“Out of Egypt into Hollywood” — In Support of Black History Month: An Open Letter to Fox Commentator Stacey Dash
Dear Ms. Dash:
My Facebook newsfeed was inundated with posts about your interview last week on “Fox and Friends.” I went to the link and saw your discussion about the criticism and potential boycott of the Academy Awards bruited about by Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee who were angered by the absence of Black Oscar nominees two years running.
Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy began his interview by asking your position on the Pinkett Smith/Lee critique.
“I think it’s ludicrous,” you said.
“… Because we have to make up our minds. Either we want to have segregation or integration, and if we don’t want segregation, then we have to get rid of channels like BET and the BET Awards and the Image Awards, where you’re only awarded if you’re black. If it were the other way round, we would be in up arms. It’s a double standard.”
Doocy replied, “So you say there shouldn’t be a BET channel?”
“No,” you said. “I don’t think so, no. Just like there shouldn’t be a Black History Month. You know? We’re Americans. Period. That’s it.”
“Are you saying there shouldn’t be a Black History Month because there isn’t a white history month?”
Ordinarily I wouldn’t focus a note on Black History Month on the comments of a “Clueless” Black actress. However, in an era in which the New York Times prominently covers Sarah Palin’s speech “wailing” about “Trump and his Trumpeters,” it’s clear that even idiocy requires somber analysis and riposte. (By the way, the Hollywood Reporter says Trump called “Fox and Friends” to agree with you).
Nonetheless, the Black Twitter-verse has thoroughly roasted you on your BET and Image Award observations so I will stick to “segregation” and “Black History Month.” On the latter point, you seem to have gotten a social media pass because Morgan Freeman uttered the same nonsense in 2005. (You ought to glance at Justin Wm. Moyer’s dissection of your commentary in the Washington Post).
Out of Egypt
For our purposes, we should start with a little lesson on segregation. Since your sense of history seems impaired, we can begin in the middle of the story with the blow struck against Jim Crow by the Supreme Court. I hope you know that segregation is the involuntary subordination of one group by another on the basis of race and that the practice was sanctioned by the Court from 1896 until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and that de facto segregation continues to this day.
With that little primer behind us, I would love to know what you think of the following comment:
…[O]ne day, through a world shaking decree by the nine justices of the Supreme Court of America and an awakened moral conscience of many white persons of good will, backed up by the Providence of God, the Red Sea was opened and the forces of justice marched through to the other side.
This was Dr. Martin Luther King’s description of Brown, delivered to 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York in 1956 on the second anniversary of the decision in a speech entitled “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.”
The logic of your Fox comments suggests you haven’t explored the linkage between segregation and bondage. However, the invocation of elements of the Exodus narrative (the opening of the Red Sea) is figurative language (as an artist you should know about figurative speech). This bondage imagery has long been part of both secular and religious Black American discourse. As Princeton Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. observed, “Most efforts towards liberation in African American history have been articulated as reenactments of Israel’s exodus from Egypt.”
Then again, perhaps King’s language wasn’t entirely figurative. A year earlier, in 1955, in a speech about Brown, King said that “segregation is a form of slavery.” You might draw insight into whether this is figurative speech or not from Yale Professor Charles L. Black’s observation that “Segregation in the South comes down in apostolic succession from slavery and the Dred Scott case. The South fought to keep slavery, and lost. Then it tried the Black Codes, and lost. Then it looked around for something else and found segregation.” (Black, who wrote some of the briefs filed in Brown, was writing in 1960, just four years before you were born, responding to “friendly” critiques of Brown.)
I am not focusing on the impact of the Brown decision because I am a lawyer. I mention it because I remember the day it was handed down. We were living in the (segregated) Booker T. Washington Housing Project in Jersey City. My father, who was a “race man,” kept our apartment filled with local activists always planning the next move. That is, all except for City Councilman Fred Martin who, although he had placed returning Black GI’s like my dad in “Booker T,” participated by shouting across Fremont Street because he refused to set foot in the Projects because it was “Jim Crow territory.”
I am not trying to claim prodigy status. Heck, I thought Jim Crow was our landlord until I figured out that in addition to the Projects he had a school system, an army during World War II and his own laws. He was in fact my first metaphor. But even at 8 I understood that society considered us inferior and that in a case that coincidentally bore our family name, an important Court had acknowledged that Negroes were equal. This knowledge was reinforced the following year after my parents decided, after lengthy debate, to let me see the pictures of Emmet Till in Jet Magazine. (This episode had a big impact because the 14-year-old Till had been kidnapped on my 9th birthday.) They thought, like many others in the movement, that Till’s lynching was a response to Brown.
This is a logical place to insert the 1956 Southern Manifesto although I suspect I was in high school when my folks introduced me to that document. (No such thing as Black History in primary or secondary schools back then.) I did know the names of Manifesto signatories like Senators Eastland, Stennis, Fulbright and the subsequently lionized Sam Ervin who regularly appeared on our 6-inch Philco Television uttering language of “interposition and nullification,” which was often met by colorful responses from my dad and his crew.
Well Ms. Dash, you’ve probably had more history than they offered you at Paramus High (you and all the rest of us should have been inoculated against white supremacy). But a final pedagogical note is in order. You see, contrary to an assertion you made in a defensive blog you posted after your “Fox and Friends” episode, the Civil Rights Movement isn’t over — it never will be. Justice is always a struggle and not just against the obvious opposition. It wasn’t just the Dixiecrats who opposed Brown’s edict. Chief Justice Earl Warren was highly critical of Eisenhower’s failure to bring his moral authority to bear in supporting the decision and no one can say how Ike would have handled Little Rock if not for the efforts of his exceptional Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr.
You recall I earlier spoke about Professor Black’s 1960 response to “friendly” critiques of Brown. He was directly answering a famous 1959 speech by Herbert Wechsler, a respected law professor, and obliquely addressing an article by philosopher/journalist Hannah Arendt who wrote an article called “Reflections on Little Rock.” Both Wechsler and Arendt claimed to be supporters of racial equality but both were critical of the Court’s effort to take on the challenge of school desegregation. In the guise of theoretical critiques, they both seemed to think that challenging restrictions on miscegenation would have been the appropriate arena for the Court’s attention. (Wechsler even had doubts about that line of attack.).
But you see, the decision to launch an attack on white supremacy by targeting education wasn’t the Court’s decision alone. The concept of “separate but equal” was challenged by a phalanx of leaders including one you may never have encountered, Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston, the Dean of Howard Law School, masterminded a twenty-year assault on segregation in education because he believed it was a system designed to prepare Blacks “to accept an inferior position in American life without protest or struggle.” From my point of view, this perspective was best expressed by Carter G. Woodson, the man who initiated Negro History Week in 1926 (you had to see this coming). In his classic work, the “Mis-Education of the Negro,” Woodson said:
“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
I don’t have time to rehearse here in detail the statistics demonstrating the continued challenges we face over desegregation, quality education and curriculum design but believe me, those battles are not done. Suffice it to say that a case can easily be made for you and Mr. Doocy that in America it is still true that every month is “white history month.”
Ms. Dash, maybe it’s unreasonable to expect that you would have a grasp of your own history or of the continuing struggle for quality education for all of our children. But if you are going to opine on public policy, segregation and Black history (I await with bated breath this book of yours you’ve been touting) at least you should come to grips with conditions in your own industry. In Mr. Moyer’s dissection, he notes your apparent surprise (“Really?”) when Doocy informs you that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science is largely white and male. Borrowing a lead from your sister Sarah Palin (or is it the other way around?) your answer to the structural dilemmas you discussed on Fox was to blame President Obama.
Clearly you aren’t ready to address Luke Visconti’s observation in this space that the “remedies” being announced by the Academy are woefully inadequate. You probably are also unfortunately ill-equipped to talk to my talented young niece, a graduate of a prestigious musical drama academy who wrestles with discrimination daily in the entertainment industry and who is aghast at your failure to follow even Booker T. Washington’s conservative advice to “cast down your bucket where you are.”
I suppose it’s appropriate to end where we began at a discussion of a possible boycott of Hollywood. I surely hope you are familiar with Paul Robeson, one of the great actors and activists of the 20th Century. In a famous 1952 speech entitled “A Negro Artist Looks Ahead,” he suggested, “Here too, the mounting of the right kind of campaign could shake Hollywood to its foundations, and help would be forthcoming from all over the world. Their markets everywhere in the world could be seriously affected, if the lead came from here.”
I doubt that any of this really has much meaning to you but I close with a thought that might interest you in the exercise of your craft going forward. Robeson was a great baritone but part of his disenchantment with popular culture was his fatigue with being asked to sing Negro folk songs of “contentment.” He preferred the “songs that sprang from my forefathers in their struggle for freedom…like ‘Go Down Moses’ that inspired Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Sojourner Truth to the fight for emancipation.”