The purpose of this essay is to extend the American Studies Department as a safe space.
In 2004, a year after the American Studies Department launched, we purchased the rights to use the image of Faith Ringgold’s oil painting, “The Flag is Bleeding.” Ringgold uses her art to voice her opinions on racism and gender inequality. In 1967, she created a series of paintings, The American People, focused on racial conflict and discrimination. “The Flag is Bleeding,” which is number 18 in the series, depicts an African American man standing next to a white couple. Although the three seem united, the African American man’s wound indicates otherwise.
I love this work of art because the significance is not solely about who is represented in the flag. I often ask students, “Who do you think is missing, and what do you think Ringgold is trying to say about America?”
Many Americans are missing, but for the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the absence of the Black woman. I think that Ringgold is trying to say that Black women are often invisible in the political narrative of America, but we are integral to its very fabric.
In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, Nov. 9, we found out that the President-Elect of the United States of America is Donald J. Trump. Although Black women are rarely asked to comment on electoral politics, as a demographic we supported him less than any other group at a mere four percent. The inverse of this equation is that Black women voted for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a whopping 94 percent. Notice I said, “voted for.” I didn’t say that we were #WithHer because many of us weren’t.
In my first book, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton, I noted that Vijay Prashad writes that once Bill Clinton was in office, “The braying of the right was so abhorrent and hypocritical that Bill Clinton gained some measure of forgiveness from those who were otherwise livid with him. It was in this context that Toni Morrison said that he was being treated like a Black man: given no quarter, shown no mercy, but treated as guilty as charged without any consideration or process.” Prashad explains how things changed between 1998 and 2008, when Hillary Clinton first ran for president.
“But now, finally Bill Clinton has given us some honesty. He has opened his heart during this primary season, joining Hilary Clinton in pandering to the Old South, the hard core racist bloc that was never reconciled to Civil Rights, that continues to blame Blacks for the vivisections of their economic fortunes. It is this bloc that handed Hillary Clinton the primaries of Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky. After her loss in the South Carolina primary, where the Democratic electorate is substantially Black, Hilary Clinton’s husband, Bill, told the press, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in 1984 and 1988. Jackson ran a good campaign and Obama ran a good campaign here.””
It was after these remarks were made that I predicted that Toni Morrison would take back Bill Clinton’s invitation into the Black family, and indeed she did. Some say that it’s unfair to entangle Hillary with the actions of her husband, but elite white feminism teaches us that marrying a president is the best way for a woman to become a presidential candidate.
Hillary’s pandering to the Old South in 2008 could have been forgiven once the Obamas campaigned for her, but she treated the women from #BlackLivesMatter with dismissive condescension in 2016. In a July 28, 2016 interview with MPRLocal, I actually praised Hillary Clinton for inviting the “Mothers of the Movement” to speak at the Democratic National Convention.
“Black Lives Matter has many issues in their platform, but one of these things we see a lot are these issues of police brutality, so that doesn’t impact most Minnesotans. So, if it doesn’t impact you and you don’t see it, you’re not going to be called to action unless it’s brought to your attention. While the protests have helped build support for practical policies like requiring police officers to wear body cameras, they’ve also helped the general public better understand issues of concern to African-Americans,” I said.
I point to the “Mothers of the Movement” speech at the Democratic National Convention this week, which included nine mothers whose children were killed by police officers or gun violence. “That’s a movement from margin to center where the notion of black lives is directly in the middle of a presidential platform,” I said. “There really is more acceptance in being part of a major party’s presidential campaign and I think people are becoming more aware of what it is like living in a black body in America.”
But Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica, refused to go to the Democratic National Convention because WikiLeaks revealed that it was a ploy to pull on our heartstrings. Despite this, Black women — when they had no real cultural or social obligation to do so — reluctantly got into Beyoncé formation with the Pantsuit Nation. Wednesday’s exit polls revealed that despite Black women’s loyalty, White women weren’t with Hillary Clinton after all.
Black Lives Matter, (which was founded by three Black women), recently published an official response to the election:
“In the months leading up to this election, we have demanded support from white people in dismantling white supremacy—a farce that persuaded some to believe we were living in a post-racial America while simultaneously rolling back the rights of black people and other people of color. White supremacy fortified the decision to disregard racism and sexism as serious variables in the outcome of this election.
Even if everyone didn’t agree politically, at the very least, we deserved to have our collective humanity affirmed. We feel more than disappointed or angry—we feel betrayed.”
L.V. Anderson (who is White) agrees that White women decided that defending their position of power as white people was more important than defending their reproductive rights, their sexual autonomy, their access to health care, family leave and child care. White women bought into Trump’s lies about immigrant rapists and decided they’d rather have the respect of their angry white fathers, brothers and husbands than the respect of literally everyone else in the world.
This is important to the intellectual project of American Studies, which centralizes the question of gender. Anderson writes, “The results of the election indicate that most white women don’t consider themselves part of the coalition of non-white, non-straight, non-male voters who were supposed to carry Clinton to a comfortable victory. Most white women still identify more with white men than they do with Black women, Latina women, Muslim women, transwomen, and every other woman who will have good reason to fear for her physical safety under a Trump regime. And while it’s nonwhite and queer women who have the most to lose under Trump, white women will have to live with the consequences of their own actions in a country without a right to abortion, without access to health insurance, without an adequate family leave policy, and with a head of state who values them only insofar as he wants to fuck them.”
Education was also a great divide, for women as well as for men. The President-Elect won 62 percent of White women without college degrees; Secretary of State Clinton, 34 percent. “Class shapes gender identity,” says Nancy Isenberg, the author of White Trash, which examined how elites have derided rural, working-class Americans from the Colonial era to this day. “I think a lot of people who support Trump think of themselves as being disinherited. They resent the fact that everything they believe in is mocked by the media elite, and Hollywood. That resentment is shared by men and women.”
Liza Featherstone notes that the campaign endlessly touted endorsements from the ranks of the celebrity one-percenters, especially women. In the end, Clinton enjoyed a gender advantage only among the college-educated. Among white women without college degrees, Clinton lost to Trump by 28 points. Featherstone sarcastically comments, “It was almost as if waitresses in Ohio didn’t care that Anna Wintour was #WithHer.” All the talk about angry White men glossed over the fact that they were married to angry White women. This is also why class analysis is critical to the discipline of American Studies. Salamishah Tillet, an Associate Professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania states, “It’s not like Black people or Latino people aren’t sexist and patriarchal. But when we thought about ourselves and collective best interest, we voted for Clinton.”
It is worth noting that 80 percent of the Black men in America who can vote voted for Hillary Clinton. I’d like to add that if Black men couldn’t vote, one might ask how that came to be. (Take Professor Karin Aguilar-San Juan’s Critical Prison Studies course). On any given day in Karin’s class you could read an essay by Nell Painter that will ask you to answer difficult questions like: who defines American whiteness right now? How will white people who didn’t support Mr. Trump in 2016 construe their identity as white people when Trumpists, including white nationalists, Nazis, Klansmen and Steve Bannon, have posted the markers?
If this election has left you feeling vulnerable, I would like to invite you spend time in our department. At our founding in 2003, we described ourselves as “the academic site for the study of race and ethnicity” on Macalester’s campus. More than a decade later, we remain the key site where Macalester students gain exposure to and become versed in critical scholarship on and central debates regarding race and ethnicity. Saying this is not to diminish the other courses or co-curricular programs across campus that contribute to this scholarship. We recognize and support the people and activities whose efforts to build “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are parallel to and supportive of ours. By providing up-to-date and critical scholarship focused primarily on the racialized dimensions of U.S. history and contemporary social life, we offer an indispensable set of research and analytical tools that we believe enhances the Macalester community and student experience as a whole.
As a department we know that you can’t “lean in” to a Democracy that was built on a bridge called your back. Rather, our emphasis is on race as a central dimension of U.S. social, political, cultural and economic life. This reflects an understanding that the prevailing concepts of citizenship, community, freedom and individuality in the United States contain within them deep fissures, erasures and conflicts that depend upon particular constructions of race and racial difference. To move “past race” at this historical moment would be to ignore these conflicts and, in effect, to defuse ongoing struggles for social justice. In stressing the continuing significance of race, we take our cues from the rich and generative scholarship in African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Queer Studies, critical race theory, cultural studies, and transnational, postcolonial and diaspora studies.
Black Lives Matter insists that we need and deserve an elaborate strategy to eradicate both white supremacy and implicit bias towards it. We must reckon with the anti-Blackness of America’s history that led to this political moment . The American Studies Department has recognized this since our department’s founding and our Nation’s founding, that the American flag has bled, and continues to do so.
Macalester students, we offer a safe space.