- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Okay but I actually want to read this.
Information Studies/McGill University
Evelina: A Life-Story of a Book, Told by Its Paratext.
Originally posted at There’s Research on That!
With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies, claiming that he would bring back coal while putting miners to work. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?
Much research has shown that the loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to mechanization and labor-cutting management practices — not environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is unfounded. Instead, it’s used to scapegoat environmentalists and draw our attention away from corporations and changes in the global economy.
Even if Trump’s executive order could bring back the jobs, it might not have the effects coal miners are hoping for. Researchers find that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, keeping coal mines open does not guarantee economic prosperity and well-being. A study found that in West Virginia the counties with coal mines have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates compared to surrounding counties without active mines.
Moreover, sociologist William Freudenberg argues that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, subject to the whims of the industry. Towns in Appalachian coal country and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota become “addicted” to extraction. But dependence on fossil fuel industries is economically precarious.
Why don’t these facts change miners’ deep ties to mining as a way of life? Because many have strong cultural connections to mining, often coming from multiple generations of miners. Through her experiences working in a coal mine, anthropologist Jessica Smith Roylston saw how the miner identity connects with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for one’s family.
Industry has tapped into these sentiments to generate public support and weave the industry into the fabric of community life. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create a positive image through public relations and other cultural and political tactics, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads.
These corporate strategies place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, provide a cover for environmentally destructive and job-cutting industry practices, and keep coal politically relevant.
Erik Kojola is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the environment, labor, social movements and political economy.
n. a state of exhaustion inspired by an act of senseless violence, which forces you to revise your image of what can happen in this world—mending the fences of your expectations, weeding out invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface—before propping yourself up in the middle of it like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.
The post I think, if I were black, I’d start shopping for dash cams after watching this appeared first on Chris Blattman.
A set of polls by Reuters/Ipsos — the first done just before Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the primary race and the second sometime after — suggests that, when it comes to attitudes toward African Americans, Republicans who favored Cruz and (especially) Kasich have more in common with Clinton supporters than they do Trump supporters.
The first thing to notice is how overwhelmingly common it still is for Americans to believe that “black people in general” are less intelligent, ruder, lazier, and more violent and criminal than whites. Regardless of political affiliation of preferred candidate, at least one-in-five and sometimes more than one-in-three will say so.
But Trump supporters stand out. Clinton and Kasich’s supporters actually have quite similar views. Cruz’s supporters report somewhat more prejudiced views than Kasich’s. But Trump’s supporters are substantially more likely to have negative views of black compared to white people, exceeding the next most prejudiced group by ten percentage points or more in every category.
These differences are BIG. We wouldn’t be surprised to see strong attitudinal differences between Democrats and Republicans — partisanship drives a lot of polls — but for the size of the difference between Democrats and Republicans overall to be smaller than the size of the difference between Trump supporters and other Republicans is notable. It suggests that the Republican party really is divided and that Trump has carved out a space within it by cultivated a very specific appeal.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
I recently moved to a neighborhood that people routinely describe as “bad.” It’s my first time living in such a place. I’ve lived in working class neighborhoods, but never poor ones. I’ve been lucky.
This neighborhood — one, to be clear, that I had the privilege to choose to live in — is genuinely dangerous. There have been 42 shootings within one mile of my house in the last year. Often in broad daylight. Once the murderers fled down my street, careening by my front door in an SUV. One week there were six rapes by strangers — in the street and after home invasions — in seven days. People are robbed, which makes sense to me because people have to eat, but with a level of violence that I find confusing. An 11-year-old was recently arrested for pulling a gun on someone. A man was beaten until he was a quadriplegic. One day 16 people were shot in a park nearby after a parade.
I’ve lived here for a short time and — being white, middle-aged, middle class, and female — I am on the margins of the violence in my streets, and yet I have never been so constantly and excruciatingly aware of my mortality. I feel less of a hold on life itself. It feels so much more fragile, like it could be taken away from me at any time. I am acutely aware that my skin is but paper, my bones brittle, my skull just a shell ripe for bashing. I imagine a bullet sheering through me like I am nothing. That robustness that life used to have, the feeling that it is resilient and that I can count on it to be there for me, that feeling is going away.
So, when I saw the results of a new study showing that only 50% of African American teenagers believe that they will reach 35 years of age, I understood better than I have understood before. Just a tiny — a teeny, teeny, tiny — bit better.
I have heard this idea before. A friend who grew up the child of Mexican immigrants in a sketchy urban neighborhood told me that he, as a teenager, didn’t believe he’d make it to 18. I nodded my head and thought “wow,”‘ but I did not understand even a little bit. He would be between the first and second column from the right: 54% of 2nd generation Mexican immigrants expect that they may very well die before 35. I understand him now a tiny — a teeny, teeny tiny — bit better.
Sociologists Tara Warner and Raymond Swisher, the authors of the study, make clear that the consequences of this fatalism are far reaching. If a child does not believe that they might live to see another day, what motivation can there possibly be for investing in the future, for caring for one’s body, for avoiding harmful habits or dangerous activities? Why study? Why bother to see a doctor? Why not do drugs? Why avoid breaking the law?
Why wouldn’t a person put their future at risk — indeed, their very life — if they do not believe in that future, that life, at all?
If we really want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country, we cannot allow them to live in neighborhoods where desperation is so high that people turn to violence. Dangerous environments breed fatalism, rationally so. And once our children have given up on their own futures, no teachers’ encouragement, no promise that things will get better if they are good, no “up by your bootstraps” rhetoric will make a difference. They think they’re going to be dead, literally.
We need to boost these families with generous economic help, real opportunities, and investment in neighborhood infrastructure and schools. I think we don’t because the people with the power to do so don’t understand — even a teeny, teeny tiny bit — what it feels like to grow up thinking you’ll never grow up. Until they do, and until we decide that this is a form of cruelty that we cannot tolerate, I am sad to say that I feel pretty fatalistic about these children’s futures, too.
Re-posted at Pacific Standard.Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
“I decided to become a teacher because I knew what it was like to grow up poor, and I wanted to help kids in similar circumstances. I didn’t expect it to be easy. But I guess I thought there’d be only one or two kids acting up in class, and everyone else would be paying attention. Instead it’s only one or two kids who actually behave. I’m drained every day. I’ve been teaching for thirteen years. And if it wasn’t for summer break, I’d have quit already. Forty percent of my job rating is based on standardized testing. It’s the only job I know where your performance is based on how other people behave. I can’t control what’s going on outside my classroom. I can’t control if my kids are from abusive households, or don’t eat breakfast, or can’t get to school on time. But those things affect my rating when they show up in test scores. I need to find a new career where my performance is based on me.”
In 1966, nine years after gaining his Ph.D. with a dissertation titled The Self-Energy of the Scalar Nucleon, physicist Koichi Mano wrote a congratulatory letter to Richard Feynman, the man who had originally taught him at the California Institute of Technology and, more recently, joint-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman replied with an enquiry about Mano’s current job, to which Mano responded that he was “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere […] a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.” Feynman responded with this letter.
Letter taken from the More Letters of Note book which is available now in all decent, sensible, and wise bookshops. More info here. Photo by Tamiko Thiel, via Wikipedia.
I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories.
Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.
You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.
I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depends on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.
No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.
You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.
Best of luck and happiness.
Richard P. Feynman
You remember in high school history, when the teacher brought up the old, bad days of Jim Crow? With tales of poll taxes and literacy tests to ensure that access to the ballot remained exclusive to white people?
We like to think that those days are gone, that the...
“I wish I could have done more for her. Her life has been nothing but struggle. She hasn’t known many happy moments. She never had a chance to taste childhood. When we were getting on the plastic boat, I heard her say something that broke my heart. She saw her mother being crushed by the crowd, and she screamed: ‘Please don’t kill my mother! Kill me instead!’“ (Lesvos, Greece)
“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.” (Kos, Greece)
“Before leaving for Europe, I went back to Syria to see my family once more. I slept in my uncle’s barn the entire time I was there, because every day the police were knocking on my father’s door. Eventually my father told me: ‘If you stay any longer, they will find you and they will kill you.’ So I contacted a smuggler and made my way to Istanbul. I was just about to leave for Europe when I received a call from my sister. She told me that my father had been very badly beaten by police, and unless I sent 5,000 Euro for an operation, he would die. That was my money to get to Europe. But what could I do? I had no choice. Then two weeks later she called with even worse news. My brother had been killed by ISIS while he was working in an oil field. They found our address on his ID card, and they sent his head to our house, with a message: ‘Kurdish people aren’t Muslims.’ My youngest sister found my brother’s head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since.” (Kos, Greece)
“I’m a rare book librarian. I get to touch books every single day. My colleague and I have a joke that we are Defenders of Wonder. A physical book assigns a sense of reverence to the content inside. It’s the same feeling you get when you look at a painting or hear a piece of music. And I think that’s something worth defending. And just like a book gives reverence to it’s content, I think the library gives reverence to books. The building itself is a masterpiece. So many famous thinkers have come here to study and write. Just being here connects you to that lineage.”
In the archives of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, our writer found a previously unknown audiotape of an interview with a woman who’d been born into slavery.
One day in the early 1940s on the south side of Austin, Texas, a young white man named John Henry Faulk carried a very large recording machine into the home of an elderly black woman named Harriet Smith. The two were neighbors: Faulk’s family lived only four blocks from Smith, and she had known him since he was a baby. He was in his late twenties when he brought the recorder to her house, and she was in her early eighties. Faulk addressed her as “Aunt Harriet.” She called him “Mr. Faulk.”
Many years later, Faulk would remember Aunt Harriet as an amusing old woman about whom people liked to tell funny stories.
Faulk knew all about telling funny stories, especially about blacks. He had been doing this since high school, reciting Shakespeare plays, for instance, as though Hamlet and Henry IV were characters on Amos ‘n’ Andy. He cheerfully called one such performance a “nice little nigger story.”
As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, he performed these stories at social gatherings, including parties organized by his professors. He studied with famed Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, as well as John Lomax and his son Alan—who had “discovered” blues musician Lead Belly in prison in Louisiana and would later find and record Muddy Waters in the Mississippi Delta. When Dobie and the Lomaxes first met Faulk, they were impressed by his uncanny ability to ape the speech of black Americans—often as a joke.
And yet, by the standards of the day, Faulk was far less racist than most white Southerners. A few years after he interviewed Smith, he would join the NAACP. His upbringing had been unusual: His father was a longtime socialist who advocated for racial equality, and the family had lived in an integrated neighborhood in Austin. Faulk grew up playing with black children. By the time he visited Harriet Smith’s house, he had been tapped for an antiracism project—audio recording black church sermons in heavily African-American parts of the Brazos River Bottom region of East Texas. The Julius Rosenwald Foundation, an early 20th-century fund renowned for promoting black education and culture in the Jim Crow South, bankrolled the work.
To carry out the project, Faulk was given a machine that weighed more than 130 pounds and etched grooves onto a metal disc while the speaker talked into a microphone. He stored this cumbersome equipment in the back of a car and drove it to rural Texas in late 1941. There, he recorded black congregations singing and shouting, their preachers sermonizing, and families weeping at funerals. He also took the gear to Negro house parties in his own neighborhood in Austin, where he recorded young men singing blues and young women crooning Billie Holiday.
As I discovered recently, he also went to Aunt Harriet’s.
It wasn’t Smith’s only encounter with a recording device. She was of continuing interest to Faulk because she had been a slave in the 19th century, and in the previous decade, Faulk’s mentors, John and Alan Lomax, during trips they made through the South to collect folk music, had recorded some interviews with former slaves. By 1937, John Lomax was the national folklore advisor for the government’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which was part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (the WPA). One of the FWP’s projects was to record the reminiscences of elderly blacks who had been liberated from bondage at the end of the Civil War. FWP workers interviewed about 2,300 people. After the FWP was over, the Library of Congress continued to collect interviews, and Faulk participated in that effort. Almost none were audio recorded—the vast majority of the interviews were simply written down by the government workers as notes then transcribed onto paper and eventually filed in Washington. Today, these written first-person accounts of life under the peculiar institution can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg. The Library of Congress also posts them.
A few months ago, another white man, Dylann Storm Roof, visited a black church—this one in Charleston, South Carolina—and shot to death nine congregants. Months before committing the murders, he posted a comment on a white supremacy website that he administered, noting that one thing leading him to consider black people as racially inferior was his study of ex-slave narratives. These narratives showed, Roof wrote, that antebellum American slaves were happy in their bondage. Their happiness, he wrote, was being kept secret. This infuriated him.
I have reviewed many of these narratives. I started months ago, after discovering that one set of my great-great-grandparents owned two female slaves (and that another great-great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army). The skeletons of this history had for generations been closeted in my liberal, civil-rights-activist Texas Jewish family. This is a family who went to interracial fellowship gatherings in segregated Houston during the 1950s and encouraged its white children (including me) to ride at the back of the bus and to use restrooms and water fountains marked “colored” instead of “white.” Using an easy-to-find document on ancestry.com, the 1860 Federal Slave Census, I discovered my family’s slavery secret. I called a reunion of the kin to break the news. Then I developed an almost obsessive interest in the ex-slave narratives.
Going through my first few scores of them, I was shocked to notice the same thing that Roof mentioned—that many interviewees told cheerful stories about their enslavement.
Jim Allen, for instance, was an 87-year-old former slave in West Point, Mississippi when the WPA interviewed him in 1937. He talked about how much he loved his owners: “Ole Miss was so good, I’d do anything fer her.….”
John Cameron, from Jackson, Mississippi, expressed similar feelings: “My old Marster was de bes’ man in de worl’.… Us had plenty t’ eat and warm clo’es an’ shoes…us ain’t never min’ workin’ for old Marster…that meant good livin’ an’ bein’ took care of right.”
Anna Baker, at 80 years old, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, recalled running to greet her owner when he returned to the plantation from town: “Here come de marster, root toot toot!” Josephine Bristow remembered her master returning from journeys and delighting her with remarks such as, “Yonder my little niggers! How my little niggers?”
And Harriet Smith, the funny old woman in Austin, told John Henry Faulk that her white owners were “good to us. Good. They never whipped none of their colored people.”
Confused about these apparent encomiums to slavery by people who themselves had been slaves, I put down the narratives and sought out critical analysis by historians and other scholars. There are, it turns out, many reasons why elderly black people in the early 20th century might have reflected happily upon their bondage in the 19th.
One reason, the literature points out, is that almost all of the WPA interviewers were white Southerners. Some had grandparents (and even parents) who had owned the very people they were interviewing—in Southern towns still under the terroristic grip of Jim Crow. (Faulk’s grandparents had owned slaves, though he never talked publicly about that, and it’s likely that his parents had known the family who owned Harriet Smith.) Some interviewers – including Faulk, when he interviewed Harriet Smith — posed leading questions encouraging ex-slaves to emphasize the positive. Faulk asked Smith, “Some folks awful good to their slaves, weren’t they?” Lately it has come to light that when the answers weren’t positive, many WPA regional administrators abridged the transcripts. Or they mothballed the interviews entirely and never sent them to Washington.
Furthermore, many of the interviewees lived in decrepit shacks, wore ragged clothes, and were sick and hungry. The Depression was raging, and Southern blacks, routinely denied government aid because of their race, were especially desperate. Many thought the WPA interviewers, being from the government, could get them food and monetary “relief.” The interview transcripts record them begging for help. Many likely said what they thought the interviewer wanted to hear in order to receive assistance.
But perhaps the strongest and most poignant explanation for fond memories of slavery is that the majority of the interviewees, born in the 1850s and 1860s, were young children during the Civil War. (Harriet Smith was about six and a half years old when Yankee troops finally occupied Texas and declared emancipation in June 1865.) Years later, those children, now elderly, recalled that, even on the most brutal plantations of that period, slaves were not put to hard field labor until they reached the age of 10 or 12. Among enlightened owners, animal-husbandry theories abounded regarding how best to extract maximum, long-term productivity from slaves. One tenet was that the child slave’s body should be well nourished and left at rest until adolescence, to assure good development and hardiness. Thus, except for relatively light jobs such as caring for younger children, many young slave boys and girls were allowed to spend at least some of their days playing—even with their owners’ sons and daughters. Slave children typically experienced something vaguely resembling free, early white childhood, which, over eight decades later, many remembered in a haze of fondness. This is the “happiness” that Dylann Storm Roof read about. As did I.
However, just as I did, Roof undoubtedly also read chilling accounts of the way these children were treated like small animals, even in relatively good circumstances. Henry Brown, from South Carolina, remembered how his owner, a Dr. Rose, “gave me to his son, Dr. Arthur Barnwell Rose, for a Christmas present.” Solbert Butler, also of South Carolina, remembered how his “massa take me as a little boy as a pet,” with a little bed to sleep on at night near the master’s big bed—as a dog today sleeps in its owner’s room on a monogrammed dog pallet mail-ordered from Lands’ End. Jim Allen was also kept as a “pet” – after his previous master lost him in a whiskey debt. Allen recalled that his new master, the creditor, “tuk me, out’n the yard where I was playing marbles. De law ‘lowed de fust thing de man saw, he could take.”
Then, there were far worse circumstances. The mother of J. W. Terrill, of Madisonville, Texas, served, once a week for years, as her white male owner’s concubine. As a result, Terrill was mulatto, the son of “my mammy’s master.” Furious about the existence of his mixed-race issue, Terrill’s father “willed I must wear a bell till I was 21 years old, strapped ‘round my shoulders with the bell ‘bout three feet from my head in steel frame.” Terrill commented to the WPA interviewer that he “never knowed what it was to lay down in bed and get a good night’s sleep till I was ‘bout 17 year old, when my father died and my missy took the bell offen me.”
Then there were the auctions, during which, even if children were not the goods for sale, they witnessed other people on the block and never forgot it. Jake Terriell, during his childhood as a slave in South Carolina, told his interviewer that he “seed slaves sold and you has heared cattle bawl when de calves took from de mammy and dat de way de slaves bawls.”
Children saw and overheard casual murder, with utter lack of response from authorities except to dispose of the bodies. Lou Williams, from Maryland, recalled living “close to de meanest owner in de country…he keeps overseers to beat de niggers and he has de big leather bullwhip with lead in de end, and he beats some slaves to death. We heared dem holler and holler till dey couldn’t holler no mo! Den dey jes’ sorta grunt every lick till dey die…de whole top of de ground jes’ looks like a river of blood…sometime de law come out and make him bury dem.”
“Lawd, Lawd,” Williams concluded. “Dem was awful times.”
But to the eyes of white transcribers and even contemporary readers, those times probably don’t seem as bad as they would if they had been written down for posterity in Standard English—all those “de’s” for “the,” “jes” for “just,” that man who remembered how he “seed” slaves being auctioned rather than saw them, the children who “heared” instead of heard dying people holler until they “hollered no mo.” All those apostrophes and missing consonants at the ends of syllables, the mangled verbs, and verbs about things that happened past tense yet were uttered using the present. Verbs describing people who, the interviewees knew, had died as slaves many years ago, yet the ex-slaves said of these people that “they die,” as if their deaths were just happening or had not yet happened.
How curious nowadays to read these quirks of English. They were quirks that white writers used to mock black people, even before Mark Twain practically institutionalized the practice. In the pages of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s black character, Jim, spoke in a riot of misspelling. Twain’s use of “nex’ day” for “next day,” “git” for “get,” “didn’” for “didn’t,” and “uv” for “of” is what linguists call eye writing, because it brings dialect to the eye. To the reader, this orthography makes the speech of people like Jim look different from educated white people’s speech. But eye writing is a cheap, hierarchical trick. In fact, many Americans of different classes, geographic regions, and ethnicities say “uv”, “nex’ day,” and “didn’.”
Yet in fiction, funny-page cartoons, and folklore scholarship from the late 19th century until well into the 20th, eye writing was a common way of marking and (consciously or unconsciously) belittling classes of people considered less successful or less than American. Immigrants were one target. Another was white Appalachians (whose speech was extravagantly eye-written in the comic strip Li’l Abner).
Eye writing probably targeted blacks more than any other group. Respectable writers did the work, and respectable readers chuckled. In 1932, the dean of the Texas State College for Women published Chocolate Drops from the South, a collection of what his grandson Edmund V. White III, the renowned contemporary writer about gay life, would many years later deride as “’nigger’ joke books.” The jokes were replete with stereotypes about blacks: that the females were promiscuous and ever ready to cheat on their husbands, that males were happily prone to commit deadly violence with guns, knives, and dangerous household goods. A typical joke in Chocolate Drops has a woman asking “Rufus,” her partner, “Whut is yo’ gwine do wid dat razor?” Rufus answers, “See dem two shoes undah de baid. If de ain’t no man in ‘em, Ah is gwine tuh shave.” Also included is a joke about a lynching. In one of her “My Day” newspaper columns from 1937, Eleanor Roosevelt enthusiastically recommended Chocolate Drops to “anyone who wants a laugh a day.”
Meanwhile, those WPA interviews, which Dylann Storm Roof and the rest of us would encounter decades later, are replete with stories of “happiness” rendered in the most egregious eye writing: “Ever since I a child I is liked white folks…I got a heap mo’ in slavery dan I does now; was sorry when Freedom got here.”
There is one tiny set of ex-slave interviews that is unequivocally dignified. These are audio recordings of about a dozen people, made mostly in the 1930s and ’40s. They total some 260 minutes, just over four hours. Some are so clear that you can’t believe they are more than a half-century old; others are scratchy and muffled. Regardless of quality, however, the sounds on these recordings go straight to the ear, unmarred by eye writing. They are unadulterated voices of human beings, reminiscing about their enslavement.
One is a man who (it has since been established) was a great-great-grandson of Betty Hemings, the slave matriarch at Monticello, one of whose children was Sally Hemings, the enslaved mother of six of Thomas Jefferson’s children. A photo taken in 1949, the year he was interviewed (not as part of the WPA, but by a Library of Congress engineer who was also his nephew) shows the man gray-bearded and tall yet bent with age. From his first utterance, he booms, belts, and declaims, like an oracle from an ancient world. “My name is Fountain Hughes!” he shouts. He tells us he is 101 years old, from Virginia, and that his grandfather belonged to the president.
And then, in the absence of eye writing to bemuse, confuse, or amuse us, Fountain Hughes’s voice—the voice of an American who was enslaved—raises our skin with gooseflesh.
So does Harriet Smith’s voice on a recording John Henry Faulk made of her in Austin, which he sent to Washington. Speaking to him in the 1940s, she now speaks to us from the living dead of history—and from the Library of Congress.
***Click to view slideshow.
Smith’s and the other ex-slaves’ stories were, for a long time, unavailable to the public. Finally, in 1972, the written interviews, filed with the Library of Congress in the 1940s, were published as a mammoth series titled The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. But the small collection of audio recordings, etched in lacquer and aluminum, remained in storage and mostly forgotten.
Publication of the written interviews corresponded with a rash of interest by sociolinguists in what has come to be known as AAVE, or African American Vernacular English.
One of these scholars was Columbia University’s William Labov (now at the University of Pennsylvania), who, in the 1960s, researched inner-city black children’s dialect in African-American communities like Harlem. Education researchers and schoolteachers had assumed that black students were speech deprived and intellectually inferior. Labov’s investigations showed that, on the contrary, nationwide, African-American vernacular speech was as complex and grammatical as any other dialect.
Labov’s work fit well into the era of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and the War on Poverty. It was buttressed when linguists such as J. L. Dillard proposed that the dialect of American blacks came not from fractured versions of white Southerners’ speech, but from an antique, transatlantic pidgin used by European and English slave traders to communicate with one another and with their human cargo. By definition, a pidgin is a language with reduced vocabulary and simplified grammar that is native to none of its speakers. The transatlantic version probably had no verbs inflected for past tense, only one or two pronouns, and a mélange of words from Romance, English, and African languages. By definition, if a pidgin is spoken long enough, children are born who end up speaking it as a native language. At that point it ceases being a pidgin and starts to “creolize,” meaning that its grammar gains complexity, and its vocabulary expands. Dillard believed that, beginning in colonial America, slave children on plantations came to speak a creole similar to those spoken on slave-plantation islands of the Caribbean. And eventually, the creole evolved into a modern dialect: African American Vernacular English.
Dillard presented intriguing evidence for his thesis. Take “pickaninny,” a Southern word for a black child. Dillard argued that this word came from pequeño or pequeñiño, Spanish and Portuguese, respectively, for “small.” Words from these languages were widespread in the transatlantic pidgin, Dillard pointed out, and some must have been handed down to American Black English.
There was other evidence of creolization. Black vernacular speech tends to omit the “copula,” forms of “be,” as in “He going” and “My father tall.” Meanwhile, the dialect adds “aspect” markers before verbs, such as “done” for the perfective, completed past (“She done put on a clown costume yesterday”) and “be” for the imperfect or habitual (“She always be a clown on Halloween”).
Other linguists disagreed with Dillard that Black English in America derived from pidgin and creole. They thought it was more of a remnant of 18th- and 19th-century white speech, including archaic features—such as “brung” for “brought” and “ax” for “ask”—that almost no white people in America use today but that were common centuries ago in white America and parts of Great Britain.
In the late 1980s, the Library of Congress dubbed the ex-slave audio recordings onto tape. Sociolinguists studying black vernacular English got excited—they assumed that even though people like Harriet Smith and Fountain Hughes were interviewed in the 20th century, their grammar and pronunciation were essentially the same as when they were children in the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s. Finding the tapes was like unearthing a time capsule, and the linguists couldn’t wait to compare ex-slaves’ speech with that of contemporary blacks. The differences would cast light on the evolution of a dialect and show whether it was “converging” with contemporary white speech, as the linguists put it, or diverging because of persistent racial segregation and inequality.
For one thing, the ex-slaves did not speak with the comico-linguistic neatness of an Amos ‘n’ Andy show. For every occasion when an elderly interviewee left out the copula in one phrase, in another utterance, a form of “to be” appeared. Fountain Hughes provides a typical example. “We afraid to go,” he said, recalling a night, in his boyhood, soon after liberation, when he was homeless and worried about finding a safe place to sleep. In a previous sentence, however, Hughes had said, “we was afraid to go.” Harriet Smith spoke similarly. She almost always said “was” and “were” when referring to the past. But then she didn’t, as when talking about her younger siblings, born in freedom, versus an antebellum cohort of children that included her: “We the only two in slavery times.”
In trying to interpret grammatical variations in ex-slave speech, another challenge researchers faced was that they knew very little about their audiotaped informants. They knew that most had been children in bondage. But what happened after the Civil War? Where did they live? How did they make a living? Did they receive any schooling? What exposure did they have to white speech, first as slaves and then as free people?
Information like this is crucial to understanding how and why a person speaks as she does. It wasn’t just that the WPA interviewers hadn’t asked— sometimes they had. A bigger problem was that years after the interviews yet still before the Internet, it was exceedingly difficult to research the biographies of humble people who were no longer alive.
And perhaps the biggest problem: Even when an ex-slave provided detailed information about life during and after liberation, the data sometimes got misfiled, or worse, ignored.
Take Harriet Smith. When Smith correctly told Faulk she was from near the little, Hill Country Texas town Buda, he at first repeated the town name correctly, then changed the “d” sound to “l.” This second pronunciation was wrong, but Faulk’s voice prevailed over Smith’s. The Library of Congress interview transcript has her as being from near “Beullah”—a non-existent name in the Texas geography lexicon (a town named “Beulah” with one “l” did briefly exist at the turn of last century, but it has no relationship to Buda or to Harriet Smith).
Just as anyone can sit in a bathrobe today and play with Ancestry.com to find out which white people owned slaves, it’s also easy to learn where the slaves lived after they were freed. Starting in 1870, the census shows Smith as a young teenager in a rural community just about twenty miles south of Austin, in Hays County, Texas. She stays in Hays County until the census finds her in 1920, at age 62, in Austin, only doors from Faulk’s house. There is no evidence that Smith ever lived elsewhere, and when she talks about her life on the recordings, she talks only about these places—in detail.
But it seems that neither Faulk nor those who later analyzed Smith’s utterances really listened. For years the Library of Congress, and every book and scholarly article that has mentioned her, have described her as an ex-field-slave from Hempstead, Texas.
Hempstead is notorious lately. It is where Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, died in a county jail this year, after being stopped and arrested by a state trooper who violated her rights. Hempstead is more than 100 miles from Hays County and Austin, in a region of East Texas with a terrible history. Before the Civil War and long into Jim Crow, the economy of Hempstead and its environs derived from cotton and plantations; its culture was plagued by racism that was entrenched and violent. Between 1877 and 1950, Waller County, which encompasses Hempstead, had far more lynchings than most other Texas counties.
Faulk knew how bad things were there. Driving through the area in 1941 with his recording gear, he talked to a black woman who remembered another woman, a mother, who “refused to allow her little 7 yr. old boy to go work for some white man,” as Faulk wrote to Alan Lomax. “She sassed the white man and he came back and killed her.” Faulk quoted another black woman complaining that in Hempstead proper, “they won’t let us Negroes have chu’ch aftuh 10 at night.” A man remarked that, though the Civil War had been over for generations, “The folks down dere ain nevuh heahed dey’s free yit.”
“Chu’ch.” “Nevuh.” “Yit.” Albeit with a pen instead of his voice, Faulk couldn’t help doing Amos ‘n’ Andy.
For sociolinguists studying the history of Black English, it’s vital to know about things like plantations and lynchings. Pidgins and creoles are thought to have developed when slaves had little contact with whites, especially in brutal plantation economies, where relatively few owners lived among overwhelming numbers of blacks. That was the situation in Hempstead. But not in Texas Hill Country, where Smith grew up and where the economy was dominated by livestock breeding on small spreads with a handful of slaves apiece, and where white families lived in relative intimacy with their chattel. Smith’s mother borrowed her mistress’s gray horse to run errands.
Smith told Faulk all about this. She told him the names of her owner and his brothers, a prominent family—one brother was John Wheeler Bunton, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. No doubt Faulk and his family knew the Buntons. The census shows that before and after the Civil War, they lived exactly where Smith said they did, in Hays County, just south of Austin. But when Faulk sent Smith’s interview to Washington, it must have been bundled with his church-service discs. An apparent clerical error turned Smith into a field laborer on a big East Texas plantation—even though she described herself in the audio as a “nurse,” meaning a babysitter during slavery, whose grandmother had been a midwife (apparently for white as well as black women), and whose mother was the white Bunton family’s cook. All this means that Smith’s linguistic world was probably quite different from what sociolinguists have supposed—far more integrated with that of white people.
And they were not just any white people. Another fact about Harriet Smith emerges easily nowadays via one of those bath-robed perusals of Ancestry.com. In her interview long available from the Library of Congress, Smith tells Faulk that her owner during slavery was “Jim Bunton, the baby boy.” She was talking about James Monroe Bunton, the youngest of several slave-holding brothers out on the ranches and farmlands near Austin. One, Robert Holmes Bunton, had a daughter named Eliza. Born in 1849, she was destined before the Civil War to be a slave holder by inheritance–perhaps even to receive one as a Christmas gift or wedding present. During visits to her extended family, she may have played with an item of her uncle’s property: the young child Harriet Smith. Eliza was the grandmother of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
This year, not long after I learned about the slaves in my family, I had a chance to go through John Henry Faulk’s archives at UT Austin’s Briscoe Center. Faulk left behind hundreds of tapes that are now MP3 files. I listened, aghast, to his “nigger stories.” I sampled his spoofs of conservative yahoos and heard his lovingly recorded East Texas black church services from before World War II.
Then I noticed an MP3 marked “Harriet Smith.” I recognized the name from that obsessed time when I’d plowed through the ex-slave narratives. I listened and realized I was hearing 17 minutes of a recording that Faulk had somehow neglected to send to the Library of Congress. I called an archivist there. He said they had many other minutes of Smith, of course—the stuff filed for years under “Hempstead, Texas.” But the archivists at the Library of Congress didn’t have this segment. They’d never heard of it.
The tape I discovered is in some ways no different from the Harriet Smith material that scholars have known about for decades. People used to use the bark from live oak trees to make medicine, she reminisces in response to Faulk’s questions about her youth. Her grandmother baked “fine” cakes for Sunday dinner. Panthers once roamed the area and killed the family’s calves.
But in this same interview, Smith gives utterly chilling reminiscences of slavery that I have not seen or heard in other narratives. She describes children being rounded up to be sold at auction. It wasn’t a white person who did the rounding up. It was a “colored man,” Smith says, perhaps to maintain calm among the children, to keep them from suspecting they were about to be sold. The colored man, Smith tells Faulk, “carry these children down.…He say, ‘Bid that child a thousand dollars’….Sold ‘em just like you sell your stock in Austin.”
And the most nauseating recollection of all: Smith remembering a conversation with a preacher she knew, who told her about a woman whose young son was sold from her. The son grew up, and after freedom, Smith says, he apparently met his mother and the two didn’t know they were kin. “He married her own son and didn’t know it,” Smith says.
“Lord, have mercy!” Faulk says, shocked. Apparently he had not noticed what you might have just now: that Smith used the masculine pronoun “he” to represent a mother. Pronoun reduction—changing “she’s” to “he’s”—is a classic feature of a creole. Maybe it provides evidence for the linguists’ “creolization” hypothesis; maybe it doesn’t. One thing is certain: If one were too attentive to the fine points of Black English grammar, one might forget that Smith was describing something beyond grammar—that two black people were forced into one of our culture’s worst nightmares. Parent-child incest.
Smith’s own family seems to have clawed itself out of the horror of slavery and made heroic lives for themselves. Here again, Faulk paid no attention.
In the recorded interviews, Smith drops myriad crumbs of information about her childhood in Hays County, near the little town of Buda. In the 1870s, a white man sold a few hundred acres of adjacent land to a group of freed slaves, including Smith’s parents, Clarisa and Elias Bunton. They called their new, all-black agricultural colony Antioch, after the ancient Greek city known as the cradle of Christianity. Smith’s family not only farmed their land in Antioch, but in 1874 they also donated a parcel to build a school for the colony’s black children released from bondage.
John Henry Faulk died in 1990; his grave is in Austin. Within a generation of his recorded encounter with Harriet Smith, Faulk had largely abandoned his imitations of black dialect. In 1974, on National Public Radio, he told a folksy story about Christmas in rural Texas in which the black and white characters all talked exactly alike. A few years later, he confessed to an interviewer on Austin television that he felt “uncomfortable” with the eye writing of his youth.
Harriet Smith died in 1946, 69 years before Dylann Storm Roof got so upset about the ex-slave narratives, and an equal number of years before Sandra Bland was arrested and died in jail in Hempstead.
Smith is buried in an all-black cemetery in the old black agricultural colony Antioch, nowhere near Hempstead. Sandra Bland lies underground in the suburbs of Chicago.
In South Carolina, Dylann Storm Roof awaits trail for multiple murders and faces a sentence of death.
[This is a short summary; please click the story headline to read the full story on our site]
I usually try to avoid posting videos that are more than five minutes long, but this commentary about trans rights from John Oliver was too great to pass up. He does a wonderful job of introducing what it means to be transgender, as well as discussing:
- media coverage,
- the terrible statistics on discrimination and anti-trans violence,
- the gender binary in institutions and institutional inertia,
- and the ridiculousness of “bathroom bills.”
Mostly, he just does a great job of talking about how easy it really is to just get over it and treat people like people.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
All eyes are on the Confederate flag, but let’s not forget what enabled Roof to turn his ideology into death with such efficiency.Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Ranting About Feminism: It’s racist for you to ask me to overlook no diversity. And I’m not fucking doing it.
I don’t know how many of you guys know about it but this new movie, “Mad Max” just came out and has already reached critical acclaim. I haven’t seen it , but it’s supposed to be this groundbreaking masterpiece and a huge step for feminism. Which is all good and dandy In theory. But on tumblr there’s been a lot of criticism because the ALL white cast (with the minor exception of Zoe Kravitz). One of the most frustrating things about these types of movies and conversations is that there’s ALWAYS these white feminists that want to tell POC that we have to overlook lack of diversity and basically “take one for the team” (the team being feminism/woman). No. I’m not going to do it. It is fucking disrespectful and borderline racist for you, a white person, to tell minority women that we have to ignore not being represented. Since turning 18 and starting to really think about racism and the media, it is especially uncomfortable for me to watch movies and tv shows with NO people of color. This world is mostly non white and it simply doesn’t make sense for our media to not represent it. And as for feminism, this is not the first time this has happened. When Girls came out, minority women were expected to ignore the show having an all white cast because it was written and directed by Lena Dunham. And anyone who dared to not ignore this issue was considered “non progressive”. This is why I don’t identity as feminist. Because this is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for these huge steps for feminism to not include people of color. And if you’re white and telling people to get over it, you’re a part of the fucking problem.
Okay, I don’t want to take away from some really great points you’re making about how white feminism often downplay or outright dismiss the representation of women of color, especially in discussions of mainstream media WOC are often silenced or ignored.
However, I need to point a few errors that are a common form of microaggression that I see pop up all the time in intersectional discussions of representation, specifically in regard to the recognition of indigenous women of color.
There are THREE women of color in Mad Max Fury Road. Zoe Kravitz (which you already listed), but also Courtney Eaton and Megan Gale. Eaton and Gale are biracial Maori women. The presence of Polynesian women in this film and a fictional future are incredibly important on multiple levels.
The Mad Max films are set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. In fact, the franchise began as Australian films, George Miller the writer/director/creator of this world is Australian. This is not merely a geographic location, but an important cultural context for the films.
What’s important about the location and the presence of Polyneisan women within this future world is how their very roles reflect the history of colonialism in the Pacific region. Polynesian people were forced to relocate, our cultures and even identities erased. Many of us are biracial and our own ethic identity are often erased due to a form of cultural genocide that was not unlike what was done to Indigenous people of the Americas.
Polynesian women have long been viewed as tokens of exotic beauty. Taken as trophies, and forced in to sex work. Not unlike Fragile. Some, like The Valkyrie who actively fought against colonial oppressors. While Zoe/Toast is biracial black and Ashkenzai jew, she two represents an aspect of WOC’s journey through white supremacy and colonialism which was the driving force behind the trans-atlantic slave trade.
Polynesians often are erased, or mistakenly seen as white passing often because White Western culture only teaches how to see black or white, ignoring or wholesale erasing all the many colors in between. One of the really ugly truths behind why so many indigenous people are “white passing” is because of the long legacy of us being raped by white oppressors. Many of us only being valued as “pretty” sexual objects for the enjoyment and consumption of white men.
There is a BIG difference between being white passing and having your ethnicity erase from mainstream awareness. People, even POC, default code Polynesian women as white because they only SEE the parts of our features that are stereotypically viewed to be “white.”
I immediately recognizing Fragile and The Valkyrie as women of color, and was deeply moved about how their presence and individual roles in this film reflects the struggles of many indigenous women throughout history and to see them empowered and fighting back against their oppressors made my heart soar.
Also there ARE other people of color in the film, though by virtue of the dominate culture in the film being literally white male supremacy, the only men of color we see are in the lowest cast of society. Not uncommon in colonialism either, given how white men see MOC as a threat to their power and masculinity.
My only real complaint about race in this film is the lack of Indigenous Australians in leading roles. There are a few of them crowd shots of the Citadel’s lower class, and at the end of the film we see a disabled Indigenous Australian man become the focus of a full two second shot, acting as the face of the oppressed class as he is quite literally is lifted up to salvation by women of color.
There are powerful visual moments in this film, that tell not just a story of punching down the patriarchy, but of the dismantling of colonial oppression where indigenous women play key roles in the fight and future of the world.
So please don’t steal this context from the these women. It is very important to many women of color.I’m a Maori woman and it means so much to me to hear someone say FINALLY point this out. I wanna say this to ALL of tumblr so LISTEN UP!The line between POC and White is very blurred in my culture. There are no ‘full’ Maori left, so everyone is biracial. I wanna point out that this is a very old way of thinking, as nowadays if you’re Maori then that’s it. YOU. ARE. MAORI.No matter what you look like, you are Tangata Whenua (people of the land). But I’ll be using it to get my point across.There are people with all sorts of different skin colours in my culture now and It makes me SEETHE whenever I see comments like the op. How DARE you dismiss ANYONE FROM A CULTURE THAT ISN’T EVEN YOUR OWN, just because you have been taught to only see in black and white and you can’t accept the fact that they’re from said culture JUST because they don’t ‘look like it’. For us, having people with dark skin, light skin and everything inbetween is NORMAL and we don’t question it.So don’t you DARE say that those beautiful woman in that film ‘DON’T COUNT’ We aren’t just some three letter word that you can label us with at your convenience. ‘PoC’ is not some super secret club. You don’t get to decide who is Maori and who is not. So you take that racist BS and shove it because we’re not interested. Especially when it is coming from someone who knows nothing about our culture and the people in it.Also, I know your intentions were good but PLEASE don’t refer to us as ‘white-passing’ as it’s just another way to isolate people within their own culture. We are Maori. End of story.
Co-sign from this NZ-raised Polynesian woman.
We’re all mixed here. All of us. It’s so normal that we don’t put a freaking percentage on it and we realise that heritage and ethnicity is more than the colour of your skin, your particular shade of brown or how ‘ethnic’ your features are. It’s what you are.
One of my favourite parts of this movie was to see my people on a movie screen. It’s so rare for those of us of polynesian heritage to see ourselves reflected back in cinema and to see posts and articles that erase our culture or dismiss our heritage because we aren’t dark enough for someone of another culture is not only racist and ignorant, it’s also incredibly hurtful.
Reblogging because this is important stuff.
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Television evangelist Pat Robertson once described feminism as “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” His comment is frequently used as a particularly extreme version of the feminist stereotype, but how far are his sentiments from those of the general public?
A more systematic investigation into what people think about feminists found that many people think that feminists are ugly, uptight, angry, aggressive, harsh, strident, demanding, dogmatic, man-hating lesbians… or think other people think they are. Only 26 percent of people say that feminist is a positive term.
This suggests that actual feminists have lost control over their own reputation. It would be counterproductive, after all, for feminists to portray themselves as unlikeable. Negative stereotypes about feminists, instead, are likely spread by anti-feminists.
Anti-suffrage campaign material is one example. The images below tells a story about who the feminist women fighting for suffrage are and what they want. It’s all pre-1920s, but the stereotypes and fears are similar.
Feminists are ugly:
Next time you hear that feminists are ugly or hate men — or any number of stereotypes about women who seek equality — remember that this is exactly what anti-feminists have wanted you to think for the last 200 years.
Thanks to Jay Livingston for the tip!Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez. Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”
White male nerds need to recognise that other people had traumatic upbringings, too - and that's different from structural oppression.
A few people have forwarded me MIT professor Scott Aaronson’s post about nerd trauma and male privilege (link here, it's comment #171) It's part of a larger discussion about sexism in STEM subjects, and its essence is simple. Aaronson's position on feminism is supportive, but he can’t get entirely behind it because of his experiences growing up, which he details with painful honesty. He describes how mathematics was an escape, for him, from the misery of growing up in a culture of toxic masculinity and extreme isolation - a misery which drove him to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The key quote is this:
“Much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my 'male privilege' — my privilege! — is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience . . . I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me 'privileged' — that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes — is completely alien to your way of seeing things. I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not 'entitled', not 'privileged', but terrified.”
I know them feels, Scott.
As a child and a teenager, I was shy, and nerdy, and had crippling anxiety. I was very clever and desperate for a boyfriend or, failing that, a fuck. I would have done anything for one of the boys I fancied to see me not as a sad little boffin freak but as a desirable creature, just for a second. I hated myself and had suicidal thoughts. I was extremely lonely, and felt ugly and unloveable. Eventually I developed severe anorexia and nearly died.
Like Aaronson, I was terrified of making my desires known- to anyone. I was not aware of any of my (substantial) privilege for one second - I was in hell, for goodness' sake, and 14 to boot. Unlike Aaronson, I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way. I am still punished every day by men who believe that I do not deserve my work as a writer and scholar. Some escape it's turned out to be.
I do not intend for a moment to minimise Aaronson's suffering. Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of "being bullied at school doesn't make you oppressed". Maybe it's not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing. It burns. It takes a long time to heal. Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for "shy, nerdy men". Patriarchy is to blame for that. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Andrea Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool. Weaponised shame - male, female or other - has no place in any feminism I subscribe to. Ironically, Aronson actually writes a lot like Dworkin - he writes from pain felt and relived and wrenched from the intimate core of himself, and because of that his writing is powerfully honest, but also flawed. The thing is that the after effects of trauma tend to hang around long after the stimulus is past.
And this, for me, is the root and tragedy both of nerd entitlement and the disaster of heterosexuality.
What fascinates me about Aaronson's piece, in which there was such raw, honest suffering, was that there was not one mention of women in any respect other than how they might relieve him from his pain by taking pity, or educating him differently. And Aaronson is not a misogynist. Aaronson is obviously a compassionate, well-meaning and highly intelligent man - I don’t doubt that I’ll meet him someday, as he’s a mentor to several people I respect and lives in the city I live in, and when that happens, I’ll tell him I think so.
Nonetheless, he makes a sudden leap, and it’s a leap that comes right from the gut, from an honest place of trauma and post-rationalisation, from that teenage misery to a universal story of why nerdy men are in fact among the least privileged men out there, and why holding those men to account for the lack of representation of women in STEM areas - in the most important fields both of human development and social mobility right now, the places where power is being created and cemented right now - is somehow unfair. Nerds are not like the ‘neanderthals’, the REAL abusers of women. They should get a break.
I have a profound political belief that we all deserve a break. Take one now, for five seconds, because this is going to get heavier. Breathe. Are you done?
Ok, let’s do this.
These are curious times. Gender and privilege and power and technology are changing and changing each other. We've also had a major and specific reversal of social fortunes in the past 30 years. Two generations of boys who grew up at the lower end of the violent hierarchy of toxic masculinity - the losers, the nerds, the ones who were afraid of being creeps - have reached adulthood and found the polarity reversed. Suddenly they're the ones with the power and the social status. Science is a way that shy, nerdy men pull themselves out of the horror of their teenage years. That is true. That is so. But shy, nerdy women have to try to pull themselves out of that same horror into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women, and to a certain otherwise very intelligent sub-set of nerdy men, the category "woman" is defined primarily as "person who might or might not deny me sex, love and affection".
(And you ask me, where were those girls when you were growing up? And I answer: we were terrified, just like you, and ashamed, just like you, and waiting for someone to take pity on our lonely abject pubescence, hungry to be touched. But you did not see us there. We were told repeatedly, we ugly, shy nerdy girls, that we were not even worthy of the category "woman". It wasn't just that we were too shy to approach anyone, although we were; it was that we knew if we did we'd be called crazy. And if we actually got the sex we craved? (because some boys who were too proud to be seen with us in public were happy to fuck us in private and brag about it later) . . . then we would be sluts, even more pitiable and abject. Aaronson was taught to fear being a creep and an objectifier if he asked; I was taught to fear being a whore or a loser if I answered, never mind asked myself. Sex isn't an achievement for a young girl. It's something we're supposed to embody so other people can consume us, and if we fail at that, what are we even for?)
The notion that there are lots of horny teenage girls out there who are unable for all sorts of reasons to get laid remains a genuine surprise to many of my most intelligent male friends, but trust me, we were out there. We're still out there, and if one of you is reading this, honey, you are a worthwhile person, and it gets better. Or at least, you get stronger.
Hi there, shy, nerdy boys. Your suffering was and is real. I really fucking hope that it got better, or at least is getting better, At the same time, I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright. Privilege doesn't mean you don't suffer, which, I know, totally blows.
Women generally don't get to think of men as less than human, not because we're inherently better people, not because our magical feminine energy makes us more empathetic, but because patriarchy doesn't let us. We're really not allowed to just not consider men's feelings, or to suppose for an instant that a man's main or only relevance to us might be his prospects as a sexual partner. That's just not the way this culture expects us to think about men. Men get to be whole people at all times. Women get to be objects, or symbols, or alluring aliens whose responses you have to game to "get" what you want.
This is why Silicon Valley Sexism. This is why Pick Up Artists. This is why Rape Culture.
Scott, imagine what it's like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that. Or how about a triple whammy: you have to go through your entire school years again but this time you're a lonely nerd who also faces sexism and racism. This is why Silicon Valley is fucked up. Because it's built and run by some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least. People whose received trauma makes them disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression. People who don't want to hear that there is anyone more oppressed than them, who definitely don't want to hear that maybe women and people of colour had to go through the hell of nerd puberty as well, because they haven't recovered from their own appalling nerdolescence. People who definitely don’t want to hear that, smart as they are, there might be basic things about society that they haven’t understood, because they have been prevented from understanding by the very forces that caused them such pain as children.
Heterosexuality is fucked up right now because whilst we've taken steps towards respecting women as autonomous agents, we can't quite let the old rules go. We have an expectation for, a craving for of a sexual freedom that our rhetoric, our rituals and our sexual socialisation have not prepared us for. And unfortunately for men, they have largely been socialised - yes, even the feminist-identified ones - to see women as less than fully human. Men, particularly nerdy men, are socialised to blame women - usually their peers and/or the women they find sexually desirable for the trauma and shame they experienced growing up. If only women had given them a chance, if only women had taken pity, if only done the one thing they had spent their own formative years been shamed and harassed and tormented into not doing. If only they had said yes, or made an approach.
This, incidentally, is why we're not living in a sexual utopia of freedom and enthusiastic consent yet despite having had the technological capacity to create such a utopia for at least 60 years. Men are shamed for not having sex; women are shamed for having it. Men are punished and made to feel bad for their desires, made to resent and fear women for having denied them the sex they crave and the intimacy they're not allowed to get elsewhere. Meanwhile, women are punished and made to feel bad for their perfectly normal desires and taught to resist all advances, even Eventually, a significant minority of men learn that they can 'get' what they want by means of violence and manipulation, and a significant minority of women give in, because violence and manipulation can be rather effective. (Note: accepting the advances of an awful man does not make these people bad women who are conspiring to 'make life hell for shy nerds'. I've heard that sort of thing come out of the mouths of my feminist-identified male nerd friends far too often.)
And so we arrive at an impasse: men must demand sex and women must refuse, except not too much because then we're evil friendzoning bitches. The impasse continues until one or both parties grows up enough or plumps up the courage to state their desires honestly and openly, without pressure or resentment, respecting the consent and agency of one another.
This usually doesn't happen. What usually happens instead is that people's sexuality and self-esteem get twisted into resentment of the (usually opposite) gender; they start to see that gender as less than human, particularly if they are men and learn at every stage of their informal and formal education that women are just worth less, have always been less, are not as smart, not as good, not as humanly human as men. Aaronson goes on to comment that this “death-spiral” is a product of the times. I agree. “In a different social context — for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine,” he writes. Scott, my great-grandparents also lived in a shtetl. I understand that you sometimes feel you might have been better adapted to that sort of life - when dating and marriage were organised to make things easy for clever young men. On the same Shtetl, however, I would have been married at a young age to a man who would have been the legal owner of my body, my property and the children I would have been expected to have; I would never have been allowed to be a scholar. I would have worked in the fields as well as the home to support my husband in his more cerebral pursuits, and with my small weedy nerdy frame, I would likely have died young from exhaustion or in childbirth.
There are a lot of young men out there - I suspect even now - who sometimes wish they'd been born when things were a bit easier, when the balance of male versus female sexual shame was tilted more sharply by the formal rituals of patriarchy, when men could just take or be assigned what they wanted, as long as they were also white and straight.
There are a lot of older men out there who long for that real or imagined world more openly, and without any of Aaronson's nuance and compassion. I would challenge men to analyse that longing, to see it for what it is. And then to resist it. You are smarter and better than that.
What can I say? This is a strange and difficult age, one of fast-paced change and misunderstandings. Nerd culture is changing, technology is changing, and our frameworks for gender and power are changing - for the better. And the backlash to that change is painful as good, smart people try to rationalise their own failure to be better, to be cleverer, to see the other side for the human beings they are. Finding out that you’re not the Rebel Alliance, you’re actually part of the Empire and have been all along, is painful. Believe me, I know. (Although I always saw myself as an Ewok). We bring our broken hearts and blue balls to the table when we talk gender politics, especially if we are straight folks. Consent and the boundaries of consent - desire and what we're allowed to speak of desire - we're going to have to get better, braver and more honest, we're going to have to undo decades of toxic socialisation and learn to speak to each other as human beings in double quick time.
And most of all, we're going to have to make like Princess Elsa and let it go - all that resentment. All that rage and entitlement and hurt. Socialisation makes that process harder still for men. The road ahead will be long. I believe in you. I believe in all of us. Nerds are brilliant. We are great at learning stuff. We can do anything we put our minds to, although I suspect this thing, this refusing to let the trauma of nerdolescence create more violence, this will be hardest of all.
And on that note I shall return to what I was doing before I read this post, which was drinking sweet tea and weeping about how boys don't seem to want to kiss short-haired lady nerds, and trying not to blame the whole world for my broken heart, which is becoming more complex and interesting in the healing but still stings like a boiling ball of papercuts. I'll let you know how that goes.
This is so powerful.
"When I was a freshman, my sister was in eighth grade. There was a boy in two of her periods who..."
One day, in third period, after being rejected several times, he said; “I have a gun in my locker. If you don’t say yes, I am going to shoot you in seventh.”
She refused again, but right after class she went to the principal’s office and told them what happened. They searched his locker and there was a gun in his backpack.
When he was arrested, some of my sister’s friends (some female, even) told her that she was selfish for saying no so many times. That because of her, the entire school was in jeopardy. That it wouldn’t have killed her to say yes and give it a try, but because she was so mean to him, he lost his temper. Many of her male friends said it was “girls like her” that made all women seem like cockteases.
Wouldn’t have killed her to say yes? If a man is willing to shoot someone for saying no, what happens to the poor soul who says yes? What happens the first time they disagree? What happens the first time she says she doesn’t want to have sex? That she isn’t in the mood? When they break up?
Years later, when I was a senior, I was the only girl in my Criminal Justice class. The teacher, who used to be a sergeant in the police force, told us a story of something that had happened to a girl he knew when she was in high school. There was a guy who obviously had a crush on her and he made her uncomfortable. One day he finally gathered up the courage to ask her out, and she said no.
The next day, during an assembly, he pulled a gun on her in front of everyone and threatened to kill her if she didn’t date him.
He was tackled to the ground and the gun was taken from him. When my teacher asked the class who was at fault for the crime, I was the only person who said the boy was. All the other kids in the class (who were all boys) said that the girl was, that if she had said yes he would’ve never lost it and brought a gun and tried to kill her. When my teacher said that they were wrong and that this is what is wrong with society, that whenever a white boy commits a crime it’s someone else’s fault (music, television, video games, the victim) one boy raised his hand and literally said; “But if someone were to punch me and I punched him back, who is at fault for the fight? He is, not me. It’s self-defence. She started it, so anything that happens to her is in reaction to her actions .It’s simple cause and effect.”
Even though he spent the rest of the calss period ripping into the boys and saying that you are always responsible for your own actions, and that women are allowed to say no and do not have to date them, they left class laughing about how idiotic he was and that he clearly had no idea how much it hurt to be rejected.
So now we have a new school shooting, based solely on the fact some guy couldn’t get laid, and I see men, boys, applaudin him, or if they’re not applauding him, they’re laying blame on women as a whole. Just like my sister’s friends did. Just like the boys in my Criminal Justice class did.
This isn’t something that’s rare. This isn’t something that never happens, or that a select group of men feel as if they are so entitled to women that saying no is not only the worst possible thing a woman can do, but is considered a form of “defence” when they commit a crime upon them (whether it be rape or murder-as-a-reaction-towards-rejection).
Girls are being killed for saying no to prom invites. Girls are being killed for saying no to men. They are creating an atmosphere where women are too scared to say no, and the worst part is? They are doing it intentionally. They want society to be that way, they want women to say yes entirely out of fear. Even the boys and men who aren’t showing up to schools with guns are saying; “Well, you know, I wouldn’t do that, but you have to admit that if she had just said yes …”
If you are a man and you defend this guys’ actions or try to find an excuse for it, or you denounce what really happened, or in any way lay blame on women, every girl you know, every woman you love, has just now thought to themselves that you might lose your shit and kill them someday for saying no. You have just lost their trust. And you know what? You deserve to lose it.”
"Wouldn’t have killed her to say yes? If a man is willing to shoot someone for saying no, what happens to the poor soul who says yes? What happens the first time they disagree? What happens the first time she says she doesn’t want to have sex? That she isn’t in the mood? When they break up?" -vampmissedith.tumblr.com
THIS IS MANDATORY READING!
EVERYONE STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND READ THIS.
It may be a banned police maneuver, but it sure is popular. Analysis and infographic at Vocativ.