By Mark Anthony Neal
As protests go, the pulling down of Confederate monuments is low-hanging fruit. They are largely symbolic acts directed at symbols that, by and large, have long been relegated to unread history books and museums. But low-hanging fruit can also be poisonous.
State laws passed to protect these monuments—to weaponize them—are now being used to undermine the work of social justice activists and quell resistance. The “Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” was passed by the North Carolina state legislature in July 2015, roughly a month after activist Bree Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State Capitol in South Carolina in response to the shooting deaths of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof.
Newsome’s act became a social media moment that inspired many other acts of resistance— including Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.
The 2015 law is also the subtext of the recent arrest of Takiyah Thompson, a 22-year-old North Carolina Central University (NCCU) student, who was among a group of activists and protesters who helped bring down a Confederate monument in the city of Durham earlier this week. Additional protesters have subsequently turned themselves into authorities.
A day after footage of Thompson scaling the structure to place the rope that was used to pull it to the ground went viral, she was arrested by Durham County sheriff’s deputies. Thompson was charged with four counts, including two felony charges for participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500. That the sheriff’s deputies patiently waited for Thompson to finish speaking at a press conference arranged on NCCU’s campus, speaks less to their recognition of her first amendment rights as it was public show of the sanctity of state laws.
Yet what these Durham activists understand is the fact not all laws are just. Indeed, the very states that have enacted laws to protect Confederate totems from removal by local municipalities and individuals, also understand that not all laws are just.
Durham’s Black city manager dubbed the protest “unlawful and inappropriate” and there were many, who, while affirming the goals of the takedown, were less supportive and even critical of the means in which the monument was taken down. Yet, if the Civil Rights era activists would have been able to use Twitter or Instagram 60 years ago, they likely would have used hashtags like #unlawful and #inappropriate, which would have been entirely appropriate in the context of struggles against laws that were unjust and absurd.
Rosa Parks broke an unjust law to challenge the treatment of Black people on public transportation in the South. When four students from North Carolina A&T sat at a “Whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, they were pushing back against an unjust law—also a reminder of the role that HBCUs play in cultivating political consciousness among young Black people. Every enslaved African that chose to leave a plantation, under the cover of the night and live their lives as fugitives, knowingly broke, what they correctly deemed unjust laws. Indeed, there have been few examples of successful social justice movements that did not include the breaking of unjust laws, from the challenging of unlawful assemblies to illegal work stoppages. Generations ago, we quaintly named such activities as “Civil Disobedience” and can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s.
The tearing down of the symbols and trinkets of the confederacy might seem like low-hanging fruit, but when we are more concerned as a society about the treatment of formed pewter than about the treatment of people forced to live under the policies and tactics shaped by those symbols, then it is indeed time to take a stand. After a successful fundraising campaign Thompson was freed on bail hours after her arrest. It was a reminder there are some willing to stand on the side of justice.
Mark Anthony Neal is chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan.
Originally published in Cassius Life, Aug. 17, 2017.
Excerpted from The Black Scholar, Vol. 47, Aug. 2017
By Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal
Black Code Studies is queer, femme, fugitive, and radical. As praxis and methodology, it waxes insurgent. It refutes conceptions of the digital that remove black diasporic people from engagement with technology, modernity, or the future. It centers black thought and cultural production across a range of digital platforms, but especially social media, where black freedom struggles intersect with black play and death in polymorphic and polyphonic intimacy.
Black Code Studies roots itself in the challenge of living in the wake of black people rendered inhuman, non-existent, and disposable by the slave ship, the plantation, the colonial state, the prison, the border. Facing devastation again and again, black folks need in and for each other becomes both time-traveling desire and reservoir knowledge. As Gumbs shows, our oracle work seeps up and through tools, structures, analog and digital architecture we were never meant to survive much less occupy.
When Cramer and Raengo declare that “black code studies emerges as a way to prepare black studies for an increasingly complex set of cultural rhythms and temporalities,” they capture the context in which this special issue appears in your hands. “Black Code” was conceived at a particular moment in the history of race—or, perhaps more apropos, Blackness—and the digital. In 2002, Alondra Nelson gathered geeks, freaks, and global nerds of color around “Afrofuturism.” Their work—and Nelson’s listserv organizing praxis—pre-dated social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Broadband was not a “public” good yet.
Fifteen years later, protecting and imagining Black Futures is a rallying cry in the face of immediate and structural racial violence. When new platforms or syntax (i.e., hashtags) appear, as Conley shows, black feminists reappropriate them for their own use despite having been created by tech companies for capitalistic pursuits. Protecting our black digital presence is about protecting a future in which our physicality may not matter in the same way that it has in the past.
As praxis, Black Code Studies moves beyond the dyad Black + Digital, transgressive as that pairing has proven to be. It is the viral blackness that, described by Wade, “subverts social hierarchies by putting the needs and desires of Black bodies at the center.” It is the #Blktwitterstorians hashtag, created by Brown and Crutchfield to highlight black historians and history. It is blackness as a deep humanism and affect(ion) that confronts, as Driscoll shows, the biopolitics of the hexadecimal, and, as Greene-Hayes and James discuss, the biopolitics of organizing and everyday antiblackness.
Black Code Studies rejects formulations of Black Studies that tie intellectual production only to institutional structures or the digital humanities only to grant-seeking projects with university affiliations. Black thought, art, and activist work manifests in many forms. Barely scratching the surface, this special issue represents the possibilities and difficulties digital work faces within existing academic publishing models and of constraining Black Code Studies to text form. Although the work in this special issue appears in analog form, the contributors gathered here include practitioners and non-practitioners, whose projects beyond these texts we encourage you to explore, engage, and participate in. We thank you, all of you, for your work.
We conspire to abscond. We will shapeshift into being again. Soon.
This fall, Professor Mark Anthony Neal will teach a new graduate course at Duke University – “Hip-Hop in the House of Hall: Critical Readings in Hip-Hop Studies.”
The fall 2017 course will be held Mondays at 6:15 p.m. in Friedl 216.
The course will examine the roots of the field of Hip-Hop Studies in the groundbreaking scholarship of cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
Born in Jamaica, Hall wrote and lectured extensively on race, identity and social change in Great Britain.
“Three months at Oxford persuaded me that it was not my home,” he told the Guardian in 2012. “I’m not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure.”
Hall passed away in February 2014 and by then had come to be known as “the godfather of multiculturalism.”
Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History
by Stuart Hall and Jennifer Daryl Slack
Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy
by Houston A. Baker Jr.
Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
by Tricia Rose
Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema
by S. Craig Watkins
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness
by Kevin Young
Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice
by Krista A. Thompson
Religion in Hip Hop: Mapping the New Terrain in the U.S.
Edited by Monica R. Miller and Anthony B. Pinn
In The Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition
by Fred Moten
Parodies of Ownership: Hip-Hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Law
by Richard L. Schur
Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics
by Lester K. Spence
Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop
Edited by Jeff Chang
When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down
by Joan Morgan
Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology
Edited by Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham and Rachel Raimist
by Linda M. Burton & PhD & Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D.
Ask NBC News. They recently learned what happens when you tweet a story with a headline that erroneously twisted Sally Hemmings’ personal narrative of horrific, repeated rapes at the hands of Thomas Jefferson into a headline about her being Jefferson’s mistress. NBC News learned that in this current climate of close interrogation of history and fact-checking, Twitter, especially Black Twitter, claps back. Mightily.
NBC News now knows not to twist, at least one Black woman’s narrative, Sally Hemmings’, into something it was not. But what about the rest of American society? Do pockets of America continue to twist Black girls’ narratives about who they are and their vulnerability and innocence into tales of willing and complicit precocious sexuality?
In the recently released report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” authored by Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Black, and Thalia Gonzalez, this question is answered with a resounding, “YES!” This report calls into sharp focus adults’ perceptions that dehumanize and both explicitly and implicitly impugn Black girls. The report finds that adult respondents from their study perceive Black girls as young as five to nine years old, in contrast to white girls, as needing less nurturance, protection, support, and comfort, while at the same time being more independent and knowing more about adult topics and sex.
To their credit, the authors chronicle the history of such dehumanization of Black girls and Black boys back to America’s inception and lift up the institution of slavery as further proof that such perceptions are not new. Such dehumanizing perceptions are often used to retell and revise the terror inflicted upon and objectification of Black bodies throughout American history.
Additionally, Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez review several dominant paradigms about Black femininity that emerged during slavery and note that the contemporary manifestations of these paradigms belie the implicit biases and racism (our word not theirs) that result in Black girls being treated more harshly and their developmental behaviors being criminalized.
We agree with the authors’ point about the continued, undeserved dehumanization of Black girls. Unfortunately, while the Girlhood Interrupted report focuses the spotlight on these dehumanizing perceptions of Black girls, the report also equates such perceptions with the term adultification.
As Black female behavioral scientists who have cumulatively studied adultification in the lives of Black girls and boys (see Burton, Winn, Stevenson, & McKinney, 2015) and Black families in different settings for over 50 years, we are concerned that framing the dehumanization of Black girls identified in the report as adultification is deeply problematic. In fact, we disagree altogether with the choice of adultification as a way to situate this very important discourse.
Admittedly, the authors, as a few other authors have done before them, defined adultification as, “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” And from there they argue that their participants’ perceptions of Black girls as being less innocent and in need of less nurturance, guidance, and protection are similar to the dehumanizing stereotypes of Black women.
Using the adultification concept in this way twists the fundamental meaning and incumbent processes as it is discussed in existing social science and family therapy literature. In a 2007 article, Burton provides a standard definition of adultification that is not dehumanizing: “adultification comprises contextual, social, and developmental processes in which youth are prematurely, and often inappropriately, exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family network.”
Several of the Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez interview questions directly interrogate adults’ perceptions about parameters of the adultification process, for example: “How often do Black (or white) females take on adult responsibilities? How knowledgeable are Black (or white) females about sex?” As asked of respondents, however, even the second question is likely to conflate potentially precocious knowledge about sex with Black female children’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexual reproduction resulting from healthy, proactive parent-child conversations in response to the earlier onset of puberty for Black girls.
The other questions asked in the study have nothing to do with adultification. Quite the contrary, clinically, children who take on these roles need a lot of nurturance, comfort, and support to adequately learn and perform such roles. Playing an adult in a child’s body, with a child’s emotional maturity is hard. Full Stop. Black women need nurturance, comfort, and support too. Fuller Stop. In our view, the frame of adultification, in the ways Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez define it, seems to be more accurately and simply be characterized as dehumanization and promoting racist gendered stereotypes about Black females.
To be clear, Black girls’ being more knowledgeable about sex, perhaps sexual reproduction, at earlier ages than white girls does not equate with any definition of what being a Black woman is to us and many others. Furthermore, twisted perceptions about Black girls’ knowledge of sexual risks conjuring up the age-old, American stereotypes of the “jezebel” Black woman which, as Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez note, persist in present day American culture. That stereotype promotes racist notions of Black women as precociously sexualized, morally bankrupt, incapable of regulating their emotions, and unable to deeply feel — loss, love, grief or much of anything else for that matter.
We agree that adult Black women are still considered in the context of this racist, humanity eroding, gender offensive trope. And, we are concerned that viewing little Black girls through the Black female adultification lens, as posited by Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez, risks further imposing such dehumanizing stereotypes onto lives of Black children.
Indeed, conflating adultification with dehumanizing perspectives is intellectually flawed and poses obstacles in discerning alternative framings of what is happening in the lives of young Black girls and how the broader population is complicit in the process. Rather than considering the adult respondents’ perceptions that Black girls behave in adultified ways, shouldn’t we call it what it really is?
There are generic processes that people engage in on a daily basis to reproduce race and gender inequalities among individuals and groups. One such process is emotion management. Because race and gender inequalities foment feelings such as anger, resentment, despair, and sympathy that threaten to destabilize the social order, these emotions must be managed, which means, relative to the study we discuss here, that our perceptions and emotions about Black girls “must be managed.”
One way of managing societal emotions is by regulating the narrative about Black girls using particular language and assigning certain attributes to them. The dominant group in society usually controls the narrative and reinforces it in existing social structures, in this case schools and the judicial system, while more private discourses among ordinary people work to strengthen destructive narratives and stereotypes. Indeed, emotion management by controlling negative narratives on Blacks is thriving in certain pockets in today’s America.
As Black female behavioral scientists whose humanist resolve and intellectual rigor was birthed in the complex cities of Compton, California and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively, we have lived experiences about the damage that twisted narratives and errant frames can visit upon Black and white America, particularly when scientists waywardly compare Blacks to whites. Such twisted frames attempt to strip us Blacks of our humanity and seek to render us as less than or an oddity in that, regardless of gender or class, we are perceived as having no sense of emotional intelligence, proclivity to care for others, or ability to self-regulate, regardless of our ages. Such framings move us no closer to accurately identifying fundamental causes in the persistent strengths inherent in or inequalities hoisted upon Blacks in America for centuries. Less we forget . . . Black women have shown America how to be humane.
We hope that the Girlhood Interrupted report can spark a wider discussion on the uncertainty that some Black girls live with on a daily basis, particularly those Black girls whose families and/or communities are economically impoverished or unsafe. Uncertainty is a state of ambiguity, one in which immediate and future conditions or events are unpredictable or otherwise not clearly determinable by those involved. In some environments, uncertainty, even when buttressed by community strengths and individual connections, can lead to a narrowing of viable options, a hesitancy to act, and a diminished likelihood of acting in ways that support longer-term, positive outcomes.
Under such uncertain conditions, some girls may act with an eye toward the moment because unpredictable resources and the ever-present specter of need require orientation to the here and now. This behavior often emerges from a lack of control girls may experience as they struggle to simply survive in a world where key resources are scarce, there are limited opportunities to thrive, and a broader society dehumanizes them in narratives based on erroneous assumptions and interpretations of their lived experiences.
Untwisting this narrative by, in this instance, uncoupling the frame of adultification and dehumanization is particularly important given the context of recent political rhetoric in America. It has become fairly common for public and political discourses concerning people of color and their communities to be inappropriately cast as having undesirable attributes.
In today’s America, we seem to have once again backslid to the days of the Moynihan Report where national leaders promulgated stereotypes about Black families being “tangles of pathology” and dysfunctional, no matter their social class. As in times past, national leaders foment the wholesale acceptance of such denigrating stereotypes among their followers who have little to no understanding of the profound inaccuracies of the rhetoric and who exercise little discretion or censorship.
We optimistically ask America not to get the findings in this report twisted. The adult perceptions studied in this work reflect the dehumanization of Black girls, not their adultification into Black women. Does America have the capacity to resist the twist, censuring and holding itself accountable for creating accurate narratives, frames, and discourses about Black girls and the Black women they aspire to become? If not, let NBC News’ recent twist serve as a good example of a bad example. There will be a clap back.
Linda M. Burton, Ph.D., is Dean of Social Sciences, Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, and a professor of public policy at Duke University. Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate for the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
It has come to be known in our family as the “juice box incident”. I was called to my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class at a local charter school because she was being suspended. Apparently, my daughter had been accused of purposely squeezing juice, from a juice box, into the eye of a classmate, a White girl. As I sat talking with her teacher, I wondered to myself about the dexterity it would take for a five-year-old to deliberately squeeze juice across the table into someone’s eye. What I did ask the teacher directly, was if he had ever handled a juice box before. As any rank and file parent will tell you, there’s nary a juice box occasion that doesn’t end with some amount of juice anywhere but in a child’s mouth.
I am reminded of the “juice box” incident reading the recent study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls Childhood,” published by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown Law School and based on research from the team of Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez.
The gist of the report argues that adult educators, in their interactions with Black girls aged 5-19, believe that Black girls deserve less nurturing, protection, support, and comforting — dynamics that seemed to be grounded in perceptions of Black girl independence, though as the researchers note, that is rarely to their benefit. Though the scope of the research is admittedly limited — there were less than 400 respondents — I couldn’t help but read the report and think “this is my life.”
A critical component of the study highlights the “theory of adultification” of Black children where educators “associate Black girls’ behavior with stereotypes of adult Black women.” Adultification, in effect, creates a condition where Black children are treated as the babies of suspect stereotypes of Black women. As the researchers note, “adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from other developmental periods.”
The process of adultification has direct impact on the experiences of Black girls in school, particularly in the context of discipline with regards to in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Citing the work of Subini Annamma, the report highlights how Black girls are often disciplined for subjective reasons such as exhibiting defiance or as a school administrator said to me about my daughter “non-compliance,” which was her way of describing my daughter’s regular proclivity to ask followup questions or request explanations for directions that might not have made much sense to her.
As such, in comparison to their White female counterparts one study suggested that Black girls were twice as likely to be disciplined for minor infractions such as dress code violations or cell phone use. And they are two-and-a-half times more likely to be disciplined for “disobedience.” Remember the high school student who was assaulted by a school resource officer in South Carolina? These narratives overlay troubling examples of police shootings where Black victims failed to comply by running away.
Ironically the very attributes that encourage Black girls to speak back to power, if you will, was openly cited by respondents as evidence of the leadership skills of Black girls. Yet the tendencies of Black girls to “talk back” are viewed as disruptive in the classroom, and those energies are very rarely nurtured or redirected towards leadership development opportunities. As the report’s researchers observe, “the perception that Black girls do not merit nurturing or that their leadership qualities should be restricted could be associated with our finding that adults believe that Black girls do not need protection or nurturing, and could affect opportunities for success.”
The report suggests that as “early as 5 years of age, Black girls were more likely viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age.” The day that I sat with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I remember struggling for language to describe what I clearly viewed as a form of profiling; what the teacher heard was that I called him a racist. Unfortunately, as the report’s multiracial responders highlight, perceptions of Black girls transcend the race and the ethnicity of the adult educators. And as my own experience has shown ,with both of my daughters, now ages 14 and 18, very often adult educators believe that are helping Black children by encouraging, and even demanding, compliance and “good behavior” from them.
My daughter survived the “juice box incident” — and many such incidents. As she prepares for her first year in high school, she is also hyper-aware of the mechanisms of surveillance that exist, in ways that her White counterparts simply don’t have to be. In their conclusion, the researchers write, “all Black girls are entitled to, and deserve, equal treatment. Including equal access to the protections that are accepted as necessary and appropriate for children.” There’s a part of me that lives with the reality that my daughters, like so many Black girls, never fully had the freedom to simply be children.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African + African American Studies and a English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African + African American Studies, and co-Director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE). Neal is the parent of two daughters, a rising college sophomore and a rising first-year high schooler.
From PBS American Experience Collection, Songs of Summer:
By Mark Anthony Neal
His wife was supposed to sing it. George McCrae’s own music career had languished in Palm Beach clubs, in what might be thought of as an upscale chitlin’ circuit. At the time, he was about to go back to school to study law enforcement. But Gwen McCrae was late to the recording session at TK Records in Hialeah, Florida. Tired of waiting, engineer Richard Finch and record store employee Harry Wayne (KC) Casey asked George to stand in. The result was “Rock Your Baby,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Charts in late July of 1974.
For two weeks that summer, McCrae would rule the airwaves, backed by the futuristic rhythms of an affordable drum machine and propelled by two songwriters who would help define the sound of dance music throughout the 1970s and beyond.
To be sure, “Rock Your Baby” was not the first disco hit to top the pop charts. That distinction probably goes to the Hues Corporation and their song “Rock the Boat.” But there was something about McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” that smacked of the new — namely, the Roland TR 77, an early-generation drum machine and harbinger of the future. Good dance music means the beat stays in the pocket; now anybody could catch the beat, paving the way for disco to democratize the dance floor.
From Duke Today:
Samuel Dubois Cook, the first African-American faculty member at Duke University whose career of scholarship and activism inspired numerous scholars and students of all backgrounds, died Tuesday. He was 88.
Through more than 60 years in higher education, Cook had a distinguished record as a political scientist, scholar, educator, author, teacher, administrator, civil and human rights activist and public servant.
“Samuel DuBois Cook was a devoted member of the Duke community who had a special place in Duke’s history,” said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. “A scholar of political science who was intimately involved with the leadership of the civil rights movement, he was the bearer of the vision of the beloved community and, throughout his life, worked for a society based on inclusion, reconciliation, and mutual respect for all. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife and family and express our gratitude for all he did for Duke.”
From Duke Today:
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor in the departments of African & African American Studies and English, will give the inaugural Trinity Distinguished Lecture on Thursday, May 4, at 3 p.m. in Penn Pavilion. His talk is open to the public and will be followed by a reception.
Through his research and public outreach, Neal challenges audiences to engage with Black popular culture. He is the editor and curator of the NewBlackMan (in Exile) blog, he hosts and produces the Left of Black webcast and has a combined Twitter following for the two outlets of nearly 65,000 people. Neal seeks to understand how the music, television, film and literature of African diaspora culture influences the societal and cultural norms of the United States and around the world.
View lecture here.