Monday, February 12, 2018

Q&A with Diana Mafe on Black Women in Speculative Film & TV

This week, the highly-anticipated Black Panther adaptation hits theaters. To celebrate this historic production and Black History Month, we talked to author Diana Adesola Mafe about her new book Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV.

When Lieutenant Uhura took her place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek, the actress Nichelle Nichols went where no African American woman had ever gone before. Yet several decades passed before many other black women began playing significant roles in speculative (i.e., science fiction, fantasy, and horror) film and television—a troubling omission, given that these genres offer significant opportunities for reinventing social constructs such as race, gender, and class. Challenging cinema’s history of stereotyping or erasing black women on-screen, Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before
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showcases twenty-first-century examples that portray them as central figures of action and agency. We asked the author about her research.

CBS's new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery (2017–present), casts a black woman as the lead. Have you followed critical and popular reaction to that character?

I’ve followed reactions to the show in general and the black female lead, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), in particular. When the trailer was first released, there was some racist and sexist backlash from viewers who had a knee-jerk reaction to two women of color in lead roles—and that was before the first episode had even aired. Now, the first season has concluded, and critics and fans can take a more complete and, hopefully, measured view.

Simply in terms of television history, the show is special. No other deep space TV series has ever cast a black woman as the protagonist, which is something I address in the book. I look at examples like Firefly (2002–2003) and Doctor Who (2005–present), which are shows with complex black female characters. But those shows do not take the leap that Star Trek: Discovery has by making the black female character the hero. If Discovery had been released a little sooner (before I finished the book), I would have included it as a vital television case study. The show may have its failings in terms of plot, continuity, writing, and so on. But its significance in the context of race and gender representation in American television still stands.

Do you have any other favorite black female characters subverting stereotypes of black femininity?

I have to mention my favorite black female comic book character, Agent 355, from the series Y: The Last Man (2002–2008). I’ve written on this character elsewhere (African American Review Vol. 48), and I think she deserves to be spotlighted here, as well. Suffice it to say that she is one of the most original black female characters I have ever come across in a comic book universe. Part of her subversiveness lies in the fact that she is the definitive hero of the series despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I argue that the series is really a brilliant example of trompe l’oeil, meaning that none of the characters are what they seem to be. There has been talk over the years of adapting the series for either film or television. And I heard recently that FX might be turning the series into a show. I’m eager to see how 355 would translate to the small screen and if a television adaptation will do justice to her character.

I love that you examine Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Is it that much more impactful to have this character be young, black, and living in poverty in the South?

Hushpuppy certainly provides a different perspective—she is the only child protagonist I discuss in the book. And she adds another layer to the notion of black female erasure and marginalization precisely because she is a young girl living in poverty in the South. If black women are rare in speculative film and television, then black girls are all but invisible. So, the impact factor of this case study is very different. Hushpuppy does not have the same kind of visual agency as the machete-wielding Selena from 28 Days Later (2002) or the mountain-climbing Lex from AVP (2004), but she is no less subversive than these adult counterparts. Her agency lies in reclamation, whether of the cinematic gaze, of narrative voice, or of her lost mother. 

Why do you think psychoanalysis particularly works for this project?

Psychoanalysis has been foundational to film theory for decades. Although it has its sceptics, and some might argue that it has become less relevant with time and technology, I think it can lead to provocative analysis. For genres like horror and SF, which give visual form to our deepest social fears and our deepest social desires, psychoanalysis can be an especially powerful and creative lens. For example, the film AVP imagines racialized and gendered monstrosities in the Aliens and the Predators. The film Children of Men (2006) explores infertility and circles around the question of impotence by way of phallic imagery. Psychoanalysis is a useful tool for engaging with these layers of meaning, which often lie just beneath the surface.

Did anything surprise you over the course of your research?

When I began this project, I was acutely aware of the absence and erasure of black female characters in speculative film and television. In terms of a trajectory or timeline, one tends to begin with Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and then struggle a little bit to think of other key examples. Part of the fun of the research was seeing who else was out there. Although I could list other characters off the top of my head (Lisa in The Omega Man, Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Mace in Strange Days, and so on), I also had certain parameters. I wanted to focus on new millennial examples, and I wanted the characters to be more than just sidekicks or blatant stereotypes. And my research has yielded a range of compelling new millennial black female characters. I was pleasantly surprised by the rich and subversive portrayals that I was able to find by way of these twenty-first-century American and British case studies. Although there is a long way to go in terms of black female representation, both in front of and behind the camera, it was rewarding for me as a researcher and a woman of color to explore the complex roles that do exist.

You have made a deliberate effort to pinpoint “the most compelling and critically complex examples of black female characters in new millennial British and American speculative film and television.” Did you have some favorite roles that you had to cut in service of this project?

Definitely. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) was one of my initial television case studies—I was going to focus on the character Dee (Kandyse McClure). But in the end, I decided to write just one television chapter and, for that reason, had to limit the number of shows I could discuss. I would have loved to also include Michonne (Danai Gurira) from The Walking Dead (2010–present) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) from Westworld (2016–present). For the film case studies, I had an easier time choosing my examples. I did not include the new Star Trek or X-Men films, even though I appreciate the relevance of the “new” Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Storm (Halle Berry). But these black female characters were not quite central or nuanced enough in their respective universes to merit inclusion. I was also going to cut AVP from the project because I was not convinced that the film was strong enough as a case study. Yet it turned out to have some very subversive elements by way of its black female hero, and it became one of my primary cinematic examples. In the end, these decisions are subjective. The fact that there were enough examples for me to work with, and that I had to cut some in service of the project, is a good sign. It means that there are more black women in speculative film and TV than we might initially think and that there is more work to be done.

What expectations do you have for the new film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (2018)?

I first read this young adult novel when I was about eleven and have loved it ever since. So, I’m excited to see the new film adaptation, which portrays the Murry family as interracial, and Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the protagonist, as a child of color. Given my earlier point about the absence of black girls in speculative film and TV, this casting choice is important. How often do we get to see girls of color as protagonists doing amazing and fantastical things? How often is a black girl told, as per the trailer, that she is the only one who can stop the darkness and save the world? The cast also includes Oprah Winfrey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in major roles. The fact that this adaptation is directed by Ava DuVernay, one of the few black female directors in Hollywood, is also significant. The people behind the camera are just as (if not more) important to diversifying the film industry. I think the key thing here is that filmmakers are willing to imagine beloved characters from fiction—like a Meg Murry or a Hermione Granger—as any race or background.

Diana Mafe is an associate professor of English at Denison University. She is the author of Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines. Find her at

Friday, January 26, 2018

How Afghanistan Can Save Its Children

An hour and a half earlier, the New York Times tweeted the following:
In the wake of the latest act of violence in Afghanistan to make major headlines in the United States, we asked contributors to the book Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace to comment on the impact of this tragic story in American news media, what conditions are actually like for children in Afghanistan, and how the country's own brain trust is working to take back the country after decades of war. 
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First we will hear from Wahid Omar, an Afghan political refugee who has worked in Afghanistan since 2001 in project development, implementation, and feasibility studies, and as an educational advisor for the United Nations Development Program. Wahid's contribution to Children of Afghanistan, an essay titled "The Parakeet Boys: Performing Education in the Streets of Kabul," is a salute to the street children of Afghanistan, who—through the art of performing classical poetrypreserve their cultural heritage but also improve their literacy skills in the absence of structured education. He dreams of developing "the Parakeet School" where street children could have the opportunity to use and train easily domesticated birds to earn income on the streets while at the same time receiving a formal education. Wahid returned from Afghanistan two months ago and is frustrated by the lack of improvement in early childhood education.

Education in a War Zone

Wahid Omar

Students recite prayers in a makeshift outdoor classroom in the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous region in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from India and Pakistan. Northeastern Afghanistan, September 2, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
As I was walking toward a classroom full of children, I had the impression of watching a play. The entire four levels of the school had no windows, no walls; the classrooms could be seen from the outside. Pieces of metal and shattered glass were were the sad décor of the courtyard. I stopped in front of one classroom on the ground level and prepared my camera to take pictures. Inside, a teacher was questioning a child, who could not respond. Angrily, the teacher asked another child to slap the unresponsive one in the face. The teacher then asked again for the child to say the answer. This was Afghanistan in 2002 right after it was liberated from the Taliban.

With international aid pouring into the country, one would think that things might have changed dramatically for the better since then. Indeed, in the following years, millions of Afghan children gained access to schools, and parents began to see hope rising.

In 2017, fifteen years since I witnessed that scene in the classroom, my neighbor’s son was in primary school. He came back from school with a big bruise on his left eye and swelling hands. The Koran teacher had beaten him because he could not recite the holy book correctly. I decided to go to the school with my neighbor to file a complaint. When I entered the school, I saw that each teacher was walking with a stick, and the school director had a bat in his hand. It was a lost cause. In such situations, you wonder what happened to the millions of dollars spent by the international community on improving primary education.

The story of my neighbor’s son is a small symptom of much larger problems. Corruption, ghost teachers, outdated methods of teaching, lack of infrastructure, lack of quality teaching and credentialing, and poor leadership are all impediments toward a healthy system. Many children are dropping out because of poverty or unsafe conditions. Private schools are offering better education, at least on the surface. Nice uniforms and nice school minivans with the school logo are standard featurese in private schools, but the quality of teaching remains very poor. Private schools are only adding to the problem.

Many schools around the country, especially in eastern and southern Afghanistan, have closed because of insecurity and rising attacks by the Taliban. Thousands of boys and girls returned home with no hope to go back to school. The streets of Kabul are full of children begging for money or food. Many of them are becoming drug addicts, or are abused by employers, if they are lucky to find a job. In almost every shop in Afghanistan, there is a child apprentice who works under extremely poor conditions. Children are still abused physically and mentally.

Aid organizations are increasingly targets of terrorism, which does not improve the situation in any way. The recent attack in eastern Afghanistan against Save the Children is one example among many. For the Afghan people, hope is fading as the security situation has worsened in recent years. After three decades of wars and terrorism, how much longer can the Afghan people suffer?

It is certainly important to acknowledge that Afghans are fighting for progress and winning positive change. However, the truth is that overall conditions for children have not improved significantly. Significant progress has been made in higher education, but not in primary education. In fact, many donors have retracted their assistance to the Ministry of Education because of corruption. When the system is bad, children face the consequences the most.

A girl looks through the frosted window of a restaurant, hoping to get leftovers. She begs after school to help out her family. Kabul, January 13, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
Next we hear from Esther Hyneman, whose chapter in Children of Afghanistan is titled, “Children Who Live with Their Mothers in Prison.” While her essay describes a grim side of the Afghan family in crisis,* she writes urgently in response to the Save the Children attack about how tragic news like this may contribute to a "lost cause" mentality and negatively impact policy-making here in the United States.

How We See Afghanistan Matters

Esther Hyneman

I am in the process of making a documentary about progress in Afghanistan. Although the country has a long way to go, describing its shortcomings does more harm to the country than good. Americans get their ideas about Afghanistan from the media, which is addicted to the sensational and the negative. Recently, the New York Times published an article about a young girl who had spent all eleven years of her life in prison with her serial killer mother. It is a terrible story, but the article contained information that was slanted in an even more negative way, making it almost dishonest. It failed to explain that this was an unusual case—or why it was unusual. The article claimed that there were more than one-thousand Afghan children living in prisons with their mothers. In fact, most children over five years old are removed from prisons and put in Children's Support Centersresident and educational centersrun by Women for Afghan Women (WAW).

A few weeks after this upsetting New York Times piece was published, the reporter Rod Nordland published a second article that describes the children's support centers that were omitted from his original story. However, I would argue that the first article did significant damage. In fact, he called the Children's Support Centersa name WAW chose very carefullyorphanages.

I am so upset about how the media writes about Afghanistan that I am in the process of making a documentary on progress in that country. Watch the documentary trailer here. How many Americans are aware that there are highly capable, intelligent, and thoughtful Afghans dedicating their lives to solving their country's problems. 
I don't believe in lying about Afghanistan's problems, but writing about the current situation as if nothing positive is happening isn't exactly the truth.

Finally, we hear from human rights activist Lauryn Oates, who agrees that media coverage in the West greatly skews stories from Afghanistan and affirms stereotypes. She writes,

We shouldn’t see everything through rose-coloured glasses, but we can’t frame it as all doom and gloom or people will give up and check out. At Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan we have aimed to do that here. We acknowledge that progress has been made, but we also point out that persistent problems prevent further progress. It is a call to action. It is a reason to raise the rallying cry and work harder. I think that’s the key message those of us who care so much about Afghanistan need to get across.

Educating for Peace 

Lauryn Oates

In Afghanistan, violence is so common as to have literally become a part of day-to-day life. For the past decade, I have begun every single day by opening my email and reading through security incident reports for areas of the country where my organization is working. Some days there are 50 alerts, some days 20, but usually not less than five on any given day. The violence doesn’t pause for holidays or weekends. It happens mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights. It happens on the street, in stores, in restaurants, at home, at work, in the city, in the countryside. There are robberies, bombs, grenades, rocket attacks, small arms fire, kidnappings, attempted kidnappings, vehicle hijackings, and threats. Every day, lives are stolen: women, men, and children who are walking, dreaming, breathing people one moment, and gone the next. In the language of a report, they are reduced to the language where they can be categorized: casualties, killed, critical condition, injured, missing. There is no getting around it: eventually it numbs you. I skim them, read the aggregated data to look for patterns and changes in the areas where we work, file them away, and move on to the next task on my desk.

However, as the Japanese Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa wrote after the death of his infant daughter,

This dewdrop world—
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .
As a Buddhist, Issa was expected to strive for detachment from the material world. Death should be taken in stride, and not detract too much from meditating toward thoughts of nothingness. But his small daughter was dead, and the mourning crept over him. One cannot help but grieve.

Mahbooba stands against a bullet-ridden wall, waiting to be seen at a medical clinic. The seven-year-old girl suffers from leishmaniasis, a parasitical infection. Kabul, March 1, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
In this same way, sometimes an “incident” cuts through the numbness, and gives pause. Such was this week’s attack on Save the Children's office in Jalalabad, in which four staff were killed and several others injured. Perhaps this reflection stems from working in the same sectoral space as them in the education field in the country, perhaps it is the organization's decades long track record of work in Afghanistan, or perhaps it is from recognizing the cowardice of attacking an organization that works explicitly to serve the youngest and most vulnerable of society. By attacking those who try to lift up the children of Afghanistan to a better life, this is also an attack on the future of the country—and its best prospects for an eventual peace.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s youngest countries demographically, with the majority of the population aged under 25 years. Its youthful population is the source of both its woes and hope. It is a younger population—thirsty for education, opportunity, and jobs—who are a potential destabilizer as they now finish high school in droves but do not always find a place in the country’s competitive public higher education system, or cannot secure a viable livelihood, especially in the countryside. As a result, many of them are migrating, both within the country and from it, with some not surviving the perilous journey across an ocean, and others arriving with the clothing on their back, having given everything they had to smugglers. High fertility rates mean many families have more mouths than they can feed, pushing children into child labour, and girls into early, forced marriage. On the other hand, this unsettled, kinetic population of youth are also the people driving change in the country. They are changing the face of government, they are connecting their country to the outside world through technology and entrepreneurship, they are stimulating an exciting new era of music and entertainment. In Afghanistan, you will find children skateboarding, running their own circus, and generally beating the odds, as they excel in their educations, rising above their lot in life and making it.

More children go to school today than at any other time in Afghanistan’s history. They are sitting at the helm of a dramatic, profound, and irreversible transformation. One thing I’ve learned in working in literacy education is that literacy is intergenerational: literate parents do not raise illiterate children. So, every child who acquires an education represents future descendants who will be educated, too. These kids who have made it to a classroom—amidst violence, poverty, and uncertainty—are the tide turners. They will midwife a very different society to come. They will teach, they will heal the sick, they will build, they will mediate, they will design, and they will plan. They will win, and they will end terrorism. They will reduce their country’s dependence on outsiders.

But first, for now, they need those outsiders. Organizations like Save the Children have given this powerful infusion that has allowed so many of these kids to rise above their circumstances. It is their relentless, dedicated work to the idea that kids everywhere deserve to be kids—to play, to learn, to survive—that has helped fuel this powerful antidote to violence that I think will eventually prevail in the country—allowing these children to take their country back from those who would seek to destroy it.

A grief hangs over me on this day thinking about the three staff and the volunteer working for Save the Children who lost their lives in a senseless act of violence for the crime of working on behalf of children. But over that grief towers my unbreakable hope in the future that Afghan kids will create, as well as my appreciation for those who have made it possible, like the Afghans and their international colleagues who work for Save the Children.

A woman in a white burqa enjoys an afternoon with her family feeding the white pigeons at the Blue Mosque. Mazar-e-Sharif, March 8, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
Wahid Omar was born in Kabul and left Afghanistan shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979. He lived in France as a political refugee until 1987 and received his PhD from the University of Colorado in 2010. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2001 in project development, implementation, and feasibility studies, and as an educational advisor for the United Nations Development Program, training university professors and building capacity at the University of Kabul. Under his leadership, forty-five projects have been implemented, ranging from school and community centers, teacher training, water improvement projects, and microlending to humanitarian aid and relief efforts. He has won many awards for his teaching and writing, and his work in collecting and preserving Afghan folklore has garnered the attention of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Afghanistan: A Nation in Performance—A Comparative Study between Medieval France and Contemporary Afghanistan.

Esther Hyneman is a professor emeritus of English at Long Island University. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA and PhD from Columbia University. She often spends about six months a year in Afghanistan.

Lauryn Oates is a human rights activist focused on education in conflict zones. It was in 1996 that, at age 14, Lauryn read a newspaper article describing the new regime in Afghanistan called the Taliban, and their treatment of women and girls. She wrote up a petition demanding that the world respond to the Taliban’s misogynist policies, and has continued this work ever since, working in close partnership with a variety of Afghan women’s organizations and international charities. Lauryn is currently Programs Director with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, managing education projects including teacher training, village libraries, literacy classes, schools and training programs. Lauryn is a fierce proponent of the universalism of human rights, and frequently speaks out against cultural relativism and for global citizenship in the Canadian and international media. She is the recipient of several awards and distinctions, including a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal awarded by the province of BC in 2013. She holds a BA in international development (McGill University), an MA in human security (Royal Roads University) and a PhD in education (University of British Columbia), and teaches graduate students at the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads University. In 2008, The Globe & Mail named Lauryn as the first of Ten Canadians to Watch in 2009.

* In 2008, it was estimated that 226 children in Afghanistan were living with their incarcerated mothers, while at about the same period, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that two hundred children were being held with their parents at one immigrant prison in the United States. 
Child Rights International Network, “Afghanistan: Children in Prison with Mothers,” Associated Press, August 4, 2008,, and “ACLU Challenges Illegal Detention of Immigrant Children Held in Prison-Like Conditions,” American Civil Liberties Union, March 6, 2007, Of interest: Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds, and Ruby C. Tapia, eds., Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Case Against Deporting 200,000 Salvadorans

By Erik Ching

The United States's decision to revoke TPS (Temporary Protected Status) from some 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States is morally repugnant. The gap between moral accountability and foreign policymaking is wide, even for a country like the United States, whose leaders’ idealistic rhetoric suggests otherwise. But if there was ever a country that owed another country something and one that should be held accountable to a moral standard, it is the United States in its historic relation with El Salvador.

The United States extended TPS to Salvadorans in 2001 after a series of devastating earthquakes. The Department of Homeland Security claims that the earthquake conditions that inspired TPS no longer apply, and thus Salvadorans can return home. Technically, that statement may be accurate, depending on how one chooses to define “earthquake conditions.” But the reality is that the situation in El Salvador has been deteriorating ever since, and the United States bears tremendous responsibility for creating those conditions. The United States has had a deep impact on El Salvador in pursuit of its own foreign policy needs going back to the 1970s, and its actions contributed not only to the historic flow of migrants out of El Salvador, but also to the current conditions of violence that prevail there.

The United States had an overwhelming presence in El Salvador in the 1980s. Under the Carter administration, but especially during the two terms of Reagan's presidency, U.S. 

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policy makers defined El Salvador as a foreign policy priority after the Sandinista victory in neighboring Nicaragua in 1979. Although the United States suspended military aid to El Salvador in December 1980, after four U.S. churchwomen were killed by governmental security forces, it reinstated aid in January 1981 in response to the guerrillas' first “Final Offensive,” which more or less formally launched the Salvadoran civil war. Under the successive Reagan administrations, U.S. aid and the role of the United States increased steadily, particularly in 1983 and 1984 when it appeared that the Salvadoran government was on the verge of losing to the guerrillas. Overall, the United States provided on average $1 million per day of aid to the Salvadoran government throughout the 1980s, much of it in the form of military aid.

The justification for these policies was to prevent the supposedly Marxist guerrillas (the FMLN) from coming into power in El Salvador, as the FSLN had done in neighboring Nicaragua. Therein, U.S. policy makers tended to define the situation in El Salvador through the highly circumscribed and deeply flawed prism of the cold war, i.e. that the Salvadoran guerrillas lacked popular support and were a front for Soviet, Cuban, and/or Nicaraguan expansionist designs. One of the most definitive policy statements in this regard was Reagan’s address to the nation in May 1984 to appeal for support in providing more aid to El Salvador. In its framing of the situation in El Salvador and in standing by the Salvadoran government/military as steadfastly as it did, the United States prolonged the war and helped contribute to the brutal human rights record that the Salvadoran military accrued throughout the years.

With the benefit of hindsight and evidence, we now know definitively that the overwhelming majority of killing and human-rights violations being perpetrated in El Salvador were done by the Salvadoran military and/or paramilitary organizations with close military ties. What we also know now, but which we also knew at the time, is the large extent to which the United States either tacitly supported or willfully ignored the actions and activities of its allies on the ground in El Salvador, notably in events like the massacre of El Mozote in December 1981 (portrayed so clearly by the journalism of Mark Danner) and the assassination of the six Jesuits in November 1989, to list just two examples of countless others. Admittedly, at various times throughout the war, U.S. policy makers tried to get Salvadoran military leaders to amend their ways in the face of growing U.S. domestic opposition to the war, such as when Vice President Bush arrived in December 1983 and delivered a rather stern directive to the generals about cleaning up their act. But both sides recognized that the U.S. had planted its flag with the Salvadoran military and that it was unable and/or unwilling to do anything to jeopardize its cold-war inspired foreign policy initiatives in El Salvador. The killings and the torture went on, only beginning to abate after 1983.

In addition to the history of U.S. involvement during the civil war in the 1980s, the United States’s subsequent immigration policies have had adverse impacts on El Salvador, namely the deportations of Salvadorans in the 1990s and 2000s. Many scholars see these various kinds of deportation as giving rise to, or significantly contributing to, the explosion of gang membership and gang-related violence in El Salvador by entities such as MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and Calle 18. Those gangs have their origins in the United States, as young migrants who fled from the violence of the 1980s became subsequently caught up in the desperation of life in the United States thereafter. Although some of the people that the United States deported back to El Salvador were gang members involved in criminal activity, the United States also sent back many young people, some of whom did not even speak Spanish and had no record of gang participation or criminality. When thrust into the alien environment of El Salvador, some of these young people could only find refuge within gangs, exacerbating the problem.

The overwhelming majority of the 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the United 
States on TPS are law-abiding people working diligently to make a better life for themselves, and therein contributing to the collective good. Throwing them back into El Salvador would be a human rights disaster. They will struggle to find their footing, they will be targeted for extortion, and their needs will be an added burden to a nation already short on employment. In 1969, some 100,000 Salvadoran peasants, living across the border in Honduras, were forced by the Honduran government to return to El Salvador en masse. This action helped trigger a subsequent war with Honduras, and the sudden return of this mass of Salvadorans also had a destabilizing effect on the nation’s society and economy, contributing to the downward spiral that led to the outbreak of civil war in 1980. I fear that the mass return of 200,000 Salvadorans from the United States in 2018 would have a similarly destabilizing effect, to say nothing of the consequences for many U.S. citizens who will be separated from their loved ones and family members.

Erik Ching is a Professor of History at Furman University.

Further reading: Erik Ching was quoted in a recent New York Times article with Gene Palumbo as lead author titled, "El Salvador Again Feels the Hand of Washington Shaping Its Fate."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff on the History of Black Celebrity in American Politics

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff's forthcoming book Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker explores how the “First Lady of Show Business” became one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. But what does being a powerful woman in Hollywood actually mean in the political sphere? Sklaroff's exciting biography highlights Sophie Tucker's dedication to social justice—she advocated for African Americans in the entertainment industry, cultivated friendships with leading black activists and performers, and raised over four million dollars for the religious and racial causes she held dear. As a leading scholar of American cultural history, Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff provides historical context to the current debate over Oprah's celebrity and her hypothetical presidential candidacy. Red Hot Mama publishes in April. Enjoy this piece originally published in The Conversation.

For black celebrities like Oprah, it's impossible to be apolitical

File 20180110 46697 1d0ovb7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey appear during a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Dec. 8, 2007. AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, University of South Carolina

Oprah Winfrey’s rousing Golden Globe speech has many speculating whether the media mogul will become a presidential candidate in 2020, with some pundits questioning the merits of another “celebrity” president.

But to equate Oprah with other “celebrity” politicians like Donald Trump and Arnold Schwarzenegger skirts the history of how black celebrities have long assumed political roles – often unintentionally – within the black community.

When it’s viewed through this lens, the transition into politics for someone like Winfrey is more natural. Oprah, for her part, seems to understand the tremendous importance of high-profile blacks in American society. During her monologue, she became emotional when she described how, as a young girl, she watched Sidney Poitier receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 1964 Golden Globes – “I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that.”

But the ability of black celebrities to symbolize hope and racial progress precedes Poitier. The black singers, actors and athletes of the 1930s and 1940s weren’t simply entertainers; they were living proof that African-Americans didn’t need to succumb to racist stereotypes, and could be treated with dignity, even deference. With structural racism embedded in the nation’s social and economic fabric, this, in and of itself, was a political act.

As I point out in my book “Black Culture and the New Deal,” during the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. government recognized the political potency of the black celebrity, and would tap into this power to project a democratic ethos at home and abroad.

Elevating the black cultural hero

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to seek a second presidential term in 1936, African-American voters had become an important demographic for the Democratic Party. But with white Southerners comprising a significant part of Roosevelt’s base, segregation and discrimination were more difficult for the government to directly confront.

Roosevelt still needed to figure out a way to reach out to the black community. So instead of passing legislation to correct racial inequality, his administration developed cultural programs that would employ large numbers of black men and women, and promote the skills and abilities of African-Americans.

For example, New Deal Arts programs included individuals such as Carlton Moss, Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston to create books and plays that would depict African-Americans in sympathetic, humane ways. The Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide Series, which Brown edited, highlighted the diversity of African-American communities and customs. The Federal Theater Project featured plays written and directed by black men and women that grappled with pressing racial issues.

This was a potent political tool; federal officials understood that African-Americans would be deeply affected – as Winfrey later was when watching Poitier receive the DeMille Award – by seeing African-Americans portrayed in more realistic and respectful ways.

A message of unity and freedom

The stakes became even greater as America entered World War II. Simmering racial tensions needed to be reconciled with America’s democratic, anti-fascist ideals.

Cultural programs promoting racial cooperation abounded within war agencies. Office of War Information posters and Hollywood films such as “Bataan” featured white and black men working and fighting together.

But no one was more central to this brand of propaganda than boxer Joe Louis.

In 1938, Louis had stunned the world by defeating German Max Schmeling. Geopolitically, it was a display of American superiority. But for African-Americans it was a triumph over whites.

Heavyweight champion Joe Louis dances as German challenger Max Schmeling falls to the canvas in the first and final round of their rematch in New York City in June 1938. AP Photo
Unassuming and apolitical, Louis didn’t ever talk about racial issues. Nonetheless, he became a hugely important political figure.

Poet Maya Angelou wrote of Louis’ victories as evidence that African-Americans were the “strongest people in the world”; novelist Richard Wright described Louis’ victories as “a fleeting glimpse … of the heart that beats and suffers and hopes for freedom.”

Recognizing Louis’ profound appeal, the government quickly swooped in, employing him in the Army’s Morale Division to boost patriotism among African-Americans during World War II.

As one government official noted in 1942, “It might be well to ask the questions as to who would draw the biggest audiences, Joe Louis or [NAACP Executive Secretary] Walter White. The answer is obvious.”

During his 46 months in the Army, Louis partook in 96 exhibition fights in the U.S. and abroad as part of a troupe that included black boxers George C. Nicholson, Sugar Ray Robinson and George J. Wilson. He also appeared on posters and in films that promoted racial inclusion, such as “The Negro Soldier.”

Louis wasn’t the only black cultural hero to play a political role during the war. The Armed Forces Radio Service created a program featuring black musicians called “Jubilee.” Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others appeared in this weekly program that was broadcast domestically and to servicemen abroad. It reassured black troops on the front lines, while many white soldiers were able to listen to musicians they had never heard before.

The power of the stage

These federal efforts during the Great Depression and World War II are complicated. One the one hand, it could be argued that they represented a tokenistic appeal to African-Americans in lieu of real social and economic change. On the other, there’s no doubt that African-Americans were given the opportunity to be themselves, be celebrated, and move beyond the demeaning stereotypes that had existed for decades.

In the postwar period, civil rights leaders challenged African-American celebrities to use their platform to promote racial equality. Some, like Muhammad Ali, famously called for change, while others were more reticent. But the political stance of these individuals may not have mattered as much as their visibility and success. As filmmaker Ezra Edelman argues in his 2016 documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” even as Simpson insisted that we was “not black, just O.J.,” he was still embraced by the black community, and lauded as an African-American hero.

After centuries of degradation and discrimination, the accomplishments of African-Americans like Simpson or Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel possessed a political resonance. Though they were reluctant to promote racial change, by succeeding in traditionally exclusionary industries, they nonetheless became political figures. They signaled to other African-Americans that barriers could be broken down. Even if they weren’t activists themselves, they inspired others to fight inequality.

As a black woman, Oprah Winfrey occupies a unique space in this legacy of cultural heroes. Though it remains to be seen whether her candidacy will become a reality, she knows the significance of her actions for people of color in the U.S. and around the world. At a time when black women remain marginalized, Oprah – media mogul, actress, philanthropist, tastemaker – embodies the American Dream. People still look to cultural figures as much as they look to politicians for inspiration.

As Oprah stated in her speech, her life and career demonstrate how “we can overcome.”

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Our Most-Read Blog Posts of 2017

Despite everything that happened in 2017, it was a great year for University of Texas Press authors on our blog. Here are the 10 most-read posts, spanning topics from gang suppression in El Salvador to Chrissie Hynde, from personal essays to timely commentary by scholars.

We look forward to another year of great reading in 2018!

On January 16, 2017, El Salvador commemorated the 25th anniversary of the peace settlement that ended the country’s twelve-year civil war. We asked Dr. Sonja Wolf, a CONACYT research fellow with the Drug Policy Program at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, to comment on the 25th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Accords. Her book Mano Dura:The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador examines the policies that undermine human rights while ultimately doing little to address the roots of gang membership. Read the post. →

Eleven Images from Picturing the Proletariat
In the wake of Mexico’s revolution, artists played a fundamental role in constructing a national identity centered on working people and were hailed for their contributions to modern art. John Lear's new book, Picturing the Proletariat: Artists and Labor in Revolutionary Mexico, 1908–1940, examines three aspects of this artistic legacy: the parallel paths of organized labor and artists’ collectives, the relations among these groups and the state, and visual narratives of the worker. We asked Professor Lear to pick a handful of images studied in the book to represent the progression and politics of the Mexican proletariat. Read the post. →

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Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Militarization in the Age of Trump

Mexico’s so-called drug war can be characterized, in some way, as a modern war relating to the control of energy production. In the present context, it is possible to identify groups that seem to have benefited the most from a novel criminal scheme (directly or indirectly) introduced by the Zetas organization, the Mexican government’s reaction to it, and the resulting brutality. We asked Dr. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, author of Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexicoto comment on the effects of President Trump’s border policy on what she identifies as the beneficiaries of organized crime in Mexico, mainly the US border security/military-industrial complex and corporations. Read the post. →

Music ]

Authors and music critics Jessica Hopper and Oliver Wang have joined David Menconi of the Raleigh News & Observer on the editorial team of the American Music series published by the University of Texas Press. “We are at a particularly ripe time within music culture to interrogate what is American music; we're overdue for an expansion of the canon,” says Hopper. Read the post. →

Music from A Perfectly Good Guitar

When photographer and writer Chuck Holley set out to document guitar players talking about their most prized instruments, he thought he was fairly well-versed in professional guitarists. The playlist he has put together for this blog is all about the lesser-known artists he discovered over the eight years he photographed guitarists with their favorite instruments and listened to their stories for A Perfectly Good Guitar. Read the post. →

A Musical Biography of Chrissie Hynde

Curated by Adam Sobsey, the handful of early Pretenders songs that open this chronologically arranged mix are mainly lesser known cuts that dig some of the overlooked but seminal roots out of Chrissie Hynde’s catalog: clues to her worldview and her personal history. The rest are drawn from the largely unexplored riches of her post-stardom phase, which is nearly three decades old now, a vast trove. Read the post. →

American Studies ]
In 2008, Euan Hague, Edward H. Sebesta, and Heidi Beirich, published a groundbreaking book, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, that described a fringe movement of political activists who promoted an ideology of Confederate nationalism. Given the current state of US politics, Neo-Confederacy is an urgent primer for our new reality. Read the post. →

Notions of Genre Soundtrack Playlist

Barry Keith Grant's new edited volume with Malisa Kurtz, Notions of Genre: Writings on Popular Film Before Genre Theory, gathers the most important early writing on film genre and genre films published between 1945 and 1969. In the spirit of appreciating genre film, we asked Barry Keith Grant to curate a playlist of iconic music from genre cinema. Enjoy this fun whirl through movie history through its music. Read the post. →

Photography ]

"Rexroth's Strawberries" and the Beauty of IOWA

In the early 1970s, Nancy Rexroth began photographing the rural landscapes, children, white frame houses, and domestic interiors of southeastern Ohio with a plastic toy camera called the Diana. Having discovered the Diana camera while in graduate school in Ohio, Rexroth began experimenting with the looseness and spontaneity of the camera and the images it produced. Read the post.

[ Texas ]

Birding and Writing with Victor Emanuel

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Victor’s memoir One More Warbler shares his journey from inspired youth to world’s top birder including his biggest adventures, rarest finds, and the people who mentored and encouraged his birding passion along the way. We asked writer, editor, and teacher S. Kirk Walsh to reflect on what Victor taught her. Read the post. →

[ Journals ]

Entry Interview with the New Editors of Texas Studies in Literature and Language

The summer of 2016 saw Douglas Bruster and James Cox step in as the new editorial team of Texas Studies in Literature and Language. In this interview, we speak with them about their scholarly backgrounds and the plans they have for TSLL, a journal of literary criticism published quarterly by the University of Texas Press. Read the post. →