“Terrorism is Part of Our History”: Remembering September 15, 1963

Angela Davis spoke last night in Oakland, California at an event organized by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project that is part of the Northeastern University School of Law.  That speech offered important reminders of what is at stake when we look back fifty years ago to September 15, 1963: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Denise McNair, age 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old.

I appreciated Davis’s focus on both historical context and contemporary ramifications when she reminds us that:

  1. racist terrorism has not ended and has fundamentally shaped the history of United States;
  2. Robert Chambliss, the man convicted of the church bombing, had terrorized and bombed so many black homes and gatherings for so many years that he was more affectionately known by whites as “Dynamite Bob” in Birmingham (also better known as Bombingham);
  3. the most salient sound of Angela Davis’s childhood in Birmingham was the sound of bombings, so much so that her neighborhood was called Dynamite Hill;
  4. less than two weeks before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the lead civil rights attorney in Birmingham lost his home to a bombing;
  5. on the day of the 16th Street Church bombing, two other black youth were also killed by whites— Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware;
  6. bombings in Birmingham continued well after the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted and everyone knew who was responsible, including the FBI, which simply looked the other way;
  7. Chambliss was only charged with the possession of dynamite, not for actually bombing anything, and J. Edgar Hoover refused to release any information about the evidence gathered from the church bombing (so there was no trial);
  8. the Children’s Crusade was immediately activated in response to the church bombing where children as young as nine or ten years old were jailed and tortured for the future of racial equality and justice in the United States;
  9. Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, helped ensure that violence in Birmingham was the norm where he would routinely promise and deliver bloodshed against black citizens;
  10. Black people were forced to arm themselves in Birmingham for protection (guns were fired in the air but never shot) but those Black communities never retaliated by bombing white communities and today constitute perhaps our best model for what it means to respond peacefully, but defensively, in the face of extreme violence;
  11. Black people had, in fact, been arming themselves since the 1877 Compromise where President Hayes withdrew all federal troops from the south as part of his bid for presidency (the model mentioned in #10 has been in long effect) and have always known that they must fend for themselves by themselves.

Four Little GirlsDespite the facts of the eleven issues listed above, we have never acknowledged the terrorism that was the norm in places like Birmingham, Alabama. Racist violence has been part and parcel of our local and national governments. Davis reminds us that the murder of these 4 Little Girls is a complex history, one that is rarely acknowledged in our commemoration ceremonies, but one that is intimately connected to ongoing violence under our ongoing racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia: from Trayvon Martin… to Oscar Grant… to the numerous stories of racist violence that I have told here about the universities where I have taught.

Davis’s speech affirmed the history and perspectives that I think are most valuable.  How we tell the history of this moment can be as violent as the actual history if we do not grasp the full context of how and why Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were so brutally killed.  The fact of the matter is that for many, many years, it was only black communities who actually remembered and cared about these 4 Little Girls’ names and legacy. How we remember and care about them today is no less critical.  The privilege of who tells history and how it is told is most often decided within the terms of white property.   But as people who as, Davis remind us, have always had to fend for ourselves, we should be able to remember and care about our own stories and children differently.

Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourse

It only occurred to me late in the semester that I could make a youtube channel with my current course, African American women’s rhetoric (it is called BlackWomynRhetProjct Channel).  I have organized the class chronologically so in some ways, this new epiphany could only come now.  I guess that will be my excuse because, really, I should have been doing this all along.  The website is good to archive the daily reading and writing assignments, but the channel lets me create a much richer archive of materials for students to use as both reference and supplement.

As soon as we left the early Civil Rights Movement and entered the 1970s, the videos and documentaries of historical footage as well as current speeches and lectures given by black women increased 100-fold.

So my class now begins to draw more and more from multimedia sources rather than just print sources.  This is much bigger than whether or not we have students read digital texts or print texts in our classes, a simplistic conversation that many teachers seem to think is some kind of hallmark of new, critical-digital pedagogies.  My class is not about reading for reading’s sake, but about (re)hearing black women by examining their multiple rhetrics.  If the text is online, good; if it’s in print, that’ll work too.  Who cares?  My job is to make multiple texts accessible to my working class undergraduate students in financially accessible ways.  The fact remains that when you are dealing with historical black women, YOU READ WHATEVER YOU CAN FIND WHEREVER YOU CAN FIND IT!  Who publishes and who gets a voice is still controlled by a white dominant culture, whether that be digital or print, so you can still count on black women not being equally or respectfully represented in any space.

But that does bring me to youtube, where, arguably, I spend too much of my time.  Let’s face it: by 2010, the amount of videos being uploaded to youtube was the equivalent of 180,000 feature-length movies per week.  In less than a week, youtube generates more video content than Hollywood has done in its entire lifetime.  Now I won’t act like that is cause for celebration; it just means I have some greater odds to find some black women on youtube than in Hollywood (which won’t require an avalanche of material for that comparative statement to be true).  I have seen more than my fair share of videos on youtube of black men who pontificate that black women are just copying white women, that white feminism has corrupted black feminist souls and minds with arbitrary discussions of patriarchy, that black women are not as worthy of attention/love/partnership as other more domesticated women of color (who are, of course, lighter in hue), that black women emasculate black men in the ways they treat the fathers of their children, that black women are actually white men in disguise when they boss black men around too much, that black women can be casually/publicly named bitches and hoes (words used as regularly by online “talk show” hosts as rappers).  I could go on and on with these examples.  I stopped reading video comments a long time ago so that I wouldn’t be continually insulted by outright, deliberate misogynistic slurs (i.e., which songs compliment “bedroom mixes” and other sexual encounters). Needless to say, if I just watched youtube, I would think that most black men who talk about black women sound ABSOLUTELY NO different than white-racist Daniel Moynhan who, in his 1965 Moynihan Report, blamed all economic “failures” of black communities on the nature of overly-aggressive black women.  I place these kinda folk in a special youtube category: DAMN FOOLS WITH A VIDEO CAMERA…UPLOADED.  I mean, really, the kind of stuff these folk say makes me wonder if they really get that people can hear them?

So yeah you hafta wade though some realllll dumb bullshit on youtube (I just don’t have a more polite way to say that, sorry). But then… yes, but then…. you can find the footage from the documentary on Shirley Chisholm that got lost on the chopping block, that one sentence that means the world, like this jewel:

“I want history to remember me… as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself!”

There is the ability to watch Barbara Jordan’s speech on Nixon’s impeachment, play it back over and over and over, for free, so you and your students can hear those pauses and annunciations that she makes, see the photo where Jordan is sitting right next to Shirley Chisholm, and marvel at how, at 2 o’clock in the morning, Jordan opens her statement to Congress by letting them know she has an unwavering commitment to the U.S. Constitution (and seems to know it better than anyone else in the room) even though she was never included in its original framing!!  Yesterday, in class, I could hear my students take on the rhythmic pronunciation patterns, pauses, and accents on words like SUS-PEC-TED in their own language to talk about Jordan’s language.  And as a class, we could all hear how Jordan takes the words of the Constitution and almost takes you to church (her father is a minister so this is not simply a misapplied, figurative expression here but a description of the format in which Jordan recites text to an audience) while, at the same time, offers a closing statement in what feels like the kind of trial where you’d hope Jordan was the  lawyer on YOUR side (Jordan is a lawyer so this is not an accident either though these hearings are not a trial.)

Today, I am watching and selecting lectures by and documentaries about  Angela Davis (there isn’t much available on youtube spanning her 1990s lectures but I suspect that will change soon enough.)  This gives me the chance to move students’ images of Davis past her iconic figure in the 70s with an Afro, mouth always wide open, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and show her as a full intellectual-activist, now and back then.  I have just finished the second part of her lecture (click here for first part) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta on March 24, 2009 for the keynote address of Emory University’s Women’s History Month.

What I am struck by at this moment is the importance of (re)hearing feminist discourse because, in this second part of the video, Davis talks about the ways in which we must challenge many of Obama’s policies.  What strikes me  here is how differently she does this, while still maintaining a kind of class/imperialism analysis.   Davis mobilizes her critiques without the stain of the anti-black subtext that I feel and hear from the White Left/non-Black Left, folk who I have never seen or heard think deeply about the racial apartheid in which we live and that they benefit from.  I just don’t trust them when they launch their mouth-grenades on black folk and neither should anyone else.   Davis also mobilizes her critiques without the kind of ego-driven, look-at-me-look-at-me, spotlight-mongering tendencies of people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, though she is clearly as iconic and famous as they are.  While I have agreed with many of these critiques from these camps, there has always been something amiss for me, a real kind of disrespect that cannot be removed from the fact that Obama is a black man, just in the way that these activists frame their rhetoric.  Davis reminds just how differently Black Feminist Rhetoric operates and why her critique is one that I can hear and see as transformative. I need to make sure that I hear this kind of Black Feminist Rhetoric more— I especially now see the ways youtube can drown out the other voices once I find the right spaces where black women are being heard.