Monthly Archives: November 2015

Remembering Booker T. Washington 100 Years After His Death

Booker_T_WashingtonA century ago today, Booker T. Washington died of hypertension at the age of 59. Founder of the Tuskegee Institute, author of Up from Slavery, Washington is remembered today as one of two major African-American voices of the turn of the twentieth century advocating different ways of addressing the rising threat of Jim Crow and lynchings. W. E. B. du Bois and his colleagues in what became the NAACP pushed for full recognition of civil rights. Washington has often been remembered as a conciliator, compromising with Southern segregationists in a futile effort for accommodation.

History has not been kind to Washington’s strategies, but history also deserves to give Washington understanding of what he saw and experienced in his life. Born a slave in 1856, he saw the Civil War bring abolition before his tenth birthday. Young Booker T. Washington then saw the upheaval of Reconstruction and, as he became an adult, violent, repressive rollback of civil rights for African Americans, joined by mob violence and lynching.

Lautz Brothers' soap ad. The slogan "beat that if you can" underlines the claim it can wash black skin white.

Lautz Brothers’ soap ad. The slogan “beat that if you can” underlines the claim it can wash black skin white.

A pernicious aspect of the racial subjugation Washington saw was an emerging stereotype of African Americans as somehow dirtier than native-born whites. In the halls of universities, in the rhetoric of politicians, and in the emerging advertising for soap and cleansers between 1880 and 1920, “white” skin was celebrated as fair, and as clean. Darker pigments were equated with dirt, even treated as dirt in some of the crudest soap advertisements of the time.

In this context, much of Washington’s work may be seen as resistance to a growing insult. His “gospel of the toothbrush” admission of African Americans to uphold the highest standards of personal hygiene, establishment of technical institutes with instruction in personal and civic hygiene, and work to create National Negro Health Week reflect an attempt to resist this emerging pseudoscientific claim to white supremacy as an extension of elevated sanitary standards.

C&WcoverSuch an attitude is jarring in 2015, but was commonplace during Washington’s life. How this attitude developed, how it was resisted by many affected people, and what consequences it has had for American society is the subject of my new book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Available now from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Waring’s work in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Washington is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other.

Washington’s death from hypertension happened as he saw white supremacy grow despite his work. The environmental dimension of American racism at the turn of the century both adds context to his differences with du Bois and rationale for his gospel of the toothbrush. He should be remembered for both his accomplishments and these complexities, and that is one of the goals of the book.

Clean and White: Available Now For Preorder

My new book is out for preorder. Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States is available as a hardback and as an ebook.

From NYU Press:


When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate,” he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society’s wastes have been managed.
Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic “purity” was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity.
Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea  that non-whites are “dirty” remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.
The book is available at these outlets:

Nasty Baby Widens Release

Two year ago, Fort Greene-based director Sebastian Silva cast our dog Hudson in his film Nasty Baby. Silva cast Mark Margolis as his real-life landlord and Hudson as a (slimmer, taller versions of) the real-life landlord’s real dog. Nasty Baby played BAM in June, and now is in sufficiently wide release to garner press, including a positive review by A. O. Scott in the New York Times:

….what had looked like a meandering, anecdotal story turns out to be a carefully constructed narrative machine, one that dispenses a brilliantly nasty series of surprises. Mr. Silva’s accomplishment is not just in pulling off a jarring plot twist, but in handling a change of tone that turns the movie — and the audience’s assumptions about it — upside down. If you’ve seen his earlier films, like “The Maid,” “Old Cats” or “Crystal Fairy,” you’re aware that he possesses this skill, and also a keen eye for the cruelty that underlies even the most apparently harmonious social arrangements.

“Nasty Baby” is not really — or not only — a loving farce about non-heteronormative reproduction and multicultural friendship. Without leaving Mo and Freddy’s leafy, brownstone-lined street, Mr. Silva transports us to a much deeper, darker place. The word “gentrification” is not uttered on screen, but the economic and literal violence that lurks within its bland, euphemistic syllables turns out to be the movie’s hidden theme. As misunderstandings spiral from awkward to horrifying, the gentle tickle of comedy is replaced by the barb of satire, and the audience’s smile of recognition is replaced by a grimace of complicity.

The film was both Hudson’s cinematic debut and finale. He died suddenly, a few weeks after the BAM screening. Watching it is one way we can remember him. RIP buddy; we miss you every day.