An Asian Man Fighting Anti-Black Racism

Thanks to a colleague Alex Cummings, via facebook, I found this interesting article, Why I, An Asian Man, Fight Anti-Black Racism, written by Scott Nakagawa, an activist in NYC. Nakagawa makes the important point that “anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy,” a fulcrum being “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.”

I’ve found this to be true over and over again, brought home in teaching immigration and ethnicity in US history, a class that inevitably ends up being all about race. Last time I taught the course,  students read toward the end of the semester a work by Philip Kasinitz that examined racial identities of new immigrants and their children. Having already read David Roediger and looked at countless images of immigrants portrayed as racially other, we were primed to read this with an understanding of the various constructions of whiteness and blackness.

Kasinitz describes a context in which immigrants identify as white or non-white.  But being non-white does not mean being black, since they also differentiate between black and non-black, firmly claiming the latter.  As their children assimilate into “American” culture, they often adopt the urban culture, tastes, and mannerisms of African Americans, much to the horror of their parents, who wish and work for upward mobility.  This segmented assimilation is seen as potentially maladaptive or at least less successful for immigrant youth, since African Americans are systematically discriminated against, so why would you act like that?

It was interesting discussing this reading with the students, many of whom were African American.  Their minds were kind of blown by the recognition of these ways of thinking in their own lives, to see it spelled out so clearly.  Also depressing, since all semester we kept coming back to the point that in any American racial hierarchy, blacks are always at the bottom.  today, immigrants of color who cannot “become white” as so many previous generations of immigrants have done, still find ways to *not be black*, and in doing so, also perpetuate anti-black racism and white supremacy.

That’s why this article was so important, in that an Asian American man chooses to identify and work for African Americans, understanding that his own oppression is linked to theirs.  It is reminiscent of the ways in which various movements by people of color, identifying with the black power movement, sought to link the struggles of Black, Asian, and Latino people and pursue the “same struggle, same fight,” to quote an Asian American activists, Yellow Seeds, who emerged in the fight to “Save Chinatown” in Philadelphia in the 1970s. More on that another time.

Why I, An Asian Man, Fight Anti-Black Racism.

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Racial ambivalence and the Old/New South of “Show Boat”

Poster for the 1936 “Show Boat,” depicting both white and black actors.

The other night I had occasion to re-view James Whale’s 1936 film version of the classic American musical “Show Boat.”  Unlike the much more inferior 1951 MGM film, this version is considered highly faithful to the original Broadway show, first produced in 1927 at the Ziegfield Theater. Based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 bestselling novel of the same name, Show Boat chronicles the fates of a collection of performers on the Cotton Blossom, Cap’n Andy’s show boat, which travels up and down the Mississippi in the 1890s offering cheap entertainment to the small towns along the river.

James Whale is perhaps best known a the director of “Frankenstein,” and perhaps it is fitting that a horror director would produce a film depicting the post-Reconstruction South.  Show Boat is filled with stereotypical representations of African Americans (a tragic mulatto, mammy, shiftless buck and more) and blackface performances by whites. Yet, Show Boat, which was largely anti-racist in the context of the nadir of race relations, is also notable for its frank portrayal of race, both the racial relations it seeks to critique, and those it inevitably reproduces.

The Show Boat is originally in trouble because one of the performers, Julie, is a mixed race woman passing as white, who is married to a white man and performing on the stage with him. Cornered by the local sheriff, her husband Stephen, surreptitiously cuts her finger and drinks her blood, allowing him to claim he has more than a drop of black blood in him, a declaration that reveals the constructedness of race in the social and legal code. Julie and Steve evade the law, but are forced to leave the showboat since “local folks won’t tolerate the races mixing on the stage.”

Yet the races seem to continue mixing. Filling in for Julie, Magnolia (played by Irene Dunne) performs a minstrel number in blackface, “Gallivantin’ Around,” which underscores the film’s proximity to this era of popular entertainment. Apparently this was a conscious choice of Whale to include the number, which by 1937 was already controversial.  It functions as a kind of window into another time.  Irene Dunne, who was born in Kentucky in 1898 (and whose father, coincidentally, was a steamboat inspector), was clearly no stranger to these traditions. Whale interestingly breaks the camera away from Magnolia’s performance for a shot of the audience, including a stoic collection of African Americans at the back of the theater, contrasting Magnolia’s artificial blackness with the presence of actual black folks.

Irene Dunne, shucking in the showboat kitchen while Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel,and Helen Morgan look on.

Magnolia is the racial boundary crosser in the show boat family, she is like a little sister to biracial Julie, and portrayed hanging out in the kitchen, performing traditional African American songs and minstrel dances. “Look at that girl shuck!” exclaims one of the black onlookers, as delighted as Magnolia’s mother is horrified.  The black actors suspect appreciation aside, again we have a moment in which the films breaks into a strange kind of authenticity vis a vis period cultural representation.

Paul Robeson performing “Ol’ Man River”

The performances of the African American actors are likewise ambivalent. The film retains and insists on the prominence of black people in the show boat world. The formidable talents of Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Paul Robeson, as Joe, transcend the material, particularly Robeson’s rendition of “Ol Man River,” which Whale elevates to dramatic grandeur.  Robeson is dignified, epic, in his vocal performance, only lapsing into a broad smile at the conclusion of the song like a reflexive concession to the white gaze. This mask characterizes all the black performances in the film, which inevitably collapse into eye rolling, broad smiles, and exagerrated gestures of the minstrel mask. “Show Boat” interrogates race as a cultural construct, but contains its black characters within this racial essentialism.

Another interesting ambivalence lies in the depiction of the the white characters.

As a symbol of the Southern gentleman of honor, Gaylord Ravenal is an embodiment of the falsity of the Old South code of honor. A two-bit gambler, he passes himself off as Southern aristocracy in florid speech and manners, yet his shoes are cracked and he is down on his luck, fleeing his debts.  His is a facade of gentility whose specialty is “Make Believe,”  a game he indulges in with the ingenue Magnolia. Gaylord proves a faithless and cowardly husband, abandoning Magnolia and their daughter when he is down on his luck. Magnolia survives by marketing her talents as a “coon shouter,” performing the song she learned from Julie, and becomes a major stage star.

Gaylord and Magnolia are reunited at the premier of a new show starring their daughter, Kim. Kim’s big musical number is a grand plantation fantasy, set to the tune of “Gallivantin’,” transformed through new orchestration and into a lilting, genteel waltz. African Americans are relegated to the background, literally a cluster of onlookers cast aside by the swirling white skirts of the dancing southern belles.  Here the Old South can only be resurrected or reclaimed through deracinated nostalgia that effaces the presence of blackness that lay at its historic foundation.