Phillis Wheatley walked the White City, thanks mainly to the black women of Pittsburgh. A bronze bust of the colonial-era poet, contracted by a local group of women citizens and crafted by African-American sculptress Edmonia Lewis, gazed out at the World’s Fair of 1893. The Paris-trained Lewis reduced her usual fees to finish the commission. “This is indeed a little history, and always to be remembered,” she wrote of recreating Wheatley. Around Wheatley, in the Woman’s Building, roughly 200,000 attendees came in waves. In a show of intellectual citizenship that amplified new political needs, American women gathered to hear a global congress of speakers address them in the poet’s shadow. Six African-American women leaders, all presidents or pioneers in diverse fields, stood ready to take the Chicago stage and talk history. Today, resuming my series on early American women intellectuals, let’s see another set of founders step out of their frames and speak. (more…)
Last week I saw “I Am Not Your Negro,” the documentary based on James Baldwin’s last, unfinished monograph. And it was powerful, juxtaposing images of capitalism and violence with interviews and film of James Baldwin. Baldwin’s last work was focused on the legacies of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, all men who, importantly, did not make it to their 40th birthday.
The film was beautiful and shocking. But in every moment of the film, the presence of the masculine loomed large. After all, Baldwin’s last manuscript focuses on three male heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, Baldwin had personal relationships with these three men, lending more to their lives and memories than most depictions. But a lack of discussion of the masculine impulses and construction of memory integral to the development of this movie, yet again, erases the importance of women and gender in the story.
There are mentions of women of color throughout the film, notably the death of Lorraine Hansbery, but they are just mentions. Even though Baldwin’s emotional response to Hansberry’s death was invoked, we learn nothing of her life or struggles or relationship with violence. I was left to google her cause of death after the film-cancer-at a very young age. But the lives and deaths of women and color were not seen as important or essential to the story.
Not only were the experiences of women erased from the narrative, but Baldwin’s sexuality was glossed over. This was particularly shocking because he explored it in works like Giovanni’s Room.
Although the film gave a seemingly complex depiction of Civil Rights and African American history in the 20th century-featuring starkly violent images and films of lynchings, the Rodney King beating, and others, they featured men, often straight men. The majority of women in the film were white women were used to contrast the violence against African American men, not women.
By not allowing violence against women of color to show through this film and to gloss over Baldwin’s sexuality, “I Am Not Your Negro” becomes yet another film that props up the importance of leaders in the movement, notably King, Malcom X, and Edgers at the expense of dealing with the complexity of women and gender in the story. It reifies the memory of the Civil Rights Movement as something lived by and for men, when women of color experienced and still experience unnamed and oft forgotten violence.
The Atlantic’s review explores the lack of sexuality in the film https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/i-am-not-your-negro-review/515976/
Dr. Zandria Robinson’s powerful essay on the subject of gender and violence, “I Am Not Your Negress” http://newsouthnegress.com/notyours/
On the importance of Baldwin’s writing in 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/15/the-fire-this-time-legacy-of-james-baldwin
Spurred on by L.D. Burnett’s fantastic post yesterday on primary sources and 1970s feminist books (seriously, check it out now if you haven’t already done so), I looked back towards some of the books from that era I’ve used in my own research. Among those is a beat up copy of Lerone Bennett’s The Challenge of Blackness, a collection of essays published in 1970. Many of the essays in that collection were originally published in Ebony magazine while Bennett was editor. Still others were from speeches and talks he gave to various black-oriented organizations in the late 1960s. Reading through the marked-up essays, I began to think about one that would actually come out in 1970 and has stuck with me since I first read it years ago: Bennett’s idea of “liberation” and what it would look like for African Americans.
In this post, and in a few follow-up posts, I’m going to look at the publishing history of some primary sources from the feminist movement(s) of the 1970s. It may well be that “book history” is not quite the same thing as “intellectual history” or the “history of ideas.” But when I am trying to hammer out my own ideas about the ideas I encounter on the page, it sometimes helps me and always cheers me to pay some attention to the page itself, which is as much a manifestation of human thought as the words upon it.
Do the words upon the page mean something different when I have a better sense of the history of the page itself? Sometimes they do. But even when my expeditions into the material world of texts don’t yield findings that are significant to my project (significance is never absolute; significance is only assessed in relation to something else), the excursions themselves are always pleasant. So come along with me and let’s see where the path takes us.
The first source I want to look at is the groundbreaking anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970), edited by Robin Morgan.schedule. I thought that by today I’d be covering chapters 7-8. Instead I got stuck on chapter 5. The scheduled end for this book club remains March 30, but I’ve moved around the dates and chapters covered between now and then. My apologies. Our political environment has been more distracting than I anticipated. I’ve also been busier than expected with some personal matters. But we’ll soldier onward! – TL]
I’m a sucker for any historical reading related to the Enlightenments in Europe and America. Why? The expansion of knowledge. The romance of scientific discovery. New ways of thinking about religion. Skepticism about received values and traditions. Belief, however naive, in the ideas of progress and reason. Beyond the topics and ideas, it’s also the outstanding figures: Voltaire, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on. (more…)
In The Nation Benjamin Kunkel, who is becoming one of my favorite writers—his book Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis is must reading for anyone interested in contemporary Marxists like Fredric Jameson or David Harvey—has an excellent review of the new Karl Marx biography by Gareth Stedman-Jones. The whole review is well worth reading, but the opening paragraph is simply the best:
The many biographies of Karl Marx bring out a basic paradox in Marxism. Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism, or “the materialist conception of history,” as the young Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels called it, warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes. In particular, they argued that abstract ideas grew out of material circumstances instead of the other way around—and yet what secular ideology or political tradition emphasizes the special contribution of a lone thinker more than Marxism?