Thursday, October 20, 2011

100 years ago today: Othering and diminishment

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago today the University Missourian (Columbia, Missouri) ran the following article on the front page:
Head: Cinders Cause Suit
SubHead: Negro Woman Asks $300 Because Wabash Trains Soil Washing.

Emmeline Williams is not only identified in the subhead as a "Negro Woman" in the very first line of the article we are told that she is "a negress." In the second paragraph of the same article she is referred to as "Emmeline" without an honorific and with no last name.

The article, which is a roundup of the various cases currently before the court, next moves on to the story of "William Miller, a negro" who is later referred to as "Tude, as he is known in Columbia."

No one on the page is identified as "white" and no one not identified as "negro" is referred to only by their first name or not given an honorific on their first mention.

These are, no doubt, "little" things but it says much of what life was like for African-Americans that no matter what they did their "racial identity" was given as automatically as honorifics were given to whites and that the small dignities of life were accorded to white men and women but not African Americans.


  1. So I was looking up a Langston Hughes quote a few days ago for Slacktivist, and you know how one poem leads to another:

    In Explanation of Our Times

    The folks with no titles in front of their names
    all over the world
    are raring up and talking back
    to the folks called Mister.

    You say you thought everybody was called Mister?

    No, son, not everybody.
    In Dixie, often they won't call Negroes Mister.
    In China before what happened
    They had no intention of calling coolies Mister.
    Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong
    the Misters won't call lots of other folks Mister.
    They call them, Hey George!
    Here, Sallie!
    Listen, Coolie!
    Hurry up, Boy!
    And things like that.

    George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired sometimes.
    So all over the world today
    folks with not even Mister in front of their names
    are raring up and talking back
    to those called Mister.
    From Harlem past Hong Kong talking back.

    Shut up, says Gerald L.K. Smith.
    Shut up, says the Governor of South Carolina.
    Shut up, says the Governor of Singapore.
    Shut up, says Strydom.

    Hell no shut up! say the people
    with no titles in front of their names.
    Hell no! It's time to talk back now!
    History says it's time,
    And the radio, too, foggy with propaganda
    that says a mouthful
    and don't mean half it says--
    but is true anyhow:
    True anyhow no matter how many
    Liars use those words.

    The people with no titles in front of their names
    hear these words and shout them back
    at the Misters, Lords, Generals, Viceroys,
    Governors of South Carolina, Gerald L. K. Strydoms.

    Shut up, people!
    Shut up! Shut up!
    Shut up, George!
    Shut up, Sallie!
    Shut up, Coolie!
    Shut up, Indian!
    Shut up, Boy!

    George Sallie Coolie Indian Boy
    black brown yellow bent down working
    earning riches for the whole world
    with no title in front of name
    just man woman tired says:

    No shut up!
    Hell no shut up!

    So naturally there's trouble
    in these our times
    because of people with no titles
    in front of their names.

    Sixty-odd years later, some of the Misters have learned at least surface courtesy, and some of the Lords and Governors have been superseded by the CEOs. But if things keep going the way they seem to be going, I think it's time for some determined "raring up and talking back."

  2. Oh, great Langston Hughes. I didn't know that one. He captures exactly what I was trying to get across. (Much better than I, of course.)

    It is amazing to go back and actually look at and listen to things instead of reading/hearing "about" them. The total air of derision in any article about African-Americans is palpable.

    And I wonder about William Miller (known as 'Tude') who was carrying weapons. Maybe he had an attitude about not being called mister and maybe his children and grandchildren were brought up to do something about it.

  3. Well, that's what poets are for. They're the ones who know how to find exactly the right words.

    Of course, nowadays it seems that nobody has titles in front of their names. Everybody's on a first-name basis face-to-face, everybody is last-name-only in the newspaper. (That's how I knew that time was passing, when the stories about "Clinton" were suddenly referring to a different person.) Makes it easier to assume equality, I guess, but maybe also to hide the inequalities?

    You're right about how startling it can be to read those old materials, though-- especially the relatively recent ones. We expect the world of Austen or Dickens to be very different from ours, but I recently read a couple of mysteries written in the late 1960s-- recognizably my times, yet some of the casual assumptions of those times seem shocking now. For the "TARDIS in the library," sometimes the shortest trips are the most disconcerting.


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