National Geographic is doing a series called The Race Issue. Yes, I know; I’m tired of it, too.
In NG’s case, however, they contrast their old coverage of non-white people groups with their coverage in the enlightened age – if you’ll pardon the pun. I have read only the following part of the series and haven’t decided if I’m going to read the other parts.
We asked John Edwin Mason to help with this examination. Mason is well positioned for the task: He’s a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and the history of Africa, a frequent crossroads of our storytelling. He dived into our archives.
What Mason found in short was that until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters,
noble savages—every type of cliché.
Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.
“Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures,” he said. “Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority. National Geographic comes into existence at the height of colonialism, and the world was divided into the colonizers and the colonized. That was a color line, and National Geographic was reflecting that view of the world.”
All of this is true. I had a subscription to NG when I was a teenager in the 1970s — a black teenager of closer African heritage than are most black Americans.
And you know what? I’m over it.
You’ve changed your ways, National Geographic. (Thanks for the maps, by the way.) But is it necessary to ruin your reputation by becoming National Groveling?
Let’s confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this.
Now I see. National Geographic is better than today’s political strategy and its Race Series its offering on the altar of please-don’t-hurt-us.
How about this? I forgive you. Now please skip the Virtue Signaling. It’s as abhorrent as pictures of the naked African ladies who were probably my relatives.
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng has been blogging since 2003 as baldilocks. Her older blog is here. She published her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game in 2012.
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I was out of town in July when Detroit, the movie about the destructive 1967 riot and a police attack on a small group of guests at the Algiers Motel, hit the theaters. Directed by Kathryrn Bigelow, who is best known for Zero Dark Thirty and the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, is again teamed with scriptwriter Mark Boal. It stars John Borega, renowned for his role in the Star Wars reboot, as a torn African-American, who despite good intentions gets pulled into the carnage and the aftermath of the upheaval.
But by the time I got back home and found the time to see Detroit it was gone from theaters. Even before the Harvey Weinstein-ignited sex scandals, 2017 was an annus horribilis for Hollywood. Yes, Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast were tremendous hits, there were many notable flops, and among them was Detroit. That’s a pity because it is a masterful piece of filmmaking.
Last night I watched it by way of OnDemand on Xfinity.
The 1967 Detroit Riot is the demarcation line in history for that city, just as the Potato Famine is for Ireland and the defeat of the Armada is for Spain. It’s the Motor City’s before-and-after moment. “Ah, but that was before the riot,” or “riots,” sometimes the plural form is used, is something all Detroiters of a certain age say. Prior to the riot Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city, but now, for the first time since 1850, Detroit is not among America’s twenty-most populous cities. In 1950 Detroit was America’s most prosperous municipality, now it is one of its poorest. True, Detroit’s problems were evident in the 1950s and early 1960s, but at the time the few people paying attention to such things viewed that period as a rough patch or perhaps nothing more than a modest transitional period.
The world premiere of Detroit took place at the Fox Theatre two days after the 50th anniversary of the start of the riot, the old movie palace is the setting of one of the scenes in the movie. The film begins with an undermanned police raid of a black-run speakeasy–called a “blind pig” in Detroit–that quickly turns into a widespread tumult of looting, arson, and death. Archival news footage shows the devestation followed by a clip of Governor George Romney, Mitt’s father, announcing that the Michigan National Guard has been called out. By the end of the five-day riot Michigan state troopers and federal troops had been dispatched to Detroit as well.
Among the riot scenes is one with now-disgraced US Rep. John Conyers (Laz Alonso) urging a crowd for calm–they ignore him. Five months ago Conyers was still a civil rights icon. Now Conyers is shunned.
But most of the movie is centered on police tormenting suspects and witnesses at the Algiers, the reputed site of a sniper attack. After a performance by the Dramatics–who later gained fame for the hit “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” one of the group’s members, Larry Reid (Algee Smith), along with his personal assistant, take refuge at the Algiers, which is located just outside of the Virginia Park neighborhood, the heart of the riot zone. For a while it seems that despite the haze of the smoke from the arson fires and the constant sirens, the Algiers is the smart choice to have a party while Detroit burns. That is until an evil Detroit police officer, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), his two racist partners, troops from the National Guard, and Melvin Dismukes (Borega), a security guard, storm the Algiers in search of a sniper, who we know is Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), who simply but recklessly fired a track and field starting pistol. What follows is a series of intense torture-filled series of interrogations. Two young white prostitutes, one of them is portrayed by Hannah Murphy, who plays Gilly in Game of Thrones, are among those brutalized.
“I’m just gonna assume you’re all criminals,” Krauss tells them. One of those “criminals” is Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), a Vietnam veteran who came to Detroit like hundreds of thousand of others before him–he is simply looking for work. Don’t forget, the blind pig raid busted up a party welcoming two other Vietnam vets home. Krauss denigrates Greene, says he “probably just drove a supply truck” while serving and accuses of him of being the pimp for the prostitutes.
Later Krauss asks the women, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves, having sex with n*ggers?” The other prostitute replies, “It’s 1967, a**hole.” But the mixing of blacks and whites was still a problem for many 50 years ago.
Finally and tragically the Algiers incident ends but the legal ramifications please few. Conyers appears again. And one of the characters finds deliverance.
Like Zero Dark Thirty, the feeling of Detroit is claustrophobic, which of course is intentional. The lighting isn’t perfect, that approach undoubtedly was chosen to enmesh Bigelow’s scenes with the archive footage.
Understandably Detroit is still coming to terms with the ’67 riot. I visited Virginia Park last month, while there are still many abandoned homes–this is Detroit after all–there are some new ones too. The site of the long-ago razed blind pig and the neighboring stores where the riot broke out is now a park–albeit one that no children were playing in. To be fair it was a chilly autumn afternoon. In July a Michigan historical marker was erected at that site. On the flipside, sandwiched between New Center and the mansions of Boston-Edison, where Henry Ford, Ty Cobb, Joe Louis, and Berry Gordy once lived, Virginia Park’s future appears bright. Deliverance may be coming there soon too.
Besides Xfinity OnDemand, Detroit is also available on DVD. The trailer is viewable here.
“You are going to have to do better than everyone else because you are black.”
For decades, upwardly mobile black parents have been telling the above to their children. And if the black child in question happens to be a girl, that always factors in. You, black female child, have to be doubly excellent because you have not one, but two “strikes” against you.
My parents said this to me routinely during my formative years. Many of my white friends are aghast at this advice and I’m puzzled as to why, especially taking into account that I am in my 50s—which means that my parents grew up in the Bad Old Days, during which the expectations were that a black citizen might have, at best, a high school diploma and would usually have a profession where their hands, feet and backs were more essential than the higher processes of their minds.
Now, of course, that has all changed dramatically. An American who is black and a woman can be secretary of state, attorney general, surgeon general, or an astronaut. Black female doctors, lawyers, nurses and other professionals are everywhere. (And, though we are talking about black women, the existence of the current president of the United States makes this point.)
Tamika Cross, a physician, was midway through a flight from Detroit to Minneapolis when a passenger emergency sent her into “doctor mode.”
Sometime after takeoff, a man two rows in front of her suddenly became unresponsive, she said, and flight attendants called for help.
Cross, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said she immediately flagged down one of the crew members, offering to treat the man.
She got a response she wasn’t prepared for.
“Oh no, sweetie, put [your] hand down,” Cross recalled the flight attendant saying. “We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.”
Then overhead they paged “any physician on board please press your button”. I stare at her as I go to press my button. She said “oh wow you’re an actual physician?” I reply yes. She said “let me see your credentials. What type of Doctor are you? Where do you work? Why were you in Detroit?” (Please remember this man is still in need of help and she is blocking my row from even standing up while
Bombarding me with questions).
I respond “OBGYN, work in Houston, in Detroit for a wedding, but believe it or not they DO HAVE doctors in Detroit. Now excuse me so I can help the man in need”. Another “seasoned” white male approaches the row and says he is a physician as well. She says to me “thanks for your help but he can help us, and he has his credentials”. (Mind you he hasn’t shown anything to her. Just showed up and fit the “description of a doctor”) I stay seated. Mind blown. Blood boiling.
The more I think about this situation, the more I think that the flight attendant should be fired not for racism, per se, but for what her preconceived notions—regardless of they were–caused her to do: to tell Dr. Cross to sit down and shut up before the latter could identify herself as a doctor. The simple act of cutting of the physician and ignoring her could have cost a man his life.
That act was likely caused by the flight attendant’s preconceived notions about doctors and about black women.
And whether those notions are justified or not, this mini-drama does show why parents like mine tell their offspring that blackness is an obstacle to overcome. Still.