Celebrating Revolutionary Blackness: Haitian Flag Day

—Bertin M. Louis, Jr.

[This post originally appeared on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, NewBlackMan (in Exile).]

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In communities across the globe, thousands of Haitians celebrate Haitian Flag Day every May 18 at concerts and ceremonies, on the Internet and at festivals and parades. The flag not only reflects pride in Haitian roots but it is the flag of the first black republic in the world. The Haitian flag takes on renewed meaning as an anti-racist symbol of revolutionary blackness and freedom in a continuing time of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Its inception was from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803).

On May 18, 1803, in the city of Archaie, not far from Haiti’s current capital of Port-au-Prince, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the blacks and the first leader of an independent Haiti, and Alexandre Pétion, the leader of the mulattoes, agreed on an official flag, with blue and red bands placed vertically. Haitian heroine Catherine Flon, who also served as a military strategist and nurse, sewed Haiti’s first flag. However, the flag was modified on Independence Day (January 1st) when the blue and the red bands were placed horizontally with the blue band on top of the red band. Haiti used the red and blue flag until 1964, when President-for life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier used a vertical black and red flag and added a modified version of the arms of the republic during the Duvalier regime, which lasted from 1971 to 1986. On February 25, 1986, after Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fled Haiti on an American-charted jet and the Duvalier regime fell apart, the Haitian people in its vast majority requested that the red and blue flag be brought back. The red and blue flag remains the official flag of Haiti.

Haiti was the French colony of Saint-Domingue before the revolution. A 1697 treaty between the French and the Spanish created the colony on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was known as “the pearl of the Antilles” because the industrialization of sugar in the region enriched its French absentee owners and made it one of the most successful sugar colonies in history. The arduous labor required for sugar production resulted in the virtual eradication of the indigenous Taino Arawak population and an average seven-year life span for Africans who were brought against their will. In an area roughly the size of Maryland enslaved Africans produced indigo, tobacco and at one point in history two-fifths of the world’s sugar and almost half of the world’s coffee.

Physical and psychological violence were used to maintain plantation production processes. As sociologist Alex Dupuy writes it was not uncommon for slave masters to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave…Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” Within this violent and dehumanizing environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors and participated in the most radical revolution of the “Age of Revolution.”

The Haitian Revolution was more radical than the American Revolutionary war (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) because it challenged chattel slavery and racism, the foundation of American and French empires. As the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “The Haitian Revolution was the ultimate test to the universalist pretensions of both the French and the American revolutions. And they both failed. And they both failed. In 1791, there is no public debate on the record, in France, in England, or in the United States on the right of black slaves to achieve self-determination, and the right to do so by way of armed resistance.” The Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of plantation capitalism on the island where both modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located.

Through the efforts of black people and the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, British and Spanish forces were defeated and independence from the French colonial master was achieved. The only successful slave revolt in human history resulted in the formation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic, which extended the rights of liberty, brotherhood and equality to black people. Unlike the United States and France, Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens regardless of race unlike the United States where only propertied white males had the privilege of full citizenship.

The Haitian Revolution would spawn uprisings among captive Africans throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The revolution also influenced other Western Hemispheric liberation movements. Haitian blogger Pascal Robert observes that Venezuelan military and political leader Simon Bolivar went to Haiti to receive the military assistance and material support from Haiti’s then president Alexandre Petion. Bolivar used those Haitian connections to liberate colonial territories from Spanish rule. The Haitian flag reflects and symbolizes this unique and promising moment for people of African descent – black freedom in a world dominated by white supremacy.

Haitian Flag day celebrations take on renewed meaning when we recall the recent treatment of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere. In February 2015 a young Haitian man was lynched in the Dominican Republic. This lynching occurred at a time where the Dominican state has revoked the citizenship of Haitian-descended Dominicans. Essays from sociologist Regine O. Jackson’s edited volume Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora (Routledge 2011) discusses how Haitians serve as repugnant cultural “others” in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Cuba. In Haiti a post-earthquake cholera outbreak introduced by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has claimed 9,000 Haitian lives and affected more than 735,000 people. This preventable tragedy is in addition to earthquake aid that did not go to Haitians but mostly went “to donors’ own civilian and military entities, UN agencies, international NGOs and private contractors.” A recent essay from Latin Correspondent reporter Nathalie Baptiste recognizes anti-Haitian policies in Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

While we must attend to the differences in the local histories, varying socioeconomic factors and political situations of each country mentioned, a pattern of alienation, expulsion, elimination, marginalization and stigmatization of Haitians is evident when reviewing recent news and scholarly publications.

Anti-Haitianism is also prevalent in the Bahamas where I conduct anthropological research and where a new immigration policyadversely affected Haitians. A brief anecdote that I discuss in my book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press 2014)”illustrates this fact. Towards the end of ethnographic research in New Providence, I was invited by a Bahamian friend to speak about the importance of education to elementary school children at an afterschool program. The children, who all sat around me in a circle, were black. As I spoke to them about the importance of reading, studying, doing well on tests, and getting help when they encountered difficulties, one girl was struck with a look of astonishment when I mentioned that I was of Haitian descent. After my speech I took the opportunity to ask her why she was so stunned. She replied that I didn’t look Haitian to her but that I looked Bahamian. So I asked her “so what does a Haitian look like?” Replying in Bahamian Creole she and her friends replied that Haitians were “scrubby,” meaning that they have an uneven or mottled dark complexion. They also said of Haitians that “Dey (They) black,” “Dey smell bad” and “Dey look like rat.”

These comments came from children who are of African descent (85 percent of the Bahamas is black) and the darkest black-skinned Bahamian child in that group said that Haitians were “scrubby.” This story from the field reflects the current crisis in Haitian identity in the Western Hemisphere and why it is necessary to celebrate Haitian Flag day as a way to resist the dehumanizing effects of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness is a key component of white supremacy “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” In this example, young Bahamian children do the work of white supremacy through their use of anti-Haitian and anti-Black stereotypes.

The stigmatization of Haitians in the Western Hemisphere should alarm other black people because Haitian instability also reflects the current insecurity of blacks around the globe. The deaths of West African migrants in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, Ethiopian Jews who are encouraged to either leave Israel or be imprisoned, police brutality against blacks in favelas in Brazil, and attacks against African immigrants by black South Africans should remind us of this ongoing crisis, which many people view as normative (i.e. there’s always death and destruction among Africans and in the African Diaspora). But we do not have to look outside of the borders of the United States to understand the deprivation of the humanity of black people. The current #BlackLivesMattermovement against police killings of unarmed black people is another reminder of the disposability of black life in the modern world which continues a pattern of anti-blackness that harkens back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Anti-blackness began with the forced marches of Africans from the interiors of the continent to African coasts where they were sold as chattel and would become the engine that fueled European colonial wealth. It continued during the Middle Passage where white captains tightly packed blacks together on slave ships and threw black bodies into the Atlantic Ocean with the hope that large numbers of human cargo would offset increased deaths. Anti-blackness was codified in the colonies and territories where the legally imposed identity of slave was passed from mother to child and became associated with blackness.

Anti-blackness is prevalent during this contemporary period in the media coverage of the killings of Walter Scott and Eric Garner as corporate news channels show their video-recorded killings at the hands of American law enforcement on a loop and refer to the black youth of Baltimore rebelling against unequal treatment under the law as “thugs.” Anti-blackness is also reflected in the current relations between Haitians and the nations they live in as well as how other countries treat people of African descent.

In closing, the Haitian flag reminds us that white superiority and black inferiority are fallacies and have no basis in biology and that white supremacy can be challenged and defeated as the Haitian Revolution demonstrated. Due to the poor treatment of Haitians throughout the Western Hemisphere we should also understand why Haitians are proud of their heritage and celebrate the anniversary of their flag. But the Haitian flag is also a flag that belongs to people of African descent around the globe, as do other flags. It is one of many symbols that Haitians and other people of African descent should utilize in resistance to the dehumanizing and deadly effects of capitalism, state power and white supremacy on black bodies. Overall, Haitian Flag Day should remind all of us to celebrate revolutionary blackness and to continue to challenge white supremacy in the struggle to create dignified lives for black people worldwide.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the author of My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (NYU Press, 2014) and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also the creator of #ShamelesslyHaitian, a Twitter event where Haitians express pride and educate others about their history and culture on Haitian Independence Day and Haitian Flag Day. Follow him on Twitter @MySoulIsInHaiti.

Clinton deserves the black vote

—F. Michael Higginbotham

[This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.]

Political pundits have wondered whether Hillary Clinton will enjoy the same enthusiastic support from the African-American community in her presidential bid that President Barack Obama received. Others have wondered whether she deserves it. After her April 29th speech at Columbia University in New York City, there can be no doubt that the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”

hillary-rodham-clintonIn her speech, Ms. Clinton spoke about the protest in Baltimore, expressing concern for Freddie Gray’s family, condemning the violence and calling for its immediate cessation. Most importantly, her wide-ranging discussion of the causes of the turmoil and her proposed solutions demonstrate a deep and thoughtful understanding of long standing racial inequities both in the criminal justice system and in the broader economic and political arenas throughout America.

Ms. Clinton began by recognizing that something is seriously wrong in the current relationships between police and the minority community. She is absolutely right. Relations in Baltimore have been strained for decades due to unnecessarily harsh policing practices and outright race discrimination by the police. Baltimore has paid over $6 million in court judgments and settlements in over 100 lawsuits alleging police brutality since 2011, according to The Baltimore Sun. Ms. Clinton also noted the stark racial disparities that exist in sentencing and incarceration. As Ms. Clinton declared, “African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

As one step for dealing with this national problem, Ms. Clinton called for body cameras on every police officer in the nation. This is an excellent start as bad relations have been exacerbated due to a lack of full and complete information on incidents or conflicting testimony where even implausible police officer accounts are accepted as truth. Body cameras are not a cure-all, but they certainly would increase the level and accuracy of information and would likely lead to more indictments and convictions of officers who commit police misconduct. It is hoped that the risk of exposure would also significantly reduce such conduct.

Ms. Clinton’s most important observation, though, was that the issues raised by the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal injury received while in police custody, concern far more than police practices. She explained that a comprehensive approach is desperately needed to address long standing problems. She began by focusing on the long-term significant disparities in unemployment. As Ms. Clinton knows, unemployment among blacks in Baltimore is twice as high as that for whites and, in some neighborhoods for black youth 20-24 years of age, it is three times as high. As Ms. Clinton said, “There is something wrong when more than one out of every three young black men in Baltimore can’t find a job.” It is hardly surprising that almost a quarter of blacks in many Baltimore neighborhoods are living in poverty. Even more alarming, nationally the median net worth of whites is 18 times that of blacks, a wider wealth gap by race than existed in South Africa during apartheid. Freddie Gray’s tragedy then, requires us to finally talk about, as Ms. Clinton said, “what’s needed to provide economic opportunity, better educational chances for young people, more support to families so they can do the best jobs they are capable of doing to help support their own children.”

The speech was not, of course, the first time that Ms. Clinton has addressed issues of racial justice. Last summer, she discussed inequality in the political arena. She focused on racial inequities in voting rights, condemning restrictive voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting and same day registration. She was particularly critical of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, the court invalidated the so-called “pre-clearance” requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of race discrimination in voting to secure federal approval prior to changing election practices. Ms. Clinton noted that the Voting Rights Act is one of the most democratizing pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States, allowing over 800,000 new voters, primarily black voters, to register within four years of its passage. She also knows how easy it is for states to create restrictive practices that have a disproportionate impact on minority voters. Ms. Clinton has rightfully called for a new Voting Rights Act, recognizing that, throughout the nation, voter suppression based on race remains a serious problem.

Hillary Clinton understands not only that black lives matter, but that justice requires fundamental reform in the courts, on the streets and in classrooms, offices and voting booths. That is why, I predict, by Election Day, she will be embraced, with enthusiasm, by the African-American community.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Joseph Curtis Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

Entering Lakewood Church

Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October! The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the making of the book, including his research and the writing process. To kick off the series, below is the opening vignette from the book’s introduction. (Check out his other post on the book’s cover over at Baldblogger!)

9780814723883_FCI am in the upscale business complex of Greenway Plaza, near downtown Houston. After parking my car, I follow the signs directing me to Lakewood Church. Emerging from the dimly lit confines of a parking garage, I join hundreds of people surging to the church’s entrance. In an energetic multiethnic mix, I walk alongside individuals, some of whom are black, others white, still others Latino/a or Asian. Some are talking with one another, while others are silent. Some walk with heads down as if in prayer. I see men wearing their Sunday best, along with women adorned in stunning white and pink hats; others come in jeans, T-shirts, and shorts. I hear the sharp strike of high heels and the flop of sandals. Some carry Bibles as they purposefully walk toward the church. I see Bibles that appear worn and creased, the result of a sustained engagement. I also observe congregants clutching Hope for Today Bible, a resource designed with notes and commentary by Lakewood’s pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen.

Shortly, at Joel’s invitation in the worship service to “lift up your Bibles and say it like you mean it,” congregants will thrust their Bibles into the air and make Lakewood’s famous “This is my Bible” confession. A mantra started by Joel’s father and Lakewood’s founder, John Osteen, in the 1980s, the statement highlights the church’s evangelical fidelity to the Bible and firm conviction about its spiritual power. I also observe a large group of people rolling into the church, some wheeling themselves while others proceed in electric wheelchairs. The leader of this group also ushers in other disabled persons, some with visual impairments, others with Down’s syndrome. Lakewood’s doors open for a diverse array of people.

As I enter the building with the throngs of men, women, and children who pour in for the service, a volunteer with a nametag greets me with a warm smile and “Welcome, God bless you.” I take the bulletin she hands me. I start ascending the stairs into Lakewood Church. Knowing that Lakewood is America’s largest megachurch, welcoming  over 40,000 members and other attendees each week, I feel as if I am in an important place. It pulsates with energy. I also notice symbols of the church’s history on display. I pause halfway up the steps as I encounter a life-size bronze display of Lakewood’s founding couple, John and Dodie Osteen, honoring Lakewood’s fiftieth anniversary. The couple meets visitors with smiles and a Bible held in the air. The base of the bronze statue is in the shape of a heart, symbolic of Lakewood’s old motto, “Oasis of Love.” While John never preached at the Compaq Center, a converted sports arena that became Lakewood’s home in 2005, six years after his death, his likeness, along with that of Dodie, greets visitors as they enter the church he founded. At Lakewood, the past intermingles with the present, while the future is a source of perpetual anticipation.

As I continue to walk up the stairs, to my left people enter and exit the well-stocked bookstore. On the television screen that sits in the middle of a display that contains Joel and Victoria’s teachings I look over to see and hear Joel encouraging a positive mindset in the midst of difficult circumstances. In the bookstore, I browse the most recent books by contemporary Christian teachers such as Joyce Meyer, John MacArthur, Joseph Prince, and John Piper, and a substantial variety of study Bibles and study aids such as theological encyclopedias and Greek dictionaries. The bookstore contains a children’s section and several rows with a variety of Spanish-language resources. I also notice that it sells framed paintings of the Christian artist Thomas Kinkade as well as spiritually themed items like T-shirts, key chains, or bookmarks that can also be found at Christian chain retail stores such as Family Christian, Lifeway, and Mardel. Just outside of the bookstore, families head quickly to register kids for Lakewood’s expansive children’s programs. Other people mill about like tourists, many of them visiting Lakewood for the first time, clearly pausing to take it all in. Things are buzzing at Lakewood Church, but also proceed in an orderly fashion. I notice people with official Lakewood nametags, energetic volunteers with clipboards and walkie-talkies who help the massive operation to run smoothly. Not shy, one volunteer inquires if I am interested in trying out for Lakewood’s choir. Responding to her facial expression and her excitement to recruit volunteers, I return the smile—and politely decline. “God bless you,” the recruiter replies as I continue walking.

I proceed to the worship center, and with many others, I anticipate my entrance into the 16,000-seat sanctuary. There is a palpable sense of expectation, a feeling already cultivated by Joel’s popular television message of self-improvement and salvation on television and published in a handful of New York Times bestsellers. Looking up, I see the ceiling arranged with large square white sheeting to produce a cloud effect, simultaneously reflecting blues, reds, greens, and purples from multicolored spotlights. I begin to get an inkling of the church’s massive size, an architectural expression of Lakewood’s signature place in American Christianity.

I find a seat, and settle into place on the second level on the far left side of the auditorium. Lights bathe the stage in a glittery display as members of Lakewood’s choir, wearing blue robes, find their place in the two choir lofts. The band, arranged on a retractable stage, warms up in front of a massive, bronze globe, an iconic symbol of Lakewood’s historic commitment to missionary endeavors. Announcements for religious education classes and church events along with advertisements for resources available in Lakewood’s bookstore flash across the three large screens that hang above the stage. I notice individuals  in front of the stage and they appear to have security escorts: the Osteen family and other church leaders proceed to their seats. It is nearly time for the service to begin.

The interracial duo of singers Cindy Cruse Ratcliff and Israel Houghton begin the service by leading nearly 16,000 people in musical expressions of adoration toward God and the spiritual meaning of life in Christ. People clap in rhythm with the drums, and sing along as lyrics flash across the large screens. I also notice worshiping bodies sway with the music. The emotional temper of the music produces what appear to be moments of tender introspection; I see people with arms raised and eyes closed, and some with tears streaming. Later, prayer partners meet and pray with those in need. People cry and hug, finding individual spiritual solace among the thousands present in America’s largest congregation.

The service proceeds with an encouraging testimony from Victoria, a period of prayer and tithing, and a twenty-five-minute message from Joel. An altar call with a simple recitation, asking Jesus to reign as Lord of one’s life, starts to draw the morning service to a close. In a final moment of affirmation, Joel asks people to clap if they are better now than when they came in.

Employing positive confession, a historic neopentecostal practice of making verbal affirmations of spiritual significance—and much like his father John did at Lakewood—Joel makes several declarations. Each declaration becomes more intense as Osteen’s voice rises and he bounces tiptoed  as if to push his positive proclamations into every square inch of the auditorium:

“I declare . . . God is breathing on your life, he’s breathing on your dreams, he’s breathing on your finances. . . . God will multiply your talent, multiply your resources, multiply your strength. . . . If you’ll be confident in what God has given you, then I believe and declare you will overcome every obstacle, defeat every enemy, and you will become everything God’s created you to be . . . if you believe it, give the Lord a shout of praise!”

Joel ends the service in prayer, sending intense petitions upward with his face lifted, eyes tightly closed, hands raised, and his body moving as he speaks. He asks God to make the day’s message real in everyday life.

“Lord, draw them by your Spirit, let them feel your love as they’ve never felt it before,” he prays . “A new beginning . . . a fresh new start . . . the road to victory . . . comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Now that we’ve entered Lakewood Church, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

Ferguson, race, and the disability politics of the teen brain

In an article published on Somatosphere this week, author Julie Passanante Elman discusses race, disability, and the volatile teen brain. Read an excerpt from the essay below—and be sure check out more from the website’s series, Inhabitable Worlds. 

In February 2014, University of Missouri students made national news when they formed a human wall to protest the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence on their campus. Westboro arrived to denounce Michael Sam, a gay “Mizzou Tiger” who would become the first openly gay NFL player. Mizzou students eagerly donned “Stand with Sam” rainbow buttons and “WE ARE ALL COMOSEXUAL” t-shirts (an homage to “COMO,” or how locals refer to Columbia, MO). The nation turned its collective eye to “The Middle,” a North American region that has been associated (at times, stereotypically, by those on the coasts) with religious conservatism, provincialism, and intolerant attitudes toward cultural difference or sexual non-normativity. Rather than asking “what’s the matter with Kansas?” in frustration, onlookers celebrated Missouri’s anti-homophobic moment of conviction, its investment in creating an “inhabitable world” for queers living outside metronormativity’s coastal enclaves.

While one “Missouri Mike” made his NFL bid, another would never arrive on his campus or attend his first college class. On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His body lay in the street for four hours, as his blood pooled on the asphalt, warmed by the same unyielding Missouri sun that shone on MU’s Francis Quadrangle as students returned in late August. Mizzou students returned to a very different campus. Many of my students were returning from their childhood homes in St. Louis and its neighboring suburbs. Many were from Ferguson. Others were the sons and daughters of St. Louis-area police officers.

In late November, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson nearly a week before the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. Politically committed MU students quickly mobilized to support the Ferguson protests. Using the social media handle “MU4Mike,” students organized die-ins in the student center and City Hall and were supported by a variety of faculty, including a Vice Chancellor.

Mizzou’s Facebook page posted photos of the event (including the one above), which incited a variety of hateful responses:

  • “White lives matter too!”
  • “…[B]lack lives appear to matter to everyone but black people…the black community is the one offing themselves in record numbers, not white cops defending themselves from charging aggressors.”
  • “Raise your kids not your hands.”
  • “How stupid. All lives matter. Stop wallowing in self pity [sic]. This was and is not a race issue. Get real.”

Meanwhile, campus police monitored the MU Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center after an anonymous threat to the center (“Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.”) appeared on YikYak, a mobile, anonymous social media application.

Perhaps no image better encapsulates the abruptness with which Mizzou’s political landscape shifted than this screenshot of Mizzou’s Facebook page:

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Enveloped in hopeful sunlight, an African-American student stands with his hands raised in peaceful protest. He stands in stark contradistinction to racist comments (“Your [sic] a thug bro!!”) as well as a meme of a white father and son pointing, as if to the man in photo, to proclaim, “Look son, a faggot!” Less than ten months after the campus had “Stood with Sam,” entangled racism and homophobia seemed more virulent than ever.

As an MU faculty member, I wanted to contribute my perspective to this special series—first off—to spotlight our students’ courageous (and ongoing) activism to make Mizzou a more inhabitable world for all of its students. As a critical queer/disability studies scholar contemplating Ferguson, I am thinking of the challenging questions posed by queer/disability activist Eli Clare, who invites us to map the sedimentary layers of injustice.

Continue reading on Somatosphere.

Artist as ethnographer: Jason Whitesel on Books Combined

—Jason Whitesel

[This article was originally posted on Books Combined, a collaborative blog launched by our friends at Combined Academic Publishers.]

Growing up, I found the human body an abundant source of artistic inspiration. Painting and drawing was a significant part of my life from grade school on into my early years of graduate school. I did mostly figure drawing and self-portraits  – my favorite artist at the time was Egon Schiele. Certainly my emotional state pulsated through my artwork: yet it was not the inner world of my imagination that I sought to express, but always direct observation of the world around me.

Later, ethnographic research appealed to me for the same reason: it engaged me in direct observation. When I think about the books that first lit my intellectual fire and subsequently shaped my career, they were all ethnographies. I was introduced to ethnography and the sociology of everyday life when I was an undergraduate. For me, they’re a natural fit with the perspective I take in my artwork. Conducting ethnographic research allows me to pay attention to the rich details of things we usually take for granted and help the reader visualize the community/culture I am studying by painting a vivid, “thick description” of it.

Of course, I am not the only one to think of ethnography in terms of artwork. In an undergraduate class on sociological fieldwork, I learned from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995) by Robert Emerson et al. that fieldworkers, struck by a vivid sensory impression, sketch the social scene, depicting it like a still life, providing detailed imagery from the field. Likewise, when writing my recent book, I consulted John Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography (1988) in which he speaks of confessional tales of ethnographers being similar to self-portraits, where one tries to show the biases and character flaws the fieldworker brings to the ethnographic table.

Among the ethnographies that I cherish is Marcia Millman’s Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America (1980), a social psychologically oriented comparative ethnography of three groups: the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) – now it reads “to Advance Fat Acceptance”; Overeaters Anonymous; and a summer diet camp. The book takes off with the idea that fat is a feminist issue.  It contains autobiographic stories collected through in-depth interviews and thoughtful observations in each of the three organizations, their meetings, pamphlets, and booklets. When I first encountered this book, little did I know that approximately ten years later I would embark on a research project to expand upon this classic, by engaging gay men’s perspectives as they worry about their weight in meaning-laden ways.

Carol Brooks Gardner’s Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995) is another ethnography that had a significant impact on my life. Anytime I have to sit down and start writing up my own work, I pull out the book and thumb through it, feeling certain that inspiration will seep in by osmosis. Gardner, who has been my mentor, studied under Erving Goffman, a professor of Anthropology and Sociology at U Penn. In 1979, in his book Gender Advertisements, Goffman used a micro-sociological approach to decode gender displays in advertising. Gardner applies and extends his concepts to explore unwanted public attention women receive from men on the street and in semi-public places like a department store. Through 506 interviews and five years of public observation in a Midwestern city in the U.S., she documents the various indignities women and other situationally disadvantaged groups are made to suffer and how such experiences erode these groups’ trust in public civility, and wear away at their psyche, constraining the way women engage with and enjoy public places or contributing to their fear thereof.

I can trace my intellectual pedigree to Goffman not only through Carol Gardner, but also through folklorist Amy Shuman, another significant mentor of mine who was also one of Goffman’s students. In graduate school, I took “Folklore Field Methods” and a seminar on “The Rhetoric of Ethnography” with Shuman, who introduced me to Goffman’s ideas about narrative. At the time she was preparing her own book Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy (2010). Through Shuman’s eyes, I began to see Goffman’s work in a different way; it was about how people create themselves through narrative. I came to understand that Goffman was not just interested in the public performance of identity where the self emerges as a series of façades, but also in the ways narrative opens up an avenue for one to make sense of one’s self, no matter how untenable one’s position may be.

As an artist and an ethnographer, I found these books, above all others, to have helped me build bridges between my creative and scholarly ways of seeing the world.

Jason A. Whitesel is a Women’s and Gender Studies Department faculty member at Pace University. His research focuses on gay men’s rigid body image ideal and the resulting intragroup strife among them. His recent book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014) describes events at Girth & Mirth club gatherings and examines how big gay men use campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied images and identities.

Q&A with Ralph Young, author of Dissent

youngHow did you come to write an entire book on the concept of dissent? 

Ralph Young: The idea came to me while I was compiling and editing Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation. This was a massive 800-page compilation of 400 years of dissenting speeches, sermons, petitions, songs, poems, polemics, etc. I let the voices of dissenters speak in this book and then I thought I should write my own narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements. From the standpoint of those outsiders who sought more equality, more opportunity, more empowerment.

Can you succinctly define what dissent is—or perhaps it’s easier to say what dissent is not?

There are many ways to define dissent. And I go into this at great length in the introduction to the book. On the broadest level it’s going against the grain. Dissenting against what is. Whatever that is is.

The act of dissent covers a lot of ground ranging from intellectual skepticism to radical violence. Is there ‘good’ dissent and ‘bad’ dissent?

I believe there is. Dissent is dissent, regardless of the motives behind it. But for me dissent that seeks to empower the disempowered without infringing on anyone’s natural rights, that seeks to broaden rights rather than limiting rights is “good” dissent. Dissent that seeks to disempower other individuals or groups, that seeks to maintain white supremacy, or in other ways to limit the rights of others, is “bad” dissent. But ultimately I don’t like to use the words good dissent or bad dissent, because things have a way of working out in surprisingly unexpected ways.

What separates violent dissent from terrorism?

Violence is a somewhat mindless blind reaction against what is and resorting to violence reveals the frustration of those who have been fighting for a cause without success. Terrorism is on a different level. It is more strategic and is the ultimate weapon of groups that wish to destroy a government or a ruling paradigm and set up something entirely different. Violent dissent expresses frustration and is perhaps the last gasp of a group that still wants to reform the system. Terrorism is an attempt to utterly destroy the system.

Is dissent a uniquely American construct, sort of like jazz?

No, it is not uniquely American. Dissent has existed from time eternal and throughout the world. But it is a concept that Americans valued so much that we put it in our constitution as a right and we have been dissenting and refining dissent ever since. (In fact, dissent itself was one of the forces that brought about the creation of the United States, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights itself.)

The book you’ve written is in many ways an alternate history of America. How would you compare Dissent to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States?

I admire Zinn’s People’s History, but it is clearly a one-sided point of view. And while my book admittedly has a point of view, and any reader will know where I stand about the subject under discussion, I do try to give voice to those I don’t agree with. Also Zinn’s book looks at America through the prism of class, of class consciousness, of the age-old class struggle, while Dissent: The History of an American Idea looks at the scope of American history through the lens of dissent, which is a broader perspective. True, some dissent is a manifestation of the class struggle, but it is not limited to class. There are thousands of middle-class, even upper-class, dissenters. So dissent can be a manifestation of far more divergent points of view.

What would you say are some of the biggest triumphs of dissent in America and the biggest disappointments or failures?

Certainly the abolitionist, women’s, and civil rights movements achieved a great deal of success although at the time it seemed maddeningly slow to the participants. The movements that have protested income inequality, like Coxey’s Army and the recent Occupy movement have not achieved success, although they might simply have been the early rounds in an ongoing struggle. Some movements had a great deal of success, like the labor movement in the 1930s, but much of that success has been rolled back since the 1950s.

Have the active protest aspects of dissent such as rallies and marches permanently given way to more passive activities still such as legal action and armchair clicktivism (hitting a like button to support a cause) or are we just going through a phase?

I don’t think active protests and marches will ever come to an end. In some ways the Internet and social media have diminished attendance at protest rallies and marches, but in some ways social media has also increased attendance. I would say the jury is still out on the impact of social media on protest movements. Throughout history dissenters have always employed the latest technology to get out their message: radio, television, song, poetry, mass-printed sources like posters and flyers, etc.

Some would argue that modern dissent is less about life and death struggles and more of a lament against first world problems. Would you agree or disagree and why?

Dissent has never had to be about purely life and death struggles. In some cases, like with the abolitionist movement, yes. But in other cases it has primarily been about forcing the United States to live up to its part of the bargain. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution established highly idealistic principles that have not always applied to all people. Those who have felt left out of the “American Dream” have viewed these documents as a contract that the United States government must honor.

During the roughly 400-year history you examine in the book, many of the root causes of dissent—race, gender and economic inequality, religious differences, whether or not to fight wars and even police violence—are recurring themes. Does this repetition mean that we are not learning from history and are therefore doomed to repeat past mistakes?

Do we ever learn from history? There are lessons, to be sure, that history can teach us. But these issues are central to human nature. One of my favorite protest signs I saw recently was “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit!”

Does the passage of time make it easier to judge the motivational integrity and the results of dissent? In other words, is it easier to draw conclusions about the Revolutionary War than the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements?

Yes. The Revolutionary War resulted in the foundation of the United States and so we can interpret and evaluate its motivational integrity far better than we can Occupy or Tea Party since these are still unfolding. The irony, though, is that interpretations of the past are fluid, they are still changing. Historians have analyzed and critiqued the motivations of the Founding Fathers ever since the creation of the United States. Were they motivated by truly democratic principles, or were they economic elites who created a Constitution that would protect the interests of economic elites? This is still a debatable interpretation.

By studying the past, might you be able to predict the future face of dissent or perhaps see the next wave of dissent in America on the horizon?

I’ve always viewed history as the study of the past, the present, and the future! History is organic. And we are part of that organism. We cannot actually predict the future, but we can see the patterns and come up with some reasonable expectations of what they might lead to.

Do you think it’s only a matter of time before some form of violent revolution revisits America or have we progressed beyond that in the 21st century?

I can’t see it happening in the near future, but I wouldn’t count out anything. It depends on how bad things get. If economic inequality continues to grow and fester, it’s like putting a cap on a volcano. Pressures will continue to build unless there is some effort at reform to act as a safety valve. Theodore Roosevelt always believed that reform is essential and that if the powers that be ignore reform they are stoking the fires of revolution.

What do you hope people will take away from reading Dissent?

That dissent is patriotic. It is one of the central attributes of being an American. And that no single individual can change the world, but if thousands, millions of individuals work together toward a goal, together they can make a difference. And making a difference in small incremental steps is the way we do change the world.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters.

Book giveaway: Dissent

Dissent (NYU Press, 2015)“Temple University historian Young delivers a doorstopper that few readers will ever want to misuse in such a manner; his clear and elegant style and a keen eye for good stories make it a page-turner…Young convincingly demonstrates that the history of the United States is inextricably linked to dissent and shows how ‘protest is one of the consummate expressions of Americanness.'”
STARRED Publishers Weekly

“A broad-ranging, evenhanded view of a tradition honed into an art form in America: the use of dissent as ‘a critique of governance’…Young has a knack for finding obscure but thoroughly revealing moments of history to illustrate his points; learning about Fries’ Rebellion and the Quasi-War with France is worth the price of admission alone, though his narrative offers much more besides…Refreshingly democratic—solid supplemental reading to the likes of Terkel and Alinsky, insistent on upholding the rights of political minorities even when they’re wrong.”
Kirkus Reviews

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Dissent: The History of an American Idea, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis is on the way Americans, celebrated figures and anonymous ordinary citizens, responded to what they saw as the injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, May 1st, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

Why has TV storytelling become so complex?

—Jason Mittell

[This post originally appeared at The Conversation.]

If you watch the season finale of The Walking Dead this Sunday, the story will likely evoke events from previous episodes, while making references to an array of minor and major characters. Such storytelling devices belie the show’s simplistic scenario of zombie survival, but are consistent with a major trend in television narrative.

Prime time television’s storytelling palette is broader than ever before, and today, a serialized show like The Walking Dead is more the norm than the exception. We can see the heavy use of serialization in other dramas (The Good Wife and Fargo) and comedies (Girls and New Girl). And some series have used self-conscious narrative devices like dual time frames (True Detective), voice-over narration (Jane the Virgin) and direct address of the viewer (House of Cards). Meanwhile, shows like Louie blur the line between fantasy and reality.

 

Many have praised contemporary television using cross-media accolades like “novelistic” or “cinematic.” But I believe we should recognize the medium’s aesthetic accomplishments on its own terms. For this reason, the name I’ve given to this shift in television storytelling is “complex TV.”

There are a wealth of facets to explore about such developments (enough to fill a book), but there’s one core question that seems to go unasked: “why has American television suddenly embraced complex storytelling in recent years?”

To answer, we need to consider major shifts in the television industry, new forms of television technology, and the growth of active, engaged viewing communities.

A business model transformed

We can quibble about the precise chronology, but programs that were exceptionally innovative in their storytelling in the 1990s (Seinfeld, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) appear more in line with narrative norms of the 2000s. And many of their innovations – season-long narrative arcs or single episodes that feature markedly unusual storytelling devices – seem almost formulaic today.

What changed to allow this rapid shift to happen?

As with all facets of American television, the economic goals of the industry is a primary motivation for all programming decisions.

For most of their existence, television networks sought to reach the broadest possible audiences. Typically, this meant pursuing a strategy of mass appeal featuring what some derisively call “least objectionable programming.” To appeal to as many viewers as possible, these shows avoided controversial content or confusing structures.

But with the advent of cable television channels in the 1980s and 1990s, audiences became more diffuse. Suddenly, it was more feasible to craft a successful program by appealing to a smaller, more demographically uniform subset of viewers – a trend that accelerated into the 2000s.

In one telling example, FOX’s 1996 series Profit, which possessed many of contemporary television’s narrative complexities, was quickly canceled after four episodes for weak ratings (roughly 5.3 million households). These numbers placed it 83rd among 87 prime time series.

Yet today, such ratings would likely rank the show in the top 20 most-watched broadcast programs in a given week.

This era of complex television has benefited not only from more niche audiences, but also from the emergence of channels beyond the traditional broadcast networks. Certainly HBO’s growth into an original programming powerhouse is a crucial catalyst, with landmarks such as The Sopranos and The Wire.

But other cable channels have followed suit, crafting original programming that wouldn’t fly on the traditional “Big Four” networks of ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX.

A well-made, narratively-complex series can be used to rebrand a channel as a more prestigious, desirable destination. The Shield and It’s Only Sunny in Philadelphia transformed FX into a channel known for nuanced drama and comedy. Mad Men and Breaking Bad similarly bolstered AMC’s reputation.

The success of these networks has led upstart viewing services like Netflix and Amazon to champion complex, original content of their own – while charging a subscription fee.

The effect of this shift has been to make complex television a desirable business strategy. It’s no longer the risky proposition it was for most of the 20th century.

Miss something? Hit rewind

Technological changes have also played an important role.

Many new series reduce the internal storytelling redundancy typical of traditional television programs (where dialogue was regularly employed to remind viewers what had previously occurred).

Instead, these series subtly refer to previous episodes, insert more characters without worrying about confusing viewers, and present long-simmering mysteries and enigmas that span multiple seasons. Think of examples such as Lost, Arrested Development and Game of Thrones. Such series embrace complexity to an extent that they almost require multiple viewings simply to be understood.

In the 20th century, rewatching a program meant either relying on almost random reruns or being savvy enough to tape the show on your VCR. But viewing technologies such as DVR, on-demand services like HBO GO, and DVD box sets have given producers more leeway to fashion programs that benefit from sequential viewing and planned rewatching.

Serialized novels, like Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, were commonplace in the 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Like 19th century serial literature, 21st century serial television releases its episodes in separate installments. Then, at the end of a season or series, it “binds” them together into larger units via physical boxed sets, or makes them viewable in their entirety through virtual, on-demand streaming. Both encourage binge watching.

Giving viewers the technology to easily watch and rewatch a series at their own pace has freed television storytellers to craft complex narratives that are not dependent on being understood by erratic or distracted viewers. Today’s television assumes that viewers can pay close attention because the technology allows them to easily do so.

Forensic fandom

Shifts in both technology and industry practices point toward the third major factor leading to the rise in complex television: the growth of online communities of fans.

Today there are a number of robust platforms for television viewers to congregate and discuss their favorite series. This could mean partaking in vibrant discussions on general forums on Reddit or contributing to dedicated, program-specific wikis.

As shows craft ongoing mysteries, convoluted chronologies or elaborate webs of references, viewers embrace practices that I’ve termed “forensic fandom.” Working as a virtual team, dedicated fans embrace the complexities of the narrative – where not all answers are explicit – and seek to decode a program’s mysteries, analyze its story arc and make predictions.

The presence of such discussion and documentation allows producers to stretch their storytelling complexity even further. They can assume that confused viewers can always reference the web to bolster their understanding.

Other factors certainly matter. For example, the creative contributions of innovative writer-producers like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams and David Simon have harnessed their unique visions to craft wildly popular shows. But without the contextual shifts that I’ve described, such innovations would have likely been relegated to the trash bin, joining older series like Profit, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life in the “brilliant but canceled” category.

Furthermore, the success of complex television has led to shifts in how the medium conceptualizes characters, embraces melodrama, re-frames authorship and engages with other media. But those are all broader topics for another chapter – or, as television frequently promises, to be continued.

Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015), and co-editor of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013).