Political Mourning Delayed, but Not Denied

This week in North Philly Notes, Heather Pool, author of Political Mourning, writes about the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Earlier this month, for the first time ever, an American president visited Tulsa to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

I was born in Oklahoma and was subjected to the state-mandated semester of “Oklahoma History” in the 1980s. In that class, we cursorily covered the forced removal of indigenous peoples to Indian Territory via the Trail of Tears and the evolution to statehood. That history was taught, but it was taught as history, as if the oppression suffered by indigenous people was something that happened long ago. In Oklahoma, about a third of the population are native even if they don’t have a roll number, live on a reservation, or identify with a tribe; thus, there was no way to avoid that history, even if the curriculum in no way did justice to it. And Oklahoma as a state has come to embrace its ties to native peoples; the state seal and flag prominently display symbols drawn from or referencing indigenous people, and, for years, its license plates proclaimed “Native America.” This does not mean that native peoples in Oklahoma are free from present oppression, by any means, but at least it is discussed.

But I learned next to nothing in that class (or in any history class during my public school education) about Black Oklahomans. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my hometown had probably been a Sundown Town; the silence about Black history, then, was not surprising. I didn’t learn about the Tulsa Massacre until I ran across a book about it in a public library in New York in the early 2000s. I distinctly remember pulling Riot and Remembrance off the shelf and holding my breath as I read the blurb on the back, stunned that I knew nothing about this event.

In the 2012 article version of the Triangle Fire chapter in my book, Political Mourning, I compared the massive publicity generated by the Triangle Fire with the scant publicity accorded to the Tulsa Race Massacre. Fortunately, the past several years – aided by work done by survivors of the Tulsa race massacre to remember the event in the face of a sustained official effort to forget it, the state legislature’s 2001 Race Riot Commission Report, and the massive increase in awareness about racial injustice spurred by rise of Black Lives Matter – have yielded a more honest accounting of the events that took place in the Greenwood section of Tulsa on May 31-June 1, 1921, as well as generated considerable media coverage. Biden’s visit to Tulsa can be read as an effort to educate Americans about the historical violence of white supremacy that has been silenced, obscured, or actively erased.

Death can do that; it can illuminate everyday violence that we know but don’t know. It’s why my work focuses on moments when everyday people die, and the polity pays attention. There are many moments we could attend to – young women being killed by their partners, the disproportionately young deaths of people of color of all varieties, queer youth disproportionately dying by suicide or homicide – and yet we often choose not to see or take up collective responsibility for deaths that do not receive widespread coverage or which, if we took up collective responsibility for them, would require us to make fundamental shifts in our way of life.

Moments such as the Tulsa Massacre, the Triangle Fire, Emmett Till’s lynching, or George Floyd’s death can break through the crust of sedimented privilege to see the unequally borne costs of the status quo. And the costs are so high. But the barriers to seeing are, too: particularly for people in positions of privilege, whose refusal to recognize that privilege makes it difficult for them to see how race has shaped a status quo that is better for whites than it is for non-white people. Charles Mills calls this the “epistemology of ignorance.” White people are rewarded for their cluelessness, just as I was rewarded for not asking more and better questions in that Oklahoma History classroom. White Americans’ refusal to learn our actual history when it comes to race and violence continues to obstruct our ability to build an actual democracy instead of a white one.

It is encouraging that the Tulsa Race Massacre is getting the attention, respect, and mourning it has always deserved; it is a marker of how much things have changed in the past decade that an American president spoke at the 100th anniversary of the terrible events in Tulsa. But it is also a reminder that who we mourn and how we mourn them speaks volumes about who we as a nation are, and that mourning – when linked to conceptions of collective identity and responsibility – can be deeply political. The political mourning denied the survivors of the Tulsa Massacre is being rekindled now and mobilized to call for racial justice, and that is important. But equally important is to ensure – through education, more just political institutions, and reparations – that we do our best to reduce or eliminate similar losses in the present and future, whether the sudden horror of a large-scale, state-sponsored massacre or the slow-motion violence of poverty, lack of opportunity, and incarceration that people of color continue to face disproportionately today. 

Announcing the new issue of Kalfou

This week in North Philly Notes, we feature the new issue of Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies

One highlight from Vol. 7 No. 2 (2020) is that the issue contains a special collection of articles dedicated to the impact of Lorgia García-Peña‘s work on scholarship and civic life. Harvard’s denial of tenure to her in 2019 sparked an intense nationwide discussion of how ethnic studies is devalued in the academy, and this issue mounts a defense of both her pioneering intersectional work in theorizing Blackness, Afrolatinidad, and dominicanidad as well as of the contemporary necessity of the field of ethnic studies more broadly.

Table of Contents:

Kalfou: A JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE AND RELATIONAL ETHNIC STUDIES

VOLUME 7, ISSUE 2 • FALL 2020

SYMPOSIUM ON THE SCHOLARSHIP AND TEACHING OF LORGIA GARCÍA-PEÑA

THE PRESENT CRISIS

Ethnic Studies Matters • Lourdes Torres

Shattering Silences: Dictions, Contradictions, and Ethnic Studies at the Crossroads • George Lipsitz

When Your Mentee Is Denied Tenure: Reflections on Lorgia García-Peña’s Work • Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández

Three Essays toward Care in and beyond Academia • Camara Brown, Eun-Jin Keish Kim, and Massiel Torres Ulloa

Your Mirada. Gracias. Siempre: Afro-Asia, Intimacies, and Women-of-Color Feminisms • Catherine R. Peters

DOMINICANIDAD AS A CRUCIBLE OF NEW KNOWLEDGE

Latinidad, Dominicanidad, and Anti-Blackness: Two Nations under U.S. Empire • Laura Briggs

Bringing Dominican History from the Footnote to the Center of the Page • Elizabeth S. Manley

FEATURE ARTICLES

Susto, Sugar, and Song: ire’ne lara silva’s Chicana Diabetic Poetics • Amanda Ellis

“The Blackness That Incriminated Me”: Stigma and Normalization in Brothers and KeepersAdam Burston, Jesse S. G. Wozniak, Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho, and Norman Conti

Contesting Legal Borderlands: Policing Insubordinate Spaces in Imperial County’s Farm Worker Communities, 1933–1940 • Stevie Ruiz

IDEAS, ART, AND ACTIVISM

TALKATIVE ANCESTORS

Gloria E. Anzaldúa on the Illusion of “Safe Spaces”

KEYWORDS

The Knowledge of Justice in America • Julie J. Miller

LA MESA POPULAR

Discovering Dominga: Indigenous Migration and the Logics of Indigenous Displacement • Floridalma Boj Lopez

ART AND SOCIAL ACTION

Three Films of Yehuda Sharim • John T. Caldwell

Songs That Never End: A Film by Yehuda Sharim • George Lipsitz

TEACHING AND TRUTH

Situating Blackness and Antiracism in a Global Frame: Key Works for a Study of the Dominican Republic • Elizabeth S. Manley and April J. Mayes

About the journal:

Kalfou is published bi-annually by Temple University Press on behalf of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is focused on social movements, social institutions, and social relations. Kalfou seeks to build links among intellectuals, artists, and activists in shared struggles for social justice. The journal seeks to promote the development of community-based scholarship in ethnic studies among humanists and social scientists and to connect the specialized knowledge produced in academe to the situated knowledge generated in aggrieved communities.

Sequestrada: A New Film by a Temple University Press author Sabrina McCormick

This week in North Philly Notes, Sabrina McCormick, author of Mobilizing Science, promotes the Sequestrada, the film she co-wrote and co-directed with Soopum Sohn, about the devastation of the Brazilian Amazon. Based in part on her research about the anti-dam movement in Brazil—the subject of Mobilizing ScienceSequestrada stars Tim Blake Nelson and Gretchen Mol. The film opens November 15 at the Village East Cinema in New York, followed by a VOD Release on Tuesday, December 17.

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Synopsis:

Sequestrada follows Kamodjara and her father, Cristiano, members of the Arara, an Amazonian indigenous tribe. When they leave their reservation to protest a dam that will displace their people, Kamodjara is separated from her family and kidnapped by traffickers.

Roberto, an indigenous agency bureaucrat overseeing a report that could change everything, is under pressure to support the dam’s construction. Thomas, an American investor in the dam, makes his way to Brazil to sway Roberto’s opinion. The film tells the story of how these three lives intertwine against a backdrop of geopolitics and environmental disaster.

Sequestrada was shot on location in Brazil and is based on the real-life event of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, which is displacing the Arara—who have lived along the Amazon River for countless generations. The film, which had its world premiere at the Beijing Film Festival last April, deftly incorporates the experiences of local non-professional actors to tell a gripping local story of global consequences.

Artist’s Statement:

Sabrina had been doing research in Brazil for fifteen years and had made her first documentary about people displaced by large dams. She had received funding to go to the Amazon where the world’s third largest dam was being built and contested by indigenous groups who were illegally affected. We mapped out a plot. Sabrina had worked with organizations contesting dams for a long time and we planned to meet with a few of them based near Belo Monte to find out more of what the past thirty years had been like, beginning with Sting protesting the dam and a Kayapo woman slashing a government official in 1984.

Then we left for Altamira, ourselves. The last plane to the Amazon was full of men. Sabrina and a flight attendant were the only women. The men were all workers going to the Belo Monte Dam. When it landed in Altamira and the doors opened, we felt the sauna of the Amazon.

Altamira is a small town where indigenous tribes visit to buy flip flops, t-shirts, and supermarket junk food. We approached a group that we learned were Arara. We spent about three days to see if they wanted to be on camera. Then the whole Arara tribe disappeared. They re-appeared with a huge bag of live turtles. They invited Sabrina to sit in the local indigenous housing and eat a turtle they had just cooked. Then they started to open up. We learned they have a system where a chief (cacique) decides everything, so we mainly tried to speak to him. He was a quiet, young man. Later, we found he had only been cacique for one year. There was another man with thick glasses, who had been watching us. We talked to him. It turned out that he had been the chief for many years before this young man.

When he decided we were not dangerous, he stopped being a quiet man. We created a character for him so he could speak about the Arara tribe and the Belo Monte dam. The last day of the shoot, he asked Soopum if he could try his hat. He wore Soopum’s hat and was silent for long time, smiling. He seemed proud and happy. But it was Soopum’s only hat and the Equator sun made Soopum’s black hair so hot, that he really needed the hat. Sabrina didn’t want to give up her hat, either. Soopum politely asked for the hat back. He and tribe members thanked us making this film. We hugged the Arara and parted ways.

Sabrina guided the storyline exploring how government corruption undergirded the illegal construction of massive infrastructure, damaging lives and releasing methane from the degradation of flora and fauna. Soopum added fictional plot lines with traditional film language under given location and situations. Together, they captured true moments with the actors when they were living normally. We wrote together based on footage and the tribe members writing with us such that each character’s life and the fictional plot became interwoven. We constructed scenes with them, explaining where we thought the storyline was going and recording their reactions, modifying the plot with their perspectives and lines from their personal experiences.

With that approach, we fused real and imagined worlds in multiple layers, the real effects the dam has on climate change and the lives of indigenous people who live nearby, along with a narrative of imagined characters who reflect the stories of how Belo Monte came to be what it is today.

About Sabrina McCormick’s book, Mobilizing Science

Moblizing Science sm compMobilizing Science theoretically and empirically explores the rise of a new kind of social movement—one that attempts to empower citizens through the use of expert scientific research. Sabrina McCormick advances theories of social movements, development, and science and technology studies by examining how these fields intersect in cases around the globe.

McCormick grounds her argument in two very different case studies: the anti-dam movement in Brazil and the environmental breast cancer prevention movement in the U.S. These, and many other cases, show that the scientization of society, where expert knowledge is inculcated in multiple institutions and lay people are marginalized, give rise to these new types of movements. While activists who consequently engage in science often instigate new methods that result in new findings and scientific tools, these movements still often fail due to superficial participatory institutions and tightly knit corporate/government relationships.

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