Cotton, Sugar, & the N-Word: Why History Matters

Maybe the n-word is just a word, maybe cotton is just a plant, maybe sugar mills are just historical artifacts, but when a person is keenly aware of their history, IT. MAKES. A. DIFFERENCE. We cannot ignore historical context in modern discourse.

ON THE N-WORD

by Channon Oyeniran

“When I hear the N-word, I still think about every black man who was lynched—and the N-word was the last thing he heard.” – Oprah Winfrey

As I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook a few weeks ago, an article caught my attention, “If you truly knew what the N-word meant to our ancestors, you’d NEVER use it.” I thought to myself, “That’s for sure!” I know the word is horrendous, and I have cringed every time I hear it and have been called it, but I still decided to click on the link so that I could learn a bit more about the origins of this detestable word.

768px-you27se_just_a_little_nigger2c_still_youse_mine2c_all_mine_28nypl_hades-610093-125607929The author of the article, Brandon Simeo Starky, said this about the n-word and why it was used: “The best explanation of what I gleaned, what social scientists called internalized oppression, describes the psychological trauma that ensues when a person from a stigmatized group believes those negative stigmas. White folk indoctrinated them into accepting their supposed inferiority. These [slave] narratives illustrate the success of this campaign of mental terrorism, and no word conveyed the depth of this internalized oppression more than ‘nigger.’” What was clear to Starky while reading these slave narratives was the self-perception that those enslaved had about themselves based on the use of the n-word. It was clear to him, and became clear to me as I read, that the primary purpose of the n-word was to dehumanize, demean and break the spirit of those hearing it. It was used every day, all day, 24/7/365 and has been around longer than the existence of the USA. For this reason, many of those who were enslaved, and their descendants, internalized the meaning of this word.

 

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Enslaved black people were called the n-word as if it was their name, and the word was found in literature, media, entertainment, comedy, marketing and advertising of products, etc. If I haven’t gotten this point across, know that this word was everywhere, used all the time to degrade the very souls of black people. Doing a slow, psychological work in them, causing deep emotional damage, passed down through generations, that will take many years and much work to undo.  

Some say that it’s okay for black people to use the word. I disagree. I get that they have tried to reclaim it and use “nigga” instead, but I just don’t think it’s necessary or warranted. Whenever I hear black people using this word, I say to myself, “Do they know all of the history behind this word, like really know….?” 10214542_1_xThis word was used as our name. Although we had names, we heard this word so much that we started to internalize it and believe that we were n*****s and nothing more, that we had no value.

To see what others had to say about the n-word, Michelle and I sent a series of six questions to black women and men of different ages. We got back four responses and many of the answers were quite similar. (Huge thanks to those who participated and sent responses back!)

  1. Is it ever okay for non-Black people to use the N word (in context, joking, repeating, etc.)?

The general consensus was a resounding, “NO!” But Subria had a great response to this question.

Subria: It is never okay for a non-Black person to use any variation of the word: nigger, nigga, or my nig. When non-Black people use it, it comes with a history of violence. If a non-Black person says it, they are demonstrating their complicity in that violence, it will never be their word to claim, no matter how many rap songs and no matter how many black friends they have. And the black friends that don’t call them out need a history lesson as to why it’s grounds to whoop that a$$. (Q: Can I say that last part?)

  1. Is it okay for Black people to use the word?

Gail: After really understanding where that word comes from, I don’t know why they would want to. I think it’s best to educate them and have them really understand the history of it. There are some great books and movies that will really hit home (12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation, etc). I feel like if black people really understood the weight behind it they would not use it so freely.

Subria: Yes, it is okay for Black people to use the word. It surprises me that, particularly among black academics, the choice is made to use “the n word” instead of writing out or saying the word “nigger”. It’s a hurtful word and it stings on our ears. Just like the violence of the word stung our ancestors and continues to do to their offspring. This choice to use the “the n-word” pacifies the continued reality of its violence and this upsets me tremendously. Adding an additional perspective, I’ve yet to encounter a black person who says the word nigger casually. When the word “nigger” is used by a black person [casually], it is usually in haste and a demonstration of a black person displaying anti-blackness. [Emphasis added.]

Shenaz: I am not particularly fond of black people using the N-word, although some would say that by using it as a black person it takes the power away from non-black people; however, the history behind the word never changes.

[Sidenote from Michelle: Scholars like James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have used the n-word in its full form to great effect. Christian hip-hop artist Sho Baraka also used the word on his album, Talented Xth. I believe the word can be useful in particular circumstances, for particular purposes, by black artists, scholars, writers, etc. at their discretion.]

  1. Does it really matter? It’s just a word!

Gail: It’s not just a word because there’s a lot of history behind it. It may not mean anything to person who is ignorant of that history, but it can be hurtful to someone who does

Muna: It’s the intention behind it that matters more than the word. You can always tell when it’s ill-intention for the most part.

Subria: It certainly matters. Language shapes culture and culture creates norms.  It is still normal to inflict violence on black bodies because white supremacy and racism have deemed that black people are inherently “lazy, violent, brute, a burden, and niggers”.  Black people are loosening the noose on centuries of white-violent branding. Black people are replacing, reclaiming, and kicking racism where it hurts through languages. Shifting and rewriting the narrative through a Black perspective is liberation, and this is why language that concerns Blackness in its entirety matters.

In all of these responses, the history of the n-word and where it came from was mentioned — How it was used to dehumanize, degrade and oppress black people from slavery to the Jim Crow era. How this word was created to differentiate and then used solely to demean people because of the colour of their skin. This word was a tool of oppression to the enslaved, to break them down and to kill their minds and spirits, especially while working in the fields cultivating things like cotton and sugar that ultimately filled the pockets of those who enslaved them and meant privilege for their descendants.

ON COTTON & SUGAR

by Michelle Palmer

Desktop7-001For most people in my circle, the reasons why using the n-word is a bad idea may go without saying. But there’s another issue that may not be so clear: cotton. A friend sent me an email about the cotton display at Hobby Lobby and asked for my opinion.

On one hand, as a white person, I personally don’t see it as racist at all. I have white relatives who are cotton farmers and did a family portrait in front a field of cotton. I just saw it on my Facebook feed a few days ago and thought, “That’s so precious!” It was beautiful, it represented who they are as a family, I loved it. My sister-in-law has a cotton bud wreath that I think is gorgeous. It’s literally just a plant. It, on its own, is neutral, at least to me, a white person.

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That being said, I was at Kent House last weekend, and I saw something that turned my stomach. The thing that bothered me most was seeing a sugar mill, with sugarcane planted around it, and the sugar kettles on display. It turned my stomach because I’m keenly aware of the effects of sugar on slaves. I think about it every time I pass a sugarcane field. Desktop7-003I’d probably think about it if I saw it at Hobby Lobby too. Harvesting and refining sugar was one of the deadliest things a slave could do. I didn’t see any reference to that. In fact, there’s an event coming in November called, “Sugar Days,” where the whole process will be demonstrated. And I’m guessing the dangerous, life-threatening parts of the process will be omitted. I’m also assuming they won’t discuss the high death rates and low fertility rates amongst slaves associated with sugar production. The sugar is neutral, the kettles are neutral, but being SO in tune and aware of the history makes me feel sick to see it being displayed in that way.

Maybe to display cotton as décor isn’t inherently racist, but if this woman was as keenly aware of the history of cotton in America as I am about the history of sugar, I can sympathize with her reaction. Since then, I’ve talked to several others who had the same reaction as this lady. Desktop7She isn’t alone. Of course, I wish she had expounded on her thoughts more to help others understand the depth of her hurt and why it upset her so much, but when someone is triggered that way, we can’t expect them to do the hard work of educating the rest of us as well.

Maybe the n-word is just a word, maybe cotton is just a plant, maybe sugar mills are just historical artifacts, but when a person is keenly aware of their history, IT. MAKES. A. DIFFERENCE. We cannot ignore historical context in modern discourse.

So, fellow white people, here’s the deal: We can probably never do away with the n-word. We can probably never do away with cotton and sugar mills and all the things that conjure painful imagery for people of color. But we can acknowledge the pain of others. We can minimize the triggers. And we can definitely do better.

I saw this comment on the post from Lipscomb University by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, and she said so eloquently what was in my heart as I thought about the issue:

“If you can only see this as an issue of being offended by cotton, instead of a deeper systemic problem, you will never be able to meaningfully connect with our black brothers and sisters. You will continue to drive a wedge in this already tenuous relationship by refusing to acknowledge the pain, racism, and microaggressions they experience daily. […]

Reconciliation must start with white people. You may say that’s racist, but let’s be intellectually honest here. Collectively, it has been our people who have systemically oppressed, intimidated, threatened, and subjugated black people in our country. We should absolutely be trying to bridge that gap and heal deep wounds passed down from generation to generation.

Again, if you are offended by other people’s offendedness, it is not about you. […]

We may make mistakes and be clumsy in our approach, but we pray God will give us grace as we learn what true respect and reconciliation looks like.”


For more information…

History or Hate? The Confederate Statues of New Orleans

Seeing symbols like these around my city day in and day out would be greatly offensive to me and my heritage. Knowing what my ancestors had to go through and how they were treated for centuries and then to see these monuments would be a grave insult to my sense of identity as a black woman.

by Channon Oyeniran

It’s a topic of debate these days: removing memorials to the Confederacy…Is this the right course of action? A way to heal the deep-rooted pain that enslaved African-Americans and their descendants have endured for centuries? Surely this is a step in the right direction? However, not everyone thinks so. At last, some steps are being taken to dismantle symbols whose histories are steeped in racism. This is what the city of New Orleans is doing by taking down four monuments built following the Civil War. (Though not immediately following the war. Many Confederate monuments were erected during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.) However, there are have been protests, as well as counter-protests, over the last few weeks in response to the imminent removal of the monuments. Desktop6The controversial decision to remove these monuments came in December 2015, six months after white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into a South Carolina church and shot dead nine black parishioners. These monuments were built by people who wanted to display that the Southern states should not feel any guilt for having participated in the war. While that point may be debated, it’s no secret that violent white supremacists cling to these symbols. When Roof committed his heinous crime, it sparked a debate about Confederate symbols across the southern states in America. (You may remember the moment Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag that flew above the South Carolina capital only 10 days after Roof’s attack.) Many see these Confederate symbols as disrespectful, inconsiderate and extremely racist to millions of African Americans and their ancestors, who were forced to endure enslavement at the hands of white men and women for centuries.  

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said this about removing the four Confederate statues:  “Symbols matter and should reflect who we are as a people. These monuments do not now, nor have they ever reflected the history, the strength, the richness, the diversity or the soul of New Orleans.” 4-confederate-monuments-up-for-removal-in-new-orleans-flickr-ap-640x480As times are slowly but surely changing, cities and states around America are attempting to do what they can to rectify the wrongdoing brought against African-Americans in the period of slavery. Last week, under the cover of darkness, masks and police protection, workers began to dismantle the first of the four statues. This is to protect themselves and their families against possible retaliation for being part of taking down what some see as a heritage site. The city plans to move forward with the removal of the remaining three monuments after the New Orleans Jazz Fest concludes on May 7th. The city of New Orleans will seek out a museum or storage area to keep them. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, in private funding, to relocate the monuments.  

To understand the controversy,  we must first understand the history of these monuments, why they were erected in the first place, and what they represent.

Liberty Monument:

LANORbattle_ks03The first monument that was taken down was Liberty Monument. Built in 1891, the Liberty Monument was built to commemorate an uprising by white Democrats, who opposed racially integrating the police force and the Republicans who governed the state of Louisiana. Author Clint Smith commented on the importance of the monument on Twitter. (You can read the entire thread here.) He said, “The New Orleans government then erected the monument to commemorate the battle’s role in establishing white political dominance in Louisiana. All to say, the monument served both a symbolic & literal commemoration to white supremacy. It should have been taken down long ago.” If the history of the monument isn’t enough to convince you, consider this:  the inscription on a plaque that was on the monument from 1932 up until 1993 read in part: “[…] the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” In 1993, a vote was taken to remove the statue, but instead a new inscription replaced the old one that said: “In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place” and called it “a conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”

Statue of General Robert E. Lee:

A monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee towers over a traffic circle in New Orleans

After raising the funds needed to build this monument, the statue of General Robert E. Lee was erected in 1884 in New Orleans Business District. Robert E. Lee was a general in the Civil War and was known for commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 until he surrendered in 1865. Although there are mixed accounts about whether Lee supported or opposed slavery in the southern states, under his command, troops were given permission to actively raid settlements during significant missions like in 1863 when his troops invaded Pennsylvania and were able to freely capture free blacks and put them back into the institution of slavery. New Orleans native, Wynton Marsalis said it best about the erection of Lee’s statue: “Robert E. Lee betrayed his sacred oath to support and defend the Constitution and instead chose to lead an army intent on its violent overthrow — and he lost. The Civil War was a costly victory for democracy, but long after it had been decided, the backwards thinking leadership of this city erected monuments to Confederate generals who had committed treason against the United States — and lost. Lee’s monument was erected to proclaim this arrogance across the ages, and reclaim as a victory what was lost on the battlefield.” Furthermore, Lee himself did not support erecting statues in honor of Civil War generals.

Equestrian statue of General P.G.T. Beauregard:

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Like Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard was a General in the Civil War. In fact, it was Beauregard who ordered the first shots of the war. Beauregard was first selected to be in charge of Charleston, South Carolina’s defenses during the Civil war and then was appointed the first Confederate general officer. He was then appointed to be a brigadier general in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States in March 1861 and then in July of the same year was promoted to full general in the Confederate Army. After the war, and perhaps surprisingly, Beauregard supported equal rights and unification. The statue, however, depicts Beauregard the Confederate general, not Beauregard the proponent of civil rights.”

Statue of Jefferson DavisStatue of Jefferson Davis:

Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. He was also a Democratic U.S. Representative and Senator from Mississippi, as well as the 23rd U.S. Secretary of War. But most importantly. and why the statute is controversial, is that Davis was a plantation owner who owned slaves and financially prospered from the institution of slavery.

Protests:

Although these statues clearly represent racism and white supremacist views to many, there are still those who believe these monuments are a cultural legacy and that they are about heritage and not hate. Harcourt Fuller, assistant professor of history at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said, “Supporters of the monuments see them as part of their ‘historical and cultural legacy’ that needs to be maintained and protected.” In a city that is predominantly African-American, these statues represent a time in American history where their ancestors were treated as less than human, as “property” and nothing more. Activistsconfederate_statues_new_orleans_44962-jpg-24013_83555476ae21103051ffca63afef3369-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000 opposed to the removal of the monuments have had vigils, written articles opposing the removal, been vocal on social media platforms and had intense public meetings to argue against taking down these statues. Things have been so intense that a car of one of the employees hired to take down the monuments was set on fire. As mentioned before, those taking down the statues have had to mask their identity for fear of reprisal against them and their families for their part in this.

Symbols like these statues, which cause emotional trauma to some, should be kept in museums, so that they are not forgotten, but also not in public for all to see. Taking down the statues doesn’t erase what happened, but it makes clear that what happened is not to be celebrated or memorialized with monuments in honor of “the traitors who fought against the United States to uphold slavery.” 

battle-of-liberty-place-monument-afcc3caf84bc7bc4jpg-75f3cf0dac746f00As a black woman, I totally understand why the people of New Orleans would want symbols such as these to be taken down and placed elsewhere (for those who still want to view them and who see them as cultural reminders). Seeing symbols like these around my city day in and day out would be greatly offensive to me and my heritage. Knowing what my ancestors had to go through and how they were treated for centuries and then to see these monuments would be a grave insult to my sense of identity as a black woman. It would be a constant reminder that I as a person am not valued or respected. It would feel like the leaders in my city didn’t acknowledge or care about me, my family, my ancestors and the contributions they made to build that city where we live. I applaud those in New Orleans who have worked so tirelessly to ensure these statues are removed, and I hope other cities soon follow suit. 

“After Hurricane Katrina, the support we received from people all over the world clearly demonstrated their appreciation of our culture and our character. The intensity of this love was demonstrated with unprecedented assistance of all kinds. We should transform the current Lee Circle into an inviting space that celebrates the communal intentions of the international community that helped us survive Katrina. This place would fill the heart of our city with something uplifting for us all and for all times. That, and not the stubborn echo of a shameful period of our history, should be the mythology we strive to teach to our kids and leave for our descendants.”

– Wynton Marsalis


For more information…

The Worldwide Problem of Sex Trafficking

 

by Channon Oyeniran

“The brothels are incredibly lucrative. The girl who ‘cost’ $150 can be sold for sex up to ten times a night and bring in $10,000 per month. The only expenses are payments to the police [bribes] and a pittance for food.” – Kevin Bales, Disposable People

 

As previously mentioned in posts here on Tuesday Justice written by Michelle and myself, modern slavery and human trafficking are not new phenomena. Rather, there is a growing understanding of just how complex these systems are. Modern slavery comes in various forms such as chattel slavery, debt bondage, forced labour, sex trafficking, etc., to name a few. However, as Michelle mentioned in last week’s post about forced labour, she, and I too, “[…] noticed that sex trafficking/sexual exploitation gets far more exposure than labor trafficking/forced labour…” While any form of slavery is wrong, in this week’s post, I want to discuss sex trafficking, what it is, downloadexamples of where it is happening (spoiler alert: everywhere) and what WE can do to help victims and fight against sex trafficking.

Defining Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking:

I think that it’s important that we define and know exactly what some of these terms and definitions mean. This will help in understanding and being able to spot modern slavery and human trafficking situations when we may see them.

(Note: It should be noted that there is some debate surrounding these terms, but we are using the most common and leaving the debate to the scholars, for now.)

Modern Slavery

4bb5e79cff3b44e186cdb670a1625cfb_7When defining what modern slavery is, I believe we need to look at defining it in comparison with historical slavery. Historically, slave owners and masters legally owned enslaved people, thus making them their legal property. However, the perpetrators who participate in modern slavery do not legally own the people they enslave and exploit; rather they use tactics of manipulation, fraud, trickery, force and violence to ensure that people remain in their control. In 1926, the member states of the League of Nations (a predecessor of the United Nations) came together for the first time, creating the Slavery Convention, defining a single definition for what slavery is and establishing global, compulsory rules to abolish it. The League of Nations defined slavery as this: “Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” (Emphasis added.) This definition of slavery shows us an absence of legal ownership in the master-slave relationship. The similarity in both historical and modern slavery is that an enslaved person is forced to work through fraud, deception or the threat of violence for no pay beyond receiving basic things like food and clothing. Another central aspect of slavery found in both the historical and modern is the loss of freedom and choice that the enslaved person experiences.

Human Trafficking

human20trafficking20definition20boxAccording to the US Department of State, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000 and which aims to punish traffickers while protecting their victims, whose status might otherwise make them vulnerable to arrest or deportation, defines human trafficking as: “The recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” This is just one definition of human trafficking and is sometimes used in law to enforce and prosecute perpetrators when they are involved in this aspect of modern slavery.

One major factor that can contribute to people being trafficked is their economic situation. Trafficking often directly relates to economic circumstances, which can directly contribute to the continuance of human trafficking and modern slavery. Many people around the world are living in bondage based on their financial situation. The current economic crisis in various countries worldwide is certainly contributing to the vulnerability of those victims who are susceptible to forced labour, debt bondage, and sex trafficking.  In 2009, Luis CdeBaca, who presented the annual Trafficking in Persons Report said, “Persons who are under economic stress are more likely to fall prey to the wiles of the traffickers who often get their victims through promises of a better life, promises of better earnings.” Consequently, poverty, economic stress and a lack of opportunities are all underlying contributors to people becoming victims of human trafficking and ultimately modern slavery.

Sex Trafficking:

imgAccording to the Polaris Project, an organization fighting to eradicate modern slavery, sex trafficking is “[…] a form of modern slavery that exists throughout the United States and globally. Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.” (It’s important to note here that sometimes this happens gradually. Someone engaging in sex work voluntarily may end up in a situation from which they cannot escape, and the line can be difficult to discern.) The ILO also states that, “[…] out of 8.7 million […] people that are in forced labour, 4.5 million (22%) are in forced sexual exploitation[…],” and half of those people being trafficked are children. Sex trafficking is not just limited to developing countries or countries riddled with poverty; sex trafficking can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s happening here in Canada, in motel rooms across the United States and even on farms in Sicily. The Polaris Project mentions on their website that sex trafficking can occur in a variety of locations and venues including but not limited to the following:  “fake massage businesses, via online ads or escort services, in residential brothels, on the street or at truck stops, or at hotels and motels.” Sex trafficking can happen to young children, teenagers, and of course adults. Although more prevalent among females, men and boys can also be victims of sex trafficking. 

Case Study: Sex Trafficking – Nigeria to Italy

_84507113_human_trafficking_north_africa_624_v2This article came through on my Facebook newsfeed about two weeks and its headline caught my eye with the words “Trafficked”, “Nigerian” and “at crisis level”. “Uh-oh, this looks serious,” I thought, and as I read through the article, I realized the intensity and how massive human trafficking and sex trafficking are in Europe and in countries like Italy. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of Nigerian women who are traveling to Libya and then to Italy for the sole purpose of being exploited and sex trafficking is increasing and doubled in number in 2016. Of the 11,009 Nigerian women who registered at adding points in Sicily in 2016, the IOM believes that 80 percent of these women were trafficked and will be forced to live a life of forced prostitution, in Italy and other European nations. 


Simona Moscarelli, anti-trafficking expert at the IOM, had this to say about what is happening to Nigerian women traveling to Italy:  “What we have seen this year is a crisis, it is absolutely unprecedented and is the most significant increase in the number of Nigerian women arriving in Italy for 10 years. Our indicators are the majority of these women are being deliberately brought in for sexual exploitation purposes. There has been a big enhancement of criminal gangs and trafficking networks engaging in the sexual exploitation of younger and younger Nigerian girls
.” Moscarelli also points out that many of these Nigerian women are already victims of trafficking before they reach Italy and that the reception centres they go when they first arrive in Italy do not help them, but are used to the advantage of the traffickers.

This article was really eye opening for me in the sense that, even in the places that appear to be fine and lovely, horrendous things, like sex trafficking, are taking place and are increasing. This article was also a reminder to me to maintain being diligent within my own small town east of Toronto to look out for potential signs of human trafficking and modern slavery in all of its forms. 

6360109053895325851153526134_`Trafficking

What you can do:

  1. Get Educated – Read up on as much as human trafficking and modern slavery as you can so you will know what it is about, how to spot it and how to help end it!
  2. Support the organizations that are working to end sex trafficking, human trafficking and modern slavery! Below are some organizations that are doing their part to end it. But a simple Google search will help you identify what organizations are doing something in your local community!

For more information:

The Birth of a Nation and the Legacy of Nat Turner’s Rebellion

“Perhaps most importantly, we desperately need stories about rebellion to remind us that moral appeals and reform movements were not enough to end slavery. Slavery was an economic, political, and social institution with deep, powerful roots, and those who benefited from it were not going to let it go without a fight. Ultimately, we need a film to remind us that there were people who loved themselves and the black community enough to risk their lives to destroy a corrupt and oppressive system.” – Leslie M. Alexander

by Channon Oyeniran

1453915282377-cachedTo both positive and negative reviews,  The Birth of the Nation was released on October 7, 2016 in theaters across North America. The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival this past January, and the rights were bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures soon after in a lucrative $17.5 million deal, the largest deal at the Sundance Film Festival to date. The film won several awards, and Oscar buzz wasn’t far behind.

However, the film had a negative shadow cast upon it when only a few months ago the story of an alleged rape committed in 1999 by the director and lead actor of the film, Nate Parker, and his college roommate resurfaced. There are many who feel this is reason enough not to see the film. And while I don’t believe sexual assault is ever to be taken lightly, I chose to see the film anyway. I personally felt I could separate what happened when Parker was in college with the film. I feel the movie has a lot to offer and lot to teach, and I encourage you to see it if you feel comfortable. (If not, Slate offers an alternative here.) Nat Turner’s story matters. And so do other stories of slave resistance. I hope to explain why in this post.

Who was Nat Turner?  tuesday-justice1-003


Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born in Southampton County, Virginia on October 2, 1800 on the plantation of Benjamin Turner. Nat was a remarkably clever child and, unlike most slaves, was taught to read and write and was given a Bible to read. Beyond his academic achievements, Nat was incredibly spiritual. Many believed him to be a prophet with a special talent to see and describe things before they happened. He spoke of hearing from God and having visions on several occasions.

The film, like many other historical films, isn’t completely true to history. Rather than being instigated by a particular event, the rebellion was a long time coming and was a result of Turner’s developing religious beliefs. According to historian Leslie M. Alexander, “By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God, […] that black people not only fought against slavery because of its extreme violence and brutality, but also because they knew in their hearts that slavery was an unjust, exploitative system that violated moral laws.” Being regarded as an excellent slave by white owners and an influential spiritual leader by his fellow slaves, he was perfectly positioned to plan his rebellion.

Turner took a solar eclipse in February 1831 as a sign that the time to rise against slave owners and the system of slavery had come. He and several other enslaved men started the slave rebellion by taking up arms against Turner’s slave owner and his family on August 21, 1831. Shortly after this, about 40 to 50 enslaved persons and free black people, joined Turner, and for the next 36 to 48 hours went around Southampton County killing any white screen-shot-2015-08-21-at-8-41-45-pmperson they encountered and freeing enslaved persons along the way. Their goal was to make it to Jerusalem, in Southampton county, however, they were stopped before making it to their destination. Approximately 55 to 60 white people, including women and children, were killed by the slave rebels. The rebellion was finally suppressed, but Nat Turner escaped and hid for several weeks. As many as 200 black persons, enslaved and free, were retaliated against and punished with death because of the rebellion. On October 30, 1831, Turner was found by a farmer hiding in a hole covered by fence rails and was turned into the authorities. To prevent a legacy and from people remembering who Nat Turner was and what he did, his trial was quick and on November 11th, he was hanged and his body flayed and dismembered.

Any attempt at preventing his legacy was null and void. The real legacy of Nat Turner’s rebellion doesn’t lie in the 36-48 hour campaign but in its aftermath. Heather Lacey’s explanation below is most helpful:

“Religious righteousness and superior white intelligence were two major justifications for the enslavement of black people in the Southern United States.  Nat Turner’s cunning planning of the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history shattered those theories.  His wise use of intellect and religion to manipulate white masters proved equality – regardless of skin color, and changed the misconception that slaves were too ignorant to know or want freedom. The insurrection, although never meeting Nat’s personal expectation of freedom, resulted in a course of events leading to further outcry against and ultimate disintegration of the institution of slavery.”

(You can find that article in its entirety here.)

One of many poignant scenes in the film shows one of the young slave rebels later fighting in the Civil War. Though that may have been a Hollywood version of reality, Nat Turner’s rebellion did in fact precipitate the war. Debates at both the state and national level in the legislatures confirmed the fact that the Upper South would not abolish slavery. In fact, enslaved and free blacks were oppressed even further…to the breaking point.

Acts of Resistance and Rebellion during Slavery in the Americas and Caribbean

Nat Turner was not alone in his quest for freedom. From the Maroon communities in Jamaica who fought being enslaved, to the slaves aboard the Amistad who overtook their captors and tried to sail back to Africa, the enslaved resisted the grip of slavery as much as they could. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 was just one of many revolts to take place across the United States.he

In addition to violent revolts, enslaved peoples would engage in various forms of subversive behavior: pretending to be sick, running away, sabotaging the equipment they had to use, committing suicide, infanticide, learning to read and write (as this was not allowed), refusing food, being slow while working, stealing from their owners, and poisoning their owners and their families. These non-violent forms of resistance led to a loss of profit for the slaveholders and gave the enslaved an avenue to exercise autonomy.

But there was violence too. From an uprising on Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic) in 1521, to a revolt on a Mexican Plantation in 1570, to uprisings in South Carolina and New York in 1739 and 1741, to a slave strike in Jamaica in 1831, to the most successful slave revolt that happened in Haiti in 1794 (led by Toussaint L’Ouverture), acts of resistance and rebellions occurred frequently. Many enslaved peoples who escaped slavery worked with abolitionists to try and eradicate the laws that supported the system of slavery. Abolitionists and formerly enslaved persons knew that slavery was morally wrong and unnatural. Subsequently, many abolitionists wanted to help in any way they could; whether it be help tell or write the personal experiences of former enslaved peoples or aide them in hiding when they ran away, trying to gain their freedom.

Why is this important now?

Resistance and rebellion as shown in The Birth of a Nation was a way in which slavery was fought by the enslaved. Enslaved black people took a stand to fight against the ugly system of slavery and reclaim their freedom. And resistance is still happening. Protesters who see injustice operating at a systemic level, sanctioned by those in authority, are finding ways to resist what they see as morally wrong.

tuesday-justice1-004From kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem at sporting events, to having peaceful protests standing up for the rights of black lives, people are resisting and rebelling against a system that is neither conducting itself morally nor protecting all the people they vow to serve and protect. As we have seen historically, resistance and rebellion were done in various ways to stand against a system that was unnatural towards a group of people. This is important to our society now because we can learn from the past and know that resistance and rebellion can have a successful and positive outcome. When the movement gathers momentum and garners allies in positions of power, change is possible.

Finally, though we here at Tuesday Justice are not giving the film our full and unequivocal endorsement, we are both thankful that it has opened up a conversation about slavery and resistance.


For more information…

about Nat Turner: 

about Slave Rebellions:

Companion to the Film, 13th

“And to ignore that racial heritage, to ignore that historical context, means that you can’t have an informed debate about the current state of blacks and police relationship today, ‘cause that didn’t just appear out of nothing. This is the product of a centuries-long historical process. And to not reckon with that is to shut off solutions.”

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by Michelle Palmer

Originally, this post was going to be a review of the new documentary from Ava DuVernay, 13th. But to be honest, I think this four-star review by Odie Henderson on Roger Ebert is sufficient for that purpose. Instead, I thought it might be more helpful to create what I’ve decided to call a “Companion to 13th.” 13th provides an explanation for why certain aspects of our criminal justice system have evolved the way they have, particularly mass incarceration and the way in which it is disproportionately applied to people of color. This companion will be useful to any of our readers who fall into one of two categories:  those who want more information on mass incarceration and those who want to resist it. It’s basically a big list of resources for more information for those in the first category and organizations to get involved with for those in the second. Maybe it won’t be the most fun post, but I hope it’ll be helpful! 

 

Just a note about the documentary before I start…

Paramount Pictures Presents "Selma" In  Selma - Special Screening At Selma Walton Theatre

13th traces the roots of mass incarceration back to the emancipation of slaves in 1865. It may sound far fetched, but the key is a loophole in the 13th amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…”  This means if you’re a CRIMINAL, the 13th amendment no longer applies to you. And according to Jelani Cobb, this loophole was “immediately exploited.” I won’t go into detail here because I so desperately want you (YES, YOU!) to go and see it for yourself. It’s on Netflix, so there’s no excuse. (And if you don’t have Netflix, well, firstly, WHY NOT?!?! And secondly, you can always get a free trial.) But let me tell you this:  the way Ava DuVernay makes the connection from 1865 and the immediate aftermath of the ratification of the 13th amendment to mass incarceration in 2016 is deeply compelling. It’s not linear or perfectly straightforward, but in the end (especially after two watches – there is a LOT to digest), the message is clear and the evidence persuasive.

And if that’s not quite enough to make you want to watch it, please note that there is an excellent soundtrack (including a brand new, original track by Common) and stunning graphics by Hans Charles.

13thExploring Mass Incarceration and its Origins

“So many aspects of the old Jim Crow are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon. And so it seems that in America, we haven’t so much ended racial caste, but simply redesigned it.” – Michelle Alexander

If you haven’t heard much about mass incarceration or you have and want to know more, this next section is especially for you. Each of the topics in bold below are discussed in the film. I have found resources (books, documentaries, articles, etc.) which will be helpful for those seeking to understand these issues more. 

Mythology of black criminality:

(Disclaimer: I think it’s vitally important to note that the policies leading to mass incarceration disproportionately affect people of color. For this reason, I have more resources dedicated to this topic than any other.)

Early alternatives to slavery post-1865:

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon – “The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.” Slavery by Another Name is available both as a documentary from PBS (link above) and a book (available here.) 

1994 Crime Bill:

“20 Years Later, Parts Of Major Crime Bill Viewed As Terrible Mistake” from NPR – “‘Criminal justice policy was very much driven by public sentiment and a political instinct to appeal to the more negative punitive elements of public sentiment rather than to be driven by the facts,’ he said. And that public sentiment called for filling up the nation’s prisons, a key part of the 1994 crime bill.”

Discussions of Mass Incarceration:

This is at the heart of the documentary. If you want to know more, I’ve got suggestions for you in book, podcast, and article forms.

And if all that wasn’t quite enough, visit these sites:

Why does all of this matter? 

“…if you dismiss black complaints of mistreatment by police as being completely rooted in our modern context, then you’re missing the point completely. There has never been a period in our history where the law and order branch of the state has not operated against the freedoms, the liberties, the options, the choices that have been available for the black community, generally speaking. And to ignore that racial heritage, to ignore that historical context, means that you can’t have an informed debate about the current state of blacks and police relationship today, ‘cause that didn’t just appear out of nothing. This is the product of a centuries-long historical process. And to not reckon with that is to shut off solutions.” – David Gannon

13th-001So, now what?

When you connect these statistics, these vast numbers, to actual human beings and feel the inevitable heartbreak, then what? Change feels impossible, but it’s not. Here’s some ways to can make a difference: 

  1. VOTE. Especially in local elections. The first stages of the criminal justice system happen in the local government.
  2. Share what you’re learning. There are people who decry “slactivism,” but lots and lots of your friends and family get their news from Twitter and Facebook. It’s how we communicate in 2016. That’s just a fact. Remember: Sharing is caring, folks!
  3. I did a little (and I do mean a little) bit of research into some of the organizations represented in the film. With that little bit of effort I put in, I found the following websites with TONS of info on the situation and what each organization is doing to resist. I hope to put in quite a bit more effort and find one or two that I really believe in to back with my support. Each site has ways you can get involved, so please join me!

 

Now get yourself to Netflix!

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National Museum of African-American History and Culture: A People’s Journey

The one thought that kept permeating my mind was that my ancestors, the African people, although ripped from their land, brought over on slave ships, separated from their families, humiliated, brutalized, killed and beaten, had endured it all and survived!

by Channon Oyeniran

Wow! 100 years…that’s how long it took for the creation of a national museum dedicated exclusively  to African-Americans: their life, culture, and history. The new National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NAAHCM) finally came to fruition and opened its doors to the masses just over a week ago on Saturday, September 24th. I found it so fitting that the ribbon was cut by the first African-American president, the 44th president of the United States of America, the one and only, Barack Obama! (No shame in my Obama-love game.)  The toils and efforts of the past, present, and future are finally manifested with the formation of this 19th Smithsonian Institute museum.

A Brief History of the NMAAHC

It was in 1915 when the first efforts began to have a federally owned museum dedicated to African-American History. African-American veterans of the Union Army were frustrated with the racial discrimination they continued to endure despite their service, and in response formed a committee that would petition for the building of memorials that tuesday-justice1highlighted the many accomplishments of African-Americans. Though the committee had minor victories in this area, there was little success or leeway over the decades towards the ultimate goal of a museum dedicated African-American history. The turning point came in 1988 when the movement for the museum was reignited. Finally in 2003, under the Bush administration, legislation was signed for the authorization of a museum that would concentrate on the history and culture of African-Americans! It took thirteen years, but the NMAAHC is finally open!

Visiting the Museum

I had the opportunity to attend the opening weekend and festivities of this memorable event in American history in Washington D.C. with a group from the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS). From the time we landed in Washington, everyone was talking about the museum and how excited they were that it was finally opening its doors! There was just an excitement in the air all weekend. The program for the ribbon cutting ceremony on Saturday was one of those spectacular, star-studded events. There were presentations and performances by Oprah, Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Angelique Kidjo, amongst others. George W. Bush spoke about why he signed his approval of this legislation back in 2003, and Barack Obama spoke about the importance of this moment, how he watched the museum progress over the years while he was in office, and how glad he was that it was completed before he leaves the White House in January 2017. Sadly, I didn’t get to see this amazing program in person, but the Canadian Embassy accommodated the OBHS group and made it feel like we were on the National Mall watching the opening live! After the ceremony, our group walked around the National Mall, saw the White House, enjoyed free concerts in celebration of the opening of the museum, and spoke to others who were also there to visit the museum.

tuesday-justiceSunday, September 25th, 2016 was the day I had waited for, the day that I got the opportunity to enter this amazing museum and be part of history! As we waited in line, I was full of anticipation that I was there and would soon witness the completion and efforts of something that was 100 years in the making. To be a part of history like this was an amazing moment! As we entered the museum, I knew we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything, so I made up in my mind that I wanted to see the first level (C3: the Slave Trade, Middle Passage, Slavery, and Freedom), a part of black history that is near and dear to my heart. The lines were long and the crowds huge as we made our way downstairs to the C3 level. Once there, I was in awe of what I saw and felt. I felt like I was in a slave ship because of the close quarters (this was done purposefully).  I saw exhibits and artifacts that accurately represented who my ancestors were, what their lives were like, what they had to endure, and how they survived! Although I had been to other black history museums, this one was special. It was mesmerizing; it was done right. I was emotionally moved as I walked through the C3 level reading, reflecting and taking pictures of all that I saw. Learning more, growing more, being filled with more pride for a beautiful people that went through unimaginable horrors. The one thought that kept permeating my mind was that my ancestors, the African people, although ripped from their land, brought over on slave ships, separated from their families, humiliated, brutalized, killed and beaten, had endured it all and survived!

In Conclusion20160925_235335

I encourage all people to go to this museum. It really was refreshing and encouraging to see different races in the museum reflecting and studying our history, and I hope that continues even after the pageantry of the opening fades away. Through the NAAHCM and the many visitors it will receive, it is hoped that black history will be appreciated and understood in such a way that it garners some empathy from people as to why there are certain issues still afflicting the black community, both nationally and globally. This trip to Washington and visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was truly inspiring and, dare I say?, life-changing. Having a museum dedicated solely to African-American history, culture, and life seems absolutely vital at a time like this. We need to know where we came from to understand where we are. African-Americans poured their blood, sweat, and tears into building America and making it the country it is today.  This is the very reason this museum matters; African-Americans are part of the very fabric that make up the United States of America!


Suggestions for visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture:

  • The NMAAHC is the Hamilton of museums right now; tickets are free, but due to the enormous interest, getting in isn’t as easy as it as other museums. Start by planning your visit at https://nmaahc.si.edu/.
  • If at all possible, plan for at least two to three days to see the entire museum, because of the ticket situation, this may not be an option over the next few months.
  • The best strategy is to start on the bottom level and work your way up.
  • To get the most out of the museum, take the time to read every exhibit (if you can!).
  • Keep an open mind to the various exhibits the museum has on display.
  • Have a positive attitude! It can be an overwhelming experience, but it will absolutely be worth it!

Resources for visiting Washington:

If you can’t make it to DC, there is a plethora of resources to learn about black history! Don’t wait for February; check them out now!