Archive for the ‘Caste in America’ Category

I was so absorbed in the Hidden Figures story, so in awe of the women’s accomplishments that I needed to know if it were true, if based on real people and actual events. If so, a movie showing three women’s critical contributions to NASA during the Space Race in the 1960s, nearly sixty years ago, fits into a theme I’ve been following. Like the movies in my last two blog posts, Hidden Figures presents a new and modern perspective on women, on accepting women in roles previously held almost exclusively by men, on a woman being something and someone other than a mother, a wife, daughter, sister, or an essentially feminine, female presence. Until recently, movies made in Hollywood and elsewhere, with few exceptions, defined women, even strong women, in relation to a man. If the woman were employed, it was in a job considered appropriate for a woman, as a secretary, nurse, librarian, primary school teacher. The women in Hidden Figures are scientists and engineers working at the cutting edge of technology; only in recent years is the public prepared to hear their story and give them the respect they deserve.

Included in this excellent review of the movie is an idea for another such movie. In the late 1800s “ … the Harvard College Observatory employed a group of women who collected, studied, and cataloged thousands of images of stars on glass plates. As chronicled in Dava Sobel’s book The Glass Universe, these women were every bit as capable as men despite toiling under less-than-favorable conditions. Williamina Fleming, for instance, classified over 10,000 stars using a scheme she created and was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs. While working six-day weeks at a job demanding “a large capacity for tedium,” they were still expected to uphold societal norms of being a good wife and mother.” I and little girls of previous generations were told that scientists are always men because boys are naturally good at math and girls are not and everyone knows that this is true.

The movie Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016). She was born in Hampton, Virginia, where mathematician Katherine Johnson, (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (by Janelle Monáe) and supervisor/computer expert Dorothy Vaughan (by Octavia Spencer) lived and where the NASA-Langley Research Center is located. Shetterly’s father was a research scientist in NASA and her mother, a professor in Hampton University. Shetterly is Black and knows the Hampton community from the inside.

How faithful is the movie to reality? From Richard Brody’s review in the NYTimes for the racial situation —   “ … the movie is aptly and thoroughly derisive toward the discriminatory laws and practices that prevailed at the time. The insults and indignities that black residents of Virginia, and black employees of NASA, unremittingly endured are integral to the drama. …”   The first scene of the three women together shows them on a country road, their car stalled, the hood open and Dorothy underneath the engine, trying to fix it. “ … A police cruiser approaches. They tense up; Dorothy says, ‘No crime in a broken-down car,’ and Mary responds, ‘No crime being Negro, neither.’ Their fearful interaction with the officer—a white man, of course, with a billy club in hand and a condescending bearing—is resolved with a comedic moment brought about by the women’s deferential irony. What emerges, however, is nothing less than an instance in a reign of terror. …”

The movie’s historical accuracy is discussed here.  The scene where Harrison smashes the Colored Ladies Room sign did not happen. In real life Katherine refused to walk the extra distance to use the colored bathroom and, in her words, “just went to the White one.” Harrison letting her into Mission Control to witness the launch was added. Screenwriter Theodore Melfi said he saw no problem with the changes he made; the movie representations are essentially true in showing the racism that Black women dealt with every day. Because of Virginia’s segregation laws, African American “computers,” as the women mathematicians were called, had to work in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. Not mentioned in the movie — The White women “computers” were provided with special housing, while the Black women were left to find their own accommodations. An interview with Katherine Johnson is here, in a video. She’s an attractive person. She says, “I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

Johnson’s calm self-confidence is impressive, as is that of Mary and Dorothy. I wondered where it came from and decided to look into the personal history of each of the three and learn something of the community and culture that shaped her. To quote James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

While working at NASA, the three women were living in Hampton, in the city’s Black middle-class community. And what a history the city has.

It dates from 1607, when Captain Christopher Newport and his men, having sailed from London, landed at Old Point Comfort, later Fort Monroe, on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, and claimed it for the colony of Virginia. They continued sailing up the James River and established Jamestown, America’s first English colonial settlement. A few years later, Virginia colonials returned to Old Point Comfort, took over the Native American community on the Hampton River and established their own town on the site.

The Thirteen Colonies

We know from a letter written in 1619 by John Rolfe, widower of Pocahontas, that some 20 Africans from Angola had been rescued at Old Point Comfort from a slave ship. They were the first Africans to come ashore on English-occupied land in the future United States. The child of one couple, Antoney and Isabella, was baptized in 1624 in Hampton’s Anglican Church. At that time in that place, the Africans were considered indentured servants but the slave trade, mostly of Black slaves from the Caribbean, made slaves easily available in the colonies. In the North they lived in towns and worked as domestic servants, as artisans, sailors, longshoremen. In Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia, in the South, where the weather was warm and wet and suitable for growing profitable cash crops, slaves worked on plantations growing tobacco, rice and indigo. In South Carolina, from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s, slaves outnumbered free Whites. Not insignificantly, South Carolina had in 1696 adopted the first full-scale slave code in British North America, modeled on the British colonial Barbados slave code of 1661 that came from the Caribbean, from island estates where White men ran plantations with African slaves who did the nasty, hard work of growing and processing sugar to be sold in Europe. In the northern colonies many colonists began to call for the abolition of slavery. They objected to slavery on moral grounds and, except for New England slave traders, it was not important to their economy. Nevertheless, after the American Revolution, 1775–1783, as a concession to the four Southern colonies, to keep them in the Union, the northern colonies agreed to the U.S. Constitution acknowledging, in coded language, the institution of slavery.

Wherever the plantation and whatever the crop being grown, plantation and slavery — dehumanizing, repressive, violent slavery — went hand in hand. In the 19th century, after the 1784 invention of a machine, the cotton gin, that removed seeds from the plant’s fiber, throughout the South cotton plantations grew in number and in size, becoming enormously profitable producing an easily storable and transportable raw material for the equally profitable textile factories of England and New England.

Ruins of Hampton, 1862

The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, a war over the future of slavery in America, set the circumstances for the city of Hampton and Fort Monroe to play a unique role in the conflict. Most of Virginia became part of the Southern Confederate States of America, seceding from the United States, but Fort Monroe remained in Union hands, part of the North. Confederate-owned slaves, to gain their freedom, escaped to the Union fort and were protected there in the Grand Contraband Camp, America’s first self-contained African-American community. In 1861, Confederate troops burned Hampton as they left in defeat but after the war the Black people who stayed and lived there revived the city. A number of modern-day Hampton streets still carry the names from that community. In 2010, 49.6% of Hampton’s population was African-American.

Emancipation Oak, Hampton

Mary Jackson, who had grown up in Hampton, attended Hampton University, a special university with a special history. In November 1861, Mary Smith Peake, the first Black teacher of the American Missionary Association (AMA), taught the children of Black freedmen who were living in the contraband camp. Until a building was provided for her, she held class under an oak tree for up to 50 children and at night for some 20 adults. In 1863, the Black community gathered under the Emancipation Oak to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation.

Hampton Institute, 1899 class in mathematical geography

Hampton University grew out of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, later Hampton Institute, established in 1868 by the AMA and the post-civil war government’s Freedmen Bureau. It is one of the historically black colleges and universities and, as well, a land grant university. The latter were institutions of higher learning benefiting from a 19th century federal program that enabled state governments to use federal land and other resources to support such colleges. Booker T. Washington was one of Hampton Institute’s first students.

Mary Jackson graduated in 1942 with degrees in Math and Physical Sciences from Hampton Institute and taught math in a Black high school in Maryland before returning home to positions as receptionist, bookkeeper and secretary, all within Hampton’s Black community. In 1951, she joined the NASA-Langley Research Center, reporting to supervisor Dorothy Vaughan’s computer group, and two years later was selected by a leading engineer to work on designing an advanced wind tunnel, which lead her to fight the segregated educational system and take the graduate level math and physics courses required for her to continue on the job as an engineer. In 1979, having hit the glass ceiling for the center’s female professionals, she moved into management as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, hiring and promoting the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910 and grew up in a West Virginia town, in a state that was formed in 1861, after the American Civil War had begun. Counties on the northwestern side of Virginia broke away, separating from the Confederacy to stay in the Union and in the North, where they shared a border with Pennsylvania and Ohio. West Virginia on the west had coal mines for steam engines, of interest to northern railway building, and to the east mountain country suited to small family farms, not to plantations that were more like running a business that made slave holding profitable. The new state’s constitution provided for the gradual abolition of slavery and for “free colored children” to be provided with schools. African Americans were free but White prejudice and segregation continued. I wrote an essay here, on the movie Race and on Jesse Owens, the famous Black Olympics champion from Ohio. He was Dorothy Vaughan’s age. His history is relevant to this discussion.

The West Virginia state government required that schools be provided for all children but the town where Dorothy lived, Morgantown, at the Pennsylvania border, provided Black children with only part-time schooling and not in a public school building. Instead, classes were held in the St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 2010, only 4% of the town’s population was African-American, and in the 1910s and ‘20s the Black community may also have been that small. The very talented Dorothy graduated from high school at age 15 and and was moved by her family to Ohio, where she attended, on full scholarship, the historic Black Wilberforce University.

I thought it curious that an African American university would be situated in an Ohio town. The search for an explanation of why and how became an education in my country’s history.

Ohio joined the Union in 1803 as a free state, i.e. no slavery. The town was named for William Wilberforce, a statesman in England who worked for the abolition of slavery and the end of the slave trade in the United Kingdom and its empire. The Wilberforce townspeople were small farmers and tradesmen most of whom, most likely, were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the organization that helped establish Wilberforce College.

The Methodist Episcopal Church began in the Thirteen Colonies in the 1760s, as an extension of the Methodist church being created in England by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England who was organizing the common people largely neglected by the Church hierarchy. I once asked an English Methodist pastor about his church and the first thing he thought to tell me was of the early Methodists going into the factories and teaching workers to read and write, at the time an illegal activity. The Methodists in this break-off church were the poor but also shopkeepers, craftsmen, workers and small farmers, the sort of people who would immigrate to the New World. They respected hard work, honesty, virtue and repudiated upper class values and lifestyles. Their strong anti-slavery beliefs and actions were based on moral principles but also on the fact that cheap and docile slave labor undercut employment and decent wages for free men. They welcomed slaves as allies and members of their congregation.

By 1800, Methodism was expanding into the region around Cincinnati, Ohio, which includes Wilberforce, and by 1807, the first Methodist church had been built in Cincinnati. African American freedmen were members of the church but lacking equal status with Whites in the congregation, in 1816 a group left the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). In the 1820s, the MEC began in a number of the states to build colleges for their membership, and in 1865, to provide classical education and teacher training for Black youth, the Ohio Conference of the MEC and the AME founded Wilberforce College. Both Black and White community leaders were on the college Board. The school was later bought by the AME, the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. It has an interesting history, described here.

Wilberforce was a station on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early 19th century until the Civil War. It was used by slaves to escape the plantations into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.

Dorothy graduated from college at age nineteen, in 1929, hoping to continue her education at Howard University, the highly ranked historically Black university in Washington, D.C., but the Great Depression set in and she needed to find a job. How she came to teaching math in a poor Black school in the middle of Virginia, I never discovered. I did learn, however, something new about the ground-breaking 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the segregation of races in public facilities was constitutional if the separate facilities were equal. In the 1954 decision the Court ruled that separate cannot be equal and public school system must desegregate.

I discovered that the students of the school where Vaughan taught for ten or more years, the Robert Russa Moton High School, had played a critical role in bringing about the 1954 decision. In 1951, 16 year-old Barbara Johns organized the students to protest the unfair treatment of education for Black students and the NAACP convinced the parents to protest through the courts. Moton High provided three-fourths of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education. The school building is now a National Historic Landmark and a civil rights museum. The school was named for Robert Russa Moton from the Hampton Institute.

In 1943 Dorothy moved with her husband and children to Newport News, a city on the James River north of Hampton. It was during World War II and NACA, based in Hampton, had need of mathematicians. She soon rose to supervisor of the Black women “computers,” prepared them and the White “computers” to work the machine computers by teaching herself and her staff Fortran. She later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley. All this while also raising her six children.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in a small but wealthy West Virginia town near Virginia. Her curiosity and extraordinary math talent was evident at an early age, and because the town had only a primary school for Black children, her parents took her to a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, which was, like Hampton Institute, a Black land grant college that attracted the top professors of the day, including the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Her Black professors tutored her and arranged for her to receive a level of education in mathematics not ordinarily available to highly talented Black students, or perhaps to many students anywhere. She graduated from high school at age 14 and at age 18 from college, with high honors in mathematics and French, followed by teaching in Black high schools.

In 1939, a few years after Katherine graduated, West Virginia State College became the first of six historically Black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program, a program that graduated a number of the Black aviators in the World War II U.S. Army Air Corps. Others joined the famed 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group (the Tuskegee Airmen) that served with distinction in the European TheaterRose Agnes Rolls Cousins was the first African American woman to become a solo pilot in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Following Brown v. Board of Education, West Virginia State College desegregated and was transformed from an all-Black land grant college to one with mostly White students.

After graduation, Katherine taught in Black high schools. When West Virginia decided, in 1939, to integrate its graduate schools, she and two young men were the first Black students to be offered places in West Virginia University, in Morgantown. She resigned from her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of the first semester, however, she left school to have a child, then returned to teaching when her three daughters were older. In 1952, having learned of positions opening in NACA for Black women, Katherine and the family moved to Newport News for her to take advantage of the opportunity. Her husband died of cancer in 1956. In the movie, she is shown raising her daughters with the help of, I think, her mother and the beginning of her marriage to James A. Johnson, who had been a Second Lieutenant in the Army.

On September 22, 2017, the 99-year-old Katherine Johnson cut the ribbon for the Katherine G Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley research center in Hampton, Virginia, where she was honored as a trailblazing “human computer.”

It felt good seeing Katherine Johnson so honored and knowing that she and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are being honored by the movie and the book on which it is based.



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I find it difficult these days to concentrate on my past, on my memories, and writing about them seems particularly irrelevant. Instead, endlessly I read and listen to news reports and political analyses, obsessed with the crises Donald Trump is creating in and for the American government. I believe Trump and the people he brings into office are a danger to America’s democracy and economy, maybe also to other countries’ well being.

And I worry about what is happening to young people. They face a job market where wages are abominable.

Since 2000, the hourly wage of the median worker rose just 0.5%, while productivity increased by nearly 23%. From 1979 to 2011, wages for the median worker grew by 6%, wages for the highest-earning 5% rose by nearly 38%, and for the top 1% they rose by 131%. For the lowest paid workers, wages actually fell during those years. Nearly one-third of women, compared to nearly a quarter of men, earned poverty-level wages in 2011. For more statistics, check here. But know that this sort of inequality has happened before in capitalist democracies and has been reversed through collective action by the workers. In the 1930s my grandfather and father worked as unskilled, low-paid laborers in a steel mill, in a dangerous setting, for long hours six days a week. They joined with other workers and formed a union. Unions transformed the society and the economy.

Norma Rae captures the meaning of the union, which is why I remember so many of the scenes. Besides, it’s a wonderful movie about friendship, family, love, relationships, individuals growing and changing, all of which made it a box office success. Watching a real textile factory floor in action, both the technology and how the workers and managers related to one another, fascinated me. The cinematography is exceptional and the acting remarkable. Sally Field won a large number of Best Actress awards for portraying Norma Rae, including at Cannes in 1979 and the Oscar in 1980, along with “It Goes as it Goes” sung by Jennifer Warnes, as Best Song. It’s a classic film, selected in 2011 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Nevertheless, very few reviews of Norma Rae are available on-line and the reason why is explained in this excellent summary of the story Matt Langdon wrote in 2011.   “This is a classic 1970’s film that successfully blends a feminist component with the typical management labor struggle that have existed in factories and mills since the 19th century. It’s an important subject but more than 20 years after it was made it continues to have a bad rap with mainstream audiences. Mainly because it is a feminist film, a pro-labor film as well as one that is very class conscious and takes place in a small southern town. All these things, though, make “Norma Rae” a unique Hollywood film since its kind wouldn’t be made today. … …”


An early meeting

I like this detailed summary of the plot, but certain expressions need to be explained. For example, “balled out” should be “bawled” out, meaning to shout at and scold someone. In the last paragraph, regarding the expression: “And boy that Sally Field really did an excellent job.” I no longer hear “boy” used to emphasize an idea. When I was young the expression was “boy oh boy.” Perhaps the original meaning was from buoy (same pronunciation), a devise that bloats on the water and serves to warn people of a hazard, such as a reef. The buoy often had a bell attached. As a verb, buoy or buoy up can mean to boost or increase. For another slang expression:  “And the Flying Nun was looking pretty sharp in the film.”  “Looking pretty sharp” means looking bright and very pleasing. Flying Nun refers to a television series Sally Fields starred in.

I love this video clip from the movie. It expresses why the union was important to ordinary people.

The man speaking is a union organizer from New York. He is Jewish, the first Jew Norma Rae has met. The meeting is being held in a humble Black church. This photo is from its interior, with people sitting on the church’s benches. Norma Rae later asked the White preacher for permission to hold a union meeting in the much better equipped White church, the sort of church in the other photograph, and he turned her down.

The events in the movie took place in 1974, at a time when the textile industry was already unionized, nationally, except for this one company, J.P. Stevens.

The turning point

The U.S. Congress had passed laws to protect the right of workers to unionize, but by keeping its workers from knowing about the law and worker rights, the J.P. Stevens company was able to keep worker wages low and their work conditions dangerous to health. In one dramatic scene we see Norma Rae’s bosses harassing her as she copies a paper posted on the factory’s bulletin board. Management had written it to frighten the White workers. The paper states that if the workers formed a union, the Blacks would run it, which is untrue, and under national civil rights law such a prejudiced assertion is illegal. The company is gaslighting the workers.


The woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, on whom Norma Rae is based is described here.  She was pleased with the movie’s interpretation of her union activities and of her life.

The movie’s presentation of a town such as Crystal Lee’s town is authentic. Compared with those in the North where I grew up, it is a life of relative poverty. Norma Rae’s household needs three adults, her mother and father and her, a mother of small children, working full-time to support the family. (After all, the textile industry owners moved their factories from the North to the South because the wages there were significantly lower.) I compare this scene of Norma Rae and her parents in their yard with the yard of my low-income working-class grandparents. In the 1940s, Grandmother had a washing machine and wringer in the house and her clothes line in a neat back yard. Norma Rae’s mother, in 1974, is doing laundry in a tub, wringing it out by hand. It seems like a hardscrabble life.

This article is by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was sent in 1974 to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills. It is a lengthy discussion of struggles between the textile companies and the unions, including the movie’s unionization, and of the government’s involvement in settling disputes.

Finally, my memory of union country — In the 1940s, I lived for three years with my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant working class grandparents (described here) in Ohio. Like many small town White Christian working-class girls, I never heard the word “Jew” outside of Bible studies at church and was quite unaware of anyone in my high school being Jewish. The Negro community in the South (“Negro” being the polite word at that time) was a large minority, unequal and living segregated from the Whites, except as servants. (described here in The Help) In my Ohio town the Negro community was small and socially invisible to most Whites. The high school was integrated and I chatted with a few Black kids in the classroom but social segregation reigned. (a note here on sports and Black/White school integration.) My circle of friends included children of Catholic families who had come in the early 20th century as immigrants to the northern U.S., rarely to the South, from southern and eastern Europe, and although Grandmother and Granddad disapproved of the Catholic Church they reluctantly accepted my visiting with families they found so different from themselves. I was always curious about different people and asked Granddad to tell me where the Negro children lived and why nasty words like Dago and Wop were used for people from Italy and other strange places. He said, “We don’t talk about that.” End of discussion.

His non-answer, so unlike him, puzzled me, but I now think his silence had to do with the union. Granddad and Grandmother personally held the standard racial and ethnic prejudices but did not like to say negative things against other people. To avoid unpleasantness they, in their own words, stayed with their own kind. However, Black men and men of the new ethnic communities were in the union with Granddad. They had been on the picket line together, together they fought the company and its well organized, well financed supporters. They had won and together elected leaders, fought for decent wages and safe working conditions, followed union principles and acted as one. The union saw to it that Grandmother had a nice, affordable place to live when she was widowed. My grandparents had no vocabulary for a rationale discussion of the inconsistencies between their union identity and social differences in the larger society, so they choose not to talk about it. They believed in the union and were faithful to its ethic of collective identity and action. I think it taught them tolerance. In later years, although not always comfortable with it, they accepted my stepping out into a diverse world. They even accepted my marrying a foreign student from India, without going so far as to include his photograph among the family photos on the top of the piano in the living room.

Apparently, the unions that built middle-class America are dead, gone. I read that Americans have reached the (incorrect) conclusion that organizing workers is counterproductive. If so, this has to be changed.

As an addendum — In a fascinating, well written article, “Confronting the Parasite Economy,” in the American Prospect magazine, Nick Hanauer, an extraordinarily successful businessman, presents his view of the economy and of wage scales, of what is wrong with both and why and how they should be changed. His ideas are controversial among economists but I find them convincing.

Hanauer’s argument is that in the U.S. we have two types of businesses – (1) businesses in the real economy that pay their workers decent middle-class wages and (2) parasite businesses that pay unjustly, economically unnecessarily low wages. The cost is high for taxpayers working in the real economy because the majority of the money we collectively pay for anti-poverty programs goes not to poor people without jobs; it goes to low-wage workers who must rely on government welfare programs to survive. Our tax money supports the working poor employed by parasite businesses — businesses that keep wages low because they can, not because it is necessary for running a profitable business but because they have total power over their employees. Parasite businesses are bad for the economy; they reduce their workers’ ability to buy goods and services from businesses in the real economy and prevent those workers from contributing to the nation’s economic growth. And the wrongs the parasite businesses create for the society … … too numerous to list.

The solution is collective action. Governments should raise the minimum wage, which entails raising citizen awareness of the negative effects of poverty-level wages. Mostly, we need a rebirth of unions to increase wages, improve working conditions and bring individuals from diverse communities together in collective action. With our nation’s growing ethnic diversity, bringing people together for collective action is especially important for our democracy.

Addendum 2 — An important study indicates that the growing income inequality in the U.S. is caused in large part by a politically induced decline in the strength of worker unions. Unions reduce pay differences within companies and unions lobby in the federal and state governments on behalf of the working and middle classes for better education, better health services and generally for a strong public social infrastructure. Union decline, and the decline in public infrastructure, has come from business-financed political conservatives who spread misinformation and successfully lobby Congress to pass laws that make it difficult for workers to unionize. When in my mid-forties, in the 1970s, I did an M.B.A, in the Kellogg School. The hostility many of the student expressed toward unions, and toward workers, surprised me. How different from the small business people I had known for whom employees were people, not factors of production requiring cost control.

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race-posterSports events do not often interest me, so neither do movies about them. If Jesse Owens had not been African-American, I would not have watched Race, a movie that explores the meanings of an athlete’s personal history and of the 1936 Olympics. Owens ran races, set records and won medals, but the race that interested me was his being Black and famous in the 1930s. What he was famous for I barely knew, only that it had to do with Hitler’s Olympics and Hitler disapproved of Blacks and Jews participating, let alone winning, in the games. I had read that Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics is one of the best documentaries ever made. I really had to watch both Race and Olympia – Festival of Nations – 1936. (They can be seen on-line.)

Viewed on-line, the first scenes of Olympia are dark and foggy but gradually this clears to show great photography, great story-telling, and beautiful young bodies. ollympicjesse-owensFilming the action of the sports events, Riefenstahl focused the camera on some athletes more than on others, and especially on Jesse Owens. He was a wonder of grace in motion. In the second part of the documentary her picturing of the diving competition is magical. We see the women divers from on high, one after another in flight, knifing into the water, from the deep gliding up to the water’s surface.

The two prestigious and most read reviewers, here and here, recognize the importance of historical events and individuals presented in Race, comment interestingly on them, tell of the terrible prejudice against him that Jessie Owens (Stephan James) suffered throughout his life but they nevertheless consider the movie to be a story filmed in “the bland cookie-cutter mold too often seen in the biopic genre” or as a “standard inspirational biopic.” Another reviewer, here, remarks on the high quality of the work behind the camera while characterizing the movie as well-meaning but at times naive, simplistic and at pains to show almost every character (Hitler and Goebbels excluded) in the most flattering light possible.

For me, Race is quite a good movie and certainly rises above the usual biopic level. Actually, it is not biographical, not a picture of Jessie Owens’ life. It is the story of an exceptionable young man caught in the center of an important ideological conflict in the America of the 1930s.

Jessie was born in Alabama in 1913, the seventh child of poor farmers, sharecroppers, where Black children picked cotton instead of attending school.

The Great Migration by Lawrence Jacob

The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when Jessie was nine, from the deep South to the industrial North. They were part of the Great Migration, a movement that took place between 1910 and 1970 of 6 million African-Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West , illustrated and illuminated by the powerful paintings of Jacob Lawrence. Do see his paintings, here.

I grew up in a number of towns not far from Cleveland, from 1935 to the mid-1940s, attending various primary schools and one high school. We see in the movie a Black community in a Black neighborhood.  Black children attended a primary school with other Black children in their own neighborhood but Cleveland’s junior and high schools were like mine, for all children from all the primary schools, Black and White.

fifth from the right

Jessie Owens’ high school team. He is fifth from the right

Jessie attended integrated schools where his outstanding record in the schools’ track and field competitions attracted the attention of athletic departments in colleges and universities across the country, followed by several offering him a scholarship. Why he chose Ohio’s state university is not explained anywhere, but perhaps he preferred a school closer to home. Besides attending classes, studying and training, he worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, at a gas station, in the University library to support him and the baby girl born to his future wife, Ruth. After a year or so, to keep him as a winning athlete, the university awarded Jessie a token job in the Ohio government Statehouse that paid him, as a student, without requiring much time or work from him. In the movie he has one friend, the other Black student on the track team, and no friends among the White students. In fact, White students are shown as hostile to the two Black students and only after he becomes a hero for the U.S. team in the Olympics are a few of them somewhat friendly toward him. The Ohio State University coach Larry Snyder’s (Jason Sudeikis) support and friendship is critical in sustaining Jessie and ensuring his success in the Olympics.

For sports fans  —  a summary of Jessie Owen’s track and field records before the Olympics —  At about 12 years old, in a city-wide school athletic competition, Jessie set records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump, and leaping 22 ft. 11 3/4 in. in the running broad jump, now known as the long jump. In high school, he won all of the major track events, and for three consecutive years the championship of the state of Ohio high schools’ competition. In Chicago, at a national competition, he set a new high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the accepted world record, and he created a new high school world record in the 220-yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds. A week earlier he had set a new world record in the long jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches. In a major competition between universities, in 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes, and performing while suffering from a back injury. Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in the history of track and field events.

Leni Riefenstahl was marginal to American concerns at the Olympics but her presence in the movie adds to the interest.

She is shown as Goebbels’ associate, serving informally as his interpreter, probably a dramatic device for keeping her in the action. We understand that he controls the finances for her to film the games and she is cool toward him. triumph-des-willens-posterIn reality, she was friendly with Hitler and did associate with Goebbels and others in his circle. Critics disagree on whether she was ideologically and actively a Nazi. Hitler admired the first movie she directed, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht ) and asked her to make a film for him. She wrote he wanted a film ” … showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying – in terms of spectacle.leni-riefenstahl-poster … … a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics. …” In 1935, she directed, produced, edited, and co-wrote Triumph of the Will, recognized, despite its content, as one of the greatest propaganda films in history.

I watched The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Rienfenstahl and it was wonderful. She was incredible. She died in September 2003, aged 101, active and outrageous until the last.


Until watching Race I was unaware of the serious public debate at the time over whether to boycott or to participate in Hitler’s Olympics. Major national figures were involved in the controversy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted a boycott of the Olympics because of Hitler’s rabid racism against Jews, blacks and other minorities, and in the movie, an NAACP representative comes to the Owens home to persuade Jessie not to participate in the Olympics.

olympic-hitlerQuoting from the Holocaust Encyclopedia    –  Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. Observers in the United States and other western democracies soon began to question the morality of supporting Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime.

Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC),  stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.” He claimed: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.”

Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, led efforts to boycott the 1936 Olympics. He pointed out that Germany had broken Olympic rules forbidding discrimination based on race and religion. In his view, participation would indicate an endorsement of Hitler’s Reich. When the American Olympic Committee put before its members for a vote the decision to participate or to boycott participation won by only two votes.

In the movie, we watch Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) debating the issue before other men in what appears to be a meeting of the American Olympic Committee. Mahoney makes the case for boycott and Brundage for participation.  Avery Brundage is the more complex figure and facts may have been modified somewhat for dramatic effect, to present the spirit of what happened, if not the exact sequence of events.

Brundage is at the games, shown negotiating with Goebbels, trying and failing to have Hitler meet and congratulate Owens as he did with all other winners. (The movie shows little of the other Black athletes.) Brundage is at fault when he does not protect the right to participate for two American Jewish athletes.

High-level American diplomats warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Nazis were exploiting the Olympics for propaganda purposes, but he chose not to become involved in the national debate over a boycott. He continued a 40-year tradition in which the American Olympic Committee operated independently of outside influence.

owens-and-langFor Jessie, the experience of being in Germany added to that of running and winning in the games. In hotels and restaurants no one discriminated against him. At the games, Germans in the stands adopted him as a favorite and cheered him on. A German competitor, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, gave him advise on the rules that allowed him to win. The two became friends and corresponded until Long’s death in the war. At home, President Roosevelt invited the White athletes to the White House but not Jessie or the 17 other Black men on the U.S. team, even though they had won 14 of the 56 U.S. medals in Berlin.

In the movie, a most ironic situation occurs after Jessie has arrived home, is famous throughout America and beloved for winning in Berlin. We see him and Ruth (in real life his mother) with Larry Snyder and his wife and other guests, all elegantly dressed, approaching the entrance of the grand hotel where a celebratory dinner in Jessie’s honor will be held, and the doorman refuses entrance to Jessie and Ruth because they are, in the word of the time, Negro. Larry protests, but Jessie, maintaining his dignity, accepts. He and Ruth walk around to the back of the building, to the servants’ entrance, continue through the huge kitchen in the basement to the service elevator and take it up to the dining room where he will be received as the star of the event.

President Roosevelt’s snubbing of the Black athletes disturbs me. FDR was a major figure in my childhood, and now, with this incident and others, I realize he was a racist. Oh, well. Although a flawed individual, he was a great President. Fortunately, Eleanor Roosevelt was a great human being. She served as liaison between her husband and the NAACP and she defied segregation laws by sitting between White and Black attendees at the 1939 Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Ala. Read here of the famed singer, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the Times of India, Reagan Gavin Rasquinha, has in the second section of his review of Race a discussion with the screen writers, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, and of how they approached the movie. They studied documents and social and political biographies from the era, everything available about Jesse Owens. They informed themselves about the 1936 Olympics, its significance, and the out-sized personalities of the people who ran it.

In writing the screenplay, Shrapnel and Waterhouse decided to tell the story of a particularly significant period in Jesse’s life, the time when he matured from a talented runner into a worldwide champion. They also sought to go beyond the boundaries of a typical sports film, onto a broader social and political canvas of the Nazi’s rise in Germany and the controversy in the U.S. “… In order for the audience to appreciate the enormity of Owens’ accomplishments – the scale and importance of his victories – we had to give them background and history; people may not know just how close these Games came to not happening, or happening without U.S. participation. As it was, the Berlin Games were the last Olympics until after World War II. The world was changing fast.”

Mr. Jessie Owens

Mr. Jessie Owens

I think another story to be told, and one worth filming, is of how Jessie Owens coped with the contradictions he faced, being alternately accepted and rejected, yet persisting through a series of failures and successes, through humiliation and honors. In 1976 he narrated a short film, Jessie Owens Returning to Berlin, here on video, about the 1936 Olympics and the Germans welcoming him in 1951 for a visit to the city. He is impressive, a fine, dignified presence, a pleasing voice, thoroughly at ease before the camera. In today’s America, with his talent and personality, he would have been a huge success at whatever he chose to do.


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pinky posterThis is the most recent in a series of comments concerning movies depicting relations between Black and White in America. I state my basic perspective on the situation here in The American Caste System.

In the New York Times review of Pinky, 1949, the heading was “Pinky, Zanuck’s Film Study of Anti-Negro Bias in Deep South,” ‘Negro’ being the word used at that time for African American. The movie was a commercial success and won Oscar nominations for the three main actors, Jeanne Crain as Pinky, Ethel Waters as Granny, and Ethel Barrymore as Miss Em. (The movie can be watched on-line.) It is the story of a Negro woman, Pinky, who can “pass for white” and did so while living in the North, possibly in Chicago, then returned to her home in small town Mississippi. pinky and miss em We know from the uniform she wears at work that she is an RN, a licensed Registered Nurse, formally trained in a hospital nursing program in the North, and she insists that Miss Em and others recognize her professional qualifications.

Two Black actors, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were interested in playing the role but the movie’s initial Director, John Ford, decided to cast a White woman in the part. Since the African American identity is a caste, not a race, discussed here, a White woman could realistically portray Pinky and White audiences would identify with her, at least in the North, and accept the movie’s premise. Pinky_1949The tragic beautiful young “mulatto” was a Hollywood cliché.

Shortly after the filming began, Elia Kazan took over as Director. He wanted to make at least part of the movie on location in the South but the studio would not allow it, requiring him to shoot almost everything in the studio – one reason he did not much like the movie. Neither could he change the casting. He later said, “Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what ‘passing’ is.” He wrote, here, “[T]he most memorable thing about making that picture was the party at the end of shooting. Ethel Waters had been so sweet, kissing me all the time and telling me how much she loved me and how grateful she was to me. She and I got drunk, and I said, ‘Ethel, you don’t really like any white man do you?’ And she said, ‘I don’t like any of them. I’d never trust any of ’em.’ When she got drunk she told the truth, and I liked her better for it. I thought, ‘I don’t blame her. I can understand that.”

pinky as nursePinky’s manner is that of an educated middle-class woman. A doctor from the North, a White man, unhappy that Pinky has left him, comes looking for her and discovers she is the granddaughter of a humble Black servant woman. After absorbing the shock of her being Black he still loves her. He wants them to marry and go off together, far away, to where her true identity will never be discovered. She chooses to stay and live her life as a Black woman despite, in the NYT review, “… the hopeless discomfort of poor housing, the ignominy of police abuse, the humiliations of Jim Crowism … the sting of epithets, … …the mean antagonisms of certain bigot(s) ….

A young Black doctor has stayed to serve his community, and an inheritance from Miss Em enables Pinky to do the same, to challenge the system. An interesting theme in her battle for justice is that the Law and the Courts are universal, above personal prejudices, for all the people. Would that it were so.

When I first saw Pinky, in 1949, I was a student on a university campus in the North. The South was not as yet for me a meaningful place and a culture. I hardly knew what to think of it. I had two Black working-class friends, described here, originally from Mississippi. On campus, Black students, clearly upper middle class, were integrated into the university but they were few in number, and although we were together in the classrooms and social areas like the student union, White and Black self-segregated socially. For most White students, non-Whites were simply invisible. My social clique was, except for me, White male, mostly graduate students in anthropology and sociology. They recognized the “race problem” but did not discuss it. I had not heard of organizations like the NAACP.

I remembered the movie in more detail than usual, especially the last scenes of the way Pinky used Miss Em’s mansion for I was not certain what. Was it a school, a clinic, both? Whichever, it was good and I assumed that because of her nurse’s training she knew what she was doing.  My image of nurses in general was positive but not specific. I had never known a nurse. None of my girlfriends in high school had intended to become a nurse and on campus there were no nurses, other than in the university hospital I came to know quite well. Seeing Pinky recently, it still held up as a good movie and I recognized the picture of the South as authentic. I felt the Granny-Miss Em relationship reflected a stereotype —  loyal servant and kindly matriarch, but individuals can bridge a social gap and genuinely care for one another.  I was impressed with Pinky’s pride in her nurse identity and the authority gained by wearing the uniform.

In the America of the era, it was generally expected that after finishing high school, a girl would work outside the home until she married. Nursing and the skilled office secretary were the two women’s occupations I knew of, plus the hairdresser and a shop-owner or two. Otherwise, the jobs were ordinary office, sales, clerical or factory wage employment. In 1949, barely five percent of women held a college or university degree. For the girl who went on to school and graduated, a variety of attractive, usually non-career, positions opened to her, most often as a school teacher, but only until she married. Married women, and especially mothers, were not welcomed into the work force.

One further observation from the movie:  In 1949 the fact that Pinky’s doctor friend wanted to marry her seemed perfectly normal to me. In America doctors marry nurses and always have. I later learned that in some countries, among certain families, it was not acceptable for a doctor to marry a nurse. More on that in another context.

I may watch The Nun’s Story again. Audrey Hepburn plays a nun who is also a nurse. The nurse’s uniform, incidentally, is modeled on the nun’s habit. The Deaconess as nurse, in the Protestant tradition, was the model for modern nursing as it developed in Western Europe.

Wit deals with profound issues of life, science and character. A professor is diagnosed with cancer and must decide how she will die. The nurse becomes integral to her thinking and her actions. I will probably see the movie again and learn who wrote the script and who directed it, mostly to observe the nurse.

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Fruitvale Station poster 2

This is one comment in a series of comments on movies depicting relations between Black and White in America. I state my basic perspective on the situation here in The American Caste System.  — —

Violence in movies upsets me, and “Fruitvale Station” opens with violence, wild and confusing, followed by scenes of a young African-American man who seems headed for trouble. I thought “Oh, no!” and took the disc out of the DVD player.

Months later, though, I discovered that the movie had won major awards at the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival and that its audience reception was extraordinary. —  “Well before the movie had ended — by the scene in which Oscar’s mother, Wanda Johnson, his girlfriend, Sophina, and his friends have assembled in the hospital waiting room, praying and worrying — you could hear people in the audience begin to lose it. The college-age woman to my left was sobbing so hard that I closed my notebook and put my arm around her. This movie had reduced people to their most vulnerable selves. It opened in American theaters two weekends ago, and the crying hasn’t stopped. Some of the current reaction is compounded by timeliness. Fruitvale Station opened the weekend that a jury in Sanford, Florida, acquitted George Zimmerman of manslaughter and second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.” (for information here)

FRUITVALE police and BARTOscar Grant was a young African American man who died from a gun shoot to his back, by a policeman, on New Years Eve, on the Fruitvale station of San Francisco Bay Area’s BART train line, and witnesses with cell phones captured it all on videos. The violence in the opening scene was real; it is not Hollywood gratuitous fun stuff. I decided I really should see the movie. (It can be watched on-line.)

“Fruitvale Station” is the story of Oscar’s last day of life, conceptualized, written and directed by Ryan Googler, a young African-American man from the Oakland area and a student in the USC School of Cinematic Arts on January 1, 2009, the day Oscar died.

Television stations in the San Francisco area ran, over and over again, videos of the fracas with the police and the shooting of Oscar, of angry crowds charging through city streets, burning cars and smashing storefronts, of protesters being arrested. Googler watched, horrified, and soon began planning the film he would make. He contacted Oscar’s mother and girlfriend, gained their trust and interviewed people who knew Oscar, learning about him as a person. By January 2011, he had met Forest Whitaker, famous actor turned movie producer, and Whitaker agreed to do the movie with him.

Fruitvale BART station platformThe movie plot is here. It has the veracity of a documentary film about real people and a real landscape. The cast is outstanding. Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Oscar Grant III is totally believable, as is that of Octavia Spencer as his mother, Wanda. Googler filmed in the city, Oakland, and on the BART train and train station. We see an ethnically and racially diverse working class neighborhood, which has to be a San Francisco Bay Area phenomenon; I know of no such integrated neighborhood elsewhere. Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina, is played by Melonie Diaz, of Puerto Rican descent. She is not Black but nothing is made of this fact and she is shown happy and comfortable with Oscar’s Black family. She and Oscar have a five-year-old daughter, which means he was seventeen when the girl was born. Sophina is raising the child in an apartment that seems more hers than theirs as a cohabiting couple and she has a job, goes to work each day.

Fruitvale Station posterAt the time of the filming both Micheal B. Jordon and Melonie Diaz were twenty-six, not twenty-two, like the couple they played. In photographs the real Oscar looks very young; four years makes a difference in the early twenties. I see him as a boy struggling to face adulthood. He adores his daughter and is totally dedicated to her but has not been a stable presence in her life. He has been unfaithful to Sophina but he promises, and intends, to change, to become a husband and a father. He is close to his sister and brother, both of whom work in low-income service jobs, and they all are continually short of money. He has been fired from his job at a grocery store for habitually arriving late and he tries, unsuccessfully, to talk the owner into giving him another chance. Fruitvale marijuana arrest rates by race yearHe does not want to return to selling marijuana on the street, a profitable, illegal activity. In the store, standing at the meat counter, Oscar initiates conversation with a young White woman whom he sees is in a quandary. When she tells him she has no idea how to cook fish for her New Years Eve dinner that night, he phones his grandmother to advise her. I did not interpret his behavior as a come-on with the girl; he was being himself, curious and open. Many incidences in the movie show him to be kind, generous and in great need of communication with others, a trait that at times probably gets him into trouble.

A problematic aspect of his personality is his quick temper. A flashback has him in prison and his mother visiting him. She realizes from bruises on his face that he has again been in a fight. While they are talking a huge bully of a man makes a derogatory remark that sets Oscar lunging at him, ready for another fight.

The fact that Oscar’s police record shows he was arrested several times says nothing in particular about his character. African-American men are unfairly targeted by the police and the prison sentences they face are far harsher than those of their White counterparts.

Ryan Googler

Ryan Googler

Googler gives an example from his own experience of how being Black is enough to arouse a policeman’s suspicion  —

“I’ve been detained by the police before, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been detained in several situations. … … I remember one time my fiancée and I were just hanging out in the car talking, and we got stopped, pulled out of the car, had to sit on the concrete because there was a robbery close by. They said I fit the description, so me and her were sitting out there for hours until somebody came by and said that it wasn’t us.”  He was lucky. If the police had not found the culprit, Ryan Googler would likely have been held and arrested.

A scene that touched me was Oscar’s conversation with a White man, maybe ten years older than Oscar, who talked about having drifted for years between jobs, going nowhere, then committed himself to marriage with his girlfriend, found work that he could do successfully and was becoming a good family man. He sounded rather like Oscar in personality and could have continued indefinitely going nowhere if opportunities for him had not been there, far more often than for a Black man. I read that the real Oscar was thinking of becoming a barber, a trade he had learned in prison. In many communities, the barbershop is a social center for men. Oscar would have flourished in that environment, would have married Sophina and settled down to the life he wanted.

By the last scene I was involved with Oscar, hopeful for him, shocked at his death and how he died. I was in tears.

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poster Jungle FeverContinuing a series of discussions on movies depicting relations between Black and White in America —  (I’ve stated my basic perspective on the situation here in “The American Caste System.”)

I first watched “Jungle Fever” in 1991, and watching it again last week, I remembered the characters, many of the situations and was as engaged as before. It is very much a Spike Lee movie, which means Black Americans are his intended audience, although White Americans are invited in as well.

It seems to me that “Jungle Fever” (and “Grand Canyon”), plus the six movies previously discussed in three essays about race in America, beginning here, are worthy of a broader, international audience. The American caste system and the changes occurring in American society can be compared with the changing caste and class systems in other countries. Spike Lee believes there is a force he calls Jungle Fever that drives a man and a woman from different races to engage in a sexual relationship, not from love, but by myths about the sexual allure of the other race. The movie is about Black and White in America but sexual attraction of the exotic and the forbidden is a universal, as is the social rejection the couple experiences from both their communities.

A few particular features of “Jungle Fever” need some explaining. new-york-city-map

Events take place in two ethnic communities of New York City. Flipper Purify and his wife, Drew, live in Harlem, in Manhattan, north of Central Park. Their neighborhood is a middle-class enclave of Harlem called Strivers’ Row. Houses there were built for upper-middle class white families circa 1919. Jungle fever strivers rowThey later moved out and well-to-do African-Americans moved in. Flipper is a successful architect. Both he and Drew grew up Black middle-class. jungle fever sylvia's RestaurantThe restaurant where Flipper and Angie have trouble getting served is real and still there. jungle fever Bensonhurst

Angie’s neighborhood, Bensonhurst, is in Brooklyn. It is a working-class Italian-American neighborhood. (and different from Italian-American neighborhoods I knew decades ago in Ohio and Wisconsin) She is a high school graduate and works as a secretary.

The movie opens with a dedication to Yusuf Hawkins. I had no idea why until I went on-line for information, but in the 1990s, for an African-American audience, the meaning would have been obvious. Yusuf Hawkins was a Black teenager murdered in 1989, in Bensonhurst, by a crowd of 10 to 30 White boys. They beat Yusuf and his two friends with baseball bats and killed Yusuf with a shotgun. They believed the Black boys came into their territory trying to date White girls. The White boys were brought to trial in the NY courts, resulting in what seems inadequate punishment for their crimes. jungle fever mayor of NY

New York having an African-American Mayor is alluded to in the talk about voting and politics that takes place in Pauly’s candy story. David Dinkins was elected Mayor in 1990 and served for three years. Pauly voted for him; the other men in the store did not bother to vote.

I do not know where Flippers and Angie’s rented apartment is located. Probably in neither Harlem nor Bensonhurst. When Angie tells her girlfriends about her affair with Flipper they say it is dangerous for a Black man to come into Bensonhurst. In a scene after they have moved in together, Flipper and Angie are at his parked car playing, pretending to fight, and policemen close in on them. They hold Flipper against a wall, with a gun to his head. Angie protests. She argues with the policemen, telling them that Flipper is her lover, and they leave. Her saying this to the policemen upsets Flipper. Is it because he remains feeling vulnerable and still in danger? Or because a White woman can talk back to a policemen while he has no rights in the situation?

A good way to begin thinking about the movie is to read Roger Ebert’s review, here. He discusses the movie as an instrument for Spike Lee to express his views on Black-White relationships and on the two ethnic groups involved. His Do the Right Thing also plays on both. An especially vivid, and apparently authentic, scene in the movie that reviewers comment on takes place in a living room where Drew and her woman friends sit talking about their relationships with Black men and about their insecurities as Black women. It is described here.  Lee did not use his script for the scene. He simply brought the women together and they spoke from their own experiences and their feelings in a way that is powerful and revealing. Interesting observations by someone else who is revisiting the movie are here.

When you look at the photograph of Flipper and Drew in bed, remember that by the American definition, she is Black. Drew’s mother is White and her father is Black. The actor who plays her is from such a marriage. Today some individuals with this mixture call themselves biracial, but in the larger society they are still considered Black. (Incidentally, “Flipper” is an unusual name, more like a nickname. In the Black subculture, nonstandard first names are used more often than in other ethnics. “Drew” sounds White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.) When Flipper goes to the store where Drew works as a buyer and manager, we learn that her skin color is an issue in the marriage. I am curious about her and her sense of identity. In the scene when she discovers his affair, with people looking on, she is screaming and throwing Flipper’s belonging out the window, onto the street. Is this the likely reaction of a chic middle-class professional woman, no matter what her race or ethnicity?

I find a number of Spike Lee’s characters close to being caricatures. One is Flipper’s and Gator’s father. He may be based on a real Pastor in a Black church, but to me, he is not believable. The Italian-American men in the candy store are also stereotypes. As noted in all the reviews, the affair between Flipper and Angie is at the center of the film but Spike Lee uses it as a devise for showing the reactions of everyone around the inter-racial couple. It occurred to me that Angie’s attraction to Flipper possibly arose from the fact that he was an architect and she found working with a creative, educated man very exciting, etc., etc. However, too much is going on around Flipper and Angie to analyze their relationship; for purposes of the plot, we must accept Spike Lee’s explanation of jungle fever. He did, though, give Pauly a genuine attraction to an attractive Black woman, and for them a different scenario.

I had forgotten, or maybe repressed, an entire section of the movie, the walk-through of the drug addicts’ building. It is too complex and disturbing to explore further.

“Jungle Fever” is an important movie worth watching, then stopping to think about how, in the past twenty-five years, the place for African-Americans in American society has changed, or not changed.

poster of grand canyon

“Grand Canyon” is from the same years as “Jungle Fever” but takes place in Los Angeles rather than New York and focuses on friendship, not love affairs, between Black and White. For a summary here. From Roger Ebert’s review here:  “The impulse to break down the barriers that society erects between people is what “Grand Canyon” is about. It takes place in a Los Angeles that is painted as ominous and threatening, an alienating landscape where rich people pile up bulwarks of money and distance to protect themselves from the dangers of poverty and despair. But the Kevin Kline character, Mack, (a high-income, successful lawyer) believes that he has been granted a new life, and he wants to lead it differently from the old life. Mack feels that Simon (Danny Glover) has saved his life, as once before another stranger saved his life. This time he wants to reach out in gratitude. Simon accepts the gesture and a bond of friendship grows between the two men.

I like this line –  Enter tow-truck driver Simon, who gingerly talks (the thugs) out of violence. “The world ain’t supposed to work like this,” he tells the leader of the pack, pleading for clemency (for Mack) despite the rule of the gun. “Everything’s supposed to be different from what it is.” It’s classic Kasdan: dramatically circumstantial, casually platitudinous, irretrievably written. But what makes the scene work, and makes Kasdan’s film of interwoven relationships … work … is how even canned lines are delivered as sincere thought rather than recitation, as grist for debate rather than hysteria. —  Grand Canyon is a movie about ideas, with actors who understand their roles, and that appeals to me.

A subplot and several characters seem invisible to the movie’s reviewers; they are not included on the poster. Simon’s sister, Deborah (Tina Lifford), and her two children live in a Black ghetto like that of Boyz ’n the Hood, discussed here. We see Deborah struggling against neighborhood violence to keep a good, and safe, home for her children. Her son, not yet a teenager, is especially vulnerable and at risk because of gang warfare. She holds down a part-time job in a store and Simon assists her, also acting as a father figure for the boy and little girl. Mack understands her situation and through his connections locates a house she can rent in a safe neighborhood that is slowly transitioning from White into Hispanic ethnic. After Deborah moves them in the little girl adjusts easily, but when the boy goes jogging on the streets he is first confronted by Spanish speaking boys and then the police pick him up simply because he is Black and may be an outsider.

In the New York Times review here:  “Simon’s sister and her young son, who live in the midst of ghetto violence, do not sound substantially different from Mack’s own prosperous white family. This may indeed be the film’s very point, but it makes for a certain dramatic flatness, as does the failure of all the film’s foreboding to add up to much.” Yes, it is the point. These are all good, decent people, each one struggling with his or her particular environment and situation, each one trying to make sense of life.

In another review, here: “Glover is given a juicy role as the moral voice of a film mourning the loss of civility in a society torn apart by the widening chasm – the Grand Canyon – between rich and poor. Kline, also very good in his more understated way, conveys the edgy uncertainty of a white liberal struggling to cope with life in a city whose police routinely terrorize angry black inhabitants.” Mack’s friend, Davis (Steve Martin) is a Hollywood producer who is artistically aware and intellectually sophisticated but makes movies full of base, brutal, over-the-top violence. The reviewers are fascinated with his character.

Much of the action is shown from the women’s perspectives. Mack’s wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), a stay-at-home Mom, is troubled by a world that has come to seem senseless to her, especially as she and Mack send their teenage son off to camp, to his growing independence and his first falling in love. Then one morning, jogging along a suburban road, she discovers an abandoned, adorable Hispanic infant crying in the bushes and she responds to her calling as a mother. Mack’s secretary, Dee (Mary-Louise Parker), is a single woman in love with Mack, feeling desperate, lonely and rejected.

Dee is friendly with another secretary, Jane (Alfre Woodard), who works in the same office building. Jane is Black, attractive and single. Mack introduces her to Simon. The talk and easy relationship between Dee and Jane is similar to what I, as a White woman, experienced over the decades with Black colleagues. I recall one lovely young woman in particular. It was in 1975, in the Chicago area where we both worked in a consulting firm with government contracts for health care programs. I had finished my MBA that year; she was our secretary. This was her hometown; I was there for the job until my two teenagers finished high school. She invited me into her home and to the Sunday meetings of her Black Muslim mosque. Members of the congregation were former Christians from the American South. Nothing, other than the Muslim vocabulary, about the meeting seemed foreign. Since that time, of course, immigrants from Muslim countries have been establishing mosques and gradually adapting to American culture, adding to the country’s natural diversity.

A friendship like that between Simon and Mack may not be usual but it is perfectly plausible. I assume that friendships across the racial divide, especially for young people, are more frequent now than then but I personally know of none. Since I moved into my present home in North Carolina twenty years ago, two individuals I find very agreeable and with whom I share interests are unavailable to me as close friends because in this huge, sprawled city, they and their families and their organizational lives are in the Black community, and I live at a good distance from them, in the White part of town. We originally met as volunteers in a health related organization, spent time together there and visited back and forth. Over the years, though, we saw less and less of one another. I no longer drive outside my neighborhood and they, too, are no longer as mobile as they once were. I miss their good company. How difficult for personality and personal choice to overcome geography and the cultural forces that divide us.

Grand Canyon, National Park, North Rim in Arizona

Grand Canyon, National Park, North Rim in Arizona

The movie ends with Simon taking them all to the Grand Canyon. The magnificence of earth’s history recorded on the canyon walls and in the deep valleys gives perspective on one’s life and its meaning. Go to Grand Canyon – Image Results and view it as a slide show. It’s awesome.

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These are comments in a series of comments on movies depicting relations between Black and White in America. I state my basic perspective on the situation here in The American Caste System. — —

A few weeks ago I watched “Nothing But A Man” and “Help,” here, both exploring aspects of life in America for African Americans. (“Help” is about Black women.) Next I rented “Juice,” here, because of the positive reviews and out of curiosity. It and an excellent movie, “Do the Right Thing,” pictures boys growing up in the Black ghettos of American cities circa 1990. It is a world I do not know. Over the years, in a number of cities, I walked about in a Black ghetto, visiting a friend or working in a health care program, but the experience of living in the ghetto, being in and of it, is something I have to learn from reading, from the movies and television. (I think all the movies being discussed, except “The Help,” are available on-line, probably free of charge.)

poster Our America“Our America” here, made in a Chicago ghetto in 2002, is a modest, low-budget, made-for-television film, but it held my interest and had me thinking about its characters and two incidents in particular. Ernest R. Dickerson, Director of “Juice,” directed the movie, even though he must have realized it was unlikely to become a commercial success.

The story is based on actual people and events, on two fourteen year old boys who took on a journalist project in 1993 to interview and report on the Black ghetto in which they live, Chicago’s notorious Ida B.Wells Homes, since demolished. David Isay of National Public Radio turned the boys’ reporting into a radio broadcast, Ghetto Life 101, that became “one of the most acclaimed programs in public radio history, winning almost all of the major awards in American broadcasting … .”

Incidentally, the title “Ghetto Life 101” suggests to anyone who has gone to an American university the title of an introductory course into a field of study. Courses have names and numbers. For example, a student majoring in Sociology would first take Introduction to Sociology 101, followed by more specialized courses, such as Social Movements and Collective Behavior 204, or Social Stratification 206, etc., etc. The two boys and the producers who made the radio program intended it to be an objective, if not scholarly, view into social reality. “Our America,” the movie, continued in that mode.

In 1996, the boys took on a second award-winning project, this time reporting on the death of Eric Morse, a five-year-old who fell from the fourteenth floor window of a Chicago housing project in October 1994. Two boys, ten and eleven years old, were accused, and convicted, of throwing Eric from a window. Again, our boy reporters interviewed everyone involved. From what we see and hear in the movie, it is obvious that the death was an accident, not a crime. ghetto ChicagoThe children were playing in one of the neighborhood’s broken, filthy abandoned building and the older boys most likely were holding the five-year-old on a windowsill, trying to frighten him, and the little one slipped from their grasp. Our boy reporters learned from Eric’s distressed, distraught mother what must have happened. She said that discipline in the ghetto was difficult; boys like the two on trial regularly did things that resulted in trouble with the police, and usually the policemen where White. In desperation, mothers resorted to extreme measures to frighten children into stopping bad behavior, measures like holding a child on a windowsill and threatening to drop him if he didn’t behave himself. At the trial no mercy was shown for the ten- and eleven-year-old boys. It seems that in the courtroom they were perceived as men with criminal records. They went to prison, and besides the immediate dangers for a small boy in that environment, their chances for a constructive adulthood were finished.

A few comments – The boy reporters were close friends, going to school and spending time together on the ghetto streets, but from different settings. One boy had a fairly stable home maintained by a grandmother who held the family together in a decent although crowded house, evidently supported by the younger women pooling their earnings. No man is present. The other boy has a father who is unemployed, alcoholic, wild, and a mother who struggles alone against poverty.

The grandmother could remember when the Ida B. Wells row houses and apartments were new and modern. Chicago ghettoIt was a pleasant place to live, named after a great woman. However, low- or no-income residents and a lack of funds, either private or public, for maintaining the grounds and buildings changed the area. By the late 1970s many of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods became gang-controlled bases for drug operations.

A ghetto in South Chicago, 1985

A ghetto in South Chicago, 1985

Crack cocaine, which became easily available in the 1980s, made the drug trade especially lucrative, and destructive. As social disorder set in anyone who could leave left and stable, ordinary working-class people would not move in. The ghetto shown in the movie is poverty-stricken but nevertheless has a school and dedicated teachers; children attend school and many graduate from high school. The boy with the grandmother attended classes and went on to college. One feels that for the other boy, their reporter project, plus the interest of social workers and teachers, rescued him from future trouble. We learn that he later finished high school and went to a college. The South Chicago ghetto is similar to the one in New Jersey where “Nothing But A Man” was filmed.

I hesitate to comment on a disturbing scene in the movie. The boys are standing on a highway bridge overpass, leaning against the railing, throwing rocks at the cars passing beneath them, seemingly unaware of the damage they can cause. They say that since they have no playground in their neighborhood this amusement is all right. These are not bad, mean children. My explanation for their behavior has to be that no one they know drives a car and they have never ridden in one on the highway, that they were totally detached from life outside the ghetto. They could not imagine the invisible people inside the automobiles.

poster Boyz in the HoodThe Black ghetto of “Boyz ’n the Hood” is in Los Angeles in what looks to have been a middle-class area that Whites abandoned as Blacks moved in. In fact, the father in the movie, named Furious, sells real estate and at one point explains the profitable business of trading on White flight from their houses and Blacks moving in. In this movie we see individuals who have moved into the middle class, children who can become middle-class, and some of the reasons why most of the young people do not.boyz-n-the-hood LA ghetto

The best way to begin thinking about “Boyz ‘n the Hood” is to read Roger Ebert’ review here. nike-air-flow-boyz-n-the-hood ghettoIt is why I decided to see the movie. Another good review is here. I can add nothing to the analyses. It is an excellent movie, an important story well told.

An image I take away from these Black coming-of-age films is of teenage boys behaving aggressively and too often in ways that are illegal. Does this make them intrinsically different from boys elsewhere? Not really. Wherever teenage boys hang out together, cut loose from male authority, they are likely to behave badly.

In most societies a boy at the threshold of adulthood will be forgiven a certain level of misbehavior. As a child I heard that “boys will be boys,” a boy would “sow his wild oats.” (Sowing means to scatter seeds on prepared ground so they will catch in the soil and sprout. Oats are a grain. The definition in my favorite, ancient dictionary of “sowing wild oats” is – to commit youthful excesses or follies, usually implying subsequent reform). Some fifty years ago I read an anthropological study of a small town in the south of France from which I remember two cultural practices. One is that mothers expected children to keep their clothes clean when they played outside. (How did they do that?) The other: when boys graduated from high school they were allowed a year or two of freedom to move about as they liked and even be given money to go out and have fun. They could drink too much wine, ride motorbikes into the next town and get into brawls, fool around with women. It was generally assumed that after a time the boy had sowed his wild oats and would settle down, marry a nice girl and become a solid citizen of the town.

Consider White boys who belong to elite social clubs, fraternities, on American university campuses. For some fraternities, hazing is part of secret initiation rites for new members, done in ways and in places hidden from the school’s adults, the managers and the professors. Hazing is designed to inflict psychological and physical discomfort, if not pain, on the initiate. It can also get nasty and provide cover for the  bully or psychopath among the boys to act out dark motives and do harm, with impunity. “With impunity” is significant. One case is described here.

Because it is a Richard Linklater movie, (his other movies here), I watched “Dazed and Confused,” here, about teenagers in a Texas high school. Much of the action is hazing of younger children by senior, mostly seventeen-year-old, students. Away from the adults they behave foolishly and sometimes irresponsibly. Some of the boys get drunk and cruise around in a car, destroying mailboxes at the road in front of houses. Yet, White middle-class boys engaging in destructive and inane behavior does not bring the police down on them and the boys continue on into adult life with no criminal records, no stain on their reputations.

The presence in the Black ghetto movies of gangs and of conflict between gangs reflects a universal; factions and territoriality exist in all societies. Think of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, a movie I love.  In the U.S., the horrible addition to potential violence is the easy access to guns. This is an issue in itself.

What then, is different, and dangerous, for boys in the Black ghetto? One factor, evident in the movies, is so many growing up without a father or other kinsman to provide the guidance and discipline they need.

In 1965 the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report that focused on the deep roots of Black poverty in the United States. It was “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Fifty years later the report is being revisited.   “Although Moynihan described a “tangle of pathologies — from disintegrating families to poor educational outcomes, weak job prospects, concentrated neighborhood poverty, dysfunctional communities, and crime — that would create a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, hardship, and inequality, he saw the breakdown of the nuclear family as the fundamental source of weakness in the black community. Moynihan argued that high nonmarital birth rates among blacks and the large share of black children raised in female-headed households created a matriarchal society that undermined the role of black men. Because of diminished authority within the family, black men would abdicate their responsibilities as husbands, fathers, and providers, and the pattern would repeat from one generation to the next.” The quote is from an excellent Urban Institute article here. The article is worth taking the time to read. It is short, concise and readable.

A second, critical factor that disadvantages Black youth is the American justice system. Recent protests in the States are over the ways in which the police, the courts, the jails and prisons deal with Black men and boys. This Criminal Justice Fact Sheet here documents how the American justice system fails its African American citizens.

And this article about Black teenage boys and young men here. …

Among the facts presented in the articles — Black teenagers are more likely than White teenagers to be arrested, are more likely than White boys to go to jail or prison for the same crimes, and to serve longer sentences than White boys serve.  Racial disparities are especially pronounced when it comes to punishment for relatively minor offenses, such as drug possession. For example, black juveniles are nearly twice as likely as their white peers to be locked up for a drug offense, although the rate of using illegal drugs is about the same for all racial categories.

And there is the harassment factor; policemen are more likely to stop and search a Black boy or a Black man whom they suspect just might possibly be doing something vaguely out of order.  If in a car, the possible “crime” is called “driving while Black,” playing on the misdemeanor under the law defined as “driving while drunk.”

My final film journey into America’s racial divide is with two movies about middle-class adults. Both are excellent and much easier to watch. “Jungle Fever” and “Grand Canyon.”

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