Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Thursday, September 27, 2012
The ‘Bull Dog Mack,’ the Brother in Black, and the Fallacy of Fox News: Reconsidering the Film Convoy
Some of the trends I remember from films during my childhood in the 1970s included movies about epidemics related to animals and insects, movies about possessed children, and movies about cars. Of all of the “car films,” Convoy, which starred Kris Kristofferson as the “Rubber Duck,” is one of my all-time favorites from that period. The black Mack gas truck of the “Rubber Duck,” with its headlights that resemble eyes, seems to be personified on some levels. Driving this iconic truck through the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the West, the “Rubber Duck” courageously leads a diverse and eclectic convoy of truckers, until his fateful standoff with the diabolic sheriff “Dirty Lyle.” The most provocative scene occurs when the Rubber Duck, upon hearing that "Spider Mike"- a black trucker in the convoy-has been beaten brutally and jailed, literally drives this big rig through the walls of the jail to rescue him. The shocking scene sets the stage for the penultimate standoff with the sheriff, who sets up a blockade on the U.S.-Mexico border that includes the National Guard with the goal of capturing and ambushing the Rubber Duck.
We first see the Rubber Duck’s love interest, a woman named Melissa portrayed by the actress Ali McGraw, driving on the road behind him in a black Jaguar and snapping photographs of him as the film begins in Arizona. As the Rubber Duck nears the roadblock and senses the danger, he tells her, in order to save and protect her, to “get out” of the truck, and throws out her bag. With determination, he drives on to meet the blockade as she makes a dramatic run down the road after his truck. He drives straight into the fire of the machine guns that target the truck as he nears the bridge, and that ultimately focus on the gas tanks to ensure his annihilation. Seeing the Rubber Duck’s truck ambushed in this film was as heartbreaking to me as a child as the death of the dog Old Yellar. Yet, he is redeemed when we learn that he survived after all (i.e. “Have you ever seen a duck that couldn’t swim"). I do not think that one of my favorite television series by the end of the seventies, B.J. and the Bear (the Bear was a little monkey), would have been as conceivable without this film.
Looking back at Convoy from my adult standpoint, I have appreciated its powerful message all the more, including its critique of state-sanctioned violence and visionary examination of white male working class subjectivity. I’ve realized the genius of the Rubber Duck in finishing the drive to the bridge from the floor of his truck cab amidst the heavy gunfire, and in ensuring that the gas tank is disconnected from his truck just as he reaches the middle of it, so that he can drive off and survive the explosion. This film is truly revolutionary, and I don’t say that now just because I am a longtime fan. As a character, the Rubber Duck’s commitment to social justice, and resistance to abusive law enforcement and police brutality as embodied in “Dirty Lyle,” lies in the continuum with Black Panther Party philosophy, making its release in the immediate years after the black power/Civil Rights Movement all the more significant. Dirty Lyle, even in his naming, fits the definition of the "pigs" invoked in the theme song for this film, which interestingly and provocatively recasts aspects of Black liberation movement rhetoric designed to critique abusive forms of law enforcement. This film also has important implications for discourses on immigration given that it is set in the U.S. Southwest and highlights this confrontation with state authority on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. I appreciate this film for envisioning possibilities for solidarity across racial lines between white working class men, African Americans and other people of color. The Rubber Duck’s heroic if extreme choice to crash his truck through a small-town jail to rescue Spider Mike, who has been horribly beaten by the police and needs urgent medical attention, even speaks volumes about black men and forms of abuse and violence that some have experienced, along with compulsive imprisonment within the corporatized prison industrial complex that has only escalated in the years since this film first appeared. I think it is very significant that characters such as the “Black Widow” and “Spider Mike” make up the Rubber Duck’s diverse convoy, and that the Rubber Duck risks and sacrifices his own life to rescue a black man such as “Spider Mike” from jail. For crashing the rig through the jail impacts all of the action that follows in the film. In this film, the Rubber Duck emerges as a model of an antiracist white man and serves as his brother’s keeper.
Similarly, I would say that the Smokey and the Bandit sequence of “car films” starring Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason has a distinct populist impulse and also radically dramatizes the confrontation of working class white men with forms of bullying by police authority and vigilante violence that have been very familiar in some black communities. The film uses comedy to make some of the critiques of this hegemonic system that films such as In the Heat of the Night made more dramatically at the outset of the post-civil rights era. The “Bandit,” like the “Rubber Duck,” emerges as a quintessential white masculine “outlaw” figure who resists and evades forms of brutal state authority and surveillance. I want to underscore that Convoy is an important and even indispensable film to think about in pondering representations of the black liberation movement in popular culture during the 1970s.
I was deeply honored and inspired to see Kris Kristofferson speak at the march on the Martin Luther King holiday in downtown Atlanta as a college student in the Atlanta University Center in 1992; I valued seeing the hero of one of my favorite childhood films in person, and speaking about such important social issues, which sounded like what the Rubber Duck would do. I realize and respect that his politics have evolved in some ways over the years. That is beside the point, and really, to be expected. One thing that I find utterly mystifying, however, is the ease with which Fox News appropriated the powerful theme song of this film several years ago to describe the goal of taking their message, including the Tea Party discourse, “across the U.S.A.” It is a move that recalls the Right-Wing appropriation of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1984, which the scholar James Kavanaugh examines in an essay on “Ideology”: “At stake here was how the vast appeal of an attractive cultural icon, and the wildly popular and pleasing cultural texts (rock songs) he produced, could be appropriated to support specific political and socioeconomic programs.”
The 1975 song “Convoy” by C.W. McCall has definitely had a range of interesting remakes, but this appropriation by Fox News seemed so inappropriate, and even ridiculous, given the thematic content of the film centered on protecting the rights of working class and grassroots communities and its deep investment in interrogating forms of state authority, as opposed to reconsolidating and reinforcing it within a discourse that is at the same time, staunchly anti-goverment. When I first heard it sampled on the network, I remember thinking, “When was the last time Glenn Beck drove a big rig through a jail house to rescue a black man from police brutality?” I value the message of this film especially when thinking of longstanding forms of class warfare that have relied on racism to divide poor whites from the black masses since the antebellum era, along with contemporary ideologies that have worked to align white working class voters with the white elite and that have routinely appropriated populist agendas. Whatever its merits may be, there are critiques aplenty of Fox News and my goal is certainly not to make yet another one here; while I do not support some of its journalistic practices, I believe in freedom of the press, and Fox News is part of that, for better and for worse. Rather, my concern is with the readiness with which the message of this one film got turned around by Fox, which provides a sobering reminder of how easily these mind-bending ideological reversals and appropriations can happen within the public sphere of politics, along with the shortness of cultural memory in some cases. The original message of the film Convoy does not ever need to be lost. Thank goodness the film’s real story says otherwise and dramatizes the great things that can happen when we remember the ties that unite us, rather than the lines that divide us, and indeed, dare to become our brother and sister’s keeper. For all of these reasons, and after all of these years, the Rubber Duck is and remains a true hero in my estimation.
Convoy video and theme song for film
YouTube link to full-length film
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Daughter of Africa, Mother of African American Literature, Another American Revolution (Black History Series, African American Literature Series, & New Daughters of Africa Series). Dedicated to Honorée Jeffers.
Olympic gymanist and Gold Medalist Gabrielle Douglas
In the midst of all of the dialogue about Olympic Gold Medalist Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas, including all of the ridiculous and obsessive media stories focused on her hair, I have been most intrigued by her shared qualities with Phillis Wheatley, the author of the earliest book in African American literary history, which is entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). I have been thinking about Wheatley for three reasons over these past few weeks. First, I recently completed an art quilt featuring her (above), which is dedicated to one of my dear friends, the poet Honorée Jeffers. Like me, she is from the state of Alabama, and has been at work on a volume of poetry honoring Wheatley. Second, I was preparing to teach Wheatley, who always leads off my survey of African American literature -1930s. In the process, I was also meditating on Vincent Carretta’s engaging new biography on Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (2011) and also thinking toward teaching it. And third, after wrapping up all of my chapter drafts, I was working on the introduction of my second book, which begins with a discussion of Wheatley.
Even as a woman who stands 6’2” and has never taken gymnastics or had an interest in playing sports at all, I have long been a fan of women’s gymnastics and look forward to this event at every Olympics. My 2003 Mississippi Quarterly essay entitled “ Southern Turns” begins with a discussion of what I felt was at stake in the images of antebellum Southern romance that animated the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, from strutting belles to strutting gentlemen, along with the running commentary during the opening parade on nations that had “never won a medal.” As I began my dissertation at Duke that summer, I followed those games with great interest, including the gymnastics competitions. I was especially interested in African American gymnast Dominique Dawes. I was happy when the U.S. won the team Gold, though concerned about the pressure on Kerri Strugg to stick her second vault on a sprained ankle. Even before the games started, it had been frustrating to hear Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu described as the U.S. team members most likely to win gold during the Individual All Around. Yet, the reality that most people have forgotten is that Dawes advanced further than either one of them in this competition. I noticed how alone Dawes was every time that she went out on the floor and did her routines and then returned to her teammates on the sidelines, who seemed to ignore her and failed time after time to affirm her or embrace her after these impressive performances. Yet, they embraced one another. I respected Dawes all the more for the strength, focus and tenacity that she demonstrated in spite of it all. When she stepped out of bounds during the floor routine in the Individual All Around, I was devastated and mortified. I literally cried myself to sleep that night because seeing her dream lost was heartbreaking. Talk show host Rosie O’Donnell and many others were crying right along with me because so many people knew and cared about how much was at stake for all of the talented girls competing.
Just as I was happy to see Dawes make history on the team she helped to victory in 1996, I have been heartened and inspired that once again, a black teen gymnast has been instrumental in helping the U.S. gymnastics team win its second gold medal, and went on to become the first black girl and woman to ever win the Individual All Around in women’s gymnastics. One of my undergraduate mentors at Spelman College, Christine Wick Sizemore, published an academic study in 1989 entitled A Female Vision of the City: London in the Novels of Five British Women. I am intrigued by the parallel ways in which London served as the geographical context for the emergence of Phillis Wheatley as a writer of international renown given that it was the site where her first book was published and a place she visited. Similarly, I am intrigued by how the city of London, as the site of the 2012 Olympic Games, has launched Gabby as an international celebrity in recent weeks. Indeed, Skip Gates’s short book The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, which I have also assigned several times in my African American literature survey, compellingly describes Wheatley as an international celebrity and the “Toni Morrison of her time,” the late eighteenth century. Even beyond these general similarities, I would say that both teens, in spite of their separation by several centuries, have been primarily grounded by their Christian faith. Both teens, for different reasons, and in spite of their clear talents and abilities, were subjected to forms of intense public scrutiny and "tests" of sorts in which they had to “prove themselves.” Stories about Wheatley often highlight the “Attestation” that she famously endured in Boston, in which she was questioned by a panel of distinguished gentlemen to ascertain her authorship of the poems in her volume. Perhaps the most famous and significant signature among the fourteen signatures is that of John Hancock, who later signed the Declaration of Independence, and whose name itself has become the quintessential signifier and noun referencing the signature in our nation’s vernacular. Similarly, Gabby Douglas performed for an international audience under intense scrutiny during the London Olympic Games before a panel of international judges. She seemed to be judged as much in the news media about the question of her readiness and potential to be a champion as a gymnast. In the end, it is much to her credit that she not only proved herself but also proved her critics wrong. It is also intriguing that just as Wheatley, notwithstanding her slave status, received support and tutelage within the household of her white owners-John and Susannah Wheatley-that helped her to gain literacy and come to voice as a poet, Gabby Douglas’s success was enabled not only by the support and sacrifices of her mother Natalie Hawkins, but also by her white host family in Iowa, which included Travis and Missy Parton and their four daughters. Such stories, then as now, not only have important implications related to how and why forms of white patronage have been recurrently instrumental in determining black mobility and success in the U.S., but also have implications for the discourses on transracial adoption and mixed-race identity. Just as the young Wheatley engaged distinguished public figures, from Benjamin Franklin to George Washington, Gabby Douglas has had encounters with figures from First Lady Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey, whose embraces and affirmations underscore the significance of Douglas’s historic achievement for little black girls and teens everywhere, as well as for black women, all Americans and fans around the world. While Wheatley wrote and gained her freedom in the face of an Enlightenment sensibility that devalued the black body and mind and viewed blacks as inferior, Douglas has made her mark as an athlete in a millennial culture that has been prematurely described as postracial, and in which the ideological devaluation of the black body persists.
I was inspired to see the interview with Douglas and her mother this past weekend on Oprah Winfrey Presents, as well as her coach Liang Chow, and her host family, the Partons. In this interview, it was particularly sobering to hear about the “bullying” that Douglas endured as a young teen at her former gym in Virginia Beach, to the point of being isolated by other girls and referred to as a “slave," experiences that shaped her choice to leave. It is just as appalling to hear denials of these incidents, including those of her former coach, which suggest that Gabby is somehow lying. For example, Gustavo Maure of Excalibur Gymnastics has stated to E! News that “Gabby’s remarks were hurtful and without merit . . . Her African American former teammates will answer this serious accusation . . . We are good people. We never were knowingly involved in any type of bullying or racist treatment, like she is accusing Excalibur.” Another gymnast said that the comments were “absolutely ridiculous.” Another spokesperson said that “Gabby was never a victim, in fact many would say she was one of the favorites. . . I am not saying that she never felt bullied because when you are in a sport with a bunch of girls it is bond[sic] to happen. However, anything that she may have felt was never about race and I can assure you everyone at some point has felt bullied.”
I find these efforts to dispute, dismiss and discount Douglas’s experiences to be deeply problematic. All that the refutations of Douglas’s story demonstrate to me is that if you are not black or invested in anti-racism, then what counts as racism may not be visible, detectable, or even important to you. Yet, such racial incidents are magnified 50,000 times and are extremely noticeable and hurtful to anybody who actually experiences them, and can do the kind of harm that you don’t, or worse, WON’T, see. The refutations and denials also demonstrate the persisting uses and abuses of the discourses of colorblindness to discredit black experiences of racism. We always have to be vigilant in not re inscribing stereotypes of the U.S. South as a racist region, but the behavior sounds like the kind that could very well happen in a Southern gym. Some girls and women in gymnastics can see the sport as a club that belongs to them and one in which black girls like Gabby have no right or place. Furthermore, in the interview, it is important to acknowledge that both Gabby Douglas and her mother, Mrs. Hawkins, demonstrated a reluctance to claim that all of the problems the former experienced were related to race; Oprah Winfrey also made the distinctions clear. It is not as if Gabby Douglas is crying wolf here, so to speak. These experiences sound very real, and are far too commonplace for her to have ever made up.
I believe her, too, because as she was describing what happened to her at her gym in her interview, I was reminded of things that have also happened to me in academia. For example, her reflections on her experiences at her gym reminded me of how two white women on the faculty on my former job would actually walk into the room for faculty meeting, see me sitting alone at the table there and waiting for it to begin, yet not speak or acknowledge my presence, and just sit down and start talking to each other. It happened several times. It was as if they were trying to hurt my feelings or trying to remind me that they had some kind of “club” of which I was not a part-as if I would have even wanted to be a part of it! One of them even came into the mail room when I was already there several times and walked in and out without speaking. Those behaviors, which some black women in the academy are equally capable of manifesting, were all the more mystifying when considering that there were absolutely no contexts to explain why on earth they were behaving like that. I was the wrong person to try that with, for from my earliest childhood, I was taught by people like my grandmother to stay away from any children who acted funny or as if they didn’t want to play with me. On top of this, I grew up hearing strong condemnations in our household of the types of people who “lick and lap up behind folks” and “buy friendship,” so have NEVER, EVER done those things in my life, nor have I ever cared when someone did not like me. Moreover, a lifetime of hearing one-line sayings like “one monkey don’t stop the show” has also kept me grounded and constantly reminded of who is important to me in the larger scheme of things-and who isn’t. Even in places where racism is not so much institutionally sanctioned and where one’s presence, on top of one’s work and credentials, helps to diversify a place in ways that most other people appreciate, racism can come out in interpersonal interactions in some cases. Minority scholars are often its targets.
Similarly, I was appalled when a topmost administrator (I won’t get any more specific and will just leave it at that) walked up to a group of three white professors in which I was also standing and talking about the subject of home-schooling at a major university conference/retreat in 2006. He spoke to and acknowledged each one of them and shook their hands, but ignored me standing there. That moment, especially as someone who had just gotten tenure the year before, was sobering for me and a real eye-opener. I remember thinking that “If they want to play this dirty game with me, I’m going to show them how to play it!” I remember thinking with the deepest indignation in the ensuing weeks that “I am the one who was a debutante! I am the one who flies first class! I am the one who is in a sorority!” and so forth and so on. Similarly, in the spring of 2008, when I was among the honorees at a gathering, and he happened to be sitting at my table, he asked, “What office do you work in on campus?” instead of presuming that I was a professor on campus. I could not help but think that in his mind, any black woman seemed to register automatically as staff. (That moment was roughly analogous to once going downstairs in my high rise condominium building to pick up a package-the only apartment building in downtown Sacramento with a doorman-and being asked by a new woman in the management office, “Who are you picking up mail for?” as if I as a black woman must be working as a domestic for somebody in the building, instead of actually living there). People like him and experiences like that really compelled me to tighten my filters and narrow my circle as an academic. All of these dynamics, along with the ones that Gabby Douglas describes in her landmark interview with Oprah Winfrey, also remind me of a passage I read in a chapter entitled “The Staying Power of Racism” in Alabama writer and scholar Trudier Harris’s memoir, Summer Snow: Reflections from a Black Daughter of the South: “I remember how shocked I was when a white male colleague and I were both in our offices early one morning, long before others had arrived, and we happened to enter the hallway at the same time. ‘Good morning,’ I called out. He said nothing. Whatever excuses I might have tried to attribute to his behavior proved over the years to be irrelevant, for he had conveyed precisely what he wanted to convey-that he elected not to acknowledge my existence in those private moments. The same was true of another white man. Yet, when these English departments held receptions and public gatherings, both men would join in groups in which I was involved in conversations and pretend that we had been best buddies for years. Both these men valued the opinions of their nonblack colleagues so they toed the proper racial line among them. Yet their hearts remained unchanged.”
I’ve said all of this to say that I believe Gabby Douglas in part because the experiences that she claims to have had at her Virginia gym DO happen to black people and other people of color all the time, and also even happen to some whites on the basis of factors such as race, class, gender, nationality, and sexuality. I believe her because I have experienced similar things myself in instances, along with many people I know. I believe her because of what I even saw Dominque Dawes experience. And because I just believe her.
I want to suggest that the profound continuities in the stories of Gabby Douglas and Phillis Wheatley are useful to recognize and think about in African American literary and cultural history. That in the wake of her Olympic triumph, Gabby has adopted a “new name,” or rather, reclaimed her given name of “Gabrielle,” also compels me to think about how her story adapts, revises and expands recurrent narratives and motifs in African American literary history, beginning with devices established in the slave narrative as a genre, and how her story relates to that of a figure in African American literary history such as Phillis Wheatley. Gabby Douglas, like Phillis Wheatley, has become a global phenomenon, is also incredibly talented and gifted, and has a story that can even help us to introduce Wheatley to new generations of young girls and students. For all of the reasons that I have outlined in this post, I suggest that the story of Gabrielle Douglas is useful to “think with,” “teach with” and write through as a scholar in areas such as American and African American literature, Southern studies, gender studies, cultural studies, popular culture, and Africana studies.
Monday, August 6, 2012
After church and at my favorite cafe checking email in Ithaca. On my way to campus to attend another day of the exciting 100th birthday celebration for the acclaimed scholar M.H. Abrahms at Cornell. Summer is my favorite season and I usually wear my white dresses before Labor Day. This turned out to be one of the days. These days no summer seems complete without a "white party." The ultimate celebration has to be the annual diner en blanc in Paris.
In general, as an artist, I believe that the body is our fundamental canvas. Other than being an artist, fashion functions as another primary site for artistic and creative expression for me. It's fun to archive some looks from time to time, a process that the Ipad 2 definitely helps on the run.
In general, as an artist, I believe that the body is our fundamental canvas. Other than being an artist, fashion functions as another primary site for artistic and creative expression for me. It's fun to archive some looks from time to time, a process that the Ipad 2 definitely helps on the run.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
(Selected Photos from Facebook Album)
Spent July 2-4 staying out at an oceanside hotel in Jacksonville Beach, FL and the other two days in the city. What a fun trip to see my cousins this was (hadn't seen them since Christmas and could not let a year pass without fellowshipping in person)! It was also special to be in Florida in light of my grandparents' time living there during the 1940s in Pensacola and Daytona (and my grandmother's memories of seeing Mary McLeod Bethune, who is the subject of the first chapter of my new book). As my grandfather worked in construction helping to build barracks in Pensacola, FL, my grandmother worked "ship service" as part of the National Youth Administration (NYA) signing out uniforms to sailors, checking them off, and filling in information on ledgers, to the point that she says her hands ached, and she has so many fun memories of that time. It seemed like this rich history came full circle when my cousin married a guy in the Navy from New York City, whom she met when they were freshmen in architecture at Tuskegee. It has been inspiring for my grandmother, I know, to witness a new generation of young men discovering Pensacola and the Navy so many years later and to have it so closely connected to our family now. I saw Pensacola for the first time in 2009 and finally saw the famous Palafox St. myself where my grandparents had taken pictures against the backdrop of a carrier ship one Sunday afternoon during the 1940s, images that I reproduced on companion art quilts of them. After the time in Pensacola, they moved on to Daytona, where my grandfather helped to build beachfront homes. My grandmother didn't work in Daytona, but accompanied him there. (She had also lived in Florida for a while when her aunt took her there as a small child after she lost her father). My grandparents are both listed in the Florida census of 1945. The travel that my grandfather's construction jobs entailed and how my grandmother accompanied him to these places also makes me think of themes related to labor in some of Zora Neale Hurston's short stories and novels, as well as plays such as Polk County. A few years ago, we came across some photos of my grandfather on the beach in Daytona, Florida. I was thinking of the difference time makes, for back then, beaches in that area were segregated, with the exception of the one that Mrs. Bethune designated for African Americans. This week, we encountered kindness in our encounters on the beach that would have been unimaginable in Mrs. Bethune's day, like two young white women who rushed over and grabbed my bag and other things and quickly moved them to higher ground as I sat alone and they saw I was encountering an unexpected water deluge. In general, I love the sense of community and sense of fluidity (no pun intended) that one can feel on the beach and missed it when we left. God willing, I will see Daytona soon.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
What's in a Name?: Some Thoughts for the Debate Regarding the Rosa Parks Library in Montgomery, Alabama
As a Montgomery native, I wrote the following comments on Rosa Parks and shared them with minority members of the Montgomery City Council, along with the Chairman, and one of our State Representatives. I shared them with just a few people, including some who know me, so as not to be intrusive or bombarding, as I know our leaders are very busy. They were submitted informally in the hope that they might be useful in the midst of the public dialogue on the current proposal before the Montgomery City Council to remove Parks's name from the library on the street named for her in Montgomery, and to replace it with the name of Bertha Pleasant Williams, a pioneering librarian in the city who also has connections to civil rights legacies. The proposition will be discussed at the City Council meeting later today. I never imagined that I would end up engaged in some activism related to Rosa Parks myself, but felt compelled to at least offer some perspectives, even if unofficially, given how much her legacy has impacted me in my own life, and also now helps to shape aspects of my academic and art work. The comments that I am sharing below will stand in, then, as post # 3 in my series of meditations on the road to Parks's centenary in 2013.
Link to news article about this issue as it has unfolded in the Montgomery public sphere
Rosa Parks Avenue Branch Library in Montgomery, Alabama
I write to share some thoughts about my work on the legacy of Rosa Parks as the City Council in Montgomery considers a proposal to change the name of the library branch now named in her honor to alternatively honor the legacy of Mrs. Bertha Pleasant Williams, a pioneering librarian in the city who also made landmark contributions to civil rights history. I am a Montgomery, Alabama native who now works as an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. I am also an artist. After I graduated from St. Jude Educational Institute in 1989, I went on to complete my B.A. at Spelman College in 1993 and my Ph.D. at Duke University in 1998. In 2009, I served as a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. Embassy in France under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and in conjunction with the national quilt exhibition “Un Patchwork de Cultures,” and was also honored with a talk, reception, film screening and exhibition at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Paris. In Montgomery, several major public events related to both my work as a scholar and artist have been hosted at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, including the first talk and book signing related to my first book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South (University of Georgia Press) in 2007, and my first art exhibition, Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris, in 2008.
As a teen in Montgomery, I volunteered weekly when I was 16 and 17 at the Cleveland Avenue YMCA in a program for children that I developed under the supervision of Mr. Robert James, which focused on tutoring and building their social graces and leadership skills. I have long cared about the community where the library currently named for Rosa Parks is located. At age 17, I also won a first-place prize in a contest in the city for a dramatic poem I wrote honoring Rosa Parks entitled “Together We Will Win.” During the time that I was a teen volunteer in Montgomery, it was astonishing to me that one of the children, an eight-year-old boy in my group, had actually thought that the Governor’s Mansion in our city was the nation’s White House, until I clarified these distinctions for him. We cannot by any means take for granted that a major name change for the library at this point would not be confusing to some of our youth.
In my research and writing on Rosa Parks, which is the subject of the second chapter in the second book-length manuscript I am now developing, I have focused on the global reach of her legacy. It is quite significant that even before her historic choice to remain seated on James Blake’s bus in 1955, Parks’s earliest activism took the form of escorting groups of children to segregated public libraries in an attempt to help them secure library cards. Her library card activism is an aspect of her legacy that the 2002 Julie Dash film starring Angela Bassett entitled The Rosa Parks Story compellingly highlights. Moreover, with the support of editors, Parks has authored several books pitched to young audiences, including Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth, I Am Rosa Parks, and Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope and the Heart of a Woman who Changed A Nation, as well as her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story. She is also the subject of countless children’s books by authors ranging from the celebrated quilt artist Faith Ringgold to the poet Nikki Giovanni, and has also been honored in volumes of poetry by U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and Nikki Finney. These aspects of her legacy demonstrate how effective and prominent Parks has remained as a role model for children over time and how much she herself has remained a topic of interest for reading and study among them. She has been a veritable “ambassador” for reading among children in our culture. The association of her name with a public library in our city where children can check out books has served as a most fitting tribute to her given her commitment to promoting projects related to literacy and reading during her lifetime. I feel that precisely because Parks is globally known, so linked to a legacy of activism in segregated libraries, and so ubiquitous as both a subject and writer of children's books, her legacy in Montgomery is useful to link to a public library in the sense that the Branch on Rosa Parks Ave. currently functions. This is the primary reason that I do not want to see her name entirely replaced at the library on Rosa Parks Avenue at this point.
My second concern relates to the potential for economic development that the area where the library is located holds for the city of Montgomery given its promise as a major epicenter for touring and studying civil rights legacies related to the historic 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott in the South as a region. The library named for Rosa Parks is one of the major signposts now visible on this map in West Montgomery. This map also includes a range of other important sites such as E.D. Nixon’s historic home on Clinton Avenue; the apartment in Cleveland Courts where Parks and her family lived at the time of her arrest; the Trinity Lutheran Church where Rev. Robert Graetz, a friend of Parks’s, served as minister; and E.D. Nixon Elementary School. Furthermore, the close proximity of this artery off Rosa Parks Avenue to “The City of St. Jude” on Fairview Avenue, which is best historically known as the final camping place for the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers in 1965, makes this district a prime one for tourist development related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Indeed, this area has the potential to increase its audience of tourists exponentially when fully developed, and to draw visitors from around the nation as well as around the globe. If anything, I feel that now is the time for the development of a more concrete action plan to promote tourism in this area, so that the city will be poised to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, in light of the impending 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 2015, along with the 50th anniversary of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery March. Subtracting the library from this rich “Bus Boycott” map in that area by entirely eliminating Rosa Parks’s name from the library building, when considering all of the possibilities for tourism in that area, is therefore a move that I feel should be given careful and serious thought. In general, I am also inspired by the rich and detailed discussion of this area in Montgomery that the historian Douglas Brinkley offers in his biography of Parks entitled Rosa Parks: A Life.
In raising these points about the importance of Parks’s legacy and expressing my own concerns about what is at stake in removing her name at this point, I must underscore my support for also honoring Bertha Pleasant Williams given her pioneering work as a librarian in Montgomery. She is most deserving of a tribute and I am deeply inspired to see the public campaign advocating that she been honored by renaming the library. My own concern relates to the potential implications of taking Parks’s name off the building altogether and the message that such a move might send. To be sure, the history and legacy of Rosa Parks are unassailable. At the same time, the idea of taking a person’s name off of a building can have a negative connotation, as we have witnessed most recently in the Sandusky case that has tarnished the legacy of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno and raised questions about whether he should continue to be honored on campus in buildings and a statue. In general, I have never found it productive when the legacies of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks have been dichotomized. Similarly, I don't want to see an either/or dichotomy develop in the cases of Parks and Williams as black women, for both of these legacies are worthy of the deepest respect. It is possible to work out a solution that will be mutually beneficial. I do like the idea of including a designation to Mrs. Williams on the premises, whatever shape it takes. One idea that Eric Acree, the librarian for the John Henrik Clarke Library here at Cornell in the Africana Center, mentioned is establishing a reading desk, reading room, or even commissioning an art tribute that the branch might spotlight in Mrs. Williams’s honor. We now offer tributes to a range of our veteran faculty here in similar ways. Even in the wake of the opening of the monumental national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the capitol, none of the ways in which we now honor civil rights leaders can ever be taken for granted. We need to remember that the struggles for projects from establishing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday (1968-1986) to designating the Council House as a national historic site on the capitol in honor of Mary McLeod Bethune (1982) have all been hard-won.
In her landmark autobiography, and in the final chapter entitled “The Years Since,” Parks acknowledges that “Today, Cleveland Avenue is named Rosa Parks Boulevard”(183). On the cusp of her 100th birthday in 2013, I am excited about the global celebrations of her legacy that are in store, and that Montgomery will stand at the forefront of them. I do understand that the public library branch, originally named the Cleveland Avenue Branch, was only named for Parks once the name of the street was changed to honor her. Renaming the library altogether is not the choice that I prefer myself in light of the salience that I hope will continue to be given to Parks’s legacy in that community. It is a choice that I will certainly accept if it is the outcome of the City Council meeting Tuesday evening. Indeed, these days when so many libraries are imperiled, the truly important thing is that this landmark library exists at all, regardless of what it is named! I have only wanted to emphasize in my comments here what I feel is at stake as someone who works on Parks as both an artist and intellectual, and who also worked very hard myself as a teen volunteer and St. Jude student leader in carrying on her legacy of youth work in this community in Montgomery, even though back then, I had absolutely no idea that I was so viscerally surrounded by her legacy and historical footprints (i.e. down the street from the Y in Cleveland Courts). After her passing in 2005, one of the three memorial services for Parks was held in Montgomery. When Louis Freeman, the African American pilot for the chartered flight, who had made history as the nation’s first black chief pilot, circled the city and tipped the left wing of the plane bearing Parks’s body away as a final salute to Montgomery. This gesture touches me very deeply and drives home the importance of Montgomery to her. Though Mrs. Parks moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1957, she always had a lot of love for Montgomery, the city where she had put her life on the line to help make better for future generations. We must always give the deep love that she had for her hometown right back to her, show our deepest appreciation for her global legacy, and ensure that it is taught to future generations in Montgomery and everywhere.
Africana Studies and Research Center
Monday, June 25, 2012
Images of the Rosa Parks Quilt
Georgette Norman, the Director at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, with the Rosa Parks quilt
Wearing the T Shirt that reads, "I Am Because She Was," which was produced for the powerful tribute to Rosa Parks at UC Davis in February, 2006
Dialoging with 4th and 5th graders at E.D. Nixon Elementary in the Gallery Room at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery as they visited the exhibition "Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris" in 2008
My Mother, Joanne Richardson, with the Rosa Parks Statue in the Gallery Room at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery
See link to Rosa Parks Quilt Album on Facebook at
The post below is the second installment in a series of meditations on Rosa Parks on the road to the celebration of her centenary in 2013. It also frames the presentation of the art quilt in my Political Series entitled “Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement: Commemorating 100 Years (1913-2013)” from my “Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris” art quilt exhibition in progress, which is scheduled at the Rosa Parks Museum and Library in Montgomery, Alabama
The art quilt "Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement"(Commemorating 100 Years, 1913-2013) (Civil Rights Movement Series, Black History Series, Alabama Women Series). Donation to the permanent collection of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, Montgomery, Alabama. From upcoming solo exhibition entitled "Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris"(2015). Dedicated to Georgette Norman, Director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, AL. Furthermore, this piece will be featured in a Special Edition Print Card whose upcoming professional photo shoot is the very first on the road to the exhibition. As the description above indicates, it is included in several series in my "Portraits" art quilt repertoire, an art quilting project that I launched in 1999 and have been working on for the past 13 years, and that is the subject of the 2008 film entitled "A Portrait of the Artist," which was made in Paris by Géraldine Chouard and Anne Crémieux and features an interview with the scholar Patricia A. Turner. This quilt also accords with the commemorative quilts I produced for the Paris Series in my first show in 2008-quilts that honored the centenaries of both Josephine Baker (2006) and Simone de Beauvoir (2008).
This piece is rendered in the painted portrait, architecturally-oriented, mixed-media art quilt style that I've developed and refined over the years (i.e. "the built quilt"). Beyond this quilt, there are two additional "centennial quilts" in the upcoming exhibition. I bought the basic materials and drew and painted the face for the Rosa Parks quilt back in 2005 during the same summer that I "painted to the end of the show," for I had originally intended to include this piece in my 2008 debut show. I ended up holding it back and in the ensuing time, redesigned the Rosa Parks quilt altogether. At this point, I could not be more pleased with how it's turned out. I'm glad I waited, for I think that had I finished it back then, it would have ended up being a very different quilt. All of the handquilting, drawing, painting and sewing that I do from quilt to quilt is very exacting and detailed. The stakes were even higher in this project. That is to say, the process of sewing and handquilting for this quilt was also special and I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility, and quite challenged, because Rosa Parks was a consummate seamstress, as well as a quilter, and it was important to me to get it just right stitch by stitch. It was incredibly humbling to "quilt Rosa Parks," so to speak.
It seems so fitting to dedidate this quilt of Rosa Parks to Georgette Norman in light of the ongoing inspiration that she has given me in my work as an artist, her community work, brilliant work on Rosa Parks's legacy, and ongoing commitment to the arts. As an artist, it has been both an honor and a privilege to dialogue with Georgette over the years. I appreciate her encouragement and support of my work from the year we first met (when we were assigned to the same unit as volunteers at Camp Sunshine), which is also the year that I first began to quilt. At the time, 1993, I had just graduated from Spelman, and she was working as the director of the Alabama African American Arts Alliance, which she founded. She saw me as an artist long before I ever saw myself as one, and throughout the 1990s, encouraged me to exhibit my work someday. I am deeply honored that Georgette and I are both featured in Lauren Cross's 2010 film "The Skin Quilt Project," a 2010 top 10 pick for the International Black Women's Film Festival, which also features a range of phenomenal quilters from Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi to Kyra Hicks. Here is a link to my blog post from a few months ago that discusses Georgette's impact on me an artist. http://richerichardsonartquilts.blogspot.com/2011/09/remembering-911-by-georgette-norman.html. I truly savor the process of working with her and learning from her as she curates my 2015 art show, including the phenonenal planning meetings, just as I have valued being a part of her veritable arts "salon" over the years.
Finally, it is exciting and inspiring that Georgette's amazing trip to London in March and bus tour of Olympic sites with a diverse group of youth in the city in honor of the legacy of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott will be featured in a truly phenomenal photographic exhibition at the Cultural Olympics this summer in the city of London during the Olympics! (http://www.stpauls.co.uk/News-Press/Latest-News/American-Civil-Rights-Movement-remembered-on-steps-of-St-Pauls).
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
[This post begins a series of meditations on Rosa Parks on the road to the celebration of her centenary in 2013. It also frames the presentation of the art quilt in my Political Series entitled “Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement: Celebrating 100 Years (1913-2013)” from my “Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris” art quilt exhibition in progress, which is scheduled at the Rosa Parks Museum and Library in Montgomery, Alabama]
The bus, in light of the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat and the famous 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, is one of the most ubiquitous and enduring symbols of the civil rights era. It is a space that I have continually engaged and meditated on myself in part because of my birth and upbringing in Montgomery and love and appreciation of civil rights history and intellectual work on the topic. Seeing any rude bus drivers to this day (and they still exist in some cities and even on some campuses) inevitably makes me sad and makes me wonder how far we have truly come from the days of James Blake. In a way, in everyday life, the bus ride remains, for many of us, a symbol of freedom, hope and great possibility. When I think of notions of the black public sphere and arguments about how much it has been altered in the post-civil rights era, I also think of public buses as spaces that sometimes still bring a diverse class of people together in some areas, as segregated neighborhoods enabled contact among some black doctors, lawyers, teachers and working class people. This is the kind of dynamism that Melissa Harris-Perry relates to black barbershops in her scholarship, for example. Airplanes, like buses, are absolutely no less relevant to civil rights concerns, including the discourses related to segregation in public transportation on the basis of factors such as race and class.
An unsettling phenomenon I have observed at some airports and with several airlines in recent months is my main concern here. However, before I get to it, I want to say a little more about the bus. As someone who commuted on the regional bus back and forth to Sacramento to my job as a University of California professor in Davis, I valued the many opportunities that I had to meet and at times help mentor students from other universities in the region whom I would not have encountered otherwise. I also met many workers on campus on the bus and had opportunities to dialogue with them and to hear about issues that they faced. As I left the bus one morning when it got to my campus, I once slipped a young white woman with a small baby $20, which was literally all of the money I had on me at the time, because she had been talking to a passenger about how her mother had thrown her out of the house with just a bus ticket to get to a relative. It was very clear that she did not have a sense of what the trip would entail that was stretched before her over the next couple of days.
Because the train no longer came to my hometown by the mid-1990s, the bus was the easiest, most straightforward and economical way of traveling back and forth from Durham, North Carolina for me as a graduate student. Back then, I became very familiar with the ins and outs of bus traveling, always felt safe and have very fond memories of that time. I will never forget the passengers I met over the years and the wonderful fellowship that I shared with some of them at times, including a woman I met when I was 27 who had just lost her mother, was traveling back after the funeral, and got into a conversation on topics from the Iraq War to the Bible with two young men (one of whom was a veteran of the war) and me. The Iraq veteran was traumatized by the war and was struggling with a lot of issues. As the four of us were parting ways, we were almost tearful as we hugged one another in the parking lot and said farewell, as if we had been lifelong friends.
Interstate buses, in light of the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, also have profound historical significance and are important to think of to this day against the backdrop of civil rights history. This perspective seems all the more urgent, for example, when I consider how astonished I have been myself in recent years to witness that since my first time seeing it in the late 1980s, the bus station in one major Southern city (I won’t mention which one but a great many of you likely have an idea) has not been expanded or remodeled one iota to accommodate the many more passengers who use it, including the many Mexican migrants who have come to the area. This benign neglect has been evident there even as the airport in that same city is a first-class facility replete with white porch rockers and kind and attentive bathroom attendants (one year, there were miniature Christmas trees beside all of the bathroom sinks), evoking the luxury and romance of the mythic Old South! This disparity unsettled me given that I knew from having seen them with my own eyes that many mothers-including black, Latina and white women -were contending with flooded-out toilets in two of five stalls as they attempted to take care of their babies and children, while also dealing with two out of five sinks that didn’t even work, or that had no towels and empty soap dispensers. When my grandmother and I went on a bus trip to New York in 1999 (flying was out of the question for her), I remember being troubled when hearing a white male bus driver rudely tell a young black woman with a baby who kept crying that he would put her off the bus if she did not keep her baby quiet, which reminded me of a scene in William Wells Brown's slave narrative in which a black slave baby was killed because he would not stop crying. The compulsive privatization of transportation in this nation that has occurred over the past few decades, coupled with the racialized avoidance of public buses in the U.S. as they have been marked sometimes as “unsafe” spaces (i.e. for white people), make it important to challenge such presumptions.
I have also learned a lot and made many observations over the years from frequent air travel. I took my first airplane flight at age 18, which was a shopping trip to New York with friends after I graduated from high school. I took a few trips here and there after that. However, air travel became a way of life for me once I moved to California in 1998 for my first job. In my first years, I tended to go home twice a year. I booked tickets through the travel agency on campus or through sites such as Priceline.com in the effort to find the best deal (I will never forget the $250 ticket to Montgomery that had four stops along the way). When I began to travel more frequently, this approach became less efficient.
I began to stick with one major airline as I entered a phase during which I literally kept a packed suitcase, made the cross-country trip on a monthly basis, and had two or three airline tickets in rotation at a time. When I was still an assistant professor, I was pleasantly surprised when I became classified as a "preferred"/"elite" passenger and began to receive upgrades to first class on almost all of my trips. The airport was usually bright and sunny, and the airport staff always put a lot into preparing the large international planes for us and having them ready for the long cross-country trip. Having the privilege of preferred travel was definitely beneficial at times. I think of a conference where I was scheduled to speak in New York in 2005. I got to the airport in Sacramento early that morning only to learn that the flight had been canceled. Passengers were told to go to customer service to have their flights rebooked; preferred passengers were sent to a special line. When we spilt off, I noticed that I was the only woman heading to the short line, along with a small cluster of white men wearing business suits, as an extremely long line formed at customer service. My turn at the counter came very quickly. The agent realized that he could get me to New York by 1:00 a.m. via a flight through Las Vegas, asked me if I had my suitcase with me (“Good! You know how to travel!”), and then said, “I’m going to get you on this flight!” He stopped the line, ran over to that gate, and within 15 minutes, my flight left. Even on the East Coast, the miles that I quickly amassed with so much travel domestically and abroad led me to be reclassified as a preferred passenger and to the privilege of regular first class upgrades, which definitely has its conveniences.
In spite of the pleasures, comforts and conveniences of so much first-class travel beginning when I lived in California, including added leg room that makes travel far more comfortable for a tall person like me, I have been uncomfortable with some things, such as policies that allow the first class cabin to be fed a full meal as others in the coach section are given a snack and are unable to eat. I find this approach to be all the more problematic in light of the compulsive snack food pricing policies that have emerged at so many airlines in recent years. Even the very use of the term "first class" by airlines throws into relief the issue of class in relation to this mode of travel.
These days, the carpets that we hear about most frequently in the media are the “red carpets” of celebrities. But I am concerned about the implications of the red carpets designated for coach passengers pictured above. One policy that I find to be particularly unsettling, and honestly, quite ridiculous, is having “preferred” passengers walk down a separate, sometimes tagged-off carpet to board flights at some major airlines, as the coach passengers are then asked to walk down another. The policies are likely well-meaning and are obviously developed in the interests of customers. Yet, while they invoke divisions on the basis of class and not race, they curiously recall and recast some of the very forms of hierarchy and stratification in public transportation that civil rights activists fought against. In the midst of the economic downturn, increasing concerns have emerged about issues of inequality in this society as well as in global contexts. The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been at the forefront among movements that are now challenging inequities based on class in this nation. I find it odd myself that subtle forms of social division are being emphasized in spaces such as some airports in this new millennium when so many struggles of the twentieth century were designed to rid us of the doctrine of “separate but equal.” In general, even prior to Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous 1884 case of Ida B. Wells, which she fought and won when she faced racial discrimination on a train as a first-class passenger when asked to give up her seat to a white man and move to a crowded smoking car, illustrated that a first-class ticket does not guarantee respect for black passengers on public conveyances and that is still true. As a black woman, it was unsettling once to be in line to board a flight among preferred passengers, and to be told, "we are boarding preferred passengers now," when I was one; I reported the incident to the airline.
Jim Crow, as the work of the historian Michael Honey reminds us, was not necessarily about excluding blacks as much as it was about keeping them “in their place.” In public bathrooms, the little sink “For Colored Only” positioned beside a nice big sink “For Whites Only” drove home this message of humiliation and degradation for blacks. (Honey did a brilliant presentation on this topic at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2006 when he served as a keynote speaker at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature conference with the theme “Labor, Literature and the U.S. South,” whose program I coordinated that year). These politics have also been explored recently in the film The Help, which highlighted an attempt of Hilly Holbrook to mandate that separate toilets be installed for black maids in the garages of their employers. These are the very kinds of politics that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed in Memphis, Tennessee where two sanitation workers died tragically in a garbage truck compactor trying to shield themselves from a rainstorm because they were not allowed to wait inside with their white co-workers. The film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry underscores the insanity and absurdity of these segregationist politics where it features the actress as the Dandridge character-who has been told that she cannot swim in the pool at a Las Vegas Hotel where she is staying-brushing her foot across the water. When she returns later, it has been emptied and drained. The irony is that black male workers have done the draining and are in the process of decontaminating the pool that has supposedly been contaminated by blackness! What a conundrum!
I am just not sure that something like a separate carpet is needed at airports when first class and preferred passengers have been and can be boarded as easily without them since they board early anyway. I am astonished that there has not been more public dialogue and concern about such airline policies where they exist. In this day and time when many of us have places to go and things to do, getting there is the main mission and not much else counts. In this day and time, I can understand how the weary traveler can come to tolerate, ignore, brush off, or too easily acquiesce to policies and practices that should ideally be scrutinized, questioned and resisted. Always, we must ask the question, what would Rosa Parks do? I have a feeling that she probably would not approve of those separate airport carpets given the lingering memory of the "colored section" on Southern public buses.
Monday, May 21, 2012
A view of all three quilts in this series
A view of all three quilts in this series
Scarlett in her prayer dress, replete with her installation of daisies. Title: "Sweet Scarlett?: Vivien Leigh Playing Southern Belle." Hollywood Series
No detail is ever ignored, including ones that are unseen. Scarlett's petticoat and hoop skirt here. I have spent half a day sewing on buttons and doing stitches on a shirt in a section that will be covered up by a tie. Here I could not resist signifying on that famous scene showing Rhett asking to see Mammy wearing the red taffeta petticoats he brought her back from New Orleans.
A closer view of Scarlett
A view of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Title: "Playing 'Mammy': Not Hattie McDaniel!" Hollywood Series
A view of the Rhett quilt. Title: "Charleston's Finest: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler."
The quilts that date back to the era of slavery all feature natural fabrics (i.e. absolutely no synthetics). The backdrop of this quilt is a cotton dishcloth and its backing is made of red bandana fabric. The buttons on her dress are made of whalebone, which also invokes Scarlett's infamous corset. The real McDaniel was known for her style and glamour and was always beautifully coiffed. The bangs and curls in view here, which are entirely covered in the 1939 film, allude to her phenomenal style. This quilt, because McDaniel's weight was an accessory in and of itself and so visually iconic, contains more padding and stuffing than most of my other quilts. It was also one that led me to significant design innovations in my quilts, and I now use these approaches in developing all of them.
Rhett in a view that highlights the architectural contouring of his face, which was redesigned in the development of this quilt.
*These are my own amateur shots; the first two quilts in this series were photographed professionally by Keith Stevenson in 2008 and released as print cards.
The Gone with the Wind quilt series, which inaugurated the Hollywood Series in my debut solo art quilt show in 2008, "Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris," is finally complete with the addition of the Rhett quilt! The quilt "JoAnn and Ju...nior Man" (from the Family Series) was the first quilt I completed that included two figures. I had also done companion Pensacola quilts featuring my grandparents. "The Ties That Bind," the triumvirate of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy (2004), which is discussed in Patricia A. Turner's book "Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters," was my very first attempt at developing THREE images on a single quilt. The Gone with the Wind Series is the first series that includes THREE QUILTS in my body of work as a quilt artist. This "triangulated" approach to quilts is visually acknowledged in the 2008 Crémieux-Chouard short film about my art, "A Portrait of the Artist," which cuts to a quick shot of the drawings for this GWTW series while discussing the King/Kennedy quilt. It seems so fitting, then, that my upcoming mega-show, Portraits II, is grounded by a large, triple-quilt installation replete with special technological effects, as well as a centerpiece panel that I like to refer to as "the bionic quilt" because of how it's built; this quilt series takes the show into the area of conceptual art in some interesting ways. In general, I love the advances in art quilt design that I have accomplished over the years in my signature classic painted portrait quilt style, including the refinement in the architectural techniques that I have achieved in my body of work, which have been the result of a lot of experimenting. The new show is absolutely phenomenal and is pushing all of my techniques to the absolute limit. I value the fact that the various quilt series are thematically all about exploring various oppositions, excavating various aspects of culture and juxaposing images that don't usually go together poltiically or seldom get thought of in relation to one another. Hence, the first print card set includes quilts of figures ranging from the filmic Scarlett in its Hollywood Series, to the Political Series' Malcolm X! Put another way, one encounters a critique of Southern nostalgia and romance through the quilts as one simultaneously revisits black nationalist discourses through Malcolm X. Similarly, the quilt of Malcolm X ("A Tie, Too?") is very purposefully juxtaposed with the King/Kennedy quilt because as I say in the film, his tragic loss is often left out of mainstream narratives about leaders of the '60s era as the other losses are emphasized.
So far, I've published two academic essays on the film "Gone with the Wind" (here's a link to my talk from one of them, which focuses on Hattie McDaniel's legacy, on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg2OmX9YGs0. I value the fact that my art allows me to engage some of the same questions as an artist that I address as an academic, but for audiences that are often different. It is a vital complement to what I do as an academic in fields such as the new Southern studies, black/Africana studies, and gender studies.
Below, I've included an excerpt from the essay that I presented in Paris to high school students at College Martin Luther King in Paris, France in January, 2009 as a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, which is the basis for Chapter 4 in my book "An Artist at the Ambassador’s: Notes on Visit to the U.S." I briefly discuss this quilt series, with an emphasis on the McDaniel quilt:
"I find it useful at times to be able to use my research and my art to engage similar questions, but for very different audiences. That is to say, those who view my art may not always encounter my articles and books I write, but my art can nevertheless offer insight into who I am and my ideas.
For instance, I’ve now written several essays on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, which is the basis of the 1939 film by David O. Selznick. Both works, for some, have immortalized and even in some cases helped to romanticize the Old South in the United States, or the period before the end of slavery. I’ve done some academic writing on this topic in areas such as the interdisciplinary field of Southern studies. However, I also explore Gone with the Wind in art through a series of quilts featuring Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel and Clark Gable dressed up as their respective characters in the film. My image of Scarlett grounds the series. She is dressed in the white prayer dress that we see at the beginning of the film, holds a bunch of daisies, and stands against the backdrop of a blue sky. The image evokes sweetness and youth on the one hand, but the look on Scarlett’s face suggests that life was not all sunshine and roses at that time, reminding us, even, that the slaves of the time could not have been as happy as some Southern romances like to envision. Similarly, my quilt featuring Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the quintessential servant and nurturer typically represented visually as smiling and plump. This figure, too, is wearing a dress from early in the film, with a scarf and apron. It is most significant that tendrils of hair drip down on either side of her face in my quilt, for it is entirely covered in the film, as was typically the case on the plantation. Hattie McDaniel, if she played mammy characters in many Hollywood films, particularly during the golden era in the 1930s, was known in her life and social circles to be a very elegant woman. My quilt provides a hint of her glamour, a concept that had been mainly associated with the iconic actresses with whom she appeared in films. In general, these quilts also help to inaugurate my Hollywood quilt series by presenting some of the figures associated with its golden era.
Here, the Old South and Old Hollywood come together. But this is a fascinating confluence, too, because, as I have argued in one of my scholarly essays on Gone with the Wind, the protocols for the dressing in the Old South of young “Southern belles,” who often wore lavish gowns, may be evident to some extent on the Red Carpet among contemporary actresses in Hollywood, who are dressed in couture gowns by top designers and in preparing for appearances at events such as the Gold Globe and Academy Awards, require hair stylists and makeup artists and many others to help these preparations."
Monday, May 14, 2012
Media Publicity for "Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta"/Interview on UNC-NPR, March 4, 2005
My first book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta, was featured in a few places once it was published. Most of the publicity took the shape of news articles and radio interviews. The list includes the following:
Print interview with Carlin Flora, Psychology Today webpage. May 22, 2008.
Print feature. "Richardson Pens Groundbreaking Book on Black Masculinity." Book of the Month. The Georgia Informer. March 2007
Interview. Live radio interview on Troy Pubic Radio-NPR. February 12, 2007.
Interview. Live radio interview on the show "Civil Arts Radio" with Milton Bowens. March 11, 2007
Interview. Live podcast with Deborah Harper on Psychjourney. August 9, 2007. Link to 52 min. Podcast available at Itunes
Feature Story: “Professor Pays Tribute to Her Southern Roots” by Beth Curda The Davis Enterprise. February 28, 2007
Feature. "Black Masculinity and the U.S. South." Montgomery Advertiser. February 14, 2007
I did talks and booksignings at places such as the Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy University, the University of Montevallo and UC Davis. Videos and podcasts are available for two of them and I will upload them on Youtube in the coming months. When I visited Paris as a cultural envoy of the U.S. Embassy in 2009, I also met with the Société d’Etudes Nord Américaines (SENA) at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris IIIto discuss this book in a talk entitled “Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From the Myth of Uncle Tom and the ‘Bad Negro’ to the Jena Six" coordinated by Sylvia Ullmo, President of Société d’Etudes Nord Américaines. Once it was published, I was also approached in some instances to comment in the media on some issues related to black masculinity. For instance, a radio host in Philadelphia asked me to make a comment about Michael Vick's dog fighting, an opportunity that I declined. I was pleased that Black Masculnity and the U.S. South also garnered recognition among the “Outstanding Academic Titles, 2008,” Choice Books, and the “Outstanding Academic Titles, Humanities, 2008” Eastern Book Company.
Prior to this book's publication, I also enjoyed being interviewed by Gail Harris on her show "The State of Things"-UNC-NPR on March 4, 2005 in the first portion on "Southern Identity" and dialoguing with callers. Tom Rankin and I were both featured as participants on the program at the "Navigating the Globalization of the American South" conference at UNC. I first come on about 7 minutes into the program and make four statements in all. Over the years, I've been interviewed for radio, television and film. This dialogue with Gail Harris and the callers is one of my all-time favorite live interviews ever and was a lot of fun to do. I was added to the program at the last minute once they saw that I was on the program. I was tenured in UC as an associate professor on July 1, 2005 and my first book came out in February 2007, so the opportunity was also totally unexpected and quite an honor for me as an untenured and unpublished assistant professor at the time. Here's the link and dsecription of the larger segment below. An interview with Princeton professor Imani Perry is featured in the latter "Prophets of the Hood" portion on this same segment. The segment can also be accessed in the old archives of "The State of Things."
To listen to my interview on UNC-NPR on "The State of Things," Google this link below:
Southern Identity/Prophets of the Hood
Friday, March 4th, 2005
Globalization and the South: The South isn’t what it used to be. Mexican haciendas sit beside old Baptist churches, and the sprawling suburbs house people from all over the country and the world. Host Gail Harris leads a conversation about where to locate southern identity in a time of economic and social change. Guests include: Jim Peacock, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies. Both will be presenting at this week’s Navigating the Globalization of the American South Conference at UNC-Chapel Hill. Listener Call-In. (32:00)
Prophets of the Hood: Host Gail Harris speaks to Imani Perry about her new book, “Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop” (Duke University Press, 2005). Perry, a law professor at Rutgers, places hip hop music in the context of African-American folk art and tales. She also considers hip hop’s reputation for violence and misogyny and it’s world wide popularity. Songs by North Carolina group Little Brother, Queen Latifah and Eric B and Rakim are featured. (17:00)
Monday, April 16, 2012
A former student just requested these Facebook posts I made on "The Help" and so I thought it might also be interesting to post them here as a compilation "as is." I have since taught the novel by Stockett in my graduate/advanced undergraduate seminar entitled "The Oprah Book Club and African American Literature." I have also written a critical essay on it. Here are the thoughts I very informally outlined last August on the phenomenon of "The Help" from various angles as I dialogued with some of my "friends" on Facebook.
"I can't believe such an egregious and unconscionable taboo violation is staged in this film. Like, I was so unsettled when I saw the Audrey Tautou film Happenstance at the first Sacramento French Film Festival, which I attended annually, because it features someone in a cafe stirring a roach into a black woman's coffee, and her drinking it later. Such anti blackness. From Kizzy spitting in Missy Anne's cup to Ole Mister's water in TCP, I don't find scenes like that empowering in the end."
"Love this! I think of the honest comments of Sophia in Alice Walker's TCP on how possible can love be in such situations. This dynamic that the film stages is upsetting because the logic that underpins it is contingent on a deeply ingrained racism in the U.S. South and elsewhere that suggests that black people don't deserve things as individuals, like money or material success, which goes back to antebellum perceptions of blacks as being childlike. It was thought to be okay by some, for instance, for white art dealers to bank the money from astronomical sales of Gee's Bend Quilts, to then pass on to their children, who argued that they had built a community center in the town that compensated the women artists; the logic here is that these women don't deserve respect or consideration as individuals. This whole things also makes me think of that infuriating film called something like Ticket to Heaven or Price of the Ticket, where a young white insurance man befriends a very senior black woman, and fills in for her and others in a poor black community when they can't pay their premiums. He turns them in when pressured by his bosses. She had dreamed of a glorious funeral, Imitation of Life-like, and when he returns, he learns from the little black girls always around her house that "they put her in a box and threw her in the ground." While their lives are now defined by witnessing her shattered dreams, there is no accountability or remorse for him. The final shot of him in the film is running along the beach with his new bride in her wedding gown and him dressed up. All I could think of afterwards was about those girls, whose implied pain the film writes off."
"And yet, it can be a different matter altogether when the shoe is on the other foot and texts in the dominant culture are engaged or challenged by minority authors. I think of the challenges that Alice Randall encountered from the Margaret Mitchelll estate, which attempted to obstruct the publication of The Wind Done Gone. Yet, the estate endorsed a GWTW sequel published 60 years later set mainly in Ireland with scarcely any black characters, and a very problematic allusion to Melly's racist Southern nativist, anti-Northern logic related to not schooling blacks and whites together in the original, which is mentioned heroically and nostalgically in the context of reflecting on Irish nativism in the face of British imperialism."
"I’m a Southerner, a scholar in both Africana and Southern studies, and definitely feel that this discourse should be met with certain critical apparatuses. I posted these two responses last night on a friend’s link to Martha Southgate’s article about the novel/film, which I valued. Can’t wait to see yours.
1. I agree. My great-grandmother, who is mistakenly listed as white in a version of the 1910 census, had a house full of Victorian antiques and kept an image of the Mona Lisa in her hallway, and did not raise daughters in the South who could have ever related to the basic premises or dynamics of this book (she forbade any domestic housework for them); my grandmother had first jobs taking appointments in the office of a white dentist and doing window displays in a hat shop prior to NYA training in nursing as a teen in Montgomery. She left a job at a shirt factory after just two days b/c she did not like making the cuffs. Her attractiveness made a huge difference in how she was treated, she walked off jobs that she did not like, and always could given my grandfather's steady contracting work in construction, and she came through the Jim Crow South unbought and unbossed as a black woman. It is stories like hers that are obscured by such condescending, cookie-cutter narratives of black Southern women's lives as workers. That is the lineage from which I've gotten my basic outlook. I have taped and interviewed her since college and her story is so, so different.
2. Martha Southgate's novel The Fall of Rome is one that you might like for how it tackles both internal racial dynamics and interracial relations through the story of a black male teen and his teacher set at an exclusive and elite predominantly white high school. I find it interesting that she connected the typically interracial "buddy film" dynamic to the film, along with the motif of representing civil rights heroes in the mainstream, though the flip side is that black leaders tended to be discredited and cast as selfish and corrupt villains in that civil rights film genre. Slave narrative motifs featuring the "jealous mistress" and novels from Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose to Valerie Martin's Property will likely help scholars to think of more contexts or counterpoints for this novel when teaching it."
"I so agree, Dr. Ward. I originally recorded her autobiography in Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles' course on black women's autobiography at Spelman, and transcribed it into a 26-chapter entitled Going Places: The Autobiography of Emma Jenkins Richardson as an amateur bookbinder in graduate school. I love the parts about the years in Florida during the 1940s during WWII especially and she has her ID badge from that time, along with photos of herself and my grandfather, that might interest a miliary museum. I agree, too, about the importance of recording black women domestics, including the revolutionary contributions that they have made. I think of the wonderful women I met in Baltimore a decade ago, who in discussing their work, associated it with freedom because it had allowed them to escape domestic violence and to make their own money for the first time. This young beautiful woman told me that she was a "military brat" who had traveled the world, but ended up in an abusive marriage where her husband had beaten their children with coat hangars. We discovered that she and I were born just thee days apart in May of 1971. Black women domestics historically negotiated, perceived and defined their intimacies with whiteness and their jobs in ways that can differ markedly from what is represented in the media, as did many other black laborers in the South, and did not necessarily perceive themselves as servants even if they were. This is what the pageantry of the Garvey movement demonstrated as well in the North, which supplemented black workers with a range of cultural activities, the kinds that the character Miss Laura had never perceived or asked Annie about in Imitation of Life. Sarah Jane's burning anger about her subordinate treatment very much propels her to cross the color line in that film, and the kind of power dynamic that nearly crushed her is so crucial to acknowledge."
"One of my all-time favorite special issues of the journal American Literature co-edited by Annette Trefzer and Katie McKee, a critical resource in the field so relevant and timely for these dialogues on the U.S South and film, and that can help to clarify the limits of the black-white binarism and why the global and Hemispheric Souths matter, too, when thinking questions of labor, even historically.
Deborah E Barker and Katie McKee's edited collection on the U.S South and film published earlier this year in The New Southern Studies, a book series that I co-edit at University of Georgia Press with John Smith along w/ the outstanding Advisory Board. Its brilliant critical introduction and essays are absolutely indispensable for film courses that take up the South, including The Help."