In Memoriam: Grace Lee Boggs

Legendary activist and advocate for social change Grace Lee Boggs passed away on Monday at the age of 100. UC Press published The Next American Revolution in 2011. Her editor, Niels Hooper, shares what it was like to work with Grace and what he’ll miss about her.

Grace Lee BoggsI came to Grace Lee Boggs late, in 2009, through my friend Scott Kurashige. Scott—teaching at the University of Michigan—was living in Detroit and working with Grace, shaping her prolific articles, columns, speeches, notes and correspondence into a book, with the working title, Radical Wisdom from a Movement Elder.

Grace Lee Boggs certainly deserved that moniker. Born during the First World War, she earned her Ph.D. in 1940—a remarkable feat for a young Chinese-American woman—when Martin Luther King, Jr. was still in grade school. She worked with the famous black Marxist intellectual, C. L. R. James, married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, counted the Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah among her close associates, and met with Malcolm X to persuade him to join her organizing activities. She was not just a witness but, as she said, was “privileged to participate in most of the great humanizing movements of the past seventy years—the labor, civil rights, Black Power, women’s, Asian American, environmental justice, and antiwar movements.” She thought long and hard about what it means to be an American and a human being as well as how we can be “the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”

Living in Detroit from 1953 until her death on Monday, October 5, 2015, Grace Lee Boggs also witnessed the heyday and nadir—and led a grassroots revival—of the great American city. Credited in some quarters as being among those who incited the famous 1967 Detroit rebellion—the largest in US history until the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles—Grace Lee Boggs came to see Detroit as a paradigmatic American site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s devastating “triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.” Situated, now, at the epitome of the decay of an industrial society—as Scott writes, “a firsthand look at a dying order”—Grace Lee Boggs saw instead the possibility of rupture with the mistakes of the past, and opportunities to remake society anew locally, organically, through critical connections on the ground, from below. The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and the Detroit Summer are testament to that. And they brought attention and praise from visitors—Time Magazine, Rebecca Solnit writing in Harpers. . . even the Financial Times.

So while the book that Scott and Grace proposed was inarguably full of “radical wisdom from a movement elder,” that title belies the fact that Grace Lee Boggs’s last book was, above all, a book rooted in the economic, political, and environmental crises of our time, and a book that argues for the future. Till the end—this week—Grace Lee Boggs was looking forward, not backwards, and working with unflagging faith in the inevitability of the next American Revolution.

She argued that the next American Revolution…

  • has to be radically different from the revolutions that took place in pre- or non-industrialized countries such as Russia, Cuba, China, or Vietnam.
  • is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and Global South.
  • requires very different forms of courage, commitment, and strategies than those required to storm the Winter Palace . . . it requires the courage to challenge ourselves to engage in activities that build a new and better world.
  • needs to begin creating ways to live more frugally and more cooperatively NOW.
  • requires rebuilding, redefining, and respiriting from the ground up: growing food on abandoned lots, reinventing education to include children in community building, creating co-operatives to produce local goods for local needs, developing Peace Zones to transform our relationships with one another in our homes and on our streets, and replacing a punitive justice system with restorative justice programs.
  • doesn’t aspire to the “political class”
  • sees that we can solve our health and education problems only by first creating a new concept of citizenship.
  • recognizes that Martin Luther King, Jr. began to develop a profoundly cultural and political concept of the next American Revolution as a revolution of values.
  • creates a revolutionary alternative to the counterrevolutionary and inhuman policies of the US government, but struggles to change this country because we love it.
  • is being created not by the cadres of a vanguard party with a common ideology, but by individuals and groups responding creatively with passion and imagination to the real problems and challenges that they face where they live and work.

Grace Lee Boggs argued that even though, in her lifetime, over 80 million people had been killed in wars, the times we live in today represent a crisis of epochal proportions that she had not seen before. And she saw more than ever that today’s cataclysmic climate change, economic instability, and rupturing of empire, created new opportunities both in America and across the world, to remake society from the ground up. “That is what Detroit is about and that is how the next American Revolution is beginning,” she insisted, while she remade Detroit and began the next American Revolution, and we would all do well to make these her legacies.

—Niels Hooper, Executive Editor

Learn more about Grace Lee Boggs at her website, graceleeboggs.com


U.S., Israel and Iran: A Special Virtual Issue of Journal of Palestine Studies

With the U.S. Congress slated to return from its break September 8 and a looming September 17 deadline to vote to support or reject the recently concluded P5+1 nuclear program negotiations with Iran, the Sunday talk shows will no doubt be crowded with supporters and opponents of the agreement making their cases to Congress and to the American public.

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, November 24, 2013 [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) nuclear agreement with Iran has been heralded by supporters as an historic agreement that will avoid war, prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state, and enable a Western rapprochement with Iran that will stabilize the Middle East. For detractors, the agreement is nothing less than a naïve capitulation toward the Iranians in the groundless faith that concessions will engender a more moderate Iranian regime.The time frame for the agreement, critics argue, guarantees Iran will be a nuclear threshold state capable of developing nuclear weapons once the treaty lapses, except now it will be free of sanctions and awash with oil and natural gas cash.

READ THE SPECIAL VIRTUAL ISSUE

President Barack Obama has declared the agreement the only option other than war and charged that his critics have failed to present plausible diplomatic alternatives. Opponents argue that “no deal” is a better one than the “bad deal” at hand. Furthermore, those aligned against the deal argue for the continuation of the sanctions regime with additional sanctions if Iran does not dismantle more of its extant nuclear enrichment facilities. The White House responds that the sanctions regime was dependent on an international consensus that was waning and vulnerable to unraveling, and the agreement is an opportunity to secure Iranian concessions within a framework suitable to American interests. And so it goes back-and-forth.

Congress will debate and vote on the agreement, but a two-thirds majority is necessary to scuttle the deal. Whether enough Democrats will join Republicans to block implementation is uncertain. While many domestic constituents are vocally aligned against the deal, the general public is wary of another Middle East war. Israel has openly come out against the deal and Arab monarchies may be voicing private opposition.

To help set the stage for understanding the roots of U.S.-Iranian relations, the course of U.S.-Israeli efforts against Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, UC Press and the Institute for Palestine Studies have made U.S., Israel and Iran: A Journal of Palestine Studies special virtual issue available for free through September.

Don’t miss an issue of Journal of Palestine StudiesSubscribe today! Use discount code JPS150820 at checkout to save 20% off the “Individual-Online Only 1 Year” rate!

 


Rednecks, Queers, and Indiana

This guest post by author Nadine Hubbs, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, considers the recent response to Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

On March 31 NASCAR issued a statement denouncing Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The racing organization, whose name often serves as a synonym for “redneck,” announced its rejection of intolerance and intention to welcome all racers and fans. Its statement came amid international media coverage of Indiana businesses that, under presumed protection of the law, had begun denying service to same-sex couples.

Similar protests surfaced on various fronts. The previous day had witnessed the first withdrawal of a convention. Pulling their national meeting and their money out of the Hoosier state, the municipal workers’ union AFSCME expressed “disgust and disappointment” at this “un-American” law allowing unequal treatment of certain people “simply because they are gay or lesbian.” Further declarations followed, including the first anti-RFRA concert cancellation, by the band Wilco.

For those concerned with LGBTQ civil rights and social justice, the best news in all this was the swift, widespread opposition to the law’s signing. Indeed, the public response marked a watershed. In past instances, framing LGBTQ rights as special rights was effective political strategy. Now, GOP legislators and Governor Mike Pence found themselves on the wrong side of a new perception of fairness and justice, which saw them singling out LGBTQ individuals for special discrimination.

As a Midwestern “fly-over” state known for small towns and blue-collar lives, Indiana aligns with images of homo- and transphobia that have become etched, lethally, over a quarter-century: Brandon Teena in Nebraska, Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis and Jack in Wyoming and Texas. Perhaps passage of a bigoted, homophobic law is simply to be expected here. But when we note the prominence among RFRA protesters of NASCAR rednecks, union labor, and an alternative country band, the picture appears less simple.

This unexpected constituency mirrors a forgotten history, at odds with present notions casting the working class as specially homophobic. In fact, the stereotype of the working-class homophobe is of recent vintage. For a hundred years, from the 1870s birth of the homosexual until the 1970s birth of the homophobe, working-class people were faulted not as homo haters but as homo lovers.

It’s time to recall this history, now obscured by four decades of what I’ve called “the middle-classing of the queer.” It can serve as key to unlocking the radical coalition-building potential of queer politics, and to recognizing the middle and working classes’ shared stakes in the current crisis of inequality.

 

Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music

 

Nadine Hubbs is professor of Women’s Studies and Music and director of the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative at the University of Michigan and author most recently of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.


The Essential Cesar Chavez Day Reading List

This Tuesday, March 31 marks Cesar Chavez Day. The University of California Press is proud to have published broadly on this important labor and civil rights leader. From first-hand accounts of working side-by-side with Cesar Chavez to an examination of the charismatic leader as a religious figure, the books here present the full and rich life of one of our nation’s most important labor and civil rights figures.

Sal Si Puedes, by Peter Matthiessen

In the summer of 1968 Peter Matthiessen met Cesar Chavez for the first time. They were the same age: forty-one. Matthiessen lived in New York City, while Chavez lived in the Central Valley farm town of Delano, where the grape strike was unfolding. This book is Matthiessen’s panoramic yet finely detailed account of the three years he spent working and traveling with Chavez, including to Sal Si Puedes, the San Jose barrio where Chavez began his organizing. Matthiessen provides a candid look into the many sides of this enigmatic and charismatic leader who lived by the laws of nonviolence.

A new foreword by Marc Grossman considers the significance of Chavez’s legacy for our time. As well as serving as an indispensable guide to the 1960s, this book rejuvenates the extraordinary vitality of Chavez’s life and spirit, giving his message a renewed and much-needed urgency.

The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez, by Luis D. León

This book maps and challenges many of the mythologies that surround the late iconic labor leader. Focusing on Chavez’s own writings, León argues that La Causa can be fruitfully understood as a quasi-religious movement based on Chavez’s charismatic leadership, which he modeled after Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. By refocusing Chavez’s life and beliefs into three broad movements—mythology, prophecy, and religion—León brings us a moral and spiritual agent to match the political leader.

From the Jaws of Victory, by Matthew Garcia

This is the most comprehensive history ever written on the meteoric rise and precipitous decline of the United Farm Workers, the most successful farm labor union in United States history. Based on little-known sources and one-of-a-kind oral histories with many veterans of the farm worker movement, this book revises much of what we know about the UFW.

Beyond the Fields, by Randy Shaw

Much has been written about Chavez and the United Farm Worker’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, but left untold has been their ongoing impact on 21st century social justice movements. This book describes how Chavez and the UFW’s imprint can be found in the modern reshaping of the American labor movement, the building of Latino political power, the transformation of Los Angeles and California politics, the fight for environmental justice, and the burgeoning national movement for immigrant rights.

Delano, by John Gregory Dunne

In September 1965, Filipino and Mexican American farm workers went on strike against grape growers in and around Delano, California. More than a labor dispute, the strike became a movement for social justice that helped redefine Latino and American politics. The strike also catapulted its leader, Cesar Chavez, into prominence as one of the most celebrated American political figures of the twentieth century. More than forty years after its original publication, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, based on compelling first-hand reportage and interviews, retains both its freshness and its urgency in illuminating a moment of unusually significant social ferment.


Reflections on Malcolm X 50 Years After His Death

This Saturday, February 21 marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. His untimely death came shortly after his public split with the Nation of Islam, when he was developing an international human rights, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist message that was meant to appeal to the oppressed around the world. The debate at the Oxford Union took place only three months before his death, and was one of the last opportunities for him to share this message, “…I, for one, will join in with anyone—don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

Stephen Tuck, author of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, will be speaking at The Malcolm X 50th Anniversary Memorial at the Shabazz Center in Harlem this Saturday, February 21. If you can’t attend in person, visit www.ebony.com/MalcolmX50thMemorial-221 at 2pm on Saturday to view a live stream of the event.
 

Excerpt from the Prologue of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union:

On the evening of December 3, 1964, a most unlikely figure was invited to speak at the University of Oxford Union’s end-of-term “Queen and Country” debate: Mr. Malcolm X. The Oxford Union was the most prestigious student debating organization in the world, regularly welcoming heads of state and stars of screen. It was also, by tradition, the student arm of the British establishment—the training ground for the politically ambitious offspring of Britain’s “better classes.” Malcolm X, by contrast, had a reputation for revolution and danger. As the Sun, a widely read British tabloid, explained to readers in a large-font caption under a photograph of the American visitor: “He wants a separate Negro state in which coloured people could live undisturbed. And many Americans believe he would use violence to get it.” Certainly the FBI did. Its file on Malcolm X, opened in 1953, expanded by the week as he toured Africa during the second half of 1964, giving a series of uncompromising speeches and meeting with heads of state to seek their support in calling for the United Nations to intervene in U.S. race relations.

The peculiarity of his presence in Oxford was not lost on Malcolm X. “I remember clearly that the minute I stepped off the train, I felt I’d suddenly backpedaled into Mayflower-time,” he told a friend later. Fresh from visiting newly independent nations in Africa, Malcolm X sensed that in Oxford “age was just seeping out of the pores of every stone. The students were wearing caps and gowns as if they graduated the first day they arrived . . . and they were riding bicycles that should’ve been dumped long ago.” Initially, he wondered whether he had made a mistake accepting the invitation.

At times, Malcolm X’s visit proved to be comically awkward. He was met at the rail station by, among others, the (white) Union secretary, Henry Brownrigg, who fell somewhat silent in the presence of an African American revolutionary. Brownrigg accompanied Malcolm X, self-consciously, to Oxford’s preeminent hotel, the Randolph, a Victorian Gothic building with a quaint, old-fashioned ambience. Malcolm X, however, seemed to interpret the choice of a hotel somewhat in need of internal refurbishment as a racist insult, a view reinforced by the receptionist’s insistence that he sign his surname in full, rather than just with an “X,” in the hotel guest book. The dress code at the silver-service dinner, held in the Union’s wooden paneled dining room before the debate, did not suit him either. By tradition, speakers wore black bowties, which was also the uniform of the Nation of Islam, the religious movement that he had served for more than a decade. But having left the Nation acrimoniously earlier in the year (and now living under a death threat as a result), Malcolm X wore a straight tie instead, the only speaker or committee member to do so. Wearing a straight tie was a mark of inferior rank at the dinner: the only other person who wore a straight tie was the steward, who served the food and wine.

Ironically, the motion Malcolm X was called on to support in the debate was embodied in a quotation from Senator Barry Goldwater, of all people, the outspoken conservative Republican nominee in the previous month’s presidential election, who had opposed the recent passage of the American Civil Rights Act. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that summer, Goldwater had defended the John Birch Society, saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and . . . moderation in the pursuit of vice is no virtue.” Even before he rose to speak in support of that argument, Malcolm X’s debating opponents mocked the notion of a black radical defending “the Goldwater standard.” Malcolm X countered that he preferred Goldwater to the winner of that presidential election, Lyndon Johnson, since at least Goldwater was open about his racism.

Malcolm X’s friend the black arts poet and filmmaker Lebert Bethune, who was in London in late 1964, could not resist the chance “to see the sacrosanct image of Oxford shattered by the fist of revolutionary logic. So I took a train to Oxford just to be there for the blow.”That blow was aimed most directly at Humphrey Berkeley, a conservative MP and Malcolm X’s main debating opponent. Berkeley charged Malcolm X with being every bit as racist as apologists for South African apartheid, and joked about his “pseudonym” surname, X.

Perhaps it was the intimacy of the debate, with speakers facing each other at a distance of barely two meters in a chamber modeled on the House of Commons, that caused Malcolm X to come as close as he could remember to losing his temper. He gathered his thoughts, however, regained his composure, then returned Berkeley’s insult. “The speaker that preceded me is one of the best excuses that I know to prove our point,” he said, andthen threw Berkeley’s argument back at him: “He is right. X is not my real name.” His real name, in fact, had been taken by Berkeley’s forefathers, who raped and pillaged their way through Africa. “I just put X up there to keep from wearing his name.” The students laughed when Malcolm X suggested that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “I think it was, who said, ‘to be or not to be,’” was “in doubt about something.” They listened attentively to his assault on the American media, loudly applauded his condemnation of racism, and some booed when he justified the recent murder of white missionaries by freedom fighters in the Congo as an act of war. Malcolm X lost the debate, but he won plenty of admirers. Bethune judged it “one of the most stirring speeches I have ever heard delivered by Malcolm X.”

On the face of it, the fact that Malcolm X chose to spend an evening at a fusty old English university seems something of a puzzle.But given the lengths to which Malcolm went in order to make the trip, it was clearly important to him: he accepted the invitation even though he was too busy in late 1964 even to respond to similar invitations from leading American universities; he agreed to speak for no fee even though his finances were in a parlous state; and he accommodated Oxford’s fixed schedule even though the debate could hardly have come at a more inconvenient time. Having been abroad during the spring and then again through the second half of 1964, he was eager to be home. “I miss you and the children very much,” he wrote to his wife, Betty, in August from Africa, “but it looks like another month at least may pass before I see you.” In fact, it would be another three. He returned home to New York on November 24. By that time, Betty was heavily pregnant,his mother was seriously ill, and the Nation of Islam was seeking to evict his family from their home. Meanwhile, his new organizations, Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, were in a state of organizational shambles owing to his absence. Yet he still felt, as he put it to one of his closest colleagues, Charles 37X Kenyatta, that “the long-run gains [of the trip to England] outweigh the risks.” Within a week of his homecoming from Africa, he was back on a plane across the Atlantic to London.

Why coming to Oxford was so important to Malcolm X, why Oxford students chose to invite him, and what effect the visit had on the man and the institution were the starting questions for this book. Far from being a chance or unlikely combination, it turns out there was an unerring logic about the coming together of an outspoken black revolutionary and this historic center of Western learning. By late 1964, black students at Oxford needed Malcolm X to come, and he felt it was urgent to go. Why that was so reveals much about both Malcolm X’s life and thought and the university’s engagement with race and rights. And more broadly, it has much to tell about Britain at the end of its empire, America during the civil rights era, and the global currents of the black freedom struggle.

From his childhood, Malcolm X had been on the move, eager to learn and in search of a better life—first for himself, then for others. In 1964, his journey took him abroad, to the Middle East, then Africa, and finally Europe. His international travels were a response to changes in his outlook, but they also caused his outlook to change in turn. Thus the debate at Oxford marked the latest stage in Malcolm’s transformation from a small-time hustler to the world’s most famous black nationalist, from a dogmatic black supremacist to a proponent of human rights, and from an American-based controversialist to a seasoned traveler with a global vision (who remained an irascible critic of America). Ending up at Oxford happened somewhat by chance. But only somewhat. The details of his life—his enjoyment of travel, his fascination with (or rather contempt for) the British Empire, his love of debate, his ease among white students, his desire to connect with the coming generation of postcolonial leaders, his frustration at being dismissed by the media as too extreme, his readiness for a confrontation, and his penchant for associating with famous people and places, even his love of Shakespeare—had prepared him for a debate on extremism and moderation at the Oxford Union.

As for the students of Oxford, they had grappled with the issue of race ever since the Victorian era, first in support of the empire, then to challenge it. In 1964, the issue had come to a head. Malcolm X arrived to speak at the very moment when some two thousand students were demanding an end to the exclusion of black students from university housing, when Britain was beset by the racial politics of immigration, and when global freedom struggles were headline news in Britain. That the Oxford Union issued an invitation to Malcolm X was by no means inevitable. But it made perfect sense. The Union was a high-profile forum for debate with a tradition of outspoken colonial student leaders, heated engagement with gender, race, and colonial issues, and a rising influence of left-leaning students. And in late 1964, a radical Jamaican student—whose hero was Malcolm X—had been elected as president of the Union.

Malcolm X’s visit to the Union, in short, was a story with much longer roots, and more far-reaching implications, than the content of the speech alone might suggest. It was a story that interwove the global, national, local, and university politics of race. It was a story that involved a wide cast of characters from four continents. And it was a story that touched on many of the major themes of the era, of empire and nationalism, Black Powerand citizenship, immigration and segregation, student rights and human rights, Commonwealth and the Cold War, Islam and Christianity, sexism and class conflict, media and the cult of celebrity, the so-called Black Atlantic and the British-American special relationship, and even cricket. It was precisely because of the broader context of Malcolm X’s visit that the content of the speech is so important. It stands as the clearest and most eloquent articulation of his critique of racism and his vision for a remedy after a year of travel and shortly before the end of his life.

The night of the speech was not the end of Malcolm X’s connection with Britain. Oxford was the first stop for Malcolm X in a short tour of four English cities, followed by a return trip in February 1965, a week before he died. His visit was but one of many by high-profile U.S. civil rights activists to Britain during this period. Just three days after the Oxford debate, for example, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached to an overflowing congregation at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Civil rights travelers, including Malcolm X, sought to use these visits, and the international dimensions of the struggle for equality, for their own purposes. But none of those involved, not even Malcolm X, had complete control over how the story turned out or how the visit changed their outlook or circumstances. Thus the full story of the Union debate also reveals the transformative, and often unexpected, impact of transatlantic connections on issues of race and equality—in this case, an impact not just on the course of British activism, but even on such a renowned global figure as Malcolm X.

 

Stephen Tuck is Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. He is the author of several books including We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama and coauthor of Historians across Borders: Writing American History in a Global Age (UC Press).


99 Problems But Authenticity Ain’t One

Loren Kajikawa, author of Sounding Race in Rap Songs, gears up for this Sunday’s Grammy Awards by pondering the racial and social politics of white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s nominations (Best Rap Album among them). Will she win any of the awards she’s been nominated for? Perhaps more importantly, can she really freestyle… and does it matter if she can’t? 

Loren Kajikawa
Loren Kajikawa

by Loren Kajikawa

“First things first, I’m the realest,” begins white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” the Grammy award-nominated collaboration with British singer Charli XCX.[1] This boast, coming from the Best New Artist nominee, never fails to raise my eyebrows. Azalea raps in black dialect, but in interviews her speech is straight outta the Outback. Unless by “realest” she means to remind us that all identities are constructed and performed, I have serious doubts about her claim.

I am far from alone. Azalea has drawn fire from critics who charge her with ignorance, insensitivity, and cultural theft. Black female rapper Azealia Banks has been one of her harshest critics, calling Iggy out for profiting from black culture while showing no concern for black issues. The combination of Azalea’s rising popularity and her tone-deaf responses to such criticism prompted Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest to step in, offering an unsolicited lesson via Twitter on hip hop’s social history. But not even a rap legend could break Azalea’s stride. Her reply—that she didn’t feel like playing “hip hop squares” with a “stranger” to prove her worth—simply dodged Q-Tip’s argument about hip hop’s inseparability from black politics.

Although Iggy’s dismissive response sent the hip hop internet into a spiral of gold chain clutching, perhaps there is a calculated logic to the Australian star’s unflappable coolness. Her responses to Banks and Q-Tip are part of a larger trend in which the 24-year-old rapper appears to show little concern for conventional standards of hip hop authenticity. In 2013, Azalea and her mentor (Atlanta-based rapper T.I.) appeared on the Sway in the Morning Show, a popular, hip hop-themed satellite radio program hosted by rap impresario Sway Calloway. Guests on Sway’s show are regularly asked to freestyle, to give an impromptu improvised rap performance. In fact, videos of these live in-studio freestyles practically constitute a genre of their own. Video of Azalea’s appearance went viral because she seemed utterly unprepared when the DJ dropped a beat and invited her to rap a “hot sixteen.” Much like she did with Q-Tip’s tweets, Azalea attempted to wriggle free from the challenge until she finally had no choice but to recite a few lines from her upcoming song “New Bitch.” Her lack of preparation was telling. Whether it was ignorance about what would be expected of her, or a lack of concern about what it means to take Sway’s show seriously, Azalea missed out on a golden opportunity to get her credibility card stamped.

Iggy’s attitude comes into greater relief if we compare her to another white rapper. In 2000, Eminem was nominated for and won a Grammy for his single “My Name Is” as well as for his album The Slim Shady LP.[2] Breaking into the industry less than a decade after Vanilla Ice’s spectacular rise and fall, Eminem’s success hinged on the way his music deftly negotiated hip hop’s racially based standards of authenticity. Rather than deny the importance of race, the music and video of his debut single “My Name Is” poked fun at various representations of whiteness. Steering clear of conventional tropes of black masculinity, Eminem rapped about topics previously absent from mainstream hip hop music and used humor to make his whiteness audible. This preemptive strike against racial authenticity eased his acceptance by calling attention to his race and owning it before critics could do so. (Not to mention that anyone looking into Eminem’s past found plenty of hot freestyle recordings). Eminem may have refused to apologize to gays and women, but his music placed blackness at the genre’s symbolic center.[3]

In contrast, Iggy Azalea seems to be betting that such conventional forms of hip hop authenticity don’t apply to her. Maybe she’s right. Although I’ve done my best to indoctrinate my 10-year-old daughter into the world of Eric B and Rakim, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest, Azalea’s music speaks to her and other girls on the playground in ways that I cram to understand. Perhaps old and grumpy hip hop heads (and their politics) truly are irrelevant to today’s pop rappers and their fans. But as Jeff Chang explains, “When hip-hop began to cross over at the turn of the 1980s, its hardcore followers—not only black, but white, Asian, Latino, and Native American—engaged in heated debates over appropriation and exploitation of the culture. That Vanilla Ice is now a reality-show regular rather than this generation’s Pat Boone tells us who won those debates.”[4] Time will tell what happens to Iggy.

The stakes at this year’s Grammy awards wouldn’t be so high if Azalea were just a rising pop star who happened to rap. Her nomination for Best Rap Album is an attempt to position her squarely within the genre. If hip hop’s traditional gatekeepers, and issues of black politics and aesthetics, no longer matter to the same degree they did during the era of Vanilla Ice, that will be a noteworthy development in and of itself.

 

[1] “Fancy” was nominated for two Grammy awards: Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Iggy Azalea was also nominated for Best New Artist and Best Rap Album for New Classic.

[2] In 2000, Eminem won Grammy awards for Best Rap Solo Performance (“My Name Is”) and Best Rap Album (The Slim Shady LP). He and Dr. Dre were also nominated but did not win for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (“Guilty Conscience”).

[3] More recently, white rapper Macklemore has taken a page from Eminem’s book. After winning the 2014 Grammy award for Best Rap Album, Macklemore sent a tweet directed at Kendrick Lamar that suggested the black rapper from Compton, California should have won instead.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/24/iggy-azalea-azealia-banks-hip-hop-appropriation-problem

 


TLS on the “Sad Tale” of Student Loan Debt

The Times Literary Supplement says Joel and Eric Best, the father-son team behind The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem, have “produced what is probably the best and clearest book on the United States’ complex student debt problem.” Student debt, which now exceeds $1 trillion and is predicted to reach $2 trillion by 2020, threatens to become the sequel to the mortgage meltdown, the authors argue in their new book. The review (only available to TLS subscribers), describes the Bests’ project to reveal the severity of America’s student debt crisis and explain how we arrived here:

Expanded student loan programmes boosted the demand for college, which made college more expensive, which in turn increased the need for student loans. Along the way, the federal government was classifying student loans as an asset on its books and so it received few serious warning signals that a major problem was building up. State governments saw that the loans were maintaining the demand for college and so they cut back on direct aid to the institutions, which further hurt affordability.

TLS isn’t sanguine about where we go from here, but concludes that The Student Loan Mess is a must-read for understanding the scope of the problem. Ultimately, the author writes, there “will be a very painful restructuring for what has traditionally been one of America’s strongest sectors – maybe its strongest – by global standards. If this does end up being a century of American decline, the student debt debacle will have played a modest but not minor role.”


Black against Empire Authors Win American Book Award

On Sunday, October 26 at the SF Jazz Center, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin received the 2014 American Book Award for Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. The book is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The authors analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence.

Bloom American Book Award -- Web
Joshua Bloom accepts the American Book Award

Bloom and Martin join the illustrious ranks of Toni Morrison, Edward Said, Isabel Allende, bell hooks, Don DeLillo, Robin D.G. Kelley, Joy Harjo, and Gary Snyder as recipients of the award, which was created by the Before Columbus Foundation to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community.

Bloom Acceptance Speech -- Web
Joshua Bloom during his acceptance speech

Watch Joshua Bloom’s acceptance speech at Sunday’s ceremony, below. In a discussion ranging from the sit-ins of the Jim Crow era to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Bloom makes a passionate case for why the history of the Black Panther Party matters today.


Free Speech at 50: Mario Savio on What Makes Us Human

“To me, freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. . . . That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”

—Mario Savio

It’s been 50 years since Mario Savio awakened the country to the possibilities of resistance, civil disobedience, and personal expression on the UC Berkeley campus. The Free Speech Movement, led by Savio, would grow into one of the most important social movements of the post-war period in the United States.

We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the movement with the publication of The Essential Mario Savio, a compendium of influential speeches and previously unknown writings, offering insight into and perspective on the disruptive yet nonviolent civil disobedience tactics used by Savio.

Below, watch the moment it all caught fire: Savio’s famous “Machine Speech,” delivered on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964.

 

Watch a slideshow of some of the pivotal actions and protests in the movement’s history:

  • Mario Savio speaking from the top of the police car. Oct. 1, 1964. Credit: Steve Marcus, Courtesy of UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library

 

Join the conversation and help us celebrate on Facebook and Twitter using #FSM50, #MarioSavio, and #FreeSpeech.

And save 30% when you order The Essential Mario Savio—enter discount code 15W4312 at checkout!

 

 


Patricia Miller Gives a Brief History of Abortion on State of Belief

Good CatholicsPatricia Miller was interviewed on the show State of Belief with Rev. Welton Gaddy about the history of the “Scarlet ‘A'” in America—abortion. Her book, Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, tells the story of the remarkable individuals who have engaged in a nearly fifty-year struggle to assert the moral legitimacy of a pro-choice position in the Catholic Church, as well as the concurrent efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to suppress abortion dissent and to translate Catholic doctrine on sexuality into law. Rev. Gaddy calls the book “an ethical-theological-historical page-turner if there ever was one!”

Listen to the interview on State of Belief now.