By Victoria Hemphill
On April 22nd twitter saw nearly 40,000 lemon emojis. Two days later, 450,000. So why were nearly half a million pictures of fruit flooding social media? One word: Beyoncé. One thing is for sure; I was NOT one of the thousands typing a little lemon of excitement. In fact, on February 8th I swore a personal boycott of all things Queen Bey. As the wife of a veteran law enforcement officer, I thought this was the honorable action following her Super Bowl 50 performance. Well, much has changed since my days of Beyoncé abandonment. I feel tremendous guilt and fear when I admit this, but the truth is, I am now a humungous fan of Mrs. Knowles-Carter.
My love for Beyoncé should not cause angst or feelings of treachery, and yet it does. I wish I could educate all people, especially police officers, on my newfound passion for Beyoncé and her courage. Not only do I wish to educate officers, I would love to have a discussion with Ms. Sasha Fierce. She hasn’t answered my email. So for now, you’re stuck with my passionate appeal for #lifematters, I just don’t know whose life when speaking publicly.
The horrific events of August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri renewed my deep pride for my husband’s chosen profession, but also reminded me of the strain he undergoes at work. I replayed ten years of stress and horror I have watched my husband endure. I remember watching him move emotionlessly through the process of his grandmother dying. I knew he had become numb to the pain that those around him were feeling, all as a protection mechanism. Apathetic is the best word to describe my husband. He has to be after seeing the things he has on the job. Like when he had to ask a lady for her only pair of jeans after she told him the intimate details of her rape, or when he had to write a detailed report about a remorseless mother who nearly strangled her daughter to death for dating a boy of color, or when he watched a mother explain how she accidentally suffocated her one-month-old while breastfeeding in the middle of the night. He has been spat at, puked on, shit on, head-butted, loathed, cursed and been treated with less respect than any human deserves.
After Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, I became deeply afraid that my husband would be shot and killed, and my two beautiful boys would lose their wonderful father. Or even worse, I imagined my husband being placed in a situation where he would have to decide, with minimal time to process, whether to shoot to kill or sacrifice his own safety. The events of August were magnified after the events of June 2014. June 8th got far less publicity than August 9th. There were no celebrities like Beyoncé highlighting the social injustice that took place that day; so let me fill you in.
On June 8th Officers Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo were shot and killed while on duty working for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. They were shot in the back of their heads, execution style, while having lunch. According to the Officer Down Memorial Website, Beck and Soldo were two of the 145 officers killed in the line of duty in 2014. What made Alyn’s murder different from the other 144 officers? I knew Alyn. He was from Green River, Wyoming. His little brother Joe and I were friends. He wasn’t a face on the television. He was a hometown boy and I watched his family mourn.
The two events in the summer of ‘14 have calloused my heart. Officer Beck’s death created an unexplainable instinct to trust Officer Wilson and fear Mr. Brown. With firsthand experience, I felt like I could comprehend the stress of Wilson’s job. I immediately loathed #blacklivesmatter. I thought Black Lives Matter activists believed all police officers were corrupt and racist. I knew this was untrue and I fought my hardest to replace #blacklivesmatter with #bluelivesmatter. Now fast forward to 2016.
When Beyoncé highlighted racial tensions with her song and performance of “Formation” I was appalled. I wasn’t alone: “Police groups organized protests and called for a boycott, and the FCC received a deluge of complaints” (McCorvey). On her website Beyoncé wrote, “We are sick and tired of the killings of young men and women in our communities. It is up to us to take a stand and demand that they ‘stop killing us.” I was related to the THEY and I knew that all of the THEY were not killing THEM. This was my position and I felt confident about my perspective.
Then I took a graduate course on ideas of race and nature in American literature and culture. Within the course I read and researched texts such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacob and Eric Williams’s, Capitalism and Slavery. We viewed and discussed Beyoncé’s Lemonade. All of a sudden Beyoncé showed me a new perspective on marriage, the role of women, and the importance of stopping all violence against black people.
Hugh Evans, the cofounder and CEO of Global Poverty Project said, “The thing she does really well is understand the importance of true movement building.” She knew she was risking alienating many of her fans, but she also knew her message was more important than any possible financial loss. With over 115 million streams of Lemonade in less than a week, her message was heard. Beyoncé’s narrative in Lemonade pulls fans, much like myself, into her story, “they’re a part of her struggles rather than outside observers” (McCorvey). After my newfound closeness to Beyoncé, I became more compassionate to the horrible killing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I realize that years of oppression placed on black people in America have played a role in the violent deaths of black men by police officers.
To be clear, I don’t place all police officers under the same blanket of THEY who need to “stop killing us.” I still cry when I read Nicole Beck’s blog about the loss of her husband. I still feel her pain when she writes: “People are SO quick to judge what an officer "should have done" when they know little about what led up to the interaction. […] Apparently officers are supposed to be super human and foresee the future. They are supposed to have special powers that let them see through clothing and quickly determine if a suspect is carrying a weapon or not.” I know that Nicole is right, #bluelivesmatter.
But I also know that Beyoncé is right, too. Just last Monday my family and I were in Salt Lake City. After seeing our license plate, a man in the parking lot sparked up a conversation. My husband’s job came up, and the tragedy in Baton Rouge. The stranger proceeded to tell us he knows one good black man, but the rest are sub-human. Use your imagination for his colorful and inappropriate diction during this interaction. Defining some of his words to my inquisitive seven-year-old was heart wrenching.
So yeah, #blacklivesmatter. There it was right in front of my face. This stranger was concerned about my husband, a white police officer who could have been insane, abusive, or any number of things. He trusted Kent and then labeled an entire population as dismissible. It must remain #blacklivesmatter and not #alllivesmatter. If all lives truly matter, this man and too many others, couldn’t out of hand exclude the lives of those who have black skin. Kevin Roose summarizes it perfectly, “societally, we don’t pay as much attention to certain people’s deaths as we do to others. So, currently, we don’t treat all lives as though they matter equally.”
Don’t forget about the things I wish to explain to Queen Bey. I’m sure she understands that with great power comes great responsibility. In 2014 Forbes Magazine named her the most powerful celebrity, earning over $115 million between June 2013 and June 2014. Breeanna Hare writes, “Beyoncé’s empire isn't limited to the music business.” Her influence is immense. Alicia Garza points out that, “She uses magic to remind us that we have the power to change the dynamics between police and the communities they're supposed to protect and serve.” But the followers of #bluelivesmatter tend to see Beyoncé as anti-police. To that she responds, “I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things” (Peterson).
Beyoncé, people are listening. You coined the term BeyKind. Please help your Bey Hive understand more about the majority of officers that treat people justly. Address the startling statistics of officers’ work related stress. If Red Lobster can have a 33% spike in sales following the release of “Formation”, where the song which briefly mentions the chain restaurant, imagine how many people will follow your lead in thanking, understanding, or preserving the lives of officers who do not treat people unfairly.
So here I am, the wife of a blue life proudly supporting #blacklivesmatter. That’s right, not blue lives, not all lives, not anything else, just black lives. And I am saying this because I learned about the last 200 years of American history.
If I can say/do/write this, can’t Beyoncé spend a little time working against US vs THEY? Maybe something like #ptsdkillscopsinmorewaythanoneway, tweeted with that adorable police officer emoji or even a little donut? Yeah, that could trend. Badge of Life researched the number of police suicides related to PTSD. In 2008, 140 officers killed themselves and 143 in 2009. After the recent events in Dallas and Baton Rouge one could arguably blame PTSD for an additional 8 officer deaths. Clearly there is a problem. To truly stop police brutality placed on black men, we must educate ourselves on why some officers make terrible decisions. Maybe one way to stop some of the police brutality is to get officers the help they need and deserve. We haven’t tried that yet, and it can’t hurt.
I’ll say it again. #BlackLivesMatter.
By Colin Stricklin
Mythopoeia is a tricky beast. It’s also a lot of hard work. For the would-be fantasist, creating an entire cosmology for the sole purpose of underpinning an adventure story is perhaps too hard. In practice, it’s much easier to throw in a few nods towards existing mythology (e.g. Percy Jackson or the Legends of Orkney series), and simply allow an existing framework of alluded legends and half-remembered tales to do the heavy lifting. This is the difference between fantasy worlds and mythopoeia. And in terms of creative technique, that is a big difference.
If we’re going to split this literary hair, it’s important that we get our terms straight. Mythopoeia is a distinctly modern concept, pioneered by J.R.R. Tolkien. The word itself is a neologism drawn from the Greek words “mythos,” myth, and “poïesis,” which translates loosely as “creation," specifically artistic forms of making such as painting, composing, or writing. So when we talk about “mythopoeia,” we are talking about a peculiarly artificial form of myth-making, often drawn from a single maker, and distinct from natural myth-making in an anthropological sense.
Tolkien’s own fantasy world of Middle Earth—he would have called it a secondary world--was derived by this method. The familiar Lord of the Rings books were the end result of a long process begun in the trenches of the Somme, drawn from notes that would eventually become the elvish phone directory that is The Silmarillion. For the uninitiated, this pre-history of Middle Earth is a patchwork of legends and fragments, and it reads like Bulfinch's Mythology. It also constitutes the foundation of Tolkien’s legendarium.
So what does this have to do with writing technique? I’ll give you an example. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, you know that it’s full of references to legendary people and events far removed from the scope of the plot, their full histories and identities only hinted at by the text. One of these, a fragmentary poem titled The Fall of Gil-galad, appears out of the mouth of Samwise Gamgee: "Gil-galad was an Elven-king. Of him the harpers sadly sing: the last whose realm was fair and free between the Mountains and the Sea." It is apparent in the text that this bit of rhyme is a piece of a longer poem. Aragorn mentions how this is only Bilbo’s translation rendered in the Common Tongue, and nevermind the fact that Tolkien’s notes tell of Gil-galad’s youth, when he was spirited away to the Havens of the Falas when Morgoth broke the Siege of Angband at the time of the Dagor Bragollach. Or Gil-galad’s sojourn upon the Isle of Balara at the Mouths of the Sirion; or how he gained the Kingship of the Noldor after the fall of Gondolin. This pre-history was written, but only glimpsed through the few lines actually present in the text. When Samwise speaks his few short stanzas, the reader gets the sense of depth because there is depth. A mass of carefully constructed mythology underlies and informs the scene, providing the reader with a sensation of untold tunnels and vast halls stretching through the subbasements of the secondary world. That trick took Tolkien a lifetime, which is why you won’t see too many contemporary fantasists mirroring the move.
That’s mythopoeia then. The contrast lies in the more typical fantasy worlds of later writers. Such worlds may evoke geography, histories, or a coherent set of natural laws as a means of engendering believability. Where a mythopoeic creation stems from artificial myth, fantasy worlds draw credibility from internal consistency; from logical arrangement rather than detailed pre-history. J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is one of these. There may be anecdotes within the Harry Potter books of a fuller history—dark age witches burned at stake or artifacts left over from 10th century figures like Godric Gryffindor or Rowena Ravenclaw—but these were almost certainly invented in the service of the story at hand. The wizarding world did not rise naturally from deeds in ages long past. Rather, these deeds were appended in pseudo-mythopoeic fashion to add the illusion of depth, a trompe l'oeil painting to Tolkien’s fully realized sculpture.
Unlike Middle Earth, the wizarding world hangs its believability on a smorgasbord of extant mythologies rather than creating its own. Rowling brought in a little Latin for her magic words, a few mythological creatures (e.g. the Greek Cerberus, English boggarts, the Slavic vila) and otherwise clothed the classic boarding school novel (product of the real world if ever there was one) in fantastic trappings. Here’s the important thing though: it worked. Tolkien’s feat was a mad, beautiful eccentricity, a herculean effort of creation, and nearly impossible for a working writer to emulate.
These two techniques, represented here by these two most famous authors, constitute different orders of creative work. Mythopoeia seeks to create its own referents and symbols; fantasy worlds hang their verisimilitude upon a relationship to the real world. While one technique is not necessarily better than the other, the distinction becomes important when you start to look at them in depth.
For example, when Harry Potter is taught in the classroom, the familiar subject of race often serves as a focal point. And insofar as Rowling’s secondary world is predicated on our own, the points of comparison are likewise familiar. Search for any teaching guide online and you’ll come across discussion questions like, “How does the wizarding world’s attitude towards ‘mudbloods’ compare with real prejudices people have?” or “How does the caste system between wizards and magical creatures mirror our own society?” Being built upon the bones of the real world, these are entirely valid question. The villainous Malfoy family are sneering English aristocrats. The mistreated house elf Dobby is a literal servant. It takes no great leap of logic to see a below/above stairs relationship at play, or Rowling's own social activism reflected in Hermione's "Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare." In a 2000 interview with CBCNewsWorld, Rowling went so far as to call that section of Gobet of Fire "fairly autobiographical."
Tolkien, by contrast, was famous for his dislike of allegory. In his foreword to The Fellowship of the Rings he said so in as many words:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
That difference—allegory and applicability—is notoriously difficult to pin down. But if we look at the technique of mythopoeia and its practice of creating ‘feigned history,’ we get a clearer picture of the distinction.
Race is very much present in Tolkien's works, reflected in the literal races of elves and men, dwarves and halflings. In a letter Tolkien described his Orcs as "...squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." In a BBC interview, he said of the dwarves, “The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Dwarves, of course, are a wandering people bereft of a homeland and famous for their lust for gold; the potential for an anti-semitic reading is obvious. However, this is precisely where we begin to see the shortcomings of an allegorical reading. Orcs, after all, are not men. Neither are dwarves. Tolkien himself denounced Hitler and the race-doctrine of Nazism, and even drafted a response to his German publishers saying, "If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people."
Where such allusions to the real world may seem as on-the-nose as any of Rowling’s, they are couched within a very different secondary world. Tolkien's fantasy races bear their own nuance thanks to their mythological underpinning, a framework removed by an all-important step from our singular context of planet Earth. While our social issues may be applicable to Middle Earth, they are by no means "what Tolkien was really talking about." Rather, mythopoeia represents a conversation between the real world and the secondary world, a dialogue between reality and subcreation. The author may invite a degree of familiarity which can aid in the suspension of disbelief, but he soon sweeps away the real, revealing something that is alien, but no less true.
Take the example of Legolas and Gimli. What are we to make of the unlikely friendship between an elf and a dwarf? We might point towards the historical distrust between their races, the growing understanding of and respect for one another's cultures, and at last their comradeship throughout the War of the Ring as a rough parallel to the Allies' experiences in the world wars. Their friendship is presented as commendable, if somewhat unusual, and reads like an argument for diversity. And while it may be that, it is not only that. We can begin to approach the question from our own world, but we cannot answer it in full without accessing the internal history of Middle Earth itself.
The turning point in the characters' relationship comes in Lothlorien, when the elven Lady Galadriel asks Gimli what gift a dwarf would ask of the elves. He replies, "There is nothing, Lady Galadriel... Nothing, unless it might be - unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth." It is an odd request, and not just to the onlooking elves. It is clear from context that this is a momentous occasion between the races, but without knowledge to the broader mythology of Middle Earth we cannot access its full significance. In Tolkien's Silmarillon, we learn a bit of the elf lord Fëanor. It was he who created the Silmarils, three perfect jewels which contained the light and essence of the world trees from the youth of the world. In Unfinished Tales, we learn that it was the beauty of Galadrie's golden hair which first inspired Fëanor:
...For its gold was touched by some memory of the starlike silver of her mother; and the Eldar said that the light of the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion, had been snared in her tresses. Many thought that this saying first gave to Fëanor the thought of imprisoning and blending the light of the Trees that later took shape in his hands as the Silmarils. For Fëanor beheld the hair of Galadriel with wonder and delight. He begged three times for a tress, but Galadriel would not give him even one hair. These two kinsfolk, the greatest of the Eldar of Valinor, were unfriends for ever.
In effect, the greatest elf lord of history once begged the same boon, and was denied a single strand. Yet to Gimli, in token of friendship, she gave three. That is the reason why that is such a moving scene. As readers we may approach the moment from our own experience of warring nations and racial tensions, but its depth is derived through mythopoeic resonance.
If my distinction between world building and mythopoeic creation is too fine, and if Rowling’s subcreation is part of a continuum with Tolkien’s, then the question becomes one of degree rather than type. The border between the applicable and the allegorical may be hazy, but the techniques of subcreation, serving as foundation to story or as decorative flourish at the end, have a definite effect upon its placement. In short, there is no way to separate a secondary world from the real. While a talented fantasist contrives to hide the fact, such settings do not spring fully formed from the aether. They are constructed by human beings who live on Earth. They are consumed by other human beings. Shades of the real are there. The trick lies in interpreting these elements responsibly. Pointing towards the applicable and assuming a one-to-one message is fundamentally lazy. If you want to claim an allegory, you’ve got to make an argument. It must be rooted within a secondary world’s foundations, either in the underlying mythopoeia or (more likely) in an variation on the primary world. Anything less is a failure of imagination.
By Milo Asay
Sounder is a young adult novel written by William Armstrong, that gives voice to inequality, grief, and fear of death. It depicts love, devotion, and vulnerability in an adult manner. First published in 1969, it still has distinct importance in today’s world with its captivating subject matter and relevance in a polarized society.
Another strong advocate for the equality of African-Americans is Douglas A. Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Published in 2008, it reveals America’s untold history with African-Americans. Both books are a voice for the cause of the African-American movement for equality.
Armstrong and Blackmon capture how privileged individuals, in their quest for economic gain, held captive African-Americans. For centuries, African-Americans have fought for equality in America in a racially divided society. Dianne Glave writes, “African Americans struggled through boycotts, marches, freedom rides, sit-ins, and protests. People throughout the world witnessed the events of the 1950s and 1960s, hearing, watching, and reading the news media of radio, television, and newspaper, which shamed the U.S. government and white Southern citizenry.” (129).
As supporters in the African-American civil rights movement, Armstrong and Blackmon, both white southerners, demonstrate a literary shaming voice of moral intelligence in the rehabilitation of America after the Civil War. Reading Blackmon’s research adds a greater understanding and dimension of the history in Armstrong’s fictional novel.
It is important for us to face our history in the process of conciliation. Blackmon recounts, “On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby county, Alabama, and charged with vagrancy.” The county judge quickly found Cottenham guilty of vagrancy, “a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states.” In reality, “Cottenham’s offense was blackness” (1).
Similarly, Armstrong tells the story of an African-American father arrested for the smell of cooking ham. “Chain him up,” said the sheriff. “There are two things I can smell a mile [away]. . . One’s a ham cookin’ and the other’s a thievin’ nigger” (20). The father is locked up in the local jail and found guilty. Once again, the true offense is blackness.
Even today, it is impossible for African-Americans to live in security. They have been, and still are constantly in worry of arrest by authorities with unjust punishment. In American history, African-Americans were not only persecuted by the law, but there was an absence of protection of the law. This is apparent in Blackmon’s research as well as Armstrong’s novel. Perhaps this is why there now is a “black lives matter” movement in America. America’s pervasive criminalization of African-Americans leads us to question, is discussing the atrocities to African-Americans after the Civil War enough to heal cultural and racial divisions in America?
The need to rehabilitate the South’s economy and the collapse of the judicial system re-enslaved the African-Americans after the Civil War. After the emancipation, Blackmon writes, “The country was interested in neither rehabilitation nor long-term punishment, particularly in an era when every man was needed to staff the farms and enterprises of the country” (63). Large numbers of free workers caused the South to suffer economically. White authorities thought that the re-enslavement of blacks was a necessity to solve the downturn of the South’s economy.
Blackmon’s research reveals that authorities began to put into motion discriminative and oppressive laws that criminalized African-Americans. They became vulnerable to arrest. This “was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South.” The South had “a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation” (4).
Blackmon reports that the re-enslaved African-Americans received sentences of a year or two, but the majority were held by their new owners past their sentencing. It is revealing to note that forty years earlier, Armstrong, in his fictional novel, follows Blackmon’s research. In Armstrong’s novel, the boy searches for his father after his arrest, “The months and seasons of searching dragged into years.” His mother would say, “There’s patience, child, and waitin’ that’s got to be” (84).
Although, re-enslavement began to rebuild the South economically, it began to create a form of political terrorism against African-Americans that lasted well into the 20th century. The South and the North were complacent to the menial laws and arrests of thousands and thousands of African-Americans. Keeping the African-Americans silent was a way of rehabilitating the South’s economy. "That silence was an agonizing frustration in the writing of this book,” says Blackmon (9).
After the Civil War it is rumored that there was great lawlessness of the freed slaves and their children to justify criminalization of African-Americans. Blackmon writes, “According to many conventional histories, slaves were unable to handle the emotional complexities of freedom and had been conditioned by generations of bondage to become thieves” (5). In reality, Blackmon states, “as I moved from one county courthouse to the next in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, I concluded that such assumptions were fundamentally flawed” (5).
Blackmon discovered that there were large periods of time when no crimes had been reported, and then there would be a period of time when large groups of African-Americans would be arrested for vagrancy or other menial crimes and sold into labor camps. As a result, “Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South – operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers” (7). In Sounder, the boy’s father had been sold to one such labor camp.
High fines that were incurred by the African Americans for their falsified crimes left them at the mercy of the law enforcement and began the economic rehabilitation of the South. “Revenues from the neo-slavery poured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars into the treasuries of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina – where more than 75 percent of the black population in the United States then lived,” writes Blackmon (8).
More and more companies bought African-Americans out of jails or prisons. Blackmon writes, “Through the spring and summer of 1908, the number of men purchased for use in Slope No. 12 [a prison compound] steadily climbed – by August reaching nearly six hundred prisoners taken from county sheriffs and just under four hundred from the state” (313). The buying of African-American prisoners became a common occurrence in order to reestablish the economy of the South. Therefore, slavery did not, in fact, end at the end of the Civil War.
Green Cottenham died from the Alabama prison mines, just as the father in Sounder. Hopefully, Armstrong and Blackmon’s exposure of the highly offensive violations of the judicial system against African-Americans helps us move forward to a trusting society, and begin to heal cultural and racial divisions
Armstrong, William H. Sounder. New York: HarperCollins, 1969. Print.
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Random House, Inc. 2008. Print.
Glave, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Chicago. Chicago Review Press, Inc. 2010. Print.
By Christopher Sheid
Like all provocative cinema, the 2012 film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” can be viewed through multiple interpretive lenses. It is at once a children’s fable, a cautionary tale about climate change, a nostalgic consideration of humanity’s innate connection to the environment, and a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a young girl’s awakening to the limits and impermanence of a world that she had previously assumed was whole and unchanging. The film’s mythic qualities are embodied by the presence of a boar-like, now-extinct prehistoric beast called an “auroch,” the resurrection of which is, at least in the imagination of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, in an Oscar-nominated performance), precipitated by the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets, the same phenomenon that is helping to flood the waterlogged spit of Louisiana land called “The Bathtub” on which she, her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), and their colorful collection of neighbors eke out a hardscrabble but independent existence. When a huge storm floods The Bathtub with saltwater, and as the reanimated aurochs make their way inexorably toward the Louisiana coast, Hushpuppy must accept and embrace her role in nature’s interconnected cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Director Benh Zeitlin’s film is rooted firmly in the traditions of myth and magical realism; as co-producer Michael Gottwald told National Geographic around the time of the movie’s release, “you won’t get very far if you interpret the film literally.” While Hushpuppy’s adventures may play out partly in the wonderland of her own imagination, however, the film establishes a solid connection between her fanciful perspectives and the real-world impact of poverty, climate change, and humankind’s shifting relationship to the natural world. It is the film’s depiction, in microcosm, of that relationship that positions “Beasts of the Southern Wild” as a powerful, if sometimes problematic, example of American popular culture’s embrace of what we shall call the “New Primitivism.”
“New Primitivism” can be defined generally as the nostalgic romanticizing of, and emulation or simulation of, skills, behaviors and lifestyle choices that historically have been attributed to native peoples or other marginalized groups of Americans (including African Americans, immigrants, and rural Southern whites) whose cultures once were derided as backward, animalistic and uncivilized. The popularity of this “return-to-nature” or primitive ideal can be seen in the last decade’s proliferation of cable-television reality shows dedicated to survivalist themes (“Survivor,“ “Man vs. Wild,” “American Tarzan”), hunting and fishing (“Duck Dynasty,” “River Monsters,”) and rural or wilderness living (“Alaskan Bush People,” “Swamp People”), the latter examples being part of a trend referred to by USA Today as “Redneck Reality TV,” and by the pop-culture website Buzzfeed as “hicksploitation.” In general, these shows celebrate the development and display of survivalist skills or, in the case of hicksploitation, the backwoods, back-to-basics existence and/or cultural idiosyncrasies of white, rural American men and women, many of them impoverished or presented as such on screen. More recent programs, most notably Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid,” take the competitive “Survivor” template to extremes and deposit contestants in dangerous bush, backcountry or rain-forest settings without supplies or clothing, thereby returning them to a distant, imagined past in which native peoples went about the business of daily survival with only sticks and stones (and no kind of apparel, apparently) at their disposal. This conception of native peoples and other marginalized ethnic cultural groups plainly reflects centuries of white European racist stereotyping; what is less clear is whether the surging popularity of these TV programs represents a new phase of that same cultural prejudice or a social reconsideration of the stereotypes themselves in more positive terms.
“With 45 million Americans living below the poverty line, are we supposed to laugh at these people, pity them, or relate to them?” asks Buzzfeed writer Ryan Broderick in his Oct. 27, 2014 article about the “hicksploitation” phenomenon. Of one of the genre’s most popular titles, which has since been canceled, he writes that it “seems like the only really outrageous thing about ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ was that TLC had the gall to a let poor family from Georgia show the rest of the country how they lived. American audiences gawked along at a family that hung out in garbage dumps and ate roadkill. Its first season was one of TLC’s highest-rated shows ever.” Broderick’s article addresses the academic suggestion, voiced by Anthony Harkins, author of Hillbilly: History of an American Icon, that “American pop culture becomes obsessed with rural hillbilly culture during moments of economic tension, and mass media rednecks help the American middle class blow off some steam and feel a little more secure….” This explanation presupposes a middle-class cultural prejudice that might suggest “hicksploitation” is a modern version of the historical minstrel show, featuring impoverished, uneducated white characters instead of grossly stereotyped black characters. But Broderick suggests these shows inspire more in their viewership than just “snarky irony.” The appeal, he writes, is “more complicated than just middle-class viewers gawking at the poor. There are just as many — if not more — viewers tuning in to see families that actually look like them depicted on television.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is directly relevant to this cultural question because it trades in longstanding racial stereotypes that, historically, have been used to render people of color and also some white Americans as less than fully civilized. These stereotypes often relate to food, hygiene, and the use of animal metaphors to demean alleged negative characteristics of ethnic groups. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” does not embrace these elements of characterization in a negative way, but their use nonetheless portrays the characters’ habits and lifestyle choices in terms that traditionally have been used to “otherize” ethnic groups and diminish their humanity. The presence of these stereotypes in “Beasts” can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience, but the filmmakers’ romanticized presentation of them – and how else would a six-year-old see her world, if not through the lens of wonder? – could be reasonably interpreted either as patronizing or empowering, depending on one’s sociopolitical predispositions. The same could be said of “Swamp People” or “Duck Dynasty.”
In “Beasts,” Wink, Hushpuppy, and their neighbors subsist in a sort of hunter-gatherer fashion on a subtropical atoll in the midst of a flooding estuary on the Louisiana coast. The Bathtub is presented as a kind of Adventureland, with playgrounds consisting not only of swamps and woods but of ramshackle dwellings and overgrown yards festooned with castoff appliances, vehicles, scrap metal, and assorted detritus. Hushpuppy seems content in this jumble of weeds and repurposed refuse, and the film is effective at communicating her sense of being at home in a cluttered and seemingly unsanitary hodgepodge of do-it-yourself civilization. The fantasy trappings and artistic presentation of this thoroughly convincing set design distract us from the uncomfortable reality that Hushpuppy, her father, and their neighbors exist more or less in a rural slum, living in conditions that appear unhygienic and potentially dangerous even before the saltwater invades. When public health officials order Bathtub residents to evacuate their homes, which have been flooded by the storm, Hushpuppy and her father see them as unwanted intruders – the enemy – and, despite knowing better, so does the audience. Later scenes in a hospital, where Wink is being treated for a debilitating disease (“My blood is eating itself,” he tells Hushpuppy), are invested with an atmosphere of alien menace that all but overwhelms Hushpuppy’s senses. When Wink, Hushpuppy and the other residents make their getaway from the hospital, it’s presented as a moment worth cheering for, despite all logic to the contrary.
So what can we make of this romanticized vision of rural squalor? There appears to be an argument here for cultural sensitivity toward impoverished people, and for admiration of their ability to adapt and thrive in the most challenging environments. Yet, the film’s dramatic presentation and defense of Hushpuppy’s “natural” surroundings recalls a common theme among the racial stereotypes that permeated 19th-century culture: that of the unwashed, unclean “Other.” As author Carl A. Zimring notes in his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, in “nineteenth-century constructions of race, white supremacists stained Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans with assumptions that their skin, bodies and behaviors were somehow dirtier than the skin, bodies, and behaviors of ‘white’ people.” This racist assumption formed the basis of white supremacists’ concerns about “race purity” and the need for separate social accommodations for people of color, according to Zimring. He also notes that the same pejorative references to dirt and supposedly unclean natures were “used against Jews, Slavs, Italians, Hungarians, and a host of people Americans now uncritically identify as being white.” Zimring might also have included rural Southern whites – so-called “hillbillies,” or “hicks,” to use Buzzfeed’s term – or Louisiana Cajuns, groups that have also been disparaged with stereotypes often used against people of color.
Residents of The Bathtub are both black and white, and appear to exist in an atmosphere of racial harmony. If they are marginalized as a group, it is because they eke out an impoverished existence from the compromised land and waters of an endangered environment, and because they are either unable or unwilling to live according to the habitability standards of modern society. The same observation could be made, to some degree, about the subjects of shows like “Swamp People”; the question for both is whether these portrayals are rooted in negative historic stereotypes or if they somehow transcend the offensive clichés to reflect a modern reassessment of previously denigrated or exaggerated character traits, values and lifestyle choices. As Roderick indicates in his Buzzfeed article, the answer may have as much to do with the viewer as with the artistic intentions of the creators.
In “Beasts,” the idea of embracing the “primitive” is illustrated most clearly in the film’s treatment of food. In one scene, a white neighbor is showing Hushpuppy how to use utensils to pick apart a freshly caught crab. This infuriates Wink, who orders Hushpuppy to “beast it.” Others take up the chant – “Beast it! Beast it!” So Hushpuppy pulls apart the shellfish with her hands, eating it in a manner that recalls countless scenes from jungle-adventure movies in which natives are depicted as uncivilized savages who devour uncooked, unclean food without the barest hint of table manners. Yet, one can imagine a similar kind of scene in any of the aforementioned Redneck Reality TV shows. The “Beasts” filmmakers seem to revel in this depiction of learned primal instinct in young Hushpuppy, and any negative audience response is an intellectual one, because the emotional impact is undeniably uplifting.
It is meant to be. The filmmakers see Hushpuppy and the beasts of the film’s title as analogous creatures representing the tenuous yet essential relationship between all creatures on Earth. It is Hushpuppy’s awakening to her place in the world, and to the power of her own inner beast, that forms the heroic quest of the film’s narrative. “At the beginning, Hushpuppy’s relationship with nature is that she’s a morsel of food that’s going to be consumed by a larger force,” explains producer Gottwald to National Geographic. “The only way she understands death is a big thing eating a smaller thing—the food chain. All the things that are bigger than her and that have created her are being consumed by things bigger than them—her father being consumed by his illness, her home being consumed by storms and floods and saltwater intrusion and land loss. That violent relationship is the way she begins her understanding of nature. But over the course of the film her view evolves into a more enlightened, complete view of nature as a flowing system—something in which everything has its place and everything plays its part. She comes to peace with it.”
And to peace with her own primal nature, it would seem. The film suggests that, contrary to centuries of stereotyped depictions of black people and other ethnic groups as uncivilized and bestial, there may be something noble and empowering, and even environmentally necessary, in embracing one’s natural heritage, and in doing so transforming the social limitations of negative stereotypes into the actualization of the higher and greater self. This is undoubtedly a grander thematic purpose than any Redneck Reality Show like “Swamp People” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” could lay claim to, but perhaps there is some kinship between them. Both seek to make heroes of marginalized persons through the celebration of the very characteristics that once were used to rob those groups of agency. In doing so, perhaps they give agency back to those viewers who see themselves in the characters that represent them, and who can take heart in the trials and triumphs of people very much like themselves.
By Janice Grover-Roosa
The term “sweatshop” is commonly used to describe workplaces filled with poor people from developing countries. Sweatshops are further distinguished by reports of unsafe working conditions, socially unacceptable labor practices, and little to no environmental protection standards. In 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed 1,130 workers and yet the connection between the exploitation of impoverished people and the newest fashion trends doesn’t seem to resonate in the minds of the typical U.S. or Western European consumer. The inability of the Western consumer to perceive the injustices and outright abuse suffered by garment workers is due, in part, to the carefully constructed narrative propagated by the corporations that stand to profit. Their rhetoric depicts garment workers as “better off” because of fast fashion and portrays them as people who have other employment alternatives- as people who choose to work in garment factories. To understand this industry, however, it’s important to acknowledge the marginalized voices of the workers themselves. Garment workers have begun to speak up about their circumstances and the language they use to describe their existence sounds less like someone excited about upward mobility and opportunity and more like a desperate enslaved person.
In Andrew Morgan’s 2015 documentary film entitled The True Cost, several individuals representing the business side of the fast fashion industry describe the benefits of “low wage labor”. In the film, Benjamin Powell, Director of the Free Market Institute, discusses the benefits of low wage manufacturing,
So, this low wage manufacturing or [he mutters] so called sweatshops, they’re not just the least bad job workers have today … Your proximate causes of development are physical capital, technology, and human capital or [he mutters] skills of the workers. When sweatshops come to these countries they bring all three to these workers… These are places where people choose to work, admittedly from a bad set of other options.
This matter of fact, entitled, and inhumane view of the benefits of low wage labor is supported by this statement by Kate Bell-Young, former sourcing manager at Joe Fresh, “Does it bother me that people are working in a factory making clothes for Americans and Europeans, that that’s how they’re spending their lives? Um, no. They’re doing a job, there are a lot worse things they could be doing.” Statements like the ones above acknowledge humanity in the bleakest way. This kind of language presumes that merely surviving is akin to living and that poor people can’t, or shouldn’t, expect more out of life than survival. This message might be more easily digested if the burden was shared by people around the globe but because the fast fashion industry thrives on the vulnerability of impoverished people and corrupt governments, it doesn’t.
To add to this narrative about fast fashion it is important to understand the way garment workers perceive their working conditions rather than only relying on the statements of fashion executives. Shima Akhter, a garment worker in Bangledesh was interviewed in the “True Cost” documentary as well; this is how she describes her circumstances,
There is no limit to the struggle of the Bangladeshi [garment workers]. We go to the factory and work really hard all day and with the hard labor we make clothing and that’s what people wear. People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing they only buy it and wear it. I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. … It’s very painful for us. I don’t want anyone wearing anything produced by our blood. …I don’t want an owner like the owner of Rana Plaza to take such risk and force the workers to work in such conditions. I want better working conditions … so no more workers die, so that no more mothers lose their child.
Shima is obviously working under duress and is pleading with consumers to be aware of the suffering garment workers endure. The language Shima uses evokes the language of an enslaved person. She refers to owners of factories as owners of garment workers when she says “I don’t want an owner like the owner of Rana Plaza”. Shima is imploring viewers to recognize the hardships of garment workers at the hands of these modern slave owners.
In Linda Brent’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl the narrator says, “What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations? of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? of young girls dragged down into moral filth? of pools of blood around the whipping post (Jacobs 82).” The words in this passage are strikingly similar to Shima’s:
How is it that a Bangladeshi garment worker’s language in 2013 is so similar to the language of an enslaved person writing in the United States in 1861? What’s more, how is it that consumers in the United States so readily abhor our history of slavery yet choose to listen to the industry, or the slave owner, rather than the worker when considering where to purchase their clothing?
And what about the consumer? Where does the consumer fit into this system? Haul videos, videos in which shoppers show off the cheap clothing they’ve recently purchased, are one of the most popular types of videos on YouTube. In a 2013 story entitled Showing off Shopping Sprees, Fashion ‘Haulers’ Cash in Online, NPR reported there were 700,000 haul videos on YouTube with about 34,000 new uploads occurring each month. A short perusal of these haul videos demonstrates a mindless frenzy to consume with no thought to the lives that produced any one of the ephemeral garments showcased. The haulers featured in the NPR story describe their shopping sprees with phrases like “I don’t know why I even bought this I don’t like it that much” and “These were so cheap you can throw just throw them away and get new ones.”
Where is the awareness and activism of the most powerful force in the fast fashion chain? Where are the abolitionists? If consumers demanded workers be provided the same labor standards, working conditions, and environmental regulations that those in the Western world enjoy what would the lives of garment workers look like? What would their narrative sound like? It’s hard to understand why the most educated body of consumers in history ignore the suffering of garment workers, it’s even harder to consider that this ignorance may be perpetuated by privilege and racism but what other explanation is there? The bottom line is that when consumers purchase items produced under slave like conditions, we’re wearing racism. We are making a visible statement that says my life and wealth is more valuable than your life and your lack of wealth. I am entitled to buy new things; you are here to make that possible for me. When we wear clothes produced by fast fashion, we are visibly saying “I own you”.
Jacobs, Harriet A., Nell Irvin Painter, and John S. Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print. Penguin Classics .
“Showing off Shopping Sprees, Fashion ‘Haulers’ Cash in Online”. NPR. All Things Considered, 14 Mar. 2013. Radio.
The True Cost. Dir. Morgan, Andrew, Michael Ross, Lucy Siegle, et al. Bullfrog Films, 2015; 2015.
By Jillian Miller
If you are familiar with photography, then you know that pressing the button of a digital camera half-way causes the lens to auto focus, drawing in the most light possible. Makes sense, right? Photographs require light to be clear and focused. But how does the camera’s quest for more light impact our society’s perception of race and skin color?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Rosie Cima’s article for Priceonomics called “How Photography was Optimized for White Skin Color” outlines the development of film, done predominantly by wealthy white men in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The assumption of “whiteness” in the subjects to be photographed caused film processing to be chemically adjusted to photograph white skin well and dark skin poorly. Not only that, but until recent years, photographs were calibrated against a photo of a Caucasian model for color reference (Cima). Entering the 21st Century, digital photography has allowed dark skin to be photographed more efficiently, but even with these advances, we seem to be stuck in a world that’s been deeply influenced by racially charged portrayals of people of color.
In 2013, African-American supermodel Tyra Banks put together an exhibition featuring photographs of herself made up to resemble 15 different supermodels, including some white women such as Cindy Crawford. Despite Banks’ stated intention to honor models she admires, the photographs raised objections—why, as a woman of color, is Banks allowed to dress up in “whiteface” when a white woman in her position would most certainly be lambasted for engaging in “blackface”? In response to this, writer Callie Beusman penned a piece for Jezebel that stated “Blackface was historically used to dehumanize and belittle black people. In a society that constantly affirms white privilege and power, painting one's face white (in seriousness or in jest) doesn't have the same negative connotations and fraught history…The power dynamics are not the same.” Not only have black people been parodied and mocked throughout the history of American entertainment through characters like Jim Crow or Sambo, but the affirmation of whiteness through selected marketing and images continues to negatively impact the way that black bodies are portrayed. It took until 1996 for Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition to feature a black woman on the cover—that model, by the way, was Tyra Banks.
So doesn’t Banks’ decision to lighten her skin to look like white models somehow undermine her own progress and success as an African-American supermodel? During Cycle 2 of Banks’ reality TV show America’s Next Top Model, one young black woman objected to being made over as Supermodel Grace Jones, because it required her skin to be painted several shades darker. Banks reacted strongly, saying, “I feel like…ethnic women never want to be darker. Never…Grace is like a fashion icon; gorgeous, beautiful, black woman…I was just a little insulted by that” (Banks). Again, we see tension between the choice to lighten or darken skin color and the implications of such an action. These situations certainly beg the question of how black bodies are regarded and treated in the mainstream media. Even with the success of models of color like Banks or Jones, I have to wonder if much positive progress has been made in the portrayal of black bodies in American popular culture. And at the heart of the issue remain questions of appropriation: whose representation of black bodies are we viewing? Does the color of the person behind the depiction of a black body really matter?
In 2010, white Southern writer Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel, The Help, was rocketed into international success when the film adaptation was released. On one hand, both the novel and film were well received by the public. On the other hand, many critics railed against The Help, accusing Stockett of creating damaging depictions of black maids. A predominant storyline throughout The Help is the self-righteous, bigoted work of white society scion Hilly Holbrook, whose crusade for the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative” would mean all white households with black staff would be required to have a separate bathroom for the help. Holbrook’s main selling points in the novel:
Ladies, did you know that:
Black bodies are seen from Holbrook’s white perspective as “other,” which is evidenced by her claim that immunities are carried in the “darker pigmentation,” as well as dirty and diseased. Is this fictionalized plotline a result of how black bodies have been portrayed in American popular culture? Does Kathryn Stockett’s status as a white woman, and therefore endowed with white privilege, negate her ability to write truthfully about the life and experience of black maids in the 1960s South? University of Pennsylvania’s Alfred Reed, Jr. answers this question with a resounding yes: The Help is guilty of stripping away historical context, centering on interpersonal relationships too closely. When the story “dehistoricizes” segregation, then the acts and behaviors of segregation become “more like bad manners than oppression” (Reed), as though correcting the personal viewpoint of a few ignorant and mean-spirited characters (like Holbrook) could really mean lasting and impactful change in race relations.
Perhaps we are not surprised by this reading of The Help because it was written by a white woman; a white woman who meant for this novel to honor her relationship with the black maid who worked for her family when Stockett was a child. Yet even so, Stockett’s portrayal of black bodies seems negatively skewed. So the question is: Do American viewers, white or black, understand the ways they view black bodies well enough to begin to change how black bodies are portrayed and viewed? We seem to be aware that our perception of black bodies has been shaped by many inherently racist representations, but have we gotten to the point where we can step back and deal objectively with it?
I suggest that we are still in a place of ambiguity in this sense. In the 19th Century, the white patriarchy spent much time, money, and energy trying to find the genetic basis for race, in order to justify enslavement and segregation. This lead to the “invisibility” of white bodies, contrasted with the hyper-awareness with which black bodies are viewed—the history of film development showcases this fact. Now in the 21st Century, we recognize the racial divide this hyper-awareness continues to perpetuate. But how does society accomplish this paradoxical task: eradicate the hyper-awareness of black bodies we see illustrated in contemporary culture, while at the same time facing campaigns like #blacklivesmatter, which seem to call for a heightened awareness of black bodies? I propose that perhaps these tasks are not as paradoxical as they first appear. If we can move past seeing black bodies as the “other” and accept their equality as part of our “normal,” then maybe we can finally make some real progress as a society with true racial equality.
Banks, Tyra, and Ken Mok, prods. "The Girl Who Needs Six Months of Modeling
School." America's Next Top Model. 3 Feb. 2004. Television.
Beusman, Callie. "Tyra Banks Dresses as Other Supermodels, Raises Cries of
'Whiteface'" Jezebel. N.p., 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 23 July 2016.
Cima, Rosie. "How Photography Was Optimized for White Skin Color." Priceonomics. N.p.,
24 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 July 2016. <http://priceonomics.com/how-photography-was-optimized-for-white-skin/>.
Reed, Adolph, Jr. "Django Unchained, Or, The Help: How." Nonsite.org RSS. Emory College of
Arts and Sciences, 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 23 July 2016.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Amy Einhorn, 2009. Print.
By Ellie Bolender
On July 16, Kansas City, KS police officer, Captain Robert Melton was shot and killed when he responded to a reported drive-by shooting (Kansas). Some hours later, a white Kansas resident visiting Casper stopped for fuel at Sam’s Club, where a white store employee wearing an NRA ball cap struck up a conversation with the Kansas man upon seeing his license plates. He remarked, “I’m going to go get some rope.” At the confused expression on the Kansas man’s face, the employee continued, “You know, to go take care of those bastards that are killing our cops.”
This Casper man was proposing a lynching. If you’re in doubt, consider that shootings of police have flooded the news cycle for the last several weeks. The narrative of this news cycle often encourages the public to blame African Americans and/or members of the Black Lives Matter movement for the deaths of these brave men. Social media has become inundated with slogans like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” Of course they do, but these parodies want to persuade us all that we are playing a zero-sum game, and the deaths of police officers are always a black man’s fault in some way or another. This is the climate in which the Sam’s Club employee made his comment about rope and “taking care of those bastards.” And if you’re still in doubt regarding whether his remark was motivated by more than a desire to support law enforcement, consider the rope.
Though the definition of lynching does not dictate the use of rope in hanging the victim. Hanging is, however, the technology most associated with the longstanding tradition of lynching in America. Some accounts of lynching between 1865 and 1920 account the number of African Americans being hanged at around 3,500 (Miller 1). But it’s the 21st century now, and things are different, right? It’s true that lynching is a rare thing now, at least with ropes. We now have technologies that make Jim Crow and roeps obsolete, but do nothing or worse than nothing to repair the systemic racism that too frequently manifests in violence.
Despite his apparent affinity with the gun lobby, this Sam’s Club employee makes a statement suggesting a backward shift in technology, from gun to rope as a means of killing, in addition to a backward shift in ideology, from acceptance to violent intolerance. If we accept this paradigm, we align ourselves with the notion that technology progresses as social thought does, that technology and humanity walk forward, hand in hand. As a society, we are advancing technologically and sociologically, becoming more advanced in our ideas about American culture and more able to use technology to assist our collective enlightenment.
But it isn’t true. After all, a black man can be lynched just as easily with a gun as with a rope. We have to stop treating technology as a cure-all, as if we can end all of our collective problems by curing heart disease, winning wars, and playing Pokemon GO. In a keynote address presented at a conference for educational technology, Dr. Ruha Benjamin reminded us all that when technology makes things “better” for us, there’s usually someone for whom it makes things worse.
We don’t have to wait for the machines to become self-aware to take over and drive our species into oblivion. It is already happening in small ways across the globe because our deprioritization of the humanities is allowing the desires of some to disregard the oppression of others. It has to begin to matter to everyone that the victims of this oppression are people who may not look or speak like us. Dr. Benjamin cites the Marshall Islands, a nuclear testing site in the 1950s, where native islanders have been forced to relocate from the island of Kwajalein to Ebeye to make room for a US Army installation. “The health of [the] Marshallese suffer[s] dramatically, both from the direct fallout of nuclear testing but also because of the deeply unequal social and economic conditions of their present lives—which explains the high rates of chronic and infectious diseases including a TB rate that’s 23 times that of the United States” (Benjamin). The technology that has promoted America’s economic and scientific supremacy has been obtained at a great cost, but because that cost is of social and not financial significance, the impetus to remedy these tragedies is unenthusiastic at best.
Benjamin uses this example to demonstrate the serious problem with allowing technology to advance without first addressing our human, sociological problems. Not only are we allowing ourselves to turn a blind eye to injustices that do not appear to directly affect the comfort and pocketbooks of white men, but in doing nothing to promote the importance of social sciences, we permit prejudice and privilege to perpetuate and self-replicate with every new technology that emerges. Dr. Benjamin cites the role of black women in video games, "The majority of African American female characters--a full 86%--are either props, bystanders, or participants, but never competitors... Nearly 9 out of 10 African American females are victims of violence in these games, making them far more likely than other groups to be victimized. And more than HALF of the African American characters, male and female, are quote “unaffected” by the violence exacted upon them... with only a fraction exhibiting both pain and physical harm.
This is a truly startling depiction of black women being treated by technological media as, at best, bystanders, and at worst, subhuman targets for the avatars of young people.
So what if we change the way we conceptualize technology? The world of antebellum slavery may have been different if, instead of investing in the cotton gin, we had invested in the fully mechanized harvesting technique that was invented too late to make slavery unnecessary and unprofitable. That, and many other moments have passed, but we still have ample opportunities to attempt greater equality for this and future generations… if we allow ourselves to see them. But maybe we could start here: What if we encouraged Hollywood to feature men and women of color in movies that aren’t in the action genre, and video game companies to look beyond the stereotypes that have been perpetuated by their own products? What if we promoted STEM programs that encourage children of color to consider careers in science and technology? What if we rewrote algorithms to reflect diversity rather than the preconceived ideas held by their programmers? What if, instead of trading in our ropes for guns, we found a way to protect police and the innocent black lives that our society has allowed them to be pitted against? What if we devoted time, thought, and financial resources to solving problems of oppression instead of allowing the shiny lights of the newest, most “exciting” technologies to distract us from the more humane mission of promoting true, cultural representation?
"Kansas Police Officer Shot and Killed Responding to Shooting Report." Fox News. FOX News Network, 19 July 2016. Web. 19 July 2016.
Miller, Randall M. "Lynching in America: Some Context and a Few Comments." Pennsylvania History 72.3 (2005): 275-91. Web.