Tuesday, May 25, 2021

To See Yourself as You are Seen, As We See You


Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, Marion, Indiana[1]


“’Make America great again . . .’ there [is] a blind spot in this idea of the America that once

was great or this place deep in the historical past where America was great. [. . .]

. . . we only feed into the erasure of the actual history of America and the actual history of

my ancestors by deciding that we would rather not see their images.”

Barry Jenkins[2]


On Friday, May 14 Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaption of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, began streaming on Amazon Prime.  The series, four years in the making, debuts at a pivotal moment in our shared history: just shy of one month after Derek Chauvin’s conviction in the murder of George Floyd, ten days shy of the one-year anniversary of that murder and just two weeks shy of the centennial of the Greenwood Massacre.[3]  If the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice, this ground breaking visual narrative of our nation’s racial legacy may be understood as yet another point on that trajectory. 

Like Whitehead’s original novel, Barry Jenkins’ series offers another contribution, in powerful visual language, to contemporary neo-slave narrative.  Neo-slave narrative challenges the past in the light of the present while simultaneously challenging our vision of the present by remembering the past; in so doing these narratives reconstruct United States history from the bottom up and through a Black gaze.   His visual neo-slave narrative, also like Whitehead’s novel, intersects with speculative fiction – specifically the New Weird -- and irrealism.  Of the two narrative genres I’ve just named “speculative fiction” is perhaps the most familiar; think fantasy or science fiction. These are works in which the setting is other than the “real” world, involving supernatural, futuristic or other imagined elements and written as commentary on contemporary society.   The “New Weird” emerges from fantasy to overturn cliché and twist the tradition; it has been described as a genre that subverts the fantasy conventions in order to unsettle rather than console the reader as it critiques our current moment.  Which brings us to “irrealism,” that is, fiction inclined toward realism yet engaged with the unknowable, indefinable or unimaginable – think Kafka’s Gregor Samsa who awakes one morning from troubled dreams to find he has been transformed into a giant cockroach.

In the first episode of the series, Jenkins plunges us into a horrific plantation scene: a fugitive Black man – Big Anthony -- has been recaptured and returned to the plantation; as an example to other enslaved people who might contemplate escape he is whipped, hung up by his arms, set on fire and burned alive.  The scene unfolds in the presence of a lunch party at which the plantation owner’s guests eat, drink and are entertained by this spectacle of black pain.  There is something both familiar – sickeningly familiar – and yet uncanny, irreal about this scene. 

These are familiar images from our not-too-distant past: photographs of lynched Black men, women and children transformed into keepsakes or souvenirs in the form of postcards.   The illustration at the top of the page is taken from one such memento -- the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930.  I have cropped the image to direct the viewers eye away from the bodies of Shipp and Smith and instead to the onlookers in the crowd.  The photograph offers but a sampling of those in attendance – some ten to fifteen thousand whites were involved in the lynching – a young couple who appear to be on a date, an excited child, an older man who gazes directly into the camera pointing proudly at the two bodies hanging above the crowd.

Jenkins’ tragically familiar scene becomes uncanny, indeed irreal, because the director forces a change in the viewers’ perspectives.  Rather than the white gaze of the guests directed at the spectacle of black pain, after the fashion of the souvenir postcard, we see the crowd of guests through the Black gaze, through Big Anthony’s eyes.  More than that, in this agonizing moment Jenkins gives Big Anthony a voice: he says to the other enslaved people forced to witness his murder “no more masters, no more slaves,” then to his brutalizer, “God damn you, God damns you.”[4] As we the viewers are compelled  to look through this Black man’s eyes, the critical gaze shifts from the racial object – the non-white Other – to what has been, conventionally, the racial subject, the white self.  Object becomes subject and subject, object.

The Underground Railroad has been in production for four years and in it Barry Jenkins anticipates, replicates and reinforces one of the most remarkable events of this last pandemic year.  I refer to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.  Former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine and a half minutes, an agonizing spectacle captured through a Black gaze on the smart phone of a courageous young Black girl.  The video, as is by now typical, went viral but reaction to it was far from typical: it sparked a racial uprising across the United States and the globe; a hitherto unprecedented diversity of people in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps in the millions, rose up to demand racial justice, an end to police brutality.  Videos of Black men, women, and children brutalized or murdered by the police have become commonplace; scarcely a week goes by without news of yet another such recording uploaded to social media – what made this video different?  I suggest that the difference lies, as with Jenkins’ depiction of a Black man’s lynching, in a forced shift of perspective.  We do not see George Floyd’s murder through police body cams, through the white gaze.  We see him die through the eyes of a teen-aged Black girl.  We see Derek Chauvin as he, like so many others have been, is seen, through a Black gaze.  For some of us this was tragically familiar, we know and recognize it; for others it was uncanny, irreal . . . something unknowable or unimaginable.

The uncanny takes that which is familiar, makes it strange and thereby enables critique.  The irreal engages with the unknowable, indefinable or unimaginable and thereby empowers us to imagine it, define it, recognize it.  W.E.B. DuBois with The Souls of Black Folk was said to have drawn away the veil concealing Black experience from the white gaze.  In his reimagining of Colson Whitehead’s novel Barry Jenkins does something equally revelatory: he draws away the veil concealing whiteness and the function of white supremacy from white people.  Just as the video of George Floyd’s murder enabled white viewers to see and to recognize what has long been familiar to Black folk in this country, Barry Jenkins, “virtuosic landscape artist” as he is named in the New Yorker, allows us to see ourselves and our country for what and who we are.    We are a country created and recreated by immigrants.  We are a country that tells immigrants to go back where they came from; a country that says that to anyone who isn’t white, even if their ancestors came here hundreds of years ago or were here before Columbus. We are a country whose citizens have the right to freely assemble and to protest.  We are also a country where there is “no excuse for the destruction of property” but a seemingly infinite series of excuses for the killing of unarmed Black men, women, and children – we call it qualified immunity.  But this is not all that we are, neither is it who we have to be.  If we are to change, to move towards a just and peaceful community we must see ourselves whole.  We must be willing not only to be seen but to see ourselves as we are seen.  Why is this?

While the arc of the moral universe may well bend towards justice that destination is far from inevitable.  Most of us associate this phrase with Dr. Martin Luther King jr.  But King was in fact paraphrasing part of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.  In that sermon Parker says, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe.  The arc is a long one.  My eye reaches but little ways.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight.  I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[5]  I quote him here at length as his words convey an uncertainty that Dr. King’s do not.  He tells us that he doesn’t so much understand the moral universe but envision it through the prism of his faith. It is through his own conscience and his own actions that justice may be achieved.  Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, like the novel it reimagines and so many other works gifted us by Black artists over the generations, offers us a different lens, a different mirror.  Not the mirror of Erised in which we are mesmerized by the deepest and most desperate of our desires but rather the picture of Dorian Gray in which we see the degradation of the soul and the dangerous consequences of sin and excess.

If you are committed to social justice, I recommend the series to you.  It is brutal, beautiful, and offers us a glimpse of the sublime – a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation, that which is unknowable, indefinable or unimaginable – empowers us to know it and moves us to action.




[1] Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, Cornell University Library https:digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:1508533, Creative Commons, May 17, 2021

[2] Terry Gross, “Underground Railroad Director Barry Jenkins Sees Film as An ‘Empathy Machine.’” Fresh Air. May 10, 2021 https://www.npr.org/transcripts/994616279

[3] Also known as Tulsa Race Massacre – May 31 to June 1, 1921 – when white mobs, many of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the single worst incident of anti-black violence in American history, the attacks destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district, leaving some 10,000 Black people homeless and resulting in property damage in excess of $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019).  Some 800 people were hospitalized while some 6,000 displaced Black residents were interned in large facilities. 

[4] Terry Gross, op. cit.

[5] Melissa Block, “Theodore Parker and The ‘Moral Universe’.” All Things Considered. NPR (Sept 2, 2010). For a complete account of Parker’s sermon, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” originally published in Ten Sermons of Religion (1853); the Elibron Classics (2001) edition is a facsimile reprint of that 1853 edition as published by John Chapman, London.

Michelle Collins-Sibley is Professor of English & Director of the Africana Studies Program at the University of Mount Union.  She currently serves on the board of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and the ACN steering committee.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Feedback Requested on By-Law Changes

 The Ashland Center for Nonviolence is presenting proposed changes to their By-Laws for public review and comment. Please feel free to leave comments on this page or send an email to ebuttil@ashland.edu with any concerns. The proposed changes are in relation to the makeup of the Steering Committee. 

IV. Steering Committee

A Steering Committee shall guide the organization.

 The Steering Committee shall consist of twelve Ashland Center for Nonviolence members plus the Executive Director, who shall have no vote. 


The Steering Committee shall consist of no fewer than 10 and no more than 16 Ashland Center for Nonviolence members plus the Executive Director, who shall have no vote. 


The Steering Committee shall be elected by the membership as terms expire.

 The Steering Committee shall choose one of its twelve members to serve as the Convener of the Steering Committee. The Convener shall serve a term of one year; the term may be renewed. 


The Steering Committee shall choose one of its members to serve as the Convener of the Steering Committee. The Convener shall serve a term of one year; the term may be renewed.

  A.              Distribution of Members

The Steering Committee shall be a diverse group of energetic people committed to understanding and promoting alternatives to violence.


At least four members of the committee shall be current full-time students or full-time employees of Ashland University.

 At least four members of the committee shall not be current full-time students or full-time employees of Ashland University.

 No other requirements of age, gender, status, or profession exist.

 B.              Terms

Members of the Steering Committee shall serve for three years; terms may be renewed.

Members who have served two consecutive terms shall wait at least one year before being elected to another term.

 If a member leaves the committee before the member’s term has expired, the committee shall name a replacement to serve out the remainder of the term. (This is to keep the terms of the steering committee staggered, 1/3 coming up each year.)


Thursday, February 11, 2021

The International Peace Research Association's Biennial Conference in Nairobi

I left the United States for Kenya in the wake of the violence of January 6th. On January 8th I was on my way to the International Peace Research Association’s (IPRA) conference in Nairobi. The journey from driveway to hotel was about 33 hours, and it was a strange experience at every level—transitioning from functional self-isolation to international travel is quite surreal.


My trip almost hit a roadblock. With cases of COVID-19 spiking, getting a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival into Amsterdam (where I’d have a layover) was difficult. I found a single location in the whole state of Ohio that said they “might” be able to get my results in time for a trip. It was a whirlwind.


I was the only attendee who was able to make the trip from the US. The other North American representative made the trip from Mexico; however, there were several hundred people who were able to attend and present virtually—appropriate (I think) for a conference discussing the role of technology in peace. It was a reminder that there is not always consensus on approaches and strategies within the peace research community. While I took extensive measures to make sure I did not spread the virus in any direction I traveled, there were a number of people who condemned and/or challenged the ethics of such a conference and/or my participation. 


When I arrived, I shared with colleagues from Kenya and other African states who were frustrated that former settlers are still trying to make decisions “for us” instead of “letting us make decisions for ourselves.” There is a long history of violence in Kenya, and the West has been complicit in much of it. Like America, Kenya also has markers of its violent story. The measures taken to combat terrorism and violence or to insure the peaceful transition of power - things Americans are thinking hard about today - are essential to many Kenyans’ lives.


I entertained a friendly debate with the position of memorializing violence; perhaps they should have left the broken glass on the floor of the U.S. Capitol as a reminder of the fragility of the American democracy. My colleagues were adamant: “you must be the beacon of democratic freedom.” Everyone knows the imperfections of democracy, but it is the aspirational goal for so many. Democratic problem-solving is the best protection against uncivil wars and coercive violence. 


            Power structures underlie so much of the decision-making we face - often presenting in violent ways. I remember picking up a local newspaper; the headline read “Trump puts Africans on night flight to Nairobi,” and the subhead read “some deportees had open legal cases.” Borders and struggles with migration and travel are timeless. I talked with my colleagues about the exhaustion that four years of resistance and nonviolent struggle in America have caused. President Trump had only been in office for a handful of days when I took my signs to the international airport to oppose the Muslim travel ban. 


Ultimately, the point of our work is to conduct systematic analysis on the empirical data. Where did our nonviolent struggles succeed, and where can we revisit the strategies to do better? Going to conferences, especially IPRA, helps me to recharge my batteries. Meeting in Sierra Leone, India, and Kenya has helped me to connect with the global struggles in very literal ways. But, more importantly, I have the chances to celebrate our successes in building durable peace in the midst of, and despite, widespread human suffering. Every day, nonviolence is working all around the globe to tremendous success, what a great reminder.

Wim Laven, Ph.D, an instructor of peace studies, political science, and conflict resolution, does research on forgiveness and reconciliation. He serves on the executive boards of the International Peace Research Association and its North American affiliate the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He is also a member of the ACN Steering Committee. Wim is a writer with numerous pieces syndicated by Peace Voice and he also works on the editorial team for the Peace Chronicle magazine. His experiences in the field range from mediating disputes in small claims court to interventions during complex humanitarian disasters.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Storming of the U.S. Capitol


The events of 6 January 2021, when a Trump-rally fueled, offshoot mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and Congressional chambers, will be analyzed for some time to come.  Not since the War of 1812, when the Capitol was attacked and burned by British troops, has this architectural and emplaced symbol of democracy been so desecrated. From the perspective of nonviolent theory and practice, the wake of the largely peaceful, nonviolent Black Lives Matter protests nationwide and in Washington, D.C. across the summer of 2020 and beyond affords us a comparative lens with which to understand and to process what has unfolded.  What does this mean for our democracy?  To our allies’ democracies?  What does this event mean for aspiring and newly budding democracies worldwide?

It is illuminating to consider nonviolent theorist Johan Galtung’s highlighting of three central kinds of violence:  (1) direct or physical interpersonal violence, (2) institutional and systemic violence, and (3) cultural violence.  We witnessed direct violence in the mob’s physical attack on the place, persons like Congressional police and staffers.  We witnessed institutional and systemic violence in the Trump Administration’s use of its power to hold a counter-rally on the day of the Electoral College’s vote formalization:  in short, we saw institutional and systemic forms of violence that used power to plan a timed rally that would funnel angry, upset Trump supporters and violent hate group supporters to intimidate and disrupt the democratic process of the U.S. Congress’s final tally and codification of the Electoral College vote, which was to confirm Joe Biden as U.S. President-Elect who will be inaugurated in a few short weeks.  Other institutional and systemic modes of violence include Twitter’s and Facebook’s and other social media outlets purveying misinformation and outright propaganda to gullible, non-college educated Trump supporters:  tech companies’ profit motives are valued by tech leaders more than democratic ideals and practices.  Last, we observed cultural violence in President Trump’s and ancillary organized hate groups’ uses of cultural modes of violence, such as harnessing ignorance, racism and toxic masculinity, to draw the riotous crowd of mostly men into ransacking the Capitol grounds, resulting in the deaths of at least five people, one of whom was a woman.

African Americans, Persons of Color, and those among us as white allies of the current generation of the Civil Rights Movement, including ‘Black Lives Matter’, and women’s branches of it, like ‘Say Her Name’, ‘Me, Too’ and ‘Pink Hats’ movements, all demonstrate that protest in the streets and registering disagreement with unjust political forces can be done peacefully and well.  All of these nonviolent movements showcase the central role played by peaceful marches and placing well organized bodies in the streets to communicate messages about injustice to those in power.  The police presence across the summer 2020 protests and marches to control these largely peaceful protesters was stringent, culminating with many BLM protesters in Portland even being kidnapped by anonymous, Federal government officers in unmarked vans.

In sharp contrast, the crowd of a few hundred mostly white, mostly male Trump supporters pushing their way into the Capitol had little pushback, and far less surveillance.  The mob, whom the erstwhile outgoing President Trump, with a phalanx of populist conspiracies proliferating on social media, had whipped up into a lather of rage, violence, and puerile vandalism.  The Capitol and halls of Congress along with the main chambers were overrun, trashed.  Windows and furniture were smashed, and ‘souvenirs’ such as items from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, were stolen and brandished proudly by individuals in the marauding mob.

Fortunately, eventually the National Guard and D.C. police were able to eject the vandals, secure the grounds so that members of Congress could return and complete, by the wee hours of the morning, the normally fairly mundane and ceremonial business of accepting the Electoral College’s votes tallies from each state, with some debate.  It ended not with a bang, but with a gavel.  Yet the late night rapping of that final gavel must remind us of the tasks before us so that we and our global democratic experimenters may flourish.

The tasks of nonviolence and its adherents to support democracy entail creating proper modes and antidotes to the three kinds of violence.  To peacefully prevent direct violence of this sort in the future, there must be greater security, protection and planning to safeguard democratic processes and the representatives and staffers whose job it is to carry them out.  For example, who were the mindless or maligned individuals and bureaucracies in the city of Washington, D.C. who approved the precariously timed Trump rally, staged on the contentious day of the Electoral College’s vote counts?   Didn’t anyone in the approvals process worry about that?  And if not, why not?  Also, how can racism in policing be averted so that white, male protesters won’t automatically be assumed to be peaceful ‘patriots’ who are essentially given a free pass to ransack government buildings, whereas protesters of color and their white fellow protesters are often beaten, tear-gassed, and met with overwhelming police presence?

To nonviolently inhibit systemic and institutional forms of violence, we could benefit from reexamining our societal overreliance on social media for ‘news’ and for ‘information.’ While objective, fact-seeking journalism as democracy’s Fourth Estate is shrinking, uber wealthy tech giants like Twitter or Facebook are able to sell lucrative advertising to web-surfers, boosting profits while disseminating absurd conspiracy theories that perpetuate racist and sexist cultural myths.  Also, our democracy itself could use a reboot:  U.S. governmental representatives skew drastically toward being comprised of old, white males.  More diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, and age, among other variables, could increase the inclusivity and sense of participation and buy-in from those who are government purports to represent but often fails to.  Even many of the supporters of the Democratic party were disappointed that Joe Biden as another elderly, white male was the best their party could do to get their candidate for President elected.  Women are half of the U.S. and world’s population:  democracies worldwide, however, have fallen short of reflecting that in their representation by government officials.  Institutions and policies match those who make and sustain them:  the nonviolent perspective asks us to wonder, why are governmental officials not more inclusive and representative of those who elect them?

Last, to stem the tide of cultural violence, we would do well to find ways to impede unethical leaders and social media from spewing propaganda.  Social media critics suggest revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996); this law essentially gives free reign to internet trawlers, liars, and propagandists of domestically and internationally located cubicle farms, often paid for by adversaries of our democracy.  By removing loopholes that enable social media producers and consumers to participate in denigrating historically marginalized and oppressed individuals and communities, democracy can better support its citizens. By electing more diverse representatives to Congress and other governmental posts, and by including working class whites and persons of color, democracy may become more attuned to and listen to all citizens. By focusing on what we can do, individually and collectively, to peacefully support our democracy, we can gain hope and a roadmap of action, so that a repeat of the events of 8 January 2021 on the U.S. Capitol won’t happen again so easily.


Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication (SMC), and Affiliated Faculty in American Culture Studies (ACS), Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS), and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program (WGSS) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Dr. Gorsevski’s research focuses on contemporary rhetoric of peacebuilding, social justice and environmental justice movements. Research interests include environmental rhetoric and critical animal studies, international/intercultural rhetoric, political rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, media criticism, and nonviolent communication. Her sole authored books include: Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Communication and Social Justice series of Troubador Publishing, 2014) and Peaceful Persuasion:  The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2004).  She has published in journals such as Journal of Multicultural Discourses; Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; and Environmental Communication.  She serves on the Steering Committee of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.