Monday, December 1, 2014

On Ferguson and Separate Worlds

I've been reading a wonderful book--Writing With Scissors--and it seems very apropos for what is going on right now with media coverage of the murder of Michael Brown.  You wouldn't think it, of course, from the book's title: Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance and some of the reviewers on Amazon are mighty disappointed that it doesn't tell you more about scrapbooking techniques.  But as I've been reading it, in conjunction with a few other books on the Civil War, Race Relations, Gender and Race I've learned something new and important.  Maybe its not new to everyone and maybe it shouldn't even be new to me but, damn, you are never too late to learn something new about an old subject. What Garvey teaches us is that there exists a publicly shared medium--such as newspapers--that through a raced and gendered activity like scrapbooking can create and entrench a cultural set of meanings, a shared history and also mark, fix, and contest that shared history.  You can see it in the different ways Northern and Southern (white) women and men clipped, circulated, shared, and pasted stories and news accounts of the Civil War and its aftermath. And you can see it in the way the newly freed African American slaves clipped, circulated, shared, pasted, and commented on stories in the post war white and black press.

Of the wartime scrapbooks Garvey argues that North and South drew on separate news sources but, where they had to share news sources clipped or ignored specific pieces of news in such a way as to build up or explore their own "side" of the conflict.  Certain emotionally significant pieces of story, memoir, or poetry transcended sides by being clipped and stripped of identifying markers such as poems of grief and loss about infants, which could stand in for loss of soldier sons without attributing a Northern or Southern valence to the story.  After the war, Garvey demonstrates, the two sides both joined in creating new, shared, memories of the privations of the war and also handled the post war period differently.  When read in conjunction with David Blight's magesterial Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory you can see individual citizens actually performing the act of remembering and forgetting that he describes on a National, political scale performing the same function in the intimacy of their own homes, in the privacy of their own grief.

 Blight demonstrates, through a study of speeches and public acts, the ways in which the War against Slavery and the Reconstruction itself were slowly vanished from public discourse in favor of praise for a shared "soldier's faith" and "soldier's duty" and an imaginary union of mourning mothers for all the dead (white) sons.  Garvey shows this happening with specific poems, stories, and recipes or memoirs of Southern White suffering which come to circulate in the North as well as the South.  Garvey also shows us that the war for the understanding of the war which was happening in scrapbooks throughout the conflict ended in a different way and at a different time for North and South.  Not surprisingly, but shockingly, Northern Scrapbooks end with Lincoln's assassination while Southern Scrapbooks end five years later with Lee's death.  One way of looking at this fact is that the horror of Lincoln's assassination basically kills off the ability or desire of the Northern scrapbooker to contemplate the war and its meaning.  While the refusal of Southern Scrapbookers to "end" scrapbooking at, say, Appomatox, is a sign that Southern Scrapbookers continued to see the war as happening, and the meaning of the war, in a historical and cultural sense as something to be fought over.  The war ended for the North with the winning, while the South continued to fight for its "lost cause" through other means.  Garvey has some data on the post war publication of anthologies of Southern wartime domestic writing and poetry and its sale up North which proves the point.  While the North failed to spread the gospel of abolition and freedom through cultural motifs like poetry, short stories, recipes, and memoirs of the struggle the South rushed to fill the gap, very self consciously, and sold these stories in national newspapers and magazines specifically aimed at a new pedagogy of the Southern Cause.  Since the war for freedom included Reconstruction, losing the war for the definition of the struggle resulted in a failure of Northern/Republican willingness to fight for Reconstruction--as you can see in Blight's account of famous abolitionist Greeley's turn towards Southern sympathizer after the war.

What does all this have to do with Ferguson and the current rise of overt White Racist language and viewpoints in the press? The second half of Garvey's book introduces us to the world of African American Scrapbooks which served an entirely different purpose from white people's scrapbooks--a historical and polemical purpose from the get go.  Fredrick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, like other public figures (white and black) kept scrapbooks of their own exploits, lectures, and public appearances. And they also kept scrapbooks as a way of fixing public accounts of atrocities and historic events which would not be reported anyplace other than the newspapers.  Douglass and (I believe but I'm not going back to check before posting) Wells and others urged ordinary African American citizens to cut and paste incidents such as lynchings or other violence against the ex-slaves so that if they were called upon to testify or to present written testimony they would have the information/proof at their fingertipes.  No public libraries, or no access to public libraries for blacks and no access to newspaper morgues for blacks meant that buying and clipping news stories as they happened was the only way for African Americans to gain access to their own historical record: to clip, paste, read and share newspaper accounts was the only way to participate in maintaining a historical record.  But, like Southern writers who had to clip Northern accounts of the war, African American scrapbookers used their scrap collecting to "talk back" to a presumably hostile account, a foreign account, of a shared history.  Garvey has fantastic examples from several important male scrapbookers** who used their positions (in one case as a janitor) to access reams of newspaper and other accounts and who cut and pasted those accounts in a very organized way to respond to or critique the partial nature of white newspaper accounts of black life.  One of these albums (or several of these albums) were focused on "Negro Centenarians" since the occasion of a person reaching 100 years of age was considered so important and remarkable that even white papers would cover it.  The scrapbooker used white and black accounts (if available) pasting them up together so that one "responded" to the other--the respectful nature of the black account pointing up the disrespectful nature of the white account.   At the time these scrapbooks were put together a Centenarian would have been a child during the Revolutionary war and Garvey argues that the scrapbooker was asserting, through these clipped obituaries or notes, on a US history in which black people were always present, always significant, always part of US history.

Garvey touches on a very interesting aspect of this shared but contested history: that children and teens were exposed, in African American families, to a kind of news/history that was hidden from white children and teens.  Because AA scrapbooking was seen as an important historical and educational duty a teen might be shown a scrapbook full of accounts of lynching, at a time when white teens were scrapbooking romantic images and pictures from Hollywood or of celebrities. AA scrapbooking was political and intertextual, while post war white scrapbooking was personal and focused on ideas of personal growth, success, and popular culture.  Garvey tells a story of a young AA woman receiving shocked criticism from her white teacher for having a scrapbook filled with "horrors" like lynching instead of bobby soxer style concerns.

This post is way too long for anyone to read so I'll just jump to my point which is that you can see the same thing happening right now, with the supposed "news" from Ferguson--the white and black viewpoints expressed in comment threads around the country show a completely balkanized news circulation: white people (minus liberals and radicals) believe that they "know" the "facts" of the case as reported to them by unimpeachable news sources that Darren Wilson was viciously attacked by an enormous, drugged up, black thief and he had to shoot to protect himself and the at risk population around him.  Black people and the white people who follow a different set of publications or Internet sources know that an unarmed black teenager was killed by an out of control white cop who along with his entire police force had a history of jacking up and arresting black people for minor offenses so that fines could be levied that would pay for the entire police/justice apparatus without raising taxes on white citizens. See Radley Balko's invaluable article on this point.  White people who aren't paying attention, or who are actively pursuing a racist agenda, believe that the protests were always riots and that riots are always proof of criminal intent masquerading as political action.  Black people and (some) whites know that riots are the natural result of a pattern of confrontation and aggression from the police and the political hierarchy which stifle ordinary means of representation and accountability.  White people hear that black people get shot all the time because they are criminals so when they hear, if they do, that a 12 year old boy named Tamir Rice was shot by two police officers, or that a perfectly innocent man who entered a stairwell when two police officers were patrolling got shot without warning, they assume that the police officers must have had a "legitimate reason."  The rest of us know that the police are out of control and completely unaccountable at this point. But basically to the extent that we are seeing the same media we are clipping, pasting, and circulating different stories about our national life.  One party clips, pastes, twitters and circulates a set of stories about out of control, animalistic, blacks and one clips, pastes, twitters and circulates a counter story.  But the two accounts don't intersect and only one talks back to the other or presupposes that the official story is not the real story.

If we lose this battle for the meaning of Michael Brown's death, or Tamir Rice's death or John Crawford's death we are, like the ex-slaves and the abolitionists, going to lose the battle for the heart and soul of the country. We are going to lose our chance to move this country forward.  We can't afford to be complacent about this.



**No time here to go into why the gender of the scrapbookers changes when you move from the white community to the black community but it would be a very interesting study.

7 comments:

  1. I'm having trouble entering to edit this so I thought I'd put this link here:

    http://gawker.com/my-vassar-college-faculty-id-makes-everything-ok-1664133077

    Its a link to a great essay by Kiese Laymon about the different worlds/different experiences of black and white, even within a supposedly liberal academic context.

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  2. The part that bugs me the most is all those who know perfectly well that the cops are lying but support them anyhow. It's very tribal, facts be damned, just yell the loudest.

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  3. Lovely. I was thinking about twitter right from the top and composing a comment that would have been a lot like your conclusion except you wrote it better. Sometimes lines of communications are open with the other side, last fall I was helping rednecks think about health insurance and I think some may actually have done so. But now it's just frozen.

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  4. Hey Yas, nice of you to pop by. On reading this post over I apologize for how dull it is, compared to how vital the issue remains. Basically we have separate worlds and separate experiences and different communities are unable to communicate with each other because they are ending up with different information streams and different understandings. But its not the case that "both sides do it" or that there is some equivalence between the two sides in this case. One side, the liberal side, has a grasp of a real issue and is offering real solutions to a real problem. The other side is manufacturing an issue where none exists--I'm thinking about the crazy woman who was "Witness 40" before the Ferguson Grand Jury. I can't link to it here but it was up at Kos. She has intruded herself into the case in order to testify that the shooting was justified. And she really thinks it is justified because she remembers being chastised for jay walking when she was a girl by a police officer and simply accepting his right to threaten to spank her, and being ordered by her family to respect his authority. In her reading of the incident (which she falsley claims to have seen) Michael Brown is an instance of something terrible and terrifying: a decline in the ability of authorities to be obeyed instantaneously. Her slavish devotion to the idea of authority and her mourning for a golden age in which nothing bad could happen because people did what they were told is so divorced from reality that she can't even grasp that shooting someone for jay walking is absurd. This is a totalizing viewpoint, a paranoid viewpoint, which the left/African American viewers don't share even when they call the police to account. There's no golden age to be recaptured--but there's no golden age ahead either. There is just a reasonable, adult, attempt to figure out the problem and fix it.

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  5. It wasn't too long for ME to read!

    Thanks.

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  6. Hi Juliagrey. Nice to see you here.

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