Black Boxes

W.E.B. DuB — wait, Frederick Dou — no, he had a beard. James Baldwi — nah, he’s the skinny one. I got it! Zora Neale Hurston.

The late British author Joanna Russ wrote a truly excellent book called “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” which is the slam-dunk answer to those who say “If female authors are equal to men, why didn’t they write more Great Books?” (Ditto music, art, or any other form of expression.) Russ goes through the eleven-stage process that prevents women from writing and, if they manage to get published, minimizes their accomplishments.

It’s a quick and eye-opening read. Or if you’re strapped for time, the eleven points are summarized on the book’s Wikipedia page. Which, unlike Scots Wiki, appears to be legit.

An identical book could be written called “How to Suppress Black People’s Writing” or, well, insert your ethnic group or subcategory here. This hit me like a two-by-four — as I confessed earlier, very much belatedly — while I was reading Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. He organizes his chronicle of racist thought in America around the lives of five people: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis.

One thing I never knew: How long and distinguished the careers of DuBois and Davis were. I’d always thought of DuBois as a figure of the distant past, specifically the late 19th Century and the first couple decades of the 20th. But as I learned from reading Kendi’s book, DuBois was a respected figure and a widely published author through nearly two-thirds of the 20th Century. He died on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington.

(Many of you, I’m sure, are thinking “No shit, Sherlock.” But as I wrote previously, I am a reasonably well-educated and well-read person who tries to explore important issues and think clearly about them, and yet my knowledge is embarrassingly limited. I suspect I am representative of many well-intentioned wypipo.)

Likewise Davis, who is forever depicted as the fiery young woman with the queen-sized Afro. She was that in the late Sixties, but she’s gone on to have a storied lifetime in academia and activism. You wouldn’t know it from visual presentations like this, from a Harper’s Bazaar article about influential American women.

Even Gloria Steinem, often portrayed as the young, attractive (“For A Feminist”, ahem) face of the women’s rights movement, gets to be old in this context. But not Davis, who was trapped like a beetle in amber at the very beginning of her public career.

Think of a famous white person from history. Chances are, you visualize an image from their later years. George Washington, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Franklin Roosevelt, King Henry VIII, just to name a few. The mind’s eye image of famous Black people tends to be from their younger years.

Take Josephine Baker. She is forever depicted as the young, beautiful singer/dancer of 1920s Paris. But she died in 1975, and accomplished great things throughout her life. She was an agent for the French Resistance in World War II, and she was one of the key speakers at the March on Washington.

Ditto Jackie Robinson, routinely shown as a baseball player. The visual omits the ongoing political activism of the rest of his life. Colin Kaepernick is just beginning to go down this road; since he was banished from football, he has been totally dedicated to activism. But if he lives to be 90 and turns out to be a force for justice, he’ll always be shown in his uniform.

In the case of Black authors, this is part of the Joanna Russification process that minimizes their contributions to our culture. DuBois was a key figure in Black thought and activism until his dying day. The evolution of his thinking throughout his nearly ten decades on Earth is a great story of intellectual adventure and of overcoming the racist ideology that he assimilated in his formative years. For Baker, it’s absolutely insulting to show her exclusively as the sexy dancer in the banana dress when, in fact, she was an accomplished figure throughout her life.

White authors, artists and public figures are allowed to grow, change, and contribute throughout their lives. For Black people, if they manage to overcome all the obstacles of their early years and attain something worthwhile — and then continue to travel from height to height — they tend to be remembered from a single bright point in their lives, usually near the beginning.

And that is how you suppress the cultural contributions of people of color.

A small example from Vermont’s almost lily-white history. Alexander Twilight is basically known as the first Black person to serve in the state legislature. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his biography in most people’s minds. In truth, he lived a truly remarkable life in a number of ways. The legislature thing, by contrast, is a cute little factoid.

To add insult to insult, the one and only Twilight biography is no longer of print, and you’d have to shell out nearly a thousand bucks to score a copy.

Apologies to all the people who’ve known all this stuff for a long time. I’m still in the explosive stage of discovery, and can’t help but projectile-write about it. Even if it reveals my belated awakening from a lifetime of self-satisfied slumber.


3 thoughts on “Black Boxes

  1. Alyssa Black

    I honestly have never thought about it like that. What’s amazing is I watched The 13th a few months ago and Angela Davis was in it. My first thought was “who is that stunning older woman?” I didn’t recognize her.

    Isn’t it shocking the things you learn that were always in front of you but you didn’t take the time to see? I concur, I actually feel a deep sense of shame about what I didn’t seek to know. How much poorer I am for it.

  2. Sarita Austin

    Very grateful for the recommendations that John Walters is sharing with his readers on books to read if you are struggling to get a clue on the contributions that Black Americans contributed to US history. I remember walking of of the movie theater after watching “Hidden Figures” thinking, “How did I go through 16 years of public and private education and never know that story?”

    Good thing I love to read-I have a-lot of catching up to do.


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