Between Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the Extraordinary Life of Artist William H. Johnson

Teaching our class on Gullah Geechee Culture for the second time at Morehouse College has me considering what ways that Gullah people see the world differently. The Gullah worldview is something that I know exists, in part, because it is something that I experienced growing up in South Carolina. It is a topic that I also recognize has also been written about in books.  I could go on about the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston has talked about this way of seeing in a variety of works or LeRhonda Manigault Bryant recognizes that seeing ghosts or Talking to the Dead –as the title of her book suggests-is a key process, as is seeking and interpreting dreams,  in the creative lives of lowcountry black women. However nothing has had me thinking more about having a different way of seeing, what W.E.B. Du Bois called having “second sight” or “double consciousness” than the recent movie Get Out. Although Jordan Peele is not Gullah, (I’m not sure what his father’s lineage is), his concept of the “sunken place” reminded me of this second sight or this Gullah way of seeing. The sunken place is both, of course, metaphorical and metaphysical. It is a place that people like the Gullah artist W.H. Johnson knew well.

It might be a difficult jump to make –from a blockbuster movie to a black artist, who died 50 years ago, not known nearly as well as he should have been.  However Johnson’s story as a man born in Florence, SC, who lived all over the world, married a Danish wife, and spent the last 20 years of his life in an asylum due to syphillis-related mental illness was the first thing I thought of after seeing the movie. What is so interesting is that his life repeatedly told him to “get out” when he was living overseas around all white people. More importantly, he had to return to his southern roots and African expression to even find inspiration for his art that felt real.  I cannot imagine what his last two decades were like, separated from his source of creation and his family with white doctors and nurses managing his “insanity”–under the care of someone like the Catherine Kenner character, who manipulates the inner selves of Chris and other black characters in Get Out. What did Johnson feel? Could he see but not see, trapped behind the facade of blankness? Was that his sunken place?

Most people do not study Johnson as a Gullah artist, but I don’t see how one cannot. The best book about him and his art is by Richard Powell, a Morehouse grad and Duke professor, called Homecoming: The Life of Art of William H. Johnson (see Here). I’m appreciative to this movie for being a” flash” that reminded me about Johnson and his paintings, which featured black people with color and strength. I hope that we continue to see what he saw, that we continue to insist on our way of seeing.  Maybe with clear sight,  Johnson might soon be the subject of his own movie.


A Call to Action (Written with Jamila Lyn)

Reading Jimmy Carter’s 2014 book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power makes it clear that the least of what domestic violence is is a domestic issue. In fact what happens in our homes, in our dorm rooms, and in other personal—sometimes hidden— spaces has implications for everyone as human beings. Domestic violence is a global issue. As Carter’s book maintains, “the world’s discrimination against women and girls is the most serious pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.”

Carter begins his analysis of this global human rights issue by talking about what he learned growing up in the racist, and, paradoxically very religious, South. It was here that he saw that racism was created out of a certain “culture of violence,” a culture that was dogmatic, patriarchal, insular, and exploitative. Moreover, this “culture of violence” doesn’t only operate around race but also around gender. On our college campus, this “culture of violence” can be seen in the language, in the music, in the sports, and in the movies and television shows that people love to talk about in personal and class room conversations The question for our students and even for faculty and staff on campus is how can we intervene in the problems of sexual harassment including street harassment or catcalling, date rape, sexual intimidation, and physical abuse when it is a global problem that may be bigger than us?

In our English 102 Class: Re-imagining Black Masculinity: Ending Sexual Violence our goal is to make an actual difference in the larger struggle by engaging service learning. What we have discovered is there is no way to pick up Carter’s call to action without first changing the way that we speak and write about women, even if it is only here on the local level. Producing students who are global leaders begins with helping them understand how they access language and culture in their daily lives. We want the students to be better writers certainly, but our hope is that they also become better human beings. So it is a success in that class for us if students can look at the culture that surrounds them critically. It is a success if they think twice about calling a woman anything other than her name. It is a success if they don’t assume that they have a right to someone’s time and attention and can catalog her body parts (Zora Neale Hurston calls this “talking up under someone’s clothes”) if she happens to be walking down the street. And, of course, it is a success if not one person hits or punches or rapes someone to assert what they mistakingly think of as manhood. Finally, we hope to instill in our students that they have a personal responsibility to fight for the human rights of “everyone” despite ways that the culture tells them differently.

Our role as a college in this fight for human rights must be a very personal one. Domestic violence doesn’t just hurt domestically, it hurts us globally. Our president, John Wilson, was very clear in September when he said that Morehouse Men do not engage in violence against women and children and that they need to model this behavior to others in the outside world. The real impact of this work will come when men from all parts of the world understand the importance of protecting and standing up for all women.


Movies About Slavery and Why Everyone Should See “The Retrieval”

The Retrieval is a film about what happened to the children that were left alone and abandoned by the Civil War. It is also an intimate film that deals with questions about love and ethics. There is no description or trailer that can do this film, which was a winner of the Best Narrative Film Award at SXSW, justice. See it. Please see it.

And I know that there have been a lot of films about slavery lately but, with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this year, it is fitting. These are all stories that need to be told.

I was lucky enough to see this film last night as a part of the Bronze Lens Film Festival. There was a Q&A with one of the Producers, Sibyl Avery Jackson, who is a Spelman grad, and she mentioned that the film’s star, Tishaun Scott, is a graduate of Morehouse. His performance was outstanding. I think I see a AUC screening in our future.


Books About Gullah Culture

I think that the more I delve into researching black culture in the South and the ways that what we do today are linked with our past, the more clear that it becomes that there must be more scholarship on Gullah Culture. Goodwine’s The Legacy of Ibo Landing: The Gullah Roots of African American Culture is a great start in looking at these issues, but there should be updated scholarship.

I hate that I am missing the High Heritage Days at The Penn Center but I am hopeful that they will begin recording some of their programs. The possibility of digital scholarship is endless.


Image by Dawolu Jabari Anderson. Part of his “Gullah Sci-Fi Mystery Series” from his Exhibit Tales Of New Dimension In Time And Black Space.

Excerpt of My Latest “Work”

I have so many writing projects going at once that at times it is difficult to feel productive. Since this is a summer that I am devoting to writing, and not just writing but finishing projects, I decided to publish some essays in journals and publish my creative writing in other places. These are things that I think that I need to release into the universe in order to feel like I can work on a book of essays entitled What I Learned From White Girls that I got a grant for nearly 4 years ago to complete. (Hello, can you say that I am not good at deadlines?) The following is an excerpt of a novella entitled Work that I plan to publish as an ebook on iTunes and Amazon by the end of the year.

Work is about the modern black woman’s dilemma of how to be yourself and still exist in the white corporate world. More than that, it is about the broken promise that the North offered many blacks coming out of the rural South at the turn of the Century. It sounds heavy, but I hope it is funny. Here is piece from the first chapter:


Brooklyn, The Planet Earth, The Year of Our Lord, 2006

I was fired. Me. Fired. I don’t know how it happened. Well that is not really true. I knew how it happened, but I didn’t really see it coming. I hated my job, but I loved the life that it afforded me. I loved living in Brooklyn. I loved that so many of the friends that I had met in college seemed to have gravitated to the Big Apple and reconstituted themselves into an exclusive clique of black urban professionals. I loved shopping in Manhattan. I lived for the parties and relished the feeling of having “made it” that New York gives you.

It seems that my life was determined by the objects and fringe benefits that I was able to acquire because of my job—the expense account, the book parties, the fashion shows—but not by the job itself. The activity that consumed most of my waking hours was purely incidental. The exhilaration I felt every morning after the train ride into the city and first tasting my daily café mocha faded as soon as I stepped into the lobby of Laura Rubenstein Advertising and Public Relations. As soon as I hit the revolving glass door and spied the elevator that would whisk me up to the 15th floor (I used to pray for an elevator malfunction, anything to avoid work) and my cramped and disorganized desk, I felt a cloud of despair descend all around me.

I looked good. This again is one of the nice things about living in New York, access to some of the world’s best spas and ample opportunity to indulge my addiction to French cosmetics and skin care products. Usually I couldn’t be happy about how good I looked in whatever black ensemble that I happened to have on, because I knew that no one who really mattered would see me. Unless I was meeting one of my girlfriends for lunch—then I would take special care with my appearance—the way I looked was only for my benefit. What made my days bearable was the fact that I often arranged to lunch with my friends. Everyday, if duties didn’t demand otherwise. I was the only black woman, black person that is, at my firm. I needed to see my girlfriends during the day to keep me grounded, to keep me sane. Being the only is enough to drive you crazy. I don’t know how Jackie Robinson did it. Maybe he met his homeboys after his baseball games and chuckled with them about “the ways of white folk.”

Continue reading

What We Know About Slavery

On a recent trip to Charleston, we had a chance to visit The Old Slave Mart Museum. This was a treat in itself, because Charleston, whose fortunes were built on slavery, seems to rarely deal with what slavery has meant to the culture and the day to day life of the city. What I realized by going to the museum is that we really do not know that much about slavery (when I say we, I mean the generally educated populace). What I found out in this really small museum is that slaves had a history of rebelling and of running away in much greater numbers than ever thought. For example, there were more than 250 slave rebellions in the 1700s alone. Before the Civil War upwards of 50,000 slaves each year ran away– each year! There were also systems of classifying slaves that determined how much they sold for. One classification in particular, ‘the second rate or ordinary girls,” stood out to me. What did it mean for you if you were sold as a second rate slave?

I am not sure what all this means, but I feel like it is something that I should write about. I guess you will have to stay tuned for this. Please check out the New York Times article in the link above and make sure to visit some of those places if you are ever in Charleston. Also do yourself a favor and take Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tour. You won’t be sorry.


Blog at

Gullah Gone

A Documentary Film

Critical Dispatches

Reports from my somewhat unusual life

In Reverie Blog

Inspiring Thoughtfulness and Celebrating the Practice of Teaching and Learning.

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

African Americans in the 19th Century: Slavery, Resistance, Abolition, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Nadir

Maroon Reflections

Dr. Samuel T. Livingston's Record on life, culture and politics in the African Diaspora and world.

Blackboard Learn 9.0 @Morehouse College

Video and Text Tutorials for Morehouse Faculty Members

Book Hub, Inc.

The Total Book Experience


Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. ~ Alice Walker

Damyanti Biswas

For lovers of reading, crime writing, crime fiction

Davey D-Hip Hop Culture-Hip Hop Politics

The World from a Hip Hop Perspective

fat vegan baby

a lifestyle blog, inspired by my life.