Bree Newsome — the activist who brought down the Confederate flag flying outside the Columbia, S.C. capitol building in 2015 — shared a few harrowing details of that June day with a Cleveland audience rapt at attention.
“A supervisor came over and directed the two officers at the bottom to tase me,” she recounted for a hushed crowd of more than 150 at John Carroll University. “Now, being attached to a metal pole, that could have electrocuted me. At that point, James (Tyson, a white ally) grabbed the pole and said, ‘If you electrocute her, you’ll have to electrocute me too.’ And then they backed away.”
Newson took her bold action amid a renewed debate about the legitimacy of flying the Confederate flag. Just ten days before her climb to the top of that 30-foot flagpole, Dylann Roof murdered nine people studying the Bible at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof decorated his website with symbols of white supremacy and photos of himself with the Confederate flag.
Dozens of South Carolina activists met and decided the flag – aloft on statehouse grounds since 1961 – had to go. Newsome, 30 at the time, volunteered to climb the pole, and Tyson volunteered to accompany her. The two knew they risked arrest, if not serious bodily harm. The night before the climb, Newsome said she “prayed more fervently than ever before.”
“You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence,” Newsome bellowed from the top of the pole. “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” In video of the removal, Newsome is dressed in all black, thick locs cascading down her back as she looks skyward during her arrest, reciting Psalm 23.
At several points throughout her talk, Newsome paused to link modern events — like the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 — to those in the history books — like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955: “It’s important that we understand the largest historical context that informs everything that’s happening right now.”
Unlike many African-Americans, Newsome had a firm grasp on her family lineage. Her fourth great grandfather stood his ground as a slave and refused to be sold without his wife and newborn; she shared with the crowd a faded but surprisingly well-preserved photo of her third great-grandmother, who “prayed daily for her children to see freedom.” Her father, Clarence G. Newsome, is president of National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. It is this heritage, she said, that rings through her voice in the fight for racial justice.
Today Newsome works to build a more sustainable, less reactive movement. Part of that includes using the Ella Baker model for social change, in which activists are embedded in the community they serve. “I don’t really believe in the charismatic leader model,” Newsome said. “It has to be about empowering people around us and people taking ownership of their community.”
The audience of mostly students stayed engaged through the hour-long talk, which Newsome called “Tearing Hatred from the Sky.”
Asked to weigh in on the state of the American dream, Newsome suggested there is still room for optimism. “Turmoil isn’t something we have to fear. Turmoil is an indication that the ground is ripe for sowing the seeds of social change…I embrace this as a time of transformation and promise.”
Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” took home the Man Booker Prize for 2016, making him the first U.S. author to win the British award. The satirical novel, whose plot kicks off from an absurd trial that puts resegregation and slavery before the Supreme Court, was a unanimous choice for the judges. Historian Amanda Foreman, jury chair of the prize, called Beatty’s work “a novel for our times.”
“The Sellout is one of those very rare books: which is able to take satire, which is a very difficult subject and not always done well, and plunges it into the heart of contemporary American society with a savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain,” Foreman said. “It manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct nuance, every sacred cow. While making us laugh, it also makes us wince. It is both funny and painful at the same time.”
This marks the second major award for “The Sellout,” as it collected the National Book Critics Circle prize in March. Below, the review from our own Karen R. Long, a member of the NBCC jury:
Try reading the first paragraph of The Sellout aloud. Better still, in public. It begins “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything” and it ends describing our narrator handcuffed and sitting on “a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
As the poet Kevin Young points out in The New York Times, this bit “takes the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man’(‘I am an invisible man. No, not some spook . . .’) and spoofs it beyond belief.” Indeed, the satire of Paul Beatty corkscrews its reader into one stunning contortion after another, until it feels as if every social construct is splayed and strangled, caught like a codfish in the reader’s own horrified throat.
“Horrifying” is one of my margin notes. So is “outrageous,” “incendiary” and “tour de force.” The vehicle delivering this is the dazzling voice of the narrator, raised in a neglected “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he grows prize watermelon and omnipotent marijuana. (After he passes a blunt to a group of surfers, “shaggy, aboriginal, blond-haired white boys, damn near as dark as you,” one says: “Incredible bud, dude. Where’d you get this shit?” Answer: “I know some Dutch coffee shop owners.”)
In this way Beatty serves cake and eats it: confirming and blowing up an expectation in the same sentence, pretty much sentence by sentence. The protagonist’s father treats his son as a life-long demented experiment; he is known as “The Sellout!” during roll call of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, where our narrator scarfs down a “batch of Oreo cookies.”
California plays the bass line in this painful music; here is one passage I marked tour de force: “If places like Sedona, Arizona, have energy vortexes, mystical holy lands were visitors experience rejuvenation and spiritual awakenings, Los Angeles must have racism vortexes. Spots where visitors experience deep feelings of melancholy and ethnic worthlessness. Places like the breakdown lane on the Foothill Freeway, where Rodney King’s life, and in a sense America and its haughty notions of fair play, began their downward spirals. Racial vortices like the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where misbegotten trucker Reginald Denny caught a cinder block, a forty-ounce, and fucking centuries of frustration in the face. Chavez Ravine, where a generations-old Mexican American neighborhood was torn down, its residents forcibly removed, beaten, and left uncompensated to make room for a baseball stadium with ample parking and the Dodger Dog. Seventh Street, between Mesa and Centre, is the vortex where in 1942 a long line of buses idled as Japanese-Americans began the first step toward mass incarceration.”
Taking a page from Dave Chappelle, our narrator decides the solution lies in racially segregating the local middle school and reinstituting slavery on his own spread. The weird and terrible thing: it goes well. The novelist Mat Johnson praised The Sellout, telling the New York Times: “Hordes on Twitter spend all day arguing and denouncing each other over perceived identity slights, racial or otherwise. Beatty’s work is a beautiful reminder that sometimes you can say more by laughing at yourself than by screaming at everyone else.”
Maybe so. But if a joke is “the truth that’s gone out and got drunk,” this brilliant novel makes a case for Carrie Nation, looking for an ax to sober the place up.
The editors of the New York Times Style magazine invited four woman to write letters of appreciation to Michelle Obama for the October 23, 2016 issue. The first – and arguably the most powerful – letter came from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007. The following year she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and her third novel, “Americanah,” was named one of the ten best books of 2013. Adichie’s TED talks, “We Should All be Feminist” and “The Danger of a Single Story,” have attracted more than 14 million viewers. She splits her time between Nigeria, where she was born, and the United States.
Her letter to Michelle Obama already has the feel of a classic:
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
She had rhythm, a flow and swerve, hands slicing air, body weight moving from foot to foot, a beautiful rhythm. In anything else but a black American body, it would have been contrived. The three-quarter sleeves of her teal dress announced its appropriateness, as did her matching brooch. But the cut of the dress scorned any “future first lady” stuffiness; it hung easy on her, as effortless as her animation. And a brooch, Old World style accessory, yes, but hers was big and ebulliently shaped and perched center on her chest. Michelle Obama was speaking. It was the 2008 Democratic National Convention. My anxiety rose and swirled, watching and willing her to be as close to perfection as possible, not for me, because I was already a believer, but for the swaths of America that would rather she stumbled.
She first appeared in the public consciousness, all common sense and mordant humor, at ease in her skin. She had the air of a woman who could balance a checkbook, and who knew a good deal when she saw it, and who would tell off whomever needed telling off. She was tall and sure and stylish. She was reluctant to be first lady, and did not hide her reluctance beneath platitudes. She seemed not so much unique as true. She sharpened her husband’s then-hazy form, made him solid, more than just a dream.
But she had to flatten herself to better fit the mold of first lady. At the law firm where they met before love felled them, she had been her husband’s mentor; they seemed to be truly friends, partners, equals in a modern marriage in a new American century. Yet voters and observers, wide strips of America, wanted her to conform and defer, to cleanse her tongue of wit and barb. When she spoke of his bad morning-breath, a quirky and humanizing detail, she was accused of emasculating him.
Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.
“I love this country,” she said to applause. She needed to say it — her salve to the hostility of people who claimed she was unpatriotic because she had dared to suggest that, as an adult, she had not always been proud of her country.
Of course she loved her country. The story of her life as she told it was wholesomely American, drenched in nostalgia: a father who worked shifts and a mother who stayed home, an almost mythic account of self-reliance, of moderation, of working-class contentment. But she is also a descendant of slaves, those full human beings considered human fractions by the American state. And ambivalence should be her birthright. For me, a foreign-raised person who likes America, one of its greatest curiosities is this: that those who have the most reason for dissent are those least allowed dissent.
Michelle Obama was speaking. I felt protective of her because she was speaking to an America often too quick to read a black woman’s confidence as arrogance, her straightforwardness as entitlement.
She was informal, colloquial, her sentences bookended by the word “see,” a conversational fillip that also strangely felt like a mark of authenticity. She seemed genuine. She was genuine. All over America, black women were still, their eyes watching a form of God, because she represented their image writ large in the world.
Her speech was vibrant, a success. But there was, in her eyes and beneath her delivery and in her few small stumbles, a glimpse of something somber. A tight, dark ball of apprehension. As though she feared eight years of holding her breath, of living her life with a stone in her gut.
Eight years later, her blue dress was simpler but not as eager to be appropriate; its sheen, and her edgy hoop earrings, made clear that she was no longer auditioning.
Her daughters were grown. She had shielded them and celebrated them, and they appeared in public always picture perfect, as though their careful grooming was a kind of reproach. She had called herself mom-in-chief, and cloaked in that nonthreatening title, had done what she cared about.
She embraced veterans and military families, and became their listening advocate. She threw open the White House doors to people on the margins of America. She was working class, and she was Princeton, and so she could speak of opportunity as a tangible thing. Her program Reach Higher pushed high schoolers to go further, to want more. She jumped rope with children on the White House grounds as part of her initiative to combat childhood obesity. She grew a vegetable garden and campaigned for healthier food in schools. She reached across borders and cast her light on the education of girls all over the world. She danced on television shows. She hugged more people than any first lady ever has, and she made “first lady” mean a person warmly accessible, a person both normal and inspirational and a person many degrees of cool.
She had become an American style icon. Her dresses and workouts. Her carriage and curves. Toned arms and long slender fingers. Even her favored kitten heels, for women who cannot fathom wearing shoes in the halfway house between flats and high heels, have earned a certain respect because of her. No public figure better embodies that mantra of full female selfhood: Wear what you like.
It was the 2016 Democratic Convention. Michelle Obama was speaking. She said “black boy” and “slaves,” words she would not have said eight years ago because eight years ago any concrete gesturing to blackness would have had real consequences.
She was relaxed, emotional, sentimental. Her uncertainties laid to rest. Her rhythm was subtler, because she no longer needed it as her armor, because she had conquered.
The insults, those barefaced and those adorned as jokes, the acidic scrutiny, the manufactured scandals, the base questioning of legitimacy, the tone of disrespect, so ubiquitous, so casual. She had faced them and sometimes she hurt and sometimes she blinked but throughout she remained herself. Michelle Obama was speaking. I realized then that she hadn’t been waiting to exhale these past eight years. She had been letting that breath out, in small movements, careful because she had to be, but exhaling still.
For the last event of the inaugural Cleveland Book Week, Brian Seibert rolled up his cuffs and gave the audience at the Beck Center for the Arts what they had been waiting for: a live tap dance performance. Seibert, a New York Times dance critic and himself a studied dancer, chronicles the roots of this uniquely American art form in What the Eye Hears, winner of our 2016 award for nonfiction.
His remarks were peppered with video and audio from tap dancing’s origins, including some of the earliest recorded footage from the 19th century. To cap off his reading, Oberlin student Chandler Browne accompanied Seibert for a few minutes of breathtaking hoofing, inviting the audience to soak in both improvised rhythms and their rendition of the “Shim Sham Shimmy,” a tap dance classic. Take a look below:
Orlando Patterson, the public intellectual and Harvard University sociologist, made a deep impression on his audiences in Cleveland in September. He received a rousing standing ovation, capping the awards ceremony in the Ohio Theatre of Playhouse Square. A few listeners walked out – which is also in keeping with the tenor of the reception to his globally influential scholarship.
“At Harvard, neither personal comfort nor false harmony have ever been his goal; he has always challenged his fellow faculty with his outspoken and fearless ideas,” said Anisfield-Wolf Jurist Steven Pinker as he introduced Patterson. “As colleagues, we have all found him forthright and reliably engaged; however, his gracious manner, and the musical Jamaican lilt of his penetrating discourse, often mask the uncomfortable truth that we have just been served.”
At the awards ceremony, Patterson told Clevelanders, “Few other groups, with the possible exception of Jews in Europe, have contributed more to the culture of the group that dominated and excluded them than black Americans – in music, dance, theatre, literature, sports and more generally in the style and vibrancy of its dominant culture, America is indelibly blackish. Trying to imagine America without blacks is like trying to imagine Lake Erie without oxygen.”
Here are Orlando Patterson’s full remarks at the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. If you’d like to watch his acceptance speech, click here:
Thank you very much for that generous introduction, Steve. I am deeply honored by this award, made all the more gratifying by the fact that one of my dearest and most esteemed friends and colleagues is the person chosen to introduce me, based on remarks prepared by another greatly admired colleague and friend, Henry Louis Gates.
Cleveland Foundation President Ronald Richard, organizers and jury members of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Ladies and Gentlemen, in the few minutes that I have your attention, I want to reflect aloud with you on two great paradoxes of “race” in American civilization.
The first is the fact that, going back to the earliest years of the Republic, we find that Black Americans, while being exploited as slaves and workers, and while being shunned socially into rural and urban ghettos, have nonetheless been embraced culturally. Few other groups, with the possible exception of the Jews of Europe, have contributed more to the culture of the group that dominated and excluded them, than black Americans—in music, dance, theatre, literature, sports and more generally in the style and vibrancy of its dominant culture, America is indelibly blackish. Trying to imagine America without blacks, is like trying to imagine Lake Erie without oxygen.
The second paradox of race in America came with our glorious civil rights revolution. And it was a revolution, let us not forget it, as we seem prone to do today in expressing our outrage at the brutality of our penal and security system. In righting the racial wrongs of its past America did what no other white majority society in the world has been able to do—it opened its public and civic space to its once shunned black minority. Today black Americans are major players in the nation’s political and civic life, the election of President Obama being the capstone– a monumental one to be sure–but the culmination, nonetheless, of this great struggle by our civil rights fathers to achieve what Martin Luther King called the beloved community. Let us give praise where praise is due: our great nation is the supreme model for the rest of the world of how the polity of a great nation, the most powerful on earth, can integrate into the innermost corridors of power, the leaders of its once shunned minority.
Cultural integration and influence out of all proportion to their size, on the one hand, and political and civic incorporation, on the other, are the two great achievements or American civilization with respect to its African-American minority.
And yet, and yet, at the same time that we have witnessed this magnificent political and cultural process, this nation continues to witness the incredible social isolation and economic disadvantage of the black minority as well as the unprecedented and outrageous incarceration of black youth, most for crimes that all other civilized nations would treat as minor offences deserving rehabilitation rather than incarceration. It is truly amazing that, for all this progress black Americans remain today almost as socially segregated as they were in the late sixties; that for all this cultural and political progress, combined with striking changes in the racial attitudes of white Americans, black Americans are still twice as unemployed as white Americans, that they continue to earn 65% of the median income of white Americans, exactly the same proportion that they earned in 1970, that the typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black one, that one in 3 black youth are certain to spend part of their lives in prison, that the police of this nation still enter and treat black neighborhoods as if they are an occupying army and still feel empowered to cut down our black youth with impunity.
Nowhere in America are these two great paradoxes more evident than in this great city of Cleveland and the state of which it is a part. Last night I witnessed the extraordinary cultural presence of black America in our cultural life as I sat with the largest and most integrated audience I have ever seen, listening in rapt attention and near reverence to Rita Dove reading her gloriously American poems. And it is Cleveland and the state of Ohio, black and white, that twice voted for, and made possible the election of a black man to the nation’s and the world’s most powerful position.
And there was that amazing civic occasion several months ago when over a million persons turned out on the streets of your city to celebrate and worship the youthful, magically talented athletic gods that had brought glory and an unprecedented sense of civic pride to your city.
And yet, and yet, how many of those who came to cherish and give thanks to the young black heroes, on waking up next morning and seeing someone who looked like LeBron James moving in next door could resist the impulse to make a panic call to their real estate agent?
So this, ladies and gentlemen, in a nutshell is the great challenge that awaits us: to solve these two intertwined paradoxes of our national life. It can be done. Let us not be crippled by the miasma of pessimism that now stifles us. Let us not generalize our anger and outrage at the behavior of the nation’s police forces to chronic pessimism about the state and future of race relations in America. For if there is one thing that will ensure that the remaining work to be done in erasing racial bias and inequality in America will never be achieved, it is pessimism about it ever happening. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling malady.
What is needed is that same sense of racial justice and optimism about the future that animated the philanthropy of Edith Anisfield- Wolf. That same conviction about the possibility of America to change that inspired W.E.B DuBois and the other great political and cultural heroes of the Jim Crow era, and that motivated Martin Luther King to struggle and give his life for an America that fulfilled the rights enshrined in its Declaration and Constitution. With that conviction, with that optimism about the capacity of this great nation to change, this last most urgent challenge of social and economic integration can be met. In spite of all the obstacles and pessimism so much on display today, it will be done. Of that I am completely confident.
by Lisa Nielson,Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
I was taking an internet break from my pile of books in the National Library of Jerusalem this summer when a news article caught my eye. It reported the Jerusalem Pride Parade was going to kick off in about four hours — at 6 p.m. July 21, 2016 — in a park not far from where I was living. A year earlier, an ultra-orthodox fanatic stabbed six people at the march. One of the victims, Shira Banki, was 16 when she died. This time, the police were taking no chances. They blocked streets so participants could only join from certain points; they kept counter-protesters off the parade route and they prevented the family of the young girl’s killer from coming to Jerusalem.
I walked home, put on my purple “LGBT? Fine with Me!” shirt and joined the thin stream of people picking a way through the twisting back alleys and side streets of modern Jerusalem to reach the start. A crowd milled, waiting to go through security. Later I learned the organizers ran out of wrist bands. As I stepped into the park I found hundreds of people – shouting over pounding pop music, greeting friends, hoisting signs, draping flags. Some wore drag; some wore wings, some wore not much, but everyone seemed busy taking pictures with their phones. There were families with babies, soldiers in uniform, and visitors from outside Israel like myself.
My mother came out as a lesbian when I was 13. She did so at one of the toughest and most confusing times of her life, in conservative Salt Lake City. I remember being incredibly proud of her, yet too young to understand the importance of her decision. So my mom liked to sleep with women? Big deal.
Nevertheless, I found out we were not safe. Authorities might take me away from her; she could lose her job. Even worse, she could also be forcibly hospitalized. We knew a lesbian, I’ll call her Susan, who called a confidential hotline one night in desperation. The hotline worker called the police. We took care of her daughter while hospital staff gave her intensive drug and electro-shock therapy. Not long after her discharge, Susan killed herself – I never learned what happened to her child.
As the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case, I read each new crop of winning books, and this spring I was especially thrilled to find Lillian Faderman’s book, The Gay Revolution, on the list. It was enlightening, sorrowful and uplifting. I had grown up in the movement and yet there was much I didn’t know.
At 16, I had the pink triangle on my bag, a “Stop Heterosexism” pin on my hat, and was reading Audre Lorde. While in college, I helped carry the banner in the first Pride Parade in my tiny town of Bangor Maine, and participated in early local meetings of PFLAG. I was vocal supporting my LGBT friends and celebrating National Coming Out Day when it was still new. At times, I was harassed or criticized for my stance; others simply assumed I was a lesbian and dismissed me. Both responses taught me a great deal, as well as my own privileged position.
I am not a lesbian.
Like all the other identities in my life, I skirt close to the edge without being part of any. My mother laughingly called me her “heterodyke” and a number of women in the community were interested in me, but I turned out to be (perhaps disappointingly) straight. It didn’t matter to my LGBT community at all, which taught me another valuable lesson about tolerance and acceptance.
As I wavered about joining the Jerusalem Pride parade that afternoon in the library, I thought about my personal history and the historical weight of Faderman’s book. But it was the notion of my students that decided me. What would they like to see? How could I bring this experience into the classroom?
Yet, as I joined the crowd, I realized I was there for a wholly different reason. This was my community. I needed to be there, for me. As we started to march, I started to cry, and the tension of two months of intense work in an armed city began to ease. I held out my phone so I could film every second. Sure, I took pictures for others, but to be honest, it was all for me.
Some 6,000 miles from my apartment in Cleveland, I had arrived home.
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University.
This Halloween, families can share a treat that lasts longer than candy corn: “Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.”
Author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh – his mother is Mexican; his father is American – came to Cleveland in September to accept a Norman A. Sugarman honor award in children’s biography for the appealing, 40-page picture book.
It tells the story of Mexican artist and printer Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada, 1852-1913, who drew important political cartoons. The subject is best remembered for his whimsical drawings of skeletons – Calaveras – that have become synonymous with the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival.
“Skeletons riding bicycles . . . skeletons wearing fancy hats . . . skeletons dancing and strumming on guitars,” the book begins. “We call these festive bony figures calaveras. In Spanish, the world calavera [ca-la-VEY-rah] means “skull.”. . . The skeleton figures are not scary – in fact, they look as if they’re having fun.”
Wearing jeans and a slate-colored shirt, Tonatiuh told his Cleveland audience that he hopes more people will learn about Posada. “He was very poor at the end of his life, so poor that he was buried in a mass grave,” the author said. “He drew the skeletons that are so famous but we don’t know exactly where his bones are.”
Using both Posada’s drawings and his own to illustrate this sophisticated biography, Tonatiuh gears the book to children ages 6-10, but this work is absorbing at any age. The contemporary artist draws figures only in profile; his distinctive style is influenced by the pre-Columbian art and scripts known as Mixtec codex. This makes “Funny Bones” instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen Tonatiuh’s other books, “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote,” “Separate is Never Equal” and “The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanos,” which came off the presses last month.
“Thousands of children’s books publish every year and very few deal with children of color, maybe three percent are Latino,” Tonatiuh said during the awards ceremony at the Cleveland Public Library. “I hope this book is one that children who celebrate the Day of the Dead are excited to share with their classmates.”
Tonatiuh told NBC News that “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote,” an allegory for a dangerous border crossing, caused a group of fourth-graders in Texas to send him a video telling their own stories of migration.
“I think kids are extremely intelligent,” he told the broadcast outlet. “But I think that sometimes we don’t give them the credit they deserve.”