“It is fair to say,” writes historian Heather Williams about the Antebellum period in America, “that most white people had been so acculturated to view black people as different from them that they… barely noticed the pain that they experienced.”
She describes, for example, a white woman who, while wrenching enslaved people from their families to found a distant plantation, describes them as “cheerful,” in “high spirits,” and “play[ful] like children.” It simply never occurred to her or many other white people that black people had the same emotions they did, as the reigning belief among whites was that they were incapable of any complex or deep feeling at all.
It must have created such cognitive dissonance, then — such confusion on the part of the white population — when after the end of slavery, black people tried desperately to reunite with their parents, cousins, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, spouses, lovers, children, and friends.
And try they did. For decades newly freed black people sought out their loved ones. One strategy was to put ads in the paper. The “Lost Friends” column was one such resource. It ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate from 1879 until the early 1900s and a collection of those ads — more than 330 from just one year — has been released by the Historic New Orleans Collection. Here is an example:
The ads would have been a serious investment. They cost 50 cents which, at the time, would have been more than a day’s income for most recently freed people.
Williams reports that reunions were rare. She excerpted this success story from the Southwestern in her book, Help Me To Find My People, about enslaved families torn asunder, their desperate search for one another, and the rare stories of reunification.
A FAMILY RE-UNITED
In the SOUTHWESTERN of March 1st, we published in this column a letter from Charity Thompson, of Hawkins, Texas, making inquiry about her family. She last heard of them in Alabama years ago. The letter, as printed in the paper was read in the First church Houston, and as the reading proceeded a well-known member of the church — Mrs. Dibble — burst into tears and cried out “That is my sister and I have not seen her for thirty three years.” The mother is still living and in a few days the happy family will once more re-united.
I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.
How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?
Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.
SocImages has a Tumblr where all of the posts that pop up here (and more) get re-posted and go all over the internet. And a few days ago it gave me this post.
While I was working on the page, I saw a really interesting example of the kind of thoughtlessness that happens when designers aren’t thinking about all their potential users. Here’s a screenshot of what I encountered; it’s a timeline of all the things that had happened on the page in reverse chronological order, except the very top line, which is the interesting part. It reads:
SCREAM: You’ll never see it coming. TONIGHT.
As a female and, more importantly a woman-on-the-internet, my first gut reaction was that I was going to have to forward it to the FBI. You see, it’s an ad for something on MTV — and I realized that in the 2nd second — but, in the 1st second, I thought it was someone threatening to kill me.
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic about this. Even in the 1st second, my reaction was more well, hell than omg I’m gonna die, but I do wonder whether the ad managers at Tumblr or MTV ever considered the possibility that this way of advertising might be genuinely scary to someone, even if just for a second. I wonder if the managing team has anyone on it who is also a woman-on-the-internet. Or anyone who’s job it is to specifically think about the diversity of their users and how different strategies might affect them differently.
One doesn’t have to be routinely subject to threatening comments and messages to have the reaction I did. I could be someone who just left an abusive partner, someone who’s been attacked before, a witness in a criminal trial, a doctor who performs abortions or, christ, a black preacher in the South. Or maybe just someone who doesn’t appreciate an advertisement that, through an intended double meaning, implies that I, personally, am about to be attacked. That’s not funny, or fun, to everyone.
This kind of thing seems to happen all the time. Another example might be the Nikon camera feature, designed to warn you if someone blinked, that thinks Asian people have their eyes closed; the HP face-tracking webcam that can’t see black people; the obsessive health-tracking app that can’t be deleted off your iphone, even if you have an eating disorder; or the fact that it seems to track everything except menstrual cycles, making female-bodied people invisible.
This is one of the arguments for why businesses need diverse staff. Greater diversity — especially if everyone is explicitly given permission to raise issues like these — would make it far more likely that companies could avoid these gaffes and make products better for everyone.
A new tumblr titled Every Word Spoken posted a quote from George Gerbner that goes like this:
Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.
It’s the rallying cry for writer and performer Dylan Marron, who runs the tumblr. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a movie cut down to feature just the lines spoken by non-white people. He’s just getting started, but it looked to me like so far the longest clip is less than 1 minute long, most are around 30 seconds and this includes a few seconds at the beginning of each where they show the title.
In addition to showing us that people of color with speaking roles are almost non-existent — symbolically annihilated — the roles they play tell disturbing stories. Overwhelmingly, in the videos he’s picked so far, they are in service occupations (500 Days of Summer); literally maids (Enough Said); or with stereotypical accents (Wedding Crashers). And, oh hey movie people, making the only person of color with lines a doctor (The Fault in Our Stars; Black Swan) gets you no bonus points in my book. Nice try.
But THESE. These were the best ones…
This project is calling out the movie industry in a simple, powerful way. Just the facts, ma’am. Time for change.
Most of them, by now, also know that Iron Eyes Cody was no Native American. Born to Sicilian Immigrants in southwestern Louisiana in 1904, Espera Oscar de Corti became an actor in his youth, and found that he could “pass” as a Native American in Hollywood.
de Corti, changing his name to “Cody,” claimed to have Cherokee-Cree heritage. He played native roles in dozens of westerns, with John Wayne and other stars of the mid-20th century. His chanting was featured in the Joni Michtell song “Lakota.” And, of course, he was the Noble Savage face of Keep America Beautiful. All while sharing more heritage with Christopher Columbus than with the people who got the shit end of the Columbian Exchange.
By all accounts Iron Eyes Cody tried to honour his assumed ancestry. He became an activist for Native American causes, and did lecture tours preaching against the harm of alcohol. He married a Seneca archaeologist, Bertha Parker, and they adopted two adopted two Dakota and/or Maricopa children. He even wrote a book about native sign language.
He also invented a backstory, quoted by Glendale News Press from a 1951 local newspaper article:
Iron Eyes learned much of his Indian lore in the days when, as a youth, he toured the country with his father, Thomas Long Plume, in a wild west show. During his travels, he taught himself the sign language of other tribes of Indians…
The article said that the television star and his wife would appear at a Glendale Historical Society event to tell the story of the “Indian Sign Language in Pictures” and would demonstrate Indian arts and customs. Plus, the couple would bring along their 3-month-old “papoose” Robin (Robert Timothy). All were to be attired in Indian regalia.
In 1996, three years before his death, Iron Eyes Cody was outed as European by his half-sister, May Abshire, who offered proof of the actor’s Sicilian parentage to the Times-Picayune. Cody denied the allegations.
Today, such a shocking exposé, proving that an upstanding member of an ethnic community was really an outsider, would be all over social media. Just like Rachel Dolezal.
I’m having a hard time digging up any initial reactions to Iron Eyes Cody’s outing from indigenous people in the United States or Canada. How is he remembered? Did he help make native issues more visible, or did he obnoxiously appropriate a culture of suffering that didn’t belong to him?
Cross-posted at The Ethical Adman.
Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at Osocio and The Ethical Adman.
Saturday night, I went to the 7:30 showing of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The movie had just opened, so I went early. I didn’t want the local teens to grab the all the good seats – you know, that thing where maybe four people from the group are in the theater but they’ve put coats, backpacks, and other place markers over two dozen seats for their friends, who eventually come in five minutes after they feature has started.
That didn’t happen. The theater (the AMC on Broadway at 68th St.) was two-thirds empty (one-third full if you’re an optimist), and there were no teenagers. Fox Searchlight, I thought, is going to have to do a lot of searching to find a big enough audience to cover the $6 million they paid for the film at Sundance. The box office for the first weekend was $196,000 which put it behind 19 other movies.
But don’t write off “Me and Earl” as a bad investment. Not yet. According to a story in Variety, Searchlight is looking that “Me and Earl” will be to the summer of 2015 what “Napoleon Dynamite” was to the summer of 2004. Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Me and Earl” was a festival hit but with no established stars and debt director (though Gomez-Rejon has done television – several “Glees” and “American Horror Storys”). “Napoleon” grossed only $210,000 its first week, but its popularity kept growing – slowly at first, then more rapidly as word spread – eventually becoming cult classic. Searchlight is hoping that “Me and Earl” follows a similar path.
The other important similarity between “Napoleon” and “Earl” is that both were released in the same week as a Very Big Movie – “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in 2004, “Jurassic World” last weekend. That too plays a part in how a film catches on (or doesn’t).
In an earlier post I graphed the growth in cumulative box office receipts for two movies – “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Twilight.” The shapes of the curves illustrated two different models of the diffusion of ideas. In one (“Greek Wedding”), the influence came from within the audience of potential moviegoers, spreading by word of mouth. In the other (“Twilight”), impetus came from outside – highly publicized news of the film’s release hitting everyone at the same time. I was working from a description of these models in sociologist Gabriel Rossman’s Climbing the Charts.
You can see these patterns again in the box office charts for the two movies from the summer of 2004 – “Harry Potter/Azkaban” and “Napoleon Dynamite.” (I had to use separate Y-axes in order to get David and Goliath on the same chart; data from BoxOfficeMojo.)
“Harry Potter” starts huge, but after the fifth week the increase in total box office tapers off quickly. “Napoleon Dynamite” starts slowly. But in its fifth or sixth week, its box office numbers are still growing, and they continue to increase for another two months before finally dissipating. The convex curve for “Harry Potter” is typical where the forces of influence are “exogenous.” The more S-shaped curve of “Napoleon Dynamite” usually indicates that an idea is spreading within the system.
But the Napoleon curve is not purely the work of the internal dynamics of word-of-mouth diffusion. The movie distributor plays an important part in its decisions about how to market the film – especially when and where to release the film. The same is true of “Harry Potter.”
The Warner Bros. strategy for “Harry Potter” was to open big – in theaters all over the country. In some places, two or more of the screens at the multi-plex would be running the film. After three weeks, the movie began to disappear from theaters, going from 3,855 screens in week #3 to 605 screens in week #9.
“Napoleon Dynamite” opened in only a small number of theaters – six to be exact. But that number increased steadily until by week #17, it was showing in more than 1,000 theaters.
It’s hard to separate the exogenous forces of the movie business from the endogenous word-of-mouth – the biz from the buzz. Were the distributor and theater owners responding to an increased interest in the movie generated from person to person? Or were they, through their strategic timing of advertising and distribution, helping to create the film’s popularity? We can’t know for sure, but probably both kinds of influence were happening. It might be clearer when the economic desires of the business side and the preferences of the audience don’t match up, for example, when a distributor tries to nudge a small film along, getting it into more theaters and spending more money on advertising, but nobody’s going to see it. This discrepancy would clearly show the influence of word-of-mouth; it’s just that the word would be, “don’t bother.”
Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.
Jennifer Pozner, Kat Lazo, Zerlina Maxwell, and Samhita Mukhopadhyay join Jay Smooth to discuss a few no-nos for the media this campaign season. Pozner sums it up:
Look, this matters. By focusing on personal, gendered, irrelevant details about women politicians, this conditions the American public to think that woman are ladies first [and] leaders only a distant second. Media play a serious role in keeping half the population out of the political talent pool.