White Popular Culture and Discourses on Blackness in Jacksonian Philadelphia
This study examines three discourses on blackness in the white popular culture of 1820’s and 1830’s Philadelphia–the lithographs of Edward W. Clay, blackface minstrelsy of T.D. Rice, and representations of rioters in the 1834 anti-black riot. With “Jim Crow,” Rice developed a representation of blackness that embraced the white male bodily vulnerability that had gained prominence in the Workingmen’s writing of the late 1820’s. However, Clay’s 1828 “Life in Philadelphia” lithographs had already represented black men and women as a “comic substance” of extended feet and heels, absurd fashion choices, and ape-like features. The paper addresses the extent of Clay’s influence on both Rice and subsequent blackface performers. There is a similar question about the extent to which Clay’s representation of blacks overlapped with the racial discourses of white rioters in the 1834 anti-black riot. White men responded to attacks on a fire company by young black men by attacking a black neighborhood and then attacked black churches while attempting to drive the whole black population away. Where Clay portrayed black people as absurdly sub-human, the rioters were antagonistic toward black accomplishment and attempted a complete removal of black people from the city rather than accept black men as competing with whites or creating their own institutions. All three discourses on blackness remained influential as new versions of Clay’s Life in Philadelphia came out into the early 1840’s, blackface minstrelsy became even more popular with the advent of blackface bands, and anti-black riots continued to proliferate. Part of the durability of racist representation in white popular culture derives from the multiplicity and flexibility of white racist discourses. This paper provides an example of how distinct racist discourses in Philadelphia reinforced and strengthened each other.
Last night, CNN did another story on the Covid situation in Morehead, KY focusing on the struggles of St. Claire Regional Medical Center to cope with the Omicron wave that’s now really digging in to Kentucky.
Dr. Aaron Parker Banks gets emotional when talking about the toll Covid-19 has taken on his tightknit rural community in northeastern Kentucky, where he works as the only physician at a clinic… [T]he state’s health care workers are once again bearing the brunt of the brutal surge.In rural areas such as Owingsville, Kentucky, where Parker Banks works, resources are stretched, with health care workers out sick themselves.”It definitely puts a strain on the system, on an already-strained system,” Parker Banks said. “Right now, we have probably a 40% reduction in staff currently, today, due to Covid or Covid exposure. With that, everybody else here has to pick up a significant amount.
I live 20 miles away from Owingsville in Morehead, KY and my wife is a family practice NP working for St. Claire Hospital in a Morehead clinic. The situation is surreal. There were 100 more cases in this county yesterday, yet over 50% of the population remains unvaccinated and hardly anyone is masked in the local stores and restaurants. Life is relatively normal “except” for the hospital where the intensity is peaking the same way it was during the height of the delta wave last September.
St. Claire Hospital is a big part of the community here in Morehead but the disconnect between hospital and community has been palpable and frankly disorienting. At the height of the delta wave, people were having outdoor neighborhood gatherings and would greet me as I walked by. My wife was working the Covid unit then and I remember a friend at a gathering calling out and being very surprised when I told him things were worse rather than better. In fact, people were still dying of Covid from the Delta wave in December two months after the wave crested. Anyway, I remember my friend moving back to the party and disengaging by thanking my wife for “her service.” The surface motivation might have been to express gratitude, but thanking my wife for her service was also a profoundly distancing gesture.
There are many possible layers for that kind of distancing–American optimism thwarted, avoidance, cooties, whatever. What I think about is the way “getting back to normal life” has been such a standard reference during the pandemic. In this case, it was like my wife and the hospital were sacrificing so other people could be “normal” while “normality” has not only required sacrifice from the hospital but from all the people who have been killed or seriously ill as a result of Covid. People themselves weren’t willing to sacrifice much to combat the pandemic, but were quite prepared for other people to sacrifice so they could “get back to normal” after each wave, thousands locally (12,000+ in Kentucky) and hundreds of thousands nationally. Few things have become more evident than the unsatisfactory character of the “normal” in the overwhelmingly white parts of rural America. Narrowing economic prospects, declining life spans for men and women, pervasive alcoholism, increasing rates of suicide, and the epidemics of meth, heroin, and opioid addiction all testify to the difficulty of staying afloat in areas like rural Kentucky. Yet people are still desperate to have it.
Among other things, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday involves a recognition of the monumental stature of King and the Civil Rights Movement in U.S. history and national identity. Because of the signal accomplishments of the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Martin Luther King has the same historical stature that the Revolution gave George Washington and the Civil War gave Lincoln. Here at the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King is pictured across from the Washington Monument and near the Lincoln Memorial as he was about to embark on his own most memorialized moment.
+Toward the end of “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote that black people “will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” King emphasized the extent to which black people were part of American history and the American people. Although “abused and scorned,” black people were included in the “destiny of America” and had been since the first slaves were brought ashore in 1619. With Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a federal holiday celebrating King and the Civil Rights Movement, the black Civil Rights activists of the 1950’s and 1960’s were not just viewed as “included” in the American story but seen as actors in a crucial part of American history and also representing exemplary representatives of the courage, fortitude, and passion for justice that would make people proud to be Americans. People both at home and abroad could look at the history of the Civil Rights movement and think “this is who Americans are.” In other words, the people and actions of the Civil Rights Movement have become crucial elements in American national identity.
Many of my students at Morehead State in KY were in situations as dire or almost as dire as those recounted by “Birgit Umaigha RN MEd”–students struggling to find computers or internet hook ups for online work, working two or three jobs to pay for school, caring for siblings because of addicted parents, going through one death in the family after another, fighting off crushing anxieties. Everything became worse after 2014, but most students continued to do very good to excellent work even as my basic mantra was reduced to “do your best.”
I’m thinking about “check your privilege” as part of the intersectional perspectives that became prominent in the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to express the way that black women were subject to both racism and sexism. Neither Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, or Patricia Hill Collins believed that black women were the only group suffering from multiple, intersecting oppressions and ideas of intersectionality were quickly applied to economic class, immigrant status, disability, sexual orientation, and other hierarchies as well. Within intersectional perspectives, there developed a sense of being obligated to recognize both the fullness of the many ways in which a sector of the population could be oppressed and also the ways in which people could be “privileged” by advantageous positions in the social hierarchy. In this sense, intersectionality has always been associated with an obligation to recognize the full humanity of others.
At the same time, intersectionality has become associated with an ethics of self-recognition that is summed up with “check your privilege.” One element of checking your privilege is to be aware of one’s privilege which with intersectionality means being aware of the full range of social locations that give a person advantageous positions in the hierarchy. In my case, I would have race, gender, cis, educational, class, and ability privilege but would soon be coming up against the disadvantages of extreme age now that I’m almost 68. Within intersectional thinking, all of these privileged locations are identities in the sense of being social facts of my existence and also in defining my ways of perceiving the world, modes of action, etc. The idea of “checking your privilege” undermines the hegemonic white ideology of individualism which views individual attributes (“will,” “hard work,” “intelligence,” “talent,” etc.) as the only relevant source of one’s advantages and disadvantages in life. Consistent with the intersectional obligation to recognize the fullness of other persons, “check your privilege” pushes people, especially people in privileged locations, to engage in a full self-reflection on the nature of their own social locations.
“Check your privilege” also obligates those who are privileged to think, act, and speak on the combination of their reflections on the advantages conferred by various kinds of privilege and how their privileges oppressively affect other people. To “check your privilege” means that people in positions of privilege stop interacting with the world in terms of the social instincts, modes of perception, and cultural norms associated with their advantageous positions. In the case of many wealthy white persons for example, that would mean refraining from acting on their views of themselves as “well off” instead of rich, distinctions between their cultivated taste and middle-brow taste, and assumptions of various kinds of racial hierarchies. In this sense, “check their privilege” mean involves a critical self-reflection that puts a person outside the culture into which they have been socialized but does not put them into an alternative web of cultural assumptions. There is what Victor Turner called a “liminality” to the obligations involved in checking your privilege. For Turner, “liminality” was primarily a matter of cultural transition in which a person would leave one status prescribed within a culture without having yet adapted another status. “Liminality, in terms of social structure and time, is an intermediate state of being “in between” in which individuals are stripped from their usual identity and their constituting social differences while being on the verge of personal or social transformation.” In the case of “check your privilege,” the obligation is to suspend the cultural modes associated with privileged locations without having another set of cultural modes to adapt. The obligation of people to check their privilege entails a long-term state of liminality.
I’ve copied my recent and conference proposal for the meeting of the Kentucky Political Science Association in early March, 2022. My long-term goal is to develop a chapter on intersectionality for a book project on “Multicultural Democracy in America.” Over the next six weeks, I want to lay out the intersectional concept of identity as primarily defining complex kinds of “social position” and the black feminism of authors like the late bell hooks as obliging readers to recognize to recognize and account for the full humanity of black women. As I indicate, the imperative to recognition can be juxtaposed in interesting ways to the prototypical 17th century liberalism of English philosopher John Locke. However, intersectional concepts like privilege also contain imperatives for self-recognition that are already part of multicultural culture in the United State but go well beyond what is contemplated by Locke.
Originally developed within black feminism, the concept of intersectionality addressed the issue of black women being discriminated against for both being black and being women. Intersectional ideas begin appearing in black feminism as early as the 19th century, but a black feminist literature featuring concepts of intersectionality coalesced in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the writing of Angela Davis, the late bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term), and Patricia Hill Collins. The concept of intersectionality currently occupies a curious position in the U.S. cultural and ideological firmament. Intersectionality has become an important enough element of popular culture, corporate ideology, and Democratic Party policy agendas that intersectional ideas have in some ways become hegemonic. However, intersectionality has rarely been a topic of national public discourse and has gone largely unexamined in relation to political theory traditions outside Black American Thought. This paper examines intersectionality in relation to the political philosophy of John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government. In Locke, the creation of men as free and equal in the state of nature creates an imperative to recognize others as similarly free and equal and an obligation to refrain from harming or tyrannizing over them. Black writers have engaged with Lockeian-style ideas on natural rights since at least the 18th century narrative of Olaudah Equiano and Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Locke on the punishment of those who enslave others at the beginning of “The Case for Reparations.” My paper will examine the ways in which the original black feminist literature entailed an imperative to recognize the full humanity of traditionally disadvantaged populations, how the imperative for recognition was universalized as the intersectionality literature expanded to address sexual orientation, disability, immigrants, and transnational perspectives, and finally the ways in which intersectional concepts of privilege have come to obligate various forms of self-recognition.
In a surprise development, Chuck Schumer announced today that he would force a vote on the filibuster before Martin Luther King’s Birthday on January 17. The letter from the Democratic and Senate Majority Leader allows some wiggle room on whether the filibuster should be modified or eliminated, but the options are an illusion.
Eliminating the filibuster is now the official position of the Democratic Party.
Success in eliminating the filibuster is another issue entirely. Given that Manchin and Sinema are adamantly opposed, I don’t see where the votes are for filibuster reform.
However (and it’s a big however), coming out for such a fundamental reform is a Big F’ing Deal.
Right-wing celebrity and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently made a newsworthy contribution to the persistent discussion over white conservative secession from the United States. Secession themes emerged in conservative discourse first with the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 and then once again with the civil war chatter that followed the inauguration of Joe Biden after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Even when they’re in charge, white conservatives can barely stand living in multicultural, socially liberal and heavily urbanized America, and secession talk starts as soon as the Democrats get control of the government.
In this case, Greene takes an argument about limiting the voting rights of Northern snowbirds and California climate refugees to promote a “National Divorce Scenario” as a base framework for discussing the issue. There’s a bit of rhetorical cleverness in simply assuming that the break-up of the United States is a completely normal topic of discussion and that limiting the voting rights of those who move across political lines can be reasonably framed in those terms. Marjorie Taylor Greene isn’t stupid and, as Eric Swalwell stresses, “she’s not kidding” about splitting up the country and denying Democrats the right to vote.
But the rhetorical riff from Greene is pathetically thin compared to the enormous weight of breaking up the United States as a nation, and Rep. Reuben Gallego of Arizona (likely to mount a primary challenge to Kyrsten Sinema in 2024) isn’t having any of it, tweeting that “[t]here is no “National Divorce” either you are for civil war or not. Just say it if you want a civil war and officially declare yourself a traitor.” Like many white conservatives, Greene throws the term “traitor” around a lot as an insult, most recently calling out the 13 GOP reps who voted for the Infrastructure Bill as “traitors.” In the Constitution, treason is defined in terms of “levying war” against the United States “or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Once again, Greene’s rhetoric of treason against her version of the Republican Party is thin compared to Gallego calling out the civil war implications of “National Divorce.”
In fact, the whole idea of white conservative secession is misbegotten. Some of the main points:
Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas (109 electoral votes) are all purple rather than red states. As a result of Trump, all of these states tightened up with Biden winning Arizona and Georgia (both of which now have two Dem senators), North Carolina having a Democratic governor, and Obama winning Florida twice. The only one of these states where the GOP has won every time is Texas but Texas AG Ken Paxton admitted that Trump would have lost the state because “if his office had not successfully blocked counties from mailing out applications for mail-in ballots to all registered voters.”
All the big purple states have rapidly growing, super-majority blue metro areas. Phoenix in AZ, Atlanta in GA, the Charlotte to Raleigh belt in NC, and the Big Four in Florida and Texas are all just as diverse and liberal as major Democratic metros like Detroit, Denver, and Milwaukee and will grow more so as a result of anti-urban GOP policies. GOP politicians and consultants may be able to stave off Democratic futures but the trend is going the other way.
That’s why Greene’s whole argument is from weakness. The whole purpose of “National Divorce” from Greene’s view is withdrawing the big purple states from the country before they become Democratic Party bastions.
For Greene and white conservatives more generally, there are only two ways to deal with the development of a multicultural, socially liberal, and urbanized America–either Red State secession or the establishment of some sort of authoritarian conservative control over the rest of the country.
There’s a desperation under the surface of Green postulating a “National Divorce.” The rest of the country should remain steadfast and determined but there’s no reason to think conservatives are acting from a position of strength.
If the Build Back Better Act (BBB) actually did go down with Manchin’s Fox News interview on Sunday, what does that say about the Democrats and the Biden administration?
According to Manchin’s own testimony, President Biden and his staff are aggressive, determined, and disciplined. Here’s Manchin on the negotiating style of President Biden, the White House, and his Democratic colleagues in the Senate:
“They figured, surely to God we can move one person. We can badger and beat up one person…Surely we get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough,” Manchin told reporters after the vote. “Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia…I’m not from where they’re from. And they just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period,” he added.
Of course, Manchin’s bragging here about his petty, fragile, snowflake self (Manchin bolted from the negotiations because his name was used in a press release). But Manchin’s statement is what Trump would call “very strong” testimony to the toughness of Democratic negotiators up and down the line. They “badgered and beat [him] up,” made him “uncomfortable,” and just “beat the living crap out of people” with “people” referring exclusively to Manchin. Democratic negotiators were also highly disciplined. They were positive and courteous with Manchin despite his endlessly shifting positions, lapsing into simple-minded lobbyist speak, and refusal to say what kind of bill he would vote for. If Manchin sticks with his rejection of Build Back Better, his affinities were much stronger to his buddies in the West Virginia elite, his other buddies working for the coal and oil industries, and Republican buddies like Mitch McConnell and John Thune. Manchin doesn’t like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Democratic progressives (protesters) but doesn’t seem to like the full tilt ahead people on Biden’s staff either. All the buddies who make Joe Manchin comfortable are attached to an old political world that’s neither Trumpist or reformist where sleeping dogs like Joe Manchin can collect big campaign donations without being bothered by all the morality stuff that exercises so many people in the Democratic Party.
The combination of aggression and self-discipline came out even more strongly in press secretary Jen Psaki’s response to Manchin’s Sunday interview on Fox News. The White House were very nice and positive with Manchin during negotiations, but Psaki had no problems with absolutely torching Manchin after he betrayed them.
Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word. In the meantime, Senator Manchin will have to explain to those families paying $1,000 a month for insulin why they need to keep paying that, instead of $35 for that vital medicine. He will have to explain to the nearly two million women who would get the affordable day care they need to return to work why he opposes a plan to get them the help they need. Maybe Senator Manchin can explain to the millions of children who have been lifted out of poverty, in part due to the Child Tax Credit, why he wants to end a program that is helping achieve this milestone—we cannot.
Stereotypes of Democrats as “weak-minded,” “wimpy,” and in constant “disarray” are still popular with the mainstream media. But the Biden administration and Senate Democrats have been taking big swings and been aggressive, determined, and disciplined in pursuing their objectives. “Build Back Better” may go up in smoke but I very much like what I’m seeing.
Thinking a lot about bell hooks, the black feminist icon who died yesterday at age 69. In fact, I had a long dream about being at her wake. hooks was headquartered in KY for most of her last 20 years and I saw her speak where I was teaching at Morehead State in 2009 as well as other places in Kentucky and in Huntington, West Virginia. I’m also happy to say that I was able to introduce both my daughters to her. Being in her presence conferred a kind of blessing on them.
By the time hooks came to Morehead in 2009, I had already been teaching her books for almost 15 years. There hasn’t been any kind of reckoning of the place of black feminism in American intellectual and cultural life, but I had already believed that black feminism was the most dynamic new intellectual force since the 50’s and that bell hooks had the same kind of intellectual stature as a classic theorist like John Stuart Mill. I told her this directly when I met her before her speech in Morehead while also doing my best to hide my puppy dog fan boy mentality. Since her Morehead lecture, black feminism has gone way beyond being an intellectual influence and the core black feminist idea of intersectionality is now ingrained in mainstream American culture through music, movies, and official corporate, educational, and Democratic Party ideology. White conservatives complain relentlessly about the “wokeness” of American institutional life and much of that is an outcome of black feminism.
Along with “Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins, the work of bell hooks was my own entry into black feminist theory which was my main source of intellectual growth while I was teaching at Morehead State. Beginning around 1995, I taught a wide variety of her writings in political theory classes and kept teaching her works in my classes on love and social theory after I left political science in 2010. “Sisters of the Yam,” “Reel to Real,” “Killing Rage,” “Bone Black,” “Ain’t I a Woman?,” “The Will To Change,” “Feminism is for Everybody,” “All About Love,” “Communion”–all great stuff. For a long time, I taught “Killing Rage” as part of the introductory sequence in my history of political thought class. I wanted hooks’ treatment of race and gender issues foremost in student minds as they went back through classic authors like Marx, Mill, Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Plato.
Bell hooks grew up in Hopkinsville, KY in the western part of the state and lived in Berea for most of her last two decades. When teaching her books, I always emphasized that hooks was a Kentucky writer and in fact the most eminent Kentucky writer of our time. hooks was all about black women and I’m not sure she would have seen her writings like “Sisters of the Yam” being applied to white women as well. But I thought that part of her genius was providing a basis for marginalized white people in Appalachia to see their situations more clearly and I taught “Sisters of the Yam” in that spirit.
To be honest, hooks thought that kind of racial boundary crossing was weird. When someone introduced her to me at a reception before she gave her Morehead talk, hooks gave me a big hug and I bragged about bell hooks hugging me for a couple years to my friends. Her and I talked for 10 or 15 minutes and I had no idea what I said but she integrated some of our conversation into our remarks and kept going “that Ric is weird” and “Ric sure is weird” before mentioning my seeing the racial lines in somewhat of a different way from her. She was thinking about things I had been saying and that was very affirming.
It’s easy for a long-time lefty like me to be irritated with David Brooks, but his Atlanticessay on his conservative journey from the Republican Party to the moderate wing of the Democrats is searching, honest, well-considered, and well-written. Sure there are questions and quibbles starting with “Who is Edmund Burke?” Burke was an 18th century Irish politician with a seat in the British House of Commons who famously opposed the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France, a book that has dropped out of favor that Burke is somewhat forgotten, but was long considered a classic in political theory. And how exactly does a legend of self-confidence like Teddy Roosevelt count as a conservative in the Burke suspicion of over-confidence and rapid change? But Brooks has a strong account of the many ways in which Trumpism represents the death of the conservative intellectual tradition.
I tweeted about the conservative intellectual tradition not being all that and wise guyed about titling a history of conservative theory with a small tribute to W.E.B. DuBois: “Shakespeare Winced: A History of Conservative Ideas,” In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois wrote in opposition to white racist assumptions on his abilities.
“I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.
There’s not a conservative alive who can say the same.
For Brooks, Trump has conservative roots in the racism of figures like William F. Buckley, the super-charged individualism of the post-60’s era, and the sense of decline that developed during the Great Recession. He might have looked more closely at the “blood and soil” sensibility of anti-immigrant fervor and the over the top bigotry of the white conservative reaction to Obama. But Brooks views Trump as being just as “anti-conservative” as he is anti-liberal:
Both Burkean conservatism and Lockean liberalism were trying to find ways to gentle the human condition, to help society settle differences without resort to authoritarianism and violence. Trumpism is pre-Enlightenment. Trumpian authoritarianism doesn’t renounce holy war; it embraces holy war, assumes it is permanent, in fact seeks to make it so. In the Trumpian world, disputes are settled by raw power and intimidation. The Trumpian epistemology is to be anti-epistemology, to call into question the whole idea of truth, to utter whatever lie will help you get attention and power. Trumpism looks at the tender sentiments of sympathy as weakness. Might makes right.
Never Trumpers like Brooks weren’t the only ones responding to Trump though. The liberal/left that forms large majorities in the big cities and college towns, emerging majorities in the suburbs, and a steady minority presence in rural areas was aghast at Trump and even more aghast at the Trump voters among them. Following Adam Smith, Brooks stresses the role of “moral sentiments” in conservatism, “especially sympathy and benevolence,” sentiments that “move you to be outraged by cruelty, to care for your neighbor, to feel proper affection for your imperfect country.”
The moral sentiments of most Democrats have coalesced around both everyday support for equal treatment of black people, women, Hispanics, LGBT’s, and other ethnic and religious minorities and understanding of the many ways in which bigotries interact and reinforce each other. That’s the ethic of intersectionality that grew in close relation to the civil rights movement and it’s reflected in much of popular culture, education, corporate advertising, and the politics of the Democratic Party. Spread across the largest population centers and most ethnic groups in the U.S. the intersectionality or civil rights mentalité is mainstream American culture as well as the moral sense of the Democratic left. Concerning Trump, the outcome was a wave of moral revulsion first at Donald Trump, then at the people who voted for him, and finally at the Trump administration. In the case of white Democrats, people blocked Trump voters on facebook, cancelled right-wing relatives, and otherwise cut themselves off from camaraderie with people on the right. In many ways, the rejection of Trump and Trump voters confirmed Democrats in their civil rights mentalité and gave that moral sense more of a political edge.
David Brooks has moved into the moderate wing of the Democratic Party without really adapting the moral sense stemming from the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He also fails to recognize the extent to which the Trump constituencies associated with the Republican Party have rejected the civil rights informed American cultural mainstream and developed a three-legged counter-culture of conspiracy theories, gun culture, and the religious right. Given that 85-90% of Trump voting Republicans are white, the Trump counter-culture is an extremely large and now insurrectionary white nationalist counter-culture that is a destabilizing force in American society and a threat to democratic institutions.
The emphasis on moral sentiments in the conservatism of David Brooks is instructive. The question is whether a house divided between two antagonistic sets of moral sentiments can still stand.