Thursday, August 15, 2013

Racial Discrimination and Lynching in the U.S.: Conference at Dorothy's Gallery

Barack Obama (as Illinois Senator) and Doria Dee Johnson
Image courtesy of Doria Dee Johnson

Doria Dee Johnson began life as a working-class little Black girl from a suburban enclave of Chicago. Her great-great grandfather, Anthony Crawford, was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1916 because of an altercation over the price of cotton seed. This was followed by the illegal confiscation of the family's property - 427 acres of prime cotton fields, homes, a school and businesses - and the family being forced to move off the land. Many became maids or laborers, and the pain of the banishment would live on for generations.

As an adult, Johnson and her cousin Phillip Crawford set out on an endeavor to write and petition local and federal civil politicians to make amends to this family, the community and the ugly history of U.S. race relations. Among her activities, Johnson worked tirelessly on the historic United States Senate Steering Committee that pressed the senators to acknowledge and apologize for the Senate's unwillingness to enact federal legislation against lynching over the greater course of a century. Resolution 39, which was supported by then Illinois Senator Barack Obama, was passed on June 13, 2005.

In 2009, Johnson was approached by a passionate French scholar of African American history and culture, Nathalie Loison, after Loison read about her in a feature in Le Monde. The French newspaper covered Johnson when she participated in the annual photography festival Rencontres d'Arles. At that time, Johnson visited France for the exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, with which she has traveled as a lecturer for many years. Among the places she appeared with the exhibit is the National Park Service Martin Luther King Historic Site in Atlanta, Ga. The day that she spoke there, she delivered her presentation in the very pulpit that Dr. King preached from at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Johnson and Loison struck up a friendship and talked about Johnson coming back to France to speak at the invitation of the scholarly group and academic journal Revue Africaine and the University of Rouen, where Loison is a PhD student. Loison has finally secured a date and space for the presentation, which will be held at the university on September 25th at 5:00 PM. She told Johnson about Dorothy's Gallery, which she described as an exciting venue of American culture. Loison and gallery owner Dorothy Polley worked together to plan an evening where both Loison and Johnson could present their research and views on race in America.

As a result, Johnson will discuss racial discrimination - from lynching to the murder of Trayvon Martin - at a conference to be held at Dorothy's Gallery on September 26, 2013. Loison will present her work on the representation of black multiracialism in the American press at the turn of the 21st century.

Johnson believes that giving her presentation in France is important because she is following a long list of African Americans who "have been given opportunities to speak to French audiences about our experiences as Africans in America since the early 20th century." She believes it is always important for Black women to speak about our history, culture, and political experiences from our vantage point because our history has been examined mostly from the Black male perspective. As a cultural historian specializing in African-American 20th century culture, she constantly contemplates the lure to Europe for so many important African-American figures.

Crucial to her visit to France is her great-great grandfather's legacy. Johnson related that her cousin, John Crawford, always says “Grandpa’s blood has never dried” and she views this visit as further proof that it has not. She says that her family is only beginning to appreciate the vastness of "Grandpa Crawford's" legacy, and that his public murder is a huge stain on U.S. history.

Doria Dee Johnson
Image courtesy of Doria Dee Johnson

I asked Johnson what, if anything, she thinks has changed with regard to “extra-legal justice” in the U.S. since the passage of U.S. Senate Resolution 39. She replied:

I don’t think much has changed except the complex relationship between African Americans and other folks of color, the courts, and “authority.” In other words, the trajectory of punitiveness surrounding Grandpa’s murder was that he died as the "hands of persons unknown" although I have a copy of the governor’s inquest which names many, many citizens. With the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, there was a trial, but no conviction, although both murders were considered "illegal." Now, with Trayvon Martin we have a trial, but the murderer is deemed as having acted legally — a significant turn in institutional hegemony in U.S. courts.

Dr. King said, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important." I wonder what he would say now, with the backdrop of Trayvon Martin.

When asked how her topic relates to race relations in France, Johnson responded that she hopes her talk offers a bridge for those who seek repair, restoration or a forum to speak honestly about race because it under girds the social structure of much of the world. She sees American and French people as being wired and socialized differently and she tries to look at societies within their own context to get a clearer understanding of what people find important, acceptable and respectable. Noting that France has a contentious and peppered racial history, she evoked the post-colonial and revolutionary scholarship of Frantz Fanon and his attempt to help shape the outcome of the French/Algerian conflict. As a cultural historian, she seeks to approach and analyze societies by their own definitions of social codes, behaviors and values—without judgment. She looks forward to meeting people in Paris who can help her understand contemporary race relations in France.

Because Johnson has no personal connections in today's African-American community in Paris, she has followed the Entrée to Black Paris blog since her first visit to France in anticipation of coming here again. She looks forward to exploring the city with her partner, Michael, and her host and friend, Nathalie Loison. She doesn’t plan to do the tourist areas—she says that she is more interested in sitting in the cafes that inspired James Baldwin, walking the halls of the Sorbonne where Anna Julia Cooper earned her Ph.D., and visiting places where Black Parisians hang out to eat, shop and have fun.

Dorothy's Gallery
27, rue Keller
75011 Paris
Telephone: 01 43 57 08 51
Metro: Bastille
Price: 12 € / 8 € for members
Time: 7 PM until 8:30 PM

To read the proceedings of the U.S. Senate on June 13, 2005 regarding the "Senate Apology" as reported in the Congressional Record, click here.

Doria Dee Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her dissertation focuses on racial violence, the Great Migration and 20th century history, labor, culture, and activism of Black women, in particular, in domestic service suburbs. She is also an Adjunct Professor of History and Humanities at Strayer University in Washington, D.C., an activist, and an international lecturer.


Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

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