that there was yet another story waiting to be told. For me, that story is the story the families hope and pray for, the story of the day these men walk through the prison doors and return to their communities.  

By sharing the stories in book form, I hope the voices will reach into classrooms and book clubs, into church classes and civic discussions. I hope the stories will lend momentum to the growing movement toward abolishing the death penalty, ending life in prison without parole, and re-visioning so many of the inhumane policies and practices that prevent families and communities from healing from violence

You write, “Absent a specific image of the speaker, we more easily and viscerally allow the deeper truth of the story to penetrate.” These anonymous stories are particularly heartbreaking because they do become universalizable. In your story selection process what, if anything, had to be left out?

So many poignant, funny, and heart-breaking stories were left on the cutting room floor. I decided the best way to share these stories was to bring the reader on a chronological journey from infancy to execution, so the structure dictated the selection. I wanted to make sure each story was just that: a story, a personal experience, not an intellectual reflection on an issue, however passionately argued. I wanted to retain the original speaker’s “voice,” the feel of their authentic dialogue even if the story was only a few paragraphs excerpted from an hour-long conversation. I wanted the reader to feel this human being, his story, his palpable life.

Each story gives insight into a specific aspect of a much larger system and helps us understand how we create violence in our society, how we can heal the harm already caused by violence, and how we can disrupt the systems that perpetuate harm. Again, you could go back through each story and label it as “about” racism, or addiction, or under-resourced schools, or the lack of mental health facilities, and I did exactly that during the years of working with these stories. But those labels don’t offer the kinds of pathways toward embodied understanding that actual lived experiences do. Lived experience is intimate, authentic, specific. It invites us to enter another world, experience it as our own, and leave with a new, richer understanding. 

You describe both “Serving Life” and the specific narratives in Right Here, Right Now as a kind of call-and-response. The book is the call; the response is up to the reader. Have any responses to the “Serving Life” project stood out to you?

We wanted to create a dialogue between public audiences and these most hidden members of our communities. But at the time, there were no phones on death row; the men were only allowed one 15-minute phone call a year, in December. Family members would drive across the state to be in the room when that call came, just to hear their loved one’s voice. The only means of communication was writing letters. 

So, finding ways to connect was challenging, which is what led to the idea of a call and response. After every performance, every reading of the stories, and at each exhibit installation, we would ask the audience to write a response to the men. We would collect the letters, copy them, and send them back inside.  

Here is one comment that has stayed with me. There are many hundreds of others:

Gentlemen, thank you for your story, your vulnerability, your willingness to remind ignorant and selfish people like me how beautiful each and every life is. You have taught me so much with your words, and your legacy will stay with me for the rest of my life. Your stories transformed my understanding of prison, death row, and life. The power and witness of your stories have resonated in this room. . . . You are not invisible. I feel so honored to know your story, and I will never forget.

Society renders death row inmates invisible. But context provided in the Afterword by Timothy B. Tyson about very visible instances of systemic injustice and anti-racist protest in 2020 connects the lives of the storytellers directly to our moment. Has the shape of the “Serving Life” project changed at all as the contemporary moment casts new light on old problems? 

I don’t think society renders these speakers invisible. I think there’s an intentional misdirection of our attention away from these institutions and those who live there. That’s why outside access is so severely limited and facilities are typically placed far from the public eye. Out of sight and out of mind. It’s better if we don’t question the location and design of these facilities, the use of unpaid labor, the dangerous and overcrowded housing, the systemic injustices, the lack of decent legal representation, the reality of innocent people living inside, the children we’ve sentenced to die.  

It’s a form of misdirection, a pointing away from these unremittingly unhealthy and stressful environments—unhealthy not only for those living there, but for those working there. It’s no surprise that correctional officers have the shortest lifespan of any police. We have managed to create a system that damages the most damaged. As one friend said, “You can’t kill all the wounded people.” And yet, we seem to be trying.

So, this moment—right here, right now. It’s an incredible time for these voices and stories to be published. For the first time, in my life anyway, there is a broad willingness to consider and question our role as the only Western country that kills its own, to wonder whether we need to be #1 in the world in incarceration. The most common response I hear to these stories is, “I’ve never thought about this before.” Even people who drive by a prison every day will say they never wondered who was there and whether there was another, better option. Now, people are starting to wonder. I think the civil rights movements of 2019 and 2020 have been instrumental in forcing us to look directly at some of the realities that shape our justice system. And once we begin to see, we can’t unsee. But we can find our way to a new vision of actual justice and a more humane, compassionate, and healthy society. 

There is a conscious choice in Right Here, Right Now to privilege inmate voices rather than critical or scholarly analysis of the death penalty and the American carceral system. In the Hidden Voices model, building relationships with real people through honoring their stories is the first step. What might the next step entail?

Sharing these stories helps undermine our unhealthy “rush to judgment” as Jason Flom puts it. We seem to have two frameworks at play in our society, one that views these people as inherently broken, flawed and irredeemable—in other words expendable. But there’s also a radically different framework, a more experientially-based view, that understands humans, like all living organisms, can heal and grow. Indeed, must heal and grow to survive. Human beings are complex systems of constant change; change may be what we most fundamentally are. This framework believes we should put that natural flow to work for us.

We are innately creative, curious, and hard-wired to explore. Trying to shut down those innate impulses is an unwinnable strategy. We need to look for ways to increase and strengthen healing and growth by supporting relationships—between families and their loved ones, between those living inside, between those of us on the outside and those currently living behind bars. We need to increase opportunities for emotional healing, for learning and exploration. There are other carceral systems where correctional officers serve as mentors to prisoners; they eat together, recreate together; work on life goals together. There are systems where prisoners (including those who have been convicted of murder) live together in group housing and learn new ways of relating to their environment, their families, their own self-care. Even here in the US, some of the most successful programs for men living inside prison have been programs where the men tend other living creatures, from training service dogs to rehabbing horses to gardening. In other words, we need to ask how our natural tendency toward growth, healing, and change can be allowed to flourish and thereby strengthen all our communities.  

Because, isolating people into prisons doesn’t just affect those who live and work there—it affects their children, parents, grandparents and grandchildren, their neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, the health of community economies, and on and on. Keeping such an unhealthy, stressful, damaging system alive costs us all.

Now through May 7, 2021 you can get 50% off Right Here, Right Now and all our in-stock titles with coupon SPRING21. After May 7, you can save 30% off the paperback with the coupon E21HARRIS.

Welcoming liquid blackness to Duke University Press

We are excited to announce that “liquidity,” the first issue of the open-access journal liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies published by Duke University Press, is now available. Start reading “liquidity” here.

In this inaugural Duke University Press issue—the first of three on the journal’s foundational concepts of “liquidity,” “blackness,” and “aesthetics”—leading voices in Black studies and beyond reflect on the conceptual and practical possibilities and shortcomings of Black liquidity. Conceived as a musical ensemble and framed by a lyrical history of the liquid blackness research group’s method, practice, and praxis, the issue gathers the work of theorists and practitioners spanning different modes of intellectual inquiry and champions experimentalism as a theoretical and artistic practice. In doing so, the issue unflinchingly addresses the entanglement between race, capital, and the constitution of the modern subject as well as the jurisgenerativity of liquid aesthetic practices and their unruly archives—all within the context of what Toni Morrison described as the liquidity of the Black arts.

liquid blackness, edited by Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer, seeks to carve out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways, with the goal of attending to the aesthetic work of Blackness and the political work of form. In this way, the journal develops innovative approaches to address points of convergence between the exigencies of Black life and the many slippery ways in which Blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture. The journal showcases a variety of scholarly modes, including audio-visual work and experimental and traditional essays. It aims to explore who can do theory (scholars, artists, activists, individuals, and ensembles), how theory can be done (in image, writing, archiving, curating, social activism), and what a Black aesthetic object is (“high”/“low” art, sound and image, practice and praxis).

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New Books in May

As you finish up the semester, considering rewarding yourself with new books! Here’s what we have coming out in May.

songbooks In Songbooks, veteran music critic and popular music scholar Eric Weisbard offers a critical guide to American popular music writing, from William Billings’s 1770 New-England-Psalm-Singer to Jay-Z’s 2010 memoir Decoded.

In Black Bodies, White Gold, Anna Arabindan-Kesson examines how cotton became a subject for nineteenth-century art by tracing the symbolic and material correlations between cotton and Black people in British and American visual culture.

Pollution is Colonialism Max Liboiron models an anticolonial scientific practice in Pollution Is Colonialism, aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.

The Genealogical Imagination by Michael Jackson juxtaposes ethnographic and imaginative writing to explore intergenerational trauma and temporality, showing how genealogy becomes a powerful model for understanding our experience of being in the world.

Editor Lisa Björkman and contributors to Bombay Brokers provide thirty-six character profiles of men and women whose knowledge and labor—which is often seen as morally suspect—are essential for navigating everyday life in Bombay, one of the world’s most complex, dynamic, and populous cities.

Christopher Tounsel investigates the centrality of Christian worldviews to the ideological construction of South Sudan from the early twentieth century to the present in Chosen Peoples.

Brian Russell Roberts dispels continental-centric US national mythologies in Borderwaters to advance an alternative image of the United States as an archipelagic nation to better reflect its claims to archipelagoes in the Pacific and Caribbean.

Palestine is throwing a party Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited by Kareem Rabie examines how Palestine’s desire to fully integrate its economy into global markets through large-scale investment projects represented a shift away from political state building with the hope that a thriving economy would lead to a free and functioning Palestinian state.

Liz P. Y. Chee complicates understandings of Chinese medicine as timeless and unchanging in Mao’s Bestiary by historicizing the expansion of animal-based medicines in the social and political environment of early Communist China.

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Poem of the Week

Our Poem of the Week is by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and is excerpted from the “Archive of Fire” section of M Archive. It reminds us of the importance of community and ceremony, and of being meaningfully, intentionally together. Thanks for tuning in to our final National Poetry Month feature! All our in-stock poetry titles are 50% off through May 7 with coupon SPRING21.

 

Gumbs_cover_front

they looked each other in the eyes every time and did not leave each

other without singing a prayer: the name or the wish. they learned to

add touching hands into the ritual, a tradition newly sacred after the

memory of the epidemic.

and of course none of that would have been possible if they didn’t

remember to look themselves in the eye every morning. or to chant

the name of the prayer. or to track their dreams for keeping and

sharing.

there is a sacredness to every day. every time.

it means again and again. it means all of us. it means this moment.

this time. you and me. we’re here.

which was something they would never again take for granted.*

* disciplined freedom capable of renovating the collective terms of our
engagement
. M. Jacqui Alexander, “Pedagogies of the Sacred,” Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 329.

 
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a poet, independent scholar, and activist. She is also the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, and Dub: Finding Ceremony, both also published by Duke University Press; coeditor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines; and the founder and director of Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, an educational program based in Durham, North Carolina.

Poem of the Week

Our Poem of the Week is by Fahima Ife. It is an excerpt from “porous aftermath,” the center poem in their forthcoming book Maroon Choreography, which is out in August.

|Maroon Choreography

 

insofar as sound is air they are
______ blue-black moaning using
_____________gut as flute

 

{ city tongue } mother tongue { movement tree }
_______first imagined in as
_____________belly of

 

a ship in as :: cello :: of a tree
_______or human marketplace
_____________as fusain

 

grapheme fades { quiet crescendo }
_______it’s the touch of the out-
_____________side that hails

 

them { insofar as frequency is
_______oracle } they are mu
______________or fuchsia

 

fusarium apparatus
_______fertile fermentation
______________feral dream

Fahima Ife is Assistant Professor of English at Louisiana State University. Check back here next Tuesday for our final poetry month feature.

Q&A with Thomas Aiello, Author of The Life and Times of Louis Lomax

Thomas_Aiello_4

Thomas Aiello is Associate Professor of History at Valdosta State University and the author of many books, including Jim Crow’s Last Stand and The Grapevine of the Black South. His new book is The Life and Times of Louis Lomax: The Art of Deliberate Disunity, which traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure Louis Lomax, who became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur. 

David L. Chappell has called your book a “thrilling adventure story,” in addition to a “great intellectual biography.” How do you merge these two genres? That is, how do you work to craft a biography that is stylistically enjoyable for the reader?

It certainly helps to have a subject who lived an interesting life. Louis Lomax was a public intellectual, but also a media personality hungry for fame, a criminal, a crusading advocate for civil rights, and someone who lied consistently about his past. His life was itself an adventure, making telling an enjoyable story about it far easier. It is rare that a public intellectual like Lomax would become involved in the kinds of pursuits in which he was engaged. The most interesting part of his story is not evaluating his ideas, though the book certainly does that, but in figuring out why he thought what he thought and did what he did. It is ultimately that “why” question that combines the adventure story with the intellectual biography. Lomax’s thought and his strategy for relaying it to the public was shaped by his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South, of lying about his college career, of his conviction for car theft and fraud, of his hustling journalism efforts, and of his desire for the limelight. Melding those stories with the ideas such experiences created is what merges the genres and makes the story enjoyable.

Why has Lomax been left out of the civil rights narrative of the 1960s? What are the stakes of incorporating him into that narrative?

Lomax has largely been given short shrift in discussions of civil rights because most of the era’s well-known figures staked out a position and defended it in the public sphere. Lomax’s position, however, was in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to pin down where he stood on various issues at various times without a full-length study like this one. Also, he was never part of a specific rights organization. He was a media personality that sometimes worked behind the scenes to help various causes and at other times worked to publicize them through his writing and his television and radio program.

When he does appear in civil rights narratives, then, he does so tangentially, because without a full understanding of his life, his influence, and his changing positions, it is difficult for most civil rights historians to pin down exactly where he fits. Hopefully this book can change that. Hopefully it demonstrates how important Lomax was to the trajectory of the movement. The stakes of that addition are significant because civil rights groups, whether the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other group in between them on the ideological spectrum, could have no substantial influence without the media. Lomax’s access to public platforms gave him the ability to publicize messages he cared about, to give louder voice to those he deemed worthy. In the process, he served as a (sometimes unreliable) gatekeeper for the messages of civil rights advocacy. Both as a thinker who helped develop the messages presented by advocates and as a vehicle to popularize those messages, Lomax was vital to the development of civil rights in the 1960s.

Can you summarize “the art of deliberate disunity,” as Lomax preached it? What might it have to offer our current political moment?

“The art of deliberate disunity” is a phrase coined by Lomax in a 1963 speech. He made the case that “only through diversity of opinion can we establish the basic prerequisite for the democratic process.” He criticized the idea that all civil rights victories were made equal, and that there was one right answer to the problem of Black equality in the United States. He saw as healthy the differences of opinion between, for example, his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Such disputes spurred innovation, which only benefited the movement writ large. If civil rights advocates only thought in a bifurcated way about “what we think” and about “what white people think,” the diversity of Black thought  would get reduced to a lowest common denominator. By cultivating good faith debates among Black leaders, the art of deliberate disunity better respected the variety of Black opinions and demonstrated a version of democracy among a group seeking democracy from those in power. If we force everyone into a monolithic way of thinking, he argued, we are no better than white leaders.

It is an idea that does potentially have something to offer our current political moment, wherein warring factions are divided into separate camps, never the twain shall meet. Lomax, were he still around, would argue that the bigotry of the right and the push for ideological orthodoxy on the left create similar problems. The modern civil rights movement, Lomax would argue, needs to foster more internal debates about strategy and about goals. Such is not a weakness, but a democratic benefit that serves as a driver of creative growth.

In your account, Lomax has made a lasting impact both in terms of his contributions to Black journalism and his resistance against global colonialism. How exactly have these two projects benefitted from his influence, and how could they continue to benefit from readers’ increased knowledge of his life?

Lomax was able to move his journalism from his early work with the Black press to a more mainstream profile, publishing with white newspapers and publishers, becoming the first Black host of a news/talk television program, and developing a series of radio shows. His influence in that realm is vital, as so many mainstream journalists, television and radio hosts all benefit from his pioneering work. His success on The Louis Lomax Show, for example, was the country’s first demonstration that a news/talk program hosted by a Black man could be financially viable, removing that potential stigma and opening up that space to more journalists of color.

A similar claim could be made about his anticolonialism advocacy. While Lomax was in no way the first leader to argue against Western hegemony on the global stage, his popular comparisons between colonialism abroad and civil rights abuses at home brought such concerns to a popular audience. Much commentary in that regard came from the far Left, from voices that mainstream (and predominantly white) audiences never heard. But Lomax’s voice was able to make that case to a wider audience. Many others made similar arguments in the years after Lomax’s death, and of course colonialism has not disappeared, but Lomax’s advocacy was the first mainstream comparison of foreign colonialism and domestic racism and among the first public expressions of concern about the tumultuous situations in Africa and Thailand, places often forgotten by American audiences obsessed with Vietnam.

Lomax, as you describe him, is a complicated figure. He was a trailblazing newsman with a sharp political mind; at the same time, he loved to be the center of media attention, and was accused of womanizing and spousal abuse. Is there a Lomax figure living today who matches this combination of laudable attributes and personal flaws?

There is certainly no one today with the same basic profile as Lomax. The background check process would simply eliminate him from consideration for those kinds of jobs. There are, however, many with profiles that retain elements of Lomax’s trailblazing career. The Breakfast Club, for example, have been able to maintain a popular, mainstream radio program that relates news and serves as a hub of racial advocacy. Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy have been able to find a space in the media landscape where they are both media reporters and media creators, chroniclers of advocacy and advocates themselves. On the other side of the political spectrum, pseudo-journalists like Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh have used entertainment platforms to help guide policy and governing theory for their own side, usually in the cause of the very bigotry that people like Lomax sought to eliminate. Then there are broadcasters like Brian Williams, who was caught lying about a variety of stories,  but has been able to make a comeback and continue his career despite that scandal. These are approximations, of course. Lomax’s profile simply could not exist today. His infidelity is probably still very common among news reporters and political theorists, but spousal abuse, lying about academic credentials, and his largely hidden prison record are not the kinds of things that could be covered in modern society.

Religion seems to have played a significant role in Lomax’s life and work. He was the son of a Christian preacher, a friend of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and accused by some of antisemitism. What can we learn from this confluence of religious affiliation and political movements?

Lomax saw religion as a means to an end. His upbringing was one of strict religious zeal, raised by preachers in the deepest of the Deep South. But his stories about his childhood emphasize religion’s value to people’s lives rather than its inherent truth. The same could be said about his feelings toward the Nation of Islam. He saw the group’s power not in its religious principles but in its political messaging. The religion itself was simply a vehicle for its larger aims, and when that religion got in the way, as when Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had a falling out, it was ultimately expendable. His supposed antisemitism, too, was less the result of any disagreement with Judaic thinking or belief. It was instead rooted in politics, a concern about the role of high finance in the plight of Black impoverishment. Thus it was that religion was invariably important to Lomax. It was always present in his life. He himself experimented with preaching for a time after he moved to Washington, DC. At the same time, however, religion was a pragmatic presence, there to be marshalled when necessary to make various arguments and influence the proper people.

That confluence of religious affiliation and political movements is also common today. While there are several leaders today whose faith is at the heart of their activism (Reverend William Barber seems to be the most high-profile example), the vast majority of people use their opinions about religion to justify their political beliefs, not the other way around. Lomax wasn’t necessarily allowing his politics to direct his faith, but he was using that faith to selectively influence those to whom he wanted to speak. And he supported that strategy in others like the Nation of Islam.

Read the introduction to The Life and Times of Louis Lomax and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21AELLO.

New Books in April

Check out the great new titles we have coming out in April!

Right Here Right NowIn Right Here, Right Now, Lynden Harris collects the powerful first-person stories of dozens of men who are living on death row in the United States, offering a glimpse into the lives of some of the most marginalized people in America. Watch the trailer.

Rafico Ruiz uses the Grenfell Mission in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to theorize how settler colonialism establishes itself through the building, maintenance, and mediation of site-specific infrastructure in Slow Disturbance.

Analyzing a range of Chicano/a and Native American novels, films, short stories and other cultural artifacts from the eighteenth century to the present, Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita in Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest examine literary representations of settler colonial land enclosure and dispossession in the US Southwest.

Hentyle Yapp analyzes contemporary Chinese art as it circulates on the global art market to outline the limitations of the predominant narratives that currently frame understandings of non-Western art in Minor China. Join an online book launch for Minor China on April 15.

We are excited to be bringing out two new volumes in the Stuart Hall: Selected Writings series. Selected Writings on Marxism, edited by Gregor McLennan, collects Stuart Hall’s key writings on Marxism surveys the formative questions central to his interpretations of and investments in Marxist theory and practice.

Race and DifferenceAnd in Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Paul Gilroy gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora.

The contributors to Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging, edited by Leerom Medovoi and Elizabeth Bentley, examine how the new political worlds that are emerging—from Trump’s America to the post-Arab-Spring Middle East—intersect with locally specific articulations of religion and secularism.

Todne Thomas explores the internal dynamics of community life among black evangelicals and the ways they create spiritual relationships through the practice of Kincraft—the construction of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, partners in prayer, and spiritual mothers, fathers, and children.

Edited and translated by Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz, Operation Valhalla collects eighteen texts by German media theorist Friedrich Kittler on the close connections between war and media technology.

Eating in TheoryAnnmarie Mol reassess notions of human being and becoming by thinking through the activity of eating, showing how eating is a lively practice bound up with our identities, actions, politics, and senses of belonging in the world in Eating in Theory.

Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu examines the legacies of the Vietnam War on contemporary ideas about race and beauty, in Experiments in Skin, showing how US wartime efforts to alleviate the environmental and chemical risks to soldiers’ skin has impacted how contemporary Vietnamese women use pharmaceutical cosmetics to repair the damage from the war’s lingering toxicity.

The Long EmancipationRinaldo Walcott posits that Black people globally live in the time of emancipation and that emancipation is definitely not freedom in The Long Emancipation, showing that wherever Black people have been emancipated from slavery and colonization, a potential freedom became thwarted.

Drawing on Black feminism, Afro-pessimism, and critical race theory, the contributors to Antiblackness, Moon-Kie Jung and João H. Costa-Vargas,trace the forms of antiblackness across time and space, showing how the dehumanization of Black people has been foundational to the establishment of modernity.

Thomas Aiello traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure in The Life and Times of Louis Lomax. Lomax became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur.

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Black History Month Reads

February is Black History Month! To celebrate we are sharing some of our recent books and journals that explore this essential field.

In Emancipation’s Daughters, Riché Richardson examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.

In Point of Reckoning, Theodore D. Segal narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face. Segal has two online events for Black History Month: catch him at a talk sponsored by Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies this Thursday, February 10, and at an event sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association on February 24.

Brigitte Fielder’s Relative Races presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.

Brandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War outlines the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation in Claiming Union Widowhood.

Powers of Dignity by Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.

In A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present, outlining the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy.

Painter, photographer, and cofounder of AFRICOBRA Wadsworth A. Jarrell tells the definitive history of the group’s creation, history, and artistic and political principles and the ways it captured the rhythmic dynamism of black culture and social life to create uplifting art for all black people in AFRICOBRA.

In Universal Tonality, jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker, who for fifty years has been a monumental figure in free jazz. Join Bradley, Parker, our own Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker, and Anthony Reed for a special live online event on Friday, February 19.

Maureen Mahon documents the major contributions African American women vocalists have made to rock and roll throughout its history in Black Diamond Queens. These women include Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton. Catch Mahon, along with Daphne Brooks, at an online Black History Month event about Black women in rock, sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on February 22.

Infamous Bodies by Samantha Pinto explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.

Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” a special issue of Radical History Review edited by Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim, and A. Naomi Paik, helps us imagine a world without police by examining historical cases in which people resolved social problems and maintained social peace through means other than relying on formal institutions of law enforcement.

And check out our Racial Justice Syllabus, one of several staff-curated syllabi focusing on today’s most critical issues.

Q&A with Theodore D. Segal, Author of Point of Reckoning

 

Photo of Theodore D. Segal

Photo by Eli Turner

Theodore D. Segal is a lawyer and member of the board of directors for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke in 1977. His new book is Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University which narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face.

You were a corporate lawyer for many years and then turned to writing. Why did you write this book in particular?

I wanted to understand how we ended up here. How is it possible that 50 years after the end of the tumultuous Sixties, our schools, workplaces, and society continue to grapple with so many of the same issues of race and racism that were the focus of activism years ago. I believed that by looking closely at the years immediately following desegregation at Duke, I could expose the entrenched attitudes and narrow, reflexive responses to desegregation that sparked protest and served to stifle racial change at the university. 

Point of ReckoningThis was happening at universities across the country, why Duke?

I was a student at Duke in the 1970s and had the opportunity to study Black and white student activism at the school in the Sixties. More broadly, Duke is an ideal setting to study the racial issues that are the focus of my book. Called “the plantation” by many Black workers, members of the Durham Black community, and students, Duke has a long history of segregation and racial exclusion. The school is among a group of prominent southern historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) that desegregated only when forced to do so in the early Sixties. In the late Sixties, Duke had significant white and Black student protests only ten months apart. This juxtaposition provides a unique opportunity to examine how racial attitudes informed the ways that white trustees, administrators, and faculty perceived, and responded to, white and Black student protest.  

Why do you consider the arrival of Black students at Duke a “historic encounter”?

The arrival of Black students marked a profound change for Duke and other HWCUs. For decades, Jim Crow and segregation had defined the organization and daily operations of these schools. Desegregation created immense challenges for all parties. White administrators, faculty, and students, most of whom had never interacted with a Black person other than in a service capacity, were forced to learn—for the first time—how to relate to Black students. Likewise, Black students, the vast majority of whom had never interacted with white individuals as equals, faced their own challenge: how to deal with white administrators and faculty, and white students as peers. How would they live and work together at Duke? Under Jim Crow, the academic and social opportunities offered by Duke were for whites only. The “Duke Experience” was a training ground for advancement in white America. Theoretically at least, desegregation meant that Black students now would have the chance to share in these opportunities. But how that worked depended on whether Duke was prepared to invest the political capital, as well as the economic and human resources, necessary for Black students to realize their full potential. How Duke administrators and professors and the Black students responded to one another in this initial encounter set the pattern for race relations at the university for decades to come. 

How did the University prepare for the arrival of Black students?

Duke did little to prepare itself for the challenges desegregation would present. The university did not study the experience of other schools that had recently desegregated. Duke made no changes to anticipate or address Black students’ distinctive cultural, academic, and social needs. It did not monitor how the new Black students were managing and what challenges they were facing. Administrators and faculty made only modest attempts to get to know the Black students personally once on campus. As one administrator described, Duke looked at desegregation “from a white perspective.” The chance to attend Duke was seen as a great opportunity for the new Black students, and school leaders believed that the Black students would adjust to campus life through what one described as a natural kind of “amalgamation.” The Duke president in the Sixties commented later that, in essence, the university said to these students, “come in, be white.” This is not what these students wanted or needed.

How did Black students experience Duke during the early years of desegregation?

Duke’s first classes of Black students grew up, for the most part, in protective, segregated Black communities in the South where family, school, and church worked in concert to foster achievement and self-respect. Arriving in the midst of Duke’s “sea of white” was, according to one Black student, “almost as complete a shock as you can encounter.” Highly accomplished and initially “grateful” for the chance to attend Duke, almost all of the school’s Black students encountered racism: academic deans who assumed the students were weak academically; discriminatory grading (especially in writing courses); physical and verbal intimidation; hostility from campus security; racist symbols such as display of the Confederate Flag and the singing of Dixie at athletic events; exclusionary fraternity and sorority admissions policies; and offensive comments in the dorm. In addition, some Jim Crow policies and practices remained in place at Duke even after desegregation. These experiences, coupled with the small number of Black students on campus, led to profound feelings of loneliness and isolation.

 You write that the Black students who came to Duke in the early years following desegregation were the “good kids” in their communities whose families, churches, and schools raised them to be high-achieving “rule followers.” How did these young people become so deeply engaged in campus activism and direct protest?

Multiple factors converged to make this transformation possible. Loneliness and isolation prompted students to form the Afro American Society (AAS)—at first a social outlet that allowed Black students to get to know one another and remain in contact.  As AAS meetings were held, feelings of isolation ebbed and Black students became a very close—and very separate—community within Duke. Black students came to see that the university had failed totally to provide them with the academic, social and cultural resources necessary for them to thrive at Duke. With Black Power and Black campus activism emerging throughout the country, the students found a political and cultural framework for understanding their situation at Duke, as well as a protest strategy for addressing common concerns.

Duke had a large white student protest in April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by a takeover of Duke’s administration building by Black students in February 1969. How did the response of trustees, administrators, and faculty to these two protests differ?   

In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., over 250 predominantly white students marched in the rain to the home of the Duke president to present him with a list of four demands. The president invited them inside out of the weather and called them “guests” when they refused to leave. After 36 hours, the group moved to Duke’s main quadrangle. Over a four-day protest that came to be known as the “Silent Vigil,” over 1,500 protestors joined the sit-in. A simultaneous dining hall and class boycott, as well as a worker strike, effectively shut down the school. Still, trustees and administrators treated protestors with deference. After four days, the chairman of the board of trustees addressed the Silent Vigil (offering minimal concessions) and joined the group in singing “We Shall Overcome.”    

Ten months later, approximately 50 members of the Duke AAS occupied the registrar’s and bursar’s office on the first floor of Duke’s main administration building, presenting the university with a list of 10 demands. Within an hour, senior leaders decided that the protestors would be given one hour to vacate. If they failed to do so, they would be declared “trespassers” and the police would be summoned to campus to eject them, using force if necessary. Durham County and State Police assembled in Duke Gardens and were brought on to campus around 5:30 p.m. Although the Black students subsequently departed the administration building voluntarily, the police could not be withdrawn and a police riot on the main quadrangle ensued.

 How did university administrators resist change, even while claiming to support many of the issues and demands raised by the students?

Most fundamental was the belief that Black students should be grateful for the chance to attend Duke and that they should simply aspire to “fit in.” Among the arguments “progressive” administrators used to resist change was “gradualism” (change takes time),  pragmatism (donors will stop donating), and “reverse discrimination” (accommodations to address the distinctive needs of Black students represent discrimination against white people). Once activism emerged, students were seen as controlled by outside forces. Throughout, administrators insisted that change could only come through the “proper channels.” This meant dealing with a layered committee process unable to cut through red tape.

 What lessons are there today for students, faculty and others seeking racial change at HWCUs, and what lessons are there for administrators, trustees and faculty who profess support for these anti-racism efforts?     

Because of the persistence of historic racial attitudes, a multi-layered and decentralized decision-making process, reflexive deference to alumni and donors, and limited resources, it is exceedingly difficult for HWCUs to change from within. Systemic racial change is possible only where there is sustained external pressure and when leaders possess a moral commitment to racial justice and a willingness to reallocate resources to support new priorities. While each institution will need to find its own pathway to racial change, all will need to expend the same amount of time, energy, money and other finite resources that they currently deployed to address other “existential” objectives. Duke, like other schools, reinvented itself in a matter of weeks to face the Covid crisis. A similar level of focus and investment over a substantial period of time is needed to dismantle systemic racism at the school.

Read the introduction to Point of Reckoning for free and save 30% on the book using coupon code E21SEGAL.

New Books in February

Winter is a great time to curl up with a good book. In February we have notable titles in media studies, critical race studies, and more!

Universal Tonality Jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker in Universal Tonality, which documents fifty years of the monumental figure’s life in free jazz. Be sure to join us for a live online event featuring Bradley, Parker, Anthony Reed, and Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker on February 19.

Drawing on interviews with industry workers from MTV programs such as The Real World and Teen Mom, Amanda Ann Klein in Millennials Killed the Video Star examines the historical, cultural, and industrial factors leading to MTV’s shift away from music videos to reality programming in the early 2000s and 2010s.

Lauren Steimer’s Experts in Action examines how Hong Kong-influenced action movie aesthetics and stunt techniques have been taken up, imitated, and reinvented in other locations and production contexts around the globe.

Marina Peterson traces entanglements of environmental noise, atmosphere, sense, and matter that cohere in and through encounters with airport noise at Los Angeles International Airport since the 1960s, in Atmospheric Noise, showing how noise is central to how we know, feel, and think atmospherically.

Point of ReckoningTheodore D. Segal’s Point of Reckoning narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face. Catch Segal at two online events this month: on February 10, sponsored by the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, and on February 24, sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association.

Kevin Quashie in Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being analyzes texts by of Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Evie Shockley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others to argue for a black aliveness that is disarticulated from antiblackness and which provides the basis for the imagination and creation of a black world.

Throughout The Powers of Dignity Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.

Black UtopiasEngaging with the work of Black musicians, writers, and women mystics, Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias takes up the concept of utopia as an occasion to explore new states of being, doing, and imagining in Black culture. You can catch Brown’s first online event this Thursday, February 4.

Samantha A. Noël investigates how Black Caribbean and American artists of the early twentieth century responded to and challenged colonial and other hegemonic regimes through tropicalist representation in Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism.

Candace Fujikane draws upon Hawaiian legends about the land and water and their impact upon Native Hawai‘ian struggles in Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future to argue that Native economies of abundance provide a foundation for collective work against climate change.

A time of YouthA Time of Youth brings together 89 of the more than 2000 photographs William Gedney took in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood between October, 1966 and January, 1967, documenting the restless and intertwined lives of the disenchanted youth who flocked to what became the epicenter of 1960s counterculture.

In Coed Revolution Chelsea Szendi Schieder examines the campus-based New Left in Japan by exploring the significance of women’s participation in the protest movements of the 1960s.

Ma Vang examines the experiences of Hmong refugees who migrated to the United States following the secret war in Laos (1961–1975) to theorize “History on the Run” as a framework for understanding refugee histories, in particular those of the Hmong.

Empire's MistressVernadette Vicuña Gonzalez follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships in Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, taking us much deeper into her life story than merely her role as the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur.

Jonathan Beller traces the history of the commodification of information and the financialization of everyday life in The World Computer, showing how contemporary capitalism is based in algorithms and the quantification of value that intensify social inequality.

In The Charismatic Gymnasium, Maria José A. de Abreu examines the conservative Charismatic Catholic movement in contemporary urban Brazil to rethink the relationship between theology, the body, and neoliberal governance, showing how it works to produce subjects who are complicit with Brazilian neoliberalism.

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