In the News: United States History, Metastatic Racism, Australia’s hidden slave trade history, Bessie Smith


The Tragic Story Called ‘United States History’ Héctor Tobar, Aug. 7, 2019, The New York Times



In the cities and towns of California, Colorado, Arizona and other Western states, there are countless highways of memory leading back to El Paso. That Texas border town on the Rio Grande, site of a horrific mass shooting on Saturday, is the Ellis Island of the American Southwest.

My mother-in-law, now in her 80s, lives in Los Angeles but was born in neighboring Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and lived in El Paso, too; she can remember a time when residents of the two sister cities flowed back and forth easily on the bridges across the river. And every summer and winter vacation season, thousands of American families drive through El Paso on journeys to see their Mexican relatives.

“It was still pitch black, but a light shined on the American and Mexican flag,” one of my California university students wrote recently, describing a night drive through El Paso and Juárez. “Both stood tall with pride.”

Saturday’s attack on El Paso was an attack on the Mexican heritage of millions of Americans — and also part of a history of white supremacist and nativist acts in Texas across three centuries.

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Ibram X. Kendi Has a Cure for America’s ‘Metastatic Racism’
Jennifer Schuessler, Aug. 6, 2019, The New York Times



WASHINGTON — Three years ago, when Ibram X. Kendi was up for the National Book Award, he thought he had no chance.

He was a little-known assistant professor at the University of Florida. His book, “Stamped From the Beginning,” a sweeping history of nearly five centuries of racist thought in America, had received admiring but sparse reviews.

“Before we walked over to the dinner, my wife asked me if I had written a speech,” Dr. Kendi recalled in an interview last month. “I hadn’t, but I wrote out a few notes just in case. When they called my name, I was shocked.”

It was barely a week after the 2016 election, and Dr. Kendi — at 34, among the youngest ever to win the nonfiction award — made his way onstage to deliver an eloquent speech nodding at the man just elected president, and paying tribute to “the human beauty in the resistance to racism.”

Since then, he has given a lot more speeches — 46 so far this year alone. He has become one of the country’s most in-demand commentators on racism, and leads the new Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, which recruited him as a full professor after the award.

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Blackbirds: Australia’s hidden slave trade history
Alex McKinnon, July 2019, The Monthly



“We had a slave trade.”

Emelda Davis speaks these words quietly, as if in deference to their gravity. She has come to the crux of an argument she has laid out hundreds of times before to politicians, journalists and executives. Though she is repeating herself, in the way of professional advocates who spend their lives drawing attention to a cause, Davis will never speak of hers as a matter of rote. She can’t.

Davis is an Australian South Sea Islander – one of the descendants of between 55,000 and 62,500 Pacific Islanders transported to Australia in the 19th century to work the cane fields of Queensland and northern New South Wales. The practice was termed “blackbirding” – a fraught, complex word encompassing a spectrum of exploitation ranging from technically consensual but unethical labour contracts to outright kidnapping and slavery. Many of the men who oversaw and financed the blackbirding trade – Robert Towns, John Mackay – have cities named after them.

Inspired by pseudoscientific race theories in vogue at the time, the colonial rationale for importing Islanders was that they were acclimatised to tropical conditions too demanding of white labourers. None too disposed to care about the health and safety of their charges in the first place, white overseers routinely worked Islanders to death. Backbreaking labour, heat exhaustion, disease, mistreatment and malnutrition killed Islanders in their thousands.

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From The Tent Show To The Parlor: Bessie Smith's Travels In Her Time (audio)
Jayna Brown, August 6, 2019, NPR



It was a hot show that night, in that big tent out in the muddy field. Everybody had fun, though most people were tired; it was the end of a long T.O.B.A. circuit tour for the acts and of a long day of work for the people who had come to see them. But when the time came for the last act, everyone, including the other performers, was ready to hear Bessie, to turn that sweaty tent into the church of the blues. Everyone hollered as Bessie strutted onto the stage, dressed big, feathery and bright, and they didn't stop until she started singing.

Bessie's voice was elemental, a force set free from deep inside the world. It was a voice strong enough to hold all the blood, sweat and tears they'd shed for generations. Together, there in the muddy field, they reclaimed those blood, sweat and tears to the songs of their ownselves, for a time setting the frequency of a freedom independent of whatever the white folks got up to. "Everybody gets the blues," blues singers would later tell customers who bought their records, came to their shows or picked up guitars to sound like them. But anyone in the tent that night, or at a theater in the city to catch Bessie close a show, or at a rent party gathered around the record player to hear Bessie sing, knew this was a lie.

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