It’s been a week since the presidential election, and much of the chatter prior to Election Day about how racially divided America is has continued in different forms thanks to a crop of strange and often disturbing news stories that feature racial subtexts. Here are a few.
After President Obama’s victory, reports circulated about a race riot on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Apparently some students were angry over the Obama win and caused a ruckus which included the torching of an Obama/Biden poster. But was it a “race” riot?
A new meme has been making the rounds in social media that displays maps of slaveholding states in 1859, legally segregated states in 1950, and the breakdown of red vs. blue states after the 2012 election. The suggestion is that the slaveholding and segregated states from the past bear an uncanny similarity to the states won by Romney last week. But the meme doesn’t mention that Obama won Florida (as well as Virginia). So, does the comparison meant to show how far we’ve come, or how some things never change?
Obama’s Black Liberal Critics Are Still Mad, Too
Reports from The Grio and The Root find Cornel West calling President Obama “a Republican in black face.” And African American political pundit Boyce Watkins warns African Americans against “drinking the Kool-Aid” again and argues that Obama has yet to demonstrate a serious interest in tackling issues deeply affecting the African American community, including poverty, black unemployment, urban violence, and the mass incarceration of black men.
Those are just a few of the post-election race stories that are making headlines. Did we miss any? Is this much ado about nothing? Please share your opinions below.
NO LOOKING BACK: Democratic delegates and supporters waved “Forward” placards at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, the first day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Newscom)
The contrast in diversity was striking on the screen.
The sea of red, yellow, white, black, and brown faces at the Democratic convention in Charlotte last night compared to the sea of white with black and brown specks at the Republican event last week in Tampa. It’s like watching color TV vs. black and white.
But is it really?
Nowadays we talk about red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) as code for conservative and liberal, but as the Democrats take their turn this week and re-nominate the first African American POTUS, I wonder how many black Democrats know their party’s history is much redder than the GOP when it comes to black people and other minorities. In fact, the DNC’s founding fathers would be red with rage that Barack Obama is the party’s leader.
You certainly wouldn’t know this by viewing the DNC’s website on your computer. The opening paragraph of the African American section reads:
“For decades, Democrats have stood with the African American community in the struggle for equality and the enduring struggle to perfect our nation itself.”
The section about the party’s history reeks with campaign spin:
“For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. We are the party of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR, and the countless everyday Americans who work each day to build a more perfect union.”
This is followed by a timeline with the entry being 1920.
C’mon now. Your official founding date is 1792, making the Democrats the nation’s oldest political party, yet your timeline begins in 1920? Is it because you are also the party of President Andrew Jackson that promoted the bloody takeover of Indian lands and the expansion of slavery? Is it because you are the party of President Andrew Johnson, the Confederate who during Reconstruction championed laws leading to Jim Crow that re-shackled black freedom for decades after the Civil War?
I was reared in a Democratic household in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who were union loyalists. My initial DNC history reached only as far as FDR and the New Deal. But as I came of voting age I sought the backstory for myself. In a word, it is racist.
The party of Obama had for centuries championed a laundry list of oppressive policies that have led to the tragic disparities and the areas of health, wealth, education, housing, and incarceration rates that continue to plague the African American community today. However, that revelation then didn’t stop me from voting my interest such as, helping David Dinkins to become New York’s first black mayor in 1990.
The truth before 1920 and after is easily accessible via several legit Web sites. Of course Republicans pointed this out themselves in 2008, no doubt as a way of throwing stones at then-Sen. Obama’s magical run for the White House.
What’s curious is why the DNC doesn’t openly embrace its full history — that the party that once championed slavery has produced the nation’s first African American president. Wouldn’t that show how far the party has led nation, though there’s still a ways to go? Wouldn’t that illustrate “change we can believe in,” and progress “forward?” Wouldn’t that show respect for blacks, a constituency that is supposed to be highly valued? DNC leadership obviously decided on the history revision. Where are the black Democratic leaders on this? Where are the whites who are supposed to be progressive?
For me, it shows that both parties share a common problematic history on the issue of race. One doesn’t want to hear about it, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it. This hasn’t changed much over the years. People have just switched sides and traded names.
Real change would be seeing a sea of colorful faces at both conventions, and two parties focused on meaningful policies rather than spin. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, though.
But then again, I said the same about a black man becoming President of the United States.
A WAY WITH WORDS: Wanda Thomas Littles mixes poetry and prose to tell a young man’s coming-of-age story in the Jim Crow South.
Wanda Thomas Littles loves words. She uses them to both entertain and uplift her readers. In her new novella Preacha!, shemixes poetry and prose to create the story of a community that rises above the ignorance of hatred to become people of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Wanda, who is also a contributing writer for UrbanFaith, has authored several books of poetry, including That I Might Be Free and Come Sunday Morning. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband. We spoke to her about Preacha! and what she hopes people will experience when they read it.
URBAN FAITH: The title of your novel is Preacha! What is the story about, and what led you to write it?
WANDA LITTLES: This is essentially a story of how a young boy’s strong faith in God takes mistreatment and abuse and turns it around. It’s set in a small Alabama town during the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a time when the black community was challenged both by the racism from whites on the outside, and racism within the community — with black people of darker and lighter complexions showing prejudice against one another. When I sat down to write Preacha! I had no pre-conceived notion to make a statement about any cause, condition, or issue. I wrote from God’s Spirit within me and these ideas took me back to a time that, as I reflect now, were probably some of the best, most life-impacting times of my life.
Naturally as a Christian, I felt compelled to show that we need to recognize Christ in our midst and do what He says do when we are faced with problems and trouble, because His is the only way that can bring lasting peace. As the title character says, “Love always wins,” and Jesus is love.
Preacha! is a work of fiction, but were there real-life experiences in your journey that shaped the story?
Despite the fact that one of the characters has my first name, the only real-life experiences that shaped the story are just those that came from me as an observer of life in my small town and being privileged to know my family history. But as far as anything outside the normal historical issues of being black in the South, there is nothing autobiographical there.
Who is your target audience?
I start with Southern blacks of a certain age, but I believe the story will appeal to a great spectrum of people regardless of age, race, or any other thing. I wrote it for everyone. Everyone who wants to know what life was like for African Americans in in the South in 1965.
In today’s society, there’s a values crisis when it comes to faith, marriage, and family. Were you attempting to address any of those challenges?
I did not set out to preach or teach, but I do think I show that despite the injustice of the times in which we lived, we were essentially a people of faith who taught our children the importance of God, family, and others. Our parents showed love by being right there with us in our homes and communities. They set firm boundaries and gave us standards to live by, and there were certain things in that structure that you did and did not do. Unlike today where anything goes, the values and respect we were taught then kept us grounded. I was not trying to address those issues, but when all was done the book spoke loudly to those very things.
When readers are finished with your book, how do you want them to feel?
I want them to feel exhilarated. I want them to feel uplifted and to know that God cares — that He knows and loves them.
I want readers to take from this story the things that will help to make their lives better as they pursue the best possible life. I want them to share it with those who need encouragement. And I suppose my ultimate goal for the book is to show what reconciliation and forgiveness looks like between those who are experiencing broken relationships.
Who are some of your literary influences?
Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Helen Steiner Rice are writers I like on my poetic side. When in comes to prose, I enjoy Nikki Grimes, Karen Hesse, and Amos Oz.
What’s next for you?
Currently I’m ghostwriting a memoir called A Desperate Faith for a missionary from Uganda who lived through the Amin and Obote regimes, and I’m praying that it will be as well received as Preacha! has been.
For more information about Preacha! and Wanda’s other books, visit her website, www.wandalittles.com.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Ailibeen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.