Common Objects

nprbooks:

Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Chinese students were mourning the death of a reformist leader. But what began as mourning evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. Demonstrators remained in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, day after day, until their protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army — on June 4. Hundreds died; to this day, no one knows how many.
NPR’s Louisa Lim explores those events, the forgotten deaths and the Chinese government’s rewriting of the official narrative in a new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Her story includes an investigation into a forgotten crackdown in the southwestern city of Chengdu — which, to this day, has never been reported.

Tang Deying holds her determination in the stubborn set of her jaw. This diminutive, disheveled, elderly woman shuffling into the room in her pink plastic flip-flops is one of the few living links to the crackdown in Chengdu during the summer of 1989.
When martial law troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the violence was beamed immediately into living rooms around the world. Yet it has taken a quarter-century for details to emerge of the deadly events in Chengdu that cost Tang’s 17-year-old son his life.
For 25 years, a single aim has driven Tang’s existence: seeking restitution and accountability for the death of her son, Zhou Guocong, who was fatally beaten in police custody after disappearing in the 1989 Chengdu crackdown.
"Right is right. Wrong is wrong," she told me firmly

See the rest of the story here.
Images courtesy Louisa Lim and Kim Nygaard
nprbooks:

Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Chinese students were mourning the death of a reformist leader. But what began as mourning evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. Demonstrators remained in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, day after day, until their protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army — on June 4. Hundreds died; to this day, no one knows how many.
NPR’s Louisa Lim explores those events, the forgotten deaths and the Chinese government’s rewriting of the official narrative in a new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Her story includes an investigation into a forgotten crackdown in the southwestern city of Chengdu — which, to this day, has never been reported.

Tang Deying holds her determination in the stubborn set of her jaw. This diminutive, disheveled, elderly woman shuffling into the room in her pink plastic flip-flops is one of the few living links to the crackdown in Chengdu during the summer of 1989.
When martial law troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the violence was beamed immediately into living rooms around the world. Yet it has taken a quarter-century for details to emerge of the deadly events in Chengdu that cost Tang’s 17-year-old son his life.
For 25 years, a single aim has driven Tang’s existence: seeking restitution and accountability for the death of her son, Zhou Guocong, who was fatally beaten in police custody after disappearing in the 1989 Chengdu crackdown.
"Right is right. Wrong is wrong," she told me firmly

See the rest of the story here.
Images courtesy Louisa Lim and Kim Nygaard
nprbooks:

Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Chinese students were mourning the death of a reformist leader. But what began as mourning evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. Demonstrators remained in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, day after day, until their protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army — on June 4. Hundreds died; to this day, no one knows how many.
NPR’s Louisa Lim explores those events, the forgotten deaths and the Chinese government’s rewriting of the official narrative in a new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Her story includes an investigation into a forgotten crackdown in the southwestern city of Chengdu — which, to this day, has never been reported.

Tang Deying holds her determination in the stubborn set of her jaw. This diminutive, disheveled, elderly woman shuffling into the room in her pink plastic flip-flops is one of the few living links to the crackdown in Chengdu during the summer of 1989.
When martial law troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the violence was beamed immediately into living rooms around the world. Yet it has taken a quarter-century for details to emerge of the deadly events in Chengdu that cost Tang’s 17-year-old son his life.
For 25 years, a single aim has driven Tang’s existence: seeking restitution and accountability for the death of her son, Zhou Guocong, who was fatally beaten in police custody after disappearing in the 1989 Chengdu crackdown.
"Right is right. Wrong is wrong," she told me firmly

See the rest of the story here.
Images courtesy Louisa Lim and Kim Nygaard
nprbooks:

Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Chinese students were mourning the death of a reformist leader. But what began as mourning evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. Demonstrators remained in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, day after day, until their protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army — on June 4. Hundreds died; to this day, no one knows how many.
NPR’s Louisa Lim explores those events, the forgotten deaths and the Chinese government’s rewriting of the official narrative in a new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Her story includes an investigation into a forgotten crackdown in the southwestern city of Chengdu — which, to this day, has never been reported.

Tang Deying holds her determination in the stubborn set of her jaw. This diminutive, disheveled, elderly woman shuffling into the room in her pink plastic flip-flops is one of the few living links to the crackdown in Chengdu during the summer of 1989.
When martial law troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the violence was beamed immediately into living rooms around the world. Yet it has taken a quarter-century for details to emerge of the deadly events in Chengdu that cost Tang’s 17-year-old son his life.
For 25 years, a single aim has driven Tang’s existence: seeking restitution and accountability for the death of her son, Zhou Guocong, who was fatally beaten in police custody after disappearing in the 1989 Chengdu crackdown.
"Right is right. Wrong is wrong," she told me firmly

See the rest of the story here.
Images courtesy Louisa Lim and Kim Nygaard

nprbooks:

Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Chinese students were mourning the death of a reformist leader. But what began as mourning evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. Demonstrators remained in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, day after day, until their protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army — on June 4. Hundreds died; to this day, no one knows how many.

NPR’s Louisa Lim explores those events, the forgotten deaths and the Chinese government’s rewriting of the official narrative in a new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Her story includes an investigation into a forgotten crackdown in the southwestern city of Chengdu — which, to this day, has never been reported.

Tang Deying holds her determination in the stubborn set of her jaw. This diminutive, disheveled, elderly woman shuffling into the room in her pink plastic flip-flops is one of the few living links to the crackdown in Chengdu during the summer of 1989.

When martial law troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the violence was beamed immediately into living rooms around the world. Yet it has taken a quarter-century for details to emerge of the deadly events in Chengdu that cost Tang’s 17-year-old son his life.

For 25 years, a single aim has driven Tang’s existence: seeking restitution and accountability for the death of her son, Zhou Guocong, who was fatally beaten in police custody after disappearing in the 1989 Chengdu crackdown.

"Right is right. Wrong is wrong," she told me firmly

See the rest of the story here.

Images courtesy Louisa Lim and Kim Nygaard


Killing of Environmental Activists Rises Globally →

climateadaptation:

Interesting that the investigators found that “authorities and security forces” (e.g., government) are complicit. I wonder how they found this information (or if they assumed it)?Anyone have this report? If so, can you kindly send it to me?


Grim Pictures and White Pathologies

In response to a friend inquiring as to whether the images I mentioned in the last post would be available, and defending the dissemination of the same. Edited for length and confidentiality:

I definitely agree that they should be seen—and in fact that is why they are a part of the special collections in the first place. I can’t think of anyone off of the top of my head who would argue that these items really just should never see the light of day. But I myself have experienced some ambivalence about how to deal with them, and I think others have too. In any case, depending on which proposal for using them goes through, I think they will probably be up in the next six or eight months.

Actually anybody can already make an appointment and go look at them. The question I am bringing up here somewhat obliquely is whether the digitization and online dissemination of these items is qualitatively different from, say, aerial views of Dallas, or pictures of locomotives (I’m speaking here not of copyright or other legal issues, but of moral responsibility).

From this ethical point of view there are a good number of decisions to make. Two important ones are these: first, given the limited resources of digital services and the many images of scholarly interest waiting to be made available, should SMU dedicate time and energy putting these items through the quite elaborate scanning and cataloguing process? Second, what sorts of framing should these pieces receive (typically a digital collection will come with a guide or even a more elaborate online exhibit).

On the first note, for the rather grim reasons I suggest, I think they absolutely should be available for study. They teach us something about the cultural work of white power in this country that should chill us to the bone.

Yet it is important to note that they are intended to be humiliating images. Even more, they trade in tropes and stereotypes that are still vividly, consequentially believed in more or less virulent form in all manner of places. So SMU’s responsibility to place the images in the context of political and social dynamics becomes all the more critical. This contextualizing, this framing involves lots of mundane, nuts and bolts stuff—how the content is categorized, what keywords are used, what the collection guide or digital exhibit contains, how as a whole the collection purports to fit with the broader university mission of expanding knowledge. It’s a lot of work and can be done poorly. But doing the online depiction and framing well is a well-funded, very intentional aspect of SMU’s approach to such sensitive matters, so I look forward to seeing how they are brought into the conversation.

Now, somewhat connected back to the first point, there is also a larger, structural question to consider, which regards items not currently in the archives.

The items I have been looking through here and elsewhere are white people’s depictions of black men and women. But these black men and women also documented their own lives; on Emancipation Day and Juneteenth celebrations, for example. It would not be remiss to wonder how yet more Sambo images expand our understanding, and whether a university’s efforts might be better spent seeking out and making public less derogatory representations—Juneteenth photos; or life in old Deep Ellum, especially blues musicians; or a comprehensive set of influential black preachers from Reconstruction on; or homes in once vibrant black or latino/a sites and neighborhoods later obliterated by highway construction. These are just off the top of my head, I am sure there are other, better examples.

In a sense these photographs above, and others like them, are only representations of black life as it was oppressively imagined by white people. For an understanding of how people of color made lives over and against the pressure of white supremacy, we ought to consider their own depictions, their ways of displaying actual patterns of life and creativity and work.

In other words, I want those photographs public because I am curious about the enduring pathologies of white people, not because I think they tell us all that much about the internal realities of black life. How individuals use or deal with the items is of course something the curators cannot really control. But this sort of framing is, I think, significant in these unusually sensitive cases.


A box of “African-American” postcards in the special collections at Southern Methodist University, sorted but not yet digitized. The issues with presenting these images publicly are many.
One section is labeled “Watermelon.” Others: “Children,” “Gambling,” “Housing.” Where caricature is not used, real photographs depict men in blackface acting out ridiculous scenes. Several cards depict actual black families at work, or black men and women in dress clothes, before painstakingly cleaned and repaired houses—but with leering, derisive captions. “Home Sweet Home,” for example, inscribed sarcastically.
It struck me quit viscerally while looking through them there is a similar kind of violence at work in both these stereotypes and the more baldly horrible lynching images, also of this era. The latter is supposed to show a grim work proudly done, a horror borne for justice; the former is supposed to be a laugh, a joke any thinking person should get.
Both exemplify the cultural work that goes into normalizing the destruction of human beings. Both exemplify the habits that make cruelty seem natural, that make it seem fun.
From the description: 

A collection of African American postcards from the early 20th century. Many of the postcards are caricatures of stereotypical black subjects including racist imagery portraying them as cartoon characters. Included are holiday cards and postcards of African Americans working in cotton, sugar cane and tobacco fields, turpentine, citrus fruit, rice and peanut farms, eating watermelon, gambling, schools, houses, “Uncle Tom,” “Mammy,” praline sellers, preachers, and children. Some are illustrated cartoons while others are real photographic postcards. Also included is a postcard of the football team at Storer College, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a college started after the Civil War to educate freedmen.
View Larger

A box of “African-American” postcards in the special collections at Southern Methodist University, sorted but not yet digitized. The issues with presenting these images publicly are many.

One section is labeled “Watermelon.” Others: “Children,” “Gambling,” “Housing.” Where caricature is not used, real photographs depict men in blackface acting out ridiculous scenes. Several cards depict actual black families at work, or black men and women in dress clothes, before painstakingly cleaned and repaired houses—but with leering, derisive captions. “Home Sweet Home,” for example, inscribed sarcastically.

It struck me quit viscerally while looking through them there is a similar kind of violence at work in both these stereotypes and the more baldly horrible lynching images, also of this era. The latter is supposed to show a grim work proudly done, a horror borne for justice; the former is supposed to be a laugh, a joke any thinking person should get.

Both exemplify the cultural work that goes into normalizing the destruction of human beings. Both exemplify the habits that make cruelty seem natural, that make it seem fun.

From the description

A collection of African American postcards from the early 20th century. Many of the postcards are caricatures of stereotypical black subjects including racist imagery portraying them as cartoon characters. Included are holiday cards and postcards of African Americans working in cotton, sugar cane and tobacco fields, turpentine, citrus fruit, rice and peanut farms, eating watermelon, gambling, schools, houses, “Uncle Tom,” “Mammy,” praline sellers, preachers, and children. Some are illustrated cartoons while others are real photographic postcards. Also included is a postcard of the football team at Storer College, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a college started after the Civil War to educate freedmen.


Nothing is clearer than that ideologically consistent political positions have on the whole been refuted by history, while healthy nations have preserved freedom and extended justice by various pragmatic policies which borrowed from various strategies.

This does not mean that we must not and cannot make clear-cut decisions on matters of principle. It is becoming apparent, for instance, that the question of national health insurance (usually referred to by its opponents as “socialized medicine”) will become an increasingly important political issue. In deciding for or against it we decide for or against certain broad political strategies.

But we ought not to decide for or against it on the basis that the policy is abstractly in violation of “freedom” or that abstractly it enhances state control. We ought to make our decision by asking such questions as these: Can a system of economic freedom in medicine guarantee minimal standards of health? Can a socialized scheme be subjected to professional rather than political standards? Is there protection in the scheme against inordinate and disproportionate demands upon it?

If the presuppositions of such questions are analyzed, it will be apparent that they are rooted in a Christian interpretation of the human situation, for on the one hand they recognize the law of love as our norm, they assume our responsibility for our neighbor’s welfare.

On the other hand, they recognize the persistence of self-love, including the indeterminate character of human desires, as a perennial factor in any human situation. A Christian faith that recognizes both of these factors will be prevented from aggravating the ideological conflict in modern society. It may even prevent political acrimony in a Presidential year.

Reinhold Niebuhr responding to the Obamacare debate sixty years before it happened. 

From “Our Faith and Concrete Political Decisions,” Christianity and Society (1952); reprinted in Love and Justice: Selections from he Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. D.B. Robertson (Westminster/John Knox, 1957), 58.