Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Contortions Posted by Picasa


I do love photos and I want to become better about finding them. It looks like this one is available to publish and I'll tell you a little about it in a roundabout way. Yesterday I read a post in America Abroad at Talking Points Memo Cafe, Beyond Humanitarianism: Another "Year of Africa". Maybe next year I'll kept better track of year, months and days--yikes. The piece is about a report done by The Council on Foreign Relations with Anthony Lake and Christine Todd Whitman heading up the task force. The short story is that the U.S. hasn't yet got the Africa policy right.

One of the comments caught my attention; it just peeved me. The comment doesn't seem to still be there, I'm not sure why. What bothered me is the commenter basically said not to call him racists for pointing out that America doesn't get Africa policy right because nobody cares about black people. I'm not arguing that's not true, just that it upsets me. Then I read a post at Feral Scholar who linked to this post on Jezebel Stereotype. I'll get back to the site where that article is published in a moment. For now I'll that the article made me so sad not only about the objectification of black women, but the extended stereotypes about women in general.

Back in school one of my education professors, Maryann McLaughlin, area of research was discipline and classroom management. Several of her papers were entitled with variations on the theme "myths of discipline." I encouraged her to use the word "stereotype" instead of "myths;" sophomoric suggestion. I see by searching for some of her papers that in the field "myths" win the day. I still see a distinction, but really can't articulate it well. In any case today's picture comes from doing a photo search "African myths." The picture is of a contestant on the South African version of the television show Thirty-Seconds to Fame. It came up in an article about "contortionist myths." And, well, the guy's South African--How does he do that?

Something I do not want to do is to contribute to negative African stereotypes. One thing about going to the African Student Organization meetings last year at Pitt, is I've got a really high opinion about Africans. Obviously, the students studying from abroad are a pretty select group, still I feel so privileged to know them. Reading Emeka Okafor's Timbuktu Chronicles is a great way not to feel cynical about Africans. I also read a few blogs written by young Africans. Maybe I am a bit jaded headed into my fifties, but I surely do enjoy being around supple young minds.

Searching around with this nebulous distinction between stereotypes and myths led into some interesting territory. Back to Dr. David Pilgrim the author of the Jezebel article. Pilgrim has assembled a collection of artifacts to create The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The physical collection is at Ferris State University, where Pilgrim is a professor, but go to the site and click enter. I'm of an age where I'm familiar with such racist stuff, but there's something overwhelming about going through the pages Pilgrim has put up.

A few years ago I went to the Warhol to see the exhibit Without Sanctuary. I had read the reviews of the exhibit of postcards made from photos taken at lynchings, and even seen one reproduced in The New Yorker. I thought I was prepared, but no. I was almost immediately overcome and felt as if I was about to faint. I went into the ajoining gallery space where they had old Pittsburgh Courrier articles blown up along the walls and at the tables, I just had to sit down, were journals where people wrote their impressions. Mostly these were written by high school aged kids, and before long I was sobbing.

There is a remarkable creativity visible in the objects in The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorablia. I rather see evidence of myth in the creations. One of the important functions of myths as presented at this Web site:
Is to justify an existing social system and to account for its rites and customs. One constant rule of mythology is whatever happens among the gods reflects events on earth. In this way, events such as invasions and radical social changes became incorporated into myths. Some myths, especially those from the Greco-Roman and medieval periods, also serve to illustrate moral principles, frequently through feats of heroism performed by mortals.
Racist memorabilia served to enforce the social order. It served as the happy propaganda to terrorism of Jim Crow.

But myths are slippery things which like songs can pass freely across divides. One of the African myths that has slipped over is the "tokoloshe is a short, hairy, dwarf-like creature from Bantu folklore." I found tokoloshe here and this caught my attention:
(White) maids would often raise their beds by placing the legs of their beds on bricks. It was an almost universal belief, among white people, that this was to keep the occupant of the bed out of reach of the tokoloshe.
Alright, I was afraid of what lived under my bed as a child, but I don't think it was quite the same thing as what I found a very common fear among women in the South growing up there. I suspect the tokoloshe stories got assimilated, as so many African tales did.

Stories and stereotypes are connected, and I don't quite know where to slice them apart. I like stories very much, and I use stereotypes more than I'd like to admit. I'm not sure how to avoid the pitfalls that can come from them, especially stereotypes and stories that foster hate and division. The best I can think of is to keep a wary and skeptical eye out.

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