Podcast review: Uncivil

Stumbling across the podcast Uncivil was like finding a jewel. I was excited by the promise of this podcast: a historical look at the untold stories and different perspectives of the Civil War.

Uncivil discusses long-forgotten or never recounted events from the Civil War, events that were mis-recounted or distorted. Its goal is to uncover the myths of the Civil War and reveal the fragmented nature of the Civil War monolith that we were taught. The hosts, journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, examine a variety of topics, such as who fought in the war, the origins of the anthem of the Confederacy, the existence of spy rings, and the use of paper money to undermine the Confederacy.

The first episode appeared in late September 2017 but then as suddenly, the podcast stopped producing episodes in late 2018.

I discovered this podcast not long after it stopped broadcasting. I gorged on all dozen or so episodes in brief succession. And then experienced withdrawal after no more episodes were forthcoming. It left me wanting more and wondering why it was no longer being produced. Surely, they didn’t run out of material?

The podcast was even recognized for its excellence. It received the Peabody Award in 2017 for the episode The Raid. How could Uncivil shine so brightly and then vanish?

To quote Chenjerai Kumanyika from his acceptance speech for the Peabody Award, “Now more than ever, we need to recover untold histories…we need to recover the histories of black people, indigenous people, brown people, queer people, feminists who are participating in an ongoing resistance. In other words, we need to see history for what it is. A fight for the future.”

Fortunately, I have encountered Chenjerai Kumanyika elsewhere (as a guest host in the On Scene podcast in a serial discussion of Whiteness). But I would love for Uncivil to start back up.

Movie review: Get Out (2017)

As I sat down to watch Get Out, I thought, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” It was night. I was alone. And horror movies are really not my thing. But I was intrigued by what I had heard about Get Out.

Get Out isn’t so much a horror movie that will make you jump at the slightest noise and have you looking under your bed for the boogie man. It is more a very creepy horror movie with a slasher horror movie tagged on at the end.

White girl Rose takes her black boyfriend home to see her parents. You just know this isn’t going to go well and so does Chris. But we don’t know how it is not going to go well. On the surface, Rose’s parents are accepting, the stereotype of rich white liberals.

Everything about them, their servants, and their family and friends are creepy. The mother is a psychiatrist who hypnotizes people and hypnotizes Chris against his wishes. The servants—a black groundskeeper and black housekeeper/cook—are beyond creepy. You can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong. Friends and family descend for an annual party with their racial comments, an older woman with a young black man, the auction of Chris—it’s all creepy.

The creepiness of Get Out can be interpreted on two level: the creepy horror storyline and the creepy reality of life in white America as a non-white. Chris responds to the white world in ways that a white male wouldn’t—he maintains his cool in the face of aggression from Rose’s brother, he is ready to hand over his ID when a cop asks, and he instinctively raises his hands when a cop car approaches. His reactions make the reality of life for non-whites in the US all the more stark.

Slowly Chris pieces it together. He is in sporadic contact with a friend back in the city who is babysitting his dog. As a TSA agent, Rod eventually cracks the case and along the way provides some comic relief. He warned Chris about visiting a white girlfriend’s parents. It’s not going to end well—as all of us knew.

In the end, the lesson seems to be: as a black man, never visit your white girlfriend’s parents’ house. Ever. Better yet, do not date a white woman. Nothing good can come from it except body abduction and sexual or non-sexual slavery. Whites, even liberal whites, are out to destroy blacks.

Get Out shows white American society through the eyes of a black American. We see Chris’s perspective in his everyday experiences—from being harassed by a white cop to inappropriate comments from whites to being the sole (or near sole) black person in a sea of white people. It is not pretty. As a white woman, I was continually embarrassed by the white world that Chris had to navigate. This world is the world that non-whites have to navigate every day in the US.

(Although whites can never really know what it is to be black in the US, they can experience being a minority by living in a non-white society. It can be eye-opening. From being charged more for things, to having mothers pull children away in horror on busses, to older men trying to arrange a marriage with their grandson, living in Asian societies showed me what it was like first-hand to not be of the same skin color as the majority in power. As a white, I was still seen as high-ish on the skin-tone hierarchy though I experienced different treatment than the native, majority population.)

Kudos to Get Out for the engrossing storyline and for giving whites a clear window into the world of non-whites in America. The best movies are those that entertain and educate. Get Out does both. I’m looking forward to the next Jordan Peele film.

Movie review: Black Panther (2018)

For those who enjoy action movies or the Marvel comic heroes, Black Panther will likely dazzle you. The movie was well enough made and entertaining, but full disclosure: I am not much for movies centered on comic book heroes.

However, Black Panther can dazzle for other reasons. The movie upends…storylines, location, and cast. Instead of Africa being the dark, backwater continent, it contains a utopian, well-run country. Instead of blacks being portrayed as drug addicts or criminals, they are upstanding, intelligent, strong role models. Instead of blacks being a supporting character or two, they are the majority of the cast. (Two white standouts are a CIA agent and a master criminal.)

Everything was flipped on its head, which was both refreshing and confusing. The blurring of lines was not just white as good and black as bad flipped to be white as bad and black as good, but because the cast was almost entirely black, most characters were good, some were bad.

The storyline blurred this line further. The bad guy was actually fighting for good. The good guy had to be brought around to fight the same fight that the bad guy was fighting. So wait, that black guy good? That black guy bad? It was interesting to notice my internal confusion over who to root for mixed up with implicit societal judgements and views.

Throughout the movie, characters made statements obliquely or directly referring to historical or societal racism. Slavery was referenced. Helping black brethren around the globe stand up to oppression was the raison d’etre for the master criminal. (How could you really not take his side when he was fighting against historical and current oppression of black people?)

The movie causes just enough uncomfortableness but not enough to turn off white movie goers. The master criminal seeking to help his fellow blacks was angry but not enough to scare whites. (His foil was the black hero who came around to help fellow blacks worldwide without attacking or scaring whites in the world.)

The Black Panther was the prince and then king of a country in Africa, seemingly impoverished but actually a rich vibrant country hidden from the rest of the world. Due to a particular mineral abundant in Wakanda, they were quite advanced technologically, medically, and societally. Wakanda kept to themselves rather than help the rest of the world.

The king of Wakanda died in a bomb explosion and his son, the Black Panther, became the king in a ritual ceremony that brought various tribes together. In theory, anyone could physically challenge him for the kingship but no one did.

Until his previously unknown cousin showed up. His cousin was a product of a Wakandan (the Black Panther’s uncle) and an American. The uncle was killed for smuggling the secret Wakandan mineral out of Wakanda; his reasons were noble: to help the rest of the world. For that he was killed. For that his son—the Black Panther’s cousin—grew up bitter, preparing his whole life to return to Wakanda to fight for the kingship and then arm blacks globally with the technology from Wakanda so that they could rise up and destroy their oppressors. (This is where the uncomfortableness comes in…as a white woman, I share the skin color of the oppressors and those being targeted for destruction.)

As a comic book hero movie, there is lots of whiz-bang fighting. Of course, the hero wins the day. Besides the racial themes in the movie, there was a slight coming-into-one’s-own theme. In a ritual hallucination, the Black Panther ingests a special liquid, which allows him to visit his dead father. On the first visit, he is full of love and reverence, seeking reassurances about ruling without his father. On the second visit, he still loves his father but tells him he was wrong to keep Wakanda isolated and to refuse to help other blacks in the world. In his own journey, the Black Panther has discovered himself and separated from his father. He has truly become a king.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the costumes, some of which were rather stunning. I also was smitten by the strong female roles in the movie—the Black Panther’s mother, sister, love of his life, and the elite female guards that served to protect the throne and country. It was refreshing to see the strong roles given to women and blacks…and the themes that perhaps made some movie goers stop and think about history, society, and race relations.

Movie review: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House.

James Baldwin was an author and voice for social justice issues. (He rejected the label of civil rights activist.) In 1948, he left the US for Paris, due to the atmosphere of fear created by racist American society. After seeing a photo of a black woman being taunted and attacked by whites as she walked to a school that she was integrating, Baldwin could no longer remain abroad but returned in 1957. Baldwin then traveled through the south as a witness to the civil rights movement and a writer of his experiences. Through this time, he met and became friends with many prominent folks in the civil rights movement, including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

The documentary, based on his unfinished manuscript, is a reflection on these three great figures in the civil rights movement, the civil rights movement itself, and racism in America. Baldwin explains his experiences in the US and those of African-Americans. Clearly a well-read and reflective thinker, Baldwin illuminates for whites the experiences of African-Americans in the US. Time and time again he patiently explains how experiences are interpreted differently by whites and blacks. He provides a stark education to his white audience.

I Am Not Your Negro is a combination of many different media. The movie shows clips of Baldwin giving talks at Cambridge or interviews on The Dick Cavett Show. His own words and thoughts are narrated over images. Clips from movies in his youth are shown that depict African-Americans and whites in different ways. These clips speak to what he explains about life in the US. His three friends are shown as the movie rolls through the late 50s to the late 60s—the deaths of Evers, Malcolm, and King are covered in succession.

Baldwin has a talent for holding a mirror up to us to reflect the soul of America. It shows a sobering portrait—a portrait well-known to African-Americans and unknown by whites who keep themselves in ignorance through formal and informal segregation. Baldwin’s words and description of America speak eerily of the present moment and the film overlays his words on scenes from modern-day America—an America long after his death in 1987.

I suspect that Baldwin would have been insightful despite his self-exile, but being an ex-pat gives one distance from which to view one’s own culture and reflect on one’s experiences. Baldwin’s time abroad likely sharpened his assessment of America and the cancer of racism.

Baldwin did not share a number of things with African-Americans from the 1950s and 1960s. He was not a Muslim or a black panther because he did not believe that all whites were the devil. He was not Christian because Christians, he observed, do not live by the commandment to love one another. He was not a member of the NAACP because that organization was entangled with black class distinctions.

His distance and separation from American culture and membership in variety societal groups gave him a removal from which to observe. Why is Malcolm X liked? Malcolm X, he explained to whites, articulates the suffering of African Americans and corroborates their reality. Whites do not know about the lives of their black brethren. Segregation that occurs after school when we go to our separate homes creates apathy and ignorance.

The commonality between whites and blacks seems to be hatred. The root of black man’s hatred is rage. The root of white man’s hatred is terror. Baldwin explains how a movie scene is seen differently based on one’s racial experiences in America. Rather than getting away to safety, a black convict jumps from the moving train when the white convict is unable to ascend it safely. White liberal audiences, Baldwin points out, love the black man for doing this; it reassures them that they are not hated. Black audiences abhor the scene, calling for the black man to get back on the train.

From his vantage point, Baldwin describes American virtues as simplicity, sincerity, and immaturity. The American hero, portrayed by John Wayne, epitomizes these traits. (Ouch. Wayne is considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity in the US, so this observation suggests that American males are immature and simple. Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.)

Blacks were originally needed for the American economy—to pick cotton. But now they are no longer needed. Will they be killed like the native Americans were? Comments like this made me pause and think about modern slavery through economics and the criminal justice system—and the killing of black men that seems to be an epidemic.

Baldwin also points out that in America and other western countries, whites easily pick up guns and cry “give me liberty, or give me death.” No one bats an eye at that. But if a black man did the same? It would not be interpreted or dealt with in quite the same way. Again, Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.

I Am Not Your Negro is an interesting glimpse into the civil rights movement and the lives of Evers, King, and Malcolm as told through the eyes of an ex-pat author. Baldwin’s comments and perspectives based on his life experiences as a black American in the US and abroad provide food for thought. And it makes me wish that he had finished his manuscript Remember This House.

We are our history


“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” ~ James Baldwin