Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and the Limits of Urban Tourism Development

This week in North Philly Notes, Aaron Cowan, author of A Nice Place to Visitpremieres his new promotional video for the book and explains the shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy in the wake of police violence.

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In A Nice Place to Visit, I examine the attempts of four cities – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis – to remake themselves into tourist destinations in the second half of the twentieth century. Though each location had its own unique characteristics and variety, these cities – and many others like them – followed a similar pattern of substantial public investment in an “infrastructure” of tourism: massive downtown convention centers, fancy new chain hotels with impressive atriums, and recreational facilities like sports stadiums and festival marketplaces. These were accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns from professional convention and tourist bureaus, often supported by tax dollars.

All of this public subsidy was justified, said political leaders and business executives who supported them, because tourism provided the best route out of the “urban crisis” of the postwar period, and would bring prosperity by generating new tax revenue, and especially new jobs for urban residents hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the early 1970s, as the city of St. Louis debated a bond issue to finance a new $25-million convention center for the city, promoters promised the new convention business drawn by the structure would bring “a resurgence of the city’s heritage, a return to the halcyon era of easy-going good living, good dining and good entertainment.”

The transformation from gritty industrial city to sparkling tourist destination was not an easy one, however, and in nearly every case tourist development failed to provide the panacea it seemed to promise. Service jobs in new hotels or restaurants could not offer the wages or benefits that union-backed industrial labor had provided. Furthermore, the substantial public debt incurred by cities to build tourist facilities meant diverting scarce funds from core functions like education, infrastructure maintenance, and emergency services. Finally, while new convention centers and entertainment districts drew visitors to downtowns, they did little to stem the exodus of middle-class (mostly white) residents out of cities and into suburbs.

The shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy have been thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the widely-publicized protests over police violence. In the late summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of Brown catalyzed a protest movement demanding an end to racially-biased policing practices. Protestors and heavily-militarized police clashed throughout the fall of 2014 along the town’s main thoroughfare of West Florissant Avenue, a short 15-minute drive from the St. Louis convention center, now dubbed the “America’s Center Convention Complex.”  The following April, Baltimore erupted in a series of protests after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, due to injuries sustained at the hands of police. While most protests were nonviolent, a small group of rioters destroyed police cruisers and storefronts.  Maryland National Guard troops occupied the central city,  standing guard over the city’s Inner Harbor, the central location of its tourist facilities including the city’s convention center, hotels, National Aquarium, and Harborplace waterfront marketplace.  Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have faced similar challenges in achieving racial justice and overcoming the economic and social legacies of postwar urban segregation.

The historical narratives of these cities should, then, give us pause regarding the role of tourism in contemporary cities.  Just as past urban leaders pursued downtown hotels and convention centers, today casinos increasingly flourish in the Rustbelt urban landscape, and cities are grappling with the challenges of tourist-oriented “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb and Uber, which threaten to diminish hospitality tax revenues or disrupt established parts of the economic sector. While tourism is indisputably an important element of urban economies, A Nice Place to Visit suggests that cities would do well to temper the belief that tourism-driven economic development is a cure-all, and, furthermore, to remember that the benefits of such development are rarely equitably distributed. Truly successful cities are those that are not only “nice places to visit” but also communities that provide economic opportunity and social justice that make them good places to live.

Follow Aaron Cowan on twitter @aaronbcowan.

 

Honoring the achievement of African American writers

This week in North Philly Notes, we post an excerpt from Werner Sollors’ new book, African American Writing: A Literary Approach

In a lecture on “The Literature of the Negro in the United States” Richard Wright said that the literature should be understood against the background of the global movement from traditional, rural, religiously based, and pre-individual cultures, to modern, urban, industrial, secular, and stridently individual, societies. It is for this reason that, despite all specificities and differences, “one ought to use the same concepts in discussing Negro life that one used in discussing white life.” In this context, Wright arrived at one of his most famous quips:

 The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written  in vivid and bloody terms; it is the history of Western Man writ small. It is the history of men who tried to adjust themselves to a world whose laws, customs, and instruments of force were leveled against them. The Negro is America’s metaphor.

Today’s students may find Wright’s gendered language and the very word “Negro” antiquated, if not reactionary. Yet they may be overlooking the Enlightenment legacy both of the study of black literature–that began in the wake of the French Revolution with Abbé Henri Grégoire–and of the language of the “rights of man”–that could easily be imagined to stand for men and women: even the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments spoke of “the family of man” in articulating its hope for gender equality. The term “Negro,” too, though it was disparaged by 1960s radicals and satirized by LeRoi Jones as “knee-grow,” was once a dignified term into which the hope for full equality was inscribed. For Wright, the Negro as America’s metaphor was also a mirror for white America. Near the end of his lecture, he said:

The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we have all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims. Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives.

“Negro literature” was a global term, capacious enough to include writers anywhere in the world. In fact, from Gustavus Vassa to LeRoi Jones himself, writers most commonly employed the word “Negro” to describe themselves as well as people of African ancestry more generally. Early scholarship in the field in America, much of it written by intellectuals who had to work within the constraints of a racial segregation, supported the political strAfrican American Writing-smuggle for equality and integration. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week during the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (1818) and of Abraham Lincoln (1809), a black man and a white man, who together symbolized the end of slavery and the promise of full equality. Woodson had pioneered in history with such classic studies as The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 (1915) and The History of the Negro Church (1924), and with an early focus on the history of what in the United States is called “miscegenation” (interracial sexual, marital, and family relations). Benjamin Brawley published literary histories that included The Negro Genius (1937); Eva B. Dykes demonstrated the significance of the antislavery struggle for English Romantic literature in The Negro in English Romantic Thought; or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed (1941); the poet-critic Sterling A. Brown critiqued stereotypes and highlighted realistic portrayals in American writing in his Negro Poetry and Negro Drama (1937) and The Negro in American Fiction (1937); Benjamin Mays pioneered in the study of religion and published The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938); the immensely productive historian John Hope Franklin offered a helpfully synthesizing textbook to complement American history textbooks, From Slavery to Freedom (1947); Frank Snowden, who in 1944 submitted his Latin dissertation “De Servis Libertisque Pompeianis,” focused in his Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983) on the role of blacks in the ancient world, a time when there were no black laws or bans on miscegenation; and Marion W. Starling (1946) and Charles H. Nichols (1948) undertook the first full-scale doctoral work on the slave narrative. Such scholarship had the effect of writing blacks into American and global history, rectifying omissions and neglect, and setting the record straight against the then dominant American scholarly opinion that slighted the importance and contributions of blacks. Perhaps the work of generations of “integrationist” scholars (and “integrationist,” once a fighting word, has also become a problematic term) deserves to be considered afresh today and to be taken as guide in rereading major works of literature and debates about the legacy of race, slavery, and segregation.

Reflections on the AFL and its merger with the NFL

This week in North Philly Notes, Charles Ross, author of Mavericks, Money, and Men, blogs about the AFL and the growth of the NFL.

As I sat watching the NFL draft I couldn’t help but think about the AFL and its merger with the NFL in 1970.  Pro football is clearly the most popular sport in America and that popularity is largely due to the rival leagues calling a truce and becoming one.  The last two teams to win the Super Bowl were original AFL teams–New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, and interestingly they struggled to achieve success as members of the AFL.  They never won an AFL Championship but the Patriots have won four Super Bowls and the Broncos three.  Maybe more importantly Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams probably didn’t anticipate the teams that made up the so called “foolish club,” being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, when the original franchise fee was $25,000.

Mavericks_smEvery original AFL team including the two expansion teams have played in the Super Bowl, however, there are two NFL teams that have never had that experience, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Again the Browns and Lions picked early on Thursday night, both teams since the merger have arguably struggled to field strong teams led by great quarterbacks and solid defenses, the usual ingredients necessary to reach the pinnacle of a successful pro football season.  The draft was virtually parallel to the percentage of African American players in the NFL, in essence the overwhelming majority of players selected were black.

The two universities that I owe much of my professional success had a historic night.  The Ohio State University where I received my Ph.D. had five players selected in the first round and the University of Mississippi where I have spent the last twenty years since leaving OSU, had three players selected in round one for the first time in school history.  Three of the five players from Ohio State were African American and all three from the University of Mississippi, of course having five players selected in round one for perennial power OSU was not necessarily a surprise.  But for the University of Mississippi to have three players chosen was, unfortunately the controversy that surrounded offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil’s fall to the Miami Dolphins because of posts on his social media page dominated the media’s focus and took the spotlight off what both programs had achieved.

Arguably the growth of the NFL since the merger is a real testament to pro football’s marriage to television.  The medium of television helped to increase the value of franchise’s, players contracts, coaches contracts, and profits from owners.  Large amounts of money fuel these relationships and ultimately the same relationships at the collegiate level.  Billy Cannon signed his contract to play for the Houston Oilers instead of the Los Angeles Rams after the Sugar Bowl in 1960, on New Year’s Day.  Cannon had agreed to contracts with both the Rams and the Oilers which was a NCAA violation, and he signed his contract on television under the goalposts when the game ended.  This was great publicity for the AFL and set the tone for the next six year war between the AFL and NFL.  The saga of Tunsil also played out on national television but like Cannon many fans will want to know more about this young man and his ability to be successful on the football field during this upcoming season.  The Miami Dolphins think he will be successful and so do I.

A lot has changed since the merger but one thing has not, the success of teams will be established on the field.  Publicity both positive and negative will continue to characterize aspects of what is now America’s favorite sport, in many ways the NFL has reached a zenith where the only competition is itself.  Pro football is not competing against the NBA or even major league baseball, its chief competition now is its own public perception.

 

What Melissa Harris-Perry Has Taught Us About Black Women and Silence

This week, in honor of Women’s History month, we re-post this essay by Trimiko Melancon, author of Unbought and Unbossed, published in Ms. Magazine

Anyone who knows anything about the politics of black womanhood is familiar with how silence operates in relation to black women. And the past few weeks have provided us with an opportunity to consider black women and silence, or the lack thereof, thanks to TV show host Melissa Harris-Perry and her explosive fallout with MSNBC.Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Professor at Wake Forest University, hosted the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC until recently. She is hands-down a brilliant scholar, political scientist and intellectual—both on and off camera. I’ve had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand while working with her when I was the inaugural fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Project, of which she is the founding director, and when she wrote the dynamic foreword to my book, Black Female Sexualities. Her assessments and analyses—whether conventional, controversial or provocative—have been sharp and welcome on myriad topics. She has invariably provided visibility, voice and a platform for those who—and that which—would have otherwise been neglected.

Unbought_smSo when MSNBC preempted the MHP show and attempted to “disappear” her, as she says, Harris-Perry was not having it. She did not stand by silently or “go gentle into that good night,” as poet Dylan Thomas writes—and her reaction didn’t come as a surprise. Why might we expect otherwise? The truth is Harris-Perry has never, ever been silent: not about who or what matters or about issues that warrant attention. She has spoken boldly about Trayvon Martin, embraced Black Girl Magic and worn tampon earrings on her show to protest anti-abortion legislation. This is, in part, not only the signature beauty and essence of her work, but precisely why she has an incredible following. She has provided one of the few platforms for people to speak, be acknowledged and not be silent or silenced. Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent as MSNBC preempted her show for election coverage, and her refusal to accept the network’s anti-disparagement clause, perfectly fit her pattern of pushing back.

What, then, are some black feminist lessons we might learn—during Women’s History Month and generally—from MHP and MSNBC regarding black women and silence?

1. “Our Silence Will Not Protect Us”

That’s right. As Audre Lorde noted so eloquently, it simply will not. So all the flimsy criticisms of Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent have just got to go, as does loaded language about her as “a brilliant, intelligent but challenging and unpredictable personality,” as an MSNBC executive asserted. Such language insults Harris-Perry (and us all) and reduces her to someone who just “went off” (or does not know how to “act right”). And that’s not only simplistic—it’s downright unfair. What Harris-Perry demonstrated in speaking out against MSNBC is called complexity and being a full-fledged human being with the capacity for, and right to, free expression. And women, especially black women, generally aren’t allowed to embody those qualities without facing castigation and gendered stereotypes.

2. “I Am Not Wrong: Wrong Is Not My Name”

Let’s be clear: This situation calls attention to the ways black women must constantly prove their own inherent worth, brilliance, value and #BlackGirlGenius within a white system. There’s no single monolithic way for black women (or anyone, for that matter) to react in circumstances, inevitable or not. Harris-Perry was not wrong in her reaction—she simply has dimension, and so do other black women. Folks need to listen to black women without unwarranted questioning, incredulity or disbelief regarding the authenticity of our words or actions—or expect that we must consistently submit or be dignified in our responses. MHP has the right—and an actual freedom of speech—to not be silent when, how and if she chooses, as do we all. As we know by now, acting right will not save us our jobs or, for that matter, our lives.

3, “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House”

Networks like MSNBC need to act right. Yes, of course they must meet ratings demands. But far too often these kinds of entities capitalize on the labor and talent of folks like Harris-Perry, then quickly dispose of them when their views no longer line up with the network’s. Ask Keith Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Al Sharpton, Alex Wagner, Karen Finney, Joy Reid or others. Kudos to Melissa Harris-Perry and respect to her for fighting the good fight, refusing to be silent and knowing not only her worth, but that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”

Trimiko Melancon, a professor of English, African American studies and women’s studies at Loyola University New Orleans, is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and editor of Black Female Sexualities. Connect with her at trimikomelancon.com or on Twitter @trimikomelancon.

Students’ views on Obama, Basketball, and Alexander Wolff’s book

This week in North Philly Notes,  six students from  Rebecca Alpert’s Honors Sports and Leisure in American Society class at Temple University write about meeting with The Audacity of Hoop author Alexander Wolff. 

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Marcus Forst, Physics major

President Obama has been in office for nearly half my life. Although I only see Obama as he is presented by the media, I feel that I know a little bit about the person that is Barack Obama. Basketball connects me with Barack Obama; I see him as a person instead of a figure because I identify with his interests.

The Audacity of Hoop, written by Alexander Wolff, is a window into Obama’s relationship with basketball—a close up look at the person that I had previously imagined. I had the opportunity to speak with Wolff about his experience writing the book as well as about the content itself. I asked if basketball would still have been an effective means for Obama to connect with common people—and distance himself from a purely intellectual image—had he been extremely good at basketball. My thinking was that Obama’s normalcy in basketball contributes to making him seem human and relatable. Mr. Wolff responded by saying that if Obama had been an incredible basketball player, he likely would not have been a politician. He stressed the crossroad in Obama’s life in which he decided to move away from dreams of basketball stardom and turned towards college and a future in politics, albeit while carrying with him “the love of the game.” Wolff added that Obama has used this story of a crossroads throughout his presidency in order to encourage young black males to strive for success in more traditional careers, while still bringing a love of basketball with them.

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Catherine Devlin, Biology major

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, before his promotional presentation about the book. He talked, of course, about the important role that basketball played throughout Obama’s campaign and presidency (the basis of his book). One of the most fascinating discussion points, for me, was his description of the campaign and the racial divide Americans experienced. The historic 2008 election of the first African American president will forever be remembered as a turning point in our history. The road to Obama’s election, though, was anything but easy.  According to Wolff, basketball was a deliberate and imperative part of the campaign that cannot be ignored. In 2008, Americans were looking for reassurances. The early questions into Obama’s citizenship, however, were not the main concern for the campaign. Surprisingly, the population of Americans who needed the most reassuring consisted largely of African Americans.

As Wolff put it, “How do you win African Americans just because you’re an African American?” We often have this intrinsic distrust of politicians that can end up either making or breaking a campaign. Images of Obama playing games of pickup basketball eventually gave the African American community the confidence to believe that Barack Obama was just a regular guy looking to make a difference. Wolff also discussed the intricate balance between portraying Obama as an “Average Joe” and avoiding playing into the stereotypes associated with being an African American male who plays basketball. The ingenious strategy was to introduce the candidate as a politician first and then slowly introduce his love of basketball in small groups of voters who had come to know him quite well. Obviously, the Obama campaign was able to find just the right middle ground.  Winning over enough Americans to be elected the leader of the nation is certainly not an easy feat. Being an African American candidate presented extra challenges for his campaign, but Barack Obama managed to make history.  The groundbreaking strategies on the road to the White House were, according to Wolff, only aided by Obama’s genuine love of America’s favorite game. It seems only fitting, then, to document as Alexander Wolff has done so beautifully, the unique and successful relationship between basketball and America’s first African American president.

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Bridgette Devlin, Biology major

Recently, I interviewed Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated writer and author of The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama. In the book, Wolff tracks basketball’s involvement throughout Barack Obama’s campaign and Presidency so far. One section, specifically, focuses on “Baracketology” – Obama’s annual NCAA March Madness bracket. So, what makes these brackets so important? Alexander Wolff thinks it’s all about Obama’s political strategy, relatability, and legacy.

The author easily listed examples of how the President’s March Madness picks can seem politically charged. Obama received criticism over his brackets’ large proportion of swing states and frivolity. Despite pushback from across many spectrums, Wolff says the yearly bracket simply conveys Obama’ sincere love of the game. Wolff described the tradition of inviting the champions to the White House to meet with the Obamas. He easily bantered with the teams. He jokes with the players and the coaches, proving that he keeps up-to-date with both the game and the latest league news. Regardless of his motivations, Obama’s NCAA bracket has provided him an opportunity to connect with the American people, showing them he is an average, relatable, and trustworthy person. Wolff notes that Obama’s connection to basketball and the tournament comes across as incredibly genuine, not as though we are being “spun” by an expert politician/manipulator. Wolff even goes so far as to speculate basketball’s influence on Obama’s Presidential legacy: “Will Obama be remembered as the President who shared his brackets with us?” Perhaps “Baracketology” will become a tradition, carried on by the next Commander-in-Chief as a way to reach the American people. The once-criticized practice has now become commonplace political strategy.

The author conveys in his book as well as in his interviews that Obama is very much an agent of change. During his Presidency, he has created a coalition to bring a much-divided nation together, often using basketball as his starting point and common thread. The sport has even given the public a glimpse into Barack Obama’s personal life, providing the entry point into his youth, career, and marriage. Obama’s connection to basketball has become intertwined with his legacy in many senses. I would venture to say that the same is true for Alexander Wolff, whose own legacy will surely include not only basketball, but also the Age of Obama.

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Austin Zwolenik, Biology major

Wolff’s writing, filled with comparisons and analysis is somewhat atypical in informative books, as they usually only lay out facts with no real opinion written by the author. The Audacity of Hoop caters to the people that subscribe to the acronym “tl:dr,” meaning: too long; didn’t read. Wolff even addressed this type of thinking in his talk as he referenced the style in which The Audacity of Hoop was written. It is a coffee table book filled with many pictures to tag along with the writing. This writing medium is excellent for the purpose of creating a dynamic where the pictures explain what words sometimes cannot.

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Long Duc Nguyen, Management Information Systems major

I had a great chance to meet the author of The Audacity of Hoop, Alexander Wolff. The author gave us some insights on President Obama, his campaign, and how the President’s use of sports affects American society. When President Obama fills out the March Madness bracket, it shows that he is just another person with the love for sports and creates a sense of trust among the African-American community. The most interesting story that the author told us is how Barack Obama, through his qualities on the basketball court, won the heart of the demanding Michelle Robinson.

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Isabella Menzies, Early Childhood Education major

While interviewing Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, I asked what brought his attention to the fact that Barack Obama had used basketball as a campaign strategy. Wolff stated that the influence of basketball on Obama’s campaign first grabbed his attention in 2008. He noted that he had always been interested in politics and basketball, so the potential intersection of those two entities allowed him to investigate a story that brought together both of his interests. Wolff acknowledged that he initially questioned if he had just strained to make connections between basketball and Obama’s campaign. Nonetheless, evidence of the influence that the former had on the latter (and vice versa) grew, and Wolff ultimately concluded that Obama had used basketball to connect with voters. Such a conclusion enabled me to realize the intentional (rather than coincidental) nature of the relationship between politics and sports.

The importance of telling local history

This week in North Philly Notes, we premiere a new video promting Lucy Maddox’s The Parker Sistersand Maddox explains what prompted her to research this local border kidnapping, and why this remarkable story resonates still today. 

 

Shortly after the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed’s important book on Thomas Jefferson and his slave family, The Hemingses of Monticello, I heard Gordon-Reed give a talk about her book.

After the talk, I asked her where she thought the study of slavery ought to go next. What needed to be done? Where should historians be focusing their attention? She gave the question some thought before saying, firmly, “Local history.” It was exactly the answer I had been hoping for, and all the reinforcement I needed to set me off on the research that led eventually to The Parker Sisters.

I had spent my career teaching and writing about literature, and increasingly I found that I was most interested in the historical contexts for the literature. I wanted to shift my focus and write about history; I especially wanted to find the people and stories that had been buried and were in danger of being lost. That is, I wanted to write local history.

The place where I now live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland has a long and complex history, much of it unexplored—especially the history of African Americans in the area. It was inviting, and I plunged in, beginning by ransacking the library at the local historical society. There is a lot in the history that many people wouldn’t mind forgetting; Maryland had been, after all, a slave state, with all the shameful and painful history that implies.

The_Parker_Sisters_emboss_smThere had also been a large population of free blacks living in the area, about whom there was very little in the way of written records. I wanted to know what life was like for both slaves and free blacks, what became of them, how they negotiated life in a state that had been decidedly pro-slavery. In the course of reading newspapers from the period, I came across a few tantalizing details about a man from the Eastern Shore who had kidnapped two free black sisters in Pennsylvania and sold them to a slave dealer in Baltimore.

As I found more details, I became more intrigued by this story and more aware of how this single episode reached out to and illuminated the larger history of mid-nineteenth-century America, a country being ripped apart by the vicious politics of slavery. The man who kidnapped the Parker sisters had kidnapped others before. Living close to the border between a slave state and a free state, he could cross that border easily, capture someone he had identified as a good candidate, and hustle his victim back across the border and down to Baltimore, which had become a major slave-exporting center. He was known as a kidnapper. He had a reputation. Free blacks who lived anywhere near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border were frightened of him and of others who were also attracted to the profits of kidnapping.

Many black people in the border area simply disappeared, some of them forever, taking their stories with them. However, because the story of the Parker sisters involved the unsolved murder of a white man, their case had been followed by newspapers in Maryland and Pennsylvania and beyond, so theirs was a story that could be retrieved, preserved, and even put back into the larger narrative of racial politics in the United States. The real draw of the Parkers’ story for me was that it grounded history in a specific time and place; it provided names and even a few faces to flesh out the generalizations and statistics that were readily available. I knew about the kidnappings of free black people—but, as it turned out, I didn’t know very much.

The more I learned about the appalling treatment of the Parker sisters and other kidnap victims, the more I focused on specific details and particular people, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the better I understood the history that produced both the Parkers and their kidnapper.

The recent accounts of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials resonate with the Parkers’ story in ways that might make us wonder how we could have been so deaf for so long. We knew about the kidnappings in the nineteenth century, just as we knew about the disproportionate number of black people who have been incarcerated or who have died in altercations with the police or in police custody. We had heard the statistics, both kinds, many times. But I don’t think we really knew what the numbers meant until we learned the names of people who died, saw their faces, listened to their families talk about them, and began to hear something of their stories. It’s important that their stories, like the Parkers’, don’t get lost.

Black People, Sexuality, and Myths of Homophobia

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Unbought and Unbossed author Trimiko Melancon’s blog entry for the Good Men’s Project entited, “Black People, Sexuality, and Myths of Homophobia,” which combats stereotypes of African Americans.

In the wake of last year’s Baltimore protests for Freddie Gray, black people challenged their mischaracterizations as “thugs” and “rioters.” These monikers, which came from various segments of the population and media, stigmatized blacks as inherently criminal, violent, and disorderly. While black men and women rightfully contested such labels, another one has circulated generally and goes largely uncontested as if it’s conventional wisdom: that is, the labeling of black people, particularly black men, as the most homophobic racial group—ever. (Or, in other words, the false idea that they are somehow the epitome of excessive fear, prejudice, hatred, or violence against gays and lesbians—or, pretty much the LGBTQ community as a whole).

Much like the racially coded labels “thugs” and “rioters,” exaggerated claims of black homophobia achieve similar false propaganda and dangerous stereotypes. They ascribe a backwardness to blacks, conflate them with excessive homophobia, and cast homophobia as a black phenomenon, while simultaneously minimizing other homophobic attitudes in our society.

We are, to be clear, in an era when the first-known black U.S. President, Barack Obama, endorsed same-sex marriage and is the first to use “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” in the State of the Union address. Civil rights organizations and leaders—the NAACP and Rep. John Lewis, the late Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and others—have publicly championed LGBT rights. Young queer black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement to protest state violence against black bodies (cis and trans), celebrate black humanity, and challenge anti-black racism. 

And, black male hip hop artists from Jay-Z to Kanye West (whom Bruce Jenner credited for Kim Kardashian West’s acceptance of Jenner’s gender transition to Caitlyn Jenner) have expressed support and, in the process, challenged black men, black masculinity, and hip hop as viciously hyper (hetero) sexual, hypermasculine, and homophobic. As Jay-Z noted, “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love.”

Why, then, do black men and black folks generally get such a “bad rep” regarding homophobia? And, why is there such historical oversights of their championing sexual liberation or gender fluidity as Jaden Smith has recently done in his modeling debut, in traditional women’s clothing, for Louis Vuitton?

This is not new. In fact, more than four decades ago, during the black power movement, Huey P. Newton—as supreme commander of the Black Panther Party, known for its conspicuously hyper-masculine and revolutionary black nationalist approach to liberation—expressed support for gay liberation. In his 1970, “A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” Newton asserted: “We haven’t said much about the homosexual at all and we must relate to the homosexual movement” and “must understand [homosexuality] in its purest form; that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body whatever way he wants to.” “Homosexuals,” he continues, “are not enemies of the people.”

So, surely some folks will suggest that black religiosity or organized religion accounts for excessive black homophobia. But, let’s be clear: these alone are shortsighted and do not quantify the myths. According to the Pew Research Center, 21% of white Evangelical Protestants and 41% of black Protestants supported same-sex marriage in 2014, while 13% of white Evangelical Protestants and 30% of black Protestants did so in 2001. Simply put, black Protestants’ support of same-sex marriage has been consistently higher than their counterparts. And, generational attitudes, religiously unaffiliated blacks, and other variables further debunk myths.

Why, then, we might ask, are there such historical oversights, limited representations (of black men and masculinity—and black women, too), as well as inattention to black people’s nuanced responses to and support of LGBTQ folks and concerns? And what are the underlying consequences?

When we sensationalize black homophobia or stigmatize black people as homophobic collectively, we not only stereotype black men and women; we neglect and do a disservice to black people’s complex history of advocacy for civil and human rights, gay liberation, and equality for all. Second, we condition ourselves to accept, justify, or normalize hatred and deadly violence against black gay, trans, and queer bodies like Michelle Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Monica Roberts, and others whose names and murders we seldom know.

Equally problematic, we ignore the contours and realities of homophobia in America—the same dynamics and realities that account for NFL players like Odell Beckham Jr. having to contend with derogatory gay slurs or vicious invectives when he dares to dance with men, don honey-blonde-dyed hair, or refuse to deny himself or be encumbered by rather limited constructions of (black) manhood

We cannot afford to be uncritical, blind sighted, or to accept homophobia or heterosexist sentiments in any shape, form, or variation; nor can we succumb to the hype of black homophobia. When black people are called out of their names and labeled the epitome of homophobia, we should be as offended as when called “thugs” or other racially-charged insults. And, we should respond in similar fashion as when black bodies—male or female, young and old—are targets of attack and violence: whether in a crowd in Chicago, on a bicycle in Baltimore, atpool party in McKinney, Texas, or on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio.

After all, the fact of the matter is simple. Stereotypes and labels are not innocuous. They are far from harmless. Not as long as they have the power to color perceptions, invoke slurs, incite brutality and compromise one’s safety, or to cause black and LGBTQ folks their very lives.

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