Jul 8 2012

According to ‘Abraham Lincoln’ Harriet Tubman Shouldn’t Be So Black

There are two things the American masses can’t seem to get enough of, revisionist history and vampires, so, hey, why not mash up the two and make a quick box office buck?

Enter film maker Tim Burton (yes, thee Tim Burton) and his just released bright idea, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a re-imagined version of our 16th President as a hatchet-wielding, freedom fighting abolitionist on a quest for vengeance against the blood-sucking, slave-eating Confederate vampires who murdered his mother.

I’m guessing the film is as over the top as it sounds, which is probably why critics have mostly panned it; but, I can’t actually speak on whether this flick has any redeeming qualities, because, out of respect for Harriet Tubman, I will never see it.

(Yes, thee Harriet Tubman)

If you know even a little bit about Araminta Harriet Ross Tubman, you know that she stands as one of the greatest human beings who has ever inhaled oxygen on this blue marble we all call home.

No, that is not an exaggeration.

Harriet Tubman is a super hero’s super hero.

If you don’t know much about her, we’ll just place the blame for that squarely on the educators who cheated you. If you don’t learn more about her after today, there will be no one to blame but you. Google is, after all, the great equalizer. Or, you could read “Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People,” which is (at the time of this posting) absolutely free on Amazon.com

It is really difficult for me talk or write about Harriet Tubman without being overcome with emotion, because, even though I know many, many details of her life story (a story that is beyond amazing), I am painfully aware that the details I DO know are but a tiny fraction of all that this woman was, all that she saw, and all that she suffered so that others might live in freedom. Gazing at her picture both inspires and shames me; I am reminded of how much I have not done in comparison to this woman’s breathtaking life of service.

Born into slavery c. 1820, Araminta “Minty” Ross was forced to perform hard field labor from the time she was a small child. She witnessed several of her siblings being sold off to other owners (never to be seen again) and she once heard her mother, Harriet Greene Ross, threaten to split open the head of anyone who tried to sell her remaining children. That threat (which worked) was Minty’s first exposure to the idea of “resistance,” but it would not be her last.

Minty was permanently disabled at age 13 when she refused to help an overseer catch an escaping slave. The overseer threw a heavy metal weight at the fleeing slave and it missed and struck Minty in the head. Her owner allowed her two days to recover from the trauma, after which she was forced to work the fields with blood from the wound dripping down her face. She suffered with epileptic and narcoleptic spells for the rest of her life as a result of the injury.

Minty eventually married a free black man named John Tubman and adopted her mother’s name, Harriet, as her own. Never contented to be a slave, Harriet Tubman soon began plotting her solo journey North to freedom. Though her husband threatened to turn her in if she tried to run, Harriet escaped to Philadelphia where she established a base of operations and dared to return to the South twenty times to lead hundreds of souls to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Tubman famously never lost a passenger–a feat she attributed to a pistol at her side and direct communication from God.

Never captured, Tubman eventually served as a spy and nurse during the Civil War, became a suffragette after slavery was abolished, established a home for the aged, lived to be 93 years old, was buried with full military honors and has this inscription on her headstone:

“Servant of God, Well Done.”

So, when filmmakers start messing around with this woman’s legacy, those who love and revere her are definitely going to sit up and take notice.

What we notice about this Burton film is that somebody (Casting agent? Executive Producer? Director?) decided it wasn’t important to portray Harriet Tubman as the dark-skinned daughter of Africa that she most definitely was.

Harriet Tubman (left) & the actress cast to play her 

Tubman’s direct ancestors are believed to have been of the Ashanti tribe from what is now Ghana, West Africa. She was not “mulatto” and she received none of the advantages during her life (literacy, freedom, income, protection) that might have come from being mixed with the slave master’s blood.

Harriet Tubman’s dark skin is central to her story as a black American woman, and anyone who knows and respects the history of Africans in America would know that.

Which raises the question…

Why was Jaqueline Fleming even in the running for this part? (I get why she took the role, but it is lost on me how she could be cast here.)

Casting a movie is never haphazard. Casting agents are like character chemists who are responsible for connecting the audience to the actors and the actors to one another. Their expertise is generously compensated, and their track records are what get them gigs. A quite prolific casting agent, Mindy Marin, cast this movie, though she may not have had the final say in how Harriet should be portrayed.

But someone did. And someone decided she shouldn’t be so black. Someone decided Harriet Tubman should look less like herself and more like Jaqueline Fleming, and that someone had a reason which is left open to speculation.

So, let’s speculate:

Perhaps the closer a woman of African descent is to looking like a white woman, the more palatable she becomes to the audience.

And when a woman of African descent is darker-skinned it seems we are more comfortable if she stays in her place.

Removing Harriet Tubman’s pigment for the purpose of making her more “palatable” to an audience is called E R A S U R E. Distorting Harriet’s image so that it can no longer serve as an example of heroism to the successive generations of brown girls who resemble her is called E R A S U R E.

Erasure must be socially sanctioned if it is to be effective.

So, don’t sanction it. In honor of a great black American woman who devoted her life to freeing slaves and being of service to her fellow humankind, please do not support this film.

“I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” -Harriet Tubman

And, if it’s not too much trouble…

:-/

…contact the film’s producers to let them know why:

@20thcenturyfox @bekmambetov @SimplyBurton

Bekmambetov Projects, Ltd.
11600 Dona Alicia Place
Studio City, CA 91604
Ph:(818)755-0640
Email: kathy@bazelevs.com

20th Century Fox Film Corporation
Attn: Scott Rudin
10201 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Ph: (310)369-1000


Jun 16 2012

Happy Birthday to Me, Tupac and a White Dude Who Dyed for Freedom (not a typo)

Today is my birthday. And Tupac’s Too.

Another June 16th human being I really love is John Howard Griffin.

6/16/20 – 9/9/80

I hope you already know all about this man, but if not, he was a White anti-racist who grew up in the South and wanted to do something to reach the hearts and minds of White Americans, most of whom were in denial about the conditions under which Black people lived.

Griffin conducted an experiment in 1959 that included shaving his head, darkening his skin with lamps and pharmaceuticals and living as a Black man in the deep south.

Though he endured for several weeks, he ended up cutting the experiment short, as he found that being a Black man was too difficult for him to maintain for long. He wrote a book about his experiences that made him a celebrity and (to some) a villain.

“Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: “What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”

“Suddenly I had had enough. Suddenly I could stomach no more of this degradation- not of myself but of all men who were black like me.”

“When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no quality. My skin was dark.”

Mr. Griffin knew when he conducted his experiment he would forever be putting himself at odds with those in America who didn’t want the ugliest realities of racism to be exposed and so vividly expressed by someone White. After his book “Black Like Me” was published in 1961 he and his family received continual death threats. They left their Texas home and eventually moved to Mexico.

“John Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered…He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” -Studs Terkel

Here is an excellent article about Griffin’s life, his experiment and his writings: JimCrowMuseum <<–Highly suggested reading!

“It seems to me that our country is involved in a kind of mass insanity where you can abuse the gift of sight in order to use it to discriminate against somebody.”

♥ HIM !

 


May 15 2012

Asian Activist Scot Nakagawa: “White Supremacy Has a Special Relationship with Blacks”

If you have ever attended a cultural sensitivity training or participated in a forum or workshop exploring issues of race and racism, you have probably noticed that when the dialogue moves to a specific focus on white/black relations (and the ferocity with which institutionalized racism impacts black people and communities) someone in the room will object.

The objection is often couched in terms that sound inclusive, like “What about Native Americans? They’ve suffered too.” or “That’s not really different from how gays are discriminated against.”

It can be an exasperating moment for those in the room who realize that any authentic effort to focus a lens on the concept of “white supremacy” will invariably lead to a discussion about white on black racism. Not because it is “more important,” than any other expression of racism, but because, as activist Scot Nakagawa so aptly puts it, “Blackness is the fulcrum.”

At his blog RaceFiles.com, Nakagawa states:

I’m often asked why I’ve focused so much more on anti-black racism than on Asians over the years. Some suggest I suffer from internalized racism.

That might well be true since who doesn’t suffer from internalized racism? I mean, even white people internalize racism. The difference is that white people’s internalized racism is against people of color, and it’s backed up by those who control societal institutions and capital.

But some folk have more on their minds. They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color. No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”

So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.

So why do I expend so much effort on lifting up the oppression of black people? Because anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

A fulcrum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.” In other words, if you want to move something, you need a pry bar and some leverage, and what gives you leverage is the fulcrum – that thing you use so the pry bar works like a see-saw…

…while there’s no bottom, there is something like a binary in that white people exist on one side of these dynamics – the side with force and intention. The way they mostly assert that force and intention is through the fulcrum of anti-black racism.

Please read the full text of his article, and know why I so appreciate Nakagawa’s take on this issue, not because this point was never brilliantly and succinctly addressed by others, including contemporary black writers like Dr. Joy DeGruy, Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Alexander, but because whenever this sentiment is expressed in any public way by a black person it is mis-perceived as self-serving (read: whining).

When non-black anti-racist activists like Nakagawa, Edward James Olmos and Tim Wise speak about the unique impact of white supremacy on black people, and acknowledge that its eradication will herald the eradication of racism for all groups, a significant number of people will find the message more palatable.

Perhaps a significant number will also find their way into this struggle to internalize the concept of the oneness of humanity, become devoted to dismantling white supremacy and work to purge our institutions, homes and hearts of the insidious (often subtle) blight of racism. . .

. . .both the external and internalized versions.