The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Addy Walker, American Girl

May 28, 2015 | by

The role of black dolls in American culture.


From the cover of Meet Addy.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More »

Do Not Let This Man Paint, and Other News

April 15, 2015 | by


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Autoportrait, ca. 1875.

  • “How do you rehabilitate your love for art works based on expired and inhuman social values—and why bother?” Elif Batuman reckons with racist literature. (Which is, after all, most literature: “These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children,” Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov.)
  • Frida Kahlo’s love letters to José Bartoli are being exhibited and auctioned, thus granting “small-minded people the chance to grub about, imagining what it’s like to be a great artist enjoying a great love affair, with its epic arc, operatic decline and poignant afterlife … This is all being served up like a tray of fast food, yet more low-grade fodder to fuel the Kahlo myth with sexualised details, emotional prurience and papery relics. People will pore over her handwriting in a way they never pore over her work.”
  • “Irritated by Renoir’s intrusion, Manet is reported to have told Monet, ‘He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!’”
  • On the continued importance of close reading as an academic tool: “The attentive inspection of the verbal texture of poems, novels, and plays continues to be the methodological basis of what we do in our most important venue: the college classroom, especially the Intro to Lit classroom … teachers found that students lacking specialized knowledge of the ins and outs of English history or the finer points of Aristotelian logic could still get excited by talking about the form of a Donne lyric or image-patterns in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it allowed public-school trained students at the University of Illinois or Iowa to have as much to say about texts as their preppie counterparts at Yale or Harvard.”
  • An ode to the lowly breakfast sandwich, that quiet workhorse: “The great virtue of the bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, or its variations, is in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t divide New Yorkers by class, income or neighborhood. It doesn’t seek publicity. It doesn’t convey status or bragging rights. It just conveys nutrition and, if you need it, settles your nerves. It is a secret handshake that New Yorkers exchange, not with one another, but with the city.”

The Savage

March 14, 2014 | by

The last of five vignettes.


Postcard of Zola, 1899.

I was teaching a class which I believe was called “Dramatic Theory” but which, more accurately, if more dauntingly, might have been called “On the Nature of Group Perception,” the study in which the dramatist is actually engaged.

The university had engaged me to show up two days each year for four years. In the second year of our compact I made a pre-appearance request of the English or dramatic department or whomever I was to traipse in under the auspices of.

I suggested they, if they wished, were free to judge the applicants for the limited space in the class according to grades, entrance quizzes, or any other criteria, if they, on determining the lucky winners, would then disqualify them, and assign the spaces at random to anyone else at all.

“Or just give me the ne’er-do-wells,” I asked.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to find, on my arrival, that the university had taken my request as a witticism, and chose for admittance only those students with high grade averages and correct demeanors. Read More »


MacDonald Played Football for My Cousin’s High School Team

March 12, 2014 | by

The third of five vignettes.


Photo: David Falconer

I played football against him, and I saw him not only at the games, but at the various league events. And I saw him at my cousin’s school banquets, open houses, graduations. He was the captain of their football team, the president of their student council and their student class; he was the recipient of various league honors whose names escape me, but, I believe, had to do with Most Sportsmanlike, and so on. I saw him suffer through this adulation as a young black man in a white community.

His high school coach cried when praising him at the league’s year-end banquet, and I am sure, though I do not remember, that many of the parents’ generation were moved to mistiness at his valedictory speech. It may have been a good speech, or it may not have, but the half remembered or imagined emotion on the audience’s part must have been mixed relief and self-congratulation; relief at the first hint, in their world, of the end of racism, and self-congratulation at their (imaginary) part in the correction. How could it be otherwise? It could not. Who was harmed? No one except Bill MacDonald, who was the victim of the good-willed farce. Read More »