I’d be remiss in letting the day pass without noting that April 4 is not only the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination but also the 149th anniversary of the first known performance of “Dixie” (or “Dixie’s Land”) by Bryant’s Minstrels in New York City. The song was a hit in New York in 1859, but it was its appearance a year later in New Orleans that helped convert this noxious little ode into the nearest thing to a national anthem the Confederacy would ever enjoy. Though we obviously associate the tune with the same streams of racist nostalgia that reinvigorated the symbols of the confederacy during the civil rights era, we should also remember that minstrelsy provided an immense cultural resource for Northern, working class whites throughout the middle decades of the 19th century.
As historians like David Roediger and Alexander Saxton have argued, minstrelsy — which in its early years involved northern white performers, smeared with burnt cork or grease, presenting what they usually claimed to be the “authentic culture” of plantation slaves — lay at the center of a “democratic” worker’s culture that was founded on racial chauvinism and pre-industrial nostalgia. Minstrel shows projected onto enslaved blacks a mythic identity that white workers had supposedly lost in the transition to industrialism; slaves were portrayed as boundlessly joyful, guileless and yet erotic and unhindered by the demands of respectable behavior. Of course, they were also portrayed as illiterate, present-minded rubes, which were precisely the same characteristics that appeared to define African Americans as unsuited for liberty or citizenship. The minstrel show’s actors and audiences understood that they were sharing a mere performance, but in their insistence that the (white) performance was based on genuine black attributes that couldn’t — unlike burnt cork — be washed away, they effectively argued that whites and blacks didn’t (and shouldn’t) share the same time and space. Songs like “Dixie,” in other words, made white people feel good about the fact that they were white. They even contributed to a shared sense of “whiteness” itself, as the differences between European ethnic groups diminished by comparison to the gross stereotypes of the plantation darky.
The scholarship on minstrelsy is vast and complex, of course, and the genre became even more vexed when black performers like Bert Williams rose to prominence at the turn of the century. The dozens of different versions of “Dixie” that were performed over the years were no less complicated, especially since Confederate sympathizers often tried to convert the tune into a more respectable “patriotic” anthem rather than an artifact of “low” urban (and Northern culture). It’s worth pointing out that neo-Confederate organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy spent years trying to standardize the song in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly by stripping the lyrics of bawdy jokes and eliminating the caricatures of black dialect that defined the music of the minstrel show. Still, it’s that version of “Dixie” that most Americans are familiar with, and it’s that version — the deliberately nationalist one that arose during the formative years of the Jim Crow system — that racist throwbacks like Clint Johnson defend against the “genocidal” armies of political correctness.
Henry, having befouled nearly all of my daughter’s Sesame Street dolls, consummates a “special relationship” with Beefeater Bear.
Thomas Beattie, the transman who is about 6 months pregnant, was on Oprah yesterday.
You can find video of the first 3 parts (of 4) here.
I think he handled himself really impressively. And what an important story for millions of Americans to hear.
Update: There are 5 parts to the video, and all of them are up now.
Shorter Juan Williams:
The problem with Barack Obama is that he’s not Bill O’Reilly.
Williams’ hackery deserves considerably more attention than it tends to receive. Though his work on Eyes on the Prize seems to have given him a permanent and inflated custodial sense of The True Meaning of the Civil Rights Movement, actual historians generally regard him as a joke. When Timothy Tyson, for instance, wrote about the “sugar-coated confections that pass for the popular history of the civil rights movement,”
there’s no doubt in my mind that he was thinking about he provided what I regard as an apt description of Juan Williams, who is to the civil rights movement what the Stephen Ambrose was to World War II (though the comparison is probably unfair to Ambrose, who was infinitely less sanctimonious).
And though lately he’s spent most of his time accusing Obama of “pandering” to black voters, Williams as much as anyone has helped cultivate an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s palatable to contemporary white conservatives who — given the chance — would have foamed at the mouth over speeches like “Birth of a New Nation,” “Beyond Vietnam,” or “Why America May Go to Hell” — the speech King was planning to give on April 7, 1968. Meantime, he’s perfectly content to “nod along” while his BFF O’Reilly recently compared Jeremiah Wright to the cops who sodomized Abner Louima. (Then again, Williams himself once compared David Letterman to John Wayne Gacy, so I’m imagining Williams had already noticed the obvious comparison.)
[ADDENDUM: Predictably, one of our finer trolls has shown up in the thread, this time towing a remora named "wow," whose role is evidently to remind everyone how far the functionally illiterate have come in recent years. Their bravery is to be commended, and I must admit I find their personal interest in me to be somewhat touching as well. That said, the thread appears to have served some other ennobling purpose, since Timothy Tyson has taken the time to correct the projection error I made in the original post. His view of Williams' historical work is more charitable than mine, and it was sloppy to insist that Tyson must have had Williams in mind when writing the passage I quoted.]
Is this the right way to get people talking about the prevalence of rape? Does it really let women own their experiences to wear a t-shirt? I’m skeptical.
Fascinating and Hilarious:
A MAGIC trick went “horribly wrong” at a weekend Melbourne Comedy Festival show, but audience members had to sign a confidentiality agreement to stop them revealing details. The trick went awry during the Something About Razorblades and Nails show at the Northcote Town Hall on Sunday night. An audience member, who wished to remain anonymous, told Confidential that “something went horribly wrong.” She said all members of the audience had to sign a “secrecy agreement” before they left the venue preventing them from telling anyone what happened. The audience member said the trick that went wrong involved a broken beer bottle, but she would not elaborate.
First thought: This sounds like something from Arrested Development. I imagine Gob trying pathetically to force audience members to sign some sort of agreement like this.
Second thought: It would be quite convenient to be able to force all witnesses of one’s various humiliating screw-ups to sign secrecy agreements. I’m going to have some these drawn up before the next time I go out drinking (in case something “goes horribly wrong” with a broken beer bottle, which, let’s face it, is bound to happen one of these days).
Third thought: How can they “force” the audience members to sign this thing? Is there something about this in the small print on the back of the ticket? What happens to the brave audience member who refuses to sign?
Bob Somerby notes Michael Gerson once again repeating the Myth of Bob Casey, blubbering about Casey Sr. being “banned from speaking to the Democratic convention for the heresy of being pro-life” without mentioning that Casey refused to endorse the Democratic ticket. (Not that I think that parties preferring speakers who reflect the party’s values, as well as in this case the values of a majority of Americans, is any kind of scandal even if it was true.)
The rest of the column — about Obama’s abortion “extremism” — is as bad as you’d expect. He dishonestly claims a majority for a near-total ban on abortion. On the authority of Daniel Patrick Moynihan but needless to say making no actual argument on the merits, he attacks Obama for opposing transparently irrational “partial birth” abortion legislation that does nothing to protect fetal life but does threaten the health of women obtaining abortions (something that to Gerson’s friends in the “pro-life” movement is apparently a feature, not a bug.) And then there’s this:
Having endorsed partial-birth abortion, Obama has little room to maneuver on the broader issue. But he does have some. He could take the wise counsel of evangelical Democrats such as Amy Sullivan and come out strongly for policies that would reduce the number of abortions — support for pregnant women, abstinence education, the responsible promotion of birth control.
Except of course, that 1)Obama already supports “the responsible promotion of birth control,” 2)since “abstinence education” doesn’t work it won’t reduce abortion rates, and perhaps we should even do more to support parents after they have children, and 3)supporting access to birth control and rational sex-ed wouldn’t help to create a greater consensus because Gerson’s pathetic attempts to project a non-existent Christian Democratic tradition onto the Republican Party notwithstanding Republican anti-choicers generally oppose these policies, for the obvious reason that support for criminalizing abortion is generally bundled together with reactionary conceptions of sexuality and gender relations. (The fact that Gerson advocates useless abstinence education as opposed to sex-ed that might actually work gives away the show.) And moreover, advocates of reproductive freedom don’t need the “wise counsel” of Amy Sullivan to support policies that reduce abortion rates; they’ve supported them for many decades.
April have [sic] become known as Confederate History Month.
This is a time to remember great Americans like Lizzie Rutherford of Columbus, Georgia who on a cold January day worked to clean the graves of Confederate soldiers. She and the members of the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus led in efforts to take care of Southern soldiers’ graves and get Confederate Memorial Day recognized throughout the South . . . .
Southerner’s were once a proud people who knew who they were…. But, now, how can we expect our children to know about their heritage when school bands no longer play “Dixie”?
Once upon a time the South’s businesses and schools closed in reverent observance of Confederate Memorial Day. This was a special time for parades and memorial speeches at the local soldiers’ cemetery. Tens of thousands of people made their way to the local Confederate cemetery where children delighted in catching a glimpse of a Confederate Veteran. . . .
And here, from one of Rob’s posts last year, is a reminder of why this sort of thing is dumb:
The mythology that has emerged around the Confederacy, and especially the “Lost Cause” is not simply a question of historical antiquarianism; such nostalgia invariably carries a racial component, and is deeply embedded within a narrative of hatred and oppression towards African-Americans. Confederate nostaligia has always included this racial component, and has never been about the “heritage” of the American South. The southern states have been part of the United States of America for 231 years, and were in rebellion for four; that leaves 227 years of potential heritage that don’t involve a brutal war fought in the service of human servitude. As others have noted, Confederate nostalgia is about the hate, not the heritage.
Undercutting every element of Confederate nostalgia, including the idea that men fought for their states and not their ideology, or that African-Americans fought in numbers for the Confederacy, or that the Confederate elite behaved with any honor, or that the Confederacy was even particularly popular among poor Southern whites, is a valuable project. As long as states see fit to have Confederate Heritage Month, it will be necessary to describe the essential perfidity of the Confederacy. In all honesty, I look forward to the day when Confederate nostalgia is every bit as respectable as fond remembrance for Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or Imperial Japan.
So someone has signed me up for a host of wingnut mailing lists. To the merry prankster (if she/he is a reader of this blog): You, your children, and you’re children’s children are banned from this blog for the next three months.
Anyway, many people (including myself) have wondered with quiet horror what the coming swiftboating of Obama would entail. In my optimistic moments, I think it’s possible they’ll go too far, and it’ll backfire.
In that vein, noted without comment, here is an excerpt from what I believe is the 17th email Ann Coulter has sent me today:
Has anybody read this book [Dreams From my Father]? Inasmuch as the book reveals Obama to be a flabbergasting lunatic, I gather the answer is no. Obama is about to be our next president: You might want to take a peek. If only people had read “Mein Kampf” …
A few things I learned while listening to Bill O’Reilly during my drive to campus this afternoon:
- At least half of all American Jews will vote for Barack Obama no matter what — even if Jeremiah Wright were his Vice Presidential running mate — because “it’s ingrained in their culture that you’re gonna vote that way [i.e., Democratic].
- John McCain knows a lot about foreign policy, and he’s not likely to provoke a nuclear war with Russia.
- Iraq should now “reimburse” the United States for all the money we’ve spent [on a war that wasn't actually their idea in the first place.] Germany and Japan are wealthy now, and if Bill O’Reilly were President he’d “put it on the table” that maybe they could pay us back now for WWII. (He admits, with a petulant sigh, that “it ain’t gonna happen.”)
I’m seriously considering canceling my night class on the grounds that my brains have been siphoned off through the top of my skull.
There has been a lot of press recently about a pregnant man — or, to be more specific, a pregnant trans man. Thomas Beatie is a man. He’s happily married to a woman. But because he was born a woman and still has the internal reproductive organs of a woman, he can bear a child. And he is. All without ever questioning his gender identity as a man. It’s a really moving and beautiful story.
But, predictably, Thomas’s pregnancy has caused an uproar. It gets right to the heart of people’s discomfort with our new society, in which sex is fluid and genders impermanent.
Which is why it’ll be so interesting to see what happens when Oprah has Thomas on her show tomorrow. Of course the preview frames the segment in the most sensational way possible. But I’m hopeful that the show can present Thomas and his wife in an open and supportive way. Maybe that’s overly idealistic.