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Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

The following is based on Chapter 5 of Frantz Fanon’s book “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”:

Frantz Fanon wants to be a man. But in the white world in which he lives his skin colour becomes everything, more important than even his education and achievements. While his neighbour or his cousin might hate him for good reason, white people hate him without even getting to know him. They are irrational.

He is seen not as Dr Fanon but as a black man who is a doctor. Everyone is watching and waiting for him to make a mistake.

I was walled in: neither my refined manners nor my literary knowledge nor my understanding of the quantum theory could find favor.

White people do not see him, they see his body:

My body was returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning on this white winter’s day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is wicked, the Negro is ugly.

Instead of being a person, a man, an individual, he is a black man, a Negro, an object, a thing that has value only in relation to whites.  Always a Negro, never a man.

Look how handsome that Negro is.
The handsome Negro says, “Fuck you”, madame.

Even though the Catholic Church and science admit that black people are every bit as human as white people – their hearts are on the same side! – and even though white people themselves admit that racism goes against all reason, they still do not want you to marry their daughter.

Seeing that reason does not work with white people, some make up their mind to shout their blackness, to secrete race. Cesaire and Senghor took this road with their philosophy of negritude: on the other side of the white world there lies a magical black culture. Blacks have rhythm, their sex is magical, “Emotion is Negro as reason is Greek” and so on. But this only feeds white stereotypes about blacks.

And then there is black history: blacks had empires, scholars, iron workers and all the rest. But that is a dead end too since currently whites have the most advanced civilization in the world. At best it allows them to see blacks as the childhood of the world.

Even Sartre, a supposed friend of blacks, saw negritude not as something in its own right but merely as a passing reaction to white supremacy.

Fanon:

A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of not existing. Sin is black as virtue is white. All those white men, fingering their guns, can’t be wrong. I am guilty. I don’t know what of, but I know I’m a wretch.

In the Hollywood film “Home of the Brave” (1949) a soldier hurt in the war says: “Get used to your color the way I got used to my stump. We are both casualties.”

Fanon: I refuse to accept this amputation.

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The following is based on Chapter 4 of Frantz Fanon’s book “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The So-Called Dependency Complex of the Colonized”:

Mannoni, a French psychoanalyst, wanted to understand the mind of the native and the white colonial based on his experience and study of Madagascar under French rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Himself  a white colonial, he wrote a book about it, “The Psychology of Colonization” (1950). Frantz Fanon, himself a native (not of Madagascar but of Martinique) spends this chapter tearing it to pieces.

French rule of Madagascar was cruel. They used Senegalese soldiers to strike fear into the hearts of natives. In 1947 the French put down an uprising, killing 80,000 natives. As if that were not enough, in the footnotes Fanon tells of the French practice of torture in Madagascar.

Fanon calls the use of black soldiers to force French rule on people of colour “the racial allocation of guilt”. He quotes Francis Jeanson:

And if, apparently, you manage not to soil your hands, it’s because others are doing the dirty work in your place. You have your henchmen, and all things considered, you are the real guilty party; for without you, without your blind indifference, such men could not undertake acts that condemn you as much as they dishonor them.

So with all that in mind, here is the picture that Mannoni paints:

  • Most natives are content to put whites above them and be dependent on them because it fulfils a deep need in their hearts, one that was there long before whites showed up. Mannoni calls this a dependency complex.
  • A few natives are unhappy because they suffer from an inferiority complex, which makes them want to be the equal of whites.
  • Not all peoples can be colonized: only those who experience the need.
  • European civilization and its agents of the highest calibre are not responsible for colonial racism. It comes from lower-level whites who blame their unhappy lives on the natives.
  • When black men with guns appear in children’s dreams at night it is not because of the terror of French rule: no, the guns stand for penises.

The only part that Fanon feels Mannoni got at least part right:

  • White colonials suffer from a Prospero complex. Just like the Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, they want to lord it over the natives. The colonies draw those whites who cannot accept others as they are, who do not want to have to take other men seriously but instead want to lord it over them.

Fanon:

I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discriminates against me; turns me into a colonized subject; … tells me I am a parasite in the world … So I will try quite simply to make myself white; in other words, I will force the white man to acknowledge my humanity. But, Monsieur Mannoni will tell us, you can’t, because deep down inside you there is a dependency complex.

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The following is based on Chapter 3 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Man of Colour and the White Woman”:

Fanon, a black psychiatrist from Martinique,  starts by saying of himself:

I want to be recognized not as Black but as White. … who better than the white woman to bring this about? By loving me she proves to me that I am worthy of a white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man.

Yes, it gets worse:

Between these white breasts that my wandering hands fondle, white civilization and worthiness become mine.

Having lost half his readership, Fanon then turns to the case of Jean Veneuse, the hero of an autobiographical novel by Rene Maran, “Un homme pareil aux autres” (1947).

Jean Veneuse came to France from the Caribbean when he was three or four. He lost his parents and was brought up by boarding schools in France, the only black student in a sea of white. He has a lonely childhood. When the other students go home for the holidays he is left alone at school.  He withdraws into himself and into books: Aurelius, Tagore, Pascal and other writers become his only friends.

He grows up French and falls in love with a white woman. He wonders about his motives.

Maybe it is simply because he was brought up European and so desires European women just like any other man in Europe. Or, contrariwise, maybe it is because he is black:

the common mulatto and black man have only one thought on their mind as soon as they set foot in Europe: to gratify their appetite for white women.

Most of them, including those with lighter skin who often go so far as denying both their country and their mother, marry less for love than for the satisfaction of dominating a European woman, spiced with a certain taste for arrogance.

And so I wonder whether … I am unconsciously endeavoring to take my revenge on the European female for everything her ancestors have inflicted on my people throughout the centuries.

Yet when he works in Africa as a civil servant he proves to be just as bad as the whites, complete with the native girl in his hut. So maybe it is not revenge that he wants but to separate himself from his race or even somehow to become raceless.

But Fanon says that Veneuse’s troubles run much deeper than that: he was left alone in the world by his mother as a small boy and is hung up on that. So he is afraid to love and be loved. He holds everyone at arm’s length, even the woman he wants to marry. Therefore we cannot draw any general conclusions from Veneuse’s case.

I have not read the whole book – I post as I read – but at this point this chapter seems like a waste. But we shall see.

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The following is based on Chapter 2 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Woman of Colour and the White Man” (men of colour and white women will be next week):

When women of colour go after white men and put down men of their own colour Fanon says the cause is just what many of us suspect: internalized racism.

Nor do these women truly love these white men: they just love their colour. They go with them not out of love but to deal with their own hang-ups about race.

Fanon:

It is because the black woman feels inferior that she aspires to gain admittance to the white world.

Secretly she wants to be white. Marrying white is her way of doing this. She looks up to white people and looks down on black people. Whites represent wealth, beauty, intelligence and virtue; blacks, on the other hand, are “niggers”, something to escape, to be saved from, something not to be. So they want to marry a white man even though they know full well that very few will marry them.

Their racism is so profound that it blinds them to good black men. They will say black men lack refinement – and turn away black men more refined than themselves. They will say black men are ugly – and grow impatient with you if you point out good-looking black men.

Fanon takes as his examples three women: Mayotte of Martinique and Nini and Dedee of Senegal. Mayotte is Mayotte Capecia who wrote a book about her life; Nini and Dedee are characters from “Nini” (1954), a story by Abdoulaye Sadji. All three are part white which makes them determined not to “slip back among the ‘nigger’ rabble”. (There was no the One Drop Rule.)

Nini is a silly typist. A man who is an accountant with the waterways company proposes marriage. She cannot believe it. What nerve this man has! There is talk of getting him fired. In the end they have the police tell him to stop his “morbid insanities”. Why? Because he is black and she is half white. He has offended her “white girl’s” honour.

Meanwhile another man with a good government job proposes to Dedee but this time it is a dream come true. Why? Because he is white:

Gone was the psychological depreciation, the feeling of debasement, and its corollary of never being able to reach the light. Overnight the mulatto girl had gone from the rank of slave to that of master. … She was entering the white world.

But a white man cannot make you white, not even in effect: Mayotte, the third woman, had an affair with a married white man. One time she asked him to take her to the white side of town. He does, taking her to a friend’s house for the evening.  But the white women there made her feel so out of place, so unworthy of him, that she never went back to the white side again.

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The following is based on part 12 of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about genetics:

Gregor Mendel was a farm boy who became monk. He joined the Augustinian order in Brno, the second largest city in what is now the Czech Republic. They sent him to the university of Vienna to get a teaching degree. The university said he “lacks insight and the requisite clarity of knowledge” and failed him in 1853.

A few years later he began to do experiments on pea plants. People assumed that if you cross a tall pea plant with a short one you get pea plants of middling height. Instead of assuming Mendel tried it: he found that you get nothing but tall pea plants! And if in turn you cross those tall pea plants you get 75% tall pea plants and 25% short ones.

Why? Mendel said it was because each plant gets a height particle – what we now call a gene – from each parent. In the first generation of his experiment, each plant had a tall gene and a short gene, so all of them were tall. But in the second generation one fourth received two short genes and so they were short.

He had discovered the gene, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. It sank like a rock. Mendel was a nobody: the important science journals in France and Britain did not print it. In 1866 he had it printed in a Brno science journal and there it sat unknown to the top people in science till 1900.

The next big discovery was printed in Nature in 1953, so it was known instantly worldwide: DNA and how it works. DNA is what genes are made of. James Watson and Francis Crick beat out Linus Pauling in discovering how it works.

DNA is a double molecule, each half the mirror image of the other half. When the molecule splits in two, each half can create its missing half. But there is more: it is a long molecule that contains smaller molecules called bases: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. These become in effect the four letters – A, G, C and T – of the language that genes are written in, containing the instructions of how to build everything in the body.

But genes and DNA are not enough to account for life as we know it. You also need:

  1. Sex, which mixes genes in new ways. Till sex came along life did not progress beyond the level of pond scum.
  2. Human sexual selection, which speeds it up even faster: humans, compared to other animals, put far more thought into choosing who they have children with. They also have taboos against incest which prevents a few older males from getting all the females and lowering the rate at which genes mix.

As John Donne said:

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow
But yet the body is his book.

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Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was an American writer, best known for the play, “A Raisin in the Sun” (1957). It was the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway.

James Baldwin:

… never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.

It is such a great play that even with a limited actor like Sean Combs playing the lead it is still powerful.

The play is about a black family that buys a house in a white suburb – something her own family did. The first two acts are kind of slow but the last act about moving day is pure, utter genius.

In 1961 it was made into a Hollywood film starring Sidney Poitier, who had played the lead on Broadway. She wrote the screenplay.

Her two other main plays are “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”, which was on Broadway in 1964 but was not a hit, and “Les Blancs”.

Some of her writings were made into an autobiography after her death, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969). James  Baldwin wrote a beautiful introduction, “Sweet Lorraine”.

Incomplete works at the time of her death:

  • “Toussant”, an opera
  • “All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors”, an autobiographical novel

She was also thinking of doing plays on Pharaoh Akhnaton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Chesnutt’s “The Marrow of Tradition” (1901).

Born on Chicago’s Southside. her family moved to a white suburb when she was eight. Angry whites gathered in front of their house.  A brick was thrown through the window that narrowly missed her. The police were unwilling to protect them. Later the state supreme court ordered them out of the house.

In 1948 she went to the University of Wisconsin. There she became interested in left-wing politics and theatre, studying Ibsen and Strindberg.

In 1950 she dropped out and headed for New York. There she took courses at the New School and, for three years, wrote regularly for Paul Robeson’s Freedom. Later she taught school in Harlem and took part in protests. At one protest she met Robert Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. In 1956 he wrote a hit song with a friend (“Cindy, Oh, Cindy”) which allowed her to become a full-time writer. She started writing “A Raisin in the Sun”.

In 1960 she wrote “The Drinking Gourd”, a television show for NBC about slavery. NBC never aired it because it was too violent and too “divisive”. But you can read it in “Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays” (1983).

In 1962 she joined SNCC and a year later she and James Baldwin went to see Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, to try to get him to understand race in America. In time their words sunk in.

In 1963 she began to lose her strength: the doctors said she had pancreatic cancer. Two years later she was dead – at age 34. Over 600 came to her funeral in Harlem.

Baldwin:

Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were.

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AnAutobiographyOfAngelaDavisWritten: 1974
Read: 2009

“An Autobiography” (1974) by Angela Davis tells the story of the first 28 years of her life, from birth to her arrest, imprisonment and trial. It was edited by Toni Morrison, who had already written “The Bluest Eye” and was then working for Random House.

I got it from the library because it was out of print – but now it seems to be back in print again!

It is not as good as, say, the autobiography of Malcolm X, but it is still well worth reading.

Malcolm X was not only more important in history, his story is one of self-discovery, a search for the truth that remakes him. Like St Augustine’s “Confessions”.

Angela Davis’s life was far more straightforward: she saw how unjust American society was growing up and sought to change it by taking part in SNCC, the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. In time this landed her in prison.

The part about the trial was well written: it could have bored you to tears with all the ins and outs that trials have, but she avoided that. Best of all was the ending: even though you already knew she would win, you were still overjoyed when she does win! That is how the book ends.

The book starts two years before with her on the run from the FBI. She is arrested in New York and put in prison. Since she is to stand trial in California, she is sent back. At that point the book jumps back to fill in the first 26 years of her life and then ends with her imprisonment in California and the trial.

She writes at great length about her time in prison. It affected her powerfully, but not me: I expect prison to be terrible, so nothing she said shocked me.

The same goes for what she said about the police in Los Angeles: from living in New York I already knew how they can be. But it is nice to know that I am not just imagining it.

One of the best parts is her account of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s. It makes you see how some things have changed like night and day (like being able to walk in through the front door) while other things remain the same (like the police).

She won me over when she said she loves reading books but hates going to parties.

Another good part was her account of the Los Angeles police trying to wipe out the Black Panthers.

She lives in Los Angeles in the 1960s. There are no Jim Crow laws  there, yet in some ways the racism is worse: because the whites there know and understand blacks less they seem to regard them more like wild animals to be threatened, shot and put safely behind bars.

She says little about philosophy, which she studied for years, and little about racism in New York, where she lived during part of high school.

It is called “an” autobiography. Is she going to write another one?

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shoppingWhileBlack“Shopping while black” is the “crime” of shopping while being a black person. It is not supposed to be a crime but you would not know it the way some shopkeepers seem to assume you are going to take something the minute their back is turned.

In one well-known example a woman and two of her friends from work went to Old Navy during lunch. They were respectably dressed. But despite that when they entered the store the police were informed of a “gang of shoplifters” – based on little more than the fact that the three women were black.  The police came and held them for 90 minutes even though they had shoplifted nothing.

It is not just “certain blacks” either – most blacks in America have had the experience of being followed or closely watched while shopping, of not being trusted. One black woman put it this way:

I’m very careful about how I move throughout the store…. I try not to put my hands in my pockets. You internalize a lot of the heightened racial scrutiny.

Meanwhile on the Internet people say stuff like this about blacks:

… they just point the finger at the white community and cry racism, whenever they see white folks reacting reasonably to the uncivilized tendencies at the core of their own culture.

With the way some shopkeepers act you would think they did an Internet search and found out that most shoplifters are black.

In fact most people arrested for shoplifting in America are white – about 70% according to the FBI. And that comes in the teeth of racial profiling aimed at blacks and Latinos! According to one study shoplifters are most commonly white women in their twenties and early thirties.

A store at the Barton Creek Square mall near Austin, Texas is being taken to court for singling out black shoppers for suspected shoplifting: FBI numbers show that blacks at that mall are no more likely to shoplift than anyone else.

One black woman who was arrested at Macy’s in New York noticed that even though 80% of the people who shop at Macy’s are white, 0% of the four other  people who were being held at the same time as her were white: two were black, one Middle Eastern looking and the fourth Hispanic.

Blacks and Latinos are being singled out not based on any hard-headed facts but based merely on racist stereotypes.

ABC staged some very unsubtle cases of “shopping while black” (pictured above) to see what other shoppers would do. About 80% of the shoppers did nothing, but 20% of the time they spoke up for the black person. People of colour were more likely to do that than white people – meaning that well over 80% of white people are quite fine with it.

There has been progress: in the 1950s, according to Siditty, Neiman Marcus would not let black women try on clothes. Sears and J.C. Penney in the South were even worse: black women were required to order their clothes from the catalogue.

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angelaAngela Davis, the black revolutionary, grew up in the American South in the 1940s and 1950s, in the days of Jim Crow, in black middle-class Birmingham, Alabama.

Her parents were teachers. They were highly educated compared to most blacks of the time – and most whites too. Her father saved his money and later went into business, buying his own service station. Her parents owned their own house.

Growing up she never went without a meal. She had dance and piano lessons. She never knew poverty. She thought all blacks lived that way. At school she was shocked to see that many black children ate nothing for lunch because they were too poor.

But even though she was not poor, she was still black:

  • She had to go to an all-black school in falling-apart buildings with falling-apart schoolbooks – though they did teach Black history and sang the Black National Anthem!
  • She could not go to the library but had to go round back and ask the black librarian for books.
  • She could not go to the shoe store but had to go round back and ask the black salesman for help.
  • She could not go to the amusement park – that was only for white children.
  • She was not allowed in certain hotels and cinemas: they were just for white people.
  • Even though she was middle-class she was still at the mercy of the police.

She dreamed of getting into the amusement park by wearing a white mask.

One day she and her sister went to the shoe store and walked right through the front door like they were white. They got away with it because they acted like they were foreigners. The white salesmen were falling over each other being nice to them. They were no longer “niggers”. Then they spoke in perfect English and left!

She loved books and was not much good at piano or dance – or the round of black middle-class parties.

One time she was caught in the rain and the other girls found out she had “good hair”. She ran home and cried.

Her house was on Center Street. Across the street everyone was white. It was called Dynamite Hill because whenever a black family tried to move across the street their house was blown up.

She and her friends would sometimes yell “cracker” and “peckerwood” as white people passed by in their cars. It was the only way they had to defend their dignity.

Her high school in Birmingham was said to be the largest black high school in the world. It was certainly the only one in hundreds of miles. It had grass in front only on postcards. And it was violent: fights often broke out, sometimes with knives: all the hatred from white people being turned on each other.

In 1959 at age 15 she left Birmingham for New York: she won a scholarship to study at a private high school there. Eleven years later she became one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.

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Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster“Imitation of Life” (1933) is a book written by Fannie Hurst, a once-famous American writer. The book was made into a Hollywood film in 1934 and 1959. It was the only Hollywood film of the 1930s to view race as a serious issue. The film was so famous among blacks that Peola, the name of one of the main characters, was still a byword for self-hating blacks as late as the 1970s.

My understanding of the story before I saw the two films was that it was about a black girl named Peola who looked white and tried to pass for white by disowning her very black-looking mother. In the end she sees the error of her ways and comes home to make up with her mother – only to find that her mother has just died! She cries on her mother’s grave and the story ends, the story of the tragic mulatto.

That would have been a great film, especially if they showed how her heart was torn between the white world and the black world and her fight to become a whole person at peace with herself.

Well, that in fact is pretty much the story of “Passing” (1929) by Nella Larsen, herself a black woman who could pass, not “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst, who was white even if she was part of the Harlem Renaissance scene.

Unlike “Passing”, “Imitation” has white main characters and was made into a Hollywood film. It seems that American film-goers, who are mostly white, do not care enough about a black girl passing to make a whole film about it. So, like in the 1959 poster pictured above, the black characters have the less important part of the story. (On the 1934 poster only the white characters appear!)

Both films are mainly about a white woman who becomes rich and famous and gives her daughter everything – but her love. Peola gets the subplot. She thinks by being white she will have everything – but she will not have her mother’s love.

The 1934 film sticks closer to the book, but it is slower and stiffer, like a stage play. Peola’s mother is pure Mammy, even to the point of wanting to give up millions to remain the servant of a white woman! Peola is not believable either: she wants to be white no matter what, her mother be damned! She is also a stereotype: the tragic mulatto – the idea that mixed-race people can never be happy.

In the 1959 film Peola, named Sarah Jane, gets more of a storyline so we find out more about her, but she and her mother are still the same two stereotypes, although less extreme and more believable. It also has a more powerful ending. Mahalia Jackson sings too!

The 1959 film is worth seeing, but do not get your hopes up. And, as always, the book is probably better than either film, though I do not know that for a fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald did say people would forget the book in ten years.

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clark-doll-testThe Clark Doll Experiment (1939) was an experiment done by Dr Kenneth Clark and his wife Mamie where they asked black children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The dolls were the same except for their skin colour but most thought the white doll was nicer.

In 1954 in Brown v Board of Education the experiment helped to persuade the American Supreme Court that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were anything but equal in practice and therefore against the law. It was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow.

In the experiment Clark showed black children between the ages of six and nine two dolls, one white and one black, and then asked these questions in this order:

  • “Show me the doll that you like best or that you’d like to play with,”
  • “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll,”
  • “Show me the doll that looks ‘bad’,”
  • “Give me the doll that looks like a white child,”
  • “Give me the doll that looks like a coloured child,”
  • “Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child,”
  • “Give me the doll that looks like you.”

“Negro” and “coloured” were both common words for blacks before the 1960s.

The last question was the worst since by that point most black children had picked the black doll as the bad one. In 1950 44% said the white doll looked like them! In past tests, however, many children would refuse to pick either doll or just start crying and run away.

In one study Clark gave the test to 300 children in different parts of the country. He found that black children who went to segregated schools, those separated by race, were more likely to pick the white doll as the nice one.

In the test that he did that became part of Brown v Board he asked 16 black children in 1950 in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Of these 63% said the white doll was the nice one, the one they wanted to play with.

Clark also asked children to colour a picture of themselves. Most chose a shade of brown markedly lighter than themselves.

agirllikemeIn 2005 Kiri Davis repeated the experiment in Harlem as part of her short but excellent film, “A Girl Like Me”. She asked 21 children and 71% told her that the white doll was the nice one. Not a huge sample size, true, but it was still shocking to see how easily many chose the white doll.

In 2009 after Obama became president, “Good Morning America” on ABC did the test. They asked 19 black children from Norfolk, Virginia. It is hard to compare their numbers because they allowed “both” and “neither” as an answer. They also asked the last question first, making it far easier to answer: 88% said the black doll looked most like them.

ABC added a question too: “Which doll is pretty?” The boys said both, but 47% of the black girls said the white doll was the pretty one.

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Here are the top songs on the R&B charts now, 10 years ago today , 20 years ago, etc. Through the wonder that still is YouTube, you can hear them all (Can you believe it has already been ten years since “No Scrubs”?):

2009: Jamie Foxx and T-Pain: Blame It

1999: TLC: No Scrubs

1989:  Jody Watley: Real Love

1979: Peaches & Herb: Reunited

1969: The Isley Brothers: It’s Your Thing

1959: Brook Benton: It’s Just a Matter of Time

1949: Big Jay McNeeley’s Blue Jays: The Deacon’s Hop

Curiously, the hardest year was not 1949 but 1989! The top song on May 3rd 1989 was Karyn White’s “Love Saw It”. I could not even find a bad audio of a live performance for that one, so I went for Jody Watley’s “Real Love” which did not become number one till May 6th. But even with that one there was no embeddable music video for the radio version of the song.

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fanonFrantz Fanon (1925-1961) is a leading thinker of postcolonialism. Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Steve Biko read him. Fanon is best known for two of his books, “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952), about internalized racism, and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961), about casting off colonialism.

Fanon, like Che Guevara and Malcolm X, was born in the 1920s and died young in the 1960s. And like them he fought and wrote against white power, which has ruled much of the world, at first directly through colonial empires in the 1800s and early 1900s, and then through its control of world banking, trade, television, education and so on.

For Fanon, gaining physical independence – kicking the white rulers out of your country – was only the first step. Because whites did more than simply rule – they also spread their language and thought and way of life. So even if you kick the white man out of your country, he is still in your head telling you that you are not as good as he is, that you are not whole, that there is something wrong with you, that you must become more like him. The colonized mind.

Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a colony of the French empire. He grew up in a well-to-do family and received a French education. At 17, during the middle of the Second World War, he ran away from home and sailed across the sea to fight  against Hitler with the French Resistance.

He fought in North Africa and later France itself. They would not let him cross into Germany – because he was black. They wanted to make it seem like only white soldiers won the war. And, even though he had fought for France, its white women would not dance with him – because he was black.

He won a scholarship and studied medicine and psychiatry in France. In 1953 he became the head of the largest psychiatric hospital in Algeria, which was then ruled by France.

At the hospital he saw how the white French doctors looked down the Arabs and would not give them proper care. He also found that helping one patient at a time was like trying to empty the sea with a spoon. Their “disease” was not anything he learned at school: it was colonialism.

And so, being the good doctor that he was, Fanon joined the FLN to fight against the French. He later edited its newspaper and talked to African leaders on its behalf.

Fanon did not live long enough to see the FLN win in the end. But while he laid on his deathbed in Bethesda, Maryland, dying of leukemia, he wrote his last book, “The Wretched of the Earth”, by speaking into a tape recorder. He said that since colonialism was built and maintained by violence then only by violence could it be destroyed. And violence not by the middle-class, which is too brainwashed by their masters, but by the poor.

He died at age 36.

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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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blackorpheus“Black Orpheus” (1959), also known as “Orfeu Negro”, is a French-made, Portuguese-language film that tells the old Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice but set in black Rio at the time of the Carnival. While it does present blacks as childlike, you do get to see Carnival and hear music by bossa nova great Tom Jobim.

The film won a Golden Palm at Cannes, an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Like “Carmen Jones” (1954) it uses an all-black cast and music to tell an old story.

The story (spoiler alert) appears in Ovid, Plato, Rubens, Titian, Monteverdi, Cocteau and even Neil Gaiman. In both the Greek story and the film, Orpheus plays amazing songs on his stringed instrument (lyre, guitar). He falls in love with Eurydice but then she is killed (by a snake, the electric current of a tram line). Orpheus goes to get her back from the dead (Hades, voodoo woman) but he is told that if he looks back at her before he leaves he will lose her forever. He looks back. Orpheus carries her body and is killed by some women who have gone mad.

Eurydice was played by Marpessa Dawn, who is not from Brazil at all but Pittsburgh! Although she is a light-skinned black American woman, in some of the posters she is pictured as a white woman. Not sure how they got away with that. She died in 2008 just 42 days after Breno Mello, who played Orpheus (and is from Brazil).

The film comes up in Barack Obama’s book “Dreams from My Father”. When he was going to Columbia University his mother and sister came to visit. One night “Black Orpheus” was showing. It was an old film that his mother loved, so they went.

His sister thought it was “kind of corny. Just Mom’s style”. Barack could not stand the way it pictured blacks and wanted to leave. He was about to get up and go but then he saw his mother:

But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.

“Black Orpheus” had come out just before she met his father at the University of Hawaii.

Obama concludes:

The emotion between the races could never be pure, even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.

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