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.

The Problem with “AAPI”

This week in North Philly Notes, Erin Suzuki, author of Ocean Passages, explains the importance of distinguishing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Over the past year, the dramatic increase in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes across the United States have drawn public attention to long-standing histories of anti-Asian racism in this country. On social media, the hashtag #StopAAPIHate circulated widely in the wake of reports about increasing numbers of both verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans in 2020 and 2021, as both mainstream outlets and political figures insisted on racializing the novel coronavirus as both the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.” Yet as the term “AAPI” (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) moves out of academic and policy circles and into the mainstream of public discourse, it’s also important to know what the term means, where it comes from, and—when used casually or uncritically—how it can work to exclude despite its gestures to inclusivity. 

While many assume that AAPI is the proper or more politically correct way of referring to the Asian American community, the secondary inclusion of “Pacific Islanders” within and alongside the larger category of “Asian American” has a long and contested history. Adopted by Asian American activists and academics during the 1970s and 1980s and governmentally sanctioned as a census category in 1990 and 2000, the category of “Asian Pacific Islander” conflated two already internally diverse groups into a single massive category of people who account for over 60 percent of the world’s population. Although this naming ideally calls for an intersectional politics, a sense of solidarity, and mutual support between a range of communities who have differently suffered from racist policies and stereotypes in the United States, in everyday practice the term “AAPI/API” is most often used as shorthand primarily for Asian American—and more specifically East Asian American—communities. As a consequence, many Pacific Islanders find themselves swept up into discussions that do not directly affect their communities (at best), or that ignore or bury their concerns (at worst). 

The problems of the “AAPI” designation have only become more pronounced in the past year, partly because the kinds of racial violence that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experience often take very different forms. As a friend of mine commented, “People aren’t out there punching Samoan grandmas—they wouldn’t dare.” But on the flip side, issues that disproportionately affect Pacific Islander communities are rarely identified as AAPI concerns. For example, during the COVID-19 epidemic, the Pacific Islander population in the United States have suffered from the highest rates of COVID transmission and death per capita of any racial group, yet the CDC’s practice of aggregating that data within the larger category of “Asian or Pacific Islander” obscured these numbers, meaning that the necessary resources were not always set aside or ramped up to address this very specific need. In this case, the inclusion of Pacific Islanders within the larger category of Asian Americanness in fact excluded communities in need from both the public eye and from receiving levels of assistance that should have been mobilized to help. 

As I discuss in Ocean Passages (and as Indigenous Pacific scholars have argued for many, many years), this harmful process of “exclusion through inclusion” has a long and complex history rooted in the ways that many Pacific states—including Hawai‘i, Guam, American Sāmoa, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia—were forcibly “included” into the political jurisdiction of the United States as the nation sought to wage war and engage in trade with Asia. In this sense, histories of anti-Asian racialization have a material, if often overlooked, connection to the colonization of the Pacific Islands. The dispossession and erasure of Native peoples’ claims to their ancestral lands and seas enabled many of the transpacific passages and military interventions that brought Asians into American space. If we want to mobilize against the myriad forms of interpersonal and institutional violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we must also engage with how the ongoing colonization of Pacific states continue to differently shape perceptions of and policies towards Pacific Islander and Asian American communities. We cannot allow “PI” to operate as a mere afterthought or addendum to “AA.”

Why We Turn to Intersectionality to Confront Anti-Asian Violence

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost, with permission from Northern California Grantmakers, an essay by Alice Y. Hom, coeditor of the forthcoming Q & A, about the recent anti-Asian violence.

This has been a hard week of swirling emotions since I learned six Asian women and two other people were shot in Atlanta amidst the rise of anti-Asian violence here and nationwide. The names identified so far are: Soon Chung Park (74), Suncha Kim (69), Yong Ae Yue (63),Hyun Jung Grant (51), Xiaojie Tan (49), Daoyou Feng (44), Paul Andre Michels (54), and Dalaina Ashley Yaun (33). I am sending my deep condolences to their loved ones, families, and communities. Rage, grief, and sadness course through me as I wake up and tend to my work, check in with kin and kindred, read the news, and skim social media. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed.  

I am not surprised the shooter, a white man, denied that race motivated his attacks against three massage parlors and spas. But I’m angry at the denial and the shortsightedness of law enforcement, the media, and others who relay the shooter’s explanation and enable the claim that racism doesn’t play a role in his actions.  

Instead, let this be a moment to challenge the idea that anyone might ever be entitled to inflict violence on the pretext that they are driven by “sexual addiction.” This violence should be understood as the deadly expression of racialized and sexualized stereotypes of Asian women, specifically migrants who work at massage parlors and spas whose low income and status as immigrants expose them to risk. Our country’s wars and military operations throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim have, over many years, reinforced sex trades and racialized sexual violence toward Asian women.  

Here we must challenge ourselves to consider race, gender, heterosexuality, and class not as separate forms of identity, but interacting together, to deepen our understanding of the deaths of these women and our Asian elders here in the Bay Area. This concept of interlocking identities is not new and comes from Black lesbian feminists organizing in the 1970s under the Combahee River Collective.  

The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, who explains, “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these.”  

This approach helps us make sense of the violence against Asian women and the way it’s connected to violence faced by women of color, Black and Indigenous women, in particular.  I hope the following articles, statements, and interviews provide some insight and support you taking action to strengthen our collective fight against the intersecting oppressions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.  

In these moments, we draw strength by calling upon the rich connections of our movements, the power of our voice, and the resources for social justice over which we have influence.   

Celebrating Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Black History Month with an entry highlighting some of our African American Studies and Understanding Racism titles, which are available at 30% off by using promo code TBHM2021 through 3/31/2021.

Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair: Nigrescence and Eudaimonia, by William E. Cross Jr., revisits the author’s ground-breaking model on Black identity awakening known as Nigrescence, connects W. E. B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness to an analysis of how Black identity is performed in everyday life, and traces the origins of the deficit perspective on Black culture to scholarship dating back to the 1930s. He follows with a critique showing such deficit and Black self-hatred tropes were always based on extremely weak evidence.

Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces, by Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo, invites readers into a conversation on how best to raise black children in white families and white communities. For decades, Katie D’Angelo and Valerie Harrison engaged in conversations about race and racism. However, when Katie and her husband, who are white, adopted Gabriel, a biracial child, Katie’s conversations with Val, who is black, were no longer theoretical and academic. The stakes grew from the two friends trying to understand each other’s perspectives to a mother navigating, with input from her friend, how to equip a child with the tools that will best serve him as he grows up in a white family.

Biz Mackey, a Giant behind the Plate: The Story of the Negro League Star and Hall of Fame Catcher, by Rich Westcott, is the first biography of arguably the greatest catcher in the Negro Leagues. A celebrated ballplayer before African Americans were permitted to join Major League Baseball, Biz Mackey ranks as one of the top catchers ever to play the game. Using archival materials and interviews with former Negro League players, baseball historian Rich Westcott chronicles the catcher’s life and remarkable career in Biz Mackey as well as providing an in-depth look at Philadelphia Negro League history.

Civic Intimacies: Black Queer Improvisations on Citizenship, by Niels van Doorn, maps the political and personal stakes of Black queer lives in Baltimore. Because members of the Black queer community often exist outside conventional civic institutions, they must explore alternative intimacies to experience a sense of belonging. Civic Intimacies examines how—and to what extent—these different forms of intimacy catalyze the values, aspirations, and collective flourishing of Black queer denizens of Baltimore.

God Is Change: Religious Practices and Ideologies in the Works of Octavia Butler, Edited by Aparajita Nanda and Shelby L. Crosby (forthcoming in June) explores Octavia Butler’s religious imagination and its potential for healing and liberation. The editors of and contributors to God Is Change heighten our appreciation for the range and depth of Butler’s thinking about spirituality and religion, as well as how Butler’s work—especially the Parable and Xenogenesis series—offers resources for healing and community building. God Is Change meditates on alternate religious possibilities that open different political and cultural futures to illustrate humanity’s ability to endure change and thrive.

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century, by Keneshia N. Grant frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also had serious political consequences. Keneshia Grant created one of the first listings of Black elected officials that classifies them based on their status as participants in the Great Migration. She also describes some of the policy/political concerns of the migrants. The Great Migration and the Democratic Party lays the groundwork for ways of thinking about the contemporary impact of Black migration on American politics.

The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, by Tommy J. Curry, is a justification for Black Male Studies. He posits that we should conceptualize the Black male as a victim, oppressed by his sex. The Man-Not, therefore, is a corrective of sorts, offering a concept of Black males that could challenge the existing accounts of Black men and boys desiring the power of white men who oppress them that has been proliferated throughout academic research across disciplines. Curry challenges how we think of and perceive the conditions that actually affect all Black males.

Mediating America: Black and Irish Press and the Struggle for Citizenship, 1870-1914, by Brian Shott, explores the life and work of T. Thomas Fortune and J. Samuel Stemons as well as Rev. Peter C. Yorke and Patrick Ford—respectively two African American and two Irish American editor/activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Brian Shott shows how each of these “race men” (the parlance of the time) understood and advocated for his group’s interests through their newspapers.

Books that honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week, in North Philly Notes, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we focus our attention on our books, new and old, that speak to a dedication to civil rights and human struggles.


Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King, by Michael Awkward captures the disputes over the meanings of racial politics and black identity during the post-King era in the City of Brotherly Love. Looking closely at four cultural moments, he shows how racial trauma and his native city’s history have been entwined. Awkward introduces each of these moments with poignant personal memories of the decade in focus, chronicling the representation of African American freedom and oppression from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion by Bettye Collier-Thomas, is a groundbreaking book that provides a remarkable account of the religious faith, social and political activism, and the extraordinary resilience of Black women during the centuries of American growth and change. As co-creators of churches, women were a central factor in their development and as Collier-Thomas skillfully shows, Black church women created national organizations to fight for civil rights and combat discrimination.


God Is Change: Religious Practices and Ideologies in the Works of Octavia Butler, edited by Aparajita Nanda and Shelby L. Crosby (forthcoming in June) examines Octavia Butler’s religious imagination and its potential for healing and liberation. In her work, Butler explored, critiqued, and created religious ideology. But religion, for Butler, need not be a restricting force. The editors of and contributors to God Is Change heighten our appreciation for the range and depth of Butler’s thinking about spirituality and religion, as well as how Butler’s work—especially her Parable and Xenogenesis series—offers resources for healing and community building.

The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America, by David Howard-Pitney, shows that Black leaders have employed the jeremiad, a verbal tradition of protest and social prophecy, in a way that is specifically African American. David Howard-Pitney examines the jeremiads of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, as well as more contemporary figures such as Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes. This revised and expanded edition demonstrates that the African American jeremiad is still vibrant, serving as a barometer of faith in America’s perfectibility and hope for social justice.

Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis examines inequality in America. The 1968 Kerner Commission concluded that America was heading toward “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” In Healing Our Divided Society, Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, along with Eisenhower Foundation CEO Alan Curtis, re-examine fifty years later the work still necessary towards the goals set forth in The Kerner Report. Reflecting on America’s urban climate today, this new report sets forth evidence-based policies concerning employment, education, housing, neighborhood development, and criminal justice based on what has been proven to work—and not work.

Who Will Speak for America? edited by Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin, collects passionate and justifiably angry voices providing a literary response to today’s political crisis. Inspired by and drawing from the work of writers who participated in nationwide Writers Resist events in January 2017, this volume provides a collection of poems, stories, essays, and cartoons that wrestle with the meaning of America and American identity. Who Will Speak for America? inspires readers by emphasizing the power of patience, organizing, resilience and community. These moving works advance the conversation the American colonists began, and that generations of activists, in their efforts to perfect our union, have elevated and amplified.

A Q&A with Valerie Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo

This week in North Philly Notes, the coauthors of Do Right by Me talk about how they developed their book-length conversation about how to best raise Black children in white communities.

Is Do Right by Me just for white parents of black children?
Both: No, the book is useful not only for white adoptive parents of black children but also for anyone engaged in parenting and nurturing black children, including black or interracial families of origin. Do Right by Me also provides insights and tools to a broad audience of social scientists, child and family counselors, community organizations, and other educators who engage issues of transracial adoption or child development or who explore current experiences in the areas of social justice and institutionalized racism. All readers will learn how race impacts the way the world interacts with a black child, and the way they as adults can provide all black children with the knowledge and awareness to resiliently face these challenges.

Do Right by Me is designed to “orient par­ents and other community members to the ways race and racism will affect a black child’s life, and despite that, how to raise and nurture healthy and happy children.” It’s less a “how to” and more of “what to know or learn.” Can you explain your approach?
Katie: My husband Mike and I are white, and we adopted a beautiful biracial boy at birth in 2011. It was clear to us that white parents of black children want to parent well but have real questions and concerns about racism, culture, and identity. Unlike parents who buy into a “color-blind” or “post-racial” ideology, Mike and I had to confront head-on the reality that we would need to equip our biracial son for an experience far more complex than anything we had experienced. Do Right by Me is designed as a back and forth exchange between Val and me. Val has a doctorate in African American studies and lived experiences as a black woman. We engage the world through the lens of our experience, informed by our professional lives as educators. Each chapter includes a story from our personal experience supported by research and offer practical tips to put ideas into action.

How important are cross-racial relationships to a better understanding of what’s happening in America now?
Both: Dialogue about racism can be difficult and benefits from a knowledge of history, as well as a vocabulary of ideas and practice. Essential to the task is an understanding of racism and how systems continue to perpetuate privileges and disadvantages that black people have to navigate in ways that white people may never have had to. The safety and security of a 20-year friendship allowed us to have that difficult conversation. 

You have known each other for 20 years. How did you become such good friends?
Val: Katie and I have worked together at Temple University for almost 20 years. What began as a professional relationship grew into a close friendship. We talk almost every day. We each were one of the handful of supporters sitting in the room as the other defended a doctoral dissertation. Katie was the person in the room taking notes as surgeons spoke too fast and with terminology too unfamiliar for me to fully grasp how they would remove the cancer from my body, but she got it all down. We share secrets. I am her lawyer, and she is my uncredentialed therapist.

How did you approach topics of black hair, the black church, and Gabe’s experiences playing on a soccer team where “no one looked like me”—that cause someone discomfort?
Both: We guide readers on this journey using both of our voices, each in turn. When one of us presents a new idea, the other will recall a scenario that shows how it works in real life; when one of us remembers a question she faced, the other will jump in with the research and insight to put it into perspective and help readers think through it.

There are discussions of the challenges race and racism present for a black child, particularly challenges related to self-esteem. Can you discuss your focus on this factor in a child’s life?
Both: The health and well-being of a black child depend on the extent to which they feel positively about being black. A poor sense of one’s self as a black person results in low self-esteem and hinders the academic and personal achievement of black children. Conversely, positive racial identity results in high self-esteem and academic performance, as well as a greater ability to navigate racism. If parents don’t work on constructing a positive Black self-identity for their children, our culture will construct a negative self-identity around their blackness for them.

You write throughout the book about the importance of developing a positive racial identity and cite that transracially adopted children often struggle to develop a positive racial/ethnic identi­ty. Can you describe a few of the ways to do that and some of the pitfalls to avoid as you encourage readers to navigate the racism that is entrenched in American society?
Both: There are a number of forces at work that threaten positive identity in black children. One example is the creation and proliferation of negative images of black people. News reports exaggerate negative portrayals of black people, overrepresenting them in stories about poverty and crime and underrepresenting them in positive stories about their leadership, community involvement and family life. Shielding black children from negative and imbalanced messages while saturating them with positive and balanced counterimages have been found to be effective in building positive black identity and self-esteem while reducing the negative impact of racism on identity development.

Katie, I like that you explain that your worldview and cultural paradigm shifted after Gabriel. Can you talk about that process?
Katie: I was operating within a different cultural paradigm. One that was more Eurocentric and imposed upon its participants a notion that you are only good enough and have enough if you measure up to a predetermined set of standards, largely informed and dictated by the white people who designed them. And one that judged others as inferior in order to feel superior. Gabriel helped me see more clearly that the worldview and value system that I feel most at home in, is neither the only one available, nor the best. The mindset that I inherited certainly wasn’t doing me any good, and my desire to shift gears brought me the greatest gift of my life.

Do Right by Me includes info on “The Talk.” In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, what observations (and optimism) do you have about social change and awareness?
Katie: If anything, this moment (the murder of George Floyd) may finally dispel the myth that we are living in a post-racial America. It is only now as a mother that I understand how very different it all was for me because of the color of my skin. My husband and I understand that our decisions and behaviors, that were read as assertive or a normal testing of boundaries, may be read as disorderly, defiant, or even threatening if we were not white. Our world does not give our son the privilege of acting like us, and it places the burden unfairly on him to manage how others feel about him.

What the American Irish faced in the nineteenth century

This week in North Philly Notes, Howard Lune, author of Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irish, writes about Irish immigrants in America.

Before I got too far into my early research on Irish nationalism, and before I had recognized the nature of transnational organizing efforts in supporting the long campaign for Irish independence, I was curious about the surprising success of the American Irish in public service fields such as police and firefighting squads. The answer to that puzzle turned out to center on fairly straightforward jobs-for-votes deals with the Democratic Party. But looking into widespread anti-Irish, anti-Catholic activism in the United States in the nineteenth century I was stuck by two patterns. The first was that the language and tactics of “othering” the Irish strongly resembled the tactics used to deny African Americans freedoms and citizenship rights at the same time. The second was that the same ideas have been resurrected with only slightly different language to attack other immigrant groups and African Americans under the present American regime. The continuing existence of discrimination is not surprising. I guess I just expected that we would develop more sophisticated forms of it.

The essential starting point for all of these organized acts of hostility is to present an unquestionable assumption that whenever we say “we” in America we all know that “we” are white, Christian men. Of course, in the 1800s, Christian meant Protestant while Catholic was part of the other, but they still preferred the term Christian. Few nativists ever argued that America was supposed to be white. They simply argued that the non-whites were “invading,” “taking over,” and “replacing” us. They never had to say “our kind” is supposed to dominate in all social, economic, and political institutions. They only had to say that “those people” would be infiltrating all of our spaces if we didn’t stop them. This business of the unexamined “we” sounded like a call to community, solidarity, and fellow-feeling while actually building walls, mobilizing violent mobs, and, especially, preventing others from voting.

Transitional Nationalism_smOther familiar patterns followed. “We” destroyed their schools and claimed that we couldn’t help them when they were so ignorant. We denied them jobs and claimed that we didn’t want such poor people bringing down the quality of life in our cities. We held up the example of the most successful of the whole (in this case, the wealthy Irish Protestants) in order to claim that the rest could obviously succeed too if they weren’t so lazy, or criminal, or whatever frightened us at the moment. We relegated them to slums and then said that no one who lived like that should be trusted with civic responsibility. We passed new laws about labor, vagrancy, and debt to target them, and then declared that they were mostly criminals and scofflaws. Our people raise families. Their people “breed.” And, in the more extreme publications that were commonly read but rarely acknowledged, we lamented the threat to the sexual purity of our white women if those people were allowed to run free.

In the 1800s we depicted the undesirable other as drunks. Today we describe them as probably using drugs.

These patterns, and so many others, demonstrate that the white, Protestant, male center of American life hasn’t really got any tangible complaint with any particular other group. If it did, then we would focus on different supposed attributes of each group pertinent to any given time period. Rather, it seems that the privileged core of the nation desperately fears having to share with others. This fear seems to be just as strong among those who have too much and those who have too little. Either way, the smallest excuse, the least supportable claim, and the most minor differences are enough for members of the culturally dominant group to band together to collectively degrade anyone and anything that could threaten the idea of their dominance. We are willing to allow anyone into college now, as long as they don’t get to be our bosses. We feign shock at each and every obvious example of racist violence but we hate it when people try to address “systemic” inequalities. We admit that the justice system isn’t always just, but we built it up that way in order to keep other people in their place, and we’re not planning to change that. We don’t hang signs that say “no Irish need apply” anymore, but try getting a corporate job interview without a white-sounding name. The Irish are accepted as white now, which almost implies that we have improved as a culture. Yet, with increasing globalization, we have no shortage of “other” people to casually disregard or openly hate. As a people, we are remarkably similar to our forebears, in the worst sense of the comparison.

An interview with author Ryan Pettengill about Communists and Community

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview author Ryan Pettengill about his new book, Communists and Community, which enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century.

You trace community activism in Detroit during the years 1941-1956, which is during the downslide of the American Community Party [CPUSA]. What accounts for this time frame for your book?
Quiet honestly, the CPUSA had always had a knack for community activism. There have been other scholars that have written about this topic, but much of their attention is concentrated on the period from 1935 to 1939. This era, known as the Popular Front period in which communists made important alliances with liberals and progressives in the struggle against international fascism, was thought to have ended by 1940, largely a casualty of the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the CPUSA did, in fact, enter into a new period in its history, the activism it pursued – especially at the local level in centers like Detroit – largely remained the same. The alliances that communists made with religious and civic organizations that were dedicated to social and political equality remained intact. Moreover, the nature of their activism, in which they would flood City Hall with letters, march in demonstrations throughout neighborhoods, boycott bowling alleys that insisted on Jim Crow policies, or establish “labor schools” for the training of the next generation of activists remained the preferred mode of activism long after World War II ended. Taking this community activism into account helps us understand the CP in a different light. It also helps demonstrate that leftists were central in keeping militant activism alive in the postwar period before it would become much more visible in the early 1960s with the coming of the civil rights movement.

Can you discuss why you focused on post-war Detroit? Sure, it was motor city with a huge industry in America at that time, but what made this city a valuable crucible
Detroit is just…fascinating. I developed an interest in the city as a graduate student and it never really stopped. But to the point of this question, Detroit is outside of the local context in which American communism is typically examined – New York City.  Examining communists and the activism that they sponsored demonstrates that at the local level in places like Detroit there was a level of autonomy in which activists were afforded a chance address local challenges in the way they saw fit despite what the “party line” may have dictated.

Communists and Community_smYou write about how the CPUSA helped underrepresented groups, working toward socioeconomic betterment, creating multiracial workforces, and protecting the foreign-born. Can you discuss this little-known history of Communists playing a central role in the advancement of social democracy and civil rights?
I think communists, with their insistence on analyzing the role that class played in American life, were able to see the unmistakable connections to race. Other scholars have noted that the CP was the only predominantly white institution that took up the matter of systemic racism during the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. To that end, it attracted civil rights activists like Reverend Charles Hill and Coleman Young, the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. As Young put it, the communists and Reverend Hill (an African American Baptist minister) were the only ones even talking about racism in the 1940s.  Young never apologized for running around with radicals so long as it meant the socioeconomic betterment of the black community.

There are interesting stories about housing projects, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, as well as issues involving wages and unionism, etc. What challenges, setbacks, and successes did the CP and its members have?
This may sound obvious but it was the Second Red Scare that accounted for the biggest challenges and setbacks for the CPUSA in Detroit and elsewhere. As I point out throughout the book, the Red Scare and McCarthyism compromised the alliances built between the labor-liberal-leftist coalition that had flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Anticommunists like Joseph McCarthy had built careers on red baiting and liberals who had once been allies of leftists were forced to demonstrate their patriotism by ridding them from unions and civic organizations. That said, I think that what the communists achieved – especially throughout the 1950s – was keeping the concept of militant activism alive in the minds of Detroiters. The 1950s is so often portrayed as a politically tame period and it is no coincidence that McCarthyism was raging throughout the country at the time. The activism that communists sponsored in the postwar period helped lay the foundation for future activism in the 1960s and beyond.

 What observations do you have about the white ethnic backlash and rise of conservatism in the face of the CPUSA’s efforts? (Sounds kind of timely….)
In a perfect world, I would like my book to be read in conjunction with studies that chronicle the postwar economy, the rise of conservatism, and the long descent of the New Deal order. If you read Communists and Community in conjunction with, say, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, for example, you can clearly see that the postwar economy was anything but stable and for the bulk of Detroit’s industrial workforce, simply having steady work took absolute precedent over the communist brand of activism that addressed the integration of Detroit’s neighborhoods or reforming policing practices throughout the city. If there is one thing writing this book has taught me is that the working class existed in the abstract and workers did not always want the same things. So, along comes someone like George Wallace who can speak the language of the working class in locales like Detroit and is able to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate and, thus, fracture the working-class coalition that the UAW, leftist activists, and other progressives worked so hard to establish throughout the war years.

How did the radicalism and politicization that gained momentum during that time continue in the decades after? You write that the decline of community activism within organized labor [is] a casualty of the Cold War; that anticommunism played a key role.
I generally think of Carl Winter, Helen Alison-Winter, Nat Ganley, and Billy Allan as placeholders for the future leftists who would come to mainstream protest and dissent in the 1960s and early 70s.  It wasn’t always easy to defend their radicalism but these individuals did so anyway.  When the Michigan Council for Peace led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to petition the federal government to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union, they opened themselves up to all sorts of criticism from the right.  But Reverend Hill led the pilgrimage anyway.  By the 1960s, with the fading of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, radicalism was once again a permissible form of political expression.  The activists comprising what might loosely be called the “old left” essentially preserved the institution of community activism.

 

Stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past

This week in North Philly Notes, Manan Desai, author of The United States of Indiawrites about a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals.

In 1916, fresh off a tour across the United States, the exiled Indian nationalist Lajpat Rai penned what he described as a “Hindu’s Impressions and a Study” of America from his adopted home in Berkeley, California. After visits with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, and Booker T. Washington, and stops throughout the country, Rai concluded that “the problems of the United States were very similar to those that face us in India.” As unlikely as that comparison seems, Rai was not alone in making it. During his time in the U.S., Rai became a part of a network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, who actively imagined themselves as part of a shared project of anticolonialism. For the Americans with whom Rai and other Indian expatriates formed lasting friendships and alliances, the encounter with the Indian cause had shifted their perspective and left a lasting impression. Agnes Smedley, a working-class radical from Missouri who was mentored by Rai, would later write that her acquaintance with the Indian expatriate scene had led her to apprehend world events “through the eyes of men from Asia—eyes that watched and were cynical about the phrases of democracy.” W.E.B. Du Bois himself held onto the promise of Indian decolonization for decades to come, declaring in 1947 that India’s independence was “the greatest historical date of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” By comparing one another’s conditions, this band of writers came to reconsider not only how “the problems” of the U.S. and India were similar, but how such friendships and affinities formed across national and racial lines could foster new visions for a decolonized future.

United_States_of_IndiaThe United States of India reconstructs this network of expatriate Indian and American intellectuals, and examines vision they shared, during and immediately after the First World War. Organizations like the New York-based India Home Rule League, the radical San Francisco-based Gadar Party, the Friends for Freedom of India, and national student groups, produced periodicals, newsletters, pamphlets, and books, advocating for the rights of Indians under colonial rule as well as Indian migrants in the U.S.

But one of the critical goals in this book is to take seriously the contradictions that such comparisons opened up, how imagining one form of freedom at the expense of another. To return to Rai, for instance, we might ask: How could a white settler nation at the cusp of global dominance actually resemble a British colony in the East? What real comparison could be drawn from the structures of colonial dominance in India and the metropolitan world of the U.S.? What gets left behind in such comparisons?

These contradictions are particularly important when considering the relevance of early histories of South Asian America to our contemporary moment. To name just a few explored in the book: We see how in navigating discriminatory laws, Indian immigrants like Bhagat Singh Thind formally made claims to whiteness, but in doing they espoused a “racist response to racism,” as Sucheta Mazumdar describes it, that reinforced a system of white supremacy. We see how upper-caste Indian writers would acknowledge the violence of the caste system (from which they benefited), but just as quickly disavow it by foregrounding their experiences of racism in the United States and India. Lajpat Rai, who could be so sharp and cutting in his critiques of colonialism, also upheld Islamophobic ideologies and forms of Hindu nationalism that we see horrific repercussions of today.

As important as it is to engage the stories of solidarity and resistance from the South Asian American past, it may be an even more critical task to engage its contradictions, because they continue to persist and shape our present.

Books that can start the conversation about race

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase a selection of Temple University Press titles about understanding racism. Get 30% off these and other books about race on our website: tupress.temple.edu/subjects/1092 (Use Promo Code T30P at checkout) 

Silent Gesture
The Autobiography of Tommie Smith
Tommie Smith and David Steele
Sporting series
The story behind an image of protest that will always stand as an iconic representation of the complicated conflations of race, politics, and sports.

The Possessive Investment of Whiteness
How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Twentieth Anniversary Edition
By George Lipsitz
An unflinching but necessary look at white supremacy, updated to address racial privilege in the age of Trump

The Man-Not
Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood
Tommy J. Curry
Black Male Studies Series
“[A] provocative discussion of black masculinity by critiquing both the social and academic treatment of killings of black men and boys in the US….”—Choice  

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party
Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century
Keneshia N. Grant
Frames the Great Migration as an important economic and social event that also changed the way Democratic Party elites interacted with Black communities in northern cities

Invisible People
Stories of Lives at the Margins
Alex Tizon, Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek
Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas
Epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. 

Look, a White!
Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Returning the problem of whiteness to white people, Yancy identifies the embedded and opaque ways white power and privilege operate

Resurrecting Slavery
Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France

Crystal Marie Fleming
Bringing a critical race perspective to the study of French racism, Fleming provides a nuanced way of thinking about the global dimensions of slavery, anti-blackness, and white supremacy

FORTHCOMING IN NOVEMBER

Do Right by Me
Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces
Valerie I. Harrison and Kathryn Peach D’Angelo
A conversation between two friends—about how best to raise black children in white families and white communities—after one adopts a biracial son 

ALSO OF INTEREST

Tasting Freedom
Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America
Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin
The life and times of Octavius Catto, a civil rights pioneer [felled by a bullet] fighting for social justice issues and voting rights more than a century ago

 

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