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Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels (1959- ), a US film-maker, is one of the top Black directors in Hollywood. He makes cringetastic films about Blacks that are well-received by Whites. So far, he is best known for:

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  • 2001: “Monster’s Ball”: producer
  • 2009: “Precious”: director, producer
  • 2013: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”: director
  • 2015: “Empire” (television series): co-creator, director, writer.
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Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, co-creators of “Empire”.

Danny Strong, the writer of “The Butler”, is Daniels’s co-creator on “Empire”. Strong came up with the idea for “Empire” while listening to a rap song. “Empire” is like a Black “Dallas” (1978-1991).

Actors that Daniels likes to use: Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Gabourey Sidibe, Macy Gray, Lenny Kravitz, Mo’Nique, John Cusack and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

The great thing about Lee Daniels is that he can direct and produce serious Black dramas that are hits, ones that make millions and win awards at the same time.

The terrible thing about Lee Daniels is that his stories push well-worn stereotypes: Jezebel, Sapphire, Black Brute, Welfare Queen, drug dealer, rapper, servant. They confirm rather than challenge White racism, especially the idea of Black pathologies. Yet Daniels has no trouble challenging Black homophobia (and does it well).

His casting of female characters seems to be informed by colourism. Functional interracial and same-sex relationships seem more common than functional straight, Black ones. (Daniels’s boyfriend is White.)

Is Daniels a sell-out? In a Don Lemon interview on CNN in 2015:

Lee Daniels: This is not just show. It’s show business and you gotta play ball. I don’t like calling the race card. I don’t believe in it, because if I buy into it then it becomes “real”. If I knew what I knew when I was 21, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now.

Don Lemon: Some people call that selling out.

Lee Daniels: I guess I’m a sell out then. Call it what it is, but I’m not going to not work, not going to not tell my truth, not going to not call people on their bull. Call it what it is. And see you in theaters.

His truth: Daniel presents people of colour the same way some White liberals do, like in “The Wire” (2002-2008): they go to great pains to be realistic, they give their characters an inner life, moral complexity, human dignity, all of that, but they are still stereotypes, just fleshed-out ones – what I call stereotyped realism.

For example, his two lead characters in “Empire” come from the same place he does: the Black ghettos of Philadelphia. Yet, unlike him, they act to stereotype: one dealt drugs, served time in prison and acts like a “hoodrat”, while the other was a rapper and is a heartless killer.

On the other hand, there are realistic touches that come from his own life. The apartment in “Precious”, for example, is based on his boyhood home. The scene in “Empire” where Jamal’s father throws him in the trash as a little boy for wearing his mother’s scarf and high-heel shoes – is something Daniels lived.

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See also:

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On this blog, March is White History Month – or European American Heritage Month, if you prefer. Not all posts will necessarily be about White History, but probably more than in other months.

Black History Month in February was a bust! I will do a post on Lee Daniels on Monday but then dust myself off and call it a month. I need to stick to mainly doing posts that have a 24-hour turnaround. Bacon’s Rebellion and Racism before 1400 were not that.

You can make suggestions in the comments below, of course, but this time I am going to play it completely by ear. That means there will be no formal list of projected posts this time.

After I complete a post, I will add a link to it below so you can check back at this page throughout the month:

  • (no posts yet)

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Bacon’s Rebellion

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Nat Bacon

Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) in Virginia was the largest uprising in the Thirteen Colonies before the time of the American Revolution a hundred years later. It was a failed attempt to overthrow the rich landowners who ruled Virginia. After the rebellion, the rich maintained their power by dividing the bottom 99% by race. It became the model for US society.

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a “Rabble Crew”, “an incredible Number of the meanest People”, “English and Negroes in Armes”, whose “fortunes & Inclinations” were “desperate”. They marched on Jamestown, the capital, and burned it to the ground. The governor, William Berkeley, fled, asking the king across the sea to send his soldiers.

william-berkeley

Governor William Berkeley as played by an actor at Historic Jamestowne.

Berkeley had long feared this moment. He said of Virginians:

“six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed.”

Tobacco was Virginia’s big moneymaker. It took huge amounts of land and labour, creating a few big landowners. Virginia was only allowed to sell tobacco to British merchants, who kept prices low. In the late 1600s, most indentured servants started to outlive their contracts, creating a large number of free, poor, landless men. Most had guns.

By the 1660s there was the beginnings of the colour line, but it was weak: poor Whites and Blacks were used to working together, living together, running away together, having families together – and fighting together. Whites did not even call themselves “whites”, not till the 1670s.

To keep peace with the Indians (Native Americans), Berkeley built a line of forts to prevent Virginians from taking Native land to the west. Bacon, like many in backcountry Virginia, opposed this.

In 1675, fighting broke out with the Susquehannock Indians. Bacon felt that Berkeley’s defence of Virginia was half-hearted, so he raised an army of his own. Berkeley accused Bacon of treason. Bacon’s army marched on the capital.

Bacon controlled nearly all of Virginia when, suddenly, he died at age 29 of the bloody flux (dysentery, bloody diarrhoea). The king’s men arrived and put down the rebellion.

After the rebellion, the rich maintained their power by creating what, in effect, was a three-race model of society:

  • Blacks, people of African blood, would provide slave labour. Virginia moved from using Black and White indentured servants and slaves to mainly using Black slaves. The civil rights of even free Blacks became limited. Any child a White person had with a Black person would become a slave – the One Drop Rule.
  • Natives would provide land to create White wealth and buy social peace among Whites. Natives were painted as the enemy of Whites.
  • Whites, people of pure European blood, would enjoy what rich landowners like Washington and Jefferson would later call “liberty” and “equality” – paid for by Black slave labour and Native land. Natives and Blacksprovide an Other that brings rich and poor Whites together.
    • Poor Whites would provide the armed manpower to maintain the social order, by serving in Indian wars and slave patrols. Pushing Blacks to the bottom of society gave poor Whites a stake in the social order.

Sources:

  • Ronald Takaki, “A Different Mirror” (2008);
  • Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” (2014);
  • Samuel Eliot Morrison, “The Oxford History of the American People” (1972);
  • Daniel K. Richter, “Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America” (2001);
  • Audrey and Brian D. Smedley, “Race in North America” (2012);
  • Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States” (2003);
  • Online Etymology Dictionary

See also:

The Chapel Hill Shooting

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chapel-hill-shooting

The Chapel Hill Shooting took place in the US on February 10th 2015 near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Craig Stephen Hicks, an American student, shot three other American students in the head:

  • Deah Barakat, 23,
  • Yusor Abu-Salha, his wife, 21,
  • Razan Abu-Salha, her sister, 19.

Apparent hate crime: Hicks is an outspoken atheist who belongs to Atheists for Equality. He killed Muslim American neighbours that he had threatened and been hateful towards in the past.

The hashtag #ChapelHillShooting went viral on Twitter in the US, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Some said the mainstream media was not covering the shooting, but it made the front page of the New York Times the next day.

The police said:

“preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking.”

They have not yet ruled out a hate crime.

The father of the two sisters said:

“This has hate crime written all over it.”

and:

“This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”

He said that the way the US media is always talking about “Islamic terrorism”, it makes people fear and hate Muslims, making violence against them more likely.

Hicks’s wife said religion had nothing to do with the shooting: her husband had parking disputes with neighbours of all faiths. She said he is a big believer in equality. According to his Facebook page, he hates all religions, not just Islam.

His lawyer says the real issue is the lack of access to mental health care.

Hicks owned 13 guns.

Richard Dawkins, an atheist, condemned the killings:

“How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?”

President Obama called the crime “brutal and outrageous”. He said the FBI “is taking steps to determine whether federal laws were violated”.

Bombing North Carolina to rid the state of atheist violence appears unlikely: Atheists for Equality is not “associated” with Al Qaeda, so it does not fall under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Hicks was arrested by the police within hours; he was indicted for first-degree murder by the grand jury in just six days.

deah-barakat

Deah Barakat, a Syrian American, was studying to be a dentist. He had raised money to help bring dental care to the homeless of nearby Durham and to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Refugee camps have little money for dental care – even though soldiers have a habit of breaking people’s teeth with the butt of their guns.

Barakat was to go to Rihaniya, Turkey this summer to help Syrian refugees at the dental clinic there. The clinic is now named the Deah Barakat Clinic.

Thanks to stephaniegirl for suggesting this post.

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Yusor Abu-Salha dances with her father at her wedding in December 2014.

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Yusor and Deah Barakat.

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From Craig Stephen Hicks’s Facebook page.

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Picture of Hicks’s handgun on his Facebook page.

See also:

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Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote a history of the known world 2,440 years ago. It is the oldest book we have where a person we would call White talks at length about black-skinned people.

Three things set him apart from the way Whites talk about Blacks in our time:

  1. He did not divide the world by race. He divided it by continent – Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa) – and by language – Greek and barbarian – but not by race. He talks about people with black skin, but not about “black people” as if they were one of the main kinds of humans. He applies the term “Ethiopian” to some black-skinned people, but not to all.
  2. Egyptians were black. He saw Egyptians as having black skin and woolly hair (Herodotus, 2.104). He visited Egypt 75 years after the Persians had taken over but before the Greeks, Romans and Arabs had. He travelled the whole length of the country from north to south.
  3. No colourism. In his time, people with black skin, like Egyptians and Ethiopians, were more civilized than some with white skin, like Scythians and Celts. Lighter-skinned Greeks got much of their civilization from darker-skinned Egyptians. White-skinned people were not even the most beautiful:

    “The Ethiopians to whom Cambyses sent these gifts are reputed to be the tallest and most beautiful of all peoples.” (3.20)

The incomplete list of people with black skin in Herodotus:

  • Egyptians – seen as having the most ancient civilization, way older than Greece.
  • Ethiopians (Nubians, etc) – live south of Egypt. Meroe is their mother city (2.29). Civilized but not as civilized as Egypt (2.30). They once ruled Egypt (2.100, 137-139). Herodotus seems to apply the term “Ethiopian” to more than just Nubians: he also talks about long-lived Ethiopians (3.17-26, 97) and cave-dwelling Ethiopians (4.183). Most of them would have been Nilo-Saharans.
  • Asian Ethiopians (Dravidians?) – look just like Ethiopians but their hair is straight instead of woolly. They serve in the Persian army in their own divisions as part of the Indian contingent (7.70).
  • Colchians – live on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Because they have black skin, woolly hair and practise circumcision, Herodotus says they are clearly Egyptian (2.104).
  • short men (Pygmies?) – live along what is probably the Niger River (2.32-33) and somewhere on the west coast of Africa (4.43). They live in cities. Those along the Niger practise sorcery. Those on the coast, called dwarfs, wear clothes made of palm leaves.

Other Africans: Herodotus talks about the people who live along the coast between Egypt and Carthage (4.168-180) and along the caravan route that goes west across the Sahara (4.181-199). He does not bring up their skin colour, but remarks on the long hair of those who live along the coast. Most of them would have been Berbers.

In Africa, Herodotus visited Egypt and, just to the west, Cyrene. The rest he knows about from asking questions, particularly in Egypt.

Cicero called Herodotus the “Father of History”. Plutarch called him the “father of lies”. Herodotus felt his duty was to report what he had seen and heard. He expresses doubts about some of what he reports, but puts it out there to let readers come to their own conclusions.

Source: Herodotus, “History” (425 BC). See above for book and section numbers. 

See also:

Racism before 1400

Ivory-Bangle

Racism before 1400 was not common to most human societies. It is not mainly rooted in the human condition.

The common mix-up is between ethnocentrism and racism:

  • racism – dividing humans into “races” based on physical appearance, like skin colour, with the aim of ranking them from highest to lowest according to supposedly unchangeable, inborn qualities, like intelligence, civilization, moral character or beauty.
  • ethnocentrism – judging other cultures based on one’s own. This leads to the illusion that one’s own culture is best. From this comes stuff like “American exceptionalism”, non-Greeks as “barbarians”, China as the “Middle Kingdom” and Inuits as “the Real People”.

Ethnocentrism is common if not universal in human history. Racism is not.

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If US society were merely ethnocentric, not racist, there would be no perpetual foreigner stereotype. Respectability politics and Indian boarding schools would work: cultural assimilation – taking on Anglo American ways  – would be enough to overcome prejudice.

The people we call Whites have been writing about the people we call Blacks for over 2,400 years. Only in the last 300 or so years have Whites consistently stereotyped Blacks as savage or violent.

Before 1400, before the rise of Western imperialism and its idea of “race”:

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Ancient Egyptians: Painted people with roughly the right skin colour but rarely if ever called a person “black”, “brown” or “white”. Accepted as one of their own anyone who took on Egyptian ways. Respected the darker-skinned Nubians.

fayum-mummy-portrait

Ancient Greeks: Divided the world into Greek and barbarian based on language, not race. Greek science favoured nurture over nature. Aristotle accounted for the greatness that was Greece through Goldilocks geography: it was not too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry, but just right.

severus

Rome: The top people came from all parts of the empire, like the Ivory Bangle Lady of York (pictured at top). Emperor Septimius Severus was Black. Having skin “like Corinthian bronze” was seen as a good thing. Barbarians looked different (Germans were tall with yellow hair, for example) but could become civilized by taking on Roman ways.

dante

Europe, 400 to 1400: Christians divided the world by religion, not race, and duly carried out atrocities against heretics, Muslims and Jews. Jews were not racialized – there was not even the stereotype about Jewish noses. Christians saw darkness, and therefore the colour black, as representing evil. This was built into English.

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Arabs: There was some prejudice against Blacks, but it was personal, not backed by law, religion, science or even custom, as it later would in the West. Arabs had both White and Black slaves.

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India: The holy writings of the “Veda” say nothing about caste being about skin colour. Key figures in the “Mahabharata” are dark-skinned. Unclear how much of India’s present colourism comes from British rule.

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China: Seems to have had some colour consciousness. That some people who looked different lacked civilization was not seen as an accident, but neither was it seen as an unchangeable, inborn condition: they could become civilized, for example, by taking on Chinese ways.

Sources: 

  • Bernard Lewis, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East; An Historical Enquiry” (1990);
  • “The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization” (1998);
  • Ali Rattansi, “Racism: A Very Short Introduction” (2007);
  • Barbara Mertz, “Red Land, Black Land” (2008);
  • Nell Irvin Painter, “The History of White People” (2010);
  • Audrey and Brian D. Smedley, “Race in North America” (2012).

See also:

Zora Neale Hurston

zora-neale-hurston-1934

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, is widely considered one of the best Black American authors. She is known for the proto-feminist novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937), one of the best Black American love stories ever.

She died in 1960 in a welfare home, penniless and forgotten. But her words, her joy and wisdom, did not die: her fans, like Alice Walker, became writers and professors and, by the 1970s, were able to get her books back into print by getting them taught in women’s studies. Black studies back then, like White studies (aka “history” and “literature”), did not think women were important.

Hurston was well known in the 1930s and 1940s, when her work was well received by White critics – probably for the same reason it was not well received by many Black critics:

  1. Use of dialect – Her characters unashamedly speak in Ebonics, which to Whites would sound like the Mock Ebonics of minstrel shows and Hollywood. Richard Wright said she presented a “minstrel image” of Blacks.
  2. Lack of racism – because her characters live in an all-Black world, like the one she knew growing up in Eatonville, Florida, racism rarely comes up. She wrote in an age of Black protest novels, but, as she put it, she did not belong to the “sobbing school of Negrohood.”

Censorship: Part of what made her work so White-friendly is that White publishers were leaving parts out – like when she called President Truman “the Butcher of Asia” in her autobiography or had a White police officer killed in a short story.

seraph-on-the-suwaneeIn 1948 she wrote “Seraph on the Suwanee”, which was about poor Whites instead of poor Blacks. It was not well received by Whites. After that, publishers were no longer interested in her.

By the 1960s she was so little known that Toni Morrison had to turn to African authors for models of how not to write to a White gaze. Morrison did not read Hurston till:

The 1970s: With the rise of Black pride and feminism, Zora Neale Hurston fell back into favour. By 1974 her picture of Black life was no longer a “minstrel image” but, as June Jordan put it, “Black affirmation”.

Anthropology: She studied anthropology under Franz Boas at Columbia University. As part of her studies she travelled through the South in the late 1920s gathering Black folktales. In New Orleans she learned about voodoo. She later went on to Haiti, Jamaica and Bermuda.

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Zora and her car.

 

Works:

  • anthropology:
    • 1935: Mules and Men
    • 1938: Tell My Horse
  • novels:
    • 1934: Jonah’s Gourd Vine
    • 1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God
    • 1939: Moses, Man of the Mountain
    • 1948: Seraph of the Suwanee
  • autobiography:
    • 1942: Dust Tracks on a Road

She also wrote short stories, essays and plays (one with Langston Hughes).

Politics: Right-wing Republican, anti-communist. Opposed Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. Opposed Brown v Board since it would make it hard for Black schoolteachers to pass down Black culture.

Influences: Black folktales, Franz Boas, Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, Lorenzo Dow Turner.

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Zora’s typewriter

 

See also:

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