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Transition 115: 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. This issue of Transition focuses on "Mad." The editors look at connections between blackness and psychology, examining Richard Wright’s attempts to bring clinical psychotherapy to Harlem and revealing the links between schizophrenia and fears of black "psychos." As Ferguson, Missouri becomes the latest community to rage against the state-sanctioned murder of unarmed black men, we ask what James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael might have to tell us about why African Americans continue to be pushed to the margins of American society. The editors also examine the marginalized community of black Palestinians, doubly imperiled by Israeli slaughter and internal racism. And finally, on a lighter note, discover music and art that we’re "mad" about—from Otis Redding and Vijay Iyer to Kara Walker and Christopher Cozier.

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An Underground Extension of Democracy

ePub

IN NATIVE SON (1940), Richard Wright told the story of Bigger Thomas and changed the way a vast swathe of white Americans saw the black men in their midst. Bigger Thomas is, of course, well known: he is a young product of urbanization, resulting from the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North. An aimless, poor, petty criminal, he takes a job as a chauffeur for one of the wealthiest families in Chicago, the Daltons. One night, Bigger must escort Mary, the drunken daughter of his boss, to her bedroom. When Mary’s blind mother appears in the bedroom, Bigger becomes so fearful of being caught in the white girl’s bedroom that he accidentally smothers Mary to stifle her possible screams. To dispose of Mary’s body, Bigger cuts her to pieces and burns her up in the Daltons’ furnace. On the lam, Bigger later kills his black girlfriend Bessie Mears, deliberately, because he fears she will turn on him. Fear had created Bigger, and fear was the emotion that governed Bigger’s actions under trying conditions. Wright’s portrait of Bigger and the environment that created him—by marginalizing and stultifying him—challenged whites to see their culpability, their own participation in the violence of anti-black racism and capitalist exploitation.

 

Controllin the Planet

ePub

AN EPIDEMIC OF schizophrenia afflicted rap artists in the 1990s and 2000s. At least, that’s how it seemed. In record numbers, rappers from across the East-West divide suddenly claimed to be schizophrenic. For instance, in 1995, Natural Born Killaz (a Dr. Dre and Ice Cube collaboration) rapped about their insanity. “Journey with me into the mind of a maniac,” Dr. Dre rhymed, “doomed to be a killer . . . with a heart full of terror.” “I’m the unforgiving, psycho-driven murderer / It’s authentic,” Ice Cube replied, “goddamn it, schizophrenic.” Not to be outdone, longtime Brentwood hip hop artists EPMD, rapping with LL Cool J, boasted that they smoked M.C.s because their rhyme style was “deadly psychopath schizophrenic.” Meanwhile, Bizzy Bone’s call to arms, “Thugz Cry,” intoned that “we represent the planet, get schizophrenic and panic.”

Rap lyrics are the latest installments in a political debate that has evolved over the past century (at least) regarding the contested relationships between race, madness, violence, and civil rights.

 

Breaking the Chains of Stigma

ePub

For a decade, I have used photography to highlight human rights issues in Africa. Never before, though, have I come across a greater affront to human dignity than the treatment of people with mental disabilities in regions in crisis.

For people with mental disabilities in warzones, among displaced populations, and in regions wracked by corruption, life is dire. I didn’t know this before January 2011. While covering a story for a newspaper, I found a section of a prison in South Sudan where the inmates were naked and shackled to the floor: they had mental disabilities. They had committed no crime.

I had never thought about the long-term consequences of disasters. We cover wars, famines, natural disasters, and displacements of people on the continent. Once the peace treaty is signed, the emergency food relief delivered, or the flood waters have receeded, we leave. For the media, the story is finished. The suffering is not. Deep psychological scars remain, and when the dust settles, the facilities and staff to support the mentally disabled often no longer exist.

 

Insights from Black Psychoanalysts Speak

ePub

Conveners: Michael Moskowitz & Richard Reichbart

Panelists: Dr. Jama Adams, Dr. Janice Bennett, Dr. Anton Hart, Dr. Dorothy Evans Holmes, Dr. Annie Lee Jones, Dr. Dolores Morris, Dr. Craig Polite, Dr. Cheryl Thompson, Dr. Kirkland Vaughans, Dr. Kathy Pogue White, Dr. Cleonie White

People feel that psychoanalysis is a gang. That psychoanalysis, not just in the American context, but as an emblem—is a gang. A white people’s gang. [They’re] gonna find something wrong inside our minds that we don’t even know about. So why should we aspire to join that?

WHY, INDEED. ANTON Hart, a successful black psychoanalyst, was addressing this question to his fellow panelists at Black Psychoanalysts Speak, a conference initiated by the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training & Research (IPTAR) in New York City. The first conference took place in May 2012, and was immediately so oversubscribed that the organizers had to find a larger venue at the last minute to accommodate the crowd. A follow-up conference took place a year later—this one with the help of The New School, the White Institute, and NYU Postdoc—and again attracted a full house.

 

James Baldwin, 1963, and the House that Race Built

ePub

1963 TURNED OUT to be a cataclysmic moment in the centuries-long struggle of African slaves and their descendants to claim their dignity and human rights in the United States. It was the year of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and events of that year forced the nation to reckon with its past. A protracted protest campaign that Spring in Birmingham hastened the beginning of the end of racial segregation in public accommodations. On June 11, President John F. Kennedy delivered a civil rights speech to a national televised audience, proclaiming the Negro struggle for rights to be a “moral issue” necessitating a civil rights act. Later that night, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down by an assassin in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom drew over 200,000 people, mostly black, to the National Mall on August 28; the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young girls on September 15; and the assassination of Kennedy, who was still urging congress to pass a civil rights bill, stunned the nation on November 22.

 

Related Somehow to Africa

ePub

IN THE SUMMER of 2009, I crash a wedding party in Deir el-Balah, a city along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea situated in the middle of the Gaza Strip. The celebration is in honor of the son of Mama Ayda, a dark-eyed, sober-faced matriarch. It is his groom’s party.

The men drip sweat from dancing dabke outdoors in the Middle Eastern summer heat. They heap affection onto the groom-to-be, often embracing him and hoisting his chair high in the air as the women in his family and female guests form a semicircle around the fast-paced movement. They sit watching the scene, quietly chatting among themselves. Scores of children chase each other in the open field giggling into the night. At this age, prepuberty, it is acceptable for the sexes to play together.

I stand to snap pictures of this traditional Palestinian line dance—the stomping, the spinning, the kicking, and the jumping. The ground pulsates under the intensity of the dabke chain. My host and translator, twenty-four-year-old Samra, grabs my elbow and shakes her finger for me not to approach. With hand gestures, reprimanding looks, and tongue-lashings in Arabic, other women admonish me from going near the testosterone-only action. Under different circumstances, at a wedding reception back home, I would have joined on the dance floor. Someone would have moved over a bit to make room for me in line to do the Bus Stop or perhaps the Cupid Shuffle and my presence would have been welcomed.

 

Black Power Beyond the Slogan

ePub

BORN IN TRINIDAD in 1941, Stokely Carmichael immigrated to the United States in 1952, where he would become a key figure in both the civil rights and Black Power movements. As an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Carmichael participated in many of the epic battles of the heroic phase of the movement, including the Freedom Rides. By 1966, however, largely disenchanted with the gains of the civil rights movement, he would become one of the key spokespersons for a nascent but nonetheless vibrant Black Power movement, after his call for Black Power in Greenwood, Mississippi introduced Black Power to the nation. After working to develop a blueprint for achieving Black Power, including the publication of the book Black Power with Howard University Political Scientist Charles V. Hamilton, he would eventually change his name to Kwame Ture and move to Guinea, where he died from prostate cancer at the age of fifty-seven, still an unrepentant critic of American racism and imperialism.

 

The Enigma of Arrival

ePub

I ARRIVED IN America one hot afternoon in July in the last years of Reagan’s presidency and the experience felt as though I were part of a heated play in the theater of human experience. It was in Newark, New Jersey that the enigma of my arrival began.

Africa is a haunted house.

While I was on the plane and upon arrival—walking through long corridors to join a growing line of visitors and American citizens filing their way towards the immigration port of entry—my thoughts cast back to the memory of Leo, my cousin. It was by his invitation that I was granted the visa in Ghana to visit America. Our mothers are sisters and family folklore has it that Leo left Ghana and came to America, leaving Accra by government transport to Kumasi, then journeyed onwards to Tamale, then travelled on foot, horseback, hitchhiked, then walked to Bolgatanga, crossing the border at Paga into Burkina Faso. At various stages of his journey, he joined different convoys of travellers, then in Ouagadougou he accompanied a caravan of migrants from around West Africa, mostly Nigerians, Cameroonians, Ivoirians and Ghanaians, a throng in overloaded vehicles on their way to Europe, their long march across the Sahara, chasing the illusion of an imagined paradise across the Mediterranean. When he arrived in Mali, Leo stayed with a family of desert clerics and scribes in Timbuktu, pretended he had converted to Islam and even expressed his affections to a Berber woman in Bamako. While he was crossing the desert, no one heard from Leo for almost a year, he had vanished into its silence. Yet, he survived, using a variety of names, aliases, and a complex series of imaginary identities as a means of disguising himself as he crossed borders, mingling with different tribes in the various countries where he travelled. Some said Leo spent time in Senegal, others claimed he went to Algeria or Mauritania. The story that followed said that Leo, capable of learning languages with telepathic speed, mastered the art of the chameleon, assuming in each new place a new personality to reflect the identity of the people in that environment. Later, he joined a French team on a Trans-Saharan anthropological expedition, taking photographs and documenting the lives of oral poets, sages, and witchdoctors, the oral custodians of the history of the desert tribes. Leo befriended the desert midnight dancers, fire eaters, diviners, and spiritual specialists who were adepts at talking to the lost and wandering spirits of the desert—spirits who died through mysterious, unresolved circumstances or from thirst, traversing the desert on their migratory journey to the edges of Africa’s arid lands, many millennia ago. The scorched earth swallowed them up and cast their dry bones ashore on the desert beaches of sand dunes. Many died running away from tribal conflicts, villages raided by Tuareg insurgents. Or as migrants on their way to Europe, hallucinating and dehydrated before dying. Their fresh remains feasted upon by wild beasts roaming the desert, or by jackals who take on the spirit of the dead. Whatever is left of the dead is buried under the sand dunes, decomposed and turned to skeletal ashes in the desert pyre of haunted dreams. These spirits in their moments of affliction and torment in the hellfires of the desert heat would stir up the sands at night and cause a desert storm, the howling of the jackal echoing into the stillness of the night, disturbing the ancient balance that holds death at bay from the world of the living.

 

Docking Time

ePub

ON DECEMBER 10, 1967, en route to a show in Madison, Otis Redding’s small Beechcraft—and with it Redding, his pilot, and five members of The Bar-Keys—crashed into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona. Only twenty-year-old trumpeter Ben Cauley survived. The performance was to be one of Redding’s first after over two months of recovery from throat surgery. According to friends and fellow musicians at Stax Records, he was singing better than ever and eager to get back to work—with good reason: in October, following his legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, British music magazine Melody Maker had named Redding the world’s number one male vocalist, knocking Elvis Presley out of the spot he’d held for a decade. The White House had just contacted him with an invitation to entertain the troops in Vietnam early the next year. In biographer Scott Freeman’s words, “Otis was on the brink. He was poised for a breakthrough to the white audience, on the verge of superstardom.”

 

“Spellbound and Sacrosanct”

ePub

ON THE EVENING of March 1, 2014 at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer was on stage with the Brentano String Quartet. It was the New York City premiere of his program Time, Place, Action, which he dedicated to the African American writer-activist Amiri Baraka—one of Iyer’s most important mentors. Alternating between improvisation and notated form, straddling genres, piano and string partnered to captivate the audience.

Three days later, Iyer’s album Mutations, scored for string quartet, piano, and electronics, was released to critical acclaim. According to the liner notes, genetic change—generated through the complex interplay between species and the ever-shifting environment, without a clear teleological thrust toward “betterment”—is a model for the pattern of structure and real-time composition that characterizes the album. The piano solo “Spellbound and Sacrosanct, Cowrie Shells and the Shimmering Sea” serves as prelude to the central ten-part suite “Mutations I-X,” courting the listener. “Spellbound and Sacrosanct” first appeared on his 1995 debut album Memoraphilia, to which members of both Asian Improv Arts and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an African American organization, contributed. This early composition resounds not only with Iyer’s distinctive rhythmic and ecstatic qualities, but also with visions of worlds meeting that have continued to characterize his music. Indeed, as the alliances behind Memoraphilia and the works which follow demonstrate, the exchange and intersection of histories remain central to his career.

 

The Sweet Tooth of Slavery

ePub

THIS PAST SPRING and summer, in an installation by artist Kara Walker, a sugarcoated sphinx gazed upon visitors with a blank and inscrutable stare in the defunct Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. At the entrance to the installation, thirteen statues of brown children, made of resin and coated with molasses, toted the sugar to construct the giant statue. This display drew upon stereotype and caricature—the sphinx sporting a headkerchief and exaggerated lips and butt, the children’s swollen heads copied from racist figurines—but this grotesquerie did not mitigate, but rather heightened, the unease that the installation inspired. Through the contrast between these figures, one monumental and thirteen diminutive, one dusted with refined sugar and the baker’s dozen oozing molasses, Walker suggested that the empire that erected and displayed the sphinx also excreted wounded black bodies.

Both works insist upon the centrality of sweetness and sugar to the exploitation of black bodies in the pursuit of white pleasure. The slave body becomes a kind of candy.

 

“Put your hand in the air”

ePub

IN A DARK bar, twenty-four light boxes with drawings of blue, black, and red markings line the walls and reflect in the mirrored ceiling overhead. Within each frame is a penned drawing that has been transferred to the light box. The light boxes comprise a new, site-specific work by artist Christopher Cozier, entitled The Arrest: hands up, hands out, which opened in December 2013 during Art Basel Miami Beach. Entering the dimly lit bar of The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, I feel like I’m either walking into the ocean or stepping aboard a spaceship. The doubling effect of the mirrors overhead generates a space that is all-encompassing.

I feel like I’m either walking into the ocean or stepping aboard a spaceship.

The light boxes are filled with hands and arms outstretched toward the ceiling, swirls of black markings, and stamps of blue birds. Taken alone, each frame is one part of the larger piece, one line of a stanza of a poem. Twenty-four of them reflect the number of hours in a day. Individually, they are fragments. Yet, even when considered together, they refuse the cohesion of an easy story. Instead, they form a broken narrative. The work suggests a connection between Caribbean postcoloniality and Afrofuturism as a way of reconciling the fragmentation of narratives and images. Through the visual elements of disjointed bodies, layering and abstracting of text, and references to history and popular culture, The Arrest replicates the complicated and contradictory concerns around who controls cultural representation and meaning. Is it politicians? Musicians? Visual artists? Businesspeople? How do these interrelated concerns affect one another and the representation of Caribbean life both inwardly and to the broader world?

 



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