In “Black Matter(s),” Toni Morrison describes a phenomenon she coins “Africanism,” or the exorbitant usage of caricatures created by American authors to misrepresent and silence black Americans. Morrison argues that American authors created these tropes (whose traits have fluctuated with necessity as manifestations of racism began to morph) because most early Americans were terrified of failing or being ostracized themselves. Thus, they projected their fears onto black Americans and intentionally relegated them to the “Other” in order to avoid becoming the “Other” themselves. Although Morrison mainly discusses authors from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, racism that is born out of insecurity is prevalent among modern Americans as well.
I had never before considered the claim that racism could just be a projection of the very fears that one is feeling (fear of failure, incompetence, etc.) onto another person. However, while considering it, I realized it connected with a more modern concept I discovered in an anthropology class. Coined by anthropologist Jean-Michel Trouillot, the”Savage slot” defines the tendency of most Western countries to use a minority as a scapegoat for their inability to achieve a perfect society or economy. Rather than fixing the problem that actually plagues these countries, such as the large wealth disparity in America, rich leaders encourage poorer citizens to blame their struggles on immigrants, religious minorities, ethic minorities, etc. because it is easier than attempting to overhaul the institutions that created this disparity or recognizing their own failure. Thus, if there is any solution to American racism, perhaps it is solving issues such as the wealth disparity which cause poorer Americans to look for a scapegoat.
I have noticed in the Humanities program, and Davidson in general, that classes recognize the importance of diversity, yet focus most heavily on the perspective of Western, white culture. In Humanities, we spend a lot of time in discussion groups and lectures dissecting the mechanisms and manifestations of white privilege. Yet, unfortunately, I feel as if we have devoted a much larger portion of our time reading, talking about, and writing about white (typically male) authors and their ideas than women’s and people of color’s. I understand that the program can only do so much if the college only employs or admits a relatively small amount of people of color; however, the program could benefit immensely from the inclusion of cultures other than our own.
Similarly, despite the fact that we have discussed the nuances of watching another’s suffering, we didn’t discuss how we can combat our instinct to use our de-sensitivity as a shield/excuse, or how to take care of ourselves while watching the suffering of others so that we may come to grips with it and channel our reactions into action. Spaces such as ours provide the perfect opportunity to put our thoughts into action, rather than to fall into the trap that Susan Sontag describes in Regarding the Pain of Others– watching issues unfold around us, analyzing it to grasp their full gravity, and yet remaining complacent.
When read together, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag provide a devastating tandem of questions and answers. While Gourevitch’s account of the Rwandan genocide constantly begs the question “why,” Sontag’s discussion of the shortcomings of white empathy consistently reaffirms the horrific answers that I suspect most of us have always known. For example, one of the questions, if not the main question, posed by Gourevitch seems to be “why did the world so attentively watch the Rwandan genocide, yet choose at every opportunity not to intervene?” I, as I am sure many of us did, wondered while reading Gourevitch if the reason why the world “stood around with its hand in its pockets” (163) had something to do with the fact that the genocide took place in a Central African country. If an atrocity such as this occurred in, say, Spain, would the world have chosen another course of action? Was the Western world’s passivity possibly due to the fact that in the imagination of Western society, Africa exists as a place of savagery and a place where murder is simply natural, and therefore justified?
In no uncertain terms, Sontag clearly states that this is, in fact, the exact cause of the passivity of the Western world. Sontag argues that it is impossible for humans to feel a sense of common humanity or to want to protect a group of people that are not even granted status as people in our minds and cultures, but seen rather as a group of people among which these sorts of “cruelties” are simply an “inevitability.” (71) Western countries, specifically America, dehumanized African countries, and therefore, are unwilling to afford them any compassion. Thus, Tutsis were left without the resources they needed to survive one of the most brutal genocides in recent history.
Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell were fearless black women who used their respective positions in society (Wells as a journalist, and Terrell as one of the few elite black women in America) to advocate for issues pertaining to gender and racial equality. While Wells focused much of her work on drawing attention to the physical manifestations of racism (namely lynchings), Terrell spent much of her social capital attempting to permeate white organizations and structures due to her belief in racial uplift. Racial uplift was a popular belief among black Americans that they could end their own oppression if they proved themselves to white Americans by rising up in the ranks through education, socialization, and work within their local communities. Though these two methods of advocacy might appear to be completely unrelated, they both stem from the same vicious systematic and institutionalized racism that pervaded- and still pervades- America. Wells’ and Terrell’s writing demonstrates that no matter how racism manifests itself in each individual person’s life, its effects can be equally pernicious.
Wells and Terrell also did not stop at merely advocating for their equality; they both created exclusively black organizations, and often stood up to their white advocate counterparts to fight for intersectionality. The work that Wells and Terrell did, though unfortunately not influential enough to eradicate racism, emphasized the importance of self-care within activism, the importance of being your own source of validation, and the importance of unrelenting pressure.
Performance Remains: Because white conquerors are the “winners” of history, we have chosen what and how we preserve, as well as what we deem important enough to preserve in the “archive,” or our collective historical record. As Schneider states, “the archive is habitual to Western culture.” (100) Performance as a method of preserving and inheriting the past is associated with “primal” nations within Western society, while documentation is associated with Western heritage. So, performance as a primary vehicle of remembrance threatens Western cultures and its “archive,” and has led to the development of a one-sided history. Is there a way to ever truly curate our “archive” which represents a truthful narrative of our history, of all people and the ways in which they were influential?
Ritualizing the Past: Lemon’s work introduced a new meaning of the term “banality of evil” to me. Rather than just meaning that because every day people are capable of doing evil without necessarily being evil themselves, it can also mean how swiftly America moves on from horrifically violent acts of racism and transitions back into every day life, as if the acts which occurred never happened at all or that they do not carry enough significance to warrant a disruption in our behavior. For example, Birns mentions that the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Lorraine Motel, continued to operate as a motel well into the 1980s. In comparison, the Ford Theatre (where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated) remained closed from the day he was shot until 1968, when it reopened as a museum. Because work like Lemon’s conveyed a message to me that classes and books never have, I wonder if art’s/performance’s transcendent qualities could be the key to unlocking the empathy needed to make change?
Ethnic Notions displays how tightly media/culture and popular opinion are intertwined. The minstrel shows (which the film compares to Youtube or other similar forms of social media) took the most absurd excuses for slavery and the dehumanization of black Americans, validated them, and transformed them into one of America’s most popular pastimes. It all goes to show that while performance can be an incredible tool for transcendence and for expressing the intangible, it also provides an opportunity to popularize the most dangerous ideas and opinions- both then and now- when artists are not held accountable. What are the ways in which caricatures of black Americans are popularized now? Has anything changed?
It’s interesting to me that the beginning of a period of dehumanization in Russia (and the more I think about it, I’m realizing in other countries as well) began with the death of art. Honestly, I had never really considered how important art is, but I think that speaks a lot to art’s political meaning. Art gives a voice to feelings or thoughts that are otherwise inexpressible, either due to self or state censorship, and when even artists begin to feel there is no hope, or there are forcibly removed from the means to create, its as if the voice of the nation is extinguished.
Are there similarities between Russian poets and black American musicians/poets/writers, in terms of their meaning to their respective countries?
During Unit 8, while my friends and classmates studied suicide, the topic of suicide unfortunately became very relevant to my life. So, I did not study with them or post any of the writings that they did. Instead, I took the time to reflect and grieve. Below is a letter to a friend of mine who recently died by suicide. It is different than any other content on this site or what is usually considered appropriate for the course, but I believe its message is just as important.
You were so kind to me. During a tumultuous time in my life that brought out the worst of me, you left me with only beautiful memories and confidence in myself. No matter what cards you were dealt, no matter how you were feeling, you tried to make me laugh, and your maturity and love shone brightly enough for me to look back on the time we spent with gratitude, even while the rest of my life wasn’t exactly cause for appreciation.
I wish I could have shown you just how much you added to my life. I wish I would’ve had the courage to tell you how much our friendship means to me. It tears me apart thinking about how much pain you must have been in, or how little you believed you meant to the people you cared about because that feeling is a two-way street. It is not only caused by feelings of self-doubt or self-disgust, it is caused by the way the people in your life treated you. To know I might have contributed to this feeling is the worst thing I have ever known.
There are a lot of parallels in our story. I was lucky enough to see the other side, and I was foolish enough to let that make me believe you would, too, and that you wouldn’t need my support in doing so. I’m so, so sorry.
I ask whoever’s reading this- because Abbey never will- to show everyone you love that you love them. It’s been said a thousand times, but I guess a thousand isn’t enough: please check in with every person you love, regardless of how well they seem to be. If you notice a friend is struggling, don’t turn a blind eye, even if it causes uncomfortable feelings to surface. We need each other more than we realize.