Roof, Dolezal and the Violence of White Appropriation

Dr. Baruti Kopano continues his discussion with us of Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, IMIXWHATILIKE: What’s up world, back again for another edition of I Mix What I Like here at The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Baruti Kopano about a book that he published, co-edited, called Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture. Dr. Kopano, welcome back. Thank you again for joining us.

I wanted to have you take a moment–there’s a chapter in your book by James Stewart where he talks about something that is very important to me, personally. He goes through and makes an argument about the intentional shifting of popular imaging of blackness through blaxploitation films as part and parcel of an effort to blunt the efforts of the black power movement. And I want to see if we can connect that to what’s going on in our country today, that is, that there is a popular description of black revolution, black rebellion, black radical politics that speaks against what that tradition is meant to actually convey, or what it was meant to bring about.

And I’m wondering to what extent you think that that might be playing a role in how we are still being treated. Or even in this most–incident with Dylann Roof, making an argument that he intentionally targeted that church because it was known to be a church connected deeply to the African struggle in this country. And I’m wondering if the popular representation or absence of that struggle plays a part in the symbolic representation that allows for this kind of, or inspires this kind of violence against black people to occur.

DR. BARUTI KOPANO, MORGAN STATE UNIV., CO-EDITOR OF SOUL THIEVES: Dr. James Stewart’s–what Dr. James Stewart does in the chapter I think is quite brilliant. He analyzes some of the films from what we call the blaxploitation period. So films that were, about 200 films in the 1970s that were created that were built around roughly what was taking place in what we call the black power movement, the black power structure.

But what happened is most of these films were really kind of out of black creative hands, and these films were the interpretations of other folks about the black power movement. Or at least, there were some symbolic references to the black power movement in many of these films. But what we find is that they were very superficial references, and the films tended to exploit, to highlight and glorify drugs and sex and violence, and a very–and I think this is a point that Dr. Stewart makes that’s brilliant, a very individualistic effort to approach, to correct, to confront the power structure. And this is in stark contrast to what was really taking place in many of the black power movements. Because there was collective behavior. There were collective efforts to improve our community. There were collective community engagement and involvement. And the films often showed a very different approach.

I think he talks about Superfly, for example. So that the focus becomes on this individual drug dealer. He’s taking on the man as an individual. And yes, having some interactions with the black power folks, but they were trying to shake him down for money.

BALL: Right, it was a hostile interaction.

KOPANO: It was a hostile interaction, that’s right.

BALL: Where the revolutionaries are depicted–I believe he even had a red, black, and green kufi, the brother did that was representing this uncool, reactionary version of the black power struggle.

KOPANO: That’s right. And so you see in the 21st century some of the same manifestations. Even in a filmmaker like Tyler Perry. So that in one–I can’t remember which one of, I think it was Madea Goes To Jail. In that particular film you see Madea [donning] what we would attribute to the black power symbol, but being arrested. And so the message here is that, you know, to be a part of this movement, to embrace this ideology, is something dangerous, is something that does not lead to rewards, and is something that should be rejected at all points.

So I think that’s what Dr. Stewart is doing there. I want to make a really terribly important point though, about one of the major premises of Soul Thieves. And that is it’s built around a quote that Donna Richards at the time, Marimba Ani is what she calls herself today, she made this quote back in a book entitled Let The Circle Be Unbroken. She said, we transformed our suffering–she’s talking about black folks. We transformed our suffering into an opportunity to express spirit. So we talk about the creation of the blues, we talk about the kind of poetry that comes out of our suffering. We talk about jazz music. We talk about taking away arts within the school system and folks taking turntables to make music out of.

That creative spirit comes out of a part of the black experience, especially the black experience in terms of its interactions with white oppression. And so what you often see, then, is that a person like a Rachel Dolezal will want to come in and to claim some kind of connection to blackness. So a lot of the conversation is around does she have that right, is this an appropriation of itself?

Now, I don’t want us to think–and this is another point that we make in Soul Thieves, that all black life is about suffering. And it’s not. But that is something that we try to make very clear in the book, that black art presents everyone the opportunity to heal. This is again what Lea Gilmore was talking about, taking her music as a jazz musician, and taking her music and singing to the folks who were incarcerated. And we kind of automatically assume she’s talking about here in America. She’s talking about in European countries. Some of the people not even necessarily speaking the language, but being able to have the art heal.

And it could be a curative. The art that we create could be a curative for the greater society.

BALL: Let me ask you one more question about this, because unfortunately our time is short. But there’s something that you said in here that is–a number of things that you’ve said I think are really important to highlight.

You talk not only about, as I think you’ve just done, the material but the immaterial impact as well of this soul theft. And one of the quotes here that I have from I believe your chapter is that you say, the black body was necessary not only for its material contribution to the colonial power, but also for the ephemeral and emotional release it provides to its captors.

And I thought of that quote when I was hearing again what Dylann Roof said in response to the young man that was asking him to stop shooting everybody in the church. And the quote as it’s been reported is, I can’t. I have to do this, because of what you all are doing to us. So when I hear this issue of an emotional release, even thinking again to Aimé Césaire’s point about the colony being necessary for the exporting of social ills. To keeping things that the horrors or the violence of a community kept safely somewhere else. That this is sort of what Roof is also saying, that I have to go into another community and exercise my dis-ease with what’s going on in the world. That I have to use violence against them to overcome my own internal issues.

So anyway, if I’m misinterpreting this quote here, please correct me. Or just embellish on what it is that I’ve said.

KOPANO: No, I don’t think that you’re misinterpreting the quote. I think that that quote as well as some other things that we say throughout the book really talks about how the manipulation of the black body has been part of the white construct. And that–there’s a very famous article written in 1963 called, what is it. The [incompr.] of course I’m coming up with a blank of the name of the article.

But this article is famous for its author admitting the kind of envy that he had growing up of the black male body in particular. The kind of release and the freedom, the uninhibitedness and the dance movements of the black, of black folks. And that is a part of what we talk about when we talk about what is soul, what is rhythm. It’s a certain expressiveness. It’s a certain, I think Pasteur and Toldson in Roots of Soul call it a vital emotionalism that is part of what we would call the black persona.

And that’s something that for many Europeans, they’re very uncomfortable with that kind of uninhibitedness. And that’s when they engage in what we often call cultural voyeurism. How can these folks just be so free and just let loose? And then you see that fascination become a pathology, because it becomes exacerbated and stereotyped. So you get the crazy stereotypes of the black woman who’s sexually free to the point of being promiscuous. The black male who is sexually free to the same point. And some of the other kinds of caricatures that actually come out of what is for many black folks a natural way of being.

So I think that there is some correlation there. At some point maybe we’ll find out what really was driving Rachel Dolezal to have the kind of fascination with the black woman body. What would make her want to take this persona on to the point where she’s disowning, disavowing herself from her biological family, and then what some would argue, all the privileges that go along with whiteness? What is so powerful about blackness that would make someone want to sacrifice that?

BALL: Well, it’s also the power of whiteness that let her go back and sue Howard University as a white woman.

KOPANO: Absolutely. That’s right. Right.

BALL: Dr. Kopano, I want to thank you and your co-editor very much for this, and all those who contributed. The book, again, is called Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture. Thank you again for joining us at I Mix What I Like and The Real News Network.

KOPANO: Thank you.

BALL: And thank you for joining us at I Mix What I Like and The Real News Network. And again as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace, if you’re willing to fight for it. Peace, everybody. Catch you in the whirlwind.

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