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Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops

By Guest Contributor Hunter Oatman-Stanford

This post is an edited version of an interview that ran at Collector’s Weekly on May 30, 2014.

In a country where institutionalized racism has been the norm for centuries, black barbershops remain an anomaly. Though initially blocked from serving black patrons, these businesses evolved into spaces where African Americans could freely socialize and discuss contemporary issues. While catering to certain hair types may have helped these businesses succeed, the real secret to their longevity is their continued social import. For many African Americans, getting a haircut is more than a commodity—it’s an experience that builds community and shapes political action. As both a proud symbol of African American entrepreneurship and a relic of an era when black labor exclusively benefited whites, black barbershops provide a window into our nation’s complicated racial dynamics.

Quincy Mills, a professor of history at Vassar College, started looking closely at black barbershops when assisting Melissa Harris-Perry with research for her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. Harris-Perry was investigating the ways African Americans developed their worldviews through collective conversation, specifically looking at three sectors: black churches, entertainment, and barbershops.

Harris-Perry wanted to do a close study of barbershops, but was worried that as a woman, her presence would alter the nature of the space and its conversation. In her place, Mills observed the interactions of a barbershop on the South Side of Chicago four to five days a week during the summer of 2000. “As I sat there day in and day out, I couldn’t help but wonder how these spaces have been situated historically,” says Mills. “I had seen passing mentions of black barbershops in the literature on black urban history, but there weren’t any books on the topic. I wondered, ‘Were these shops the same in 1940? And what about 1840?’”

Mills spent the next decade researching the barbershop trade for his book, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, drawing fascinating connections between race, capitalism, and culture. We recently spoke with Mills about the roots of black barbershops and their relevance today.
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[EVENT] Theorizing the Web ’14: “Race and Social Media”

1411d404e293911e9202c80d8c0f6987If you are in Brooklyn (or the New York Area) this Friday and Saturday (the 25th and 26th), please come and check out Theorizing the Web! It’s an amazingly geeky conference that discusses the internet and its impact on culture and society – I livetweeted the first one, back in 2011.

I’m keynoting the last panel on “Race and Social Media” and it will be a great time. I’m planning to do a short thing on language and private/public space, and I’ll be on the panel with Lisa Nakamura, Jenna Wortham, Ayesha Siddiqi and André Brock. (Longtime readers may remember I’ve teamed up with Lisa and André many times since Sarah Gatson’s 2009 Race, Ethnicity, and New Media Symposium.)

Long time Racialicious rollers N’jaila Rhee (Blaysian Bytch) and Molly Crabapple will also be in the building being smart. Come say hi to us! One of the things I love about TTW is the small, intimate feel. You can actually talk to people at this conference.

Entrance is cheap – the requested donation is $1 but that’s really just to help cover food and drink:

http://theorizingtheweb.tumblr.com/2014/registration

Hope to see you there!

The Racialicious Links Roundup 5.9.13

Twitter and Facebook exploded with posts like ‘Our culture is not for sale’ and ‘Keep your corporate hands off.’

By late afternoon Disney released a statement saying it would withdraw its “Día de los Muertos” trademark applications.

Gustavo Arellano, author of the syndicated column “Ask a Mexican,” said, “The Latino market is such that already there were calls for protest, boycotts and all that and Disney knows better than to poke at the so-called ‘sleeping giant.’”

This is the story of modern Southern politics. From the end of Reconstruction through the civil rights revolution, the South was an almost uniformly Democratic region. In 1936, for example, Franklin Roosevelt won more than 98 percent of the vote in South Carolina. Race wasn’t the only reason for the South’s shift toward the GOP, but it was the biggest single driver. In 1948, northern liberals inserted a civil rights plank into the national Democratic platform, prompting a walkout of Southern delegations – which then coalesced around the third party Dixiecrat candidacy of Strom Thurmond. An uneasy truce between national and Southern Democrats was reached after that election, but it was untenable. When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the modern Southern GOP was born. Nationally, LBJ crushed Barry Goldwater in the fall of ’64, racking up more than 60 percent of the popular vote. But Goldwater carried five Southern states – winning 59 percent in South Carolina, 69 percent in Alabama and 87 percent in Mississippi.

It took a long time for the basic pattern established in ’64 to be reflected up and down the ballot, but today white Southerners are almost as loyal to the Republican Party as they once were to the Democrats. GOP presidential candidates customarily win more than 70 percent of the white vote in the South, success that in the past two decades has at last trickled down to the local and state legislative levels. This is particularly true in the Deep South, which encompasses South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Exit polling was intermittent last November, but in Mississippi Mitt Romney gobbled up 89 percent of the white vote; with Barack Obama winning 96 percent of the black vote, this translated into a 55-44 percent Romney win in the state.

In this environment, Democratic success in the Deep South is mostly limited to district-level races in majority black areas. A number of African-American Democrats represent the region in the U.S. House, with districts created and protected by the Voting Rights Act. But where white voters constitute majorities, affiliation with the Democratic Party is often the kiss of death for a candidate.

“So, you know, I figured it was a domestic-violence dispute,” Charles Ramsey told a reporterfor the ABC affiliate in Cleveland, explaining what happened after, as he put it, he “heard screaming. I’m eating McDonald’s. I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of the house.” Ramsey, and others who gathered, helped her break open the door, kicking it from the bottom. She told them her name, Amanda Berry. She had been kidnapped at the age of seventeen, ten years ago. There were two other women in the house, Gina Dejesus, who is now twenty-three, and Michelle Knight, now thirty, who had also been held for a decade. There was at least one small child.

Ramsey’s 911 call is transfixing. “Yeah hey bro,” it begins, “hey, check this out.” His intensity, the McDonald’s shout-out, his undoubtedly loose paraphrase of Berry’s account (“This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter”), and also his competence (he does a better job with the essentials like the address than the 911 operator) make him one of those instantly compelling figures who, in the middle of an American tragedy, just start talking—and then we can’t stop listening. (See Ruslan TsarniAshley Smith.) But one phrase in particular, from the interview, is worth dwelling on: “I figured it was a domestic-violence dispute.” In many times and places, a line like that has been offered as an excuse for walking away, not for helping a woman break down your neighbor’s door.

This weekend, Cee found himself in the media again for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover cop, with conflicting reports on whether the officer was male or female. Monday morning, Cee went on Hot 97 to discuss the controversy. For over 40 minutes, Cee endured a verbal witch-hunt from his radio colleagues. Interviewed by Ebro Darden, and seemingly less concerned with the illegal activity of prostitution, Darden dramatically and repeatedly demanded to know if Cee was gay — as if he were accusing the deejay of murder. To soften the blow, Darden added, “we’re going to crack some jokes because you’re our brother.” And to mock Cee a bit more, another deejay, Cipha Sounds, played the house anthem “Follow Me,” a song known for its popularity in gay clubs.

Listening to the program, I thought to myself: If Cee is gay, embarrassment and a demand for the truth are not helpful. Who would shout they are “here and queer” during an interview like the one on Hot 97?

Clearly mocking their “brother” in crisis, the hosts sprinkled a little “we don’t care if you’re gay” babble — but it seemed as if they did care, all while enjoying interrogating Mister Cee, soaking up the glow of their “exclusive interview.” Cee sounded desperate, confused and weakly attempted to explain himself personally and legally. It was sad to hear; but this is the culture of hip-hop.

As deadly clashes between Islamist activists and authorities continue to escalate religious tensions in Bangladesh, the country’s telecommunications authority is making moves to silence bloggers deemed anti-Muslim or anti-state.

Award-winning blogger Asif Mohiuddin and three other bloggers have become the latest target of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, according to online news site online news siteTimesworld24.com [bn]. The commission recently contacted Somewhereinblog.net, the largest blogging platform in Bangladesh, requesting that the four blogs be taken down from the site.

In a report on its website, Somewhereinblog.net officially acknowledged that it had removed the four blogs in line with the government request.

The Bangladesh government formed [bn] a nine-member committee on March 13, 2013 to track bloggers and Facebook users who made derogatory remarks about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, a member of the committee, has requested information on a number of bloggers from different blogging platforms in an effort to ban certain writers considered insulting to Islam or anarchistic.

The “Where Are You Really From” Power Dynamic

by Guest Contributor Ramesh Fernandez

Two days ago I was walking on my way to work and, as always, I have my coffee on Flinders Lane in central Melbourne. While waiting for my coffee, a well-meaning Australian came up to me and asked me what my ethnicity was. I had no idea who he was nor did I know what he wanted. Who is he, and why is he so enthusiastic to ascertain my identity–where I come from?

Did I find him racist and condescending? Yes.

Was there a power dynamic inherent to this question? Yes, there was.

On this occasion, I pondered the situation silently, which put the questioner in an awkward position. “Here we go again,” I told myself. Do I answer this, or tell him what I think, that he is just another racist trying to judge people by where they come from or what they look like? If I were to question or argue with him, would my actions be interpreted as reverse racism on my part? I chose to simply walk away rather than answer the question. Continue reading

The End of July Is Only The Beginning Of Mental Health Awareness

by Guest Contributor Jen, originally published at Disgrasian

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Across the board among minority groups in the US, stigmas surrounding mental health and treatment are much greater than they are for whites. So, while July is almost over, I hope this is only the beginning of the Asian American community and other minority communities championing a shame-free discussion about our mental health.

To kick off this month, my friend, Nigerian American poet and mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi, who started The Siwe Project to raise awareness of mental health issues in the African diaspora, declared July 2 “No Shame Day.” No Shame Day was designed to encourage people to share their stories and struggles with mental illness openly via social media. I’ve talked about my depression in the past–though upon reflection, not nearly enough given how much I care about destigmatizing mental illness–so I, of course, had to participate. (Plus, I want to be more like Bassey when I grow up. You would too if you knew her.)

It occurred to me, though, as I was participating in No Shame Day, how much shame still colors my view and my experience of my own depression, much as I’ve tried to rid myself of it. Even after 15 years of treatment. Even after 15 years of being honest and open about it with my family, my friends, NPR listeners even, and, most importantly, myself. I’m a depressive? I live with depression? I suffer from depression? I struggle with depression? Sometimes the hardest part was simply finding the right shorthand with which to describe it when I brought it up, which was not infrequently. Continue reading

Behind The Scenes With Shawn Peters

by Guest Contributor Rob Fields, originally published at Bold As Love

Over the course of the last few years, you’ve probably heard me mention Shawn Peters in relation to the great curating he’s been doing at Weeksville Heritage Center for their annual Garden Party series. However, it’s becoming clearer that the work he’s probably most proud of is his visual work, both as a photographer and a director of photography. He’s shot videos for Gregory Porter, Blitz The Ambassador and Pharoahe Monch, to name a few. He’s also handled the behind-the-lens duties for Afropunk’s Triptych series, as well as the Terence Nance-directed An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty.

So it was great to see Shawn profiled at Jay-Z’s Life And Times in an interview by Fanon Che Wilkins. Here, he talks with Wilkins about the impact of Morehouse on him and his group of contemporaries and fellow classmates that include Saul Williams, Sanford Biggers, and Tahir Hemphill, to name a few:

Well what’s interesting is that Morehouse is not known as a school that focused a great deal on the creative arts, but many of us pursued art because of our tremendous desire to offer something artistically meaningful to the world that was particularly relevant to reclaiming our dignity as a people. Continue reading

On Racism, Theater, and Trouble In Mind [Culturelicious]

Trouble in Mind

I’ve been to a great many plays on race. Some, like August Wilson’s Jitney, manage to survive through the ages and provide a stunningly timeless view on the problems of the colorline.

Others, like David Mamet’s Race or Neil Labute’s This Is How It Goes, make me realize how much of an abstract concept racism’s pervasiveness can be for white people. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream art world is controlled by white people, and therefore what is considered worthy of production is shaped by white perceptions.

Trouble in Mind has been resurrected, but there are always complications. Over at the Arena Stage website, Irene Lewis speaks to the cause of the persistent racial gap in evaluation of material:

For years, the play Trouble in Mind, by African-American playwright Alice Childress, was recommended to me as a show that, as artistic director of CENTERSTAGE, I should produce. I had read the play several times over the years and found it to be “old-fashioned/old hat,” especially concerning the depiction of the character of the white director. Finally, I decided to ask the opinion of an African-American actress whose judgment I have always valued. She read the play and told me that she liked it. When I asked if she found the role of the white director dated and unbelievable, she said, “No.” So I came around to the opinion that this was another case of – what should I call it – whites (me) being “out of touch” with the experiences of African-Americans. I decided to produce and direct the play at CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore. It subsequently transferred to Yale Repertory Theater. I am delighted that Molly is bringing this groundbreaking piece to Arena Stage.

“Out of touch” is the last term I would use to describe Childress’ noted work, considering it was originally performed in 1955. Considering the play was created more than five decades ago, it should not be so fresh and contemporary. And yet, we live in an era in which a white woman’s tale about a white woman and the black maids she liberated swept the bestseller’s list and the box office – clearly, things haven’t changed that much. So why the disconnect between black and white theater aficionados? As Childress herself has stated:

“There aren’t any black critics who can close a white play. But in black theater, black experience has been fought against by white critics. The white critic feels no obligation to prepare himself to judge a black play.”

And so, here we are. Continue reading

Quoted: Jeff Chang on Libraries and “Our Collective Imagination”

I love libraries and I vote

Enter the collectors, the hipsters, and the DJs. Their rediscovery of musical heritage is a cyclical phenomenon made possible by the deletion of massive amounts of culture. A process we seen repeatedly occurring in Black music, for instance, from the blues to free jazz to funk to disco to hip-hop.

Revivals are what happen at the point where the margin of the marketplace meets the bleeding-edge of hipsterism. It’s lots of fun, but it can also lead to decontextualization and erasure. Where do sagging jeans come from, right? In the cultural economy, in other words, history itself can be deleted.

So on the one hand, you have the market failure that occurs when companies choose to delete records or stop circulating records that have historical or creative importance, music that embodies our human story or music that helps seed new creativity.

Because of market failure, you can’t get De La Soul’s first four albums on iTunes. Nor can you get most of Biz Markie’s albums. You can’t get the complete Def Jam-era Public Enemy boxset Chuck D and the crew put together almost a decade ago. [...]

When I go into a library, I don’t have to worry about who is holding whose copyrights, why this book didn’t sell enough to continue to be available in any marketplace, how many other stories there are out there that I am missing because the storytellers don’t have the money or the property rights to tell them.

In the library, I am in a space beyond the marketplace, beyond consumption, beyond the money censors, beyond the noise. I am in a place where librarians have accumulated the knowledge and the stories important to me and my community.

The library is the embodiment and the refuge of our collective imagination. In the library, we learn just how big and full of possibility the world is and we build the kindling to fuel our creative fires and to change our culture.

—Jeff Chang, “In Defense of Libraries,” a talk given at a rally to save Oakland’s Public Libraries