How Alice Neel’s Sharp, Compassionate Eye Painted Harlem

[Originally published in The Atlantic]

The artist’s portraits of neighbors, icons, and strangers show a keen and democratic attention to detail.

A detail from Alice Neel's portrait A detail from “Mercedes Arroyo,” 1952DAVID ZWIRNER GALLERY

When, in 1938, Alice Neel decided to relocate from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem with José Negrón, a musician and her then-boyfriend, she was making a bold yet potentially career-destroying move. During the early ’30s, Neel had participated in New York’s first open-air exhibitions, held in Washington Square, which had begun to put the city on the map as a hotbed of abstract art—and had befriended artists like Joseph Solman, who would go on to found The Ten, a prominent group of expressionist painters.

In addition to being part of the decade’s zeitgeist as led by downtown artists, Neel’s own star was ascendant: In 1932, the Philadelphia Inquirer had written that her paintings “reveal[ed] the possession of interpretive gifts out of the ordinary,” while at the American Artists’ Congress exhibition in 1936, her work was singled out for recognition in the New York World Telegram. Why then, her peers might have wondered, would an artist who was just beginning to garner critical attention shun the New York art world’s epicenter for a poorer neighborhood that few knew or cared about?

The answer to this question might lie in the retrospective Alice Neel, Uptown, a fascinating exploration of the painter’s symbiotic relationship with Harlem. The show, on view at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, is curated by the New Yorker critic Hilton Als, who describes Neel’s subjects as “artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color”—all of whom she painted over the course of the nearly 50 years she lived and worked uptown, before her death in 1984. The potent yet personable paintings, mostly done in oil, are enduring proof of Neel’s curious, compassionate eye, on and off the canvas. “Whether I’m painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity,” she once said. “Even if I’m not working, I’m still analyzing people.”

The burbling, bohemian vibe of Greenwich Village didn’t hold much interest to the Pennsylvania-born Neel (she thought it too “honky-tonk”), and her portraits were at odds with the abstract expressionism that would come to dominate the New York art scene. As the art historian Jeremy Lewison has written, “Neel’s devotion to the realist depiction of the human form in an era of increasing abstraction … confirmed her position as an outsider.” Her indifference to the artistic trends of the time was partly a result of having spenta year (1926-1927) living in Cuba, with her first husband Carlos Enríquez, also a painter. According to Phoebe Hoban, in her book Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, it was while immersed in Havana’s art scene that Neel came to believe that art could be political, revolutionary, and sociological, documenting and capturing everyday people in times of social crisis and cultural change.

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Lola in The New Statesman: As a white student sues a university for alleged racial discrimination, is this the end of affirmative action?

An educational system that has historically been set up to reinforce inequalities will take a lot of work to dismantle, says Lola Adesioye.
In 2008, high school graduate Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas, was disappointed to find that her application to the University of Texas at Austin, a leading public college, had been rejected.
If Miss Fisher had finished in the top ten percent of her year, which she didn’t, she would have been granted automatic admission to the university under Texas’ merit-based top 10 per cent rule, which admits to the public university system any high school student in the state who finishes in the top ten percent of his or her graduating class.
Fisher’s application, on the other hand, went into a pool in which a variety of factors are taken into consideration. Fisher – who is white – believes that her application to the University of Texas was denied because of her race.
On Wednesday, her case against the University of Texas, which she claims violated her rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, will go up before the Supreme Court for review.
Although Fisher’s case has already been seen by lower federal courts, and the constitutionality of UT’s actions upheld, it is possible that this case could result in an overturning of a landmark 2003 ruling which allowed the University of Michigan’s Law School to use race in a “narrowly tailored” way to “further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body” and which set the precedent for UT.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the judges who presided over the 2003 case, stated at the time that:
The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.
However, if Fisher and her lawyers have their way the disbanding of affirmative action may happen far sooner than Justice O’Connor predicted.
This potential smackdown of affirmative action is good news for those who believe that racial diversity can be achieved through race-neutral policies alone. In a report released last week researcher Richard Kahlenberg claims that “universities [in states in which race-conscious admissions are prohibited] have implemented creative methods of assuring diversity.”
However, this is not what the University of California – which is the largest selective higher education institution in America and operates a race-neutral admissions process and  – says about its own experiences. A case study released this summer revealed that
Although applications to the flagship campuses have doubled since 1995,and all groups have seen reductions in the percent of applicants offeredadmission, African American and Latino admittees have been reduced by 70 to 75 percent at UCLA and UC Berkeley, compared to just 35 and 40 percent for Asian and white applicants.
It goes on to say:
This disproportionate decline reflects the inequalities in the California educational system that fails to prepare African American, Native American and Latino students for highly competitive selection processes irrespective of their intellectual ability or likelihood of succeeding in their studies.
In fact, in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas in this case, the University of California makes it clear that it does not believe that race-neutral policies are sufficient:
“[our] experience establishes that in California, and likely elsewhere, at present the compelling government interest in student body diversity cannot be fully realized at selective institutions without taking race into account inundergraduate admissions decisions…”
While race-neutrality sounds good in theory, I am not convinced that it is even possible in a country which is permeated by racial inequality, and in which racial disparities in the education system remain so stark. How is it possible to measure students in a race-neutral way if race plays such a role in educational outcomes and achievements? In order to have an effective race-neutral process at the top of the education chain, surely that would also require that there is race-neutrality from the outset?
Yet, the fact is that the inequalities that affirmative action originally sought to redress still remain. For example, while segregation in education is no longer legal, it is still ongoing, with some suggesting that it is even worse today than it was in the 1950s. This is partly as a result of continued residential segregation. In New York City, for example, it has been found that:
A student’s educational outcomes and opportunity to learn are statistically more determined by where he or she lives than their abilities.
In America, the achievement gap in education begins before kindergarten and continues through high school where African American and Latino students lag far behind their white counterparts. It would seem strange for there to be no policies at a higher education level which seek to take into account these ongoing racially-based structural imbalances. 
Education has long been considered the pathway to social mobility and in a world that requires better educated and more knowledgeable workers, not having equal opportunity of access to that education presents not only an issue for the individuals, who are more likely to find themselves consigned to lower-income work that requires lower skills, but also for the country which must maintain its competitiveness in the global marketplace.    
Unless more effective policies are put in place to address the deeper issues – racial inequalities, poverty, poor schools and low expectations, decaying urban areas, residential segregation and more – the result of stopping affirmative action can only be decreased chances for minority students and an increasingly unequal society.
Addressing these fundamental issues would have to go far beyond affirmative action in higher education, to a thorough review, revision and reform of the very nature of American society, as regards its minority citizens. It would actually require America to put in a great deal of work to ensure that from the very environment that the minority child is born into is a nurturing and more expansive one.
High poverty areas – in which African-American, American Indian and Latino children are six to nine times more likely than to live than white children – would need to be transformed. There would need to be a deeper level of commitment from the government to the eradication of poverty, which appears to have been overlooked in this election cycle with the focus being on the middle class and wealthy.
Ironically, the more one thinks about what is needed, the more it is clear that lack of educational opportunity and access is itself the main barrier to the solution of these issues. But an educational system that has historically been set up to reinforce inequalities will take a lot of work to dismantle.  
Some have suggested that class-based affirmative action would be a better, or perhaps more palatable, alternative to race-conscious affirmative action. Of course, there are minority students who are not from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and white students who are. President Obama has said that his daughters, for example, would not need the benefit of a race-based affirmative action. 
However, although the inclusion of class is welcomed and necessary in order to facilitate and formulate a more nuanced look at the various factors that affect opportunity and achievement, this is inadequate on its own. Race and class intersect, yet they are not the same thing and therefore one cannot be replaced with another. Research also suggests that the effect of this would be to increase the number of low-income white students and would not make up for racial inequality. Research from the University of California’s case, has found that:
While African American and Latino youth are much more likely to come from low-income homes than either whites or Asians (53 per cent of African American and 59 per cent of Latino youth are low-income compared to just 22 per cent of white and 28 per cent of Asian youth in California), less than half of the low-income students admitted to the freshman class in 2011 at UC were from underrepresented groups.
I am of the opinion that for as long as race continues to affect people’s chances in life, it must be considered as a factor, because it is indeed a factor.
Perhaps if affirmative action is struck down, this would shine more of a spotlight on America’s education system as a whole and more work will be done to narrow the achievement and opportunity gaps between white Americans and minorities from an earlier age. Affirmative action may go away, but the reasons for its implementation still, unfortunately, remain. 
Although all eyes are on the forthcoming presidential election, the case of Fisher v University of Texas has the potential  to usher in a new reality into America and to change the course of this nation. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court justices make the right decision.

Lola in The Guardian: Shirley Sherrod’s case exposes ugly media flaws


[Originally published in The Guardian]
The hasty sacking of Shirley Sherrod shows how easily we are manipulated by ‘journalism’ based on inaccuracies
When Shirley Sherrod spoke at an NAACP event and shared a 24-year-old story of overcoming her prejudices, little did she realise the same speech would come back to in a new, highly edited form, putting her at the centre of a national controversy, costing her a job at the department of agriculture and almost ruining her reputation.
Yet that is exactly what happened this week. Rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart, in cahoots with Fox News, went on a mission – which he claims was to reveal the “truth” about the NAACP – to cause controversy. He took a bite-sized clip from Sherrod’s speech, tagged it with a headline accusing her of being a racist and released it to the world.
The clip showed Sherrod, who at the time was the director for rural development in Georgia, saying that she did not use the full force of her power to ensure that a white farmer got everything he needed. “Racist!” screamed the headlines. We now all know, of course, that the clip told only a fraction of the entire story. From the full video, it is clear that once Sherrod realised that her biases – which were connected to having lived and grown up in the South – had affected her job, she sought to overcome them. Once she had managed to do that, she was able to provide great support to the white farmers – who have publicly praised her helpfulness.
That the media picked up on the story, ran with it and repeated it without bothering to check the video in full is deeply troubling. Unfortunately, “journalism” based on the regurgitation of clips, soundbites and inaccuracies has become all too common. Controversy wins the day over facts, and regardless of the cost – which can include damage to the life or career of an individual, undermining the good work of an organisation (as in the case of Acorn) and losing the trust of the public. Indeed, in recognition of the fact that controversy sells, scandals are increasingly being manufactured and manipulated by the rightwing media to push people out of jobs and to scare the government.
Sonia Sotomayor experienced similar treatment over her “wise Latina” comment. Luckily for her, she got the position she wanted. Others have not been so fortunate. Van Jones, for example, the government’s former green tsar, went through the same thing and was eventually ousted. Outlets such as Fox News are becoming more and more political and are using their influence to shape and direct – often in the worst possible way – the political debate.
Of course, that can only happen if the White House allows itself to be pushed around by overblown, or in this case false, stories. Yet, that is what the White House is doing. It seems like the White House is so afraid of conservatives now that it is constantly on high alert for anything that may come from the right and catch them off guard. But its efforts to respond quickly – hastily – often end up making the White House look foolish.
President Obama has called Shirley Sherrod to apologise. This is after Sherrod apparently received four calls from the White House earlier this week asking her to resign. While I understand that the White House wishes to protect itself and the president, its knee-jerk reactions have become farcical. This case is also a sad indictment on partisan politics and the nature of the political battle between right and left, which is being reduced to dirty tricks.
That the NAACP, itself supposed to be an organisation concerned with equality, was so fast to denounce Sherrod as “shameful” is another surprising twist – it also had to backtrack once the full video was made available. Rather than taking responsibility for not using due diligence and checking the facts, the NAACP said it had been “snookered” by Breitbart and Fox News. The truth is, the NAACP was not “snookered”; it simply failed to act in a professional manner.
Both the NAACP and the White House’s reactions also reveal sensitivities to race-related discussions in this so-called “age of Obama”, particularly since it has been suggested – again by rightwing commentators – that the president favours black people and minorities over white people. The national conversation about race is becoming skewed by rightwing scandals and by inappropriate responses from the other side. This is deeply unhelpful.
Shirley Sherrod has been offered another job at the USDA. She may decline. In the meantime, the government and the country as a whole must use this as a teachable momentand reflect on the nature of the media and politics. One thing is for sure: while we allow ourselves to be so easily manipulated, those with an agenda will continue to exert their control.

Lola in The Guardian: After Oscar Grant, just take guns away from US police officers

[Originally published in The Guardian]

oscar grant mural
 A passerby walks by a mural of Oscar Grant in downtown Oakland, California. Photograph: Susana Bates/EPA

People in America always ask me what police officers do in the UK without guns. They find it hard to comprehend how you can enforce the law or get people to comply without the threat of a gun. I tell them I find it weird and disconcerting that police officers in the US carry guns, particularly when I hear about the various accidents that happen as a result.
One of these “accidents” is currently the source of intense upset and was the reason for several large protests in Oakland, California. Last year, millions of people watched cellphone videos captured at the scene of the shooting and killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police officer Johannes Mehserle on a train station platform in Oakland. We watched in horror as we saw an unarmed Grant, lying face down with a police officer’s foot in his neck, shot in the back by Mehserle, a transport officer.
Mehserle, who was yesterday found guilty of involuntary manslaughter – a charge that carries a maximum, laughable four-year sentence – claims that he did not mean to shoot Grant, mistaking his Taser for a gun. That is one of the reasons why I am deeply thankful that police officers in the UK do not carry guns.
“Oops, I didn’t know” has become a refrain that I have unfortunately heard too often while living in the US. Each year has brought another major incident, usually featuring a police officer who has shot and killed a young black person by accident. Just recently, it was seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Last year it was Oscar Grant. In 2006 it was Sean Bell, who was riddled with bullets on the day before his wedding. All accidents. And these are just the ones that reach national attention.
People all across America are upset, disappointed and angry about the Oscar Grant verdict, which many see as symptomatic of a much deeper issue. They want to know why this type of accident only seems to happen to black kids. It’s hard to remember the last time a police officer accidentally killed a young white person. Why do unarmed black people statistically overrepresented when it comes to police shootings?
When discussing this online, some people said that it is because black people commit more crime and so are perceived as armed and dangerous. Yet even if that is the case, that is still so troubling. This means that in theory any black person is a potential target to be shot and killed, just because there are a small minority of us who commit crime. We are all a potential Oscar Grant.

We need police officers to react to what is happening in the moment, not to what they think they know about people based on prior experience. On occasions it is great that in situations of intense stress, conscious thought takes a back seat and allows for quick, subconsciously driven, gut-instinct level responses. But it can also be fatal when the subconscious thoughts do not line up with reality. Police officer training must entail encouraging officers to examine, uncover and unpack their subconscious notions and ideas about people to ensure that these are not what they are reacting to in the heat of the moment.

In fact, I would go a step further. I would simply take the guns away. It may be time to really rethink the point of police officers routinely carrying guns. At least then this type of incident would not happen. Tasers, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated and employing multi-shot capabilities, are already lethal weapons which can kill as well as stun. Should those not be enough?

The public looks to the police for protection, yet if a trained law enforcement officer cannot even tell the difference between a Taser and a gun, what hope for protection is there? Perhaps without guns, police would have to be more creative and rigorous when it comes to getting their jobs done. At least this way, we’d have less cases of police firing now and apologising later.

Lola in The Guardian: Lena Horne, a true breakthrough act

With the passing of singer, actor and entertainer Lena Horne in New York yesterday at the age of 92, we remember yet another person – an African-American woman – whose life and work paved the way for America to be what it is today. It was the perseverance and passion of people like Lena Horne that helped shift America away from the accepted segregation and discrimination of the 40s, 50s and 60s to having an African-American president in 2010. In Horne’s day, being a black actress was a civil rights act within itself.
Lena Horne will be remembered as a woman who stood strong, for more than 70 years, in the face of what could have been spirit-crushing discrimination. In doing so, she leaves a legacy of inspiration and empowerment as well as wonderful music and memories for many Americans.
Horne’s career started at 16 when her mother sent her to sing in the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club (which still exists), an entertainment venue where black entertainers performed for wealthy white audiences. In 1942, the beautiful Horne signed a long-term movie contract with MGM, becoming one of the first African-Americans to do so and, by 1943, had become one of the highest paid African-American earners in the industry.

Life was not all roses, though. Horne’s career was marked by her battle against racism and segregation. Indeed, it is that which made her triumphs and successes all the more fascinating. She was regularly passed over for major Hollywood roles because of her complexion, and was given roles as a singer instead; roles which could easily be edited out of movies once they reached the south. She was considered too dark to play a lead character, yet too light-skinned to play a maid, the character most often assigned to a black female actress. There’s no doubt that Horne felt the weight and pressure of race on her life, writing in her autobiography:

“They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else, either … I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland.”

At that time, it was extremely rare to see African-Americans in the media and Horne was a breakthrough act, fearlessly fighting through the segregation in order to have her voice heard and her face seen. Considering the circumstances, it is amazing that she continued to perform at all, and her life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of strong external opposition.

Horne, always outspoken, persevered and became a singing star instead, eventually ending up on Broadway where she became a darling of white audiences. As a singer, she flourished, yet her skin tone still dominated her life and career. In the 50s, for example, Horne found herself banned from working on films in the US due to her friendship with actor and activist Paul Robeson.

African-American representation in entertainment and film has grown markedly since the 40s when Horne first became famous. However, there’s no doubt that there are many black actresses who still feel that they are overlooked, or just outrightly discriminated against, in Hollywood due to their skin tone. Some of the same issues that Horne faced are still at work in Hollywood where black actors – with the exception of a handful of a few, such as Halle Berry – are rarely cast into lead or mainstream roles, and where discussions about skin tone still take place. After the success of the recent movie Precious, it was asked what other kinds of roles lead character Gabourey Sidibe would be cast in considering not only her weight, but her dark skin. The fact that a dark-skinned black actress played a lead role in a mainstream movie – albeit a role of someone who was troubled and went through difficult times – was in itself rather unusual. So, even though Horne accomplished much in that arena, much more is still to be done.

May all of us continue to be inspired by Horne’s will to succeed and to overcome in the face of difficulties. We will continue to use her example to work for opening more doors towards an even more inclusive society and world. 

Horne’s career started at 16 when her mother sent her to sing in the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club (which still exists), an entertainment venue where black entertainers performed for wealthy white audiences. In 1942, the beautiful Horne signed a long-term movie contract with MGM, becoming one of the first African-Americans to do so and, by 1943, had become one of the highest paid African-American earners in the industry.
Life was not all roses, though. Horne’s career was marked by her battle against racism and segregation. Indeed, it is that which made her triumphs and successes all the more fascinating. She was regularly passed over for major Hollywood roles because of her complexion, and was given roles as a singer instead; roles which could easily be edited out of movies once they reached the south. She was considered too dark to play a lead character, yet too light-skinned to play a maid, the character most often assigned to a black female actress. There’s no doubt that Horne felt the weight and pressure of race on her life, writing in her autobiography:

“They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else, either … I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland.”

At that time, it was extremely rare to see African-Americans in the media and Horne was a breakthrough act, fearlessly fighting through the segregation in order to have her voice heard and her face seen. Considering the circumstances, it is amazing that she continued to perform at all, and her life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of strong external opposition.

Leave confederate history in the past

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell wants to celebrate confederate history – but it is inextricably linked to slavery

There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.

As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.

In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.

States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?

A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.

While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.

It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.

Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.