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When the past is present…


Mali’s Storytellers: Why Griots’ Indispensable Conflict-Resolution Skills Are At Risk Now

By Hannah Armstrong in the New York Times

BAMAKO, Mali — I had been waiting close to an hour for my coffee date when I ran into the colonel. Like many of Bamako’s power brokers, the 50-something officer, who is a friend, often conducts business on the broad terrace of the Lebanese café where we met. He always wears spotless gowns of the richest fabric and expensive European cologne.

Qaeda-linked Islamists are imposing a violent form of Shariah in northern Mali. Griots have helped to resolve earlier conflicts in the north. (Associated Press)

I mentioned that I was waiting to meet a griot, a traditional storyteller. His boyish, bulging eyes were suddenly defiant.

‘‘We don’t have griots anymore. Not us. We left that behind,’’ the colonel said, smirking.

[The griot] emerged from a taxi, spotted me, and advanced toward our table, squinting at the colonel. To my surprise, they embraced as old friends. He blushed as she sat down and took sudden control of the table, speaking loudly, blessing him, reminding him of shared history.

Her griot family, it turned out, has presided over his family’s weddings, baptisms and funerals for hundreds of years, praising, representing, serenading and chastising the colonel’s noble  relatives.

From birth, Malian griots are taught how to flatter the wealthy and mend social ruptures. From domestic disputes to wars between clans, the griot calms tempers, tames egos, and enjoys immunity. Several years back, when a fight between farmers and nomads in Mali and Guinea erupted into armed conflict, griots from both countries held a summit meeting that produced a resolution.

Perhaps the current crisis in Mali — more than six months ago the northern two-thirds of the country were seized by Qaeda-linked Islamists who are imposing a violent form of Shariah — might benefit from the soft touch of the griot?

Read more about Mali’s griots and why their role is threatened, here.

Read about the role of griots at our museum, here.


Who Was the First African American?

By Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in

Like many of you, I was always told that the first Africans to arrive in what is now the United States were the “20 and odd” Africans who arrived as slaves in Jamestown, Va., from what is now the country of Angola, in 1619.

Juan Garrido (left) (Diego Duran, Historia de las Indias de Nueve Espana
e Islas de la Tierra Firme, 1581)

But this turns out not to be true. As a matter of fact, Africans arrived in North America more than acentury before both the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock and before these Angolans arrived in Virginia. What’s more, we even know the identity of the first documented African to arrive,…and more astonishing, he wasn’t even a slave. Next year will be the 500th anniversary of his arrival in Florida, and the state plans to commemorate this remarkable event.

Read more about the extraordinary Juan Garrido here.


Chair hangings imply hanging-in-effigy of president

By Stephanie Harp in the Bangor (Maine) Daily News

In recent weeks, homeowners in  VirginiaTexasColorado and Washington state have hung empty chairs from trees.


This display in Washington state is one of several that have appeared around the country recently.

This comes in the wake of actor Clint Eastwood’s empty chair speech at the Republican National Convention. Never mind agreeing or disagreeing with the presidential candidates. Eastwood clearly intended the viewer to imagine President Barack Obama in that empty chair. And those who displayed chairs in their yards, beginning less than three weeks later, clearly intended them to represent hanging Obama.

Some claimed they tied chairs in trees to prevent theft. That doesn’t pass the laugh test when other chairs remain on the homeowners’ porches. Neither do claims that the displays aren’t references to lynching. The implied hanging-in-effigy of our first African American president is about more than politics. If the chair hangers didn’t understand the shameful history they were invoking, they should have. Lynching is not a joke….

Most commonly committed by rope, though in myriad other ways as well, a lynching was designed to scare African Americans into submission. Lynchers often left their victims hanging on the edges of black neighborhoods, so every resident would understand the unmistakable message of white supremacy. Like the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings were warnings to African Americans who, in local white opinion, didn’t know or keep “their place.”

HangInThereObama sign

Thomas Savka swears he’s a fan of President Obama, and says his controversial sign off Highway 21 in Redgranite, Wis. is only meant to grab your attention. But from far away, you can only read the larger red letters that say “HANG OBAMA.”

…Lynchings and racist threats didn’t end in some distant past: Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. both were killed in 1998. We can’t ignore this history, or joke about it.

Disagreements about policy and politics is one thing. Threats of racially motivated, violent hate crimes are quite another and have no place in a democracy that claims to celebrate diversity and equal rights.

Read more here.


The Difference Between Equity and Binders Full of Anybody

By Rinku Sen of

Maybe I have no sense of humor, but when Gov. Mitt Romney said the words “binders full of women” during this week’s debate, it didn’t occur to me to make an Internet joke, complete with visuals of feminine legs sticking out of binders. He seemed to have left out a word—maybe resumés?—but I sure didn’t predict multiple Tumblrs being built around it.


This is DIVERSITY – but is it EQUITY? Do we want affirmative action for diversity only, or for equal pay for equal work and equal say at the table as well?

I was more struck by the fact that he answered a question about pay equity with a story about diversity hiring. If we had the language as a society to describe this difference, the jokes might have been more pointed. Diversity is about variety, getting bodies with different genders and colors into the room. Equity is about how those bodies get in the door and what they are able to do in their posts. A diversity approach has gotten us to the point where Romney could get a binder full of women’s resumés. (Though, notably, the real credit goes to the group MassGAP, which pushed the governor’s office to hire more women in high-level posts.) An equity approach is what would have forced him to address the pay gap, which I bet all the women in those binders have experienced.

Why does this distinction matter? After nearly 50 years of applying anti-discrimination laws, American workplaces are still dominated by white men. Men of color and all women have more access to some jobs than they used to, but the ranks of decisionmakers come nowhere close to reflecting our numbers in the nation as a whole. This is the root of the “tokenism” complaint that I hear constantly as I travel the country. Tokenism means that you can come to the meeting, but no one will pay any attention to what you say. It means that the workplace will open the door to you, as long as you look (to the extent possible) and act just like the white men who are already there. It means that you’ll get invited to the party, but you won’t be allowed to make any requests of the DJ or help set the playlist.

Read more here.


Making America America

By Marion Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund, for the Huffington Post

Dr. Vincent Harding, an acclaimed historian, religious scholar and activist known for his work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believes America is a wounded nation.

Dr. Vincent Hardy, civil rights

Dr. Vincent Gordon Harding (born July 25, 1931) is a historian and a scholar of religion and society. An activist as well, he is best known for his work with and writings about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Even after so many years of struggle, he is convinced that America can and must get better.

Today Dr. Harding is the Chair of the Veterans of Hope Project at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, whose mission is to encourage a healing, intergenerational approach to social justice activism that recognizes the interconnectedness of spirit, creativity and citizenship. On his 81st birthday, he spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at the Children’s Defense Fund’s recent conference urging all of his listeners to commit themselves to heal America and make our country what it should be.

He shared a line he heard a West African poet recite: “He made this fantastic statement that I want to pass on to you as a birthday gift. He said, ‘I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.'”

The poet was speaking about his homeland, which was going through political turmoil on the road to independence. But Dr. Harding said it applies to our current national spiritual and moral crisis: “We are citizens of a country that we still have to create — a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multiracial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.

Read the full article here.


Blackface: In 2012, blackface is still popular around the world from Japan to the Netherlands

By Lori L. Tharps for

It’s 2012. Why are we still talking about blackface?


People dressed in blackface ride a float during the Zulu parade, a primarily African-American parade, during Mardi Gras festivities February 8, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mardi Gras is the last carnival celebration before the start of the Catholic holiday Lent, which begins February 9 on Ash Wednesday. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

It’s true there has never been an official ban on blackface put forth by our national government, but as Americans we’ve pretty much agreed that when white people smear their face with black make-up and paint their lips a cherry red in imitation of black people, it’s offensive.

In fact, since the 1960s, blackface has officially been placed on the list of taboo topics most people know to avoid like the plague. Of course, not everyone read the memo. Like Ted Danson in that infamous Friars Club fiasco back in 1993 or the boys in upstate New York last week — yes last week — who thought donning blackface would make for a funny skit at their high school while a re-enacting the Chris Brown-Rihanna domestic violence incident.

And then of course, there’s the rest of the world. Outside of the United States, blackface and sambo imagery is still all the rage.

national-racist-food-watermelon-soda.jpgFrom Mexico to South Africa, in Sweden and in Germany, it is not uncommon to find what we in the United States would consider racist images of black people being used on product labels and in advertising for everything from popsicles to chocolate candies. And then there are the countries where donning blackface is actually a regular part of the cultural experience.

Read more here.




Students in blackface re-enact Chris Brown beating Rihanna

By Moni Basu and Daphne Sashin at CNN

It was a homecoming rally to cheer on the Waverly Wolverines football team. They were undefeated this year. Everyone was proud.


A photo of a skit performed at a Waverly High School pep rally has gone viral, sparking controversy.

Then, in the midst of the cheers and a sea of red and white pom poms came a 30-second skit that, for some, turned an afternoon of school pride into one of shame.

Three white male students involved in the skit made light of domestic violence, and they did it in racist manner, say some.

Two were in blackface as they re-enacted a 2009 domestic abuse incident in which singer Chris Brown assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna. The student who played Brown was vying for the school’s “Mr. Waverly” title — a school tradition in which skits are performed and the one that garners the most applause wins the title.

On Monday, Waverly alum Matthew Dishler posted a photograph of the skit on CNN’s iReport. He says someone shared the image on Facebook.

The photo went viral.

By Tuesday afternoon, the CNN iReport had more than 46,000 views and showed up on Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Gawker and in local newspapers.

Suddenly, Waverly High School became synonymous with racism and sexism.

Read the full article here and find out if the initiator of the skit won the coveted “Mr. Waverly” title.


What’s wrong with affirmative action – and why we need it

By L.Z. Granderson of CNN

If I had a nickel each time a white guy e-mails or tweets that I have my job because I’m black, I wouldn’t need the job, because I’d be rich.


L.Z. Granderson of CNN

This is at the heart of a little talked about secret regarding affirmative action: A lot of black professionals don’t like it either. Not because they think the playing field is necessarily leveled, but rather their skills and talents are constantly being slighted by whites who think their jobs were given to them solely because of their race. It’s insulting, it’s demeaning and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, because as long as race is part of the qualification metric, the perception that the bar was lowered so that we could jump over it will persist.

There are voters who think President Obama’s success came easy because of affirmative action, overlooking the fact he’s brilliant and oh, by the way, he and the first lady were still paying off their student loans 10 years ago. I can tell you from experience, there is nothing “easy” about paying back student loans.


A supporter of affirmative action in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Yes, there is an inherent hypocrisy of having such a policy in a post civil-rights world. But it is cynical to think we’re a post-racial society just because we have a black president….

One of the elements of the infamous “47%” video that didn’t get talked about a lot was Mitt Romney’s joke that if he had Mexican heritage, he’d have “a better shot” at winning the election. That joke was followed by a comment from someone in the crowd who suggested Romney could claim to have some Native American heritage like Elizabeth Warren, to get a leg up. In what socioeconomic metric is there a quantifiable advantage to being Mexican or Native American in this country? The outcry about the push for diversity in the workplace and in college admissions would lead you to believe we’re overcompensating for the sins of the past.

But look around: Does it really look as if the populations with the highest poverty rate — blacks, Latinos and Native Americans — are just cleaning up in the game of life? True, there are certainly examples of unqualified or incompetent employees being placed in positions they shouldn’t be because of flawed decision making from white superiors trying to be compliant with their HR department. However, that’s not what affirmative action was designed to do.

Read more of Granderson’s article here.

Learn more about Affirmative Action here.


How Many Slaves Landed in the US?

Part 1 of the Series “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro you might think you know, but you’re probably wrong.”

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.,

Perhaps you, like me, were raised essentially to think of the slave experience primarily in terms of our black ancestors here in the United States.

Slave Auction 1855

Announcement for a slave auction in 1855.

In other words, slavery was primarily about us, right, from Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker and Richard Allen, all the way to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Think of this as an instance of what we might think of as African-American exceptionalism. (In other words, if it’s in “the black Experience,” it’s got to be about black Americans.)

Well, think again. The most comprehensive analysis of shipping records over the course of the slave trade is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, edited by professors David Eltis and David Richardson. (While the editors are careful to say that all of their figures are estimates, I believe that they are the best estimates that we have, the proverbial “gold standard” in the field of the study of the slave trade.)

Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000.That’s right: a tiny percentage.

Read more here.


Who Will Mourn George Whitmore?

By T.J. English of the New York Times

Forty-eight years ago, as a New York City teenager, George Whitmore was initiated into an ordeal at the hands of a racist criminal justice system.


George Whitmore, a cognitively challenged 19 year old black man, was falsely accused of the “Career Girl Murders” and arrested in 1963.

For a time, his story rattled the news cycle. He was chewed up and spit out: an ill-prepared kid vilified as a murderer, then championed as an emblem of injustice and, finally, cast aside. That he survived his tribulations and lived to the age of 68 was a miracle.

That Whitmore could die [today] without a single mention in the media is a commentary on a city and nation that would rather bury and forget the difficult aspects of our shared history.

Read more about Whitmore and the wide-ranging impact of his case here.

Learn about T.J. English’s book about the case, The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edgehere.