Wednesday 6 March 2024

Resources for Week Ten: Cultural Challenges to White Supremacy



Set in a Texan community during the 1930s, this excellent film features a Black teacher who hones the debating skills of some of his students. They excel in a milieu that seethes with racism. The youngest student becomes a superb debater who later in life became a political activist. 

Two worthy 1972 films that feature Black characters in major roles are Sounder about a loving family set in rural Louisiana during the Depression and Buck and the Preacher, a Western that Sidney Poitier also directs. In the former, what is most memorable is how a Black family struggles with Jim Crow racism and still maintains their humantity. One interesting twist in the latter is its presentation of the relationship between Blacks and native peoples and its difference with traditional Westerns. 


 Based loosely on the life of a butler who served Presidents from Truman to Reagan, this moving film narrates both his life and the civil rights movement from the horrors of Jim Crow to the election of a Black president. 

Based upon the book with the same name by David Gram, this powerful film available on Apple TV, focuses on Molly Burkhart and her Osage family and the men who murder her family in order to acquire the oil rich land; whereas Gram widens the lens and places Tom White, the chief investigator of these murders at the centre of his absorbing study. I recommend seeing the film and reading the book in tandem.  

Likewise, Spike Lee's wonderful film is based on the autobiographical account of Ron Stallworth, a Black officer in 1970s Colorado who infiltrates the Klan. Lee makes a number of changes that render the film stronger and more compelling than his source material.
Set in contemporary upper state New York, Jordan Peele's Get Out is part comedy, horror and racial commentary. This wonderfully directed film is a must see.

12 Years A Slave, based on a memoir of the same name, is the most realistic film on slavery but it is artfully crafted by director Steve McQueen. It may be difficult to watch at times but this film should disabuse viewers of any trace of the romanticized Gone-With-The-Wind representation of slavery. Even a relatively humane slaveholder becomes terribly compromised by a vicious, cruel system. 

Selma, based on the struggle to secure voting rights in 1965, may be the most familar film on this list but
it is well worth a second viewing in part because it gets the history mostly right, and part because of the solid performances that director Ava Du Verney draws from the actors.

The heart of the film Till is not the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, a sequence that avoids exploitation but his mother Mamie Till-Mobley who channels her grief into becoming a civil rights activist by seeking justice for her son. Danielle Dealwyler provides an unforgettable performance. 

                  Novels and Television Productions

Whitehead's superb novel and the Barry Jenkins Amazon television production compliment each other so well that the novel, that transcends the conventions of a historical novel and the ten-part series should be read first and seen second. Jenkins makes some astute changes from the source material without in anyway violating the spirit of the book. The first episode that closely follows the first chapter contains a most disturbing but not unrealistic scene. Collectively, the novel and the series do more than expose the cruelties of slavery; they provide insight into the history of racism in America.

Octavia Butler's Kindred and Percival Everett's The Trees are both genre-bending superb novels. Kindred is part science fiction, historical novel and political commentary while The Trees is part a contemporary police procedural and a Gothic novel. The former is about a 1970s Black Californian woman who is repeatedly drawn back into the early nineteenth-century slave state of Maryland and finds her humanity tested. The latter is a powerful riff on the legacy of the murder of Emmet Till.

S. A. Cosby specializes in crime noir, novels set in contemporary rural Virginia which feels like the Jim Crow era. His latest and best is All The Sinners Bleed in which a police chief tries to win respect from the Black community and the larger white community that is bent on celebrating Confederate events. His job becomes more difficult when a Black student kills a beloved white teacher who has successfully hidden from the public a dark history of killing Black children. And a serial killer is still at large. Cosby uses the crime genre to explore racism in his state and how the past infects the present.

A young scholarship student difficult encounter with a police officer  disabuses him that his accomplishments will protect him from racism. Not knowing whom to turn to, he begins writing letters to Martin Luther King. This is the premise behind a very good novel that is billed for young adults but any adult could profit from.


Perhaps two lesser known Toni Morrison novels but both are well worth reading. In A Mercy, Morrison explores the early history of enslavement in the seventeenth century in which an enslaved mother encourages a white visitor to acquire her young daughter because she believes that she will have a better life if she is no longer under the control of her current owner. In Home, a Black damaged Korean veteran returns home to his small community in Georgia to save his younger sister from a doctor who conducts dangerous experiments. Along the way, he encounters the racism widely prevalent in the Jim Crow era.


The first of her six memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explores the early life of Maya Angelou when she experienced the devastating effects of a childhood marred by ugly racism and a violent death that effected her for years. Yet by the time she graduates from high school, she has acquired a love for language and confidence that enables her to rise above her terrible early experiences. 
Imani Perry's wonderful part memoir, travellogue, history and literary criticism, South to America, is one of the best books I have read that grapples with racism in America today. Her three chapters on Alabama are perhaps the most moving in a great book. 

This powerful coming-of-age memoir by a white American history professor does not fit into this week's overview of Black creativity.  But it could serve as emblematic of what I have attempted over the last ten weeks. In terms of chronology, her account of her own life born into a conservative rural family in Virginia combined with her insightful social history of the 1950s and 60s is a meaningful contribution to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights weeks. But on a deeper level, her moving account of her challenges to the racial and gender arrangements of white supremacy, reverence for the Confederacy and female subordination that her parents and grandparents believed were immutable, exemplifies on a micro level what I have attempted on a macro level. Because of her white privileged background, it may be presumptious to suggest that Gilpin Faust's courage to challenge the status quo from the age of nine is reminiscent of Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Diane Nash to name a few. It may be more accurate to place her along a Derek Black and a Tim Wise. James Baldwin once wrote that he wanted whites to work with Blacks not for them. Gilpin Faust fits his criterion as she was no white saviour.

Travel Note: In this series I mentioned a Civil Rights Tour I took in 2023. For anyone interested you need to google The Nation Travels Civil Rights Tour. If you wish to see their other tours, including a new trip "From Slavery to the Civil Rights Movement" you only need to google The Nation Travels.

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