Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From the Back of the Bus to Separate Airport Carpets and the Challenge of Rosa Parks

[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 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

Gone with the Wind Quilt Series, from Hollywood Series

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 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:

Program Description:

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)