Black Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement--2nd Week


Intertitle from D.W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) representative of the racial values of the U.S. at the time
In last Monday’s class Black Feminism and Civil Rights Movement class at CCNY, because of the snow storm that resulted in the absence of half the class, I chose to show the first installment of Eyes on the Prize and ask that we try to play close attention to the presentation of women in it, at all levels, instead of going on with the discussion of Part I of When and Where I Enter. 

Eyes on the Prize:

Part 1 of Eyes on the Prize focuses on three major events of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s: the Supreme Court Brown v. Bd of Education decision, which had as its stated goal to end school segregation; the lynching of Emmett Till and the trial that followed near Money, Mississippi where it occurred, in which the perpetrators who later told their whole story to a magazine were found not guilty by an all white jury; and the successful Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott set off by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person, resulting in her arrest.  

Thulani Davis argues in the preface to Maurice Berger's For All the World to See that the sight of Emmett Tills horribly deformed corpse in the pages of Jet Magazine helped to revolutionize a generation of black teenagers.  Meanwhile at the time of Till's murder, in 1955, I was 3 and could not have seen the pictures. Subsequently I heard about but did not actually see the body until watching Eyes on the Prize in 1987 when I was already 35, had written and published Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, which was in part about the Civil Rights Movement.  Eyes on the Prize and the riches of scholarship on the Civil Rights Movement that has followed, including Paula Giddings' book, have changed my life.  Below are listed helpful supplementary readings and recordings.

Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. Penguin Books 1988.
Eyes on the Prize—America’s Civil Movement, 1954-1985: A Study Guide to the Television Series. Written by Facing History and Ourselves. Blackside 2006.
Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William H. Chafe, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad et al. 2 Hour CDs and Volume. The New Press. Executed by Center for Documentary Studies for the Behind the Veil Project, in which students from Duke University interviewed survivors of Jim Crow in the South about their first hand experiences.

Famous lynching photograph

In the class at the Graduate Center, an enthusiastic and diverse group got into an animated discussion of matters related to the first part of When and Where I Enter.  What sticks in my mind is the discussion we got into about when slavery ended, and what life was like in the South after slavery, since this is also the period on which Gidding's scholarship in Part I is focused.  It has often been my experience that this history, of that time after slavery and before the modern Civil Rights Movement, or let's say perhaps before WWI, can be very vague in the average well educated person's mind.  There are so many general truisms which promote this understanding--in fact, all our salvation narratives, that Abraham Lincoln saved the slaves, that Martin Luther King saved the South and black people from racism and segregation, and son.

Actually our conversation shortly connected us to portrayals of black life in current films, such as The Butler, and the early history of the protagonist, The White House Butler, in which his mother was openly abused (played by Mariah Carey) and his father murdered for daring to intervene, despite the fact that they were no longer slaves, and slavery was officially over.  And yet their treatment, and the acceptance of it, for instance, by the matriarch of the master family, (played by Vanessa Redgrave), who announces during the burial of the father that the protagonist will now be taught to be a house nigger, suggests very slave-like conditions. Viewers are invited to regard the situation in which this family is living in any manner they like. There is subsequently no explanation of what we saw, except perhaps that his mother had been driven insane by the death of her husband and the rape of her "master," (employer?) But there was little sanctity of marriage during slavery. The kind of murder scene that took place seems to me likely more characteristic of extra-legal situations to be found in the rural pockets of the South where die-hard Confederates and their children basically made their own laws, and conducted themselves toward blacks with murder and terrifying sadism.

Everything about this scene lends itself to the typical American mainstream media blurring of historical memory in regard to U.S. culpability for slavery, the sabotaging of Reconstruction and the support of Jim Crow backlash, in the north and the south, in the cities and the rural areas, that followed African American efforts to be free.  On the other hand, The Butler, which was directed by Lee Daniels (who also directed Precious) was not, in fact, nominated for anything, despite at the very least Oprah Winfrey's standout performance as The Butler's wife.

The activism that African American women were engaged in, written about in When and Where I Enter, particularly their participation in a campaign against lynching and to ameliorate conditions of segregation and poverty among black women generally, illustrates the vast variations in conditions and specific situations during the period from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation through the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.  For some unknown reason (I hate to think its a conspiracy), Hollywood movies invariably tend to portray black folks as passively waiting on the mercy of the Lord (12 Years a Slave is a particularly egregious example of that), whereas any adequate history of the periods involved will show that white violence was, in fact, a response to the constant efforts on the part of African Americans to define and extend upon their freedoms.

Nonetheless, in some areas of the country,  and under great duress as well as protest, African Americans were sometimes submitted to slave like conditions as documented in a variety of sources, listed below. There was, for instance, a documentary film about this history, Slavery by Another Name, by Sam Pollard on PBS last year. 

You Tube Channel Resources:

DC Emanicipation Act by US National Archives, Lincoln signed April 16, 1862, compensating owners by the U.S. Treasury Department

20th Century Slavery--http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1CD98D65419BA112

Series of Interviews and Videos by Antonette Harrell, who seems to have begun her work by doing family genealogy in Mississippi and stumbled upon the evidence of the continuation of slavery in the very poor communities of the rural South. As she tells it, if you’ve ever wondered how such third world conditions and poverty can persist in the United States, these are the places in which slavery didn’t die when it was supposed to, and continued into the 1960s so that some of these people are only recently free and some can still remember being slaves.  These stories are extraordinary. There is lots of documentation of these stories in books and videos that I will list, but Harrell’s videos and programs are substantial proof of how the current consequences of such conditions. I believe these people may be over-represented in our prison population as well.  It has never been a level playing field.

Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. University of Illinois (1972) 1990.
Richard Wormser, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Companion book to PBS Special of the same name. California Newsreel. 4 Parts (1865-1954).
Douglas A. Blackmon, The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Doubleday 2008.
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration Random House 2010.
David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard University Press 2001.

Photo of Blacks in the South--LC FSA

This next week we will go on to talk about Part II of When and Where I Enter, in which Mary McLeod Bethune plays a major role in the period between the wars.

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