Friday, March 16, 2012

The Contradictions of Fair Hope

I really want to see this documentary! The Contradictions of Fair Hope

Here's a podcast with S. Epatha Merkerson talking about the doc.

Monday, March 05, 2012

A couple of juicy quotes from Imani Perry’s More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York: NYU Press, 2011).

Doctors choose which tests to order, juries choose whom to convict, producers choose which news stories to run, studio executives choose which projects to greenlight, teachers decide which kids go into accelerated classrooms and which go to special education, social workers choose who stays with their families and who doesn’t, restaurateurs choose to exploit cheap labor and hire undocumented people who cannot risk complaining when they are cheated and abused.  Choices, choices, Choices.  Chances are the individuals making these decisions would not identify themselves as bigots even though we can see the racial preferences embedded in their choices.  Many are likely to be people who identify themselves as victims of discrimination themselves.  This story about the inequality encountered in the life journey and the data that I have cited is offered as evidence that there are cumulative patterns to be found in the choices that individuals make, patterns that are often not readily identifiable if one looks at the actionsor beliefs of an individual but that emerge when one looks at how many individuals choose to act in the same way (p. 37).

In academia, we often talk about structural or institutional racism versus personal racism.  This distinction takes on several different manifestations.  One is the idea that, even as personal racism has subsided, structural or institutional racism is sustained.  What is often meant is that resource gaps and information gaps and institutional policies account for inequality of opportunity.  The problem with the discourse around structural racism is that it codifies the stasis of inequality in such a way that it appears impossible to challenge it without revolution or at the very least, massive reform.  The discourse of structural racism in my mind has lost much of its usefulness.  It absolves responsibility and dampens activism…We [should] deliberately shift our attention from thinking about personal versus institutional racism to focusing on how the accumulation of practices of inequality—engaged in by professionals, average citizens, and residents, as well as by groups acting in a common interest—translates to large-scale institutional, social, economic, and political inequalities.  If we are to make that shift, with the ultimate goal of changing the practices of inequality, we must investigate how we learn to ‘be that way’ and how to ‘be different’ (p. 42).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chris Christie, the Flag and Homophobia

I’m amused.  New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, really knows how to change the news when he’s about to get a lot of bad press.  Want to veto a pro-same sex marriage bill?  Bring up a flash-in-the-pan controversy that will have no lasting impact.

Of course, maybe he really loves Whitney Houston and demonstrates that when he issued an executive order lowering of the flag to half-staff to honor her on the day she is buried.  But unless he’s more stupid than I believe he is, he must have known that his actions were bound to offend many social conservatives.  Here are two typical responses from comments on the blog, Northwest Ohio:

As a member of the US military I couldn't be more offended. She died of the decisions she decided to make. Our military members gave their life's [sic] fighting for us and not because of stupid acts of drug use. If the flag is at half staff for her I would want to see him removed from his position.


This is a perfect example of what is wrong with our country! This is sickening and discusting [sic]! I thought Christie was a really good politician, BUT I wouldn't vote for this pathetic waste of human being. Matter of fact, Christie and Bill Reilly aren't Americans and should leave our country!

Surprisingly, perhaps, Bill Reilly defended Christie’s decision.  I think his endorsement is a sign that this anger won’t last very long.  Now, Christie gets to seem like not such a bad conservative as he vetoes a bill passed onto him by the New Jersey Assembly that gives same-sex couples the right to marry.  

My friends know that I hate conspiracy theories.  But, I love to acknowledge brilliant strategies when I see them.  Politicians know that you just have to feed the media a new juicy story if you don't like what they're reporting and the press will change the headlines for you.  

Let’s see if he gets away with this one.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Maids and Madams

This discussion of The Help, has gotten me really interested in a comparison between domestic servants and race in the US and South Africa.  First, I turned to Zanele Muholi’s work on what she calls domesticated labor.  This first photo is from her "'Massa' and Mina(h)" project.  Thanks to Ellen for helping me find these.

For her interesting statement on the project, click here.

And one of our favorites:

For an extra delight, see this blog piece on Zanele’s work by the brilliant Columbia University professor Hlonipha Mokoena from the Africa is a Country blog:

I also asked my South African friend, Jabu Pereira, if she had seen the film.  She had many insights about the problem of having the film set from the white woman’s viewpoint that echoed many of our concerns over here. 

Then we turned to the experience of seeing the film in a largely white audience.  She said that she was one of three black people in the theater.  The white folks were quiet both throughout the film and when it was over.  They didn’t even laugh at the things that were meant to be obviously funny.  She said that she and her friends were cracking up but noticed how uncomfortable the rest of the people were.  They must have thought: "Has this happened to me?  Have I thought I was eating a delicious pie when I was eating s**t?"  What I thought was over-the-top humor really hit home for some people.  Who knew?

The audience Ellen and I were in was also largely white.  The black people seemed very moved by The Help and were not ready to leave when it ended.  We both noticed, however, that the white people laughed really loudly at any of the humor and they cleared out of the room quickly at the end.  But Elle and I had different interpretations of their laughter.  I thought they experienced the humor as a kind of comic relief that allowed them to escape from the tensions of the movie and dis-identify with the white racists.  Ellen, on the other hand, felt that the laughter had a darker origin—most white people’s custom of laughing at black people’s ‘antics’ on screen. 

Again, what I find most interesting are the contrasts.  If I were starting out in my career, I’d love to do a historical study that compares domestic workers, race and class in the US and SA.  There are so many similarities that the differences would illuminate so much in each culture.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Cultural Studies Response to the Movie, The Help

I finally got a chance to see The Help.  The Newark (DE) Free Library showed in Friday night and Ellen and I went.  Having seen so much criticism by people whom I respect but also having heard positive reviews from a few other people I also respect, I wanted to see for myself what I thought.  [Here’s a thoughtful review that includes a list of other great reviews Critique] As is typical of me, I come down somewhere in the middle.  But this isn’t because I’m being wishy-washy.  I just think that the product, like most popular culture products, can elicit contradictory and even competing interpretations.

At heart, the movie is a film about race that is intended for a largely white, mass audience.  No matter how well intended or potentially progressive a project is, this goal inevitably creates certain well-known problems.  Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help, on which the movie was based, must have appealed to the film’s producers precisely because it had a white woman at the center with whom a mass audience could identify.  Since the contrasting behavior of the white people was central to the film’s narrative, there had to be so many white people in it that there was little room for black characters.  The two main maids, Aibileen played by Viola Davis and Minny played by Octavia Spencer, had to represent virtually all black women.  The Minny character particularly suffered from this problem; she had to be funny, sassy, lovable, mean, domestically abused, brave, and more.  Only a great actor could carry all that off as well as Spencer. 

We all know that, usually, race movies designed to attract white audiences are to be avoided.  But a movie about black maids: we had to go see it!  Our mothers and grandmothers scrubbed and bowed so we could become black intellectuals.  Someone more poetic than I has to say what those women mean to us.  I can’t resist the desire to proudly proclaim that my mother worked as a maid from time to time, even though that was not her primary identification when I was growing up.  I was lucky to get my first job cleaning a store at 14 because my aunt who was a well-respected domestic worker recommended me.  These women are close to my heart.

I don’t know about my colleagues and friends; but I had mixed emotions as I watched The Help.  There was something so appealing about the way Viola Davis played her part that even people who hated the film wanted her to get best actress awards.  That so many praised her performance made me feel that I wasn’t the only one who had conflicting emotions about the movie.  How could she be so separated from the rest of the movie?  Was there something about the contrast between her role and that of Cecily Tyson’s that has meaning for us?  I know I wanted to hide in a hole when Tyson was on the screen. 

I’ve seen my sister scholars complain that too many realities about black maids’ lives were left out.  Where was the reference to sexual harassment, they demand.  To me, that seems more like a criticism that should be made of a documentary than a feature film.  More troubling is the charge that The Help downplays the dangers and systematic oppressiveness of the Jim Crow South.  I hope my sister scholars will allow me the room to present an alternate view.
By focusing on the relationships between black and white women, the movie is able to show the daily, bitter humiliations that women faced.  In fact, the film is unusual for its emphasis on white women’s racist pasts and the horrors of the domestic sphere.  And, it was very clear that those women were ready to resist Jane Crow wherever and whenever they could.  Those old segregated, rattle-trap buses that delivered women from the ghettoes to the white areas were meant to remind us of Rosa Parks’ heroic deeds.  The shooting of Megar Evers was suppose to indicate how dangerous life was for blacks in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi.  The state was there to enforce white women’s policing of black women’s behavior.  The domestic worker who ended up in jail—whose name, ironically, I can’t seem to find online—represented that story.

While I was writing this post, a South African friend Skyped Ellen and asked if we had seen the The Help.  She and her girlfriend had just been to see it and wanted to know what we thought of it.  This is a woman who grew up with a live-in domestic worker as a mother. The mother’s ‘liberal’ employers were relatively generous but seemed blissfully unaware of the toll that umama’s absence took on her own children.  Our friend cried during the movie; it touched something deep inside her. 

I’m not trying to legitimate my view of the film by presenting an ‘authentic’ response to The Help.  I’m sure the reasons the film touched our friend are as complex as the reasons that make us have conflicting emotions and responses to it.  I mention it because it reminds me of what Stuart Hall teaches us: the meanings of cultural products are never fixed as good or bad or positive or negative.

Monday, January 09, 2012

I wanted to love the film, The Iron Lady.    I knew that Merle Streep would be superb as Maggie Thatcher.  She was spectacular; and I rarely use that word.  Unfortunately, her great performance makes the film more problematic than had a lesser actor played the Prime Minister.  Streep makes Thatcher adorable and lovable.  Through at least half if not more of the movie, one wonders how the opposition to her atrocious policies would ultimately be presented.  In brief decontextualized snippets, we see riots, rebellions, terrorism, and liberal opposition to her policies. 

Then, most distressingly, the Falklands War was presented as a triumph for Thatcher.  There was a sight intimation that the war was a disaster for a weakened economy and no hint that it was a nationalist cover for the Iron Lady’s shameful policy of sacrificing the poor and working class for the benefit of what we now call the 1%.   Any hope that the movie would explain the fury behind the opposition to her vanished.  We learn more about the impact of her hard work on her family life than we do of her policies’ impact on the poor and working class.  We learn virtually nothing about Britain’s decline as an empire.  Indeed, the ‘triumph’ in the Falklands made it seem as if Thatcher had restored the empire.  Now, there’s a fantasy for you.  

I suspect that the focus on what it means for a powerful woman to age will appeal to many of my fellow baby boomers.  That’s a hard narrative to resist.  And, if we know nothing about the increasing divide between the wealthy and the poor and the displacement of the British international supremacy with the American empire, the Thatcher story is simply about a bourgeois and narrow feminist triumph over a male dominated institution.  And, as the coopted feminist narrative goes these days, the real cost of her achievements were to her children and husband. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

updated CV


Work Home
Gallatin School of Individualized Study
New York University
1 Washington Place, Room 503
New York, New York 10003


Ph.D., Boston University, 1978
Major Field: African History
Minor Field: African American History

M.A., Boston University, 1973
Major Field: History

B.A., Wheaton College (MA) 1971
cum laude and with departmental honors in Urban Studies


Professor of History, Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU July 1998 to present

Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Faculty of Arts and Science, NYU, 2010 to present

Professor of History and Black Studies, Hampshire College, 1990 to 1998

Five Colleges Graduate Faculty, 1986 to 1998
• Supervised MA and PhD theses in anthropology and history departments at U. Mass-Amherst

Associate Professor of History and Black Studies, Hampshire College, 1983 to 1990

Assistant Professor of History and Black Studies, Hampshire College, 1980 to 1983

Assistant Professor of African History, Departments of History and Pan African Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, September 1978 to June 1980

Instructor, History Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone Freetown, Sierra Leone, November 1975 to June 1976

Vice Provost for Faculty Development, New York University, September 2008 to 8/2009

• Supervise Office of Faculty Resources, Center for Teaching Excellence; Faculty Resource Network; Office of Equal Opportunity;
• Oversee university-wide faculty diversity efforts
• Chair, Special Council on Faculty Diversity

Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, New York University, September 2005 to August 2008

• Advised provost on faculty appointments, tenure, and policies
• Member of President’s Senior Team of 12 people
• Supervised Office of Faculty Resources, Center for Teaching Excellence; Faculty Resource Network; Office of Academic Appointments; Office of Equal Opportunity; Scholars at Risk Network
• Oversaw university-wide faculty diversity efforts
• Act as provost’s liaison to the Faculty Senator’s Council, the School of Social Work, and the humanistic social sciences in the School of Faculty of Arts and Science

Dean of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU, July 1998 to June 2005

• Chief academic, administrative, and fiscal officer of a school with 1200 undergraduates, 200 masters students, and a $20m budget
• Increased the school’s visibility and reputation both in the university and throughout the country; greatly increased the applicant pool (over 30% in the last year alone)
• Raised over $25m in last two years for major capital campaign
• Led the school to build a stronger, more diverse faculty and a more coherent curriculum; retention steadily improved

Dean of Faculty, Hampshire College (Amherst, MA.), July 1994 to June 1998

• Chief academic officer for the college with four schools and approximately 90 faculty members and 1200 students
• Supervised the library, academic computing, admissions and financial aid, registrar, advising, and more
• Managed major restructuring of the faculty from four schools to five
• Significant improvement of faculty diversity
• Substantial growth in admissions applications

Dean of the School of Social Science, Hampshire College, July 1991 to June 1994
Chief academic officer of a school with approximately 40 faculty members


Manuscript Reviewer
Cornell University Press
Syracuse University Press

Co-chair of the Executive Committee, Metro New York/Southern Connecticut Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), 2006 to 2009

Participant, Institute of Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Summer 2006

Chair, NYU Council of the Deans, 2001 to 2005

Chair, Review Committee for Proposed Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program, Louisiana State University, 2001

Series Editor, Critical Studies in Racism and Ethnicity, Temple University Press, 1997 to present

President’s Commission, Wheaton College, 1997 to 2003

College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board for Adelphi University, 1997 to 1999

Planning Committee, Black Women and the Academy Conferences, 1994 and 1997

Selection Committee, Frederic W. Ness Book Award, 1995

History Department Visiting Committee, Amherst College, 1995

Chair, Five Colleges Black Studies Executive Committee, 1981 to 1982

Visiting Research Scholar, Institute of African Studies, Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1975 to 1977


Kidder-Peabody Grant for research in The Gambia, Spring 1989

Letitia Brown Memorial Publication Prize of the Association of Black Women Historians for the best book in 1987 on Black Women (Sierra Leone's Settler Women Traders), Fall 1987

Catherine T. & John D. MacArthur Professor, Hampshire College, 1985 to 1988

Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in Sierra Leone and The Gambia, Fall 1983

Mellon Scholar, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women program on integrating women into the humanities, Spring 1983

National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend for research in South Carolina, Summer 1982

A.W. Mellon Faculty Development Grant for research in Sierra Leone, 1980 to 1981

Roothbert Fellowship, The Roothbert Fund, 1977 to 1978

Kent Fellowship, The Danforth Foundation, 1975 to 1978

African American Scholars Council Grant for research in Sierra Leone, 1975 to 1976


Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, Temple University Press, 2001

With Iris Berger. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History. Indiana University Press, 1999. Reprinted in Japanese in 2004

Sierra Leone's Settler Women Traders: Women on the Afro-European Frontier. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, Women and Culture Series. 1987. (Winner of the Letitia Brown Memorial Publication Prize of the Association of Black Women Historians, 1987)


Review of Jackie Ormes: The first African-American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein, forthcoming.

“Adelaide Casely Hayford.” “Constance Cummings-John.” and “Race: Overview.” Contributions to Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford University Press, 2007

“The Evidence of Things Not Seen: The Alchemy of Race and Sexuality” in James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays. Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott (eds.) Palgrave Macmillan 2006

"Africa on My Mind: Gender, Counter Discourse and African American Nationalism." Journal of Women's History. Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring 1990). Reprinted in Expanding the Boundaries of Women’s History: Essays on Women in the Third World. Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel, (eds.), Indiana University Press, 1992; in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, (ed.) The New Press, 1995; and in Is it Nation Time?: Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., (ed.) The University of Chicago Press, 2002

"Women of Western and Western Central Africa." Restoring Women to History: Teaching Packets for Integrating Women's History into Courses on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel (eds.) Organization of American Historians, 1988

"Racisme et sexisme: La confrontation des feministes noires aux formes conjointes de l'oppression." Les Temps Modernes. Vol. 42, no. 485, December 1986

"Women, Work and Ethnicity: The Sierra Leone Case." Women and Work in Africa. Edna Bay (ed.) Westview Press, 1982


“Market Women in Sierra Leone and South Carolina.” The Sierra Leone-Gullah Link Series. Smithsonian Anacostia Museum. June 23, 2011.

“Connecting Diversity and Globalization: Immigration and Access.” The Future of Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education: A National Forum on Innovation and Collaboration, Rutgers University, December 3-5, 2008.

“Faculty Diversity in the (Post) Obama Era.” Making Excellence Inclusive: Promoting Diversity in Higher Education—a conference organized by a coalition of Higher Education Recruitment Consortia, November 7, 2008.

Beyond Michigan. A summit organized with Professor Susan Sturm of Columbia University. Invited guests included diversity vice provosts from Brown, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Penn, and Yale; legal counsels Jonathan Alger, Rutgers University, Anurima Bhargava, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Sheila O’Rourke, U.C.-Berkeley. June 2008.

“Black Feminist Theory and Black Masculinity.” Invited panelist for the Scholars Network on Masculinity and the Well Being of African American Men. Funded by the Ford Foundation. Duke University, March 15 and 16, 2008.

Plenary Panel Member, Strategies for Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling. Faculty Resource Network National Symposium on Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy, Johnson C. Smith University, November 16, 2007.

“The Suppression of Slave Trade Memories.” Keynote address at Slavery, Anti-Slavery and the Road to Freedom, conference held by Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. May 2007.

“Teaching and Research at Fourah Bay College before the (Sierra Leonean) Civil War.” Lecture delivered at the Institute of African Studies, FBC, University of Sierra Leone, February 2005

“Liberal Education in a Research University.” Lectured delivered at the Ministry of Education, Freetown, Sierra Leone, February 2005

“Liberal Education and the Contested Meanings of Freedom.” Paper delivered at the Smith College Symposium, “What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts Today?” May 2002

“Marking Race: Race, Respectability, and Nationalism.” Lecture delivered at Institute for Research on Women, Rutgers University at New Brunswick, October 2001

“Race and Gender in Hiring in American Higher Education.” La Universidad de Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 1999

“Evidence of Things Not Seen: The Alchemy of Race and Sexuality.” Paper presented at Princeton University Conference, Race Matters, May 1994

“Gender, Sexuality and Nationalism.” American Historical Association annual meeting, San Francisco, CA., January 1994
“Who Represents the Race?” University of Oregon at Eugene, October 1992

"Black Feminist Voices." University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, March 1991

"Theories and Societies Structured in Dominance—Black Feminist Interventions." Lecture delivered at Hampshire College as part of the Five Colleges 25th Anniversary Lecture Series, February 1991

"Gender, Counter-Discourse, and Afrocentric Thought." Williams College, February 1990

"Africa on My Mind: Searching for the African Roots of African-American Women." Paper delivered at Clark University conference, Women on the Frontiers of Research: An Interdisciplinary Conference, March 1988

"Black Feminism and the Politics of the Black Family." Williams College, February 1987

"The Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Constructing Race and Womanhood in the 19th Century." University of California at Santa Cruz, February 1987. Also delivered at the National Women Studies Association meetings, June 1987; and Simons Rock at Bard College September 1987

"Race, Gender and Science." Conference organized at Hampshire College with Ann McNeal; participants included Evelynn Hammonds, Venessa Gamble, Darlene Clark Hine, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Rita Arditi and Allan Brandt, January 1987


Learning to play jazz piano