Celebrating Black History Month with our African American Literature titles

This week in North Philly Notes, we focus on our African American books about books in honor of Black History Month

From Slave Ship to Supermax: Mass Incarceration, Prisoner Abuse, and the New Neo-Slave Novel by Patrick Elliot Alexander

In his cogent and groundbreaking book, From Slave Ship to Supermax, Patrick Elliot Alexander argues that the disciplinary logic and violence of slavery haunt depictions of the contemporary U.S. prison in late twentieth-century Black fiction. Alexander links representations of 2426_reg.gifprison life in James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk to his engagements with imprisoned intellectuals like George Jackson, who exposed historical continuities between slavery and mass incarceration. Likewise, Alexander reveals how Toni Morrison’s Beloved was informed by Angela Y. Davis’s jail writings on slavery-reminiscent practices in contemporary women’s facilities. Alexander also examines recurring associations between slave ships and prisons in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and connects slavery’s logic of racialized premature death to scenes of death row imprisonment in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.

Alexander ultimately makes the case that contemporary Black novelists depict racial terror as a centuries-spanning social control practice that structured carceral life on slave ships and slave plantations-and that mass-produces prisoners and prisoner abuse in post-Civil Rights America. These authors expand free society’s view of torment confronted and combated in the prison industrial complex, where discriminatory laws and the institutionalization of secrecy have reinstated slavery’s system of dehumanization.

Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World, by Eve Dunbar, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes were all pressured by critics and publishers to enlighten mainstream (white) audiences about race and African American culture. Focusing on fiction and non-fiction they produced between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, Eve Dunbar’s important book, Bla2239_reg.gifck Regions of the Imagination, examines how these African American writers—who lived and traveled outside the United States—both document and re-imagine their “homegrown” racial experiences within a worldly framework.

From Hurston’s participant-observational accounts and Wright’s travel writing to Baldwin’s Another Country and Himes’ detective fiction, these writers helped develop the concept of a “region” of blackness that resists boundaries of genre and geography. Each writer represents—and signifies—blackness in new ways and within the larger context of the world. As they negotiated issues of “belonging,” these writers were more critical of social segregation in America as well as increasingly resistant to their expected roles as cultural “translators.”

Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, by Justin Gifford, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

“Lush sex and stark violence colored Black and served up raw by a great Negro writer,” promised the cover of Run Man Run, Chester Himes’ pioneering novel in the black crime fiction tradition. In Pimping Fictions, Justin Gifford provides a hard-boiled investigation of hundreds of pulpy paperbacks written by Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim (a.k.a. Robert Beck), among many others.

Gifford draws from an im2186_reg.gifpressive array of archival materials to provide a first-of-its-kind literary and cultural history of this distinctive genre. He evaluates the artistic and symbolic representations of pimps, sex-workers, drug dealers, and political revolutionaries in African American crime literature—characters looking to escape the racial containment of prisons and the ghetto.

Gifford also explores the struggles of these black writers in the literary marketplace, from the era of white-owned publishing houses like Holloway House—that fed books and magazines like Players to eager black readers—to the contemporary crop of African American women writers reclaiming the genre as their own.

Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards 

Generating a new understanding of the past—as well as a vision for the future—this path-breaking volume contains essays written by playwrights, scholars, and critics that analyze African Americ1429_reg.gifan theatre as it is practiced today.

Even as they acknowledge that Black experience is not monolithic, these contributors argue provocatively and persuasively for a Black consciousness that creates a culturally specific theatre. This theatre, rooted in an African mythos, offers ritual rather than realism; it transcends the specifics of social relations, reaching toward revelation. The ritual performance that is intrinsic to Black theatre renews the community; in Paul Carter Harrison’s words, it “reveals the Form of Things Unknown” in a way that “binds, cleanses, and heals.”

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall

The extraordinary spirit of Toni Cade Bambara lives on in Savoring the Salt, a vibrant and appreciati1900_reg.gifve recollection of the work and legacy of the multi-talented, African American writer, teacher, filmmaker, and activist. Among the contributors who remember Bambara, reflect on her work, and examine its meaning today are Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Pearl Cleage, Ruby Dee, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Nikki Giovanni, Avery Gordon Audre Lorde, and Sonia Sanchez.

Admiring readers have kept Bambara’s fiction in print since her first collection of stories, Gorilla, My Love, was published in 1972. She continued to write-and her audience and reputation continued to grow-until her untimely death in 1995. Savoring the Salt includes excerpts from her published and unpublished writings, along with interviews and photos of Bambara. The mix of poets and scholars, novelists and critics, political activists, and filmmakers represented here testifies to the ongoing importance and enduring appeal of her work.

Yo’ Mama! New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America, edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie 

Collected primarily in metropolitan New York and Philadelphia during the classic era of black “street poetry” (i.e., during the late 1960s and early 1970s) these raps, signifyings, toasts, boasts, jokes and children’s rhymes will delight general readers as 1453_reg.gifwell as scholars. Ranging from the simple rhymes that accompany children’s games to verbally inventive insults and the epic exploits of traditional characters like Shine and Stagger Lee, these texts sound the deep rivers of culture, echoing two continents. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s introductory essay situates them in a globally pan-African context and relates them to more recent forms of oral culture such as rap and spoken word.

Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, by Trimiko Melancon, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Unbought and Unbossed examines black women’s literary and cultural production of the 1970s and early 1980s. Considering texts in the socio-cultural and historical moments of their production, Trimiko Melancon analyzes representations of black women that not


only transgress racial, gender, and sexual boundaries, but also diverge from both discourses of “whiteness” and constructions of female identity imposed by black nationalism.

Drawing from black feminist and critical race theories, discourses on gender and sexuality, and literary criticism, Melancon illuminates the complexity of black female identity, desire, and intimacy. She sheds light on a more complex black identity, one ungoverned by rigid politics over-determined by race, gender and sexuality, while also enabling us to better understand the black sexual revolution, contemporary cultural moments, and representations in the age of Michelle Obama.

Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, edited by D. Quentin Miller, foreword by David Adams Leeming

This new collection of essays presents a critical reappraisal of James Baldwin’s work, looking beyond the commercial and critical success of some of Baldwin’s early writings such as Go Tell it on the 1463_reg.gifMountain and Notes of a Native Son. Focusing on Baldwin’s critically undervalued early works and the virtually neglected later ones, the contributors illuminate little-known aspects of this daring author’s work and highlight his accomplishments as an experimental writer. Attentive to his innovations in style and form, Things Not Seen reveals an author who continually challenged cultural norms and tackled matters of social justice, sexuality, and racial identity. As volume editor D. Quentin Miller notes, “What has been lost is a complete portrait of [Baldwin’s] tremendously rich intellectual journey that illustrates the direction of African-American thought and culture in the late twentieth century.”

African American Writing: A Literary Approach, by Werner Sollors

Werner Sollors’ African American Writing takes a fresh look at what used to be called “Negro literature.” The essays collected here, ranging in topic from Gustavus Vassa/Olaudah Equiano to LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and in time from the Enlightenment to the Obama presidency, take a literary approach to black writing and present writers as readers and as intellectuals who were or are open to the world.
From W.E.B. Du Bois com2396_reg.gifmenting on Richard Wagner and Elvis Presley, to Zora Neale Hurston attacking Brown v. Board of Ed. in a segregationist newspaper, to Charles Chesnutt’s effigy darkened for the black heritage postage stamp, Sollors alternates between close readings and broader cultural contextualizations to delineate the various aesthetic modes and intellectual exchanges that shaped a series of striking literary works.
Readers will make often-surprising discoveries in the authors’ writing and in their encounters and dialogues with others. The essays, accompanied by Winold Reiss’s pastels, Carl Van Vechten’s photographs, and other portraits, attempt to honor this important literature’s achievement, heterogeneity, and creativity.


Temple University Press’s 2017 Best Sellers

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase our most popular books of the past year: The Top 10 best sellers of 2017!

  1. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden Cityby Joseph E. B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin, and Peter Woodall. Revealing the physical and cultural intricacies of Philadelphia, from the intimate to the monumental.
  2. The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhoodby Tommy J. Curry. Introduces the conceptual foundations for Black Male Studies, going beyond gender theories that cast the Black Male as a pathological aspiring patriarch.
  3. The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise, Third Editionby Allan G. Johnson. An updated exploration of sociology as a way of thinking.
  4.  Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, by Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. The life and times of the extraordinary Octavius Catto, and the first civil rights movement in America.
  5. The New Eagles Encyclopedia, Ray Didinger with Robert Lyons. The best-selling book on the Philadelphia Eagles, completely updated and expanded.
  6. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Revised and Expanded Edition, by George Lipsitz. A widely influential book—revised to reveal racial privilege at work in the 21st century.
  7. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, by Sam Wineburg, How do historians know what they know?
  8. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, by Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa, and John Peters. Two pioneers of education discuss their diverse experiences and ideas.
  9. Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation,” by J. Mark Souther. Explores how civic and business leaders used image-making in an effort to reimagine and revive Cleveland in the decades after World War II.
  10. Phil Jasner “On the Case:” His Best Writing on the Sixers, the Dream Team, and Beyond, edited by Andy Jasner. Three decades of reporting by renowned Philadelphia Hall of Fame sportswriter Phil Jasner.


An Open Letter of Love to Kim Jong-un

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost Look, a White! author George Yancy’s recent opinionator column from the New York Times blog, a “love” letter he penned with David Kyuman Kim to Chairman Kim Jong-un.

Dear Chairman Kim Jong-un,

We are certain that you will find this letter of love surprising.

We offer it to you in the final days of President Trump’s trip to Asia, when the rhetoric of war, hatred and mass violence has reached a fever pitch. It speaks of the urgent need for mutual love between our two countries, the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

We write you as two American citizens — an African-American and a Korean-American — considered “men of color” in our own country, who have suffered with our people under the history of America’s white racist violence, yet who still dare to love. Just as we have faith in our fragile and imperfect American democratic experiment, we have faith that you believe in something far more courageous than words of war.

Our aim is to meet you in the spirit of a resolute conviction that you are a human being who is worthy of being loved by us and that we are human beings worthy of being loved by you. It is quite simple, really, and yet so hard for so many to see: that we, North Koreans and Americans, are brothers and sisters. That straighforward yet existentially urgent statement is what is necessary during this time of crisis between our nations.

George Yancy: We stand with our brothers and sisters in North Korea who may feel as we do, wanting to know us, possibly to love us, but who have not been given the opportunity because of your regime. Clearly, our political leaders in the United States have failed to reach across this ever growing and dangerous divide and say, “Yes, we love the people of North Korea, and we recognize the humanity of Kim Jong-un.” And of course, you and your country’s officials have failed to do this as well.

In this letter of love, we refuse to speak of “fire and fury.” Instead, we speak of love, life and our globally shared humanity. We refuse to believe that there is “no choice”; we reject the language and morally unacceptable and inept threat to “totally destroy North Korea”; we reject the violent discourse and imagery of being “locked and loaded.” And we believe that a dialogue, especially one rooted in the language and spirit of love, is not a waste of time. Shared love is our deliverance from hatred.

We know that love is dangerous, because it requires facing one’s own brokenness and vulnerability. Yet both of our nations are morally broken, imperfect. So we speak with the impassioned words of Mahatma Gandhi: “I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings.”

This letter fervently asks more from you and from the United States. The writer James Baldwin, one of our most prophetic voices, wrote: “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself — that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.” Neither of our nations has much to give the other because each has failed to risk itself. And it is out of our collective and respective cowardice — our refusal to risk, to love and to combat our mutual cynicism — that this letter of love arises. It serves as an intervention as we face the potential horrors of unspeakable mass death. We stand with our brother Martin Luther King Jr., who refused “to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.”

There are many here in the United States who will say that this letter is absurd, useless, even treasonous. Well, if love is treasonous, then we take joy in it. We revel in speaking out against hatred; inhumanity; divisiveness; discourse mired in immature name-calling; ugly, disparaging remarks; talk of destruction and obliteration; and the potential of miscalculation and nuclear conflagration. We prefer to stand on the “treasonous” side of Jesus, who dared to love.

We are traitors to those who reject mutual respect and who believe that there is no place for love as a binding force greater than mutual bullying and provocation. We are traitors to our country’s divisive rhetoric, filled with militarism, hatred, blood lust and warmongering, just as we stand opposed to yours, which threatens not only us, but also your neighbors — that is, your own brothers and sisters, and even your own people. As men of color, we know the semblance of that threat from within our own country.

To hate requires so little; to love requires doing what may feel impossible, because it means to lay down the sword and stretch out your hands, your arms, your hearts, to each other. Many will also criticize us, saying that love is too simplistic, that the problem between North Korea and the United States is too ideologically and geopolitically complicated. Those people fail to imagine with their hearts. Dr. King said: “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, another prophetic American voice of love, asked us, “How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt.”

That kind of love refuses to hate, it refuses to believe that we are “enemies” by birth. We are brothers and sisters born of a common humanity. We believe in a love that remembers the humanity that binds us together, that opens us to hear the other’s voice, the other’s mourning. Then again, perhaps Baldwin was correct, “There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.” Yet we believe that reciprocal love can take us to that place together and heal our wounds.

David Kyuman Kim: These feel like especially loveless times. We write from the conviction that the values of a love-driven politics can transform how we engage each other not only as nations but also as human beings. Which is to say, a love-driven politics insists that we seek compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and mercy for each other as much as we do for ourselves.

Our president was elected to represent our people, but he has not represented the best of us. He has instead chosen to display only our basest traits. While he is not the first president to speak and act with hubris and arrogance, he has chosen belligerence over diplomacy, bullying over accord, insult over care. He represents a strand and strain of the American experiment that stubbornly holds on to the misguided notion that we are a nation of destiny and superiority, strengthened on legacies of white supremacy and rapacious capitalism. He has exacted those misguided ideals by treating you with disrespect and disregard, all the while belittling you as a leader of your own people, and you, in turn have done the same.

As a Korean-American, I have to acknowledge you both as one of my people and very much not of my people. My mother’s family is from North Korea, and so in some very real ways, you and I are of common stock. But a land does not make for family. If anything, you and your father have shown how land and nation can destroy families and traumatize them for generations. You are the leader of a nation whose people have suffered at the service of a political vision. At what cost has your loyalty to power come to your people, let alone to your humanity?

My mother’s family fled North Korea because of the forces of war that are all too similar to the enmities that are threatening us today. And it was the consequences of the Korean War and the havoc it wreaked on my people in South Korea that eventually drove my family to the United States. And through this migration and growing up in white-supremacist America, I was transformed from our common stock to a Korean-American dedicated to the ways of love.

Indeed, as a Korean brother I have been forged by my inheritance from Christianity and Confucianism. This means that my witness to you is born of traditions of love and ethical responsibility. Among the very real and central challenges of radical love is to adhere to the moral mandate to love our neighbors and enemies as we would love ourselves. This is especially challenging at a moment in which love has been hard to find and discern. For those of us who lament the ascendancy of our current president, we have had to learn how to love ourselves once again.

We write you today not only because of what you are hearing from us — the United States — but, more important, because of all the crucial things you are not hearing. As defenders of civil rights against racism, we come from a tradition not well represented or well understood, yet one that has transformed the course of our nation’s history and the lives and legacies of peoples across the globe.

This is the tradition of radical love most powerfully and persuasively articulated and represented by Martin Luther King Jr. This is a tradition that insists that love has the power to bind us together in a common purpose, that love gives us the confidence and courage to stand up to injustice and suffering. It is a tradition that holds us accountable not simply to ourselves but to a vision of human existence that insists that we can be with one another, hold one another up, and fortify one another’s humanity in what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”

We reach out to you from this tradition that holds the value of speaking truth to power with love. This is a calling. It is our vocation. We have no choice but to strive to live up to the examples of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Grace Lee Boggs. These heroic figures have been exceptions to the insidious rule of an American legacy of white supremacy and imperialism that has left the least among us in utter despair. This tradition of radical love is an American tradition, even though it has drawn deeply and powerfully from people like Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh.

We come to you as citizens of an America not yet fully realized, one that insists that the ways of love can be the ways of democracy, that the challenge of loving one’s neighbors and enemies is fundamentally a call for freedom and justice and hope. We write to you with love and an appeal for forgiveness and mercy because history and our lot demand this of us. And our hope is that it will demand the same of our fellow citizens.

Wishing you peace and love,

David Kyuman Kim and George Yancy


Celebrating the life and times of the extraordinary Octavius Catto, and the first civil rights movement in America

This week, in North Philly Notes, we honor Octavius Valentine Catto, the subject of Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin’s majestic biography, Tasting Freedom. Catto is being honored with a statue that will be unveiled on the apron of Philadelphia’s City Hall on September 26 at 11:00 am. 

A video interview with the authors of Tasting Freedom


A Q&A with the authors of Tasting Freedom

Q: Octavius Catto was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement in the Civil War era. Where did you hear about him, why is he so little known, and what prompted you to write his life and times?
A: Murray discovered him in 1993 while doing research for a book he was writing on the history of South Philadelphia. Dan heard a historian talking on the radio about black life in the city in the 19th century and discussing Catto. Catto is little known because he died so young, before he had a chance to become prominent on the national scene. We both thought his life was extraordinary.

Q: How and where did you do your research? What surprises did you discover?
A: We did our research in Pennsylvania, New York, Washington D.C., South Carolina and New Jersey in churches, college reading rooms, and the Library of Congress. We scoured diaries, letters, newspapers, census records, box scores and song sheets in an effort that took more than seven years. We didn’t realize until more than a year into the work that there was a civil rights movement in the 19th century.

Q: Tasting Freedom provides an extensive history of the Civil War era and how African Americans faced racism on the baseball field, on streetcars, as voters, in the military etc. How did Catto and his “band of brothers” combat this discrimination?
A: He and his contemporaries in the North needed to fight for many rights that whites took for granted. Their weapons were their organizing skills to mold public opinion and educate whites, exemplary public behavior, bravery on the Civil War battlefield and physical courage in the face of threats and bodily harm to integrate the streetcars.

Q: Catto taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. He was very instrumental in educating free slaves and helping them get established. His famous speech at a graduation begins, “There Must Come a Change!” It started as a history of the school and ended with a call for equal rights. It had an immediate impact and was reprinted and circulated widely. How far-reaching was his speech?
A: The Institute for Colored Youth sent more teachers South to teach freed slaves and their children than any other school in the nation. It’s clear that I.C.Y. students were listening to Catto.

Q: Catto’s story intersects with historical figures such as the “feminist”/abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and famous orators like Frederick Douglass, with whom he shared stages. How did Catto establish himself in Philadelphia society and make the social/political connections he did?
A: Catto was a prominent educator who ran the boys school at the Institute for Colored Youth, the best school for black youth in the city, and arguably the best school for youth of any color. That elevated him to an important role in the community. He was a charismatic speaker who was the son of a well-known clergyman. Active in civil rights activities in his 20s, he fought the same battles that Douglass and Mott were fighting. And he was a rising Republican leader in the black community.

Tasting Freedom_AD(12-16-09) finalQ: Tasting Freedom has a terrific chapter about baseball and Catto’s experiences with the Pythians. Unable to integrate baseball, interracial matches were played unofficially with Catto’s team playing in the first game between white and black clubs. Did he have the respect of whites, or did he have a negative reputation?
A: The Philadelphia Athletics, the top white team in the city in the 1860s, permitted the Pythians to play on the Athletics’ field and were supporters of Catto’s effort to compete against white teams. It was not uncommon to see white ballplayers in the stands watching Pythian games.

Q: The chapter on the battle for streetcars shows Catto’s strength as an agitator. He tried to change laws. What do you think he could have accomplished had his life not been cut short?
A: That’s the question we wish we could answer. But we’ll try: We believe he would run for public office locally and won, and then would have sought higher office in the state. We also believe he might have received an appointment by the President to represent the United States overseas in a diplomatic position. And we think he may have left Philadelphia at some point to run his own school, perhaps in the South.

Q: You provide detailed descriptions of Catto’s enemies and the reaction to his death and its aftermath. How great was the riot that occurred?
A: Catto was shot to death in an 1871 election-day riot in Philadelphia that was one of the worst days of violence that the city had ever seen. We described the riot in the book as “five blocks in one direction and three in the other.” Scores of black men were shot and beaten and an untold number were scared away from the polls.

Q: You end Tasting Freedom with an epilogue on Catto’s legacy. How do you measure Catto’s contribution to history?
A: Influence is difficult to measure. We know that W.E.B. Du Bois knew about Catto because he wrote about him in “The Philadelphia Negro.” And we know that black leaders in the early 20th century read Du Bois. So it makes sense to say that Catto’s life was known to the black men and women who began the NAACP and who led the Harlem Renaissance. We also know students that Catto taught became civil rights leaders in the South and went on to teach black students across the nation.

Q: So what are two white guys doing writing about African American history?
A: We are newspaper guys and what we care about our good stories. The story of Catto’s life is a great story that no one has ever told. Even more important is the story of the civil rights movement in the 19th century, which has been little told. We thought that putting the two together would be a great yarn.


France’s Approach to Fighting Racism: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”


My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.

Twelve years later, I am now a sociologist and professor finishing a book on racism and the legacies of slavery in France. And while some things have changed here, many French people are still in denial. Over the past decade, French minority groups have made important gains. 2005 was a water-shed year for raising consciousness about the weight of racism in France. In addition to the riots sparked by the death of French minority youth fleeing the police, new anti-racist groups emerged, such as the Representative Council of Black Associations and Indigenes de la République. There is now a national day of memory for slavery and the slavey trade (May 10th) thanks to a law proposed by Christiana Taubira, now France’s first black (and female) Minister of Justice. New, powerful minority voices have emerged in the public sphere, including filmmaker, TV personality and activist Rokhaya Diallo and scholar-activist Maboula Soumahoro (who spearheaded France’s first “Black History Month” in 2012).

Ten years after the riots, the police involved in chasing Zyed Benna, Bouna Traore and their friends are finally being tried for negligence. Ten years later, it is more difficult for the French to deny the plight of ethnic and racial minorities — though some, especially conservatives, deny this reality daily.

Yet, despite these transformations, the French government seems to have almost entirely abdicated its responsibility for dealing with racism. In terms of policy, French “anti-racism” is a total disaster. Instead of formulating anti-racist policies and collecting anti-discrimination statistics, the country contents itself with anti-racist discourse and magical thinking. In 2011, the U.N. issued a report condemning France for its “racist climate” and lack of “real political will” to address racial discrimination. In 2013, French politicians took steps to remove the word “race” from its laws, apparently guided by the magical belief that changing words is enough to fight racism.

In France, it is illegal for the government to include race or ethnicity on the census, as doing so is framed as a violation of so-called “Republican” values, which insist that the French Republic is “indivisible” and should not be distinguished in terms of race or ethnic origin. The problem with this is that the majority population fails to acknowledge that the Republic has been making racial and ethnic distinctions for a very long time. This, too, stems from denial and ignorance. The truth is that French people who cherish dominant interpretations of “colorblind” Republicanism help maintain the racial status quo. By refusing to support the collection of statistics that could be used to generate policies and measure their effectiveness, they undermine the work of minorities and activists who are working hard to counteract the tide of Republican denial.

While some argue that France doesn’t need more data to fight racism, this almost argument is never made concerning sexism. Most people are aware that sexism exists, but it would be absurd to say: “We already know sexism exists and therefore don’t need data on gender discrimination..”Yet, this is the same kind of magical thinking that prevails in much of the so-called “anti-racist” discourse one encounters in France.

Some of France’s most visible “anti-racist groups” have continually opposed anti-discrimination statistics. Just this week, I appeared on France24 to debate the issue with Hadrien Lenoir, a representative of SOS Racisme — one of the most vocal critics of ethnoracial statistics. During the lively debate, Lenoir presented SOS Racisme as supporting such statistics “in research” — as long as they’re not collected by the government. What he did not admit is that SOS Racisme virulently opposed the cutting edge work of French scholars who produced, for the first time, a large scale study of discrimination in France using ethnoracial statistics. Even if the group claims to have changed its position, the reality is that most French research is sponsored by the government. Thus, expressing support for ethnoracial stats “in research” as long as the government is not involved is nonsensical in a nation where most research is funded by the state. These are the kinds of mind-boggling contradictions that anyone studying French racism has to confront—contradictions that, for many years, made me never want to study race in France again.

It is true that some French people still deny that racism exists—despite the many studies that have documented discrimination. But other groups, like SOSRacisme, actually use their fear of racism in the government to argue against the collection of ethnoracial statistics. They point to the racism of the government during the Vichy regime of World War II as proof that the state cannot be trusted. Most recently, when Robert Menard, a far-right mayor of the town of Beziers, admitted to ethnoracially profiling Muslim children, groups like SOSRacisme argued that this, too, was proof that the government had no business counting people by race or religion. Of course, in making this argument, they draw a false equivalence anti-racist and racist usage of statistics.

In my view, the lesson gleaned from Menard’s racism is simple: People in power will gather data to profile minorities whether or not the government calls itself colorblind. Indeed, 13 Black and Arab men are currently suing the French state itself for engaging in racial profiling.

The more time I spend in France, the more it seems to me that some French people (especially politicians) are extraordinarily skilled at talking about principles that they have no intention of doing anything about. Perhaps the French are stuck because they are far too philosophical and not at all practical when it comes to anti-discrimination. I don’t doubt the sincerity of most anti-racist groups that oppose policies that would actually expose and address racism. I have not always had the policy positions I have now. Certainly when I started my research in France, I did not have strong opinions. While I always saw myself as anti-racist, I was not informed enough to have a clear sense of whether ethnoracial statistics or “American-style” policies were needed in France. But after spending nearly three years living in France and interviewing over 100 French activists and ordinary people, my views began to change. It became increasingly obvious that the French population is mired in ignorance about the social and historical reality of race. Even moreso than in the United States, French discourse “about race” is incredibly superficial, asociological and ahistorical. Of course they don’t know how to fight racism.

I denounce white supremacy in the United States on a daily basis and I have no illusions that numbers will save the day. But it matters that activists and scholars in the United States can point to statistics within communities, organizations and institutions to measure just how much has changed — and just how much has not. It matters that we can use these numbers to inform policies and measure their effectiveness (or lack thereof). No, these statistics are not a panacea. Yes, black people and other minorities continue to experience the on-going racial tyranny of white supremacy. But the numbers help combat the denial and magical thinking frequently found among white people and other dominant groups — denial that would have you believe that centuries of race-making can be undone with beautiful principles and kumbaya colorblindness.

For a country that presents itself as secular, France nonetheless asserts religious conviction in the power of words to erase social and historical realities. In terms of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with racism, France is like a country that prefers faith-based healing over modern medicine for its ailing children. To take the analogy even further — the French political establishment is like a parent who infected their own children with an illness — only to refuse diagnostic tests and treatment.

It’s amazing, really — this intransigent, irrational belief that the language of “colorblindness” can actually undo centuries of race-making. The French seem to believe, that through the magical power of language alone, they can talk racism into oblivion. Nevermind the fact that France spent centuries establishing racial hierarchies at home and in its colonial empire for the purpose of enriching the state. Some truly believe that words like “Republic” and “citizenship” and “indivisible” can suddenly undo processes that were produced and institutionalized over the course of four hundred years.

In my view, French magical thinking about race is reinforced by the near total ignorance of the population with regard to its racial past. The French are struggling, in part, because they do not have widely read sociologists or historians of race. During my time in France this spring, I’ve met young French scholars of race who are doing really important, desperately needed work. But the political and intellectual landscape in which they must work is absolutely depressing. Not only does the French academy lack serious programs in race, but it is also overwhelmingly white and elite. One does not need statistics to see this. Enter any French elite university and you will find very few minority professors, chairs of departments or administrators. There are only a few books that could fall under the umbrella of “Black Studies” in France. Not only is there nothing even approaching “post-colonial studies” — the history of colonialism itself is mostly a non-lieu de memoire : barely taught in schools, mostly forgotten and marginalized in the nation’s collective memory. There is no French equivalent of W.E.B. Du Bois (who essentially founded urban sociology in the United States and pioneered studies of race, racism and whiteness). And there has not yet emerged a French equivalent of Kimberlé Crenshaw or Patricia Hill Collins — scholars who have revolutionized entire fields of thought through their contributions to Black Feminist scholarship and critical race theory. Yes, the Nardal Sisters and Cesaire and Fanon exist, but French scholars of color are still mostly ignored by white French people. Indeed, negritude was far more influential outside of hexagonal France than within it.

The only thing most French people seem to know about race is that racial categories were used against the Jews during WW II. That’s it. If you ask French people to tell you about racism in French colonialism, racial exclusion in the metropole prior to WW II, most probably would have little to say. Most French people can’t explain in any degree of detail where the concept of race came from, how racism perpetuates itself over time or how it is institutionalized. How could they? They do not (and, with few exceptions, cannot) learn about these things at school. But they think they can “fight” racism in a context of near complete social and historical ignorance about what race means and where it came from.

If there was ever a case study in the epistemology of ignorance — and its relationship to white supremacy — France is it. As I argue in the book I’m finishing now, white supremacy and racial ignorance are both key to understanding race in France. Already in the United States, racial ignorance and denial run wide and deep. And yet, despite these challenges, we have intellectual resources and minority networks the French can’t even dream of. And I don’t say this to brag — it’s not like these intellectual resources have saved us. They haven’t. But they matter. They help.

I don’t think most people (French or otherwise) understand that it takes centuries of diligent activism, statistical tracking, policy making and scholarship to even begin to address the damage of racism. The U.S. case shows that it is extremely difficult to confront and combat racism, even when you have the intellectual resources and data. But the French case shows that it is impossible to effectively identify and challenge racism without these things.

Further, French chauvinism prevents many people here from actually embracing a global understanding of racial processes and white supremacy. References to race in the United States or the UK are portrayed as too foreign — imposing an “anglosaxon” lens. White French people will sometimes say that their country can’t learn anything about race from the United States because the two societies are so different. And yet, the same people point to the continued existence of racism in the U.S. as “proof” that our approach to using ethnoracial statistics “hasn’t helped”. But if the U.S. is “too different” to teach anything to the French about race, then it cannot also be used by the French as “evidence” that ethnoracial statistics are a bad idea. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that one can’t learn anything from another society, yet also use that same society to justify one’s position. Further, the fact that France does not collect ethnoracial data means that it is impossible to seriously compare the situation of minorities in most spheres of life (e.g. housing and employment discrimination, political representation and so on). But the French think that they don’t need data to say that their society is less racist than the U.S. — all they need are Republican words. Thus, instead of learning from other nations that have a much longer history of studying race, many of the French prefer their colorblind ignorance.

The bottom line is that from what I have seen, the French majority population does not think racism affecting people of color is important. The reason the French majority population doesn’t think racism is important is because they have not been made to believe it is important. French people of color currently lack the political power and internal organization to compel the majority population to care about addressing racism. And, the French government’s role in suppressing ethnoracial statistics continues to undermine people of color who are organizing to fight racism.

The irony of all this is that the French are currently moving forward with an intelligence law that rivals the Patriot Act in its blatant disregard for civil liberties. The French government wants to collect data on almost everything French people think, write or say but – but no data on racism! When it comes to fighting terror, the French know very well that knowledge is power. But when it comes to fighting racism? Data? Knowledge? Not necessary.

Too many French people seem to imagine that if they close their eyes to race, click their heels three times and repeat the words “Liberty”, “Equality” and “Brotherhood”, the boogeyman of racism will simply vanish and disappear. No systematic data or policies necessary. Only pretty, magical, colorblind words.


Meet Davarian Baldwin, co-editor of the Press’s Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Davarian Baldwin, the new editor for Temple University Press’ Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series.

You have written about migration and Black Urban Life. What drew you to that field of study within American studies?
I am the child of the Great Migration. I am the first generation in my family to be born in the north during the Second Great Migration. While many of my family stopped and settled in other cities like Chicago, my segment of the family kept moving on to a smaller town called Beloit, Wisconsin because I think, even though full of factories it, in some ways, reminded them more of their Mississippi home.

10-041 - Trinity - Davarian - Web Feature

10-041 – Trinity – Davarian – Web Feature

Can you talk about the kinds of books you are looking to acquire for the Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series?
I would love to acquire books that make bold arguments while, if historical, work closely with less examined archives. I would love to see books that are both global and local in scope…books that feature the city as a crossroads for different people, ideas, and aspirations all deeply grounded within the details of their urban spaces. I want to see books that don’t look at the city as just the repository for social and historical experience, but understand the built environment as equally influential, as a central actor in the storyline…books that balance their attention on the structure of cities and the agency of human lives. For me, recent books that have some or all of these qualities include Beryl Satter’s Family Properties, Nathan D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete, and Andrew Needham’s Power Lines.

What book (or books) made you fall in love with reading and the power of words?
While I write and edit non-fiction academic work, I must be honest and say that fiction has always been my first love. In fact I make sure to read interesting and provocative fiction when I am writing more scholarly work. As a child the books were Beverly Cleary and alternative Star Wars fiction. As a teenager The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon changed my life. The book that has stayed with me and challenged me with its combination of searing social commentary and elegant and witty prose remains Ellison’s Invisible Man. I have built an entire course around this book and I find something new in that novel every time I teach the course. To be sure, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was the next generation version of that book but added a decidedly more urban flavor to Ellison’s racial satire. I think in the more academic realm, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and C.L. R. James Beyond a Boundary have done the same thing for me.

What was the last great book you read?
I am a big fan of science fiction and mystery/police procedurals, especially when the genres are both in the same book…so that makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife definitely the last great book I read. For me it sort of offers the prose response to one of my favorite non-fiction urban studies; Mike Davis’ City of Quartz.

What one book would you recommend everyone read?
Again mystery books/procedurals are fabulous because the great ones have amazing social commentary about gender, race, social position, inequality and so many feature the city as a central character in the story. I would recommend everyone read Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Some Clouds.

What book did you find overrated or just disappointing?
Certainly not disappointing, but as a scholar of the Great Migration, I didn’t find anything new or exciting in The Warmth of Other Suns. Yet I certainly appreciated how its prose style made decades of scholarship more accessible to a much wider audience. On the fiction side, I found Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections a bit overrated. 

What book do you wish more people knew about?
Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, is an unheralded master work, not just because of its inventive prose but because the ideas in the book are expressed in the paper quality, the typeset, and materials used in the making of the very book itself. I wish the publishing market would allow more books to reflect their ideas and themes in the construction of the actual book

What author(s), living or dead, would you be most interested in having over for dinner? WOW, I hate that I don’t cook! Not just because we share the same surname but certainly James Baldwin because of his courageousness, force of nature, ethical posture, faithfulness to everyday people, impatience with pettiness, and all qualities held with flare and wit. I think I would also want to hang out with Steig Larsson…what would it be like to push out a trilogy of prose in the face of your impending death? The courage that must take as a writer when one could easily curl up in a ball

possessive_investment_rev_ed_smWhat Temple University Press title could you not put down and why?
George Lipsitz’s Possessive Investments in Whiteness was certainly from a different time, a time when the mainstream took more seriously the idea that racial identity can in fact shape life chances and access to important resources etc. But while in the 1990’s a whole shelf of books came out in the form of memoirs or celebrations of whiteness, Lipsitz’s was a thoughtful essay so rich in archival depth demonstrating clearly how state power and private wealth have been so closely tethered to white racial identity. Here the idea that race is a social construction did not justify a dismissal of the concept but called for a more rigorous understanding of its social and hence lived power.


Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!



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