Black History Month: whom do we accommodate?

In 1935 Bruce M. Wright was accepted to Princeton and awarded a merit scholarship. When he arrived on campus the administration realized Wright was black, and they refused to enroll him.

Heermance-letter-previewThis isn’t all that interesting or unusual, because it was so normal. We have all heard these sorts of stories before. I’m telling tis one now because I think it is worth looking at what the white men of Princeton said about it at the time. You know, so that maybe we won’t be doomed to repeat it and all that.

In explaining the University’s change of mind, Radcliffe Heermance, the dean of admissions, shared with no intent at irony that, “Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color, or creed. This is clearly set forth in the original charter of the college and the tradition has been maintained throughout the life of the University”

Heerman went on to explain that he in fact likes black people, “I speak as one who has always been particularly interested in the colored race, because I have had very pleasant relations with your race…”.

He went on to explain that he could not come to school there as he would be the only black person and hence would feel lonely. He also shared that there are quite a number of southern students at Princeton and they would not like sharing their school with a black person. They would make Wright to feel unwelcome.

So Wright was sent home against his will.

In other words, Heermance, with no intent of irony, told a black scholarship recipient that he could not attend Princeton, because white students didn’t want him there, but that this didn’t constitute racism. Because Princeton’s charter stated that they don’t discriminate. It was obvious is both Princeton’s actions and explanation how they ranked and valued humans. The racism of white students was acceptable, worth accommodating, but the presence of a black student was not.

America as a body, has decades and decades of practice doing racist things and explaining that it isn’t racism. Such is evident in the original Constitution, in the way our economy functions, and in so many official documents, judgements, and practices in so many places, locales, and institutions, that trying to separate out racism from these things is like trying to extract the salt from a baked loaf of bread.

I am not sure if this is possible with bread, but I have hope for America. But if it is to happen we cannot over simplify the task at hand or take explanations at face value. We have to step back and evaluate the consequences of our actions and the values they make evident.

And we have to change.

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Black History Month: Black Face and Fried Chicken

In 1925 a Utah businessman having just sold his car dealership was looking for a new venture. Having a good sense of his market he moved from selling cars into selling fried chicken.

He opened a cabaret restaurant and called it “The Coon Chicken Inn”.coonchickencover

The spot’s décor featured a black face minstrel, complete with over-sized grin, bright red lips, and a winking eye. The icon was plastered on all of its menus, the napkins, the catering delivery trucks, and then there was the front door. Patrons entered the establishment by walking through the mouth of a gigantic black-faced minstrel head.17540556_1

The owner wasn’t making business choices based in some specific hatred for any one person, or out of spite toward a group of people, he was just looking for something he thought would work. Something that would sell. And it did.

The place was popular enough in Utah that the owners were able to open franchises in Portland and Seattle. Now this is not to say that no one thought it offensive or wrong. In fact the NAACP sued the restaurant claiming their theme was racist. Because it was. But the owners, and the general white population, simply didn’t care.nwedodgessuit.jpg

In response, and to avoid further litigation, the Coon chicken Inn painted the black-face blue.

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When sued for being racist, the ownership chose a technicality sort of solution rather than ending the racism. The NAACP were not pleased but the courts were satisfied and the local public never cared in the first place. People kept eating there till 1957.

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Black face has never not been racist, but it was, and has been, acceptable by the general white American public for more than a century. Racism was not just in the South, nor was it just the way some people treated black people. Racism, or anti-blackness, was a pervasive part of American culture- like apple pie and baseball.

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That does not go away over night. The ripple effect carries consequences well into our day and when we, us now, are confronted with those consequences we would do well to consider for whom we are concerned. Are we more worried about the careers of white politicians or the day to day lives and status of black people?

 

 

Black History Month

Studying the history of black people in America has taught me a few things that I believe important.

 

I have learned what I think most of us think we already know; that human greatness is an historical constant and exists at equal rates across all racial and ethnic lines. In other words, there have always been amazing people, saints and or geniuses, and that no one group of people holds a monopoly on producing that greatness.

 

I have also learned that segregation and racial hierarchy are not natural occurrences. While some level of greed or tribalism is natural and present in most all of mankind, those negative tendencies do not naturally act out or manifest along the color line. People do not naturally group themselves according to the amount of melanin existing in our skin. In fact, without outside forces or external motivators, people tend to mix when left in close proximity.

 

Knowing these two things sheds a bright light on the whole of American history, because that history has very much been about grouping humans by skin color and claiming greatness for one group while attempting to squash and squelch the magnificence of another. Writing or reading this is not an exercise in fault or blame, though we should not shy away from such when earned, but rather understanding the hows and whys of now requires an honest pursuit and acknowledgment of truth. We must acknowledge not just how great so many black people have been throughout the American timeline or within American borders, but also how forcefully and intentionally America as an organization, has worked to resist, trample, and exploit black greatness in order to favor white people.

 

This is not revisionist history or America hating, this is what the bulk and majority of American history, law, and practice, has been. Because this sort of race stratification and hierarchical division is not natural, there have been ups and downs, progress and regression over time, as some black and white- and brown- people have pushed and fought for racial equality, and those efforts have been met not just with personal resistance, but intentional and systematized attacks.

 

Because there have been ups and downs, we, all of us, must know the hows and whys of yesterday because whatever our now is, whether it be an up or down, we must know that it is not guaranteed nor has it ever been permanent.

 

And we are the ones who create it. We make up whatever now is. It has never been “just the way things are”. It is always however we make it.

It’s The LA Moment x2: Commonwealth Proper

“I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again, It’s the L.A. moment. It’s the L.A. moment.” Craig stated with enthusiasm.

He did indeed say it twice and probably has repeated that repeated phrase a million times- because it’s true.

Craig said it to me in an easy-going sort of way, looking over at Mike with a smile. The two of them had just spent the entire night painting the interior walls of Commonwealth Proper’s new showroom in DTLA.

The space used to be the backstage area of Al’s Bar, one-time hot spot to see artists like Beck, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Replacements. You can still see what used to be the stage in what is now a clothing shop next door. When I was there I could also see a white board with a sketch of the new floor plan and a list of all the construction still left to be completed before they open. It looks to be the kind of classy with an intentionally unfinished rough edge sort of place that I would expect from Commonwealth Proper.

Commonwealth Proper has matured since it started back in 2008. It has grown up in that there will now be 4 showrooms (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, LA), and matured in that the brand doesn’t have to try to be anything other than what it is. They have established themselves and are free to be whatever sort of menswear design shop they want to be.

And I kind of love what they have become. Commonwealth Proper has done this odd thing where they have learned the skill of bespoke tailoring appropriate for Wall Street and too good for Congress, while maintaining both a sense of humor and an edge.

I am not a floral corduroy jacket or full plaid suit wearing guy, I’m too physically large for that much pattern, but I love that Craig makes and wears those things. I love even more, and am the sort of guy, that would wear a fitted navy suit with the two Ron’s, Swanson and Burgundy, printed on the lining. I would wear that to death. If someone pitched that idea to me in advance I would snicker with self-righteous doubt, which of course shows how little I know and how skilled these guys are.

In the Studio

I rarely have a problem with sloth, though physical inactivity is occasionally an issue, but more I struggle with inability to give consistent attention. I am constantly engaged in this project or that, which is an issue when it is always this or that rather than this, all the way to completion, then that.

So, as at least two absolutely groundbreaking, world changing, writing projects sit mostly done on my hard drive, and as my olympian physique gets ever further away, what do I do? I paint and draw.IMG_1884

 

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I have some projects in the works that I think are pretty exciting. Stay tuned (he says to himself and not necessarily the reader).

The Best Design in All College Sports: Michigan

After driving through what feels like endless fields of well tended rural nothingness, Ann Arbor springs up out of nowhere and somehow feels like a real city. There are crowds on the sidewalks and construction everywhere. I chose the word surprising because Ann Arbor only has a population of around 120,000 people. And it isn’t a suburb of a metropolitan area, those 100 thousand people are the whole metropolitan area.IMG_2409

To give one an idea of how important the University of Michigan is to Ann Arbor one should know that the school has 45,000 students and approximately 25,000 employees. The University is the town.IMG_2382

It is by all measures, one of America’s top academic institutions with each and every department regularly ranked in the top 20, and most of those departments getting ranked in the top 5, but what the school is most known for is Final Fours. As in March Madness NCAA college basketball. The Wolverines aren’t the winningest basketball team in history but they are known to win, and they are famous for calling a timeout when they don’t have any left, and also famous for getting in trouble for paying those players what they are worth.IMG_2329

Sports are “worth” enough money to Michigan that the teams have their own separate campus. There are all the buildings full of students going to top ranked classes, then there are parking lots and actual train tracks, and then there are a separate group of very glossy and secure buildings housing weight rooms, practice facilities and arenas. I had the privilege of pressing my face up against the glass of one of those buildings so I could see a row of shiny basketball trophies with nets draped over them. Very tall healthy looking people were scanning their badges to get inside while I was gawking. IMG_2310The football team has collected more wins than any other college football team. This has also netted them a great number of awards and trophies, including three Heismans and 11 National Championships. But unlike Notre Dame or USC, Michigan keeps their awards behind glass. Michigan fans don’t appear to mind this separation as is evidenced in that this town of only 120,000 people fills up a stadium that seats 1000,000 people each and every time they play a football game.IMG_2303

Maybe all those people from a top ranked school simply appreciate what is hands down the best design in all of college sports- the wolverines football helmet.

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The Most Collegey of all Big Time Football Programs: and it is still a school

I grew up in a place where none of us were catholic, no one was actually Irish, and we were nowhere near Indiana, yet everyone wore hats, t- shirts, and sweatshirts with the logo of Notre Dame. Make no mistake, the school is a serious academic institution, it is the kind of place where they require you to be smart before you go there to get educated, but really, the biggest reason why so many smart people want to go there, is football.

It is a private religious school with 12, 000 students, and from what I understand many of them play other school sponsored sports like softball and basketball, but in all of America I can find no other university that has full padded, full contact, intramural football, where non-Varsity kids can actually play the game and not just spectate.  The sport is infused into the entire experience of the place, making Notre Dame the very definition of college football. It is one of the few places where a student can stroll across a picturesque quad, populated by kids who look studious, and walk right up to a world class stadium unimpeded. The stadium is built as part of the student’s life rather than a free standing football palace surrounded by parking lots built to accommodate tailgating alumni and other grown ups. Though there is also that. Consequentially the whole country feels the Fighting Irish belong to them. Rudy’s Dad never went there and he cried tears of joy just looking at the field. Ronald Reagan never went to Notre Dame but without their football team he might never have been president.

Condoleezza Rice did attend Notre Dame and as far as I know she never played the game, but it has been argued that she knows more about football than whomever might be serving as Secretary of State today… whenever today is right now, no matter who it is.

At Notre Dame even Jesus is signaling a touchdown (says ESPN, any and every time they broadcast from campus).

It is because Notre Dame is such a great school with such a great football program that I am at this moment with this sentence, petitioning the administration to replace the large murals in that golden dome building with the collected football artwork of J.C. Leyendecker. I don’t think Leyendecker is connected in any way to Notre Dame but who cares because the murals they have in there now are trash. IMG_2038.JPGNot trash in like they are poorly painted and I am talking trash about them, but trash in that in an effort to make an Italian guy look awesome they make a whole indigenous people look silly. It is bad enough to show the Taino Arowak people fawning over a guy who essentially destroyed them, but what really bugs me is that the dude on the far left is clearly wearing a hat made from an animal that never lived on “Hispaniola”. IMG_2036

I would suggest they move some of that wonderful artwork they have over by the weight room into the administration building- but that stuff isn’t just art- they are all trophies.

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Oh. And they also have a church.IMG_2060