Questions You Might Have Opinions About: Self-critique, Language, The Nadir, and Historical Accuracy in a Film (*not Selma)
This post is a bit more informal than the carefully researched posts of my colleagues on this blog. I would like to raise four questions and I would love to see you all offer opinions, answers, further readings, critiques in the comments. Here are the four areas I am raising questions in: African American self-critique as a trend and within our own work, the way we teach language to our students, what “the nadir” actually means, and questions about whether historical accuracy matters in a new film that is not Selma (though feel free to continue the Selma discussion!).
African American self-critique
My first question is rooted in the very long tradition of self-critique among black intellectuals. Black writers have sometimes directed as much frustration towards other black people as they have done toward a white racist power structure (though the ratio tends to emphasize one or the other depending on the intellectual). One particularly potent arena in which African Americans critique other African Americans is the kind of “false consciousness” or “internalized racism” captured in Carter G. Woodson’s book The Miseducation of the Negro (revisited by Lauryn Hill in her 1998 album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”).*
It makes a lot of sense to me for historians to trace the evolutions of these critiques—how did they come to be, who were they directed at, how did they affect the intellectuals and the people who read them? It makes less sense to me to automatically agree with or believe that the critique identified by these intellectuals was true. For instance, I am very intrigued by the generation of parents who feared deeply for their children to participate in Civil Rights marches because they might be killed. It seems like folks who didn’t participate in obvious resistance are written about in two ways—either they were resisting, but through a mask or through tool breaking, or they were cowards and Uncle Toms.
I specifically put that last sentence in passive voice, because this is an impression I can’t quite locate in one particular text. I can give one example that is probably what gave rise to this question for me (one I perennially return to, but which has been at the top of my mind in the last week or so). This semester I’m teaching a new class for me because my Civil Rights and Black Power course didn’t enroll enough students. I entitled it “Black Influence on Popular Culture: African Americans in Music, TV, Sports, and Film.” One of the first books we are reading is William Rhoden’s 2007 book Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. While some may be skeptical of using a book by a journalist over several class periods, I find it useful because it is grounded in primary sources, he has an extensive set of footnotes in the back, and he has a provocative thesis that the students can identify and grapple with. But I also think his criticism of black athletes in the past and present lands him in that black self-critique tradition. He delivers these critiques as part of his argument that black athletes today need to carefully study history to avoid the “Jockey Syndrome,” which describes points in time when white owners and spectators purged black people of sports, like horse racing, in order to make way for white athletic success.
Rhoden uses the historical example to articulate his contemporary critique thus:
“[Moses Fleetwood] Walker’s and [Isaac] Murphy’s miscalculations define what would become the Achilles’ heel of African American athletes to this day: the failure to anticipate, plan, and organize; the wholesale dependence on a racist white power structure for sustenance; and surprise and consternation when the money and support are withdrawn.” (83-84)
Do we as historians deliver moral judgments on the people in the past? Should we? What would an empathetic engagement with people who made choices we might hope we would not have made in the past look like? Does it then turn into a form of justification of their actions?
Question on Language
How important is it to force students to update their language to black/African American from Negro? By force, I mean a variety of coercive techniques ranging from repeatedly asking them verbally and on papers to update their language to not accepting a document with archaic language in their writing (as opposed to quoted areas).
I explain the reason for using black or African American in their language (and leaving Negro only in quotes) so they don’t feel like it is just an arbitrary rule. I dislike laying down the law in teaching in general, but this is one place where I am firm each semester. I started thinking about this again for two reasons. The first is that in our first year experience course, all professors teaching it (from a very wide range of disciplines) give students a topic related to our research for them to write their first college level research paper on. My general subject is “Black Life in the Interwar Era” and the common read we started off with is The New Negro. My students have not had any college level African American history. The title of our common read includes “Negro” but I immediately start asking them to update their language.
I always assumed this was an important and necessary part of my classroom until I taught “Queer Bronzeville” this J-Term and we read quite a bit about “female interpreters.” For the vast majority of these individual’s stories, we can’t tell if they were what we would call today transwomen (people assigned male at birth who who have a female gender identity), drag queens (gay men in female clothes), or straight men who enjoyed wearing female clothes. (Go read this oral history with “female impersonator” Nancy Kelley, a black Chicagoan. It is delightful and intriguing). And if their society didn’t have those distinctions, would the “female impersonators” have made it themselves? I argued in my Queer Bronzeville class that our identity is shaped by the language available to us. So while there seems to have been same-sex desire and intercourse throughout human civilizations, the idea of that desire forming a life-long identity first began to be developed around 100 years ago in Europe and the US. I did not ask students to stop using the term “female impersonator” because of this ambiguity. Should I also then stop insisting that they use “Negro” except in quotes?
The Nadir—what exactly does it describe?
I’m pretty sure historians’ use of “the nadir” to describe the two decades or so after reconstruction is in decline, though I don’t have hard evidence for this.** However, I remembered my questions about its meaning when I came across this distillation of the nadir thesis in Rhoden’s book: “The period between 1890 and 1915 marked the most repressive and violent period in the history of race relations in the United States” (69). Whenever historians (or in this case, a journalist) evoke the nadir, it raises the question for me–do they actually mean this was the most violent and repressive period since slavery or are they including slavery as well? I’ve never seen someone, that I can remember, include the phrase “since slavery” in their invocation of the nadir, and yet I get the feeling that’s what they mean. But even then, it seems so odd to me to say this is the most terrible time when it is only a few decades after slavery, whether or not they mean in a post-slave era. For several decades, anytime anyone wrote about this period, they had to include “Rayford Logan’s nadir” in their discussion, which was often a way to simply skip the period altogether (as I wrote about before on this blog, we don’t even have a name for this period other than nadir!)
Logan, a historian at Howard University for much of the 20th century, first used the term to describe the decline in voting rights and the turning away of national politicians from issues affecting black people following reconstruction. (And, to the question above, he rejected the term “black” to describe his light skin and preferred what he believed to be a more inclusive word–Negro) However, the word seems to have become something much more amorphous when others have used it—something suggesting the worst of all times. Granted, if you only looked at Logan’s very broad title, The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901, you might easily presume the book was about more than the disenfranchisement of African Americans, but that was all I saw when I read it.
Historical Accuracy in A Film that gives Moral Weight to Historical Knowledge
If your social media and reading/listening is anything like mine, many discussions of the meaning of historical accuracy have come to your attention because of the film “Selma” and director Ava Duvernay’s decision to highlight the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. as he battled a recalcitrant LBJ, even while claiming her film was about the grassroots leaders.
However, this same issue has been on my mind recently as a result of a different movie. My campus hosted a pre-lease showing of the film “Bound: African vs. African American” by Kenyan-American filmmaker Peres Owino about the relationship between Africans and African Americans, primarily within the US. She made the very strong argument that in order to foster mutual understanding between the two groups, they had to begin to learn the history of the other group. The evidence she gave for African American history was through long passages read from the Willie Lynch letter, which many historians have argued is a recent fabrication, not seen between a 1980s chain letter sent by Minister Farakhan (or, according to others, it appeared on the internet). Jelani Cobb argued in 2004 in a hit that is on the first page of (at least my) Google results that the letter is used as evidence for sentences begun, “The problem with black people is…”
The other main way Owino shared African American history was through extensive interviews with Joy DeGruy, a social work PhD who argues that the pathologies found in black culture can be traced to the actions of people traumatized during slavery and Jim Crow, who then passed those actions on to their children. She has named this cycle of problematic actions “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” I totally respect the desire to emphasize the trauma associated with these eras, something we do not do enough of in this country, but I find this argument dangerously close to a “culture of poverty” that argues there is something fundamentally wrong with black Americans as an entire people group.***
Yet, when I raised some of these problems with students and colleagues, I was in the minority. Students and colleagues suggested that if the Willie Lynch letter captured something true about black American experience, even if the document itself was fabricated, wasn’t it worthwhile? And wasn’t it a good thing to bring up the trauma associated with slavery and the Jim Crow era?
And that brings me full circle back to my first question—is this another example of my training as a historian coming into conflict with the tradition of black self-critique?
*If you’ve ever read the book itself, you’ll know Woodson is not without his own problematic hangups. If you are curious as to what I mean, ask in the comments and I’ll dig up what I wrote about the book in my dissertation.
**I remember bonding with Natanya Duncan at an ASALH meeting over our mutual criticism of the term early in our graduate careers…maybe 2006?
***The final way in which the director attempted to educate her audience about African American history was through a couple brief clips of an interview with Maulana Karenga. His comments that she chose to include were quite broad and neither challenged nor confirmed the ideas in the Willie Lynch letter and in DeGruy’s theories. I would guess the interviews with DeGruy were at least 10x as long as those with Karenga.permission.
Comments on “Questions You Might Have Opinions About: Self-critique, Language, The Nadir, and Historical Accuracy in a Film (*not Selma)”
My first reaction to your section on historical accuracy in film is this: if you are looking for historical accuracy don’t go to a Hollywood movie. Hollywood has been terrible when trying to depict black lives in historical fiction. I cannot claim to have seen everything but whenever I see Hollywood portraying slaves they are generally dark skinned and fully clothed, neither of which gives an accurate rendering of the variety of hues found amongst slaves or the fact that even house slaves sometimes did not have sufficient clothing. Black stories become white stories in Hollywood; Amistad, Ghosts of Mississippi, even Glory, celebrate white people’s roles in black stories. Even the discussions about Selma seem to focus on getting LBJ right when really this is supposed to be the story of black people in the civil rights movement. There are a handful of films that allow for black stories to be told from black mouths but these seem to be outnumbered. As I mentioned on facebook earlier today, there has been talk in Congress about watching The Interview as an act of patriotism. FoxNews has been pushing the idea that any film winning an award the American Sniper is up for is proof that Hollywood is unpatriotic. But I have not seen anyone complaining that Selma is a patriotic film, that we should be watching Selma before The Interview, or that Selma should be nominated in every category ahead of American Sniper. I love movies, and I enjoy watching them and talking about them, but sometimes Hollywood exhausts me.
I hear you, but this was a small, independent documentary done by a black filmmaker with almost exclusively black people on screen. And she made the argument that the only way Africans and African Americans were going to start understanding each other was through learning each others’ history. With that much burden placed on history, why was I the only one concerned that the heart of her argument was a fabrication? Does only “truthiness” count? Then we historians need to take a long hard look in the mirror and consider joining a literature department, if they’ll have us.
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