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#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).

Fighting for the “Mexican Dream”: Behind the scenes of border-crossing tourism

—Leah M. Sarat

About every six months or so, a news story emerges about an unlikely ecotourism event in Mexico: a border-crossing simulation that invites visitors to step into the shoes of undocumented migrants as they flee “Border Patrol” agents, hide in ditches, and dodge bullets while crossing through a reimagined U.S.-Mexico border.

Are you baffled yet? Perhaps offended by the thought of tourists making light of the migration journey?

That was my reaction when I first heard of the Caminata Nocturna, or “Night Hike,” in early 2007. I traveled to El Alberto, the indigenous town in the Central Mexican state of Hidalgo that stages the simulation, to learn more. The true story behind the event is one of creativity and resilience. It is the story of the “Mexican Dream”—that is, of a community’s pursuit of a sustainable future in the face of overwhelming pressure to travel north.

Residents of El Alberto dream not of reaching America, but rather of being able to earn a living right where they are. So committed are they to that vision that they have dedicated countless hours of unpaid work in order to make their town’s ecotourism park a success. At the close of the border simulation, tourists “arrive,” but not to an imaginary United States. Instead, they arrive at the base of a canyon whose sides are lit with hundreds of torches representing those who have perished during migration.

The message of the border simulation is this: the American Dream is not the only dream worth fighting for. Instead, members of the national community must join forces with members of the international community to fight for a world in which the fundamental right not to migrate will be available to all.

The bitter irony is that behind the scenes of the border reenactment, many of El Alberto’s residents find themselves with little option but to continue to undertake the perilous journey north. As they do so, many draw upon their evangelical Christian faith to confront the very real possibility of death at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration solutions that militarize the U.S.-Mexico border without addressing the root causes of migration are not enough. Let us listen to El Alberto’s call for the “Mexican Dream”—and let us ask what sort of binational solutions can help make that dream a reality.

Leah Sarat is Assistant Professor of Religion at Arizona State University. She is the author of Fire in the Canyon: Religion, Migration, and the Mexican Dream (NYU Press, 2013).

Selma, on the long continuum of the freedom struggle

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries

[Note: This piece was inspired by the author’s remarks at a recent event honoring Dr. King’s birthday, hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.]

There is no right more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote. But fifty years ago, in 1965, African Americans throughout the South were denied this most basic right.

In some places, like Selma, Alabama, a handful of African Americans could vote. But in many places, especially in rural areas, the exclusion of African Americans from the ballot box was absolute. In Lowndes County, Alabama, the county neighboring Selma, there were 5,122 African Americans of voting age in 1965, but not a single one was registered. And this kind of absolute exclusion was common throughout the Black Belt, those counties whose populations were overwhelmingly African American.

Dr. Martin Luther King understood how vitally important the ballot was.

Participants in the Selma to Montgomery March make their way in the rain along U.S. Route 80 in Lowndes County on March 23, 1965.
Photo: Associated Press.

That’s why, in 1965, he directed his energies, and the resources of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), toward drawing the nation’s attention to black disenfranchisement by dramatizing the exclusion of black people from the ballot box in Selma.

Speaking at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, Dr. King said: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.”

The importance of the ballot was no new revelation to black people in 1965. One hundred years earlier, when the shackles of slavery were finally shattered, Frederick Douglass, the outspoken abolitionist, said:  “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” And for the next century, African Americans fought vigorously for the ballot, often losing their lives in the process.

So it is critically important to locate Selma on the long continuum of the African American struggle for freedom—which included, of course, not only fighting for the ballot, but also fighting for quality education, land ownership, fair wages, decent housing, and personal safety.

And, just as the continuum of the African American freedom struggle stretches backward in time, so, too, it stretches forward.

Today, fifty years after Selma, we find the voting rights of African Americans still under threat. Not the voting rights of all African Americans, as once was the case, but of just enough to make a difference in local, state, and federal elections. And not just in the South, but far beyond Dixieland. That’s what the wave of voter ID laws sweeping across the country is all about—restricting the franchise, rather than maintaining its integrity. And the US Supreme Court, of course, has cleared a path for these laws, especially in the worst offending states, by eliminating the requirement to submit proposed voting-law changes to the Justice Department for preclearance.

And the broader freedom struggle continues as well, including the struggle for personal safety. In Selma, Alabama, Governor George Wallace’s state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse enforced state-sponsored racial terrorism. And today, in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio, young people are fighting the legacy of police enforced state-sponsored racial terrorism.

And so, fifty years after Selma, the struggle for basic civil and human rights continues, because the denial of these basic rights continues. But there is some good news. Despite setbacks in the African American freedom struggle, this movement will never be defeated because truth, justice, and righteousness have always been and will continue to be on the side of the People. As Dr. King said at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.”

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, where he holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2010).

No scrubbing away America’s racist past

—Carl A. Zimring

Last week, @deray tweeted an image of a century old soap advertisement showing a young white boy using soap to wash the pigment off of a young African-American boy’s body. He captioned it “Ads. Bleaching. History. America.”

Had he wished to, @deray could have sent out dozens of such tweets, each with a different image. The tweeted image was but one of dozens printed between 1880 and 1915 displaying claims soaps could literally washed dark pigment off of skin. My forthcoming book, Clean and White, reproduces similar examples from Lautz Brothers, Kirkman and Sons, and Pearline. The latter featured an illustration of an African-American woman scrubbing a young child and exclaiming “Golly! I B’leve PEARLINE Make Dat Chile White.”

These racist caricatures focused primarily but not exclusively on African-Americans. Kirkman and Sons released an advertisement sometime after 1906 that referenced the year’s Pure Food and Drug Act. The ad showed three white women washing three wealthy Turkish men’s skin from brown to white. The accompanying poem tells the story of how the women were the Turkish men’s maids. They convinced the men to let them wash them with the soap, transforming their features to milky white. The story ended happily, with the now-white men marrying each of the maids. Cross-racial and cross-class lines were transcended, all through the miracle of a pure, cleansing soap.

Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.

Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.

Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.

Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies at Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States from Monticello to Memphis (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Martin Luther King’s legacy: Recognition of past realities

—Arthur I. Cyr

[Note: This piece was originally published on the Deseret News.]

January 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, provides occasion for reflection as well as recognition. We honor his personal courage as well as political impact as catalyst for the civil rights revolution.

Initially, he was reluctant to lead beyond his local community, concerned as well as insightful in seeing the crusade might ultimately cost his life. Nonetheless, he took on the national effort, and persevered continuously until his assassination in the spring of 1968.

King’s leadership qualities were recognized while he was still young. Striking rhetorical skill was one key ingredient, cast in charismatic delivery. He was also often, though not always, a shrewd strategist.

To reflect usefully on King’s legacy, accurate understanding of his life is essential. Especially in the case of a murdered martyr, there is a natural tendency to idealize and therefore distort history. That is unfortunate for two reasons. First, oversimplifying complexity of human existence can easily diminish the person described. The leader seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased.

Second, oversimplifying past times limits our contemporary capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future. Martin Luther King was not a saint; he was a great leader.

As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, a once broadly unified civil rights effort became fractured. King preached unity, but confronted almost constant divisiveness. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference preached racial integration and nonviolence, but was increasingly overshadowed by various other organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality staked out much more militant ground. The separatist Black Panther Party, always a very small fringe group, nonetheless garnered enormous media attention through alarming rhetoric and occasional violence.

The fact that King endures from that era so sharply defined testifies to the value of both his message and his efforts. The ecumenical March on Washington in 1963 continues to be remembered because of the enormous scale of the pilgrimage, and also the timing. Immediately thereafter, President John F. Kennedy moved from caution to active support of major civil rights legislation.

As this implies, King’s efforts were part of a broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She and others built the foundation for King’s later efforts.

Fully making this point requires discussing noteworthy elected government leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, with vital help from Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen. Equally important today is President Harry S. Truman’s historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.

Also in 1948, at the Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey pressed to include civil rights in the party platform. Many advised Humphrey against this; he persevered successfully.

In the resulting maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Southern delegates bolted the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, President Truman was re-elected.

This set the stage for King’s pivotal role. Without him our nation might have pursued a far worse course. His message is important to recall in evaluating current events and leaders, both elected and self-appointed.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of After the Cold War: American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (NYU Press, 2000).

Fashioning Fat: Q&A with author Amanda Czerniawski

For over two years, sociologist Amanda M. Czerniawski went undercover as a plus-size model to gain insight on how women navigate this sector of the fashion industry—and the impact plus-size models can have on our constructions of beauty. The result is her new book, Fashioning Fat, forthcoming this month from NYU Press. She spoke recently about the intense pressures plus-size models face and how it feels to be “just a body.” 

Q: What struck you most when you began your research as an academic entering the fashion world?

Amanda M. Czerniawski: Initially, I thought I had an advantage due to my past experience in the entertainment industry. As a child actor, I entered an audition room with a blazing personality, showing wit and a high social aptitude through conversational banter. So, for my first modeling open call at an agency, I prepared to wow the agent with my purposefully peppy personality. I never got the chance. Before I could even offer simple words of introduction, she told me that she was not interested in representing me. The agent evaluated my potential to model based only on a snapshot, without a word exchanged. I was caught off guard by the impersonal nature of this interaction, as well as the immediate evaluation performed by the agent. With one glance at me, and my pictures, she was done. That was my first glimpse at what it felt to be “just a body.”

As an academic, you would think that I would have learned from this exchange and adjusted my expectations at subsequent calls and castings. Nope. I still waited for my chance to dazzle the next agent with my way with words. At that next opportunity, it happened again (but with different results).

Ultimately, I learned (the hard way) that while acting and modeling are alike in terms of the need to transform yourself into a character for the camera, different skills are used to achieve this goal. In acting, I used my body and voice. In modeling, I was voiceless. You can imagine how difficult this could be for an academic.

How is the concept of being “fat” in the model industry different from our everyday experience?

Fashion often has strict and often extreme bodily standards. For example, in 2009, designer label Ralph Lauren fired model Filippa Hamilton for being too fat. At the time, Hamilton wore a woman’s size four. While the casual observer viewed her as thin, a fashion professional argued that she was fat. This case and others reveal the range of meanings associated with “fat” in fashion. Many of today’s plus-size models do not conform to typical cultural representations of fat. They are “average” to the ordinary consumer, but, in sharp contrast, they are “plus size” to the fashion industry.

For what reasons do women become plus-sized models?

I found that there are four types of plus-size models: the former straight-size model, the performer, the outsider, and the self-promoter. In the first type, a traditional, straight-size model turns to plus-size modeling after failing to maintain a thin physique. In the second, an actor or singer happens to book a modeling job and then continues with it. In the third, a woman, without prior knowledge or interest, is encouraged to model by someone connected to the fashion industry and is then intrigued (and flattered) enough to try it out. In the fourth, a woman tries her luck at modeling without the aid of a network connection. The majority of the models were of the third type.

For many of the women, modeling was thought to be an unattainable dream. Many never imagined that they could work as models because of their culturally maligned bodies. Given the normative expectation of fashion models as young, tall, and thin, it is no wonder that these women had trouble envisioning a place for themselves in fashion. For these women, modeling became a journey of personal growth where they overcame their body issues. Once they discovered plus-size modeling, they began to see their bodies in a different light, often embracing the mantle of spokesmodel for body acceptance.

While sometimes praised as brave heroines, plus-sized models often face the challenge of marginalization and fetishization. How do they cope with this paradox?

Often the images of plus-size models fetishize the fat body or they are relegated to a special “curvy” issue as a sales marketing feature. For example, a top plus-size model, Crystal Renn, was the subject in an editorial spread by photographer Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris in 2010. The series of images depict Crystal feasting away at platters full of bloody meats, squid, chicken, piles of spaghetti, an abundance of grapes, and a massive wedge of cheese. I also spoke to models who admitted to appearing in weight-loss ads as the “before” image or modeled maternity wear when not pregnant. These kinds of jobs can be taxing on a model’s psyche. Unfortunately, they do not have the power to set the parameters of their work, so if they want to continue to work, they often submit themselves to these unflattering roles and hope for better jobs in the future. 

Besides criticizing the impossible ideal body type created in media, your book also mentions the image manipulation of “plus-sized” women as a marketing strategy. Are you suggesting a problem more complicated than skinny or fat here?

Studies suggest that an increased presence of plus-size models (i.e., larger bodies) in fashion may alleviate the trend of bodily dissatisfaction; however, these plus-size models are not average women. So, the mere presence of these models in the media landscape should not be our only focus and, in fact, may contribute to the persistence of bodily dissatisfaction. Let me explain.

While a plus-size model is, arguably, closer in size to the average woman, her body is still atypical in terms of symmetrical facial features and proportional frame. A fashion expert chose her because she was a standout among the crowd. Then, as a fashion model, she is a blank canvas. A slew of aesthetic professionals—her agent, photographers, stylists, makeup artists, and hair professionals—work on her. On top of that, photographers and image editors manipulate the photos either by airbrushing or photoshopping, a practice exposed in Dove’s Evolution commercial.

The final product that appears in print or the Internet is, ultimately, a carefully constructed fantastical image, i.e., an illusion. These images reveal a fun, flirty, and fashionable woman but hide the active work done by and on the plus-size model. Plus-size models engage in, at times, severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size, as well as more routine bodily manipulations, such as applying make-up and hair products, wearing shapewear, and adding body padding to make the body frame more proportional. Which is why, after all this work is done (behind the scenes and hidden from the consumer), a woman may look at this image of a plus-size model and think, “We’re the same size. Why don’t I look half as good as her?” This observer may then continue to experience discontentment with her body because she still does not measure up to fashion’s standards for larger bodies. 

What is the most important message in Fashioning Fat for readers?

Plus-size models aim to expand the notion of beauty beyond a size six, but that does not eliminate the engendered problem of disembodiment because these women, no matter their size, are simply bodies. Fashion still judges these women on the basis of their looks. Modeling reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure. They are not women but breasts, bums, and hips. After all their intensive aesthetic labor, plus-size models are still objectified, sexualized, and, yes, disembodied.

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University.