Not In Our Town Princeton

Continuing Conversation: Power and Privilege

“Conversation about the relationships among diversity, privilege and power” is the topic for the “Continuing Conversations on Race” to be held at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, June 6, 7:30 to 9 p.m. This topic was inspired by the talk that Melissa Harris Perry gave about Bayard Rustin at the Public Library in November 2010.

Ann Yasuhara and LeRhonda Greats will lead the discussion based on a couple of posts in the Nation by Harris Perry. In the controversial Cornel West v. Barack Obama Harris Perry writes that Professor Cornel West “offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years….Since the inaugural snub, Professor West has made his personal animosity and political criticism of the president his main public talking point.”

Greats notes that Professor Harris Perry called Professor West out for his criticism of President Obama. “I think that is a prime example of diverse people who have some real power. All three of these African Americans have power, privilege and cover the diversity spectrum and now what are they doing with that power? I think the answer is complex and depends on whom you ask,” says Greats. “Professor West is holding President Obama to a very different standard than Professor Harris Perry — who is right?”

In an earlier (April 18) article in in The Nation, entitled “Are We All Black Americans Now?” Harris Perry quotes Cornel West on how privileged Americans saw their power erode after 9-11, when everyone in America began to sense the “collective intimidation” that black people experienced during the Jim Crow era. “National political elites used the devastating attacks to promote the ‘niggerization of the American people.’”

“The social, economic, and political conditions that have long defined African American life have descended onto a broader population, and it has been instructive to see how the nation responded,” wrote Harris Perry. “By embracing our collective blackness, perhaps we can find the fortitude and creativity necessary to face the continuing erosion of our national social safety net in the face of a persistent economic crisis.”

Until recently Harris Perry lived in Princeton, where she taught at the university, and she is now a professor of political science at Tulane University and the founding director of Project on Race, Gender and Politics in the South. Her new book, Sister Citizen, seeks to understand black women’s political & emotional responses to pervasive negative race & gender images.

All are welcome to this forum, which provides a safe and friendly atmosphere to talk about issues of relevance to our community and nation.

Welcome to Shelbyville

Those who have participated in activities sponsored by Not in Our Town are particularly invited to the Princeton Public Library on Thursday, May 19 at 6 p.m.

The library hosts a potluck supper to introduce Welcome to Shelbyville, a film about a potluck supper held in a small Tennessee town.

The event will start at 6 pm with a potluck sharing of appetizers and desserts, then the film will be screened at 6:30 followed by a discussion led by Kim Snyder and Anastasia (Stacy) Mann Among the co-sponsors are the Rutgers-Eagleton Program on Immigration and Democracy, the Princeton Borough Department of Human Services.. Not in Our Town Princeton, the interracial, interfaith social action group that is committed to speak truth about ‘everyday racism’ and other forms of prejudice and discrimination

Welcome to Shelbyville is billed as “a rare, inside look at America at a crossroads. In a small Tennessee town in the heart of the Bible Belt, a community grapples with rapidly changing demographics. Just a stone’s throw away from Pulaski, Tennessee (the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan), Shelbyville’s longtime African American and white residents are challenged with how best to integrate with a burgeoning Latino population and the more recent arrival of hundreds of Somali refugees of Muslim faith. Set on the eve of the 2008 Presidential election, the film captures the interaction between Shelbyville’s old and new residents as they search for a way to live together during that tumultuous, history-changing year.”

Why a potluck? It is integral to the film’s message, as this clip reveals. If you can come at 6, try to bring a dessert to share.

Set in 2008, when the economy is in crisis, the film aims to explore “the interplay between race, religion, and identity” and to portray “a community’s struggle to understand what it means to be American.” (Shown in photo: ESL students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance).

“In Shelbyville, the Tyson chicken plant is hiring hundreds of new Somali refugees, and when a local reporter initiates a series of articles about the newcomers, a flurry of controversy and debate erupts within the town.”

“Just as the Latino population grapples with their own immigrant identity, African American residents look back at their segregated past and balance perceived threats to their livelihood and security against the values that they learned through their own long struggle for civil rights. As the newcomers — mostly of Muslim faith — attempt to make new lives for themselves and their children, leaders in this deeply religious community attempt to guide their congregations through this period of unprecedented change.”

For additional information see Princeton Comment. The documentary premieres on PBS on May 24.

Thinking About Racism

As Stand Against Racism Day nears, here are some lessons, as detailed on the New York Times oped page. At the observance of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the US Civil War, how do we remember it and how does it still influence our thinking about race?

From Ken Burns, “A Conflict’s Acoustic Shadows.”

From Edward Ball, “An American Tragedy.” .

Regarding Stand Against Racism Day, Not in Our Town joins the Princeton YWCA and the Princeton Merchants Association on Friday, April 29 to commit to this motto: “We Stand Against Racism Today — And Every Day.” In addition to the morning demonstration on that day, NIOT is offering signs for posting in store windows.

Cubbyhole? Or Black Box?

by Chrystal Schivell

Kobina Aidoo’s documentary, shown at NIOT’s April 4th Continuing Conversations, illustrated the myriad ways in which black people living in America describe themselves. This wonderful variety is what I call “cubbyholes” in my essay, “Beware the Black Box,” and is similar to the way white people are described. But America’s history of slavery and continued encounters with racism force us back into our black and white boxes.

The “Black Racial Identity Development Model,” which we read earlier this year, explains that in the immersion/emersion stage “everything of value in life must be Black or relevant to Blackness.” I interpret this to mean that in the face of racism, it is natural for black Americans to turn to the black box for support. I would agree, but I would also ask “What is in the black box? What does ‘everything
of value in life must be Black’” mean?

When one of my Trenton High students failed to get into a college-prep summer program, he slammed into my classroom and accused me of trying to make him white. Was college, for him, only in the white box?

I hope you will read my essay and come May 2nd to help open the box…if there is one. To read the essay, click here

Chrystal Schivell

Beware the Black Box


I discovered the black box the night I got caught acting black. As a white liberal who knew few black people, I had taken a job at Trenton High School. I’d find out who black people were.

I noticed black people dressed up. I began wearing spike heels and Sunday outfits to work. I noticed they were loud and demonstrative. At a party at my house, to which we’d invited Princeton friends, black and white, I showed off my new insight When the Trenton guests arrived, I greeted them bois­terously and did little shuffles, with my feet in appreciation of their humor. See, I was one of them, I thought. I glanced at my other black guests for approval. Their faces were blank, the sudden silence deafening.

Like a tourist in the foreign land of black people, I’d noticed only differences at Trenton High. I’ d overlooked the modest black teachers, just as I hadn’t counted my Princeton friends as “ black.” And I’d made other assumptions. Remembering TV footage of the freedom marches of the 1960s, I expected black teachers to be united in their dedication to black students. They weren’t. Black teachers were just like white teachers: Some worked tirelessly; others came and went with only a newspaper tucked under their arms, had their classroom TVs tuned to the soap operas during afternoon lessons, or threw up their hands at “ these kids.”

Trenton High had a reputation for being dangerous. Princeton friends called me a saint for working there. For a time, I reveled in that. But it began to sound racist as my knowledge of the students broadened. Yes, I had a few tough kids, but no one ever threatened me. Most kids wanted to learn and appreciated that my TV was turned off. And there were students who could have been my own children. These students, and many black and white teachers, fought for excellence. Administrators, black and white, resisted, saying almost proudly, “Trenton isn’t Princeton.”

Skin color and dress say nothing about socioeconomic status, ability, educational level or, most important, values. A Trenton High colleague, an elderly black woman, recounted the time three young black men in hooded sweatshirts had joined her in the elevator in her building. She was terrified, sure of being robbed. When the elevator reached her floor, the young men turned to her and asked, “ Can we help carry your groceries?” She was mortified.

White people are usually cubbyholed. As voters, we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Con­trast that to the “ black vote.” White people are Presbyterians, Mormons and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “ black church.” So I learned what I should have known all along, that our language seems stuck in an ancient box. It doesn’t reflect what the others already knew: There is an infinite variety among the people we call ‘black.’

Yet we keep putting people in boxes. For Cornel West, Princeton University
professor and author of Race Matters, the box is the “blues people.” In a recent New
York Times Magazine article, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, black politics is
defined as fighting racial injustice, unequal opportunity and poverty. Who’s looking out for the black middle class, the black upper class?

When Jesse Jackson criticized Obama for “talking down to black people,” he
tossed responsible black parents into a box with the absentee fathers whom Obama had
singled out. But when Obama recently shamed CEO’s for taking excessive bonuses in a
time of recession, no one said he was “talking down to white people.”

I’ve been put in a box, too. A black colleague at Trenton High told me her first
impression: “White lady. Here for the paycheck. Probably can’t get a job anywhere
else.” She soon placed me in the cubby hole of dedicated teachers, but I recently found myself back in the box when I exclaimed, “Obama is so articulate!” I was expressing my relief after eight years of George Bush’s mumble-mouth.
“That’s politically incorrect,” a friend told me. “You’re implying that you’re
surprised a black man can be articulate.”

Good grief. Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr, were articulate.
Besides, I wasn’t thinking of Obama as black. But Joe Biden and I got put in that box.

White people are usually cubby-holed. As voters we are soccer moms, blue-collar Reaganites or Christian fundamentalists. Contrast the “black vote.” White people
are Presbyterians, Mormons, and Episcopalians. Black people attend the “black church.”

Our language seems stuck in an historical box. It doesn’t reflect the infinite variety among the people we call “black.”

To me, the most mysterious and dangerous term is “black culture.” Recently on NPR, black mystery writers rejoiced that their stories reveal “black culture.” They meant
the lifestyle of black people in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. Dorothy Sayres described the lifestyle of upper-class England in her mysteries, but we don’t call it “white culture.”

Let’s abandon “black culture” and celebrate the specifics: African rhythms, the
Harlem Renaissance, jazz, hip-hop, soul food, Toni Morrison’s storytelling, Alvin
Ailey’s choreography…. Why? Because some people think “black culture” means an
uneducated, urban poor.

Beware the boxes. We’re not in a post-racial society if politicians aren’t “black
enough” to represent the poor, or if smart black children are told they’re “acting white.”

Sadly, Eric Holder’s call to talk about race merely flipped the boxes into soap boxes. If we’re going to respect our common humanity and our individuality, we should do as our mothers said and watch our language.

This essay will lead into the discussion for “Continuing Conversations on Race” at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m.

In 23 years at Trenton High, Chrystal Schivell served as faculty senator, secretary of the School Management Team and advisor to the Student Government Association.

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