Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘African Americans’ Category

Barack Obama: Jackie Robinson of Black Presidents

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by David

Barack Obama

For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.

And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.

As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.

Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”

So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.

Booker T. Washington

And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.

First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration.  Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.

Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson

When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.

Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.

Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.

Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?

This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?

Written by David Weinfeld

August 30, 2012 at 15:24

Black Girls Rock! Considering Gabby Douglas, Cultural Phenom

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Gabby Douglass on balance beam, August 2, 2012

by Afrah

Gabrielle Douglas is the 16 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist (at the time of this post) in the team and individual all around gymnastic events. Her success is a testament to the almost single-minded drive of a young woman, her family, and coaches. In a few short days she has been transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. She is, first and foremost, an Olympic champion. Gabby has also become America’s sweetheart. Finally, she is a black girl.  The three identities are inextricably embedded in her public personae. The gold medal-winning athlete and surging popularity will follow a well-established path in the public consciousness. It is the fact of race that both complicates and potentially deepens her impact on cultural history.

Gabby Douglas’ story can be easily recounted in the familiar terms that world-class athletes use. She spent thousands of hours in the gym, sacrificed greatly, and continued to perform through pain. She moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa at 14 years old in order to train with a winning coach and live with a host family.  She talks convincingly of blood, sweat and tears at the gym because one must remember that she has shed them all in pursuit of the top spot in the world.  She has the nickname of the “flying squirrel,” due to the ”height on release moves on the uneven bars.”  The name reflects her skill, power and precision. Gabby Douglass joins Dominique Dawes, an African American woman, who won the gold for the team gymnastic event in 1996. After winning the individual gold, Gabby posted the following on her blog: “I was ready to seize the moment, to focus and to trust in what I can do.” She stands alone as the first black woman to win the individual all around gold medal. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

August 6, 2012 at 16:44

History in the Neighbourhood: Jumel Terrace of Washington Heights

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by David

Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765, the oldest house in Manhattan

I live in Columbia med school housing up in Washington Heights. It’s convenient for my wife, Julie, who goes to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Our apartment is great. But I live in a med school bubble, and I’m not a medical student. Also, the neighbourhood is a bit of a bar and restaurant wasteland. I don’t speak Spanish, and it’s 85% Dominican, so it’s difficult to feel like a part of the community. And I’m not religious enough for the bochers further north around Yeshiva University.

Further south, however, I just discovered a marvelous piece of history. At Jumel Terrace, just east of 160th and St. Nicholas, sits the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Built in 1765, it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. George Washington lived there during the Revolutionary War, and hosted a dinner in 1790 including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr lived there in the early 19th century. The mansion is now a museum; I got to see the dining room where that dinner took place, and Washington’s bedroom, servants’ quarters, the women’s rooms, the parlour, and more. In Washington’s bedroom, a small, amusing exhibit was set-up called “Washington’s Facebook.” A cartoon cardboard cutout of Washington sat with his laptop, on his Facebook page, his cell phone on the table. The implication is that similar to the recent Arab Spring, if Washington had had access to Facebook and Twitter, he would have used them to foment his own revolution.

Far more interesting to me than this colonial history, however, is the more recent history that surrounds the place. The bookstore, Word, or Jumel Terrace Books, open only by appointment, sits across from the Mansion at 426 W. 160th. It has a remarkable collection of African American and Africana literature. It also has a lot of left-wing, Marxist, and revolutionary books, noting that “books are weapons.” It even has revolutionary board games.

Class Struggle, the board game

Class Struggle, the board game, serves “to prepare for life in capitalist America.” Funny, I thought Monopoly did that. Class Struggle is “for kids from 8 to 80.” Fun for all ages! It also comes with “directions for possible classroom use.” And it’s educational too!

Then there’s this one:

The X Game, "a cooperative game ages 10 to adult"

The X Game, with a large quote from Malcolm X on the front, asks us to “Stop the System By Any Means Necessary.” It is a “cooperative game,” noting “it’s a race to achieve unity–the key to Black liberation” and “winning requires working together to beat the ‘System’ … no one can do it alone!” Sounds perfect for those non-competitive parents, but I don’t think Amy Chua would approve.

Alicia Keys

Paul Robeson

Even more interesting, however, are those African American elites who came to live in the still beautiful section of the neighbourhood, once called Harlem Heights or Sugar Hill. W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Paul Robeson all made their homes in this neighbourhood. Robeson first lived at 16 Jumel Terrace, but then, like several of the others, moved into 555 Edgecombe Avenue (also known as Paul Robeson Boulevard). Today, Alicia Keys lives in Robeson’s apartment, continuing the tradition. Maybe the history helps her retain her New York State of Mind

Written by David Weinfeld

April 2, 2012 at 10:36

Jeremy Lin: of course it’s About Race, and it’s Not All Smiles

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by David

On February, 13, 2012, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the racist, woman-beating arrogant jail-bound criminal, who also happens to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and current welterweight champion, made a stupid, racist tweet. Here’s what Mayweather tweeted:

Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.

Mayweather is an asshole. He’s not backing down. And as Washington Post sportswriter Jason Reid notes, Mayweather is mostly wrong. Jeremy Lin’s story is unique: he went to Harvard, he’s an evangelical Christian, he was undrafted, he was sleeping on his brother’s couch, then coming off the bench for the New York Knicks, and now he’s an NBA star.

But there’s at least a kernel of truth to Mayweather’s obnoxiousness. The Jeremy Lin story is big because of everything else. It’s huge because he’s the first Chinese-American in the NBA. And that’s OK.

I’ve finally caught on to the Linsanity. Normally I don’t watch any more than the last two minute of regular season professional basketball games, but I’m making an exception here. We don’t get cable, but I’ll even shlep out to the Columbia med student housing common room to watch the Linsanity.

And it is exciting. Heck even Tiger Mom Amy Chua tweeted that her and her family are “huge” Jeremy Lin fans, and linked to this article, which attributes Lin’s success to tough Asian parenting. But I cry (or call) foul. This piece, by Gish Jen, is more accurate, highlighting the rebellion, the anti-stereotype that Jeremy Lin represents. Because Lord knows that if Amy Chua had a ten-foot-tall son she’d still be shoving a violin in his hands before allowing him to shoot hoops.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But only a little. Because I know this story. It’s why I celebrate Kevin Youkilis and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and why the movie Airplane can make a joke referring to “light” reading, a leaflet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.” These Jews, like Jeremy Lin, are exceptions. Sure, there will be more. But most Jews, and most Asian Americans, will go on to more conventional, but still successful paths. Because that’s what their parents want for them, and that is what is expected of them.

And so the real tragedy behind the Jeremy Lin story is here, hidden in a New York Times story about Stuyvesant High School, maybe the toughest and most competitive high school in the country, where thousands of students take a difficult exam, and only the highest scoring are admitted. It’s worth noting this on the last day of Black History month of 2012. Stuyvesant High School has 3295 students. A whopping 72.5% of them are Asian. Forty are Black. Forty. Not Forty percent. Forty students, total, equal to 1.2 percent of the student population. Another 2.4% are Hispanic. These are the Jeremy Lins of the American high school system: Black and Latino students who succeed against the odds, disproving the stereotypes, fighting structural inequality that dates back generations, even centuries. Read the article. It’s harrowing.

So let’s applaud Lin’s success in the NBA. It’s awesome, and need not be denigrated in any way. He’s a pioneer for Asian-Americans in sports. But this story is about race, and when we take a step back, it’s not a happy story. So let’s get our priorities straight.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 29, 2012 at 20:46

Black History Month Spotlight: Howard University

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by David

Founders Library at Howard University

This past week, I went to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at the Founders Library at Howard University. I was doing research on my dissertation on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Howard University, founder in 1867, is the most famous of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Locke was a professor there for many years. My research, however, was focused on Locke’s time at Harvard University, where Locke was an undergraduate from 1904-1907.

There’s considerable irony to Locke’s attitudes and career. At Harvard, Locke had to skillfully navigate between the various groups of people there: the wealthiest WASPs who wanted nothing to do with him (like Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the president’s son), middle class gentiles and Jews who befriended him despite the racist sentiments they may have held, as well as the small but not insignificant number of other Black students. Interestingly, with a handful of exceptions, Locke wanted nothing to do with his fellow African Americans at Harvard, thinking them crass and beneath him, unwilling to take advantage of the social opportunities Harvard provided and opting instead for self-isolation and segregation. This included pseudo-celebrities like the grandson of Frederick Douglass. On one more than one occasions, Locke referred to his African American peers at Harvard derisively as “niggers” in letters home to his mother.

Just how accurate Locke’s assessment of his fellow Black students was remains to be seen. But it’s ironic that after graduating from Harvard and attending Oxford as the first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke took a job at Howard University. None other than Booker T. Washington helped him secure that job. The Washington stressed industrial education, Locke imbibed his “self-help” attitude, transferring it to the cultural sphere. This was the spirit behind the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance, for which Locke served as intellectual godfather.

Locke had an ambiguous relationship to his own Black identity. He was proud of his family lineage, and of the achievements of great Black artists and intellectuals. He taught at a Black university. He led a Black arts movement. He eventually came to see himself as a race leader. Yet he was never entirely comfortable with large swaths of the Black community.

Alain Locke (1885-1954)

And I guess this is sort of the point. When I visit Howard, I find it utterly fascinating. I grew up in a thoroughly middle-class/upper-middle-class Jewish environment in Montreal, Canada. Both my parents have doctorates, my father is a professor. I’ve always been totally at home in academic environments.

Without engaging in too much stereotyping, I imagine that for many Howard students, that is not the case. Here is an environment where when I walk around, I’m one of a handful of non-Black people around, and yet nearly all the Black people around me are thoroughly educated undergraduate or graduate or law or medical students or faculty.

One of my first thoughts when visiting Howard was that if I was African American, particularly if I was African American from a poor background, I would find it very empowering. I think it would be more empowering than for a Jew to attend Brandeis, for example (which now has many, I’ve heard of possibly even 40% non-Jewish students). Certainly more empowering than Yeshiva University, which has only Orthodox Jewish men (and boys).

I remember telling this to some of my (white) friends, and they wondered whether they might find Howard stifling, rather than empowering. Too much homogeneity and that sort of thing.

But I really don’t think I would feel that way.

At Howard, there is actually tremendous diversity: Black people of a variety of origins, those whose families came to America as slaves, those from a multitude of countries for Africa or the Caribbean, people of mixed race (with any number of races), people speaking many languages, practicing different religions (or no religion), people gay and straight and bisexual and transgender, with a variety of political leanings and academic interests and socio-economic backgrounds, people of different sizes and shades and hues and features and clothing and hairstyles.

This is of course obvious, perhaps banal to state. But Alain Locke found the 1904-1907 Black community at Harvard rather stifling. I wonder what he would think of Howard today? Or of Black students at Harvard today? I don’t have the answers, and as a historian, I never will. But it’s fascinating to speculate.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 27, 2012 at 16:43

Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Occupy Wall Street

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by David

Occupy Wall Street is the Civil Rights Movement of our time. I’m not ashamed to say it. I don’t think it’s offensive or ahistorical. I don’t think it dishonours Martin Luther King’s name or legacy. In fact, I think the broader Occupy movement honours MLK, and he would have been a proud supporter of it.

When I refer to OWS, or the Occupy movement, what I mean is the fight against economic inequality. That’s economic inequality in America, and economic inequality throughout the world.

Right-wingers, conservatives, even libertarian racists like Ron Paul like to claim King’s mantle for themselves. Heck even Glenn Beck tried. They say that King was all about colour-blindess. Equality of opportunity. We were with MLK until 1965″ they say, but after that, it became about equality of condition, of entitlement, the road to socialism or serfdom and some-such doomsday dystopia.

Well that’s bullshit. I say that as a student of history. That’s just wrong. Watch the clip. MLK calls for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” He says: “If a man doesn’t have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.” And of course: “all labour has dignity.” And “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

Martin Luther King was a religious social democrat. He believed in social justice. In government assisting the poor. In supporting unions. He believed in REAL equal opportunity, which can only come about when healthcare, and education, and safety can be provided to all. He was the anti-Ayn Rand: he despised selfishness. You don’t believe me? Take Paul Krugman’s word for it. Or this awesome video by Jay Smooth.

MLK would have supported the Occupiers and the 99% movement

Some people still  might think this my analogy ridiculous and offensive. African Americans under Jim Crow suffered real, horrific racial discrimination. The suffering of the so-called 99% cannot compare, and thus cannot justify civil disobedience. Well it’s true that Jim Crow was horrible, and that America has made a lot of progress since the 1960s, thanks to people like MLK. But the poor in this country still suffer greatly. Poor people of colour still suffer worse, fighting against unequal opportunity, an unfair and brutal police system and prison industrial complex, racism and xenophobia, a real lack of safety net, and an unfair financial and economic system that privileges the wealthy. On a global level, the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more terrifying, and the racial divide is even starker. So I think all that is worth blocking a few streets, or yelling outside some buildings peacefully, and striking, and rallying, and demanding justice.

Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s millions of people around America and the world.

Now I’m not a religious person, and MLK was not a saint. Just because he said something doesn’t make it right. But his legacy and his lesson remain valuable. For MLK was also not a Marxist or an anarchist. He was the LEADER of a broad-based social movement. He was able to achieve real change by engaging the political process, and democratically uniting people with disparate views. This is important because individuals matter in history.

The radical activists and anarchists have done the world an incredible service by getting this movement started. But their views are often undemocratic and represent a fraction of a fraction of the 99% (remember half the country votes Republican, and the other half Democrat). We should keep protesting. But we should also engage the political process, both through the Democratic party, and external channels like the idealistic but pragmatic 99% Declaration plan to hold a National General Assembly on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia. It’s time to find leaders, make a plan, and keep moving forward, to make sure Romney doesn’t win and that Obama doesn’t kowtow to Wall Street and the 1%.

Some cynics might also think I’m over-exaggerating the importance of OWS. “Hasn’t the movement already fizzled?” Well, no. People left and right are talking about inequality, in and outside of politics. More importantly, let’s try to have some historical perspective here. When people think about the American Civil Rights movement, sometimes they think it started in 1960s. Maybe the late 1950s. Maybe Brown v. Board in the 1954. Actually, historians like to refer to the “long Civil Rights movement.” Some people date this to the end of WW2. Or Asa Philip Randolph‘s attempt to lead a March on Washington in 1944. Or to the activism of the 1930s and 1940s, often led by socialists and social democrats and communists, linking race and class. Or Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Or the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Or the end of the Civil War in 1865. With the state of America’s hospitals, schools, and prisons, some people still don’t think it’s over.

I’m not going to rehearse those academic debates. But I am going to reiterate MLK’s oft-invoked quote: “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a long, slow process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in November 2012, even if Obama is re-elected. It will take time. But we’ll get there. Let’s not let MLK’s dream die.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 16, 2012 at 12:30

Louis and Larry

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by David

The two funniest people in the world right now are Larry David and Louis CK, and nobody else is even close. I’m not the first to make this observation. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s the sports and pop  culture writer who now has his own site, Grantland, proclaimed as much in this mailbag column. True, he recanted a couple mailbags later, choosing Trey Parker and Matt Stone ahead of Louis and Larry, but I’m going to have to disagree with The Sportsguy there. I like Parker and Stone a lot, but for one thing, they’re two people; for another, I haven’t seen Book of Mormon, and even so, I don’t think what they’ve done is as gloriously hilarious as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I love Larry David. He’s probably my favourite humourist of all time, and is certainly the most important comic figure of our generation. But more on that later. First, let’s break down exactly why Louie and Curb are so funny, what distinguishes them, and which is better.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

December 11, 2011 at 12:50

B-Hop, Booker T, and the Jews

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by David

Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins (left), the current light-heavyweight (175 lbs) champion, the oldest man to win a major title, and a future boxing Hall of Famer, recently gave yet another candid interview, complete with new musings on race. We’ve been here before, even on this blog. This interview, however, was a bit different. Here’s a sample:

You’re a very candid person, especially about race. Why are you so forthright? I’ve been around a lot of candid people, but I’ve learned it’s good to be certain things at certain times. Everybody doesn’t know when to be candid and when not to be candid. It’s a strategy, part of the Art of War that I use as a script for anything I do in the ring or out of the ring.

 I’m sure you’ve heard the term $40 million slave. What does that term mean to you?Just because you got a contract for $40, $80, $90, $100, $200 million, no matter what you have or what you think you are, in this country, unfortunately, to most people, not all, you’re still a n–. You just happen to be rich. They’ll open the door for you. They’ll carry your bag. They’ll call you sir and they’ll call you mister. They might even let you date their daughter — because of what you have and what you represent, not because of who you are. I won’t say everyone thinks this way, but I believe in my heart that the percentage is high. I can speak to the $40 million slave situation. But if you’re LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods, that’s pocket change. The stakes are higher now.

Is there any part of you that’s worried that people will say, “He sounds like a racist”?No. When I say things, I say it out of what I experienced. I believe that before I try to help another race, why not see if there’s something to be done in my hood? That’s not saying I’m anti-white or anti-Chinese or anti-Puerto Rican. Many of my business partners are Jewish. And boy do they stick together. I want to bring my own people up to understand that let’s learn from the Jewish people’s business minds. Everybody can’t dribble their way out of the hood. Let’s try to book your way out. I only learned what I’ve learned from other cultures. I have some Italian friends. Everybody knows how Italians stick together. Go to South Philly. Go to New York. I’m not talking about the negative, but the wholesome Italian families with unity. The Irish. The other cultures. It’s when you start saying I’m better than that other person, that’s when it becomes something different.

Why do you think so many black athletes are so hesitant to talk about race? Because they are told not to.

Who’s telling them? The system that pays them, the system that dictates how they speak, how they talk. Football players, basketball players, they don’t talk about politics. It’s modernized slavery. They’re not allowed to talk about things that are sensitive and incorrect in the political world.

One person who isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect is Floyd Mayweather. How do you think his image impacts how black athletes are perceived? I have a problem with it.

What do you have a problem with? The perception and the stereotype of how they view and judge us as athletes is a blueprint and a script from what Mayweather shows them all the time. You don’t see Steve Jobs — God rest his soul — talking with a stack of money on the phone. He never showed his wealth because his wealth was who he was, not what he had. 

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you’re calling Floyd Mayweather a modern-day minstrel. No. I’m calling him a guy who’s not conscious of the image he portrays to promote fights and the image he portrays to show who he is. But he happens to be the guy people are looking at in boxing as the man, other than Pacquiao. He has the power like Jim Brown had in his era. He has the power like the great Ray Leonard had. He has the power like Ali had, when he said, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me n–.” Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity. I don’t think Mayweather is a bad person, but his message is misleading.

 The part the stuck out to me, of course, was when Hopkins mentioned his Jewish business partners who “stick together.” Antisemitic? Hardly. Novel? Not even close. In his 1899 book, The Future of the American Negro, Booker T. Washington (below right) praised American Jews’ economic success and industry, highlighting their “unity, pride, and love of race.” He advised Blacks to “imitate the Jew,” because  “as the years go on, they will be more and more successful in this country,–a country where they were once despised, and looked upon with scorn and derision.”

Washington was not alone in this view. The Washington Bee, an anti-Booker T. Washington African American newspaper, expressed similar sentiments in an anonymous 1899 piece about the Dreyfus Affair in France, titled “The Persecution of the Jew.” The article, sympathetic to Dreyfus and to Jews suffering from oppression, noted:  “There are no class of citizens more industrious than the Jews. There is not as much discrimination against the Jews as there used to be. The time is fast coming when the Jews will be the financial rulers of the world.” Though tinged with some antisemitic fear, the authors clearly saw the Jews as a  people to emulate, observing, like Washington, that economic success led to a reduction in discrimination.

On the cultural level, Alain Locke (below), the first Black Rhodes Scholar and leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, said similar things. In 1911 speeches to the Negro Historical Societies of Philadelphia and Yonkers, Locke commented that Jews were “perpetuating themselves and garnering respect at home and influence abroad” for their display of “race loyalty and effectiveness.” He noted that the Jewish community in the United States “has contributed to its racial life the world over and stands today as the champion of some of its most significant reform movements.” Locke held Jews up as a model group who were able to maintain their traditions and cultural cohesion while at the same time integrating and contributing to broader American life. Locke’s 1925 manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro, specifically referred to Zionism as an inspiration, as did Marcus Garvey‘s Back to Africa movement of the same period.

The point is that Hopkins was simply advancing the same “do it yourself” Black nationalism (or maybe communitarianism) espoused by Washington, Locke, Garvey, Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and more recently, Bill Cosby (on Cosby, see this great piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates). Of course, there are significant differences between these figures and movement. And of course, Hopkins did not limit his comments to Jews. Among people of all ethnicities, there are some who want to  “stick together.” Saying so should be banal. Hopkins was simply offering a variation of the old argument about separation versus integration, particularism vs universalism, that has presented itself to minority groups, Blacks, Jews, and others, time and time again, in America and elsewhere.

There’s much more to say about Hopkins’ interview, especially the stuff about Mayweather and minstrelsy, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll just say that I like Hopkins. He’s a defensive master and boring inside the ring, though never outside of it. I wish him all the best in his future bouts.

Written by David Weinfeld

December 9, 2011 at 12:16

Joe Frazier’s Historical Significance

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by David

I’m a big boxing fan, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who passed away last night at the age of 67. There has been a remarkable moment of sadness coming from all corners of the boxing community, from the classy Lennox Lewis to the controversial Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has promised that his “Money Team” will pay for the funeral. I share that sadness. And that’s why I want to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted about the disappointing New York Times obituary, “Not really an honor to Frazier to start an obit claiming he was a ‘better man’ than Ali.”

Of course, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are inextricably linked. But the obituary’s author dwelled too much on comparing Frazier and Ali as fighters and as men, while completely ignoring Frazier’s political and historical significance. He notes that Ali called Frazier “a gorilla” and “stupid.” As this far better Christian Science Monitor tribute notes, Ali also called Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” while Frazier called Ali “Cassius Clay,” his “slave name” that he renounced upon joining the Nation of Islam and changing it to Muhammad Ali in 1964.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier represented the most important theme of African American history, the struggle between separation and integration. When Frazier and Ali first fought, in 1971 (clip above), African Americans had overcome slavery and Jim Crow, but Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and Black Power was on the rise. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam who had been stripped of his title while in prison for refusing to serve in the military  during the Vietnam war. He represented the spirit of Black separatism. Frazier, on the other hand, was the establishment fighter, the “white man’s” champ.

When the lighter-skinned Ali called the darker Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” the moment was rich with irony. Frazier, a descendent of share-croppers, was one of 12 children born in rural South Carolina. As the NYT obit notes, he grew up “picking vegetables for 15 cents a crate when not helping his father, a handyman who lost his left arm in an auto accident.” He brought $200 with him when he took a Greyhound Bus to New York to find better opportunities. He then went to Philly, and found occasional work in a meat locker, where he punched hunks of meat like a heavy bag, inspiring Sylvester Stallone to include a similar scene in Rocky.

The NYT piece fails to mention Ali’s upbringing. Though hardly wealthy, the Clays lived a relatively comfortable and secure lower-middle class life in Louisville, Kentucky. Both of Ali’s parents were regularly employed, and he graduated from high school before heading off to the Olympics. Nonetheless, he became a symbolic hero to Blacks in America and Africa, as demonstrated in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. The movie chronicles Ali’s trip to Zaire in 1974, where he upset then heavyweight champion George Foreman. Though now more famous for his grilling machine, the Houston-born Foreman was once a ferocious fighter. Like Ali and Frazier, he was also an Olympic gold medalist, and like Frazier, had grown up in poverty, yet he could not seem to win his people’s hearts the way his charismatic opponent could. Indeed, many of the Zaire locals thought Foreman was white before he showed up. Perhaps this degree of detail on Ali would have been too much for a Frazier obit, but some contrast of Ali and Frazier’s background helps place their historical significance.

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Written by David Weinfeld

November 8, 2011 at 12:17

The Helpless

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by Bronwen

So I recently watched The Help.  Just about everyone has had something to say about this book/film, so I’m not sure how much new I can add to the debate.  These two pieces – one from Bernestine Singley at the blog ‘Before Barack’, and one from John McWhorter at The New Republic - are particularly interesting since they frame the two competing sides of the liberal debate: it’s a subtly racist movie that perpetuates the image of dependency and glorifies the past; or it’s not, but its critics are, and they are overlooking the nuance and subtly that is included and the value of making it into a widely accessible, if silly Hollywood movie.  Both sides make convincing arguments, so I’m not really going to address them here.

The film brings up an interesting, and totally separate historical problem, though: the issue of oral history interviews.

In May I participated in a seminar debate about the problems of the colonial archive.  It was a round table discussion at the Institute for Historical Research and it involved mostly graduate students and early career researchers in history and historical sociology.  Given the extent of the literature on working in the colonial archive, from Ann Laura Stoler to Caroline Steadman, we weren’t sure we’d have anything conclusive to add.  But people’s experience of doing imperial and post-colonial history clearly provided ample storytelling opportunities: from friendly, dusty and practically abandoned archives in Canada; to beautiful and easy to use archives sponsored by a member of Burma’s junta; to frustrating and awkward oral interviews in South Africa. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 18, 2011 at 06:24


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