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Transition 112: Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

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Published three times per year by Indiana University Press for the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, Transition is a unique forum for the freshest, most compelling ideas from and about the black world. Since its founding in Uganda in 1961, the magazine has kept apace of the rapid transformation of the African Diaspora and has remained a leading forum of intellectual debate. In issue 112, the editors of Transition look at violence, particularly as it relates to the history of slavery, which raises the question of representation. Textbooks and television both grapple with the same fundamental questions: to whom do the stories of slaves belong? How should these stories be told? In this issue, Daniel Itzkovitz talks with Tony Kushner about the controversy that surrounded the making of Lincoln, a serious and sober film about the passage of the 13th Amendment. Django Unchained covers the same time period but uses a wildly different lens. The film is terrifying and topsy-turvy, and has ignited controversy that became a white-hot conflagration. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. speaks with Quentin Tarantino about the making of his film, and a host of scholars and critics, including Walter Johnson, Glenda Carpio, and Terri Francis, set the issue ablaze with provocative and searing commentary that speaks to the controversial film and its potent afterlife.

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“I Like the Way You Die, Boy”

ePub

fantasy’s role in Django Unchained

Glenda R. Carpio

“And I am taking the story of a slave narrative and blowing it up to folkloric proportions . . . worthy of high opera. So I could have a little fun with it. One of the things I do is when the bad guys shoot people the bullets usually don’t blow people apart. They make little holes and they kill them and wound them, but they don’t rip them apart. When Django shoots someone, he blows them in half.”

—QUENTIN TARANTINO

DJANGO UNCHAINED IS not supposed to be experienced or understood as a historically accurate representation of slavery; surprisingly, this point has been lost on many a viewer. It is, as the film critic Chris Vognar rightly notes, a typical Tarantino movie, which is to say that it is “more concerned about movies than anything else.” At the same time, the film is deeply situated in both the history of cinema and historical fantasy. Tarantino has “a little fun” telling the story of a slave named Django, a reference to the titular hero of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti Western, himself named after the virtuoso jazz musician Django Reinhardt. Tarantino also makes multiple visual and narrative allusions to the blaxploitation tour de force, the 1975 film Mandingo, and other films in this genre—The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and its sequels, The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (1975), as well as direct and oblique references to Norse mythology, to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the novel that inspired it (Thomas Dixon’s 1905 The Clansman), to the slave narrative genre, and a host of other cultural artifacts. But Django Unchained also jolts viewers with scenes of chattel slavery that are so violently horrific that watching without squirming is impossible, as when a slave is torn apart by dogs or when two slaves are made to fight each other to death with bare hands. The combination of Tarantino having “a little fun” and his subject matter, arguably the mostly explosive and, especially from a contemporary perspective, most earnestly treated topic in American history, risks trivialization. Yet Django Unchained is also a richly allusive cultural text that, through its intertextuality and its arguably excessive use of violence, makes vivid the brutality of American chattel slavery.

 

Allegories of Empire

ePub

Django/Dorner/blackness/blowback

Walter Johnson

Name; A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place, or thing is known, addressed, or referred to. Synonyms: reputation, title, appellation, denomination, repute.

—CHRISTOPHER DORNER

The ‘D’ is silent.

—DJANGO

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? . . . Or does it explode?

—LANGSTON HUGHES

LET US BEGIN with a declaration of war written by a man who wanted only to clear his name. Several days before he began murdering people in the hope that their deaths would avenge the racism he had suffered during his career as an officer in the LAPD, Christopher Dorner posted it on Facebook. Dorner, a thirty-three year-old retired Naval Reservist who had been recently fired by the LAPD, apparently went on to kill four people, before dying on February 12, 2013 in a shootout with local, state, and federal law enforcement near Big Bear Lake in Southern California. About midway through the document, Dorner mentioned the movie, Django Unchained, which was playing in theaters at the time of his own brief, murderous debut. The reference to Django was a passing one, part of a list of name checks (Charlie Sheen, Larry David, Ellen Degeneres), thumbnail reviews (“Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ is the greatest piece of music ever, period”), and political opinions (in favor of Gay Marriage, Hilary 2016, and a ban on Assault Weapons). “Christopher Walz,” Dorner wrote, addressing one of Django’s leading actors, “you impressed me in Inglourious Basterds. After viewing Django Unchained, I was sold. I have come to the conclusion that you are well on your way to becoming one of the greats, if not already, and show glimpses of Daniel Day Lewis and Morgan Freeman-esque type qualities of greatness. Trust me when I say that you will be one of the greatest ever.” The tone typifies the document. Dorner addresses those whom he has followed at a distance as an equal; he encourages them, he consoles them, he praises them; or, if he sees fit, he smacks them down and puts them in their proper place. He sits in judgment. His is the voice of a Regular Guy metastasized into importance—omniscience, omnipotence?—by the threat of violence. Coming in the middle of an exposé of racism in the LAPD and a long list of threats against named individuals and their families, these lists are disorienting: the dying thoughts of an observant man who thought people would actually care what he had to say about anything.

 

He Can’t Say That, Can He?

ePub

black, white, and shades of gray in the films of Tarantino

Chris Vognar

LAST WINTER, ABOUT halfway through a press screening of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s garishly entertaining slavery revenge epic, I turned to a fellow critic and whispered, half facetiously, “Spike Lee isn’t going to like this one bit.” Sure enough, he didn’t.

By now it’s a rite of pop culture passage: Tarantino makes a fetish of the word “nigger” in a movie or otherwise rankles Lee’s sense of blackness. Lee gets mad. Tarantino gets defensive. The pattern commenced with the release of Tarantino’s blaxploitation tribute Jackie Brown in 1997: “Quentin is infatuated with that word,” Lee quipped after seeing the film. “What does he want to be made—an honorary black man?” Fifteen years later Lee didn’t even bother to see Django before condemning it. Both directors have their parts in the debate down pat; the ongoing conflict has become its own predictable media sideshow, almost as engaging as the movies in question.

 

Looking Sharp

ePub

performance, genre, and questioning history in Django Unchained

Terri Francis

So Stackolee left, he went walking down the New Haven track.
A train come along and flattened him on his back.
He went up in the air and when he fell
Stackolee landed right down in hell.
He said Devil, Devil, put your fork up on the shelf
Cause I’m gonna run this devilish place myself.
There came a rumbling on the earth and a tumbling on the ground,
That bad son-of-a-gun, Stackolee, was turning hell around
.

—LYRICS EXCERPTED FROM THE FOLK BALLAD “STACKOLEE

Patina: What you do for your master?
Django: Didn’t you hear him tell you I ain’t no slave?
Patina: So you really free?
Django: Yes. I’s free.
Patina: You mean you want to dress that like that?

DJANGO UNCHAINED

DJANGO UNCHAINED IS just a movie—a mass entertainment product like hundreds of others that entered the marketplace in 2012—but it is also much more. This movie became a forum, an occasion for critical reflection upon black representation in U.S. film, the history of slavery, and beyond. As such, Quentin Tarantino’s flick, both as a discourse itself and an object of discourse, opens up the question of performance, genre and history in the movies and presents an occasion for historians and film specialists to point interested audiences toward sources of factual truth and testimony.

 

“An Unfathomable Place”

ePub

a conversation with Quentin Tarantino about Django Unchained (2012)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In this three-part interview, originally published on TheRoot.com in December 2012, Gates broaches the subjects of an oppressor trilogy, the N-word, and white saviors vs. sidekicks.

‘Django’ Trilogy?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: You’ve targeted Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and slave owners in Django Unchained. What’s next on the list of oppressors to off?

Quentin Tarantino: I don’t know exactly when I’m going to do it, but there’s something about this that would suggest a trilogy. My original idea for Inglourious Basterds way back when was that this would be a huge story that included the smaller story that you saw in the film, but also followed a bunch of black troops, and they had been fucked over by the American military and kind of go ape shit. They basically—the way Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) and the Basterds are having an “Apache resistance”—the black troops go on an Apache warpath and kill a bunch of white soldiers and white officers on a military base and are just making a warpath to Switzerland.

 

History Unchained

ePub

Yarimar Bonilla

THE YEAR 2013 brought unprecedented attention to representations of slavery in American film. With two major motion pictures nominated for academy awards—Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln—and seven additional movies scheduled for release, including 12 Years a Slave produced by Brad Pitt, there appears to be a sudden groundswell of interest in slavery among U.S. filmmakers and moviegoers. This has been accompanied by an equal swell of public debate regarding not just the quality of these films, but also their propriety. Across the media landscape many wondered: Are certain filmic genres, such as comedy, inherently inadequate for capturing the experience of enslavement? Are certain filmmakers more qualified, or more authorized, to render the experience of African American people? And must representations of slavery strike a certain mood? Can they be “wrong” not just in their facts, but in their affect?

 

Lincoln and the Radicals

ePub

a conversation with Tony Kushner

Daniel Itzkovitz

A SOMBER 1865 broadside, printed in the days after Lincoln’s assassination, hangs on a wall in the middle of Tony Kushner’s West Harlem office. It bears the image of an American flag above bold black letters: “God Will Avenge our Slaughtered Leader!”

“It’s such a scream of pain,” Kushner said about the image, “And I love the doubleness of it. It’s a call for vengeance, but it’s also in a way admonishing people to leave vengeance to the lord: ‘we don’t have to be vengeful because God will take care of it . . .’. We’ve been through other days somewhat like when Lincoln was killed, but there’s something about the confluence . . . the fact that he was killed four days after the end of the Civil War, and on Good Friday, in a country that was so predominantly and deeply Christian. It must have been really . . . unbearable.”

Kushner’s ability to imagine complex and sometimes unbearable human experience sits at the heart of his work as a playwright, screen-writer, and political activist. And so does the tension in his analysis of the broadside: between the call to popular action, and the belief that a greater force might also be there—and should be there—to help those who need it.

 

Reality Show · Poetry

ePub

An editor . . . wrote back that she liked the ‘Negro’ poems best . . . requested that Gwendolyn [Brooks] approach Knopf again when she had more of these.

—AMY SICKELS

News

It is like a love for men, this

Love of language, and we are

Men at war, says the news.

No matter how long we speak

English, English means not

To count us or to count us

Darkly, but I know what

I want and so does channel 4.

They give it to me, one heap

After another: soldiers who,

Following another battle, shed,

Sweat, and spit like fountains.

The Housewives

All dese negroes calln us cute

But aint nobody tryna pay de light bill

Brothas on both coasts sayin Damn you

Sexy But not one payin dis light bill

And here our grinnin ass go after each

Compliment

Lettin de fine ones cop a feel

 

Retracing Nelson Mandela through the Lineage of Black Political Thought

ePub

from Walter Rubusana to Steve Biko

Xolela Mangcu

Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be carved.

—IMMANUEL KANT, 1895

Reclaiming the Vision

SOUTH AFRICAS TRANSITION to democracy still inspires the imagination of people all over the world, especially those in search of what too often seems like an elusive peace. Even when he lies sick in hospital Nelson Mandela remains the iconic embodiment of that historical transformation, and will remain so for decades to come. South Africans invoke his memory to protest the depredations of his successors, from Thabo Mbeki’s dalliance with HIV/AIDS denialists to the halo of corruption around Jacob Zuma’s head. Compounding the country’s challenges are unacceptably high levels of unemployment, poverty, and inequality and a failing school system. To overcome these challenges and return to the high road of Nelson Mandela and his generation, the country needs much more than technocratic policy solutions. It needs a self-awareness that can only come from a new public narrative that puts present and future generations back on Mandela’s path. The path itself was never straightforward but winding—and winding with too many proverbial forks in the road. The debates were oftentimes clamorous, but they also became the basis for political creativity against daunting odds.

 

Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History

ePub

Nicholas T. Rinehart

The Question

WAS BEETHOVEN BLACK? He surely wasn’t, but some insist otherwise. The question is not a new one—it has been rehashed over the course of several decades, although it never seems to have caused much of a stir in any public intellectual debates. Indeed, what is perhaps most fascinating about this question is that is has remained somewhat under the radar despite its stubbornness. Nobody really thinks Beethoven was black. And only a few have even stumbled upon the possibility. That Beethoven may have been black is pure trivia—a did-you-know factoid for the classical music enthusiast. The composer ranks with Alexanders Pushkin and Dumas as one of history’s great ethnic surprises, with the obvious exception that Beethoven wasn’t ethnic. He was simply swarthy.

The logic goes something like this: Beethoven’s family, by way of his mother, traced its roots to Flanders, which was for sometime under Spanish monarchical rule, and because Spain maintained a longstanding historical connection to North Africa through the Moors, somehow a single germ of blackness trickled down to our beloved Ludwig. This very theory—that Beethoven was descended from the Moors—has reappeared in several works throughout the twentieth century. Jamaican historian Joel Augustus Rogers (1880–1966) popularized this theory in several writings around midcentury, but the birth of the myth can be traced back further to approximately 1915 or even earlier according to music historian Dominique-René de Lerma, the world’s leading scholar on classical composers of color. Rogers asserted in his provocative and controversial works such as the three-volume Sex and Race (1941–44), the two-volume World’s Great Men of Color (1946–47), 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (1934), Five Negro Presidents (1965), and Nature Knows No Color Line (1952), that Beethoven—in addition to Thomas Jefferson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Browning, and several popes, among others—was genealogically African and thus black. Musicologist Donald Macardle and de Lerma both refuted this possibility with several decades between them. De Lerma also authored a brief account of this historical contestation in 1990 in an article entitled “Beethoven as a Black Composer” for the Black Music Research Journal. But the myth of Beethoven’s hidden ethnicity still lingers in contemporary culture. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer published a short story collection in 2007 called Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories. Novelist Darryl Pinckney hoped to refute Rogers once and for all in Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (2002), based on his Alain Locke Lectures at Harvard University. Pinckney declares simply, “We don’t need to claim Beethoven.”

 

Accordion Dream · Poetry

ePub

Accordion Dream

old brooklyn parables

prospect park pond gleam

hot tar sticky puerto rican

children’s city feet black

mothers lean out cracked

dream peeled windows.

bop kitchen floor jazz

radio show knees pail

scrub down listening

closely alto jackie mclean.

german deli mayonnaise

liverwurst history hard

roll october pickle bedford

stuyvesant trees max

roach insist destiny pizza

anchovy slice Village Voice.

stickball fables years know

f train paperback choices

green buick fender bases

george jackson soledad or

steinbeck’s discontent snow

whistling tenement radiator

canarsie steam squawk sea-

gulls don’t like they used to

dream dolphily above the

pier tabla and accordion.

Paul r. Harding

 

Alternative Monkey

ePub

Alternative Monkey

fulfilling anew roman

alternative to singing but

not the silence in monkey eyes

original speaking ageless

british empire triangle swinging

alternative to colonial but with

all my jungle music heart leaping

in a little moonlight they play.

rainforest thick stooping

options of primal rooting

coconut meat love chewing

alternative to confusing but

not the skin of the truth flamingo

across the mystery of sweeping

levee delta mississippi land

in a little moonlight sneaking.

hat cup monkey dancing organ

workin’ street funky corner grinding

alternative to african caribbean sun but

for all the copper yellow too little timin’

alternative to tobacco ripe for pickin’

corporate sugarcane stock deeper rising

sharp diamond carat moon climbing.

arteries drilling alternative to ingenuity

no one other than for tearless gunning

 

The Heat

ePub

The Heat

heat has its own inconsistencies

despite purist reputation, own

rag-mop toils steaming iron

blues veins to count before

the big sky’s water breaks;

gets all volcanic eyed, knows better than

still hopes, laughs down to the river

laundry on the head highest

reaches blue furthest point from

up on sweltering rocks evokes

before night rain raise the dead in

the middle black triplets heat cotton-

row conscience juju music spanish

tinge muted horn troubled head

balms mud red barefoot road issues

of tobacco heart old country visions

chewed down traditions tongue ear-

ring future sun-hurt hidden scars up

by the rocks scorching intuition

chain gang arms swing men for cry

before the big sky goes into labor;

tames the pounding heart trumpet

solo raging heat silent screaming

shame burning sugarcane notion

Miles let go of deadly

 

The Last Bird

ePub

The Last Bird

morning up in the middle

relative to all high above

witness barely in the sky

a black dot soar until it hurt

the eyes.

away until the end of the mirror

liquid memory more taken than

goodness of gravity for granted,

watched bittersweet vanishing

goodness in theory in perspective

courageous up the middle of

blue dash without reflection

like an unmarked confederate grave

the ground still steaming blocking the

sun after sherman’s burning sky

into the narrowing of morning blazed

into the middle of the red hurt my eyes

all the way to the end of the mirror the

last bird in the sky.

all relative to outlook no night

promises no star can keep like

harlem after Malcolm disappeared

into a little black dot straight up

into the middle of the morning air

after learning nothing from war

the last cry heard but barely

 

Flower Shop

ePub

Flower Shop

windows if the plants are ok

broken glass tank engines

who opens the flower shop

bombed out last night

the price no matter intentions

when our TV screens silent

of selling wartime stories

and the kids are ok

new york post early morning

father to son sins defiant

read between passed on beliefs

last night bombed out

liberating schools mosques

our way of life shouts out

the elders remember hell’s boom

if the plants have enough water

who opens the flower shop.

Paul r. Harding

Black Doll n°I. 90 × 70 cm. ©2012 Mirtho Linguet.

 

Natural Disaster · Fiction

ePub

Paula Simone Campbell

JOSH LOVES TO bake cakes. Whenever he does, he feels that he is doing something good. His favorite part is the frosting; it gives him the chance to make something smooth, perfect. And even if it is not so, any flaw in the frosting can be seen as a beautiful flourish.

In front of him is a strawberry butter cream cake that he is wrapping in a turban of pink frosting. He presses the spatula down firmly as he goes around it. He affixes strawberry slices to the top and sprinkles sugar crystals with the tips of his fingers. It is finished. Spatula still in hand, he stands back and smiles as he sucks on the sugar crystals that got stuck under his nails.

“Yeah,” he nods and smiles contently.

The broiling heat of the 95-degree day is finally dwindling down as the late afternoon sets in. Josh could have spent the day at the beach like most people, but he hates the beach and its unlimited exposure to the sun. The climate-controlled apartment and its access to the oven and baking needs is more than enough.

 

Archiving Violence

ePub

a conversation on the making of Poto Mitan and Bad Friday

Mark Schuller and Deborah A. Thomas

TWO RECENTLY RELEASED films on the Caribbean—Bad Friday and Poto Mitan—build on ethnographic research to engage issues related to structural and material violence, social justice, human rights, and collaborative filmmaking.

Filmic representation has a long history within the discipline of anthropology, but we are far from the days of so-called “ethnographic film,”—those real-time representations of aspects of community life and practice that shape classics like Nanook of the North, or the Axe Fight. Today, anthropologists are using film and other forms of visual representation as methodological interventions and as dissemination strategies, often collaborating with research partners in order to create broader dialogues about the issues they face, and developing a contextual frame through which ethnographic work can more obviously be positioned as a kind of relation of complicity.

 



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