Lillian E. Smith Reading Group: Part II

Last post, I wrote about the LES Reading Group that we are conducting this July. When I read Smith, her voices echoes through the years, speaking to this moment both nationally and internationally. I often wonder, and I hope this will be part of the reading group conversation, how she would react to this moment. How she would engage with social media. How she would fight. Of course, I can’t answer these questions definitively. I can say, though, that we need her voice. We need her fire. We need her action. We need her insight. Today, I’m looking at why I chose the final two pieces for the reading group.

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Lillian E. Smith Reading Group: Part I

The more I read Lillian Smith, the more her voice resonates with the current moment. I do searches through the journal she edited with her life-long partner Paula Snelling, and each issues contains articles that, while published in the 1930s or 1940s, As well, the more I speak with people about Smith, I realize that people do not know her, at least they do not know the extent of her work and legacy. This, of course, is to be expected. Unless someone works extensively on an individual author, then people will not know a lot of what that author wrote. With that in mind, I decided to host a Lillian E. Smith reading group this July where participants will read five articles/speeches by Smith and meet to discuss there later in the month. Today, I want to talk about the reading group and why I chose the selections that I did.

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Divide and Conquer: Part II

Last post, I started writing about the ways that the wealthy work to divide and conquer by stoking false fears and false hopes in those below them, separating individuals from one another. Keri Leigh Merritt details how this game plan worked during the Antebellum period, and after Emancipation and the Civil War, she notes that while land access opened to poor whites, most of the wealthy landowners were able to keep their land even though they lost a lot of their wealth. She points out, “By maintaining ownership of most of the Deep South’s remaining capital, former slaveholders were able to adapt to the new economic structure of the region by earning their primary income as landholders.”

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Divide and Conquer: Part I

I’ve always known that rhetoric, speech, and writing serve as weapons to sever communities or as tools to bring them together. Because of this, I know that individuals in power will use that weapon to keep individuals below separate through demonizing one group and promising hopes to the other. This has occurred throughout history, and in regard to race in America, it has occurred with some politicians and those in power telling whites who are beneath them, “You can be like me one day. You’re not like Blacks. Latinxs. Muslims. You should fear and hate them. You’re white.” This weapon serves, then, to construct a dispensable army that’s been promised riches but will probably never see them. It works to buttress those in power, making everyone beneath them expendable.

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Norwegian Identity and Nationality in Pumba’s «Hvor jeg kommer fra»

Speaking about his research, Holberg Laureate Paul Gilroy told the committee, “I am particularly engaged by the fate of people who have not themselves migrated, and who by virtue of being born in Europe, have had to pursue varieties of recognition and citizenship from which they have been excluded on the grounds that they are supposed to belong somewhere else.” Norwegian hip hop artists such as Pumba (Richard Edward Bravo) address Gilroy’s statement in their music. Born in Norway, Pumba is of Chilean-Peruvian descent. 

Released in 2008, Pumba’s “Hvor jeg kommer fra” (“Where I come from”) came seven years after the racist murder of Benjamin Hermansen, a Ghanian-Norwegian fifteen year-old, in Holmlia in Oslo. Pumba’s song directly addresses issues of personal and national identity in Norway, and he wrote the song not just for himself but for countless others working through these identifications. Pumba told the government-owned broadcasting corporation NRK that “[h]e felt he had to write the song ‘Where I come from,’ because there are so many who experience the same thing. And many still get the same question: Where do you come from?”

Norway, a country of only 5.3 million people, has an immigrant population of about 944,402 as of March 2019. That is nearly 1/5 of the entire nation. A look at the demographic data from 2019 shows that two of the top ten countries with immigrants to Norway are African (Somalia and Eritrea), two are Middle Eastern (Syriaand and Iraq), and three of the top five are European (Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania), accounting for a large number of immigrant workers. These are the top ten countries for a variety of reasons that range from labor to asylum seekers.

The outward diversity of Norway, though, does not necessarily equal a completely egalitarian state. Even though about a fifth of Norway’s population is immigrant or the children of immigrants, the ruling government lacks diverse representation. Rune Berglund Steen commented, “Even Trump’s government has more people with minority ethnic backgrounds than the Norwegian [government].” Out of the sixty-eight ministers and secretaries that the new prime minister proposed in January 2018, only two were from minority backgrounds, “State Secretary Anne Karin Olli, who is of indigenous Sami heritage, and German-born Rebekka Borsch.”

Along with all of this, there is the discussion of “ethnic Norwegians.” Cecelia Cutlre and Unn Røyneland discuss Pumba’s song and identity in Norway in their essay “Where the fuck am I from? Hip-Hop youth and the (re)negotiation of language and identity in Norway and the US.”  In their article, they examine the term “ethnic Norwegian,” a term that “could make immigrants feel excluded and deprive them of the possibility of becoming Norwegian.” Cultre and Røyneland point out that individuals can move among ethnic and cultural fields, identifying themselves with more than one field, regardless of their origin. However, terms such as “ethnic Norwegian” deny individuals this fluid movement. 

The Language Council of Norway  (LCN), which is underneath the Ministry of Culture, did not see the need, in 2006, to change the term because “ethnic Norwegian” referred to people of Norwegian descent. They stated in an email to NRK,

We do not believe that there is a need to replace ‘ethnic Norwegian’ by another term. We believe it is incorrect to call people from other countries ‘Norwegians’ because ‘Norwegian’ by definition refers to someone of ethnic Norwegian descent. A Pakistani who settles in Norway does not become Norwegian, not even if he becomes a Norwegian citizen.  

The Pakastani man could never be, according to the LCN, Norwegian. Instead, he would be “pakistaner med norsk statsborgerskap” (“Pakistani with Norwegian citizenship”) because he is not “ethnic Norwegian.”  This reasoning, then, denies even children born in Norway the right to become fully Norwegian. These discussions stem from Norway’s history, specifically the “400 year night” under Danish rule where Norway was part of the Dano-Norwegian Realm. Since the mid-1800s, Norway has worked to construct its own national identity, apart from its former rulers such as Denmark and Sweden. As such, discussions of Norwegianess have constantly been in flux.  

With all of this in mind, Pumba’s «Hvor jeg kommer fra,» addresses these issues of personal and national identity. Pumba lays out the problem from the outset of the song:

When we go to our homeland, we are Norwegian, proper too

And when I am here, I am Chilean, Peruvian, Black, you know

Where the fuck am I from?

Here, what is Pumba’s and other’s  “hjemlandet” (“homeland”)? It is not, from the framing of the sentence, Norway, even though they may have been born in Norway. Does “hjemlandet” just mean ancestral origin? No matter what the connotation, the point is that in Chile or Peru, individuals view him as Norwegian. In Norway, people view him as Chilean, Peruvian, or Black. The movable ways that others identify him makes him ask, “Hvor faen er jeg ifra?” (“Where the fuck am I from?”)    

Throughout the first verse, Pumba shows the malleability of his identity. He moves from assertions where he states he is Chilean, Peruvian, and Norwegian. Each forms part of his identity, and this mixture of ethnicities makes Pumba into a polyglott who can navigate multiple spaces: “Tenker på det ene språket, og snakker med det andre” (“I think in one language, and speak in another”). Pumba even tells the listener not to be surprised if he answers in Spanish.  He concludes the first verse by rapping about Norway’s economic stability and opportunities, stating that people have a chance to make it.

The refrain, though, continues the questions about identity and place of origin.

People like me often ask where I come from

I don’t know, fuck, but all I know is that I’m here today.

My parents work hard for me here

Lived here all of my life and it is sometimes in doubt

Here, the questions of identity take center stage. Pumba states that he, along with others question where he comes from. Even with this assertion, though, the situation remains tenuous because while his parents have worked hard in Norway, their existence within the nation “er noen ganger i tvil” (“is sometimes in doubt”). This even occurs with celebrity athletes such as John Ertzgaard, a Norwegian-Kenyan sprinter. Writing to the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet about the use of the term “neger” (“negro”) in public discourse, Ertzgaard concludes by affirming, “I am not a neger from Toten, but a Norwegian-African!”  

In the second verse, Pumba calls out the media for labeling him and those around him as criminals, and he bites back by rapping, “men vi har bygd opp oslo” (“But we have built up Oslo”) by driving the taxis, subway, and busses and by running vegetable and kebab shops. He continues by noting that immigrants are on tv, radio, and everywhere. Even with their visibility and contributions to Norwegian society, Black immigrants and others experience racism. Hkeem’s “Ghettoparasit” highlights this from the outset through the use of a quote from Erik Gjems-Onstad who stated, “Today it is mixed up with Pakistanis and Negroes. This is a culture come to Norway, which I mean we should not accept.”      

Pumba ends the second verse by stating that he, along with everyone else he mentions, “er en del av landet” (“are part of the country”), adding to it with their food, culture, and beliefs. Ultimately, as Cultre and Røyneland point out, identity shifts and changes. We become part of different cultures through exchange. We experience different cultures through exchange. We can identify with different cultures through exchange. This is one of the things that makes life worth living, the melding and mixing of cultures. When we get fanatical about distinguishing cultures, we isolate ourselves and cause individuals to question their own identity. This should never be the case. We should be proud of our cultures, but we should also seek to bring cultures together not sanction their separation causing people to ask, «Hvor faen er jeg ifra?»

Flexi Aukan, the son of a Chilean father and a Norwegian mother, explains this tension when he states, “Folk spør «hvor kommer du fra?». Jeg svarer at jeg er fra Hauketo, Holmlia, Oslo sør, Søndre. Jeg svarer ikke «Norge», jeg har alltid sett på meg selv som mer utlending enn norsk.” (People ask, “Where do you come from?” I answer, that I am from Hauketo, Holmlia, Oslo south, Søndre. I don’t answer, “Norway.” I have always looked at myself as more of a foreigner than a Norwegian.”) Flexi refers to himself as “utelendinger” (“foreigner”) and this appears on the shirts that people hold up in the video for “Hvor jeg kommer fra.” Flexi, like Pumba and other children of immigrants, identify first and foremost with their neighborhood, then possibly with their cultural ancestry, and finally with their Norwegian identity.   

Even though they were born in Norway, Pumba, Flexi, Hkeem, and others “have been excluded on the grounds that they are supposed to belong somewhere else.” This exclusion, through terms such as “ethnic Norwegian” and the continued use of derogatory language in public discourse, works to position individuals as outsiders, as threats to a supposed pure ethnic ancestry. Terms such as this, as Gilroy points out, “have fed the monsters of nationalism and let them off the leash,” stoking fears within people “that must be overcome.”    


Gone With the Wind and the Mythologized South

Last week, John Ridley, Academy Award winner for adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, spurred on calls fro HBO Max to remove David O Selznick’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind from its streaming service. Ridley points out that the film, “as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings.”

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Whiteness in Lila Quintero Weaver’s “Darkroom”: Part III

Over the past two posts, I have been writing about Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. Today, I want to finish up the discussion I started last post about the malleability of whiteness that Weaver highlights throughout Darkroom. She explores this with her father when he goes to the church in Texas and when he goes with the black carpenter to the 4th Street Diner. She also explores the slipperiness of whiteness with herself, specifically during her time at school. These are the moments I want to focus on today.

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Even Its Children Know . . .

Over the past few weeks, we have seen protests throughout the nation and across the world speaking out out against police brutality and systemic racism and calling upon those in power and those not in power to listen and know that Black lives matter. One of these protests occurred in our county, a mostly Wonder Bread white county. At the protest, about 200 or so people gathered to stand against systems that murdered George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clarke, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on in this nation’s history.

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Whiteness in Lila Quintero Weaver’s “Darkroom”: Part II

In the last post, I discussed how Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White highlights the ways that whiteness and racism seep into the community consciousness. Today, I want to look at how Weaver’s Darkroom shows the intricate entanglements of whiteness, specifically with Weaver and her family. Weaver’s family is from Argentina, and they are immigrants to America. In the first half of Darkroom, Weaver details the clashing of Argentinian and American culture. She details American ideals of beauty that her sister bought in to, and she details American tropes of adolescence. However, she acutely points out the ways that whiteness works. Some view her and her family as white, others don’t.

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Whiteness in Lila Quintero Weaver’s “Darkroom”: Part I

During the fall semester, a student told me about on of her classes where the professor was using Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White in the course. The student told me about Weaver’s book, and I immediately became interested in reading it. Finally, I picked up a copy and read it. In Darkroom, Weaver details her family’s experiences during the Civil Right Movement on Marion, Alabama centering on the events of 1965. As well, she chronicles her family’s immigration from Argentina to the United States, and she explores themes such as western ideas of beauty, fear of losing one’s culture, fear of cultural exchange, xenophobia, and more. All of these coalesce in an examination of whiteness, specifically Eurocentric whiteness. Today, I want to look at a couple of sections that highlight this theme in Darkroom.

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The Master Race? Xenophobia and Racism in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

This post originally appeared over at Pedagogy and American Literary Studies on November 19, 2018. 

During a public meeting on November 13, 2018, a white county commissioner in Leavenworth County Kansas told Triveece Penelton, a Black city planner, “I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you, because, we’re part of the master race…You know you got a gap in your teeth, we’re the masters, don’t ever forget that.” The commissioner’s comments do not sound far removed from those of Tom Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or removed from the president’s xenophobic and racist comments about refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Fitzgerald’s novel serves as a counter to these ideas of a “master race” through its depiction of Tom Buchanan and his beliefs in the superiority of the Nordic race.

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The Narcissism of White Supremacy

Every time I listen to Propaganda and Sho Baraka’s “Cynical,” new lines stick out to me. This time, the first few lines of Sho Baraka’s verse jumped out, mainly because of the ways they relate to a lot of my recent posts about the effects of racism on children, especially white children who imbibe racist ideas and white supremacy then regurgitate it, generation after generation. Today, I want to briefly look at Sho Baraka’s verse and ay Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling’s essay “The World: Our Children’s Home” from the Spring-Summer 1944 issue of South Today. Each of these texts points out the ways that supremacy gets transmitted and seeps into countless lives.

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