Just who is an American Indian?

For hundreds of years, this riddle of identity has vexed the federal government and the tribes alike, writes Marcos Barbery, an investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker. He and his co-director, Samuel Z. Russell, worked for four years to craft a concise 64-minute movie to explore it.

By Blood,” sponsored by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards at the 2015 Cleveland International Film Festival, takes up a contentious case moving through the federal courts now: Descendants of slaves once owned by the Cherokee and Seminole nations, made members of the tribe by treaty at the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, are fighting to continue to be counted as Indians. And leaders of the tribes are opposing them, having disenfranchised some 30,000 people.

“The Freedmen descendants are waiting for a decision right now,” Barbery said in a telephone interview. “The issue is ongoing—we were filming in February and we have a new cut. There were protests three weeks ago in Oklahoma City.”

The consequences have economic, racial, and cultural ramifications. If the African Americans lose, the matter could well go before the U.S. Supreme Court, Barbery said. “This is a conflict between tribal sovereignty and the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery). These are two traditionally oppressed communities battling it out.”

Asked about the tone of “By Blood,” Barbery said, “It’s anything but a downer. It’s a journey through this world—Indian County—populated by an enormous number of African Americans. It has all kinds of twists and turns and there are moments of humor.”

Both directors, both 34, will be present to answer questions at the Cleveland screenings: 9 p.m. Thursday, March 26 and 12:10 p.m. Friday, March 27. Tickets are $13 for film festival members, seniors and students; $15 for others.

Moviegoers can receive a $2 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, walked to the lectern at the City Club of Cleveland and managed to distill two years of work on “The Case for Reparations” into an eight-word thesis: “What you have taken should be given back.” It’s time, he argues, for America’s moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

For Coates, 38, the spotlight has never been brighter. His 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, buttressed by original research, an extensive bibliography and film clips, broke the record for single-day traffic on the magazine’s website when it was published May 21.

Coates took comic Stephen Colbert’s jabs on “The Colbert Report.” At MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Coates onto her eponymous show, while Bill Moyers provided an argument-expounding forum on PBS. But Coates, who brought to the City Club both father, William Paul Coates, and an iPad full of notes, was humble. He defined patriotism as “love of country” and pointed out that—just as his father loves him and his wife loves him—love rarely involves telling him what he wants to hear. Mature love, mature patriotism, means facing the things that do not credit the beloved.

Asked by an audience member what reparations would look like, Coates suggested that they could resemble the reparations the U.S. government provided the Japanese-Americans wrongly interned during World War II and the financial compensation made to Jews by the German nation after the same war. He stressed that housing and educational policies of discrimination and racism harm African-Americans to this day and that the same policies undergird white supremacy.

The Baltimore native arrived at the Atlantic in 2008 after stints at Time magazine and the Village Voice. Coates’ regular column at The Atlantic has become a hub of intellectual discourse on the web, where he has held court on everything from the NFL banning the N-word to President Obama’s reproach of young black men in a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Asked about the state of investigative journalism, Coates stressed that his magazine editors put substantial resources into richly documenting “The Case for Reparations” and creating a full multimedia narrative as well.

Coates insists on history. “You have to imagine a society where owning people is not just legal but our greatest intellectuals are arguing that it’s morally correct,” Coates told a silent crowd. “We have to learn to consider enslavement, in that time, as legit an institution as home-ownership is, in this time.” He called out Natchez, Miss., not New York City, as home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in 1860’s America. This is because it was the major hub for slave trading.

One of Coates’ admirable traits is his quick acknowledgment of his limitations. He told the audience that he had dropped out of college; he demurred from answering a question that he didn’t feel well-read enough to take on. He said that in June he started a seven-week French immersion class at Vermont’s Middleburg College. “I just wanted to go someplace where I was the dumbest person there. I was just bumbling around; I was making mistakes. Because it’s good to be reminded that it’s not about you.”

The best thing to come out of writing the reparations article was that “now I know,” Coates said. “And I can’t be lied to.”

Briefly, he mentioned protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aching to use historical context to uncover an accurate picture. He asked what police—who have used toxic language and intimidating displays of force on protesters and journalists—might have done before the eyes of the nation were upon them. He suggested that those in the audience with white bodies need not worry about a day when they would be shot dead in the afternoon and left in the street for four hours, as happened August 9 when Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. “All I want to see is some history of the housing there. We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”

Twice during his talk, Coates spoke of the mental and spiritual strain that accompanies being black in America, and his wonder at the continuing optimism of African Americans. He prescribed international travel. “Because this thing will consume you,” he said. “It will eat you. It will eat your soul. It will make you forget you’re a human being with particular likes and dislikes and things that make you different…You are more than a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s important, for our own mental health, to get out every once in a while.”

When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates visited Cleveland on a frigid February morning earlier this year, he was blunt when asked about America’s trouble acknowledging race. “You can’t have America without black people,” he said. “Once you understand that, you understand that the black experience is at the core of what it means to be free.”

His latest treatise for The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” throws down the gauntlet on one of the most contentious subjects our nation has grappled with: how to make amends for 250 years of U.S. slavery. “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap,” he writes. “Reparations would seek to close this chasm.”

But more than simply attaching a monetary figure to the sacrifices African-Americans have made during their tenure in America, Coates, 38, is asking for a moral reckoning: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

Coates draws from the work of several Anisfield-Wolf winners in crafting his argument (he said that reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns was a defining moment for him). Coates’ strategically appeals to our patriotism: We are Americans and we deserve better from our public policy—and each other. His calls for a more just society are strengthened by noting (in great detail) the injustices of the past, incidents unlikely to be found in textbooks. 

Coates appeared recently on PBS’ Moyers & Company to discuss his thesis. The entire segment is worth watching and sharing. Let us know your views. 

 

 

When screenwriter Misan Sagay visited the storied Scone Palace in Scotland, an 18th century painting of a pair of aristocratic women — one a woman of color, the other white — caught her eye.

Despite the antiquity of the painting, the women were positioned and clothed in equal fashions — an arrangement that intrigued the screenwriter. It started her hunt — years combing through archives — to piece together the history of those two women. Her research informed the screenplay for “Belle,” the film based on the darker-skinned woman in the portrait, opening in theaters today.

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays the title character, Dido Elizabeth Belle, born the biracial daughter of an Navy Admiral and African woman in 1761. Sent to live with her aristocratic uncle, Dido straddles two disparate worlds, struggling to find her place in a British high society that both beckons and snubs her.

Directed by Amma Asante, “Belle” attracted strong notices during its run at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, where another historical drama (“12 Years a Slave”) stunned crowds and went on to nab the top prize at the Oscars.

Might “Belle” be the next historical film starring people of color to generate Hollywood buzz?

Where can one find Nat Turner’s Bible, Emmet Till’s coffin and Harriet Tubman’s shawl? Answer: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in late 2015.

Additionally, one of the nation’s oldest remaining slave cabins will be joining these artifacts in Washington, D.C., according to the New York Times.

The 320-square-foot cabin is being dismantled piece by piece, to be rebuilt inside the museum. It is one of two slave cabins in Edisto Island, S.C. They have stood on the Point of Pines plantation since the 1850s. Neither cabin has ever had electricity or heat, but continued to shelter inhabitants more than a century after slavery ended. The last known occupants moved out some 30 years ago.

Curator Nancy Bercaw said the museum was drawn to this particular plantation because slaves first emancipated themselves there after Union troops set up a stronghold in the Carolinas. The cabin will join the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit that covers the post-Civil War era.

The museum will be the first new Smithsonian museum since the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004. To get a preview, you can download “View NMAAHC” and “Changing America: To Be Free,”  both free apps for the iPhone and Android.

March 10th, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, a woman whose name is synonymous with bravery and freedom. 

Growing up, I attended a small public school in East Cleveland, where each of the students was required to learn the following poem by Eloise Greenfield: 

 

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff

Wasn’t scared of nothing neither

Didn’t come in this world to be no slave

And wasn’t going to stay one either

 

“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night

She was mighty sad to leave ’em

But she ran away that dark, hot night

Ran looking for her freedom

She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods

With the slave catchers right behind her

And she kept on going till she got to the North

Where those mean men couldn’t find her

 

Nineteen times she went back South

To get three hundred others

She ran for her freedom nineteen times

To save Black sisters and brothers

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff

Wasn’t scared of nothing neither

Didn’t come in this world to be no slave

And didn’t stay one either

 

And didn’t stay one either

For young black children being taught by (mostly) black teachers, this was but one way they introduced us to our heritage. The Harriet Tubman I was introduced to was fierce and fearless. As Greenfield wrote, she “didn’t take no stuff.” This woman was one of the giants whose shoulders we stood on. 

And now, on the anniversary of her death, we are reminded that her legend still looms large over us but she remains largely a mystery. Our very own Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s most recent piece for The Root, “How Did Harriet Tubman Become A Legend?,” explores what historians know thus far of this American hero: 

In 1849, a young woman hurried along a path cutting through a marsh in Poplar Neck, Md., near the town of Preston. She was a slave, barely 5 feet tall. She was scarred from several beatings. She alternated between walking and running, like thousands of other slaves had before her, desperately hoping to cross the Mason-Dixon Line to the get to the North, to freedom in Philadelphia. With a great deal of luck and skill, she made it. And what did she do once she was free? Unlike virtually any other person before her or after, this fugitive slave turned around and walked back into slavery, counter-intuitively, in order to free other slaves. And for this, she would become a legend.

Read Gates’ full post here.