Thursday, June 25, 2020

Home is where the festival is -- June 25, 2020 column


One of summer’s pleasures in Washington is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Since 1967, for about 10 days around July 4, musicians, dancers, artisans, cooks and storytellers have entertained large, sweaty crowds on the National Mall.

Not this year. Like most events, the folk festival has wisely moved online because of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Even though the festival took place outdoors and many people are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, those who can avoid risking their health should.

For some of us, the more things open, the more we want to stay home.

I’m in this camp, although the urge to nest makes me feel guilty. As a freelance journalist, I work from home, but millions of Americans have been out of work for months. The economy depends on consumers for recovery.

With no national strategy for a safe reopening, though, people suffer when states pretend the virus doesn’t exist and rush back to business.  

New coronavirus cases are surging nationwide. In 33 states, from South Carolina to Oklahoma to Washington, the number of cases from the most recent week is  higher than the two-week average, a Wall Street Journal analysis released Thursday found. That compares with 21 states at the start of June.

Although the White House insists case numbers are up because we’re testing more, some states are swamped with record numbers of hospitalizations for COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes.

While death rates overall have declined, public health officials warn deaths typically lag hospitalizations by weeks.

Governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, having tamed the spread in their states, yanked the welcome mat for visitors from Arizona, Florida, North and South Carolina, Texas and a handful of other states with high per person infection rates. They’ll need to quarantine for 14 days.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged residents to wear a mask, wash hands, maintain safe distance, and “importantly, because the spread is so rapid right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you need to go out.”

And, he emphasized: “The safest place for you is at your home.”

The safest place for everyone is at home, even in Virginia where rates of infections and deaths trended down in June. Most of Virginia’s nearly 60,000 infections and 1,700 deaths are in Northern Virginia.

Since the federal government hasn’t drawn up workplace safety rules for the coronavirus era, Virginia is working on such rules, a good move.

“Getting back to normality is going to be a gradual, step-by-step process and not throwing caution to the wind,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a House panel Wednesday.

Caution definitely seems thrown to the winds in Old Town Alexandria, where I live. Crowds throng the Potomac waterfront to enjoy drinks and meals at tables set out on King Street, where a block is closed to car traffic.

It’s a celebratory scene, as though the virus is history. Few walking around wear masks and most ignore social distancing advice.

And that was before Phase 3, which, as of July 1 allows groups of 250 to gather, and stores and restaurants no longer have limits on the number of customers.

The District of Columbia is still in Phase 2, and Smithsonian museums remain closed.

Yet the Smithsonian Folk Festival Beyondthe Mall continues online through July 5.

Programs center on solutions to social and environmental problems with a focus on the United Arab Emirates, Northeast Brazil and the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon. 

I’m a long-time fan of the free festival but to me it lost something when it shifted from being the Festival of American Folklife in 1999 to international topics.

Fortunately, the American FolklifeCenter has many programs online, including a Homegrown Concerts series through September. Next at noon July 1 is folksinger John McCutcheon.

So, take advantage of festival offerings online. Staying home for now makes sense and has summer pleasures of its own. Stay safe and cool.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Fight against racial stereotypes reaches kitchen -- June 18, 2020 column


Twenty years into the 21st century, it finally dawned on major American corporations they could no longer use mascots of black servitude to sell food.

Aunt Jemima, a staple of American kitchens since 1889, and Uncle Ben, a staple since 1946, are stepping away from the stove. Mrs. Butterworth and Cream of Wheat are facing makeovers, at least.

As symbols go, these friendly ambassadors of cookery commerce may seem benign. 

They do not carry the emotional weight of the Confederate flag now banned by Nascar or the physical heft of massive bronze Confederate memorials targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters.

But in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, America is rooting out the racist origins of our popular culture.

“Gone with the Wind” is getting an introduction that will put into historical context the 1939 film’s rampant racial stereotypes and nostalgia for “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South.”

The rethinking now has reached the heart of the home, the kitchen.

Aunt Jemima was inspired by a minstrel show song “Old Aunt Jemima,” often sung by white men in blackface. The first Aunt Jemima was a former slave, hired to sing and make pancakes from the new packaged mix at the 1893 world’s fair.

Famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth helped create Aunt Jemima’s warm persona in the early 1920s by painting her for magazine ads as a “mammy” figure, evoking the beloved black women who took care of white children on the plantation.

Unbelievably to us, the U.S. Senate in 1923 approved a plan by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to build a “Monument to Faithful Colored Mammies of the South” in Washington.

One design showed an elderly black woman holding a white child while her own children at her feet sought her attention. African Americans objected strenuously, and the monument never materialized.

Historian Maurice M. Manring titled his 1998 book on Aunt Jemima “Slave in a Box,” saying she conjured romantic images not only of food but of the plantation’s social hierarchy.

Even honorary titles reflected Jim Crow racism. White people called blacks “Aunt” and “Uncle” because they would not call them “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

Aunt Jemima typically was overweight and wore a kerchief. In a 1989 makeover, she lost the kerchief and gained pearl earrings and a lace collar.

For many years, blacks have urged Aunt Jemima’s retirement. A 2015 oped in The New York Times by Riché Richardson, a Cornell University professor, asked: “Can We Please, Finally, Get Rid of `Aunt Jemima’”?

But it took a widely viewed TikTok video – “How to Make a Non-Racist Breakfast,” by pouring Aunt Jemima pancake mix down the sink – to prompt Quaker Foods of North America, the division of PepsiCo that owns the brand, to admit the obvious.

“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, chief marketing officer, said in a statement Wednesday, so the company is retiring Aunt Jemima’s name and image.

Hours later, Mars Inc., parent company of Uncle Ben’s rice, announced it was “evaluating all possibilities” regarding Uncle Ben’s image, which has evolved into that of an older black man in a collared shirt.

Conagra Brands announced “a complete brand and packaging review” of Mrs. Butterworth, whose syrups come in a bottle with a matronly figure reportedly modeled on Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, who played the young mammy “Prissy” in “Gone With the Wind.”
The voice of Mrs. Butterworth in early TV ads was that of Hope Summers, a white actress who played Clara Edwards, Aunt Bee’s friend on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“The Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother,” Conagra’s statement said. “We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.”
Then, B&G Foods Inc., parent company of Cream of Wheat, launched an immediate review of its packaging, which features a smiling black man in a white chef’s uniform. He used to be called “Rastus,” although his name, a racial slur, is nowhere on the current website.
Cleaning the kitchen of demeaning racial stereotypes is a good step forward. Racism is so insidious even the smallest symbols leave the sour taste of inequality. Good-bye and good riddance. We’ll all be better off.
©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

There is something we can do -- June 11, 2020 column


The police killing of George Floyd and worldwide Black Lives Matter protests raise many questions. Chief among them, what can anyone do?

Vote, yes, but the general election is more than four months away.

On Capitol Hill, House Democrats are pressing a police reform bill that, among other things, would ban the use of chokeholds by police. A House vote is expected by the end of the month.

But the bill’s future is uncertain in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch 
McConnell tapped the only black Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, to lead a group in crafting a Senate version of police reform.

Republicans are also urging the White House to step up federal reviews of police departments.

OK, what else? Americans are still searching for ways to make their voices heard. 

Crowds of demonstrators have thinned, but a big, new March on Washington is being planned for late August.

Not everyone can march in the time of COVID-19, but those who want to do something can use their time at home to learn about racism – both conscious and unconscious -- and how to combat it.

It appears many people are doing just that.

Five of the top 15 books on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for June 14 tackle tough subjects: white privilege, how to be an antiracist, how to talk about race, the new Jim Crow era, and white supremacy.

None of these is a light beach read, yet several are sold out. Fortunately, some local libraries have copies available for downloading.

That’s how I was able to put on my Kindle “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo, a sociologist with more than 20 years’ experience as a diversity trainer for companies, writes as one white person to another. She argues “we” often become angry and defensive when confronted with the privileges of being white and resist even talking about them. She calls that defensive process white fragility.

Her book, published in 2018, soared to No. 2 on the latest Times list. I chose it after watching a video of DiAngelo give a talk on the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s new web portal Talking About Race.

The portal, launched May 31, is a tremendous resource -- a trove of videos, interactive exercises, scholarly papers and other materials aimed at helping people  start difficult conversations about race and racism. The portal is free and does not require registration or sign up.

It is broken up into eight topics – being antiracist, bias, community building, historical foundations of race, race and racial identity, self-care, social identities and systems of oppression, and whiteness.

Being antiracist, for example, is defined as making choices to fight racism in daily life, which might lead you to watch a short video featuring Ibram X. Kendi, whose “How to be an Antiracist” is a bestseller.

Being antiracist requires action, such as uncovering and overcoming one’s biases. In a clip from “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” the host interviews Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a social psychologist, about her book, “Biased.”

As extensive as the portal is, the Smithsonian has another project on race in the works, thanks to a $25 million grant from Bank of America.

The “Race, Community and Our Shared Future” initiative will explore race and policy with panel discussions, in-person and virtual collection efforts and oral history archives, the Smithsonian announced June 8. Specifics have not been announced.

And so, for many of us, the current moment is hopeful.

We could be at “a tipping point where people come together and recognize that the past should give you some hope,” Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said in a video conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden June 5 on the library’s site.

Visiting the “Talking About Race” portal is bracing. It’s meant to challenge attitudes and change our perspectives.

Racism is insidious, learned over a lifetime from family members, friends, others we encounter, the society at large.

“We are all swimming in the same racial water,” DiAngelo writes.

Reading by itself won’t solve America’s social inequities, but it can make us more aware of our unconscious biases and the policies that support them. Then change can be possible.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A monumental step toward healing -- June 4, 2020 column

In a week of peaceful protests, violent riots and widespread looting, the removal Tuesday of a Confederate monument in Alexandria may seem almost inconsequential.
No one was hurt or died, and the “Appomattox” monument – nicknamed “Appy” – wasn’t defaced or toppled. It was scheduled for removal next month, anyway. The Washington Post tucked the news on page B-4 of Wednesday’s paper.
But Appy’s sudden exit was a sign the long-simmering controversy over Confederate symbols had finally boiled over.
Sorrowful Appy depicted not a general in full military regalia on his steed but an unarmed Confederate soldier, standing, head bowed, arms crossed over his chest, hat in hand, facing the battlefields to the South where his comrades had fallen.
The monument at a busy intersection in Old Town commemorated the place where Alexandrians assembled to join the fight against the Union. It was not erected until a quarter century after the Civil War ended, a time many Southerners were eager to glorify the Confederacy.
Cities and towns have been taking down Confederate memorials since a white supremacist killed nine black worshippers at a South Carolina church in 2015.
The trend gathered steam in 2017 after white supremacists staged a rally in Charlottesville to protest a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The demonstration led to one person’s death and the injuries of 19 others.
After the killing of George Floyd, who was black, May 25 in Minneapolis while in the custody of a white cop, protesters took to the streets around the country to demand justice and an end to police brutality.
Landmark monuments became a prime destination for protesters to gather and as targets of graffiti and destruction. In Washington, ugly words were inexplicably spray-painted on the Lincoln Memorial and the National World War II Memorial.
In at least half a dozen cities, demonstrators congregating at Confederate memorials painted “BLM” for “Black Lives Matter,” and other slogans and expletives on some memorials and destroyed others.
After demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., pulled down one Confederate monument and defaced anothe, while attempting to bring it down, the mayor pleaded to be allowed to “finish the job for you.”
The city Tuesday removed the 52-foot Confederate Sailors and Soldiers Monument obelisk.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which owns Appy, decided to move it  early after protesters last weekend vandalized the group’s headquarters in Richmond and set a fire there. Protesters also covered Richmond’s Confederate monuments with graffiti.
The Daughters notified the city of Alexandria Monday they would take down the statue the next day.
Now, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who signed a bill in April allowing localities to remove monuments from public property, plans to remove the soaring Lee monument in Richmond.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, saying the city is no longer the capital of the Confederacy, wants to remove the four other monuments to Confederate leaders along Monument Avenue.
The big news about Richmond’s memorials made the Post’s frontpage Thursday.
Many consider Confederate monuments a symbol of the oppression and subjugation of blacks, while others consider the memorials a part of their history and heritage.
President Donald Trump, allying himself with the latter, tweeted in 2017: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
Those who find the monuments hurtful and hateful often quote Lee, who favored reconciliation and was no fan of war memorials.
“I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feels it engendered,” Lee wrote.
And so, more than 150 years after the Civil War ended, the battle over Confederate monuments appears to have reached a tipping point.
Future Americans surely will see fewer Confederate symbols on busy city streets. But what will happen to these monuments?
In Alexandria, the Daughters have not said where Appy was taken or what’s planned.
Often there is no plan, and monuments get crated and stored in warehouses.
Authorities should try to find Confederate monuments final resting places in museums and Confederate cemeteries. That would be a monumental step forward.
©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.