Tag Archives: Race

Agassiz, what’s in a Name

21 Jan

Support builds for a ‘Baldwin neighborhood,’ removing racist association of Agassiz name

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior Maya Counter, right, leads a discussion Tuesday about changing the name of the Agassiz neighborhood. With her is Ann Charlotte Hogstadius, her mother. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A name change for the Agassiz neighborhood won unanimous approval this week at a community meeting, with the caveat by several voters that more conversation is needed.

The proposal to change the name to the “Baldwin neighborhood” comes from Maya Counter, a resident of the neighborhood and co-president of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But it’s not new – Counter, a senior, came upon the idea her sophomore year while researching a history class project and learning of the “flawed science and racist beliefs” of namesake Louis Agassiz.

It’s also not an idea new to the neighborhood. In 2002, a School Committee vote renamed the Agassiz School on Oxford Street to address the same discomfort; addressing the neighborhood name might have followed, according to people active in neighborhood politics at the time, had not many of the students and parents who pushed for the change felt burned out by the effort.

The neighborhood’s Maria L. Baldwin School was known as the Agassiz School until 2002. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was little disagreement Tuesday about Agassiz and the context of his legacy. The Swiss-born scientist who lived from 1807 to 1873 was famous for founding Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, but controversial for pushing racially divisive theories as science. He believed in polygenism, the idea that human races are of different origins, and that whites were intellectually superior to other races. He has been discredited for his racism, and his belief in creationism lost out to the evolutionary theories of contemporary Charles Darwin.

His name was taken off the local elementary school in honor of Maria Baldwin, who in 1899 became the first black female school principal in the Northeast – “the most distinguished position achieved by a person of negro descent in the teaching world of America,” W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1917.

It was at the school that the Agassiz Neighborhood Council met Tuesday to give Counter the “constructive conversation” she requested, and a positive reaction by the approximately 30 neighborhood residents and staff in attendance.

Maria Baldwin, circa 1885. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Wider involvement sought

But there were concerns about process after Counter announced she had reached out to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and planned to present to the City Council at month’s end.

Many at the ANC meeting expressed a strong desire to be involved in the process and felt that one meeting in a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 residents – with only two dozen in attendance – was not enough. (To prepare for the meeting, Counter posted about the idea on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor. As at the meeting, there was strong support for a name change, though also some challenges that “you can’t erase the past.”) Some people at the meeting were concerned that Counter was rushing to get the change done before graduation.

Some also floated the notion that perhaps the neighborhood was named after Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth Cabot, a naturalist and the founder of Radcliffe College, and therefore the name might still be applicable. But correspondence from Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, stated, “The Agassiz neighborhood was named after the Agassiz School, which is now the Baldwin School.”

No clear-cut process

Renaming a neighborhood lacks a clear-cut process, despite the recent change of Area IV to “The Port.” There too, race played a role, as residents believed the term “Area IV” was a police designation (it was created by the city facilitate analysis of the then upcoming 1940 U.S. Census). The change was made official by a City Council vote in 2015 after several rounds of community solicitation. In that situation too, not everyone felt the process had been inclusive enough, said Lee Farris, a resident of The Port who is active in civic affairs.

The Agassiz change may be simpler. A policy order by city councillor E. Denise Simmons approved unanimously in April asks the city to review the names of streets, schools and public buildings “that may be named in honor of those who have ties to the American slave trade” and work on renaming them “as soon as possible.” Agassiz, while not a slave owner and on record as an abolitionist, could be linked to slavery for espousing the beliefs that enabled it.

“Why keep it?”

There is already some eagerness for a name change among the hosts of the Tuesday meeting.

In 2007 the nonprofit that provides after-school services, runs the Maud Morgan Arts Center, hosts the Agassiz Neighborhood Council meetings and provides other community services, was rebranded the Agassiz Baldwin Community – a half-measure that doesn’t sit well with Counter. “Why keep it?” she said in an interview before the meeting, referring to the “Agassiz” part of the name. “He thought she was biologically inferior. It’s disrespectful to her.”

At the meeting, the nonprofit’s executive director, Maria La Page, agreed that having the name “Agassiz” upfront was a burden for an organization that holds inclusion at its core.

The Agassiz neighborhood is between Harvard and Porter squares and touches on Somerville, defined by Massachusetts Avenue to the west and Kirkland Street to the south.

Division in Cambridge Discussed

24 Mar

Diverse hiring in tech, ending school tracking, taxation called ways to close ‘Growing Divides’

 

Sarah Gallop of MIT and the Kendall Square Association speaks at “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” on Thursday. With her are panelists Chuck Collins and Damon Smith. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The experts at Thursday’s talk on “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” came with suggestions and progress reports on handling the city’s widening socioeconomic chasm.

As part of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Conversations on the Edge” series and moderated by Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, the panel included Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.; Sarah Gallop, co-director of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations; and Damon Smith, the principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Smith pointed to work on the “Level Up” program, now two years in to eradicating a structure that put students on two tracks through high school, only one headed for college, that was separated largely by family income and race. “It’s been difficult,” he said, in a city that can be most “progressive when looking outward,” but an education that was the same for every student was his offering as a solution for keeping Cambridge a united community.

Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, moderates the panel at the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch Thursday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Gallop spoke as a co-founder of the Kendall Square Association, which represents hundreds of businesses in a variety of industries. Building diversity and equity into business models is demanded by young employees as part of their working environment, she said, and will be “part of the success equation.”

Collins had the most potentially controversial part of a solution for the “global city phenomenon supercharging … four decades of extreme inequality” in places such as New York, San Francisco and Boston: a luxury real estate surtax. Kicking in on property transfers of more than $2 million, it could produce $350 million annually in Boston that would be earmarked for building affordable housing. (Boston is also looking at a “flipping tax” on property resold within two years of purchase.)

Each could help Cambridge, a “prosperous city with more jobs than people” where 15 percent of the city lived below the poverty level and “one in six children are poor,” Pradhan said – the “Tale of Two Cities” from the event title.

The “Conversations on the Edge” series was initiated by CCAE staff and board members in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to talk about issues that had no “clear answers” and engage the community. Thursday’s event drew a diverse crowd to the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch. Though the event was sold out in advance, more than half of the 120 seats were empty –possibility the result of sharing a night with the fourth installment of the city’s Cambridge Digs Deep diversity series, taking place at the same time at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High school.

If Beale Street Could Talk

26 Dec

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: Young and in love, but shackled by brutally cruel racial injustice

 

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The love between two black men at the center of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning “Moonlight”certainly had the texture and mood of something wrested from the pages of a James Baldwin novel. It wasn’t – it was an original screenplay – but it is fitting to learn that for his follow-up Jenkins has adapted the culture-rattling author’s 1974 work, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The title, while simple, is telling, reflective of the dangerous complacency of silence and, worse, those eager to score justice without evidence or cause other than the color of skin.

The film begins with a series of lushly jazzy romantic framings of lovers Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – something that hasn’t really been seen on screen with such poetic resonance since Spike Lee’s great run in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The soulful score, imbued with melancholy by Nicholas Britell, wells up inside you as the pair’s tightly framed countenances convey deep love, but also the brimming prospect of trouble. Jenkins leverages it for his orchestration of Baldwin’s material: hope and idealism undercut by harsh reality and social injustice. 

Trouble in “Beale Street” (the reference to a throwaway in Memphis from 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, though the action takes place in 1970s Harlem) comes from all angles. Tish, 19, and Fonny, a few years older, have known each other since childhood. When they finally consummate their affection, Tish gets pregnant. The sell to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) is a bit of a challenge, but nothing compared with the fracas that ensues when Fonny’s devoutly religious – and over the top – mother (Aunjanue Ellis) swings by with sisters to learn of the news. With fire and brimstone ire, she professes Tish a temptress and not good enough for Fonny. But then again, Fonny’s not there to speak for himself; he’s in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Yes, this is where Baldwin and Jenkins take us. The palpable helplessness of a person of color snared in a rigged justice system, where getting a rap – whether you did it or not – is simply part of the process. Tish and her mother fight back hard. They get an attorney convinced of Fonny’s innocence and later there’s a harrowing sojourn to Puerto Rico to track down and confront the accuser, who has her own set of unhappy circumstances to contend with.

Throughout it all Jenkins tempers the present with delicate, carefully curated flashbacks, be it the lovestruck Fonny and Tish shopping for an apartment, often turned away because of their pigment, or Fonny catching up with old mate Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, smoldering quietly) just out of jail himself and with volumes of wisdom to share. The film is at once intimate and universal. Fonny is the face of everyman of color, and yet he isn’t. Jennings finds the perfect balance between social critique and personal tale, and palpably so. 

In the end, however, “Beale Street” is not about vindication – if that’s the movie you’re hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed – but about the sad state of racial affairs that as penned by Baldwin remain too true today. At the heartbreaking epicenter loom star-crossed lovers kept apart by forces with cold, aloof agendas. “Beale Street” is “Romeo and Juliet” for the racially divided now.

Jenkins has done it again: “Beale Street” didn’t just make the Day’s top 10 of 2018, but won Best Picture, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress from the Boston Society of Film Critics this month. Expect more to follow.

Cambridge Delves Inward on Racism

27 Nov

 

A rally at City Hall held Aug. 14, 2017, responded to a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, but only hinted at some of the racial animosity to come in America and Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city launches its Cambridge Digs Deep sessions Wednesday, a program initiated by Mayor Marc McGovern and city councillor Sumbul Siddiqui to spur a citywide conversation about race, diversity and equity. The program partners with the Disruptive Equity Education Project – a professional development organization that specializes in building community and breaking down barriers based on stereotypes and preconceptions. Deep will lend its services to help facilitate and shape the conversation.

Part of the impetus for the series were ongoing concerns raised by the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which also get a hearing at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee, and recent viral flares of racism including a July confrontation between a Harvard employee and the mother of a biracial child who was playing “noisily” and a public schools employee who used the N-word with a student. Siddiqui also cited a divisive climate created by the administration of President Donald Trump and national events such as last year’s white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville,Virginia, and the migrant caravan seeking asylum at the southern border.

“Cambridge is not truly the progressive utopia that everyone sees it as,” which makes constant examination and reevaluation necessary, McGovern said.

One of the tools Deep and chief executive Darnisa Amante will bring to the table is the exploration of microaggressions versus macroaggressions, as well as the understanding of intent and impact. As illustration, McGovern cited a scenario in which a teacher on the first day of a high school honors English class asked the lone black student if he was “in the right class.”

“The teacher might not think they are racist,” McGovern said, “but there’s an impact.”

Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born, Muslim woman raised in Cambridge affordable housing, added, “It’s also simply how people mispronounce different names or dismiss them as ‘too difficult.’”

McGovern and Siddiqui believe their deep roots in Cambridge will help give the workshops a historical perspective, and said they hope for a dialogue that will “get people outside their comfort zones and begin to see the ways in which identities – such as race, class, gender, religion – impact our lives.” Expected outcomes are a “bit of a work in progress,” McGovern admitted. “We’re going to be learning as we go.”

“We don’t expect a prescribed list of policies,” Siddiqui echoed, “but we’ll be listening.”

Also on the agenda will be issues of class and inclusion made newly prominent by an affordable housing overlay zoning proposal raised by the Envision Cambridge master plan process. 

“Our goal is to ensure that people can talk about race and inequity – and know the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion, race, racism and oppression – in a way that does not ostracize others and/or make anyone feel unwelcome,” Amante said. “We will, however, push with love.”

The initial Cambridge Digs Deep session takes place at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the gymnasium of the Fletcher Maynard Academy, 225 Windsor St. Four more are scheduled for the early part of 2019. The sessions are set up to build on each other, but there is no requirement to have attended previous sessions to be part of the conversation. McGovern and Siddiqui said they hope for a strong turnout and a constructive dialogue.

Green Book

22 Nov

‘Green Book’: Tour through segregated South drives a buddy movie that follows a true tale

 

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Peter Farrelly, best known as half of the brother tandem who made “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and the chaotically uproarious “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), pulls something of an unexpected about face with “Green Book,” real-life saga about a white man chauffeuring a black man through the Deep South during the early 1960s.

The boss is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a deserving Oscar winner for his work in “Moonlight”), a renowned jazz pianist tired of playing the Upper East Side who decides to take his talents south – in part to see the world, and also to make the world see him. His driver, a Bronx-bred Italian-American name Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is something akin to Robert De Niro’s fat Jake LaMotta – boy can he eat, he’s not one to take too much shit and he’s got a mouth. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) in reverse in so many ways, with its racist backdrop still far too similar to what pervades our country now. Once difference is that the current “green book” is an app with historical insights; from 1936 to 1966, it was a vital guide to safe spots in the segregated South.

For the most part, the film’s a buddy bonding road movie, as the aloof intellectual and motor-mouthed lout with a heart of gold break down cultural and personal barriers. At its best, Tony doesn’t judge Don Shirley after bailing him out of several compromising and potentially explosive situations where the jazz pianist dips into the bottle too much and wanders outside the lines. At its worst, Tony lectures Shirley about “his people,” Motown stars the classical musician hasn’t heard (Little Richard and Aretha) and the virtues of fried chicken – a cringeworthy scene, if just for the risky proximity of grease to a neatly pressed white shirt. 

Farrelly lays it on a bit at times where films such as “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Miss Daisy” and “The Butler” (2013) respectfully observe and allow character and history to make points on their own terms. His actors, though, do a great job selling it, and forge a genuine chemistry, despite such overwrought handling – Ali welling with dignified resolve and Mortensen adding a ton of weight and tackling new emotional territory with a screwball sense of humor. Shirley has to stay in seedier hotels and can’t use the same restroom as white people, even though he’s the allegedly well-respected main attraction. Ultimately there’s the big end-of-tour performance in Birmingham at a white-glove country club (where Nat King Cole was once assaulted). The maitre’d, trying to appeal to Tony, explains that when the world champion Boston Celtics came to town, “even the big one didn’t get to eat in the club” after polite use of such phrases as “it’s a tradition” and “that’s how we do things down here.” Sign of the times, and one not to be forgotten.

BlacKKKlansman

13 Aug

‘BlacKkKlansman’: True story of infiltration that hardly has to sneak in a modern message

 

If someone told you there’d be a movie about a black man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, you’d probably call BS. I mean, how could that ever be? But what if the infiltrator were Jewish? You’d likely double down on your BS card – after all, these are the two bloodlines that drive the rallying hate of the white knights whose mission has been to keep America pure and white. Continue reading

Suburbicon

29 Oct

 

https://player.vimeo.com/video/227269516

The “Suburbicon” of the title is a 1950s housing development and community in sprawling suburbia that’s practically a closed socioeconomic ecosystem, like the towering apartment complex in Ben Wheatley’s near-futuristic “High Rise” (2015). There, the elite lived at the penthouse level while the servicing class made do in the shabby confines below; here it’s a mass-marketed commercial ideal where all are on an equal plane and essentially have the same humble abode. It’s an endless sea of sameness, a sleepy Ozzie & Harriet existence, until the Meyers, an African-American family, buy a lot. The all-white town meeting that erupts to discuss “what to do” casts uneasy shades of the recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Oddly and wastefully (if not irresponsibly, given the issues of race today), the black folk next door become a mere distraction for the plot’s main thread of self-interest, murder and money – and it’s a silly one, at that. Based on a Coen brothers script and directed by George Clooney, who seems to lose more footing as director with each outing, the film angles to be a dark comedy in the vein of “Miller’s Crossing” and “Fargo” but lacks the wit and whimsy of either. What it is, is a beat-up, welded-together jalopy, angry and mean in its quest for recognition, but that’s a hard feat when the only likable characters in your crew are a family under duress for their skin color and a young boy (Noah Jupe), who’s not sure if his aunt and father have inside information on a home invasion that accidentally killed his crippled mother. (Trust me, I’m not giving anything away. There’s little in the film that will surprise you).

For such a stylishly tepid affair (it does look great) Clooney has assembled an impressive cast. Dad, Gardner Lodge, is played by a portly Matt Damon, and mom and her sister are played by the ravishing Julianne Moore, who gets a scene where she gets to sip iced tea with herself. The film even boasts ubiquitous scene stealer Oscar Isaac, who crops up as a fast-talking insurance adjuster. He’s in it so briefly it almost seems criminal, considering he’s the liveliest thing in the film besides a pair of bungling hit men (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell), who seem ripped lazily from an early draft of “Fargo.” Continue reading