The Problem with Stereotypes

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are WRONG, it’s that they are incomplete.”

Chimamanda Adichie


Watch her amazing insight into the “Danger of a Single Story.” This is quite possibly the best Ted Talk I’ve seen. Got twenty minutes? You won’t be disappointed. She talks about how we limit a group of people by portraying them in only one way, with only one story. It’s the easiest way to dispossess a people. It’s the easiest way to gain power over them. Check it out.

Books are Gluten Free!

Spring break truly is my favorite time of year. It comes as a welcome respite in the busiest season, and it is not a trip, it is a vacation. When I’m not sitting on the beach or by the pool, I’m drinking coffee slowly, I’m walking to local shops, I’m chillin’ with the fam, I’m mixing a G&T, I’m evaluating my tan putting on sunscreen. I’m reading.

Choosing books is an arduous task when you compare it with the above list. This year I tried to read 1984. I feel like I should have read that by now. But spring break is not a time for “shoulds.” Besides, I kinda feel like I’m over communism. (I just finished teaching a unit on Korea to 6th graders. Trying to help them really understand communism is not an easy task) I promptly put it down and picked up some good stories, all of which are true! As I write, there are tropical waftings of residual sunscreen coming up from the pages…

From an AJC review: The tragedy of AIDS in Ethiopia comes into sharp focus in Melissa Fay Greene’s powerful new book, There Is No Me Without You. Greene, who lives with her family in Atlanta, tackles the terrifying truth that in 2005, Ethiopia counted among its population 1.5 million AIDS orphans. Officials estimate some 12 million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s a brief summary: For years Neely Tucker was a foreign correspondent covering the world’s most dangerous hot spots — Sarajevo, Nairobi, Kinshasa. In 1997 he was based in Zimbabwe. At that time, the country was the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Unable to have children of their own, Tucker and his wife, Vita, threw themselves into volunteer work at a local orphanage filled with sick infants whose parents had died or had simply abandoned them. It was there they met a baby girl named Chipo. In the Shona language, her name means “gift.” Like thousands of children in Zimbabwe, she had been abandoned at birth and left for dead. Neely Tucker writes about the struggle to keep Chipo alive, and then the long journey through Zimbabwe’s bureaucratic maze to make the child a permanent part of the family.

My favorite part:

“I had remembered the thought from long ago that had led me to this courtyard in southwestern Nigeria: the idea that there was some sort of truth to be found in the world’s most sorrowful places. It was something I had viewed as critical to my understanding of the world, and I had pursued it since the day I had come of age in Mississippi and began to see things as they really were…Had it been left to me, Chipo, my very own daughter, would be dead because I had not been there. There are defining moments in your life, in which your measure is taken for good and you remember it always. So it was for me then.”


Penelope Ayers by Amy Julia Becker.

Summary: Penelope Ayers is a memoir about a beautiful, gracious, lonely New Orleanian who discovers one February morning that she has cancer. Penny’s life to this point has included an alcoholic husband, divorce, depression, and raising two boys on her own. And yet this crisis prompts her to reach out for help. Three generations of her fractured, colorful family respond, and in so doing, they all experience grace and healing.

My favorite part: “I wondered, What does it mean to have hope for Penny? What does it mean to have hope for eternal life?” I knew it had to do with the resurrection–that if Jesus truly had been raised from the dead, then I could believe others could be raised with him. So hope meant believing in a promise, in a future that didn’t contain the wrenching reality of pain, and death, and separation. And yet hope involved more than the future, was more complicated than a denial of the hurt and confusion of the present moment, more complicated than trite condolences about death bringing us to a better place. Somehow, I thought, hope had to connect the present and the future, bind them together…To hope meant to stand in the place between–feeling the pain of the present while, somehow, still trusting in God’s goodness, in the reunion yet to come.”


“Leadership is not for sissies”

So, it’s been a great week. Is it because I haven’t been in the classroom much? Rubbing shoulders with philanthropists and politicians? Hard to say.  On Thursday afternoon, I was thoroughly impressed by the humble demeanor  and playfulness of F.W. de Klerk. Moxie gets a little star-struck at times, not by A-list actors or musicians (well maybe a little), but face-to-face with a former head of state? I melted.

My question: “When did your ideology change about blacks and whites in South Africa? When did you come to realize that all should be equal under the law?”

His Answer: “It wasn’t a road to Damascus moment, rather it was a gradual change over time. Ask me that in the Q&A, rush right up there, and I will give you a fuller answer.”

Below is a blurry shot I took while I listened to a rather ignorant undergrad ask the President his thoughts on a federalized Africa. OBVIOUSLY, de Klerk debunked the idea by praising Africa for its love of multi-culturalism. He reminded this young man of how difficult it has been for the relatively homogeneous EU to become federalized, a tremendous continent with varied regions would not benefit from such a system.

While I wasn’t talking to the guest of honor, I snooped around a little and learned that he had flown in that morning on his private plane from Naples, Florida (we have so much in common), and now that he is retired, he spends much of his time on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Must be nice.

Before the speech we had about an hour to kill, and since it feels like spring in Atlanta these days, my professor, another former student, and I basked in the sun and discussed black nationalism. (glorious) Our question: Can you be a black nationalist and believe that race is socially constructed?” In other words, if race is a created concept, how can one promote black unity?

My initial response: I thought all educated people believe that race is a social construct, certainly it is not biological, is there something beyond the obvious binary?

Dr. R: Saying that race is socially constructed says something about power. It means that it is something created by human choice. In the case of race, if white people created an oppressive system, then they created the social construct, which undermines black nationalism…

To introduce his speech, Bridging the Gap: Globalization without Isolation,” he told the audience that after talking to us “students” beforehand, he realized that we wanted to hear about South Africa’s radical transformation over the past 20 years. He was right, and what an incredible formative assessment! He proceeded to discuss the role of leadership in a time of dramatic change. He gave eight qualities leaders need to possess to be successful. I’ve c&ped some of my notes below…

  1. Impartial, dispassionate assessment of reality: relentless self-assessment

South African context: The Nationalist Party could have held on, they could have endured sanctions and international isolation, but they decided  to admit and confront the fear that they had failed to bring justice to South Africa, that their policies had led to manifest injustice, and they had to change course. In history, we know that the prospect of imminent disaster has not always caused leaders to change; this is a hard decision since resistance to change is deeply seeded in all of us. We naturally fear unknown, unchartered territory.

2. Take calculated risks.

It is riskiest to do nothing

3. Avoid temptation of pretending to change

Ex: Gorbachev’s perestroika—didn’t want to admit that there was something deeply wrong with communism, tried to simply alter it to make it better, but that didn’t work

Ex: white South Africa fooled themselves into thinking they could reform softly to avoid dramatic decisions and risks.

They had to abandon separateness and embrace inclusivity. Only then could they initiate real change.

4. Real and achievable vision that gives direction and purpose

You need to be able to measure your progress and convince others to come along with you.

5. Outstanding communication skills

6. Good timing

Even if you are right, if you have the wrong timing, it can be ineffective

You can’t move so far ahead that your followers can’t hear or see you

7. Leaders must persevere until they achieve their objectives

There will be far reaching and unforeseen consequences to decisions, and you will feel like you are steering a canoe in a storm. Many crises will cause or almost cause the canoe to capsize, must learn to endure and react

8. Plan for his/her own departure, leadership is not for sissies!

Accept that change is a never-ending business

Biggest take away: De Klerk’s greatest achievement and legacy is his surrender of control

Black Nationalism: A definition

Here at Moxie, themes change suddenly without warning. (Other bloggers will catch the double meaning here). Today, I’m back to black nationalism. Or is it Black Nationalism? Historians do not agree.

This morning, I thought I would offer you a definition of “classic black nationalism” in my own words via a small excerpt from one essay in my comprehensive graduate exam. (Keep in mind I was locked in a room with no notes and a finite amount of time while I wrote this, so please be gracious in all stylistic critique.)

Side Bar:  When writing the words African and American together, the phrase is only hyphenated if it is an adjective. African Americans‘ relationship to….vs. African-American identity.

Peniel Joseph in Waiting ‘Till the Midnight Hour describes defining black nationalism as trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks; it is slippery and difficult to grip. However muddled and complicated it may be, there are concrete ways in which black nationalism can be understood. As Africans were transported across the Middle Passage, they began the process of creating a common racial identity; the slave ships served as a racial incubator. As they arrived in the United States, they saw that the people in power were generally white, and the people forced to work were generally black. Since that moment, black Americans have struggled to create a unified identity. Over the course of many generations, competing theories about how to organize have shaped black nationalism, and conceptions about African Americans’ relationship to Africa have played a major role in formulating political thought and action. Since race is socially constructed, cohesiveness and unity of purpose has proven difficult, if not impossible. Historical study shows that one of the greatest barriers to unity has been the formation of class. In each era of black nationalism, there have been two main streams of thought: one for the elite blacks, which tended to be more assimilationist, and one for the masses, which tended to be more pluralistic. 

Typically, 1850-1920 can be classified as “classic black nationalism.” In his work Golden Age of Black Nationalism, Wilson Jeremiah Moses makes the case that Christian ethic and Anglo-Saxon values formed the backbone of black nationalist thought during this period. Strong black leaders, often referred to as “Black Moses'” due to their claims to save their people from slavery, characterized this period. Alexander Crummel, a missionary in Africa exemplifies this character with his conservative and narrow views of what African-American identity should be. Often this authoritarian collectivism took the shape of one black man speaking for and leading “his people.” Moses’ view of black nationalism tends to speak only for the elite blacks; the ones who benefited from adopting “white” culture, and the ones who believe that the race will rise up through assimilation.
Contrary to this view, Sterling Stuckey in Slave Culture asserts that retention of African culture was stronger than historical analysis has previously allowed. Through citing specific examples of ways in which African-American culture reflected African cultural practices, Stuckey’s work speaks for the masses of African-American society. For example, Stuckey explores how the dancing and shouting type worship often seen African-American Christian churches can directly correlate to the “ring shout,” a practice seen in some traditional African cultures. Although they look like they are practicing Christianity, Stuckey claims they are really practicing a culture of dissemblance and hiding their true religion. However, this type of worship tends to be more characteristic of the “masses” of African-American culture rather than the educated middle class, who might more likely be found in a more traditional Episcopal church, like Alexander Crummel.

In general, classic black nationalism had a patriarchal view of Africa. After the Berlin Conference divided up Africa into various pieces of pie for European nations to devour, African Americans saw African people as needing help. They saw themselves as uniquely qualified to help, not only because of their racial connection, but also because they had ideas and ways of living that could improve the lives of Africans. The missionary movement gained momentum in the late nineteenth century. The AME Episcopal Church was very influential in sending missionaries to help their brothers and sisters in Africa. The Christian Recorder, a publication of the church, gives insight into rhetoric characteristic of this movement. African Americans saw themselves as called by God to bring salvation to heathen peoples of Africa. By planting churches and starting schools, they could restore God’s plan for this fallen continent. They even used the concept of Ethiopianism, the idea that God had a specific plan for Africa, as Biblical backup of their calling (Psalm 68: 31). However genuinely they meant to help, African-American motives in Africa were always muddled with economic incentives in Africa, and a longing for a place where they could be in charge and free from oppression. The missionary movement represents the late nineteenth century elite population.



In 5 days I will begin to finish my graduate work.

Friday I take an oral exam, and Monday I take a written exam. Yesterday, one of my professors told me I could stop studying right now and do better than 90% of graduate students. I kiiiinda wish she hadn’t said that, but I think she could tell from my puffy eyes that it’s been a stressful few weeks. I needed some encouragement, but there is still a lot to do.

Imagine the scene: I was at Henri’s Bakery (popular hot spot for Buckhead Bettys and the like) with my GSU professor. We both looked the part: She in yoga garb coming from a nail appointment, me in a Vineyard Vines skirt and green polo…talking about militancy in the black nationalist movement. It was quite ironic. And I loved it.

Here’s what we discussed for the African-American portion of the exam. (This is 1 of 3 concentrations–others are gender and 19th century biography)

1. What is the African diaspora as a global concept?

2. In the US, who were important political and intellectual influences on the African diaspora model?

3. Discuss black nationalism in the United States.

4. How is historiography moving toward an elaboration of Sterling Stuckey? (historian who says African-American culture retained African influences in the middle passage)

5. What was the “Back-to-Africa” movement? Were all emigrationists seeking the same thing?

6. How did European colonialism and African independence influence black thinking about Africa?

7. What is the ideal black woman?

Then I ran into four sophomore girls stopping for sandwiches before shopping on the rainy Atlanta spring day, and I remembered that you can take the Buckhead out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of Buckhead…or something like that.

“Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness”

How is identity formed? Who forms it? What are the politics of knowledge? What is blackness?

A colleague and I watched an incredible documentary yesterday on one of the first people to wrestle with this issue.

Check out a preview of   “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness”

Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American scholar at Northwestern University, was instrumental in beginning the study of African-American history in the United States in the 20th century. He argued along with a few other anthropologists that race was cultural rather than biological, a truth few deny today. He also claimed that African Americans were strongly linked to Africa,unlike E. Franklin Frazier’s assertion that black culture was similar to white culture. Historians have long debated if black Americans have connections to Africa or their culture was stripped along with their dignity in the Middle Passage. Herskovits showed that African culture was connected to African-American culture. This might sound right on target, after all, how could a culture be extinguished completely on the other side of the Atlantic? But his study is more complicated than it seems at first. The documentary brings up questions of the study itself, not the answer to his original question.

Herskovits was a white guy discussing studying black culture, which angered many black people. One historian in the documentary asks, “Does the right to define and describe and observe a people give you power over those people?” Is this “colonization of the mind?” Do white people have the right to tell black people about their culture? How long will black Americans be the objects not the agents?

The documentary asks, “What is “objective study” and when does it become politicized? What happens when the scholar becomes the powerbroker? What are the consequences when we deny a people the right to define themselves? Who controls the production of knowledge, how and why?”

Needless to say, I highly recommend it. It’s on file here in our Diversity Library.