A Day for the History Books

Friday was a day for the history books.

Columbia, South Carolina. As the US and state flags fly at half-mast in mourning, the Confederate flag flies at full mast. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Columbia, South Carolina. As the US and state flags fly at half-mast in mourning, the Confederate flag flies at full mast. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

In Charleston, assassinated South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney was laid to rest. His was the first funeral of the nine murdered by a white supremacist. Much has been said and written about the deceased and about the effects of this terrorist act; of particular note are President Obama’s eulogy (link opens the complete video on C-Span) and my onetime Roosevelt colleague Patricia Lessane Williams’s New York Times op-ed she wrote in the wake of the atrocity next door to her workplace at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. Please read Patricia’s entire column. I quote her in part:

I can’t help but think of this senseless act of terror, the largest mass shooting in the country since 2013, within the historical context of the Birmingham bombing, but also within the very current context of the increasing terror we African-Americans face on a daily basis.

The shooter’s reported words to his victims reflect a deep-seated hatred for, and fear of, black people by many Americans. These vitriolic sentiments underscore the way we are stereotyped in the media, demonized and dehumanized by right-wing pundits, policed by law enforcement and terrorized by those who use Stand Your Ground to cut us down without a second thought.

For me, last night’s events signal several visceral truths. One, that we African-Americans have no sanctuary. Charleston is a wonderful city, but in some very real ways, my children are no safer here than they were in Chicago.

This daily threat of terror does not exist within a vacuum. It looms within the growing prison-industrial state, against the backdrop of school-reform debates, our slow movement toward gun reform and the political maneuvers by Republicans to make it increasingly more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote. The reality that our civil rights are under attack is just as heavy as our fear for our lives.

Statue of white supremacist and secession advocate John C. Calhoun on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 2015.

Statue of white supremacist and secession advocate John C. Calhoun on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 2015.

One remarkable result of the mourning in Charleston and across the country is a discussion about removing the symbols of the Confederacy from state and federal sites. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn called for the alteration of that state’s flag to remove the stars and bars. US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for the removal of a Jefferson Davis statue from Kentucky’s capitol. And talk has begun about the process of removing statues of several Confederate icons (including white supremacist John C. Calhoun) from the Capitol in Washington DC.

As of this writing, all these symbols remain intact, although Bree Newsome briefly took down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse Saturday morning. I hope this discussion leads to the depositing of all these symbols in museums, further removing them and what they stand for from legitimacy in the twenty-first century. Plenty has been said about the flag; more should be said about John C. Calhoun and what he means in the present moment.

That the Capitol should have a statue of the architect of secession always struck me as at best ironic and at worst deeply disrespectful of the millions of Americans descended from the people Calhoun wanted to keep enslaved at any price. Calhoun so fetishized white supremacy that he subscribed to emerging pseudo-scientific racial theories to justify keeping those of African heritage in bondage. (I elaborate on the theories he championed in the second chapter of Clean and White.) Calhoun so fetishized slavery that the onetime vice president articulated a “concurrent majority” legal principle empowering states to nullify those federal laws that do not suit their prejudices. Calhoun so fetishized white supremacy that he laid the groundwork for secession, the ultimate disloyalty to the Union. His statue at the heart of government is an affront to the people and government of the United States of America. Any iconography of Calhoun installed in Washington after April 12, 1861 is a blatant celebration of white supremacy at the expense of people who suffered and died because of what he advocated. Deciding to fly the Confederate flag on state grounds in 1961 (when South Carolina began to do so) is the same.

Removing these symbols will not solve the problems facing this nation. Removing them will not address the causes of lethal violence, segregation, imprisonment, or the economic structures of inequality. But removing them is a necessary move to delegitimizing the appeals to white supremacy that have fueled the nation’s gun culture, redlining, and economic discrimination, as well as the acts of terrorism from the KKK’s bloody “redeeming” of slavery to the blood spilled in Charleston this month. Should removal come to pass, we will no longer see at statehouses state-sanctioned icons of white supremacy enshrined during dark periods of suppression. The flag and statues were added to government property at various times, ranging from the 1860s terror campaigns to the lynchings of the early 20th century and the attacks by law enforcement against Civil Rights protestors in the 1960s. These are the icons invoked by a terrorist in 2015 to kill Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman, DePayne Doctor, and Clementa Pinckney.

Crowds celebrate as the White House is illuminated in the colors of the rainbow after the Supreme Court protects the right to same-sex marriage across the nation.

Crowds celebrate as the White House is illuminated in the colors of the rainbow after the Supreme Court protects the right to same-sex marriage across the nation.

Friday was a day for the history books. On the morning of Pinckney’s funeral, the US Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that same-sex marriage (and the recognition of same-sex unions nationwide) was protected by the Constitution. It was a day that protected the rights and liberties of millions of Americans, a day worthy of celebration, and one historians will discuss decades from now. Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority decision, declaring that the plaintiffs were “seeking dignity in the eyes of the law,” that “the fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and belief,” and “no longer may this liberty be denied.”

Dissenting from the majority was my old neighbor Nino Scalia. (Like Patricia Williams Lessane, Nino Scalia used to live on the South Side of Chicago. Similarities end with that geographical fact.) Scalia declared that the Supreme Court had made a “naked judicial claim to legislative—indeed, super-legislative—power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government,” done so by nine justices who were “hardly a cross-section of America.”

Scalia’s intent is clear. By saying the Court did not represent the nation, he echoed the words and sentiment of John C. Calhoun. The onetime vice president declared in 1836 that nothing in the federal government’s power was going to eliminate slavery from those states that depended upon the peculiar institution:

The relation which now exists between the two races in the slaveholding States has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth, and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. None other can be substituted. We will not, cannot permit it to be destroyed. If we were base enough to do so, we would be traitors to our section, to ourselves, our families, and to posterity…. Come what will, should it cost every drop of blood, and every cent of property, we must defend ourselves; and if compelled, we would stand justified by all laws, human and divine…With these impressions, I ask neither sympathy nor compassion for the slaveholding States. We can take care of ourselves. It is not we, but the Union which is in danger. It is that which demands our care – demands that the agitation of this question shall cease here – that you shall refuse to receive this petitions, and decline all jurisdiction over the subject of abolition, in every form and shape. It is only on these terms that the Union can be safe. We cannot remain here in an endless struggle in defence of our character, our property, and institutions.

Calhoun provided a framework for delegitimizing federal power in order to oppress vulnerable peoples for the comfort of a few. In his career, Scalia has followed that instinct, just this term casting votes to deny millions health care, deny historically discriminated people recourse for fair housing, and, here, to preserve inequality for families based upon sexual orientation. In the past, he has successfully voted to dismantle the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted to protect citizens from systematic disenfranchisement. (We may be at ease knowing Loving v. Virginia was decided two decades before he joined the Court.) His attitude toward the most vulnerable of this nation’s peoples is as callous as a parent beating a small child with a belt. At worst, his judicial record fits well with Calhoun’s ideology and the ideologies of those bigots who revere Calhoun.

Happily, all three of his major votes this term were unsuccessful. Indeed, Scalia’s hubris in his United States v. Windsor dissent provided language that bolstered the case decided Friday, so perhaps Americans should thank the justice for letting his ego and tongue run amuck. But Scalia invoking Calhoun on the very day that the corrosive symbolism of Calhoun is finally being addressed shows the measure of the man. The nation’s injustices will not be solved by removing the symbols of the Confederacy, nor will they be resolved on the day Scalia’s time on the Court comes to an end. The toxic legacy of Calhoun in both those symbols and Scalia’s philosophy matter in ways all too tangible today. We will be better with them, and him, relegated to the history books in an open discussion of the long struggles for liberty and justice in the United States of America.

Hudson the Greyhound Film Premiere in Brooklyn Saturday

About a year and a half ago, filmmaker Sebastian Silva drafted our dog Hudson into the film he was shooting in Fort Greene. This Saturday at 6:45pm, that film (Nasty Baby, starring Silva, Kristen Wiig, and Tunda Adebimpe) has its Brooklyn premiere at BAM Rose Cinemas.


Hudson plays the role of Sebastian’s landlord’s dog. (The landlord is played by Mark Margolis, seen below with Hudson.)


The Obama Presidential Library Should Be Designed With the Help of Chicago’s South Side Residents

Washington Park, one of the two South Side neighborhoods proposed for the Obama Presidential Library's site.

Washington Park, one of the two South Side neighborhoods proposed for the Obama Presidential Library’s site.

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin reported that the Barack Obama Presidential Library that (according to multiple news reports) will be built on the South Side of Chicago in 2017 may be designed by London-based, Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye. Kamin discusses the possible controversy over not using a Chicago-based, or African-American, or American architect — for this iconic national building.

Adjaye would be the first non-American architect to design a presidential library. Boosting his already substantial profile, the Art Institute of Chicago in September will mount a solo exhibition of his work, which includes the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall and Denver’s cool, cubelike Museum of Contemporary Art.

Yet some are asking: Why the focus on Adjaye? Why not an African-American architect like North Carolina’s Philip Freelon, who designed a Washington, D.C., library that Obama visited last week? Or why not one of Chicago’s leading architects, like Jeanne Gang, Helmut Jahn, Ralph Johnson or John Ronan?

“Why aren’t we bringing up the names of African-American architects?” said Marshall Brown, an associate professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who is African-American. “Why aren’t we talking about younger architects, bringing someone new onto the national or international stage?”

As a sustainability scholar, I have further questions, though perhaps not ones one might suspect from a sustainability scholar. True, I could hope that the building be designed to adhere to LEED or Passive or Living Building Challenge specifications, all of which focus on the performance of the completed structure as it relates to environmental concerns. I do support those goals, but my question is simple. Shouldn’t this library that will reshape a large swath of the South Side of Chicago be designed with the help and approval of the oft-negelected South Siders who will live around it?

Before dismissing my question as silly, consider that what I propose is in keeping with the work MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Rick Lowe has done for decades. His most famous achievement, Houston’s Project Row Houses (PRH), is lauded for its use of artistic expression in neighborhood revitalization. Central to that innovation is a careful, sustained dialogue with the members of the affected community about what a development may mean to them and how it may serve them.

The MacArthur Foundation recognized the value of Lowe’s work, stating:

Originally trained as a painter, Lowe shifted the focus of his artistic practice in the early 1990s in order to address more directly the pressing social, economic, and cultural needs of his community. With a group of fellow artists, he organized the purchase and restoration of a block and a half of derelict properties—twenty-two shotgun houses from the 1930s—in Houston’s predominantly African American Third Ward and turned them into Project Row Houses (PRH), an unusual amalgam of arts venue and community support center.

Since its founding in 1993, PRH has served as a vital anchor for what had been a fast-eroding neighborhood, providing arts education programs for youth, exhibition spaces and studio residencies for emerging and established artists, a residential mentorship program for young mothers, an organic gardening program, and an incubator for historically appropriate designs for low-income housing on land surrounding the original row houses. While inviting constant collaboration with local residents, artists, church groups, architects, and urban planners, Lowe continues to provide the guiding vision for PRH as he pursues his overarching goal of animating the assets of a place and the creativity of its people. He is not only bringing visibility and pride to the Third Ward by celebrating the beauty of its iconic shotgun houses; he is also changing the lives of many PRH program graduates and expanding the PRH campus to cover a six-block area in an effort to preserve the historic district’s character in the face of encroaching gentrification.

Why is this important? Barack Obama’s presidential library has strong symbolic value as one sited in an urban area with many social and economic challenges. Too often, the people who live near the proposed sites have suffered neglect or conscious abuse by those in power (such as the municipal government or, as Jane Jacobs illustrated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the University of Chicago). At a time when Chicago’s municipal government is criticized for not attending to the voices and needs of many of its citizens, planning a presidential library with the help of the working-class people who will be affected by its construction and operation strikes me as the most sustainable process possible. Giving these community members a stake it its design may lead to them creating ways to use and contribute to the library in the decades ahead. Allowing their voices to be heard in a meaningful way also strikes me as setting a tone for the legacy of community organizer-turned-President Obama in history.

Bringing the library’s neighbors into the planning process is more revolutionary than selecting a particular architect. It is consistent with the state of the art of sustainable building strategies (as this half-hour video from the Rocky Mountain Institute emphasizes). It runs counter to the decades of neglect and abuse heaped upon the communities surrounding the sites. It also would be a favorable part of the legacy of whichever architect gets her or his name attached to the project. I urge the Barack Obama Foundation to consider this approach when planning this important historic development.

BackStory Podcast on History of Waste

backstory-logoLast winter, Brian Balogh of the BackStory podcast interviewed me for an episode on the history of waste. Now, the episode (including that interview as well as ones with fellow waste scholars Robin Nagle, Catherine McNeur, Brett Mizelle, Bart Elmore, and David Sklansky as well as recycling logo designer Gary Anderson) is available to hear.

If you’re curious about my family’s story as it relates to this history (and also want to hear my voice decay), click the link, as the American History Guys chose to use the part where I discuss what prompted me to write Cash for Your Trash (and much of that book’s second and third chapters).

Brian Balogh also gets an egregious pun (and my reaction to said pun) onto the podcast.

Pratt Sustainability Studies Minor Resources

Registration for Fall 2015 is upon us at Pratt, and the Institute has updated its website. Students wanting to register for sections relevant to the Sustainability Studies minor can click on this link, scroll down to the bottom half, and click on each linked course to see scheduling and availability of sections. Next term, my classes include a Friday morning section of SUST 201 The Sustainable Core and a Tuesday afternoon section of SUST 405 Production, Consumption, and Waste.

Students interested in declaring the minor should speak to their advisor and also to me prior to declaring. The minor declaration form may be downloaded here.