Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading coming at you in its new, even more infrequent manner. Surprise readings:

The video is not “about” colonialism (or about Africa); it’s about the desire for “classic Hollywood iconography,” for the glamour of that period…. Because Swift’s video is “based on classic Hollywood romances,” it cannot be about colonialism. Because it uses “classic Hollywood iconography,” there can be “no political agenda in the video.” Because it’s a tragic love story, it is absolved of nostalgia for white supremacy.

But if the word “classic” is a load-bearing piece of rhetoric, the argument here is a load of crap. Another “classic” Hollywood film is 1915’s Birth of a Nation—an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan—and the film’s success played a direct and decisive role in reviving the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that occasionally dabbled in politics. For decades, as black people struggled against Jim Crow repression and law-by-lynching, Hollywood films like Gone With the Wind (1939) produced very effective and powerful propaganda for a white supremacist vision of American society; Hollywood in the 1930s was, in everything but name, a public relations office for Jim Crow. But, and here is the point, Hollywood sold white supremacy by foregrounding white romance. Gone With the Wind is not about slavery, ostensibly; it’s about white people in love who just happen to own slaves. And it’s no coincidence that Birth of the Nation literally ends with voter suppression and white people getting married. The romance—the marriage between North and South—is there to make white supremacy look good, to make you forget little things like the fact that Black Lives Matter.

Like Gone With the Wind, Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is not explicitly nostalgic for white supremacy. But it’s nostalgic for a time when you could be nostalgic for white supremacy, when having a wedding at a former slave plantation raised no eyebrows.

Academics of color experience an enervating visibility, but it’s not simply that we’re part of a very small minority. We are also a desired minority, at least for appearance’s sake. University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity—in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic. There’s a wound in the rupture between the diversity manifested in the body of the professor of color and the realities affecting that person’s community or communities. I, for example, am a black professor in the era of mass incarceration of black people through the War on Drugs; I am a Somali American professor in the era of surveillance and drone strikes perpetuated through the War on Terror.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander taps into that wound: “Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness.” It’s not that we’re too few, nor is it that we suffer survivor guilt for having escaped the fate of so many in our communities. It’s that our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion.

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