Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives’ responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.
Ava DuVernay’s Selma has sparked a robust discussion about the civil rights movement, memory, and the filmmaker’s role in creating “accurate” and teachable history. The film has garnered much pointed criticism for “artful falsehood,” “distorting” history, and “villainizing” Lyndon Johnson. The problems with these assertions are threefold. First, deploying terms like distortion and villainizing does not reflect a willingness to engage issues of history, memory, and mythmaking in good faith; those are words that seek to discredit the film and the director’s interpretation of the event. Second, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson illustrates, these critiques of the film belie the historical record. Finally, the ballyhoo around Lyndon Johnson misses the point, and it pushes us away from analyzing the film in a manner that accounts for the broader historical context and historiography.
Rap artist Azealia Banks, who released her debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, in November, made the news with her appearance on Hot 97’s radio show, Ebro in the Morning, in December. In her 47 minute interview, Banks railed against white Australian-born pop singer-turned rap artist, Iggy Azalea, Azalea’s boss, rapper, T.I., and against capitalism, slavery, and the appropriation of black culture. Azalea released her debut album, The New Classic in April, which shot up to #1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip Hop Album and Rap charts. Her song “Fancy” dominated the airwaves. The positive reception even led Forbes to initially declare that Azalea “ran” rap. This declaration, which Forbes eventually dialed back, underscored Banks’s critique about appropriation and black women’s exclusion and erasure in the corporate rap industry. Banks declared, “At the very fucking least, you owe me the right to my fucking identity. And not to exploit that shit. That’s all we’re holding onto with hip-hop and rap.”
My decision to participate in Ferguson October was spur of the moment. I did not plan to attend, but my partner and her roommate convinced me to go. My interconnected multiple selves — black man, job-seeking graduate student, and activist committed to social justice — waged a battle for my conscience and time. My multiple deadlines and obligations as a graduate student made such a trip inconvenient. Yet, I recalled my reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict. I remembered crying to express my helplessness and grief. I told myself that night, I would not be caught on the sidelines in the fight for racial justice again. I promised that I would do anything in my power to be present the next time, because, unfortunately, I knew there would be a next time.
Two weeks ago, hundreds of young whites clashed with riot police in Keene, NH, during the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival. The details regarding the riot’s spark are not clear. Witnesses describe the riot as a college party that spiraled out of control. Observers talked about how participants threw bottles and rocks, turned over dumpsters and a car, and uprooted traffic signs. The police responded in kind by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at rioters. Around thirty people were injured.
“It would be grossly unfair to omit recognition of a minority of whites who genuinely want authentic equality…But they are balanced at the other end of the pole by the unregenerate segregationists who have declared that democracy is not worth having if it involves equality. The great majority of Americans are suspended between these opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing and the Ferguson uprising, I am reminded of these passages written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission. Both quotes reflect hard truths about the history of black uprisings in the U.S.—they are not the products of criminality or pathology; they are responses to longstanding grievances against racial and economic inequality. And in light of the Ferguson uprising, we should all take note of one argument advanced by Dr. King and the commissioners: America refuses to acknowledge how generations of structural racism have created the conditions for black rebellions.
Detroit’s movement to oppose the city’s water and sewage department’s draconian bill collection program won a significant victory on July 29. The city’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, extended more control over the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to Mayor Mike Duggan. While Orr retains the authority to restructure the DWSD, the announcement means that the DWSD will suspend its bill collection program temporarily. In March, the DWSD announced that it would shut off its delinquent customers’ water. To date, thousands of Detroiters have experienced shut offs already. According to the Detroit Free Press, the DWSD shut off water to 7,556 customers. If the DWSD’s goal was to pass the costs of its financial crisis to its customers, the program appeared to work, as up to 17,000 Detroiters have entered into payment plans. Unfortunately, the DWSD turned its fiscal emergency into a human rights issue, a public health and political crisis.
I was not shocked to learn that the SCOTUS sided in favor of a for-profit corporation over real human beings in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. considering its recent history. The Roberts court strengthened the concept of corporate personhood in the Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission case in 2010, ruling that businesses were entitled to the same right of political speech—spending—as any individual citizen. On Monday, five male Supreme Court justices ruled that “closely-held companies” were patriarchal entities who shared religious identities. The 5-4 decision allows particular employers the right to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement, ultimately leaving women without the ability to buy coverage that includes certain forms of preventive care.
While some hip hop artists and groups have addressed the issue of healthy eating, few have tackled mental health. Hip hop’s distant relationship with mental health should not be surprising, as many African Americans have considered issues such as depression, suicide, and other mental and psychiatric ailments taboo. Last month, the suicide of For Brown Girls’ creator and blogger, Karyn Washington, served as a reminder of the enduring silence of African American depression sufferers. Washington’s death provoked conversations among black members of the media about mental health. Coincidentally, rapper Pharoahe Monch released his fourth album—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—a week after Washington’s passing. In the album, Monch highlights the intersections of the stresses of inner city life, drug use, suicide, and the structural and cultural barriers to pursuing mental health care. PTSD just might serve as the perfect opening to a conversation on African American mental health.
President Obama, Paul Ryan, and Bill O’Reilly walk into a bar. Rather than engage in abstract conversations about the role of America in the world or the federal government’s role in the market, they decide to talk about an issue where they can forge some common ground. What issue could the three men come together around? It is probable they would likely converge around trying to explain and address the poverty of black men and women in the United States. This common ground is possible because national conversations about public policy never seem to escape the orbit of culture, meritocracy, colorblindness, and normative understandings of gender and family. More specifically, Ryan’s, Obama’s, and O’Reilly’s recent comments on the subject revolve around two political archetypes—the heteronormative family and the black male. When considered together, they take a special place in our nation’s “gendered imagination.”
Political hip hop songs tend to focus on the typical manifestations of state violence, structural racism, and corporate capitalism—police brutality, poverty, the prison-industrial complex, ghettoization, and war. Themes of healthy eating and food justice, however, are underappreciated topics in rap music. One is more likely to hear rap songs about drug, alcohol, and eating binges than the merits of eating a healthy diet. Rapping about consumption of these substances reflects how much popular rap music tends to celebrate materialistic excess and a partying lifestyle. Rappers like Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, and Action Bronson have all earned notoriety for performing songs about food consumption and drug and alcohol use. Corporate vendors also try to capitalize on the relationship between hip hop and food. McDonalds’s use of hip hop culture to sell its food to young, and presumably black, consumers is rather conspicuous.