Gun Rights and the Black Panther Party: A Talk on February 21, 2014

UPDATE 2/15/2014: The talk has been rescheduled to Friday, February 21, 2014 at noon. It will still take place in Bryan Hall Faculty Lounge, Room 229.

In my Ph.D. program, each fifth-year student gives a formal, hour-long presentation of research from the dissertation. It’s a wonderful tradition and I’m excited to be giving my “diss talk” soon. You are invited. The talk will take place February 14 21, 2014 at noon in the Bryan Hall Faculty Lounge at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the abstract:

Defensible Selves: The Black Panther Party and the Right to Bear Arms

In the last half century, the Second Amendment has transformed from a “revolutionary” tool of leftist minority groups to a rallying cry for white supremacists and the far right. This paper examines the Second Amendment’s volatile racial politics by looking to some discredited or ignored narratives of arms bearing that appear in minority performance and discourse. Homing in on the emergence of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, the paper analyzes the early Panthers’ theatrical armed protests, including “police patrols” aimed at protecting black neighborhoods from police brutality and an iconic open-carry demonstration at the California State Capitol. Broadcast images of organized, legally armed African Americans provoked public fear and outrage, leading to a drastic new gun control measure nicknamed the “Panther Bill.” This swift legislative response laid bare the extent to which the Constitution’s ideal arms bearer is popularly imagined as a white, male property owner defending colonized space—not a politically active African American with life and liberty to protect. The Panthers’ embodied political speech drew from and recast familiar narratives of self-defense, tyranny, revolution, peoplehood, and individual self-determination. By reconfiguring popular Second Amendment myths, they perhaps offer a way to reframe present-day gun debates. The right to bear arms, more than a question of domestic policy, is fundamentally tied to how we imagine the nation—and how we imagine the horizon of violence that keeps the nation whole.

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Place, No-Place, and the Transnational Stage: “Minor” Works by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams

In his 1993 classic To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, Eric J. Sundquist pays careful attention to texts many critics view as “minor,” such as Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. As Sundquist reminds us, we miss much when we focus only on “major” works by canonical American writers, including, often, American literature’s insistent cultural heterogeneity and its fundamentally transnational character. It is in this light that I have been thinking about some plays I read recently.

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams established his gift for rendering the local on stage: the characters and social dynamics he introduced in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire continue to populate our imaginations when we think of the American South and New Orleans. His spatial metaphors still resonate: the streetcar that rushes us headlong through life; fragile characters trapped in a menagerie of societal constrictions. Written in the shadow of World War II, Williams’ highly successful family dramas might be seen (superficially) as reflecting a turn inward, a privileging of the domestic over the global at a moment of anxiety about America’s role abroad.

But Williams’ sense of place was more expansive than most remember. In Camino Real, first staged in 1953, Williams creates a surrealistic no-place that is alien yet familiar, fitting for this prescient allegory of American imperialism and state repression. In the first of sixteen “blocks,” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, looking bedraggled, arrive in a Spanish-speaking town “that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Veracruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans.” After consulting a map, Sancho notes that the Camino Real (Anglicized) and the Camino Real (Spanish) meet in a dead end. Soon arrives the protagonist, an American named Kilroy who sports a jeweled belt spelling out “CHAMP” and a pair of golden boxing gloves. The audience follows Kilroy as he travels the Camino Real, encountering desperate characters of varying nationalities. In this play, unlike in Williams’ more well known works, tensions and contradictions within American society are projected vaguely outward onto the global stage (so to speak), resulting in a play filled with abstraction and symbols, rather than crystallizing into a concrete narrative of dysfunction in the domestic sphere.

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Emperor Jones, first staged in 1920, stands out as another allegory of empire and identity that has since been overshadowed by the playwright’s realist family dramas, which include Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Brutus Jones, an African American who speaks entirely in minstrel dialect, has made himself ruler of an unnamed Caribbean island, and now faces an uprising. He escapes into the forest, where he encounters a series of frightening, surreal scenes that reflect the traumatic history of race in America. Like Camino Real, this play also creates an unspecific foreign setting as a way to explore both the moral ambiguities of U.S. actions abroad and the deeply rooted conflicts that characterize American identity at home. Over the years, the play has been criticized for its racist imagery and characterization, but has also been interpreted by anti-racists as a cynical commentary on American race relations. It is a significant work insofar as it highlights the global or transnational aspects of American cultural history, particularly with respect to race.


CFP: Graduate Colloquium on “Indigenous Spaces,” February 15, 2012

The newly created Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP) at Columbia University is accepting paper proposals for its first graduate student colloquium:

Indigenous Spaces:

Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics

A Graduate Student Colloquium

Presented by

The Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP)

Columbia University

February 15, 2012

We invite graduate students to submit proposals for a graduate student colloquium on the theme of Indigenous Spaces: Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics, to take place at Columbia University in the City of New York on February 15, 2012. Contributors are encouraged to think about ‘indigenous spaces’ that connect indigenous communities, bodies (understood in a broad sense), histories, geographies, and academia.

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Teaching Property Law and Race: “Integrating Spaces” by Brophy et al.

My recollection of law school property class consists mostly of trying to fit a lot of archaic terms for ownership interests onto the one-page cheat sheet we were allowed for the exam. No fault of my professor, who made feudal language as interesting as it could be.

It was not until much later that I realized how truly fascinating property is. In a country where people used to own people, how can the law’s legitimation of a human’s attachment to something be anything but fascinating?

Today’s law students might come to this realization sooner, thanks to a practical, wide-ranging  book by Alfred Brophy, Alberto Lopez, and Kali Murray. Integrating Spaces: Property Law & Race (2011) is a casebook-style text that covers the many ways race and identity have shaped and continue to shape property in the U.S. It is intended as a supplemental text to help law professors integrate issues of race into their first-year property courses. Each chapter consists of a concise, clearly written overview of the issues and several illustrative cases.

Here is the table of contents:

Part I. Race in the Making of Property Law

Chapter 1. Origins: Possession and Dispossession in Property Law
Chapter 2. Property Rules and Slavery

Part II. Race and the Remaking of Property

Chapter 3. Racial Regulation of Public Spaces in the United States
Chapter 4. Discrimination and the Sale or Occupancy of Real Property

Part III. Race and Contemporary Property

Chapter 5. Redefining Housing and Neighborhood: Civil Rights and Its Impact on Property Law
Chapter 6. Contemporary Common Law Property
Chapter 7. Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in an International Perspective

I hope this much-needed book catches on.


Law and Society Panel on Legacies of Colonialism in Indigenous Communities

My other favorite panel from the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting was Narratives of Il(legality) in Liminal Indigenous Locations, held Friday. The panel included four very moving, thought-provoking presentations on the ways colonialism and legal and cultural oppression impact North American indigenous communities today.

The first three presentations dealt with legacies of Canada’s residential schools policy, which forcibly removed aboriginal children from their homes and raised them (if you can call it that) in conditions of abuse, deprivation, and denigration.

Carole Blackburn spoke on Blackwater v. Plint (2005), which arose from widespread sexual abuse at one church-run residential school. The government and church were held liable, but liability was mitigated because the court found school officials had no actual knowledge of abuse—despite the fact that several children reported the abuse to police and nurses. Blackburn examines the cultural conditions that made abuse of aboriginal children invisible to the defendants and the court. Lack of “actual knowledge,” she argues, is really a willed “ignorance that requires active dissociation” from injustices committed against the children.

Justice Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice spoke on his experiences as a rotating judge in the Gladue Court that handles sentencing of aboriginal criminal offenders, who are overrepresented in prisons by a factor of seven. While the Court carefully considers mitigating factors specific to aboriginals, Justice Green was very forthcoming about the Court’s limitations. Sentencing, after all, is the “tail end” of the process and earlier interventions are needed. Disparities in crime and imprisonment rates are part of “an inheritance of unbridled colonialism”; they result largely from “cultural genocide” propagated by Canada’s residential schools policy.

Jane McMillan’s paper concerned unintended consequences of the Residential Schools Settlement agreement of 2007, which compensates aboriginal Canadians who can prove they went to a residential school. Part of the claims process requires victims of abuse, many of whom are traumatized and have never spoken of their abuse, to detail their experiences in writing and undergo a hearing in order to receive extra compensation. (The seventeen-page form includes an appalling page of checkboxes listing various acts of sexual abuse and how many times they were done.) This culturally and psychologically insensitive process, while cathartic and healing for some, is for others a re-victimization.

Finally, Ann Tweedy traced the racialized notion of “self-defense” in U.S. jurisprudence to illuminate current problems with Indian sovereignty and gun control. Tweedy argues that stereotypes of Indians as “savage ignobles” (which arise, ironically, from Indians’ own efforts at self-defense against white settlers) have led to a long history of curtailing Indian sovereignty. The result has been widespread lawlessness on reservations due to Indians’ inability (and U.S. Attorneys’ refusal) to effectively prosecute crimes, particularly rape of Indian women by non-Indian men. At the same time, the right to bear arms must be understood in the context of white settlers “defending” themselves against what Justice Kennedy, only a few years ago, called “Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that.”


Law and Society Association Graduate Student Workshop: Keynote Talk on Intersectionality and EEO Litigation

I’m in San Francisco for the Law and Society Association‘s 24th annual Graduate Student Workshop (today and tomorrow) and Annual Meeting (June 2-5). The official Twitter hashtag for both is #LSA2011.

The Graduate Student Workshop opened tonight with a terrific keynote talk by Lauren Edelman entitled “Blurring Lines for Sharper Knowledge: Toward a Multi-Method Approach to Critical Socio-Legal Studies.” According to Edelman, critical race theorists in the legal academy and “traditional” social scientists are typically skeptical of each other’s methods. However, she argues, there are many opportunities for these scholarly factions to support each other’s intellectual projects.

For example, Edelman combines quantitative social science methods with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality to examine the way EEO discrimination claims with more than one basis of discrimination are treated by the federal courts. Her team’s study finds strong evidence that intersectional discrimination claims are less likely to succeed than non-intersectional ones. This means, for starters, that white women are more than twice as likely as non-white women to win discrimination lawsuits and that white men are more likely than either non-white men or non-white women to win discrimination lawsuits. The implication here is that the law is not good at handling the complex kinds of discrimination faced by people who have multiple disadvantages. The lead researcher on the study is Rachel Best, a graduate student who will soon finish her Ph.D. in Sociology at UC-Berkeley.


Slave Cemetery at VCU Turned Over to the Richmond Slave Trail Commission

The Root (and its partner, National Public Radio) have picked up the story of Richmond’s Burial Ground for Negroes, which we posted about a while back. The historic slave and free black cemetery (c. 1750-1816), now also known as the African Burial Ground, has been used as a parking lot by Virginia Commonwealth University since the state purchased it in 2008. Today, it will be officially turned over to the City of Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission, which plans to preserve and memorialize the 1.6-acre site. The move comes only after years of community activism, an unsuccessful lawsuit, and growing negative publicity that put pressure on the state and the university.

As The Root reports, the Richmond controversy is one of several that have arisen in recent years over historic slave and free black cemeteries. The most well-known of these is the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan:

Chris Moore, a historian and curator at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, was one of the first to inform the public about the African Burial Ground [in lower Manhattan]. According to Moore, the GSA tried to keep the excavation quiet. He said that federal officials and archaeologists initially claimed ignorance, but workmen at the site informed him they were ” … taking truckloads of bones out of here.”

The GSA initially announced that no more than a few hundred people were buried at the site; it is now estimated that there are 15,000-20,000 remains under a five-block area.

A long battle ensued, involving community protests, court hearings and support from city and state officials that finally garnered national attention. As a result, the excavation was halted for some time, and the disinterred remains of 419 people were sent to Howard University for research (and later re-interred at the African Burial Ground). A memorial was built next to the new building and an interpretive center added inside the lobby, explaining the site, now a national monument.

Other burial grounds have been rediscovered in places as varied as Portsmouth, N.H.; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Dallas — and they often trigger similar community struggles to reclaim those sites. For several years, Harlem’s African-American community has been fighting to reclaim and memorialize a burial ground covered by a bus depot.

As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches (Jan. 1, 2013), efforts to recover Richmond’s African Burial Ground — and all other sites that contain black ancestral remains — gain special significance for all Americans.