Tag Archives: Racism

Acknowledging Columbus’ Painful Legacy

Totem Pole, Washington state

The Trail of Tears took place nearly 200 years ago, and thousands of Native Americans died during this forced migration. Yet, in the United States we don’t often reflect on this black mark in our history. We do annually reflect on the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the America’s in 1492. An arrival that marks the start of the European colonization of the continent, as well as the subsequent death and subjugation of indigenous people and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade.

Today marks Columbus Day — a federal holiday since the 1930s. It wasn’t until I heard of Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States (published first in 1980) that I began to reconsider the American history I’d learned as a child (which painted Columbus as a curious explorer and civilizing cornerstone). The arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas marked a dramatic shift in our nation’s history, but whether it should be celebrated or not is a question in a growing debate. Some activists have sought to change the focus of the holiday towards, “Indigenous People’s Day.”

In observance of the colonization and genocide that followed Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, I’ve gathered a few stories worth checking out today.

1. On Columbus Day, Indigenous Urge Celebration of Native Culture and Teaching of Americas’ Genocide: Democracy Now filmed this segment in Fort Lewis College, which hosts a large Native American student population and an event today called, “Real History of the Americas.” Three women affiliated with the college talk about alternative histories, identity, and cultural trauma experienced by generations of Native Americans.

2. Stand on the Side of Love with Native Women: This blog posted a reminder today about the tenuous position of the Violence Against Women Act facing congress. It’s fitting on what some call “Indigenous People’s Day,” that we remember the disproportionate rates at which Native Women continue to experience sexual assault and violence. One in three Native Women is estimated to be raped in her life.

3. Columbus’ Legacy of Categorization: The Yale student paper published a really interesting column from a Native American student addressing his take on Columbus day and his own identity. He explains how he struggles when people ask him, “How Native are you?” This piece indicates where we still have room for improvement in addressing our history of colonialism and it’s insidious, lingering effects.

Christopher Columbus

4. Columbus Day Vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day: How About Happy Immigration Day?: Mediaite addressed the conflict of whether or not today should be a holiday. Author Philip Bump dismisses some of the arguments for Indigenous People’s Day with the explanation “People are — and always have been — selfish jerks… Our forefathers were oppressed and were oppressors.” He suggests forgetting the controversy and celebrating the diverse fabric of America caused by immigration. It’s an interesting piece, but it feels dismissive for the sake of a rosy conclusion.

Regardless of the name of the holiday, it’s important for Americans to observe the reality of our history. Acknowledging historical trauma on the Columbus Day holiday provides national validation and healing for part of our tumultuous history and a voice for our Native American fellow citizens.

What are your thoughts on Columbus Day? Is it antiquated? Is it important to maintain?

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Thoughtful Interview in the Shadow of Treyvon Martin’s Death

The death of Treyvon Martin rests on the minds and hearts of many Americans. The controversy over the investigation and delay of charges toward his killer George Zimmerman resound throughout the media. Local news outlets estimate that tens of thousands will attend a rally today in Sanford, Florida demanding justice for Martin’s death. His parents collected over 1.5 million signatures on Change.org to petition law enforcement in Sanford to take action. Obama responded sympathetically to the event stating, “If I had a son, he’d look like Treyvon.” Commentary on the event and the racial and legal implications resound throughout the blogosphere.

Through the uproar about this tragic issue, I zeroed in on a story about a woman who lost her favorite brother in an incident similar to Martin’s killing. When her African American sons entered adolescence, she addressed the prejudice they would face and tried to prepare her boys to avoid confrontations that could unjustly challenge their lives.

NPR interviewed author Donna Britt last week, but she has been talking about misperceptions of African American men since at least 1994. Britt wrote about the talks she had with her adolescent sons in her Washington Post column. For the interview with NPR, two of her sons joined her and discussed the bias they face as African American young men.

Britt and her sons spoke openly about preparing for prejudice and the frustrations that come from being stereotyped. Darrell Britt-Gibson reflected on the tension and the susceptibility he feels around law enforcement, “I mean, it’s hard not to be black you know.”

Justin Britt-Gibson commented on the Treyvon Martin case, “[A]m I hurt? Absolutely. Does my heart break? Without a doubt. But am I surprised? No. And I think that’s part of the bigger problem.”

I would recommend this interview to anyone willing to get a broader perspective about the racial tensions surfacing with Martin’s death.

Britt, who impressed me with her pragmatic approach toward racism, ended the interview with an interesting insight toward change.

She said, “[R]acism is, I think, a bit like being in the water or the air.  And I think of it the same way that I think of sexism. These things, we absorb them. And so it takes time and love and forgiveness, and shining a bright light on situations like what happened to Trayvon, to really make the shifts deep enough and permanent enough that things like this don’t happen.”

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Late Retrospective for Black History Month: From Female Slave, to Southern Gentleman, to Freedom

1. Ellen and William Craft decided they would rather risk their lives than risk the severance of their budding family. These Georgian slaves in the mid-19th century sought a way to escape when they first decided to marry.

My wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen so many other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming the mother of a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror (Craft 27).

2. The couple considered various escape routes, aware that failure would mean death, or worse. Slaveholders seemed to enjoy the pursuit and punishment of escaped slaves. William and Ellen would not risk escaping 1,000 miles without a sure plan. They resigned to marry and toil as slaves until a path to liberty presented herself

3. In December 1848 the idea dawned. Only eight days to freedom

4. Ellen Craft, a fair-skinned slave, must take on the disguise of a white slave master. She would travel from Georgia as the owner of her darker-skinned husband. This clever plan would keep them under the radar, and yet require Ellen to cross firm caste, race, and class lines in disguise.

At first she shrank from the idea. She thought it almost impossible for her to assume that disguise, and travel a distance of 1,000 miles across slave States. … [But] the more she contemplated her helpless condition, the more anvious she was to escape from it (Craft 30).


5. Over the course of four days William purchased a disguise piece by piece. Ellen tailored herself a pair of pants and hid all the items in a locked drawer. They convinced their master and mistress to permit them a few days of Christmas holiday, as they were trusted and well liked. The leave allowed them a head start towards the North.

Just before the time arrived for us to leave I cut my wife’s hair square at the back of the head and got her to dress in the disguise and stand out on the floor. I found that she made a most respectable looking gentleman (Craft 35).

6. When William opened the door to flee, Ellen burst into tears. A perilous journey waited for them, but remaining meant a life of slavery and uncertainty. William sympathized. After a prayer, they set off.

We were like persons near a tottering avalanche; afraid to move, or even breathe freely, for fear the sleeping tyrants should be aroused (Craft 42)

7. Once on the train, William spotted his master peering through the train cars, suspicious that the couple might flee. He failed to recognize Ellen, and the train pulled away before he could find William

8. Ellen endured the first leg of the trip next a friend of her master who had known her since childhood. She pretended to be deaf to avoid contact with him. He did not recognize her and treated her like a gentleman.

9. A trader en route sought to separate the two and buy William. Slaves on free soil could not be trusted. A military officer recommended she stop saying “thank you” and “if you please” to her slave.

10. They were held up in Charleston, where legislators feared abolitionists would smuggle slaves through to the north. The same military gentleman, who provided Ellen with advice on how to treat her “slave,” vouched for them.

11. On the train to Richmond,Virginia, Ellen, pretending to be asleep, overheard a young women swooning over her male persona:

After [Ellen had] been lying there a little while the ladies, I suppose, thought he was asleep; so one of them gave a long sigh, and said, in a quiet fascinating tone, “Papa, he seems to be a very nice young gentleman.” But before papa could speak the other lady quickly said, “Oh! Dear me, I never felt so much for a gentleman in my life!” (Craft 60).

12. Officers stopped the couple in Baltimore, their last transfer before Philadelphia — and freedom. The law required registration and documentation for slaves. Their courage waned. The room filled with tension. The train’s captain passed through, acknowledged them, and then sounded the train’s bell for departure. An officer waved them through indifferently at the last moment.

13. They arrived in Pennsylvania on Christmas day. Eight days after they conceived the plan, four days after their flight began, Ellen collapsed on William. They found refuge in local abolitionists.

14. The couple moved to England where they raised a family, received an education, and spoke out against slavery.

15. Ellen became a symbol for the anti-slavery movement.

[The picture of her as a man] sold so well William hoped the proceeds might assist him in securing his still-enslaved sister (McCaskill 515).

16. Reluctantly, Ellen challenged many aspects of the status quo, so that she could live her life as a mother and educated lady. In an effort to escape one institution she subverted many.

With her appearance as an Africa woman ‘dressed’ as a white woman dressed as a white Southern man, Ellen elides the distinctions between the genders and scrambles the identities of haughty mistress and humble slave (McCaskill 520).


Running a thousand miles for freedom, or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft. 1860. William Craft.

“Yours Very Truly”: Ellen Craft–The Fugitive as Text and Artifact. 1994. Barbara McCaskill
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Black Women in American Culture and History: Mary Church Terrell

In 1906 Mary Church Terrell pointed out that Washington DC, the center of American liberty, failed to live up to its reputation as “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” During her speech to the United Women’s Club in DC, Terrell tore apart the slogan. She proved it a misnomer with anecdotes of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans.

At the time, DC was a difficult place for traveling African Americans to find room and board. It was difficult for African Americans to find a place on a tram, in a church, or at the theater. In her speech, Terrell described the loss of job experienced by many of her very qualified friends and acquaintances:

“A colored woman, as fair as a lily and as beautiful as a Madonna, who was the head saleswoman in a large department store in New York, had been discharged, after she had held this position for years, when the proprietor accidentally discovered that a fatal drop of African blood was percolating somewhere thru her veins.”

One hundred and six years after Terrell told that story, we can appreciate that “a drop of African blood,” is no longer “fatal.” Washington DC, though never a paradise for any man, does host the first African American first family. And this month, we look back at the achievements of and the difficulties surmounted by African Americans. This year in particular African American History Month celebrates the theme, “Black Women in American Culture and History.”

Terrell lived from 1863 to 1954 and was well educated, well traveled, and wealthy. Her parents were slaves before her father became a millionaire.  She spoke professionally on behalf of women and African Americans, and against lynching and disenfranchisement.

She ended her 1906 speech, “What it means to be colored in the Capital of the United States,” with a lament that treatment of African Americans in DC (and elsewhere) leads to “helplessness and hopelessness” and a loss of “incentive and effort” that even sympathetic white people couldn’t appreciate. But the irony she saw in the capital shone through her last remark:

“And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.”

Along similar lines, an exhibit on “The Paradox of Liberty” will explore Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting positions on liberty and slavery. Check it out online or in DC. The exhibit is presented by the forthcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello.

Source: Man Cannot Speak for Her, Volume II, Compiled by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell

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Language, Race, and Provocation: The Evolution of SlutWalk in a Timeline

SlutWalk’s provocative title garnered  attention and support for the series of marches against sexual assault and victim blaming. But mainstream and feminist commentators criticized the organizer’s preoccupation with the term “slut.” The movement sought to end slut shaming and reclamation of “slut” featured in the mission statements of various SlutWalk marches. Each march rose separately from the grassroots level, and they generally included speakers, signs, and some scantily clad participants.

I created this timeline to accompany a research paper on rhetorical and racial hang-ups presented through the SlutWalk movement. In my research I examined the discourse around and criticism towards SlutWalk regarding reclamation of the term “Slut” and the N-word as it was presented on an NYC SlutWalk sign. I also explored the racial dynamic of the event and how the choice of the term “Slut” both raised awareness of the marches and alienated women of color.

This timeline shows the progression of these language and race issues as they arose throughout the year. Many other events took place under the umbrella of SlutWalk, which I did not include here.


The Star | Toronto Sun | The Washington Post | Time Magazine | The New York Post | Ms. Magazine | Ms. Blog | The Guardian | To The Curb Blog | The Crunk Feminist Collective Blog | Black Women’s Blueprint Website | SlutWalk NYC Website

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Florence + The Machine = Misinformers on Race and Violence ?

Perhaps, the optimist in me hopes, Florence Welch and her band are merely misinformed on issues of race and violence. Their prominent position in the international music industry begs a certain level of social sensitivity and awareness, neither of which seem present in their new video for the song, “No Light, No Light.” (Watch the video here.)

Some of my regular sites have been in an uproar recently about Florence + The Machine’s video for the song off their recent album, Ceremonials. I found the video lacking racial sensitivity and recycling tired primitivist tropes. The video, unfortunately, is not the band’s first demonstration of poor judgment.

One of Florence+ The Machine’s previous songs, “Kiss with a Fist,” shows a blatant disregard for domestic violence with lyrics such as: “You hit me once / I hit you back / You gave a kick / I gave a slap / You smashed a plate / Over my head / Then I set fire to our bed.”

In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, Welch explains she wrote the song at age 17 in an attempt to fit in with garage-rocker peers. She claims the lyrics are purely figurative, “a metaphor for first love, in all its intensities,” but she did not acknowledge the provocation in the message.

Singing about black eyes and partner violence without consequence or reflection shows a profound lack of sensitivity. “Kiss with a Fist” normalizes domestic violence, making it harder for victims of abuse to be taken seriously.

Domestic violence does not equate emotionally or psychologically to the pangs of first love. The song fails to make that distinction.

Let’s return to the more current issue at hand, racism in Welch’s newest video. In the same interview with Melissa Block, Welch expands on her musical philosophy, providing some insight into the primitivist elements in the video.

The music is a “primal and tribal bashing of percussion, mixed with the choral side of the backing vocals,” Welch explained in April of 2010.

Ceremonials was released in October of 2011, though the juxtaposition of “tribal” and “choral” elements feature prominently in the “No Light, No Light,” video.

The video grossly misrepresents race and tribalism, creating a pseudo-ritual with a voodoo doll, mask, and dancing evocative of possession rituals. The producers of the video take it a step further with a scene of the black man chasing Welch, a white woman down an alley.

The racial, primitive character does not represent any actual culture or race. He stands vilified and wild next to the purity of an all-boys church choir and Welch herself.

Blogs through Jezebel and Racialicious  analyzed and critiqued this video more thoroughly than I. Racialicious suggests that this insensitivity appears in Florence + The Machine’s video for “The Dog Days are Over” — another example that the band exhibits ignorance in their lyrics and videos.

Change.org hoped to collect 2,500 signatures to demand an apology for “No Light, No Light” but only reached 902. I think continuing the discussion about the video and the band will inform more than a petition or apology.

In any case, it remains important for viewers / listeners / consumers of pop culture to consider intentional or unwitting messages in their media. As producers of popular media Florence Welch and her band take poetic license into the realm of ignorance and insensitivity toward diversity and violence. Perhaps they should join this conversation.

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