August 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, "In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, 'History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.' I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education.
April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments
Through most of March, I spent my days waiting for the latest developments in Trayvon Martin’s death. While many Americans showed solidarity by donning hoodies, marching, and forcing the story into the mainstream media via social networking, I wondered why some well-known and influential African Americans appeared reluctant to comment on the case. In time, President Barack Obama drew his line in the sand, stating, “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Nonetheless, outside of a few prominent Black protestors/organizers, many with the power of celebrity remained relatively quiet for much of the controversial ordeal.
Throughout the 20th Century, many of the most well-known and admired Black figures have been entertainers. In particular, Black athletes have been placed at the center of social change as many sports struggled to integrate. And whether speaking about the Harlem Rens in the 1920s, and Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks Tigers in the 1950s, basketball has repeatedly permitted, not only individuals, but teams of Black men to enter the public eye while contesting the status quo.
Today, the presence of Black athletes in the competitive arena is common. The fortunate few competing at the highest levels may even earn fortunes. Nonetheless, the voice and presence of the Black athlete in struggles for racial justice have waned in recent years. It’s as though John Carolos and Muhammed Ali made enough noise in the late 1960s to last Black Americans over 40 years.
For some Black stars, the athlete’s responsibilities did not appear to extend beyond a contractual agreement between the player and the team. Charles Barkley’s famous quote, “I am not a role model,” concisely represents the stance many athletes have taken with regard to social responsibility. Barkley even went on to explain that he is paid to play basketball. Role modeling is, as Sir Charles stated, for parents.
Although Barkley was painfully blunt, Michael Jordan’s statement involving political endorsements is, in my opinion, more alarming. MJ decided not to endorse a Black democratic candidate in North Carolina in 1990 for fear of losing sales. Jordan’s business savvy was made apparent when he said, ”hey, republicans buy shoes too.” Of course, he was correct about republicans and shoes. By 2011, Jordan had amassed a net worth of $500 million. Without a doubt, he managed to achieve this due to hard work, exceptional talent, and playing great basketball in the last decades of the 20th Century (the NBA didn’t pay that much in the 1960s). However, his silence regarding political and social contention was a significant element in building his brand.
In March 2012, we were reminded that newer generations of athletes have begun to show defiance–defiance that is often associated with images of Black youth.While David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, illustrated this very association when imposing a dress code in 2005, the Miami Heat’s decision to show solidarity with their hoodies is a remarkable statement. Perhaps the team’s involvement shouldn’t be so impressive, but it is.
Throughout his career, Lebron James has received criticism for his comments in the media. In fact, individuals such as ESPN’s Skip Bayless have repeatedly discussed James’ supposedly inappropriate public voice. Bayless and many others have attempted to measure the vocal, tweeting young player against Michael Jordan (the model business man/athlete), but why? Even though all dominant basketball players will have to endure comparisons to MJ for quite some time, should we ask them to be Jordan-esque? Is that what we want from Black athletes today?
It appears that social responsibility may be a greater possibility now that the Jordan era has passed. Players may not become MJ rich, but stars in the NBA, NFL, and other major sports organizations are making more money than most of their predecessors. Today basketball players such as Lebron James and Carmello Anthony are endorsed by Nike, but they also represent the Jordan brand. In other words, this generation’s stars may never have to shoulder the weight that MJ did. Those individuals who choose to express their views may not experience the bindings that restricted Jordan’s life off-court.
Whatever the case, James and the Heat reminded us of the Black athlete’s story in America.
March 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
By Judy Anderson
My first fieldwork experience in Buenos Aires, Argentina was marked by an event at the Casa Suiza. It was 2005, and two white Argentine filmmakers decided to have a Shimmy Club party there to include in their documentary film Afroargentinos. I literally lived around the corner so it seemed that I was in the right place at just the right moment.
The Casa Suiza had been the historic location of Shimmy Club parties held on the eve of Carnival for over 30 years. The organization became defunct in the late 1970s. The older generation of Afro-Argentines remembers the parties vividly, and stories of their encounters there peppered my field interviews. Afro-Argentines would celebrate in the basement and dance to the pulsating rhythms of traditional candombe music performed by members of their extended families while the criollos (Argentines of mixed ancestry including indigenous and European) and whites would celebrate upstairs by dancing to waltzes played by an orchestra. I heard some stories of whites going downstairs briefly to join in the dancing below, but few of Afro-Argentines going upstairs to party. Afro-Argentines proudly hailed these parties as “their parties,” a space where they felt free to express themselves without the glare and ridicule of outsiders.
The 2005 party was touted as a sort of revival for the organization, but the event was marred by old rivalries and ongoing disputes—many between family members. The leaders of the Shimmy Club considered the event to be poorly executed. It was full of misrepresentations and discontent. However, there were some positive aspects that could be gleaned from it. The event marked the Casa Suiza as a space of black culture while reminding the general public, Africans, and Afro-descendants in Argentina of the historical value of the location.
Unfortunately, it seems that the memory of blackness is honored in Argentina rather than acknowledging the present-day reality of those racialized as black in the nation. Now the Casa Suiza, an important landmark of blackness, is under threat of destruction in spite of being declared by the government as a site of historical and cultural patrimony. A small group of local blacks mobilized to protest against the destruction of the space, but the outcome remains to be seen in a country where corruption has become normalized and expected. Afro-Argentines are not among the few minority groups with political influence, so the Casa Suiza will probably not be saved in the long term.
So much of Afro-Argentine culture is reserved for the private realm. The parties at the Casa Suzia were one of the few things they were willing to share with larger Argentine society, which has long devalued the group’s contributions and downplayed their very existence. The destruction of the site is yet another way of reaffirming the myth that “no blacks exist in Argentina.” It is these types of battles that strengthen the voice of activists and allies who want to build consciousness and pride among Afro-descendants in the nation and gain the respect of dominant society.
I write this piece in loving memory of blackness in Argentina not because it no longer exists, but because it persists in the “European nation” in spite of the continued attacks against it. Afro-Argentines are a very insular group and their cultural expressions tend to be reserved for the private realm where only close friends and family members can witness them. This causes me to question the idea of public vs. private blackness. By removing their blackness from the public realm and reserving it for private spaces, Afro-Argentines might have contributed to their own invisibility. Of course, this decision was influenced by dominant society’s racist interactions with Afro-descendants. This is a topic that I will be exploring in depth in future writing.
Buenos Aires is a city with several spaces that are marked by blackness and the Casa Suiza is only one of those. The history of Afro-descendants in Argentina is what scholar Stuart Hall would call a hidden history that is slowly being uncovered. The struggle over the Casa Suiza serves to remind everyone that Afro-Argentines are not relics of the past, but part of the nation’s present and future.
* For a 2012 update on Buenos Aires’ Casa Suiza, click here.
February 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
Earlier this week, Jorge Rivas published an article on Colorlines outlining some of the results of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project. As Rivas reports, the study illustrates that Latinos and Asians have the highest rates of intermarriage in the US at over 25% for each group. For many this appears to reinforce the idea of the United States as a true “melting pot.” We are a diverse society, and the fact that Americans are increasingly willing to marry others from different backgrounds is a sign of progress, no?
First, I’ll agree that American society is changing. We, Americans, appear much more open to intercultural and interracial partnerships today than in the mid and late 20th Century. My personal opinion is that eliminating social, economic, and political restrictions to equality is generally a good thing. However, the ways that Rivas and others such as the WSJ’s Miriam Jordan talk about these demographic shifts omit complicated realities that may give a better sense of how American society is working to become the land of diversity and equality. Focusing on Latinos as an ethnic category may expose some of the complications with using demographic data to tell the story of America’s melting pot.
Latino has not existed as a ethnic category for a terribly long time. Although individuals frequently think of race and ethnicity as unchanging categories, historical examination shows that this is far from the truth. Scholars such as Karen Brodkin and David Roediger have examined how European immigrant groups such as Italians, Irish, and others eventually became identified as White after long periods of racial subordination in America. Academics such as Juan Flores and Miriam Jiménez Román have argued that the social category, Latino, largely came to be during the late 20th Century. Moreover, the emergence of a Spanish-speaking communities linked to Latin-America in US marketing played a great role in constructing today’s notion of the Latino as a single group. In other words, the idea that Dominicans, Argentines, and Mexicans might constitute a people is a new American concept.
In addition, Americans frequently conflate racial and ethnic identity. For instance, Ramón Grosfoguel argued that racialization of Latinos and other immigrating ethnic groups has commonly occurred as they settle and undergo marginalization in the US. He believed that focusing on “racial/ethnic” identity was a much more helpful than treating race and ethnicity as autonomous categories. Although immigrant groups are commonly identified by ethnicity, Grosfuguel found that they frequently underwent subordination, suffering from racial discrimination. Moreover, these experiences of racialization influence the degree and types of interactions between members of American communities.
While many individuals think of Latino as an important ethnic/racial identity in the US, socio-racial hiearchies are markedly different throughout the Americas. Nor should we understate Latin America’s racial diversity. With cultural backgrounds greatly shaped by Spanish and Portuguese colonization, the French, English, and Dutch influenced sizable communities throughout the region. Latin American societies were much more open to racial mixing than their North American counterparts, and many nations embraced ideas like mestizaje as they distanced themselves from Spanish rulers. Nonetheless, large Afro-descendent, Indigenous, German, and Italian communities exist in the many countries throughout the region. Should we embrace using a single racializing term to reduce all these cultural influences and disparate experiences?
American society is deeply invested in racial categories such as Black and White. Although some argue that we live in a post-racial society, we know that race influences political rhetoric. We know that race is a significant factor in determining jail sentences. We know that race plays a role in an individual chance of attending a high school that graduates over 3/4 of its students. Why would we assume that race in the United States no longer works in this way when individuals claim Latin American origin? Should we differentiate between German-Mexican-Americans and German-Americans? What about German-Mexican-Americans and other Mexican-Americans?
In addition, official classifications of race in the US have been criticized for quite some time. According to many, racial/ethnic groups listed on demographic forms (on job applications, school admissions forms, and the US Census) do not allow many individuals to adequately identify themselves. For example, it is not uncommon for questionnaires to use “non-black Hispanic” as the only option for denoting latino origin. This denies Afro-Latinos recognition and frequently omits them from official documentation.
I, for one, remember listening to my mother’s stories about Black hair products in the 1960s. She described boxes of relaxers with copy written in English and Spanish for products sold throughout the United States. My mother had learned that Black girls from her native Virginia were combing kinks from their hair just like their Spanish-speaking counterparts in Northern cities such as New York. The early 20th Century saw Afro Caribbean communities (with Dominicans, Cubans, Jamaicans, Haitians, and Puerto Ricans) grow along-side and within Black American communities.
Ultimately, the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project helps uncover important information about ourselves. Given the ways that many Americans like Rivas and Jordan choose to interpret the data, we can presume that a mixed America is evidence of American progress. This may be the case. However, have we not been a mixed society for some time? Might our methods of study obscure the intercultural and inter-racial associations that have defined many American communities for much of the last century?
It is important to note the new ways that we define ourselves in America. We may be increasingly open to living in mixed communities–more than ever before. Still, we should be aware that monocultures do not exist. Americans never existed without cultural exchange. Erasing communities from our shared history does nothing to bring us closer to the progressive future we hope to reach.
December 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In a TV commercial aired in Rio de Janeiro and sponsored by the current state government, we see a police car arrive to a favela and from its back doors emerge not armed policemen, but rather a doctor, a teacher and other basic service providers, signifying the positive changes that the “pacification” of Rio’s poorest communities is supposed to bring. The commercial asked for continued public support for the new Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, installed in dozens of Rio’s favelas over the last three years. This new program has revolutionized law enforcement in Rio de Janeiro by literally invading urban areas previously controlled by drug-trafficking gangs, and replacing it with a permanent police presence. These occupations occurred with backing of military troops, armored tanks and Brazil’s renowned Special Operations Police Battalion, or BOPE, a force of such magnitude that most gangs fled to avoid imprisonment or death, and thus allowed these occupations to take place rather peacefully, sometimes without a single shot being fired.
The discourse deployed by government officials and by the mainstream media in Brazil is that favelas are being “liberated” from organized crime by the UPP program, and will transform these neglected communities into proper neighborhoods with improved infrastructure and an expansion of public services. There is no question that violence has sharply decreased and, for the first time in Rio de Janeiro’s history, urban areas that were previously completely neglected by the state are now receiving millions of dollars in investments, including the construction of a sports complex in Rocinha, a cable car that provides free transportation at Complexo do Alemão and a new public library in Santa Marta. Community leaders have complained, however, that the social component of the UPPs is being administered top-down by state officials, rather than arising from dialogue with members of the community to address their needs. For the construction of the cable car at Complexo do Alemão, for example, many families were forcibly evicted and relocated elsewhere.
Additionally, there are many direct consequences to the “pacification” of favelas that might irreversibly alter these communities. In the first place, the main purpose of the UPP program is obviously to reduce crime in the city, with the aim of increasing security for the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic games in 2016. The occupying police, therefore, are given complete authority over the favelas they supervise, and there are worrisome reports about abusive police searches and the outright forbidding of dances and other social gatherings. In the second place, the legalization of basic services such as electricity, Internet and gas will represent a sharp increase of monthly bills for low-income residents, who are accustomed to acquiring these services through informal, extra-legal means. The public and private companies that offer these services will profit immensely from their legalization, despite offering reduced rates to low-income families. Thirdly, “pacified” communities have seen a sharp increase in property values and rental fees, which might lead to a process of gentrification that will push out the most vulnerable community members to more peripheral neighborhoods. Favelas that have the nicest views of the city, particularly those located in close proximity to wealthy neighborhoods, will likely see family homes being replaced by hostels, as tourism in the favelas becomes a popular option for those who seek a more “authentic” Brazilian experience.
There are also troublesome questions about how committed the state government is about fighting the growing number of militias, made up of former members of the military police, which control urban areas previously run by drug-trafficking gangs. Those favelas that are controlled by militias have been largely left untouched by the UPP program. There are also signs that drug sales continue as usual in favelas with UPPs, despite the gangs having been largely dismantled, and no one knows yet who is profiting from these new schemes.
Nonetheless, there is still hope that UPPs could still become a more democratic form of organizing the city, in contrast to previous forms of urban control that were rife with human rights abuses, crime, police corruption and the indiscriminate assassination of Afro-Brazilian youth. It’s the promise of lasting peace that makes UPPs have the support of most favela residents, giving the idea of “pacification” a much more positive connotation in Portuguese than it has in English. Rio de Janeiro has struggled for decades against its poorest residents, criminalizing and isolating them rather than trying to integrate them into civil society as citizens. For once, favelas are seriously being considered as viable and valuable parts of the urban landscape, and the counterdiscourse emanating from these communities is resonating more loudly within the public sphere. It remains to be seen whether the mega sporting events that are the main motivations behind the transformations of Rio’s landscape will reinscribe the differences between the morro (hillside shantytown) and the asfalto (asphalt), or will help undermine that dichotomy once and for all.
By contributing author, Alvaro Jarrin
November 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Over the last months we’ve witnessed citizen journalism become increasingly significant during moments of political protest and state violence. Cell phones, iPods, and other gadgets have become central elements of the 21st Century tool kits of contemporary human beings. How would your daily life change without that digital multitool in your pocket? Life would probably change in more significant ways than you would imagine.
The internet and the many forms of computing that we use everyday are a part of the experiences that make us. For example, many of us have sensed anxiety during Gmail’s moments of failure. What about when your wi-fi signal fades at home? It’s horror.
On one level, the computing tools we use everyday allow us to communicate in new ways. We exchange information without regard for geographic distance. Our notions of community have shifted in recent years. Technology has permitted us to create spaces where we see social conventions such as marriage reinvented to fit our lives in an increasingly globalized world.
These are all important elements of our lives today, but what about something so basic that it goes without notice? How about the way that we see? How does our relationship with technology have an effect on visual perception?
The digital camera has become an extremely popular tool in the early 21st Century. Designers and engineers have done a fine job of simplifying the technical process of recording photographic images. The prevalence of point & shoot and mobile phone camera use on photo sharing sites like Flickr hints at the strong preference for user friendly image production and instantaneous sharing. In addition, the most popular cameras (as of 11/16/2011, the iPhone 4 is the most popular camera on Flickr) frequently accompany users on a daily basis. For many who use this type of equipment, image capture requires little evaluation of the most important element of photography: light.
On the other hand, some photographers — especially those who use less technologically advanced tools — often have a different relationship with the camera and light. Although it is not especially common today, individuals have employed various methods for carefully evaluating light. This, in turn, determined their use of the camera. For example, the sunny 16 rule allows people to estimate proper exposure in a variety of lighting conditions (sunny, cloudy, overcast, etc.). For many photographers today, understanding the importance of variables like ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for determining exposure value is not especially difficult. However, learning to see light is another matter.
Although most people can identify relative conditions such as brightness, classifying the quality of light (intensity, color temperature, and hardness) is a far less common skill. Of course, this was not always the case. Consumer cameras like Brownies permitted many families to document their lives with relative simplicity as early as 1900. However, many popular cameras in use prior to the 1960s required users to figure out basics like exposure and focus without the help of software. Exposure charts (which required users to evaluate light) commonly accompanied cameras in the field. Zone focusing required photographers to recognize distance in workable units. Given the capabilities of technology during this period, tools such as Kaufmann’s Posographe (pictured above), an exposure computer developed in the early 20th Century, were valued for making photography more accessible to users. In time, development of tools such as automatic cameras simplified image production. However, seeing light was a fairly significant part of learning basic photography.
Importantly, photography is a cultural practice. The methods employed for this form of popular image production greatly determine the ways that users interpret the world. As designers create new instruments and popular aesthetics develop alongside technological instruments, users find additional ways to use these tools and toys. Of course, the technologies that we use in image creation today do not have to limit us from seeing in old ways. Digital SLRs, micro 4:3, and point & shoot cameras allow us to toy with light in a number of ways. Nonetheless, in depth knowledge of basic principles of photography or lighting are not necessary for using cameras as tools in our communication workflows.
Some might argue that technological developments in cameras have allowed users to focus on content rather than technical factors. Has this resulted in better photography? Maybe. Has it allowed more people to participate in visual communication? I imagine so. Has it changed the way that we see? Absolutely!
November 11, 2011 § Leave a Comment
2011 has been a busy year for anthropologist, Deborah Thomas. First, her most recent book, Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica, was published by Duke University Press. In addition, her research on Jamaican state violence against Rastafarians led to the production of a feature-length documentary, Bad Friday: Rastafari after Coral Gardens, which she co-directed with John Jackson and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about the project. Although it may not be the type of ethnographic work we see most often, their documentary shows some of the ways that media like film can offer ethnographers new possibilites for public engagement.
Bad Friday recalls what many call the Coral Gardens incident. In April 1963, Coral Gardens community erupted in violence after a land dispute near Montego Bay’s Rose Hall Plantation. The resulting violence created panic amongst middle-class and elite Jamaicans, and government officials quickly responded. After reports of a Rastafarian uprising spread in Western Jamaica, Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante mobilized police forces throughout the region. In the days preceding Easter in 1963, police arrested, beat, jailed, and tortured hundreds of Rastafarians in what became one of the country’s most infamous anti-Rasta campaigns.
While Thomas’ most recent book on violence examines these events in 1963, this film has sparked a different type of excitement. In part, this is due to the documentary’s potential to reach audiences that texts like Exceptional Violence might not. According to Thomas, the film was not meant for mainstream America and PBS. Although many viewers of American public television are sure to enjoy it, the film was intended for audiences such as the global Rastafarian community, Jamaicans, and Pan-Africanists.
Working on a documentary also changed the types of relationships that she — an ethnographic researcher — had with collaborators and the field. Thomas explained that the presence of the camera generated both intimacy and distance. Some avoided the camera, but others reacted positively. The camera gave a purpose and a “certain kind of legitimacy” to the project’s ethnographers. Furthermore, some interpreted the camera and the directors’ negotiations as evidence that participation could result in a valuable product. “It seemed like [we] were actually doing something — that something might come out of this. They are not just giving [away their] story.”
And it appears that Bad Friday has made good use of the stories collected in Coral Gardens. Already, the documentary has inspired action in Jamaica. After seeing the film, Public Defender Earl Witter began working with the community to pursue a reparations case in Jamaican court. Some members of the Coral Gardens community have pushed for reparations for some time, but it is likely that the increased awareness brought by the documentary helped the cause. According to Thomas, “we’re happy to play a role in that [process], and we’re glad that the film was able to catalyze some kind of action. And I think that’s rare for an academic to feel like you’re part of having an actual real-world impact.”
Since showing Bad Friday publicly in Jamaica earlier this year, Thomas noted that making this information publicly available is “something [that] really matters to people beyond the sphere of academia. [And it] has been really great.” The documentary has permitted her “to have discussions with people after the film [about] what they’re seeing, what they want to see or wanted to see more of.” Bad Friday has allowed its creators to take part “in a different kind of public dialogue.”
Ultimately, Bad Friday shows that film is not only a tool for documentation. As John Jackson discussed in An Ethnographic Filmflam, the product can also constitute a cultural artifact that can be exchanged and have a life of its own. In this case, the project’s interviewees all received recordings of their own stories and copies of the final product. In addition, this work will generate income for Coral Gardens, as 100% of proceeds will go to the collaborating community.
It is no surprise that choices regarding the dissemination of research result in new possibilities in the field and after research. Creating the conditions for this type of exchange and the resulting relationships takes significant work from everyone involved. But aren’t the benefits worth the effort? Ethnographic film is certainly not new, but Bad Friday makes it look fresh.