Frankly missing the point.

Read this now: Maya Rupert’s criticism of Barney Frank for using of the phrase “Uncle Tom” in his rebuke of openly gay Republicans’ continued support of a party that seems increasingly retrograde on just about everything, but especially on social issues, like, I don’t know, gay marriage.

I share much of Frank’s confusion as to precisely why members of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud stay in a party that clearly does not seem to like them very much. My best guess is that they’re relatively affluent, as white gay men and lesbians tend to be, and their party membership reflects their pocketbook politics. More broadly, perhaps their support for the GOP comes out of a dissatisfaction with the liberal welfare state and those perceived to be its “undeserving” beneficiaries. Indeed, this feeling reverberates across both sides of the aisle in post-industrial America, from Reagan’s attacks on phantasmic “welfare queens” to Clinton’s welfare “reform” to the everyday stigma that attaches to folks receiving food stamps or Section 8 vouchers.

Contempt for the “undeserving poor” has the kind of political currency that it does in part because it’s very hard to confront one’s own privilege, whether it owes to skin color, gender, heterosexuality, class, or any number of other factors. To begin with, our national mythology is premised on the notion that we are always already free and fundamentally equal. On top of that, the African American civil rights movement effectively removed the legal architecture maintaining forced inequality in the Jim Crow South. Without laws on the books banning interracial marriage or mandating “separate but equal” public facilities, it’s much harder for many Americans to grasp the myriad reasons for persistent racial inequality, from vastly disparate public school funding to the mass(ively disproportionate) incarceration of people of color to straight-up unconscious individual prejudice.

This is a very roundabout way of suggesting an uncomfortable symmetry between Frank and the “Uncle Toms” on the other side of this political war of words–all are, in spite of their political differences, more or less blind to their own privilege. As Rupert points out, Frank’s comments suggest that all forms of marginalization are essentially the same, which is admittedly different from minimalizing them or arguing that the federal government should have no role in mitigating them. But Frank’s use of “Uncle Tom” (not to mention Dan Savage’s similar use of the phrase “house faggots”) shows a remarkable disregard for both the past and present of black people in this country. The fact that he defended his comments in Huffington Post without any mention of their racial dimension underscores his blindness.

While drawing strong parallels between the black freedom struggle and the gay rights movement may be tempting and at times politically opportune, it’s a problematic move that (again, pace Rupert) flattens differences between the ways that racism and homophobia operate in American society, and puts black LGBT people in a strange liminal position between camps commonly–and errantly–understood as being totally separate. To boot, it (along with the very name of the popular gay rights blog The New Civil Rights Movement) also consigns the Civil Rights Movement–and along with it, racial oppression in this country–to the past. To say that we can have a new civil rights movement suggests that the old one is over. Complete. This is simply not true.

There’s no doubt in my mind that between the Democratic and Republican parties, Barney Frank represents the one whose vision will do the greatest good (or even just the least bad) for people of color in the United States, but that doesn’t give Frank license to throw around racially charged epithets like this one. As Avenue Q reminds us, everyone’s a little bit racist.

(apologies for the scratchiness of the audio)


FRONTLINE–Endgame: AIDS in Black America

Last night, PBS aired Endgame: AIDS in Black America, the latest installment of its documentary series FRONTLINE. Viewers unaware of just how prevalent HIV and AIDS are in black communities may be shocked to learn that today half of new HIV cases in the United States, including two-thirds of those among women and 70% of those among youth, occur among African Americans, who make up only about 13% of the national population. These numbers are nothing new. As filmmaker Renata Simone makes clear, when doctors initially identified AIDS among gay men in 1981, they built a case definition for the new disease around the opportunistic infections presented by those first patients, inadvertently precluding many women, who suffered from different ailments, from receiving AIDS diagnoses. By the time that the Centers for Disease Control added female-specific infections to the case definition in 1993, the severity of the AIDS crisis among women had been undercounted for twelve years. Given that black women account for the majority of women with HIV and AIDS in the United States, the underrepresentation of women with AIDS led epidemiologists to underestimate the severity of the disease among African Americans as well. Moreover, as white gay men became the public face of AIDS in popular media accounts of the epidemic, many African Americans came to see the epidemic as one that would never affect them personally.

In Endgame, this sense of insulation from AIDS comes across most poignantly in the firsthand stories of women contracted HIV through unprotected sex with boyfriends or husbands who either did not know or did not disclose their own HIV positivity. However, Simone also gives voice to a wide range of experiences of AIDS among African Americans. Viewers hear from HIV positive gay men, a social worker illegally distributing clean syringes in Atlanta, young adults who contracted the virus in utero and now are coming of sexual age, as well as a host of public health experts, doctors, preachers, and activists.

Simone connects these individual stories to broader the broader social, cultural, and political forces driving the AIDS epidemic in black communities. For example, viewers see Alabama educators discuss their commitment to the state’s abstinence-only sexual health curriculum and then meet Marvalene, a young HIV-positive woman who explains that the textbook for her wellness class in high school showed only pictures of an African child and an emaciated white gay man in its discussion of AIDS. Viewers also hear from HIV-positive black gay men of different ages who trace their drug use and risky sexual choices to the various degrees of homophobic rejection they faced at home, school, and church. Failed education and homophobia represent only two nodes in a dense web of interrelated factors that underpins the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS in the United States, which Simone ably elucidates through interviews with longtime researchers and activists such as Robert Fullilove of Columbia University, Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute, and Dázon Dixon Diallo of Sisterlove, Inc.

Putting the epidemic in historical context, Fullilove testifies to the economic dislocation that many black communities faced in the 1970s and 1980s, which fueled a growing drug trade as a source of income for black men who couldn’t find jobs in the licit economy. The explosion of crack in particular during the 1980s left many infected, as users (particularly women) hard up for a fix turned to sex work to satisfy their habits. Blaming crack for urban crime rates, lawmakers passed harsh sentencing laws for possession and distribution of the super-addictive drug, landing many black men in prison, where sex among inmates is common but condoms nearly absent. Upon release, they return to communities experiencing gender imbalance due to the disproportionate incarceration of black men, in which women feel disempowered when it comes to negotiating monogamy and safe sex, in part because there are so many fewer men than women. Two interviewees from late in the documentary hit the nail on the head. Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick argues that the structural factors driving the epidemic demand structural solutions, while another interviewee describes AIDS as a “string” running through the fabric of black communities, highlighting the lingering racial inequalities in American society.

Both women are right, although like the statistics on AIDS in black America, their arguments are nothing new. For much of the epidemic, AIDS activists of color in particular have used AIDS as a means by which to draw attention to persistent issues of inequality in their communities, often putting issues like access to housing, education, and basic medical care at the forefront of their efforts. As Jennifer Brier has argued, they sometimes couched their work in an international context, advocating for global justice in the epidemic by addressing the structural inequalities faced by African Americans and people throughout the global south alike. As Bambi Gaddist of the South Carolina AIDS Coalition tells Simone (though in a different context), “I’m in Africa right now. As a state, I’m there. Sometimes, my staff feels like we’re there. Every time we test another young person positive, we’re there.”

Though Simone spends a great deal of time and care laying out the context for the disproportionate impact of AIDS on black America, in the film she gives very little attention to the political response of African Americans to the epidemic. In an early oral history for my own dissertation on the political culture of black AIDS activism, an informant lamented that to read what has been written on AIDS politics, one would think African Americans let the disease “steamroll over” their communities, and to some extent Endgame reinforces that myth. However, the supporting materials, including an excellent timeline, on the FRONTLINE website begin to flesh out that history of activism.

Also absent from Endgame are the voices of HIV-positive straight black men, save for Magic Johnson and the “bornies” who contracted the virus before birth. Otherwise, they appear (or rather do not appear) as duplicitous off-screen figures who fail to protect their female partners, or in the case of incarcerated men, as possible vectors of infection once they re-enter their home communities. Even the inmates who do appear on screen are shown speaking only to a doctor, who in turn addresses the camera in discussing their potential for spreading the epidemic further. Representations like this arguably do more harm than good. Making a serious dent in AIDS numbers means empowering everyone who is affected to openly talk and engage in safer sex, and that means straight men as well as women and gay men.

Altogether though, Endgame is a thoughtful and emotionally powerful examination of AIDS among African Americans that does justice to the complexity of the epidemic and the challenges that lie ahead in the fight to stop it. For a crisis that, thirty years on, is all too rarely discussed, that’s no small thing.

UPDATE: Kenyon Farrow also has a more critical review of Endgame on his personal site. For some reason Gawker (they are a gossip site, after all) is putting up cash to find out who gave HIV to Magic Johnson. Not to overuse a tired phrase, but if that’s the big question you took away from this film, you’re doing it wrong.

Sh!tstorm @ Brainstorm

Since Monday, my Twitter feed has been blowing up with (brief) commentaries about Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s group blog, Brainstorm. Riley attacked the discipline as a whole based on the brief profiles of five Northwestern University doctoral students that ran alongside a longer article on the changing nature of black studies as a new generation of African American scholars comes up through ranks amid reaching budget cuts, broadside attacks on the humanities, and the so-called “post-racial” moment of Obama’s presidency. She called their dissertation topics “so irrelevant no one will ever look at them,” and singled out (by name) specific students for engaging in “sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery,” all because they’re investigating topics like the racial dimensions of the subprime lending crisis and the history of black conservatives in the post-Civil Rights era. To the contrary, Riley pointed out, the president is black*, lots of white people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst, and “there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people,” ergo racism isn’t really a big problem in the country today.

The original post predictably touched off a whole lot of negative response, including a call by some Twitter users (e.g. @tjowens) for the popular CHE group blog ProfHacker to issue a statement disavowing Riley’s original post. Riley herself responded to critics, specifically addressing the charges (among others) that she is racist, and has no business attacking graduate students since she does not have a Ph.D. and has not read their dissertations. On the point of racism, I would like to direct you to the quote at the end of the above paragraph–’nuf said. On the other points, she says:

there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.

Just off the top of my head, at Temple we have the wonderful Susan Klepp, who built her career on writing about women healers in early America, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwive’s Tale was the kind of cross-over history book that academics of all disciplinary stripes yearn to write, so I wouldn’t go counting out a dissertation on black midwifery. I would also guess that more than twenty people would be interested in reading about the deep roots (racial or otherwise) of the economic crisis that led us into a seemingly intractable recession, but don’t quote me on that. (Okay, do.)

I don’t doubt, however, that Riley herself would never read them. That would take the kind of intellectual curiosity that pursuing a career in the academy requires, a trait that she herself clearly lacks. That does not however, justify a sweeping attack on an entire field. Although she interprets her critics as responding from a place of personal injury, I would argue that many are equally, if not moreso, offended by the way she deploys pernicious arguments that are often trotted out to discredit the humanities in general. Thus, the problem is not just personal–it’s professional as well. Our job is not to produce work that appeals to everyone, although many of us do think about ways to present our research to audiences beyond the ivory tower, an endeavor greatly aided by people doing excellent work in the fields of public history and digital humanities. Our job is to create new knowledge, and yes, that does mean producing monographs that can seem hopelessly narrow and specific. However, good scholarship always tacks a focused narrative to broader historical trends and can illuminate connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. Not only does the field move forward, but new research (including our own research) pushes us to reformulate the ways we teach our students about the past, providing the kind of “broad liberal-arts education” that Riley thinks we “never get trained to do.”

Riley certainly wouldn’t be interested in reading my dissertation in progress, which deals with African American AIDS activists as they connected the disease to the multiple political, social, and economic problems facing their communities. No doubt, she would see this as more “left-wing victimization claptrap,” evidence that the academic disciplines are becoming too specialized and too liberal in their political outlook. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that my work is political. I write about politically active people to whom I am admittedly sympathetic, although I try very hard not to let that get in the way of my analysis. But for Riley to pretend that her seemingly intended provocation was not political would be either disingenuous or totally self-unaware, and I’m not sure which would be worse. In any case, maybe she’s right (far right, hyuk) about the academy being very left-wing, because I can’t think of a better way for a publication like the Chronicle to discredit conservatism than to elevate such an anti-intellectual hack as that movement’s mouthpiece. Incidentally, I have a similar theory about Ross Douthat and the New York Times.

*One might forgive Riley for trotting out the Obama presidency as evidence that racism is no longer a big problem in America if she had fallen into a coma on November 4, 2008 and reawoke five minutes ago, but this does not seem to be the case.

UPDATE: ProfHacker has indeed put up a long post commenting on the Riley piece, and it’s definitely worth a read.

Ward Shelley, knowledge, and maps.

Ward Shelley has been getting a lot of attention lately (at least in my corner of the internet) for his map of the history of science fiction:

"The History of Science Fiction, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

Among other projects, including performance art, installations, and sculptural work, Shelley specializes in large (the above measures about three feet by four feet) and graphical timelines that recall both the intricate temporal maps recently collected by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg in their recent book, Cartographies of Time, and the scientific illustrations done by past generations of natural historians.

"Who Invented the Avant Garde, ver. 3" by Ward Shelley
"Downtown Body, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

These often describe the histories of art movements or genres, like the Beats or science fiction (above), or broader trends in cultural and artistic production, like the changing nature of the avant-garde, or the “autonomy” of art amid shifting economic pressures:

"Autonomous Art, ver. 1" by Ward Shelley

It’s worth viewing these (and the others) on Shelley’s site because there you can zoom in on high-resolution versions of these images, and these are pieces that definitely reward close viewing.

Shelley’s works are of course visually interesting in and of themselves, especially if you consider their real-life dimensions, and moreso for the way they draw connections among bits of disparate information to make visual arguments about the complex terrain of artistic expression and experience.  The generic references to both mapping and scientific illustration seem purposeful, as Shelley’s work meditates on the power that inheres to representations of knowledge.  From the artist himself:

These paintings… are about the struggle of form to express content in the cognitive space that exists between the Subject (us) and the Object (the world). If that cognitive space is a territory, these paintings are landscapes of that territory.

Other works of his similarly explore the materiality of information, as with the collaborative (with Douglas Paulson) installation piece “Archive,” which consists of thousands of stacked, uniquely labeled boxes:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

We might understand the boxes to represent many things, but to me they suggest the power of the archive–expressed here through sheer volume–to shape future narratives, as well as the sometimes arbitrariness of preservation:

"Archive" by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson

I just began reading Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: the Archive and Cultural History, which opens with a discussion of Derrida’s notion of “archive fever,” through which he links the repository of documentary knowledge to the Greek arkhe, “a place where things begin, where power originates, its workings inextricably bound up with the authority of beginnings and starting points” (Steedman 1).  One thing I try to get across to my students is that knowledge production is always contested and freighted with political assumptions.  Some have more trouble wrapping their heads around this than others, but fortunately (for my pedagogy, anyway) American history is filled with examples of specious “knowledge” deployed to political ends:


from Races of Mankind (1854) by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon

The trick is to get them to apply that critical perspective to the world around them.  It’s not easy, but for me it’s one of the major payoffs of teaching history.

For more esoteric cartography, check out Frank Jacobs’ appropriately titled blog, Strange Maps.

And the book says: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us!”

From Tenured Radical, a particularly troubling development in the race to replace Chris Lee, the Republican former House representative from New York’s 26th District who resigned recently after being caught soliciting sex from women on Craigslist.  (Between him and Aaron Schock, the House Republicans these days seem to have a crippling shirt allergy.  It’s not often that I find myself to have something in common with the Grand Old Partiers in Congress, but there you go.)  Jack Davis, a independent candidate seeking Tea Party endorsement for Lee’s seat, suggested in a recent endorsement interview with local Republican leaders that unemployed African Americans be brought from the inner city to farms as agricultural laborers, replacing Latin American immigrants whose legality is sometimes in question.  Davis gets to have his xenophobia and eat his culture of poverty, too!

Of course, for many people, Davis’ suggestion recalls Parchman Farm, convict leasing, and slavery itself, vile practices and institutions that are anathema to the basically free and equal society in which we supposedly live today.  However, as I like to remind my students, when we talk about the past it’s important not to fall into the progressive idea of history in which things always get better.  If you haven’t read Heather Thompson’s excellent article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of American History, it’s definitely worth your time.  One of her arguments is that mass imprisonment has contributed to the decline of organized labor by providing a cheap and literally captive workforce in states that have prison work laws on the books.  My point is that although we might want to consign this kind of rhetoric to a less enlightened past, or to the representatives of a fringe political movement, we do so at the ignorance of injustice in the present.

Must be something in the bleach.

Wanna see something offensive?

If you, like me, practically live inside the internet (or “cloud” or whatever it’s being called now), you’ve probably already watched this horrendous video of a white undergraduate bashing her Asian peers (but not her Asian friends, you guys, of which I’m sure she has loads) in explicitly racist terms.  She even throws in some “Asian” dialect à la Rosie O’Donnell and a reference to the recent earthquake in Japan, because that’s where all Asian people come from.  Duh.

As my friend Jenny pointed out, this is why they have an American Cultures requirement at Berkeley–in the university’s words, “to introduce students to the diverse cultures of the United States through an intergrative and comparative framework.”  This part of the curriculum turns twenty this year, and although/because it seems as though it’s been fashionably rebellious to be “politically incorrect” for just as long, I would guess that many of us think it’s worth preserving.  For my part, I witnessed a lot of casual racism (not just against Asians) while I was at Berkeley, and to be sure, I said things in the past that would offend my present self.  So in a way I feel sorry for this girl.  She’s young, and young people do dumb things–that’s how they learn.  In fact, my Berkeley education played an important role in sensitizing me to the ways in which various forms of difference have determined who gets social power and material wealth throughout human history.

This girl said deplorable things (into a camera, which was beyond foolish) but hopefully she learned from the mistake.*  That’s what college is all about.

*The saying bad things part, not necessarily the camera part, although I hope for her sake she’ll use more discretion as far as what she films herself doing in the future.