The New Yorker

Allyson Hobbs began writing for newyorker.com in June, 2015. She writes about race, gender, politics, and culture. 


Trump and Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History Month,” was born in 1875, in Virginia. His parents were former slaves. Despite starting school only in his late teens, he attended the University of Chicago and then Harvard, where, in 1912, he received his Ph.D., becoming the second African-American to do so. He dedicated the rest of his life to promoting the study of African-American life and history, and was the driving force behind the first Negro History Week, which was celebrated in February, 1926. Fifty years later, in 1976, the week-long event was extended to a month.

The first few weeks of the Trump Administration would have dismayed Woodson, whose mission was to have African-American accomplishments recognized, and the complexities of African-American life acknowledged. A string of recent incidents suggests that this Administration will struggle to live up to Woodson’s aspirations. Earlier this month, in a tweet about the importance of education, the Department of Education misspelled the last name of the civil-rights activist and N.A.A.C.P. co-founder W. E. B. Du Bois. (The tweet read “DeBois.”) Last week, during a rambling and combative press conference, President Trump appeared to be unfamiliar with the Congressional Black Caucus, a delegation of African-American lawmakers that champions race-related issues. April Ryan—a veteran journalist who has been a White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks since 1997—had asked Trump if he would meet with the group to address matters concerning African-American communities, to which he awkwardly responded by suggesting that she be the one to arrange such a meeting. “Are they friends of yours?” Trump asked Ryan, who is African-American. The sight of a white man instructing a black woman to “set up a meeting” was distressing enough. But Trump’s racially insensitive question also played on the assumption that—borrowing Trump’s regular terminology—“the blacks” are somehow one big family, whose members know each other personally. Meanwhile, it turned out that the C.B.C. had already contacted Trump, in January—and was still waiting for a response.

newyorker.com, February 22, 2017
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The Power of Looking, from Emmett Till to Philando Castile

On September 2, 1955, a metal casket containing Emmett Till’s bloated and broken body arrived in Chicago. Less than two weeks before, Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy, had travelled down to Mississippi to visit relatives, a summer sojourn made by many children of the Great Migration. On August 24th, Till, along with some of his cousins and friends, had stopped in at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where Till allegedly spoke to Carolyn Bryant, a twenty-one-year-old white woman, who was working behind the store’s counter.

More than sixty years later, we still do not know what, exactly, happened in that store. Some say that Till, a child of the North who was unfamiliar with Southern racial etiquette and social customs, said “goodbye” to Bryant without the requisite “ma’am.” Others say that Till wolf-whistled at Bryant, or that his lisp somehow made it sound as if he had whistled. A few days later, Till was abducted from his great-uncle’s home by Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and Roy’s half-brother, J. W. Milam. Three days after that, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. He had been brutally beaten, shot in the head, and thrown in the water with a hundred-pound metal fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. He was murdered a month after his fourteenth birthday.

newyorker.com, August 5, 2016
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Charleston and America, One Year Later

Friday marks one year since nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered. The congregants, including the church’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, had welcomed the killer, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, into their bible study, and prayed with him, before he opened fire. After the massacre, the family members of the slain men and women, in the throes of unimaginable grief, offered radical forgiveness to Roof. “You took something very precious away from me,” one relative said, addressing Roof during a court hearing. “But I forgive you.”

At Reverend Pinckney’s funeral, President Obama delivered a stirring tribute, and called on the American public to not “slip into comfortable silence, once the eulogies have been delivered, once the television cameras are gone.” Most memorably, Obama sang “Amazing Grace,” reminding Americans that “out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for He has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind…. He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves.”

newyorker.com, June 17, 2016
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Muhammad Ali and His Audience

Muhammad Ali’s funeral is today, in Louisville, Kentucky, and he will be laid to rest as the city’s favorite son. Much has changed since Ali, born Cassius Clay in the segregated South, the grandson of a slave, learned to box, at the age of twelve. After he won the Olympic gold medal, in 1960, Ali returned home to Jim Crow Louisville and found he was still barred from white-only restaurants, and was still called “boy” on the street. The course of his life offers evidence of the many turning points in African-American and American history from the mid-twentieth century to the present.

Ali started out as an underdog, which seems surprising in retrospect. In February, 1964, Sonny Liston was favored, with seven-to-one odds, to win their first fight. But Ali predicted that he would beat Liston in six rounds, and he did. The next day, he made the stunning announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam—he rid himself of his “slave name” and the Christian religion, and he insisted on being called Muhammad Ali. Ali was unapologetically black, and he was outspoken about the civil-rights struggles of the nineteen-sixties. “I am America,” he once said. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

newyorker.com, June 10, 2016
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The Lorraine Motel and Martin Luther King

The Lorraine Motel, located at 450 Mulberry Street, in downtown Memphis, opened its doors in the mid-twenties. It had sixteen rooms and stood just east of the Mississippi River. It was first named theWindsor Hotel, and later the Marquette Hotel. Then, in 1945, Walter and Loree Bailey bought it and named it after Loree, as well as the popular song“Sweet Lorraine,” which artists including Rudy Vallée, Teddy Wilson, and Nat King Cole had recorded. The couple expanded the hotel by adding more guest rooms and drive-up access, transforming it into a motel. It was a modest establishment, but it would change everything about their lives.

newyorker.com, January 18, 2016
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"Auld Lang Syne" and Four Generations of My Family

Every year, as the hour grows late on Christmas night, my father’s eyes become misty. He sits at the dining table after our holiday feast and stares off in the direction of the CD player, holding the remote in his hand. He wears a light-blue cashmere V-neck sweater over a neat button-down shirt and brown corduroy pants, classic “gifts for Dad” from previous Christmastimes. The 1963 album “Christmas with the Platters” plays, and a dreamy version of “Auld Lang Syne” wafts through the living room. My father slowly takes off his glasses and dabs his eyes. The phrase “Auld Lang Syne” translates to “times gone by,” and, while Americans expect to hear this song every New Year’s, few know what the Scottish lyrics actually mean. So most New Year’s Eve revellers just mumble or hum along. But they get the gist of the main question of the song: Should old friends be forgotten? And the answer, of course, is no, the past must be remembered.

newyorker.com, December 13, 2015
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A Hundred Years Later, "The Birth of a Nation" Hasn't Gone Away

A hundred years ago, on February 8, 1915, D. W. Griffith released “The Birth of a Nation.” The movie became the fledgling film industry’s first blockbuster. It ran for over three hours at a time when most films were not longer than ten minutes. It had employed eighteen thousand people and used three thousand horses during filming, and the finished product had five thousand discrete scenes. It was the first film to allocate money for an advertising campaign. Griffith wanted his film to resemble the high art of theater, so he hired a full orchestra to play the film’s soundtrack in certain movie houses. Griffith succeeded. “The Birth of a Nation” was a landmark in motion picture history—full of technological innovations and new storytelling techniques, including flashbacks, crosscutting, dissolves, closeups, panoramic filming, and color tinting, all of which heightened the dramatic and emotional effects. The film grossed somewhere between thirteen and eighteen million dollars (roughly three hundred to four hundred and fifty million dollars today). In March, 1915, under President Woodrow Wilson, “The Birth of a Nation” became the first film to be screened at the White House.

newyorker.com, December 13, 2015
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Why Aren't We Inspired by Hillary Clinton?

It was an unseasonably warm night in Chicago. On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, nearly a quarter of a million people—young and old, men and women of almost every racial and ethnic background—streamed into Grant Park. The crowd was peaceful and somewhat subdued, filled with a jittery anticipation about how the night would likely unfold. Shortly after 10 P.M. Central Standard Time, television networks announced that Barack Obama had been elected the forty-fourth President of the United States. For a few seconds, the crowd stood still, in a stunned silence. Then, the crowd let out a collective and euphoric scream. There was joy, relief, and disbelief. Tears flowed freely, strangers hugged for several minutes, others knelt and prayed. Senator John McCain’s concession speech put Obama’s election into its historic context by reminding Americans that just a century ago President Theodore Roosevelt had been vilified for inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Obama’s victory speech took the high-spirited crowd even higher: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” I called my cousin, who was too filled with emotion and too mystified to complete her thought: “This country . . . This country . . . This country . . . ” she said quietly, as her voice trailed off.

If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and the national election, can we expect the same gathering of crowds and the same emotional outpouring? Would the historic election of the first woman President evoke a similar thrill and sense of wonderment at the leaps that this country is capable of making?

newyorker.com, September 23, 2015
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Actually, Hillary, Hearts Do Change

On August 11th, Hillary Clinton met privately with five Black Lives Matter activists in Keene, New Hampshire. The activists had arrived at Clinton’s campaign stop shortly before it was to begin, but they were not allowed to enter because the room was filled to capacity. So the campaign reached out to the activists and arranged a time for a meeting after the event. Last week, video of the sixteen-minute, behind-closed-doors conversation was released. Clinton appeared measured and tense at times, holding her hands tightly in front of her. She listened carefully to the activists and gave thoughtful, unscripted, and sometimes impassioned answers to questions about her past support for policies that have harmed communities of color.

newyorker.com, August 27, 2015
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Barack Obama's Second Inaugural in Charleston

On March 4, 1865, after days of heavy rain, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in a soggy capital to tens of thousands of Americans gathered in the mud and the muck. The speech was brief but profound and elegant. The abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass called it “a sacred effort.” Lincoln began humbly, noting that the address was hardly necessary compared to the lengthy message given at his first inaugural. That speech was given on March 4, 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, after seven Southern states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. Four years later, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the war was nearly over, and the Confederacy had been soundly defeated.

newyorker.com, June 29, 2015
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