Ayahuasca and the spiritual natives

—Brett Hendrickson 

What do Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and hundreds of Brooklyn hipsters have in common besides their glowing personalities? They all sing the praises of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic and psychedelic brew that has long been used by indigenous Amazonian groups. Ayahuasca sends its consumers into throes of reverie and feelings of spiritual connectedness. It also causes bouts of vomiting, which users lift up as part of the cathartic experience—the “ayahuasca cleanse.”

North American and European spiritual tourists being treated by a Peruvian shaman.

In its original Amazonian context, ayahuasca use is an integral part of the trances that shamans enter to carry out powerful transactions between waking life and other levels of their reality. The impetus for most of these trance journeys and transactions is healing of one sort or another, whether this be physical recovery from illness or the restoration of ruptured social norms. Shaman specialists take the ayahuasca in order to enter the visionary realm wherein they can do the important work of re-establishing balance, harmony, and health for their patients and communities.

By the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists who studied ayahuasca-using South American tribes were trying the drug for themselves and bringing back stories of its psychedelic properties. Soon, the growing counter-culture was experimenting with ayahuasca and other psychotropic plants common in Central and South America like peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms. Adding significantly to these plants’ inherent hallucinogenic properties was the ostensible authenticity and simplicity of indigenous people’s wisdom and spirituality.

The last few years have witnessed a rise in the popularity of ayahuasca use both on ethno-tourist jaunts to Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, and in spiritual salons dedicated to the drug in the United States. It has become especially trendy among creative types like musicians and writers and also with young urbanites who might self-identify as spiritual seekers. Like-minded people have taken advantage of online social networking to gather with shaman/entrepreneurs who provide not only the ayahuasca but also a guided tour into a commodified form of indigenous spirituality.

A recent story in the New York Times describes such a meet-up in Brooklyn that featured a Colombian shaman, cups of ayahuasca, barf buckets, candlelight, chanting, drumming, and a $150 price tag. Others are not content with this kind of dabbling and have taken the plunge to remote South America to learn to have even more authentic experiences and perhaps become shamans themselves. A recent profile of one such individual describes a young Jewish man from Williamsburg who made various trips to the Amazon and the Caribbean where he received a new name from indigenous masters: Turey Tekina (allegedly “Sky Singer” in Quechua). After many spiritual adventures and self-discoveries, he “returned to Brooklyn, and turned his apartment into a temple for [ayahuasca] ceremonies. He has a steady flow of regular and new clients, all who learn of him through word of mouth.”

The history of Anglo-Americans who have dabbled in—or even appropriated—the religious and traditional medicines of indigenous people is long but remarkably constant. In almost every case, the white seekers are looking for healing and wholeness, but almost always in a such a way that critiques the complications and coldness of “Western” life and/or its “institutional religion;” utterly romanticizes indigenous people as simple and pure sources of unadulterated ancient wisdom; and can be easily commodified and thus sold in packages with other alternative medicines or therapies.

The latest craze for ayahuasca’s visions and vomiting is one more item in what sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof has called America’s “spiritual marketplace.” When this particular trend passes, no doubt another will take its place in this unique form of American religiosity that privileges the sacred wisdom of the natives, as long as we can have it when—and how—we want it.

Brett Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College (PA). He is the author of Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo (NYU Press, 2014).

Feminist ire in all the wrong places

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

[This piece originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Vaginas keep causing trouble. The latest labial kerfuffle involves none other than the mother of all things “down there,” Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. A few weeks ago, a student-theater group at Mount Holyoke College (full disclosure: my alma mater and the current home of my daughter) made a decision to discontinue production of the play and instead to do something more, as they wrote, “inclusive.” This quickly became a media firestorm, with Ensler herself arguing that “The Vagina Monologues never intended to be a play about what it means to be a woman. It is and always has been a play about what it means to have a vagina.”

Had the students simply made a decision to produce other work and not gone out of their way to indict Ensler, one could imagine that this “controversy” would never have emerged in the first place. But the students’ statement referred to the work as “extremely narrow” and “inherently reductionist,” among other dismissive language. (Another disclosure: Ensler is a friend whose work and advocacy I have long admired.)

This is, of course, not the first time that feminists have directed their resentment at other feminists. Indeed, feminism, in both its theoretical and its practical applications, is well known for vicious infighting. As early as 1976, the pioneer activist Jo Freeman wrote about this phenomenon in an incendiary article in Ms. Magazine calling out “trashing” or, as she put it, the “dark side of sisterhood.” And when Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the radical feminist group The Feminists in the 60s, she wryly commented that “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” Internecine battles have long been a staple of most vibrant social movements, particularly those with left-wing aspirations, because they are generally more open to democratic debate.

The instant world of the Internet—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest—has not only upped the ante but also accelerated the speed at which nominal disagreements get morphed into full-fledged “wars.” Contemporary punditry has weighed in on this, as in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in The Nation, and “The Incomplete Guide to Feminist Infighting,” in The Atlantic. And our broader media culture amplifies anything it might see as conflictual, so what gets retweeted is often that which is most easily slotted into a for-or-against model that does precious little to deepen the debate. This latest round of trashing comes at a time when (some version of) feminism has an increasingly public and popular face, and when feminist activism—around sexual assault and harassment, reproductive autonomy and sexual freedom—is witnessing a refreshing renaissance. In other words, we are at a critical moment, when the flourishing of feminism—both online and off—has a potential that should not be derailed by an endless circuit of self-destruction and misdirected ire.

This anger seems particularly targeted toward women in the public eye who explicitly define themselves as feminist and who espouse what certainly look like feminist beliefs, whether reproductive autonomy or freedom from sexual harassment. When the actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a speech in September, calling for more male involvement in the struggle for gender equality, she fell prey to hyperventilating tirades accusing her of ignoring racial differences, asking men to protect women, and other sins of both omission and commission. Not long after, the anti-street-harassment campaign Hollaback! released a video depicting a day in the life of a woman whose walk though New York elicits endless undesired harassment by a stream of male bystanders. The video went viral, but so did immediate condemnation of it as exclusionary and even racist: The woman was white, and most of the harassers were men of color. Even the apology of the video’s producers did not derail the onslaught.

The wunderkind Lena Dunham was next in what has now become a long line of women—many of them young celebrities—to come under intense scrutiny in the vibrant feminist blogosphere. Dunham is no stranger to eliciting strong emotions; her hit HBO series, Girls, was roundly excoriated for its overly white and upper-class portrayal of a Brooklyn we know to be much more diverse. And her self-abnegating narcissism has rubbed many the wrong way. Her book, Not That Kind of Girl—part memoir, part self-help, part comedy sketch—has further amped up the Dunham wars, as she has now been accused of child sexual abuse in recalling and writing about what appears to be innocent childhood curiosity about the female body. In her book, she remembers looking into her sister’s vagina—when they were both young children—prompting the accusations of abuse and Dunham’s angry response (and that of her sister, who defends her by saying, in part, that “I’m committed to people … determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful”).

While moralists at large took the opportunity to deem Dunham an abuser, some feminists, too, jumped on this train, creating the hashtag #dropDunham and calling on Planned Parenthood to disengage from the star, who used her book tour in part as a way to support abortion rights. True, some prominent feminists, such as Roxane Gay and Katha Pollit, have eloquently come to her defense, but the blogosphere was fairly bursting with anti-Dunham fever. Gay, in particular, notes her discomfort with the scene (“I read the passage about Dunham inspecting her younger sister Grace’s vagina when she was seven and her sister was one. I found this disturbing and utterly bizarre”), but then goes on to say that she didn’t take particular note of it and, moreover, questions whether or not the disclosure is what is really animating the angst. Rather, she writes, “there is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”

Let me be as clear as I can: This is—of course—not an argument against critical engagement. Criticism and challenge are vital to the health of any social movement, as they recalibrate priorities and assess goals and underlying values. As I write this, I am keenly aware of the ease with which some observers—such as Jonathan Chait in a recent piece for New York magazine—look at this infighting as evidence of PC-mad feminazis run amok. But the politically-correct-or-not framing is tired and illusory, undermining the substantive concerns at the heart of feminist discourse. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of feminist theory and the women’s movement more generally has been its insistence on self-scrutiny in the quest for ever more robust and inclusive analyses. And surely errors, miscues, and worse can be found in these and other examples.

Feminism has long struggled with its own suppositions and assumptions, from unacknowledged white privilege to presumptive heterosexuality to America-centric concerns. Calling these out remains a key ingredient in creating ever more salient and meaningful feminisms. What I am suggesting, however, is that this moment seems to have a skewed heat-to-light ratio.

When criticism becomes rote recitation of overdetermined keywords and loses what might be called an economy of scale, movements end up devouring their own and deflect attention from the larger and more pervasive problems they set out to challenge in the first place. Dunham and the Girls phenomenon might not be the feminist nirvana some hoped for, but she is a celebrity explicitly discussing her support for feminism and displaying an active commitment to (some) of the issues the movement cares about. The same could be said for Watson, Hollaback!, and Beyoncé (another feminist/sex-symbol Rorschach test); it bears noticing that recognizing the continuation of serious gender inequity and violence in a world many have blithely declared “postfeminist” is a position all should applaud. That doesn’t mean that any individual or organization should be above criticism; it does mean, however, that some perspective might be in order. It should matter, for example, that Ensler’s V-Day organization has raised more than $90-million, most of which goes to building feminist institutions like City of Joy, in Congo, or supporting grass-roots feminist organizations the world over.

There are real and potent enemies of women’s freedom out there in the world—those who want to sweep sexual violence under the rug, or do away with reproductive choice, or ignore wage differentials, or constrict sexual and gender freedom, or turn a blind eye to the lopsided gender representation in our halls of government. Perhaps those persistent problems seem too intractable, making the lure of the Twitter pile-on both easier and more satisfying in the face of our vexing inability to solve the larger problems. Easier perhaps to trash a Dunham or a Watson or an Ensler than to unseat an antichoice legislator or put a dent in the rates of sexual assault.

This could be, as they say, a “teachable moment” to parse the difference between, for example, discussions of “inclusion” and concerns about substantive bigotry and hateful representations. Isn’t there a way to stand in solidarity with all kinds of identities and communities without simultaneously declaring something else either “essentialist” or null and void in some way? To insinuate, for example, that The Vagina Monologues is a transphobic play is patently absurd—what precisely would be the evidence for that argument?

No doubt there is plenty of real transphobia out there to struggle against, some of it by the usual suspects and some of it authored by feminist theorists and activists, who should indeed be taken to task. But Ensler’s play is a poor target. And to mistake and conflate issues of inclusion for issues of discrimination is a dangerous and sloppy political error. It’s akin to calling the great epic Angels in America misogynist because it doesn’t include stories of women with AIDS.

Challenging one another and pushing at boundaries should never—must never—mean that we lose an economy of scale and create a topsy-turvy world where allies are enemies and borders are policed in ever narrower ways. When that happens, we let the real bigots off the hook and do a grave disservice to those activists and thinkers whose lives have been dedicated to human flourishing and gender and sexual freedom.

Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Societyand a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, where she directs the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She is the author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014).

The late trials of the Holocaust

—Frank Tuerkheimer and Michael Bazyler

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker, “The Last Trial” is a wonderful summary of the belated and long overdue reaction of the German legal system to the atrocities committed by the Germans in implementing the plan to exterminate European Jewry. She correctly notes that with the Demjanjuk decision, the German legal establishment has now reached a final stage in its legal approach to Nazi criminality: anyone participating in the operation of a death camp is legally complicit in homicide, requiring no specific proof that the person killed or injured anyone.

This is not the first time such an approach has been taken to Second World War crimes committed by the Germans. When the U.S. War Department was preparing for the main Nuremberg trial before the International Military Tribunal in 1945, Colonel Murray Bernays brilliantly came up with a similar idea, eventually implemented in the Nuremberg Charter. The Bernays plan contemplated Nazi bodies to be charged as criminal organizations. If convicted, then in the future it would only be necessary to prove that an accused Nazi was a member of that organization; the degree of individual involvement would bear on the sentence meted out to the convicted member. The Allies charged and the International Military Tribunal in its 1946 judgment convicted the SS [Schutzstaffel, the Nazi party’s protection squad], the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi's security service] and the Gestapo as criminal organizations, adding the requirement that in a subsequent prosecution under the Bernays theory the prosecution would have to prove that the person was aware of the organization’s criminal activity – a relatively soft burden when it came to concentration camp administrators.

Bernays’ idea was implemented in subsequent Nuremberg trials conducted by the U.S. military, but never after that. Thus the envisioned extensive prosecution of the large number of persons complicit in German atrocities never took place. While the Germans did prosecute several cases involving the death camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec and Auschwitz – they applied the technical requirements of the German penal code, which required specific motivation for the crime of homicide to have occurred. This cramped the prosecutions significantly and resulted in many acquittals and very light sentences.

Now, seventy years after the Bernays’ vision of future prosecutions, the German legal system has adopted a similar approach. Seventy years, however, is a lethal gap, and it is unlikely that any still-living geriatric Nazi war criminals will be prosecuted to completion. Already, a number of Auschwitz guards have died while awaiting prosecution. Demjanjuk died in an old-age home while awaiting an appeal of his relatively light six-year sentence.

Ephraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, has quipped that he is the only Jew in the world who prays for the good health of Nazi war criminals. Given the passage of time, it is doubtful that his prayers will be answered.

Laudatory as the new German approach is, it is painful to think of all the Demjanjuks in the administration of the death camps who either were not prosecuted or who received light sentences. Kolbert’s reference to Martin Luther King’s lament that justice may come too late is apt and sobering.

Frank Tuerkheimer is Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. Michael Bazyler is Professor of Law and the 1939 Society Scholar in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law, Chapman University. They are co-authors of Forgotten Trials of the Holocaust (NYU Press 2014).

What lies beneath the Chapel Hill murders? More than a ‘parking dispute’

—Nadine Naber

We may never know exactly what Craig Stephen Hicks was thinking when he killed Syrian American medical student Deah Barakat, his Palestinian American wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha. But we do know that U.S.-led war in Arab and Muslim majority countries has normalized the killing of Arabs and Muslims. It is more crucial than ever before to understand the institutionalization of racism against persons perceived to be Arab or Muslim in terms of the structures of imperial war that normalize killing and death and hold no one (other than victims themselves) accountable.

Photo: Molly Riley/UPI.

The Obama Administration may have dropped the language of the “war on terror,” but it has continued its fundamental strategy of endless war and killing in the Arab region and Muslim majority countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan (without evidence of criminal activity). The unconstitutional “kill list” for instance, allows the president to authorize murders every week, waging a private war on individuals outside the authorization of congress. Strategies like the “kill list” resolve the guilt or innocent of list members in secret and replace the judicial process (including cases involving U.S. citizens abroad) with quick and expedited killing. These and related practices, and their accompanying impunity, look something like this:

Al Ishaqi massacre, Iraq 2006: The U.S. army rounded up and shot at least 10 civilians including 4 women and 5 children. The Iraqis were handcuffed and shot in the head execution style. The U.S. spokesperson’s response? “Military personnel followed proper procedures and rules of engagement and did nothing wrong.”

Drone attack, Yemen 2015: A drone killed 13-year old Mohammad Tuaiman (whose father was killed in a 2011 drone strike), his brother, and a third man. Questioned about the incident, the CIA stated that “the 3 men were believed to be Al Qaeda” even though the CIA refused to confirm that he was an Al Qaida militant.

The U.S.-backed Israeli killing of Palestinians reinforces the acceptability of Arab and Muslim death. In July 2014, the Israeli Defense Force killed at least 2,000 Palestinians including 500 children. It is well established that the IDF soldiers deliberately targeted civilians. The Obama Administration’s response? Explicit support for Israel.

And those left behind are forced to watch their loved ones’ bodies fall to the ground or burn like charcoal and can only conclude that, “In [the U.S. government’s] eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”

Since the 1970s (when the U.S. consolidated its alliance with Israel), the corporate news media has reinforced the acceptability of Arab and Muslim death—from one-sided reporting to fostering fear of Arabs and Muslims. From Black Sunday (1977) to American Sniper (2015), Hollywood has sent one uninterrupted message: Arabs and Muslims are savage, misogynist terrorists; their lives have no value; and they deserve to die.

This interplay between the U.S. war agenda abroad and the U.S. corporate media extends directly into the lives of persons perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim in the United States. Hate crimes, firebomb attacks, bomb threats, vandalism, detention and deportation without evidence of criminal activity and more have all been well documented. Of course, such incidents escalated in the aftermath of the horrific attacks of 9/11. As the U.S. state and media beat the drums of war, anyone perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim (including Sikhs, Christian Arabs, and Arab Jews) became suspect. Muslim women who wore the headscarf became walking emblems of the state and media discourse of Islamic terrorism. Across the United States, at school, on the bus, at work, and on the streets, women wearing the headscarf have been bullied, have had their scarves torn off, and have been asked over and over why they support Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, terrorism, and the oppression of women.

Despite this, the corporate media (replicating the words of the police) and government officials have either reduced the North Carolina killings to a parking dispute or expressed grave confusion over why an angry white man would kill three Arab Muslim students in North Carolina execution-style. Yet the father of one of the women students stated that his son-in law did not have any trouble with Hicks when he lived there alone. The trouble, he said, started only after Yusor, who wore a headscarf identifying her as a Muslim, moved in. Even so, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt told CNN that the community is still “struggling to understand what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit this crime,” adding, “It just baffles us.”

The “parking dispute” defense individualizes and exceptionalizes Hicks’ crime—in this case, through a logic that obscures the connection between whiteness, Islamophobia, and racism. And the bafflement rhetoric constructs a reality in which there are no conceivable conditions that could have potentially provoked Hicks. Both approaches deny the possible links between the killings, U.S. and Israeli military killings, the media that supports them, and the U.S. culture of militarized violence. They will also assist Hicks in attempting to avoid the more serious hate crime charge that would come with a heavy additional sentence.

Alternately, discussions insisting on the significance of Islamophobia in this case must go beyond the call for religious tolerance and account for the projects of U.S. empire building and war that underlie Islamophobia. Contemporary Islamophobia is a form of racism and an extension of U.S.-led war abroad. As I wrote in Arab America, immigrant communities from the regions of U.S.-led war engage with U.S. racial structures, specifically anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, as diasporas of empire—subjects of the U.S. empire living in the empire itself. Perhaps then, we should also avoid applying the same analysis of racism across the board—as if all racisms are the same or as if the framework #blacklivesmatter can simply be transposed onto the killing of Arab Muslim Americans. Otherwise, we risk disremembering the distinct conditions of black struggle (and black Muslims) including the systematic state-sanctioned extrajudicial killing of black people by police and vigilantes as well as black poverty, and histories of slavery and mass incarceration. It is also important to remember the distinct conditions of the war on terror whereby anyone and everyone perceived be Muslim (including Arab Christians and Sikhs) are potential targets.

Rest in peace and power Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. May your loved ones find strength and support. My heart is shattered.

Nadine Naber is Associate Professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012). 

Beyond intent: Why we need a new paradigm to think about racialized violence

—Evelyn Alsultany

Three Muslim Americans – Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 – were murdered last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by 46-year-old resident Craig Stephen Hicks. The tragedy has sparked a debate over whether or not these deaths were the result of a hate crime or a parking dispute.

Women take part in a vigil for three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Muslim Americans who claimed that this was surely a hate crime were presented with evidence to the contrary. Hicks’s Facebook and other online posts revealed that he is an atheist who is against all religion, regardless of whether it is Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, a gun enthusiast, and an advocate for gay rights. His online posts show that he is passionate about the protection of constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech and freedom of religion. His archived posts even include commentary on the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, in which he writes in support of Muslim rights and notes the important distinction between Muslims and Muslim extremists. His wife has insisted that the murders were the result of a parking dispute, and not a hate crime. As a result, Hicks has been portrayed as not hating Muslims.

This profile of Hicks is indeed complex. He does not fit the conventional profile of a “racist” – i.e., someone who believes that all Muslims are a threat to America; who clings to essentialist and binary notions of identities; who espouses that certain groups of people do not deserve human rights; who practices intentional bigotry; who is firmly rooted in a logic that justifies inequality. I am reluctant to use the term “racist” since it conjures an image of someone who participates in blatant and intentional forms of hate. However, what this case shows us is that we need a new paradigm to understand racialized violence today. Yes, this case is complex, but that does not mean it is not a hate crime. It is complex because it does not fit the narrow way in which we have defined a hate crime.

Posing an either/or option – either this is or is not a hate crime – does not help us understand what transpired. Racism is not an either/or phenomenon. It is deeply embedded in our society and, when left unchecked, has the potential to inform our perceptions and actions in ways not captured by a caricatured understanding of its diverse forms. Racism is not always conscious or intentional. It exists across a vast spectrum of consciousness and intentionality.  As part of our subconscious, racism can manifest in the form of microaggressions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. On the more dangerous side of the spectrum, it manifests in violence. We need to break the association of racism with intent because racism endures without it.

Our current cultural paradigm often makes a simplistic equation: Good people are well-intentioned and are therefore not racist; bad people are ill-intentioned and are therefore racist. Consequently, if the white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Gardner are considered “good people” by their friends, families, and colleagues, their actions cannot be deemed racist. Such a conclusion focuses solely on intent and overlooks how members of the police – like all of us – have been shaped and influenced by notions of black men as threatening and how such cultural imagery has, in turn, structured racialized violence.

The point is not that Craig Hicks is any more or any less racist than the white police officers who murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men. Indeed, the question of their individual, consciously expressed or felt racism does not help us to understand what happened or how to prevent it in the future; it just provokes denial and defensiveness. Conversely, claiming that we are “post-race” and/or denying that a particular incident has anything to do with race does not help us solve the problem of racialized violence.

The point is not whether Craig Hicks is any more or less racist than any of us; the point is that Craig Hicks lives and his victims died in a society that is structured by deeply institutionalized and culturally pervasive racism that exists regardless of whether any individual “wants” it to or not, and regardless of whether we as a society want to acknowledge it or not. We need a new paradigm, a new language and framework, to understand racialized violence today. Hicks’ profile provides an opportunity to challenge ourselves to rethink our understanding of racism and hate crimes in order to prevent murder.

Evelyn Alsultany is Associate Professor in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (NYU Press, 2012).

#MuslimLivesMatter, #BlackLivesMatter, and the fight against violent extremism

—Zareena Grewal

On Tuesday February 10, 2015, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was charged with first-degree murder of three Arab, Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Photo: http://twitter.com/samahahmeed.

Hicks’ neighbors, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad, 21, were newlyweds—and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was visiting her older sister and brother-in-law at the time of the execution-style killing. After the mainstream US media’s initial silence, the homicide is now referred to as “a shooting,” sparking worldwide Twitter hashtag campaigns such as #CallItTerrorism and #MuslimLivesMatter with many speculating on how the crime might have been framed had the perpetrator been Muslim and the victims white.

The motives of Hicks, who turned himself in to police, are the source of heated debate and speculation. According to his Facebook profile, Hicks describes himself as an anti-theist, a fan of the controversial film American Sniper and atheist polemicist Richard Dawkins, and a proud gun-owner. The Chapel Hill Police Department described the crime as motivated by an on-going dispute between the neighbors over parking, while the father of the two young women insists it was a “hate-crime.” Chief Chris Blue recognizes and continues to investigate “the possibility that this was hate-motivated.”

Such language suggests that while Hicks’ violence is exceptional and excessive, his motivations could have been ordinary and benign: maybe he was there first, maybe he had dibs on that parking spot, maybe he had a bad day or a bad life and so he had a mental breakdown with a gun in hand. After all, while this murder is devastating to the family and friends of the victims, for many of us, it is not shocking. We know and expect “lone shooters” to be white, heterosexual men; we know and expect their victims to be men of color, women, youth.

But it is American Muslim leaders who will gather in DC for the Obama administration’s “Countering Violent Extremism Summit” in a few days.

Individualizing the violence of white American men into “lone wolves” conceals the regularity of such violence and the state’s inability to prevent it, to make us “secure,” even to name it. This is one of the searing lessons of the #BlackLivesMatter movement; George Zimmerman’s sense of insecurity was used to justify his murder of an unarmed, black teenager, Trayvon Martin. As the #BlackLivesMatter movement demonstrates, Zimmerman was part and parcel of a larger phenomenon of racial, homicidal violence against unarmed blacks enacted in tandem by ordinary white citizens “standing their ground” and militarized police forces.

A significant number of blacks in the US are also Muslim and, therefore, vulnerable to being brutalized and murdered simply because they are black. Despite the fact that black youth are more than four times likely than any other group to be gunned down by police, critics of #BlackLivesMatter continue to ignore this harsh reality, insisting that #AllLivesMatter.

Clearly, all lives do not matter to everyone. The #BlackLivesMatter movement brings our attention to the fact that violence in the name of white supremacy only horrifies and terrifies some of us.

Disingenuous claims about how all lives matter or how parking is frustrating hide the insidious influence of racism. In my book, Islam is a Foreign Country, I explore how American Muslim communities grapple with the pervasive, racial hatred of their religion. This morning a Pakistani friend asked whether she will now have to explain to her young children that some people hate them just for being Muslim. African American Muslims know all too well that the question is not whether but when to teach their children that they are vulnerable. Hicks’ victim knew it too; she saw it in his eyes, telling her father, “He hates us for what we are and how we look.”

Zareena Grewal is Associate Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (NYU Press, 2015).

Book giveaway: Plucked

“Most of Earth’s mammals possess luxuriant fur. Only one seeks to remove it. Rebecca Herzig’s delightful history of hair removal in America helps explain why: smooth skin is a cultural imperative.”
The Economist

Plucked is an important work, not least because it is so very readable. What’s more, Herzig is angry, and anger is the first step towards social change. ‘Plucked,’ she writes, ‘is, first and foremost, a call to remember those excluded others: the staggering volumes of sweat and blood and imagination and fear expended to produce a single hairless chin.’”
Times Higher Education 

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

In Plucked, historian Rebecca Herzig explores the long history of hair removal around the world, examining how Americans came to perceive body hair as a sign of political extremism, sexual deviance, or mental illness. Moving beyond the experiences of particular patients or clients, Herzig describes the surprising histories of race, science, industry, and medicine behind today’s hair-removing tools.

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 Monday, March 2nd, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.

It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality

—Jane Ward

If women can kiss women and still be straight, what about men?

Some scholars have argued that female sexual desires tend to be fluid and receptive, while men’s desires – regardless of whether men are gay or straight – tend to be inflexible and unchanging. Support for this notion permeates popular culture. There are countless examples of straight-identified female actresses and pop stars kissing or caressing other women – from Madonna and Britney to Iggy and J-Lo – with little concern about being perceived as lesbians. When the Christian pop star Katy Perry sang in 2008 that she kissed a girl and liked it, nobody seriously doubted her heterosexuality.

The story is different for men. The sexuality of straight men has long been understood by evolutionary biologists, and, subsequently, the general public, as subject to a visceral, nearly unstoppable impulse to reproduce with female partners. Consequently, when straight men do engage in same sex contact, these encounters are viewed as incompatible with the bio-evolutionary coding. It’s believed to signal an innate homosexual (or at least bisexual) orientation, and even just one known same-sex act can cast considerable doubt upon a man’s claim to heterosexuality. For instance, in 2007, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Bob Allen were both separately arrested on charges related to sex with men in public bathrooms. While both men remained married to their wives and tirelessly avowed their heterosexuality, the press skewered them as closeted hypocrites.

Despite the common belief in the rigidity of male heterosexuality, historians and sociologists have created a substantial body of well-documented evidence showing straight men – not “closeted” gay men – engaging in sexual contact with other men. In many parts of the United States prior to the 1950s, the gay/straight binary distinguished between effeminate men (or “fairies”) and masculine men (“normal” men) – not whether or not a man engaged in homosexual sex. Historian George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City from 1890-1940 revealed that through much of the first half of the 20th century, normal (i.e., “straight”) working class men mixed with fairies in the saloons and tenements that were central to the lives of working men.

With sex-segregation the general rule for single men and women in the early 1900s, the private back rooms of saloons were often sites of sexual activity between normal men and fairies, with the latter perceived as a kind of intermediate sex – a reasonable alternative to female prostitutes. Public parks and restrooms were also common sites for sexual interaction between straight men and fairies. In such encounters, the fairy acted as the sole embodiment of queerness, the figures with whom normal (straight) men could have sex – just as they might with female sex workers. Fairies affirmed, rather than threatened, the heteromasculinity of straight men by embodying its opposite.

The notion that homosexual activity was not “gay” when undertaken by “real” (i.e. straight) men continued into the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the homosexual contact of straight men began to be undergo a transformation from relatively mundane behavior to the bold behavior of male rebels. The American biker gang The Hells Angels, which formed in 1948, serves as a rich example. There are few figures more “macho” than a heavily tattooed, leather-clad biker, whose heterosexuality was as much on display as his masculinity. Brawling over women, exhibiting women on the back of bikes, and brandishing tattoos and patches of women were all central to the subculture of the gang.Yet as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson documented in his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, gang members also had sexual encounters with one another. One of their favorite “stunts” was to deeply French kiss one another – with tongues extended out of their mouths in a type of tongue-licking kiss often reserved for girl-on-girl porn. Members of the Hells Angels explained that the kissing was a defiant stunt that produced among onlookers the desired degree of shock. To them, it was also an expression of “brotherhood.”

Today, sexual encounters between straight-identified men take new but similarly “manly” forms. For instance, when men undergo hazing in college fraternities and in the military, there’s often a degree of sexual contact. It’s often dismissed as a joke, game, or ritual that has no bearing on the heterosexual constitution of the participants. As I document in my forthcoming book, fraternity hazing has included practices such as the “elephant walk,” in which pledges are required to strip naked and stand in a circle, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the pledge in front of them.

Similarly, according to anthropological accounts of the Navy’s longstanding “Crossing the Line” initiation ceremony, new sailors crossing the equator for the first time have garbage and rotten food shoved into their anuses by older sailors. They’re also required to retrieve objects from one another’s anuses.

One relatively recent example of the pervasiveness of these kinds of encounters between straight men was revealed in a report by the US-based watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. In 2009, the group released photos of American security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul engaging in “deviant” after-hours pool parties. The photos show the men drunkenly urinating on each other, licking each other’s nipples, and taking vodka shots and eating potato chips out of each other’s butts.

Individuals often react to these examples in one of two ways. Either they jump to the conclusion that any straight-identified man who engages in sexual contact with another man must actually be gay or bisexual, or they dismiss the behavior as not actually sexual. Rather, they interpret it as an expression of dominance, a desire to humiliate, or some other ostensibly “non sexual” male impulse.

But these responses merely reveal our culture’s preconceived notions about men’s sexuality. Look at it from the other side of the coin: if straight young women, such as sorority pledges, were touching each other’s vaginas during an initiation ritual or taking shots from each other’s butts, commentators would almost certainly imagine these acts as sexual in some way (and not exclusively about women’s need to dominate, for instance). Straight women are also given considerable leeway to have occasional sexual contact with women without the presumption that they are actually lesbians. In other words, same-sex contact among straight men and women is interpreted through the lens of some well-worn gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes don’t hold up when we examine the range of straight men’s sexual encounters with other men.

It’s clear that straight men and women come into intimate contact with one another in a range of different ways. But this is less about hard-wired gender differences and more about broader cultural norms dictating how men and women are allowed to behave with people of the same sex. Instead of clinging to the notion that men’s sexuality is fundamentally inflexible, we should view male heterosexuality for what it is – a fluid set of desires that are constrained less by biology than by prevailing gender norms.

Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted at The Conversation.]

Black Lives Matter, youth militancy, and resistance

—Sekou Franklin

[Note: This piece was originally published on Atlanta Blackstar.]

Almost 100 years ago, the Harlem intellectual Hubert Harrison celebrated black resistance to racialized violence in the essay “As the Current Flows.” He described it as making white mobs take “their own medicine” as blacks fought back against vigilante groups in urban centers at the height of the Red Scare. The “New Negro spirit” or militancy, he believed, represented a fait accompli in American politics, or a permanent mode of black defiance against an oppressive system and its black accommodationist leadership.

The protests surrounding the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others raise the question of whether they will be this generation’s fait accompli. The Black Lives Matter movement can potentially reshape the national dialogue around race, class and the criminal justice system. It can also deepen the commitment of young and older grassroots leaders to racial justice and participatory democracy. Though young blacks make up a large number of the participants in the protests, the movement has further galvanized a large contingent of non-blacks such that it may lead to a new kind of rainbow coalition.

Almost 20 years ago, I lived in a San Francisco neighborhood that experienced its own police killing of an unarmed black man named William Hankston. Residents were especially outraged that it occurred near a day-care center where two dozen school-age children witnessed the incident. The killing ignited minor scrapes between black youth and the police. Yet after the anger subsided, the protests stopped as the victim’s family and the police department began a legal battle that lasted several years.

My front-row seat at the Hankston incident shaped my immediate response to the protests in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. I thought the protests would end or be corralled by black leaders and that the protesters would eventually go home. I was wrong. Instead of diminished protests, they continue to spread throughout the country including in places as dissimilar as New York and Alaska, as well as dozens of cities outside the United States.

By all accounts, activists and communities at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement have a policy window or political opportunity to advance serious reforms of a broken criminal justice system, and to connect these reforms to economic justice policies that can improve the lives of the working poor. There is already evidence that the resistance has made a difference. Moderate racial profiling measures are currently being debated in state and local legislative bodies. Congress just approved the Death in Custody Reporting Act, and the Justice Department announced new rules to reduce racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials.

Yet despite the incredible courage and youthful energy of the protesters, it is unclear if these protests will lead to life-altering improvements for working-class communities beyond the moderate reforms that were just approved. Black Lives Matter activists are up against entrepreneurial police commissioners that have different management styles than earlier police chiefs such as the Bull Connors, Frank Rizzos, and William Parkers that ran big-city police departments from the 1930s-1970s. Whereas the latter group publicly championed jackboot, racialized policing strategies, most of today’s big-city police superintendents (and district attorneys) have perfected the art of political stagecraft and are particularly skilled at building allies in the black community. These officials, working hand-in-hand with powerful economic interests, have built in most cities a “cradle to prison” regime — biracial or multiracial governing coalitions skilled at moderating racial discord in the aftermath of incidents involving police misconduct.

We don’t have a definitive answer as to what makes movements such as Black Lives Matter a fait accompli or a permanent mode of resistance. What distinguishes movements and youth-based insurgencies that foment transformative change from those that are contained has puzzled movement activists and scholars more than many of us would like to admit. Yet young activists should pay attention to some signposts as they attempt to sustain the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015.

Intergenerational activism

Although the recent groundswell of activism has its own unique character and historical roots, it is part of a long tradition of youth militancy that dates back nearly a century. In the 1920s, black college students revolted against the oligarchic leadership that presided over historically black colleges and universities. A decade later the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a radical youth formation that attracted young activists such as James Jackson and Sallye Davis (Angela Davis’ mother), organized young people in support of economic justice and voting rights initiatives. The 1950s and 1960s gave birth to the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools; the sit-in movement of 1960 that attracted more than 50,000 young protesters; and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as well as the Student Organization for Black Unity. Young activists helped to propel the Pan-African and black feminist movements of the 1970s as well as the South African divestment movement of the 1980s. And, the Black Student Leadership Network set up dozens of freedom schools in low-income communities during the early-mid 1990s.

Despite these earlier movements and others not mentioned, we still have a lot to learn about black youth agency. Many older black activists believe that the strength and dynamism of black and multiracial movements in the 1960s have been under-researched or inaccurately reported. Some activists even believe that the overall framing of black youth agency — and the media’s obsessive attention to the divisions between adults and the youth — was initially framed by academicians whose experiences and research were shaped by white-led and western European student movements. Some believe assessments of white student activism were mistakenly reinterpreted or misappropriated to evaluate black youth agency. Whether true or not, the limited research on black social and political agency has inhibited the academic and activist communities from challenging common assumptions about youth activism.

Also frustrating is the media’s focus on adult/youth divisions within the black activist community in its portrayal of the Black Lives Matter protests. This attention has been partially fueled by young protesters themselves. Corporate and even the most movement-friendly media have little understanding of grassroots organizing, how protests are planned, and the actual science or strategic planning that goes into sustaining movement campaigns. The adult-versus-youth narrative, which is quite predictable and unsettling, thus takes away from deeper stories about the brilliance and tactical innovation of the young Black Lives Matter organizers.

Certainly, generational divisions permeate all protest waves. They did in the 1930s, almost a forgotten period of black youth radicalism, and they were pervasive in the 1950s-1970s civil rights and black power movements. However, the intergenerational dimension of these movements is actually a testament to the vitality of black political agency. The cohesion between young activists and long-standing community leaders, many of whom are unrecognized and barely mentioned in movement media portraits, is certainly more fascinating than the clashes between young radicals and the black establishment.

Take for example the dominant narrative in movement circles about generational divisions between SNCC and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s SCLC. SNCC may have been the most important youth-based movement organization of the twentieth century. Its intimate relationships with older, indigenous activists or what Charles Payne calls “local people” was more reflective of its organizing philosophy than its battles with the SCLC. Herbert Lee, Amzie Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and Gloria Richardson were older leaders who joined or allied with SNCC.

On the other hand, a network of young activists bolstered some of SCLC’s militant action.  James Orange joined SCLC in his late teens, and was one of the unsung heroes of the Selma voting rights campaign despite being younger than most SNCC members. (The Selma movie inaccurately portrays Orange as the same age as other SCLC staff members, but he was actually in his early twenties at the time and younger than SNCC chairperson John Lewis.) Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette, both young organizers in the Nashville civil rights movement and the freedom rides, traversed between SNCC and the SCLC. The SCLC also coordinated Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools after the collapse of the Highlander Folk School. The Citizenship Schools mirrored SNCC’s freedom schools and surely was championed by young activists who were critical of the SCLC and adult leadership.

Indeed, many young activists have no problem working in intergenerational movement infrastructures as long as seasoned or older activists respect their voice and autonomy.  Young organizers also need older activists to leverage their resources and expertise to prolong militant youth action. What young people oppose is the doctrinaire and seemingly anti-democratic wing of the black leadership class. Even Ella Baker’s critique of the SCLC and adult leadership, as recounted in Barbara Ransby’s groundbreaking book, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” was less about generational divisions than the class orientations and bureaucratic inertia of the mainline civil rights groups.

For the purposes of the Black Lives Matter protests, the most useful example from Baker’s life may be how she used her position in the SCLC and her close ties with other social justice groups to develop an alliance of student and youth activists. Many activists are familiar with the story of SNCC. It was formed at the tail end of the 1960 sit-in movement that targeted racially segregated, public accommodations. After the sit-ins, Baker pulled together young activists for a national gathering at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., in what became SNCC’s founding conference.

A national dialogue

A similar national gathering involving Black Lives Matter organizers and seasoned community organizations — from the Lost Voices, League of Young Voters, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, BYP 100, Hands Up United, Center for Community Change, Organization for Black Struggle, Movement Strategy Center, Millennial Activists United, NAACP Youth & College Division, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Project South, Highlander Research and Education Center, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Ferguson Action, Southern Echo, and leading hip-hop activists — would have the potential to break new ground for 21st century resistance movements.

However, a major concern is that some of the Black Lives Matter activists are caught up in what used to be called a “freedom high” and many actions — die-ins, hands up postures and road blockades — lack strategic planning and are failing to tell real stories of how working people are adversely affected by the criminal justice system. Because some actions are ritualistic, some local initiatives or networks have done a poor job connecting the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions with local policy demands.

A national gathering could give the lead organizers the opportunity to strategize and think more systematically about leadership development, training and storytelling. It could give young people deeper connections with indigenous networks in working-class communities of color. It could encourage them to extend the organizing sphere to small cities and rural communities that are also plagued by police misconduct and racially disparate inequities in the criminal justice system. The gathering could also allow young people to link grievances about criminal justice irregularities to economic justice claims.

Admittedly, creating a national alliance has its shortcomings. It takes resources, funding, and the lead organizations would inevitably have to grapple with racial and ideological divisions in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, not having a national dialogue or gathering could damage the long-term prospects of youth activism. Professor Matthew Countryman was a young organizer in the South African divestment movement during the 1980s. Similar to today’s protest wave, the divestment movement experienced an outpouring of student and young activists, who organized actions at more than 100 universities in the United States. The movement also pressured lawmakers to adopt the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, Congress’s most authoritative attack against the South African regime. Yet, as Countryman wrote in the Nation essay, “Beyond Victory: The Lessons of the Divestment Drive,” the movement “grounded to a halt largely because of serious organizational and strategic weaknesses.” Influential divestment activists religiously guarded their autonomy because of well-understood suspicions of cooptation. They then rejected attempts to build a broader political base or national alliance that could unite young activists and leverage the resources to extend movement building activities.

There is some indication that leading activists involved in Black Lives Matter are dialoguing about how to sustain the movement beyond the initial wave of actions. On January 22nd these activists coalescing under the moniker, National Collective of Black Organizers, released the report, “State of the Black Union: The Shadow of Crisis Has Not Passed”. The brief outlines twelve, broad demands for America that reflect the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter movement.

However, eleven out of twelve demands mirror the resolutions and policy recommendations already advanced by mainline civil rights and black groups such as the NAACP, Urban League, National Action Network, Congressional Black Caucus, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and Nation of Islam. The only point of contention between the collective and mainline organizations is perhaps the former group’s critique of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The collective criticizes the exclusion of women and LGBT youth from the initiative, and instead urges Obama to reorganize it into the Our Children’s Keeper program. What’s missing from the brief is a detailed assessment of how the collective’s demands differ from those endorsed by preexisting black and civil rights groups.  Also missing is a concrete plan that connects young activists with indigenous and older activists living in struggling black communities, and working with residents who need immediate or specific policy interventions to address their material conditions.

Cross-sector movement alliances

In reality, the recent protests are part of a larger multi-layered and cross-sector protest wave. The Moral Monday movement initiated by the North Carolina NAACP has lasted a year and a half and is now in a dozen states. Another promising movement is the Show Me 15 — a $15 per hour wage for fast food workers — that has spread to 200 cities. Show Me 15 activists are mostly low-wage workers, people of color including a large representation of black women, and young people. These worker activists offer a counter-narrative to the politics of respectability that positions students, middle-class or sanitized activists at the forefront of movement campaigns.

Fortunately, we can look to the Ferguson/St. Louis region to understand the benefits of cross-sector movement building. Some organizers on the frontlines of the restaurant boycotts in St. Louis joined the Ferguson protests. Some of the St. Louis/Ferguson worker activists then traveled to my home state of Tennessee to stand on the picket lines with boycotting fast-food workers. The cross-fertilization between criminal justice and economic justice movements is potentially one of the transformative outcomes of this current wave of protests.

Cross-sector alliances have already produced deeper conversations between diverse activists. They have allowed for movement borrowing or the sharing of strategies and tactics between different groups adversely affected by the “cradle-to-prison” regime, including black youth activists concerned about racial profiling and racially-based police killings, low-wage restaurant workers whose economic mobility is inhibited by prior histories in the criminal justice system, immigrant rights advocates who fight against racial profiling programs such as 287(g) that have led to the mass detention of undocumented residents, and young homeless rights activists whose constituents are heavily policed and pushed out of high-density and commercial development corridors.

The role of the academy

If Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday, Show Me 15, and other movements are going to be viable responses to inequality then black social scientists must be integral to this struggle. There are multiple roles that they (we) can play including assisting young activists with press releases, op-eds, fundraising initiatives and research.

During the protest waves of the 1930s-1940s and the 1950s-1970s, there was a partnership between resistance movements and hybrid academicians (or scholars who had one foot in movements and the other one in the academy). Ira De Reid, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles Johnson belonged to a cadre of black scholars commissioned by the American Council on Education in the 1940s to study the challenges facing black youth. Their pioneering studies provided a broader context for shaping radical youth organizations such as the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

The National Conference of Black Political Scientists was also established in 1969 as an outgrowth of the civil rights and black power movements. More recently, black political scientists have been on the frontlines of anti-poverty and labor campaigns, movements to abolish the death penalty and reverse wrongful convictions, public health initiatives, LGBT movements, voting rights campaigns, and other social movements. The Moral Monday movement’s official training manual further encourages its state or local affiliates to partner with “activist scholars” as a key component of movement building.

The Current Flows

In looking back at the period that shaped Hubert Harrison’s perspective, one might very well conclude that he was wrong in his prediction that America was on the horizon of a black fait accompli or permanent mode of black resistance after World War I. Although black students revolted at their universities in the 1920s, the protests were relegated to a small contingent of the middle-class. Harrison’s optimism notwithstanding, Jim Crow stiffened and Northern racism persisted. Racial terrorism also increased and black life worsened under the Great Depression.

The events in the first half of the twentieth century underscore how difficult it is to sustain civil resistance beyond the initial outbursts or wave of protests. Ella Baker understood this challenge. She rejected the notion that the 1960 sit-in movement would continue to self-procreate even though the movement attracted tens of thousands of students.

After the initial wave of sit-ins, she and others rededicated themselves to organizing, planning, leadership development, intergenerational movement building, and experimentation in order to convert youth insurgents into a formidable political force in the 1960s. As such, if the Black Lives Matter resistance is going to be a protracted struggle instead of an episodic one, its leading voices must follow Baker’s instructions. Only then will we know if the movement is the fait accompli for this generation.

Sekou Franklin is the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Q&A with author Rachel C. Lee

Last season, Faye Qiyu Lu, one of our fall interns and an undergraduate at NYU, put together a series of questions for Rachel C. Lee, author of The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America. Check out the Q&A on the book below! 

What does the term “exquisite corpse” entail for your project?

Rachel C. Lee: The exquisite corpse, for me, is a structure for collaboration, an experimental method that values distributed sites of intelligence, despite the likely disjunctures of approach and worldview of various participants. In the early 2000s, I began working with a group of feminists in Los Angeles to create a critical-creative prose piece using the cadavre exquis as our model. That exercise led me to appreciate the conjunctive elements of scholarly endeavor, rather than simply to pretend that, for instance, a book emanates from a singular monastic researcher. At the same time, I had also been writing about performances, novels, science exhibits, and other cultural artifacts. All were concerned with racially marked populations and some used “body parts” in their compositions, for instance, wielding human detritus as art material or referring to fleshly organs in their titles. I discovered that these Asian American artists were not simply responding to how racial violence occurs through the assertion of anatomical difference between “colored” and “white” people—differences not simply in hair texture and skin color, but in diet, endurance, pain threshold, and so forth—they were also responding to the way in which biotechnology was changing Enlightenment notions about the integrity and autonomy of the human organism.

André Breton credited games like the cadavre exquis with bringing about something unexpected—a “pooling” of creativity and knowledge, perhaps an early intimation of what is now called “crowd sourcing.” That description seemed an apt figure, encapsulating the way my book had grown from an engagement with racial profiling tied to external features and body parts to an examination of such profiling in relation to risk assessments of populations based on genetic, metabolic, endocrinological, and environmental regulation.

It is argued in the book that a biosocial/biopolitical perspective would shed new light on the literary study of race (Asian American in this case). How did you first arrive at this approach?

The literature on biopolitics and biosociality—which I became familiar with through anthropologies and sociologies of medicine—helped me understand the gap between those who were studying embodiment on the scale of perception and corporeal dynamics and those who were studying it more sociologically, as properties and propensities of bodies aggregated into types. We can think of these as an approach that starts from inside a particular, situated body and an approach that starts from outside, looking over a crowd of bodies. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, literary artifacts often focalize their stories through the perspectives of individual protagonists.

In the case of canonical literature by racial subjects, readers who take up these books vicariously see from the viewpoint of these racially specific characters, taking on their speech inflections, and understanding or sympathizing with the traps of these characters’ own and others’ making. This approach corresponds to the anatomical-political register of biopower—how individual bodies feel the effects of (and partially defy) the managerial, biopolitical aspects of biopower codified in institutions such as the the legislature, the courts, the health clinic, the army, the Taylorized workplace, the credit and finance sector, and so forth. Public policy and the law necessarily address social problems–such as harm caused by institutional bias against racial others, the disabled, and sexual minorities, for instance–in terms of broad edicts aimed at ensuring classes of individuals are not singled out for unfair treatment. In other words, legal and policy discourses necessarily “abstract” individuals into populational patterns, but who wouldn’t feel that his/her individual instance of tragicomedy has not been heard in the broad edicts of these bureacracies? It is the desire to be in a particular body, or the riveting concreteness of a particular body’s story, that finds us looking to literature.

Apparently your study examines not only literature, but also various art forms. Is it pushing your own boundaries as a literary scholar?

Since the completion of my first book in 1999, I had been working on the difference between scripts treated as literary texts and live performances on the stage. Indeed, in my earlier work on standup comedienne Margaret Cho, the archived ‘text’ of a live performance was not a written transcript but a DVD. When working on performance, one pays attention not simply to the verbal emanations of the performer, but to the communicative and tonal qualities of gesticulating arms, crouched legs, pointed toes, sweat streaks, facial grimaces, costume, etc. I suppose you could say that I spent the first decade of the 2000s pushing my boundaries as a transdisciplinary scholar, not simply in terms of taking stage performances as part of my archive but also in my consideration of visual media and other forms of visual-tactile interfaces enabled by electronic platforms. Perhaps the biggest boundary I have recently pushed is that between bioscientific and humanistic approaches. However, here I am grateful to be following in the footsteps of brilliant feminist science and technology scholars such as Donna Haraway, Banu Subramaniam, Hannah Landecker, and Elizabeth Wilson.

Why did you choose the specific cases of Cheng-Chieh Yu’s dance theater, Margaret Cho’s stand-up comedy, Amitav Ghosh’s novel, and Denise Uyehara’s performance art?

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America is also an experiment in various modes of critical writing. My introduction, first chapter, final chapter, and epilogue are all driven by argument and theory. There, I use examples from literature, scientific exhibit, clinical practice, and visual design and art in aggregate, as it were— meaning their force of evidence lies in the sum of their effect. In four chapters on the artists identified above, I ruminate at length on each artist’s corpus, dwelling in the minutiae of their choreographies, multi-media art practices, narrative structures, and pedagogical commitments. The goal is to draw out what ethical and political practices they accomplish—and urge us to accomplish—through their work. There are numerous ways in which the works of the four primary artists overlap and could be explored, but I didn’t want the length of the book to be too forbidding. For instance, while I expressly explore the boundaries among species—microorganisms and their insect and vertebrate hosts—through Amitav Ghosh’s fiction, I could also have turned to dancer Cheng-Chieh Yu, who has a series of dance performances devoted to the animal-human divide; these dances convey a sense that the movements of Chinese martial arts and the pharmacopeia of Chinese medicine acknowledge the continuity of humans and other animals. Similarly, both Margaret Cho and Denise Uyehara (both queer actresses) have recently turned to the topic of having babies; nonetheless, I felt Uyehara’s earlier work on disability and incarceration was far more pressing to address.

Lastly, you mentioned the hope to “provoke a new symbiont species of inquiry.” Would you consider The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America successful at doing so?

Immodestly, I’d love to say yes, but future readers will have to answer that question! Perhaps the best I can do is point to how biotechnology on a daily basis is disaggregating and reaggregating our body parts in ever new ways. Biotechnology now allows for something called the “three-parent embryo,” basically the altering of one’s offspring’s cellular materials, such as mitochondria, while maintaining that offspring’s genetic (nuclear DNA) tie to the parent. While the three-parent embryo is not a new species (all the parts combining are from one species), it nevertheless might do as a figure that is good to think with in our current moment. Such new combinations in and across bodies are coming into being because of well-funded infrastructures enabling their realization. My book aspires to be a more modest infrastructure, enabling analogous new inquisatorial combinations across bodies of disciplinary inquiry.

We might also take a cue from artists, poets, novelists, and standup comedians themselves, who are not leaving the social and ethical implications of these new technologies up to the biotech industry, but are speculating and imagining multiple futures emerging from these changes. Asian American Studies, race studies, literary studies, and American Studies, whether in a symbiont or three-parent embryo manner, would do well to amplify their engagements with bioscience in order to continue the work of critical race studies, social justice, and ethical pedagogy in relation to these developments.

Rachel C. Lee is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at UCLA. She is the author of The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation, co-editor of the volume Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace, and editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature and Culture.

Dancing Tango: Q&A with author Kathy Davis

Argentinean tango is a global phenomenon. Since its origin, it has crossed and re-crossed many borders. Yet, never before has tango been danced by so many people and in so many different places as today. In her new book, Dancing Tango, Kathy Davis shows why a dance from another era and another place appeals to men and women from different parts of the world. 

In the Q&A below, Davis gives us a glimpse into the world of tango dancing, and the hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and global relations of power in which Argentinean tango is—and has always been—embroiled.

Q: When did you first become passionate about tango and why?

Kathy Davis: My first encounter with Argentinian tango was in Amsterdam many years ago when I wandered—quite by chance—into a place called a “tango salon.”  I had no idea what this was, but was curious enough to go in and take a look. What I saw there, were men and women of different ages and lifestyles, dancing in a close embrace to music from another era. Aside from wondering why on earth people would want to dance to such old-fashioned music, I was intrigued by women dancing with their eyes closed and an expression of utter rapture on their faces. I still clearly remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I only could know how that feels!’ It wasn’t until many years later that I decided to learn to dance tango myself but, once I started, I never looked back.

Your research is based in both Amsterdam and Buenos Aires. How are their social contexts different for tango?

Buenos Aires is where tango originated and where it has a long tradition. Although most Argentinians do not actually dance tango, everyone is familiar with the music and considers tango as a treasure that Argentina has given to the world. Today, there is a vibrant dance community in Buenos Aires, with dozens of different venues each night where locals and tango lovers from across the globe meet to share their passion for the dance. In Amsterdam, there are only a few tango salons. They tend to be much smaller, but are otherwise pretty much the same as the salons in Buenos Aires: the music, the style of dancing, and the rules about how to behave on the dance floor are almost identical.

However, there are important differences, the most noticeable having to do with gender. In Buenos Aires, it is a tradition that men and women sit separately, invitations to dance occur by making eye contact and a subtle kind of mutual nodding called cabaceo, and men escort women to and from their tables before and after a dance set. Men and women cultivate gender differences in both in their appearance and their (often openly flirtatious) behavior. In Amsterdam, ‘sex-segregation’ in a salon would be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned. Women resent having to wait to be asked to dance and many even have problems being led by their male partners during a dance. Unlike dancers in Buenos Aires who seem comfortable playing with gender differences, tango dancers in Amsterdam tend to be uneasy with their tango personas when they seem to be at odds with their identities as ‘emancipated,’ late modern individuals.

How do you look at the interplay between “passionate encounter” and “differences” during tango dancing?

The passionate encounter that tango can produce involves two people entering a space which feels totally intimate: you breathe together, you feel each other’s heart beating, you ‘know’ what the other person feels and wants without having to say a word. While you can dance with your lover, your spouse, or someone you know or care about, many dancers admit that this is not how they want to dance or, at least, not all the time. In fact, there is something particularly exciting about entering the intimate space of a tango with someone you don’t know or couldn’t even imagine having to deal with in your everyday life. Actually, you can often see unlikely combinations of dance partners on the dance floor: dancers of different generations, ethnicities and social classes, or walks of life, locked in a close embrace that, in their ordinary lives, would be unimaginable.

Why might tango and post-colonial feminist theories be at odds with each other?

It’s pretty obvious why tango might be at odds with feminism. Tango is almost synonymous with feminine subservience and masculine machismo. What feminist worth her salt would advocate that? Just imagine a feminist dancing tango and submitting herself to the gendered hierarchies of men inviting and women waiting to be invited, men leading and women following, not to mention the hyper-heterosexual power-games of seduction which are part and parcel of what goes on in a tango-salon. From a postcolonial feminist perspective, dancing tango is even more problematic because it not only reproduces asymmetrical relations between the sexes, it draws upon and exacerbates socio-cultural and -economic divisions between the global North and South. For example, some Argentineans feel forced – often for economic reasons – to offer themselves up as raw material for the desires and fantasies of Europeans and North Americans longing for sexy Latinos who they believe to be ‘closer to their bodies,’ more ‘natural,’ or more in tune with their ‘primitive desires.’ For anyone who is even slightly aware of the role which exoticism has historically played in imperialism and colonialism, a passion for tango cannot be considered simply as a harmless and innocent pastime.

What is your take on reconciling this conflict?

I actually don’t think this conflict can be reconciled, but rather needs to be analyzed in a more grounded fashion. The postcolonial feminist critique of tango is important because it places the dance and the global dance culture it has spawned in a broader geopolitical context. However, as it is the case with any critique that is primarily top-down, the postcolonial critique does not do justice to the experiences of men and women who actually dance tango, both inside and outside Buenos Aires. Nor does it take into account how tango dancers from different locations actually negotiate and manage the contradictions they encounter through their desire to dance with one another. I think we need to pay much more attention to tango as a transnational cultural space that allows a passionate encounter, full of both possibilities and problems, across many different kinds of borders.

Any thoughts on dancing tango in the United States?

Tango is, of course, not only danced in Buenos Aires and Amsterdam. As a global dance, it has produced avid dance communities all over the world, including in most cities in the US. While most of these communities take on many of the features associated with tango dancing in Buenos Aires, US tango communities have their own specific features, depending on the place and the people who attend the tango salons. For example, in New York, where there are many immigrants from different parts of South America, the dance community is much more ethnically diverse than, say, in Cleveland or Milwaukee. And, unsurprisingly, San Francisco, with its vibrant LGBT community, has become internationally famous as a center for queer tango.

Kathy Davis is Senior Research Fellow in the Sociology Department of the VU University in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is the author of Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World (NYU Press, 2015).

‘Nones’ on the rise

—Christel Manning

In “The ‘Nones’ Are Here…and Have Been for over 100 Years,” Emily Mace is right to draw our attention to the past, and to point out that eschewing organized religion is not a new phenomenon in America. But today’s Nones are different in at least two ways. The first is in their numbers.

Recent Pew surveys suggest that nearly 20 percent of Americans and a fully third of young people identify as Nones. This is a sharp increase from the number of Nones in the early 20th century. While many of these new Nones are “unchurched believers,” the number of those who are secular (agnostics and atheists) has also increased. This suggests that, at least in some regions, claiming no religion has more legitimacy than it did in the past.

Secondly, the swelling of None ranks is not just due to the usual “bleeding” of liberal churches. As Jefferson Bethke’s famous YouTube video, “Why I hate religion but love Jesus,” dramatically illustrated, Evangelical churches are also bleeding Nones, especially young ones.

Organized religion does offer the benefits of community, and this may cause some of today’s Nones to return and raise their families in a church or synagogue. But this is true of fewer Nones than it was in the past. What happens to organized religion or secularism in America will depend on the choices these young people make, and how they decide to raise their own children.

Christel Manning is Assistant Professor of Religion at Sacred Heart University. She is the author of Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising their Children (forthcoming from NYU Press).