Saturday, March 03, 2007

WHAT -- on "nigger" and David Sedaris' The Way We Are

Reading David Sedaris in The New Yorker

The dealer was named Little Mike, and he addressed Paul as "Bromine." He looked like a high-school student, or, closer still, one of those kids who dropped out and then spent all day hanging around the parking lot: tracksuit, rattail, a wisp of thread looped through his freshly pierced ear. After a few words regarding my brother's car, Little Mike ushered us inside and introduced us to his wife, who was sitting on the sofa watching a Christmas special. The girl's stockinged feet were resting on the coffee table, and settled between her legs, just south of her lap, sat a flat-faced Persian. Both she and the cat had wide-set eyes, and ginger-colored hair, though hers was partially hidden beneath a woollen cap. The wife remained seated as my brother and I entered the room. I guess you couldn't blame her for being inhospitable. Here you are, trying to watch a little TV with your cat, and these two guys show up-people you don't even know.

"Don't mind Beth," Little Mike said, and he smacked the underside of the girl's foot.

"Owww, asshole."

He advanced upon the other foot, and I pretended to admire the Christmas tree, which was miniature and artificial, and stood on a barstool beside the front door. "This is nice," I announced, and Beth shot me a withering look. Liar, it said. You're just saying that because my stupid husband sells reefer.

She really wanted us out of there, but Little Mike seemed to welcome our company. "Sit down," he told me. "Have a libation." He and Paul went to the refrigerator to get us some beers, and the girl called after them to bring her a rum-and-Coke. Then she turned back to the TV and glared at the screen, saying, "This show's boring. Hand me the nigger."

I smiled at the cat, as if this would somehow fix things, and when Beth pointed to the far end of the coffee table I saw that she was referring to the remote control. Under different circumstances, I might have listed the various differences between black people, who had been forced to work for no money, and black, battery-operated channel changers, which had neither thoughts nor feelings and didn't mind doing stuff for free. But the deal hadn't started yet, and, more than anything, I wanted my drugs. Thus the remote was handed over, and I watched as the pot dealer's wife flicked from one station to the next, looking for something that might satisfy her.

The failure of the would-be explanation. So he wanted to tell her that nigger equals black people (which we understand it does) and that properly used it refers to enslaved people and their descedant, not insensate objects, not remote controls?

Check the OED on definitions of "nigger" and its multiple everyday uses from "nigger-rigged" to "nigger yellow" to nigger head" tobacco.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Peter Hallward in London Review of Books

"In the mid-1980s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a parish priest working in an impoverished and embattled district of Port-au-Prince. He became the spokesman of a growing popular movement against the series of military regimes that ruled Haiti after the collapse in 1986 of the Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990 he won the country’s first democratic presidential election, with 67 per cent of the vote. He was overthrown by a military coup in September 1991 and returned to power in 1994, after the US intervened to restore democratic government. In 1996 he was succeeded by his ally René Préval. Aristide won another landslide election victory in 2000, but the resistance of Haiti’s small ruling elite eventually culminated in a second coup against him, on the night of 28 February 2004. Since then, he has been living in exile in South Africa.

According to the best available estimates, around five thousand of Aristide’s supporters have died at the hands of the regime that replaced the constitutional government. Although the situation remains tense and UN troops still occupy the country, the worst of the violence came to an end in February 2006, when after an extraordinary electoral campaign, René Préval was himself re-elected in a landslide victory. Calls for Aristide’s immediate and unconditional return continue to polarise Haitian politics. Many commentators, including several prominent members of the current government, believe that if Aristide was free to stand for re-election he would win easily.

This interview was conducted in French, in Pretoria, on 20 July 2006.

Peter Hallward: Haiti is a profoundly divided country, and you have always been a profoundly divisive figure. For most of the 1990s many sympathetic observers found it easy to make sense of this division more or less along class lines: you were demonised by the rich, and idolised by the poor. But your second administration was dogged by accusations of violence and corruption. Although you remained the most popular politician among the electorate, you appeared to have lost much of the support you once enjoyed among aid-workers, activists, intellectuals and so on, both at home and abroad.

I’d like to ask about the process that first brought you to power. How do you account for the fact that, against the odds, and certainly against the wishes of the US, the military and the ruling establishment in Haiti, you were able to win the election of 1990?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide: Much of the work had already been done by people who came before me, people like Father Antoine Adrien and his co-workers, and Father Jean-Marie Vincent, who was assassinated in 1994. They had developed a progressive theological vision that resonated with the hopes and expectations of the Haitian people. Already in 1979 I was working in the context of liberation theology, and there is one phrase in particular that may help summarise my understanding of how things stood. The Conferencia de Puebla took place in Mexico in 1979, and several liberation theologians were threatened and barred from attending. The slogan I’m thinking of ran something like this: si el pueblo no va a Puebla, Puebla se quedará sin pueblo. ‘If the people cannot go to Puebla, Puebla will remain cut off from the people.’ In other words, it isn’t a matter of struggling for the people, on behalf of the people, at a distance from the people; it’s a matter of struggling with and in the midst of the people. (read entire article)

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Va. 1st state to express 'regret' over slavery

Wendy Koch in USA Today

""Sorry" may be too expensive a word.
Once the heart of the Confederacy, Virginia has become the first state to express remorse for its past support of slavery, an action other states are in line to follow. The General Assembly passed a resolution of "profound regret" for "the involuntary servitude of Africans and the exploitation of Native Americans."

Virginia, which passed its resolution without objection Saturday, went further than any state has gone. This year, though, states and cities across the country are considering resolutions, launching studies and taking other actions to recognize slavery in their history.

Most are stopping short of apologizing. The Virginia resolution's authors, both great-grandsons of slaves, sought "atonement" for slavery but say they were told the word could prompt claims for reparations — monetary compensation — to the descendants of slaves. The definition of "atonement," according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, includes "satisfaction given for wrongdoing."

"This is as close as we can get to an apology in Virginia," says the Senate author, Democrat Henry Marsh III, a civil rights lawyer. "I feel vindicated." (read entire article)

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Strom Thurmond & Al Sharpton

In The Huffington Post

"Geneaologists have found that civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton is a descendent of a slave owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The Daily News said professional genealogists, working at the newspaper's behest, recently uncovered the ancestral ties between one of the nation's best known black leaders and a man who was once a prominent defender of segregation. [...]

"I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves," said Senter, 61, of Columbia, S.C. She added: "And it is wonderful that (Sharpton) was able to become what he is in spite of what his forefather was."

One of the late senator's sons, Paul Thurmond, and a nephew, Barry Bishop, declined comment, the Daily News said.

According to the newspaper, the genealogists found documents establishing that Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather. Coleman Sharpton was later freed." (read entire article)

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Patricia J. Williams in The Nation

"Recently the New-York Historical Society and the Studio Museum of Harlem curated "Legacies," a fascinating show at N-YHS in which contemporary artists reflected on slavery. One of the commissioned pieces that accompanied the display was a short film by artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. It featured McCallum, who is white, and Tarry, who is black, configured as a "twinning doll"--a nineteenth-century toy that has two heads, one at each end of a common torso. At the doll's waist is attached a long skirt or a cloak. Held vertically, the skirt falls and obscures one head. Flipped one way, it becomes a white doll. Turned upside down, the skirt falls the other way and suddenly it's a black doll. In the film, McCallum and Tarry, joined at the waist by some feat of pixilated trickery and dressed in nineteenth-century clothing, flip head over head down a long dark marble corridor, first a white head, then a black head, first a white man, then a black woman, first a Thomas Jefferson, then a Sally Hemings. As they describe it, "the races are joined head to toe...continuously revealing and concealing one another." Such an interesting metaphor for the state of our union. [...]

On MSNBC's Chris Matthews Show, Matthews hosted a discussion of Obama's decision to run for President. "No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery," Matthews opined. "All the bad stuff in our history ain't there with this guy." Not true, I thought. The "bad stuff in our history" rests heavily upon each and every one of us. It shapes us all, whether me, Matthews, Obama, Biden--or Amadou Diallo, the decent, hard-working Guinean immigrant without any American racial "history," who died in a hail of bullets fired by New York City police officers because he looked like what the officers, groaning with racial "baggage," imagined to be a criminal. Some parts of our racial experience are nothing more or less than particular to our accidental location in the geography of a culture. (read entire article)

Another version appears in alternet as "Obama's Identity: Where Do We Start?" (read article)

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Medical Apartheid

EZEKIEL EMANUEL, "Unequal treatment" in NY Times

In April 1721, sailors arriving from Barbados set off a smallpox epidemic that raged in Boston for a year. Cotton Mather, the powerful Puritan minister, advocated using pus from a smallpox scab to infect another person, producing a mild case and long-term immunity to the “speckled monster.” Mather first learned about inoculation from an African slave and from reports of the practice in Turkey. For years, he had repeatedly failed to persuade any physician to try it. But on June 26, 1721, Zabdiel Boylston, a physician, administered pus to his 6-year-old son and two of his slaves, an adult and child. All three experienced mild cases and quickly recovered. By the time the epidemic subsided, Boylston had inoculated 244 people, six of whom died — a death rate of 2.4 percent, compared with 14 percent for the nearly 6,000 Bostonians who acquired smallpox naturally.

As Boylston’s use of slaves highlights, African-Americans have participated in biomedical research from the outset. In “Medical Apartheid,” Harriet Washington charges that they have also too often been abused and exploited by a racist medical establishment. This history, she argues, goes far beyond the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which African-American sharecroppers, under the sponsorship of the United States Public Health Service, were for 40 years subjected to various procedures and prevented from getting penicillin treatment — despite the fact that determining the course of the disease, the putative goal of the study, had already been accomplished. “Researchers who exploit African-Americans,” Washington writes, “were the norm for much of our nation’s history, when black patients were commonly regarded as fit subjects for nonconsensual, nontherapeutic research.” (read entire article)


Race special: Racism in Britain 2007

The Independent

The subject of race is in the headlines again, but really it has dominated the social and political agenda for centuries. To start 20 pages of coverage, William Leith asks the question we all fear: 'Am I a racist?'

Published: 25 February 2007
I'm about to take a racism test, and it's making me uncomfortable. Why? I'm not a racist. For the record, I am an anti-racist. If you asked me, I would say that, while the races may look different, they are equal. I would say that racism, the theory that one race is superior to another, is fallacious. Also, it does nothing but harm. It harms the victim, and it also harms the perpetrator. There is no sense in it. It is, quite literally, nonsense.

Oh, I know about racism. I know that, in both senses of the word, it's wrong. Wrong morally, and wrong factually. I don't know anybody who doesn't know this. And yet, as an idea, it persists. Something, somewhere, gives it power. And this is what's making me uncomfortable. Racism gets its power from some mysterious place, and that place, somewhere in the shadows of our culture, our collective memory, scares me.

I have an idea where that place is, but I don't want to go there. (read entire article)

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