Henry Louis Gates' Bag Party

Jfield comments on how recent the use of the brown bag as a measuring rod has been, saying that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. experienced it in the Ivy League.

Here is Gates describing the incident on Book Notes, in an interview with Brian Lamb.

When I was at Yale, for example -- I went there in '69 and...

LAMB: Undergraduate?

GATES: Undergraduate.

LAMB: Studying what, by the way?

GATES: American history, though I took a lot of Afro-Am courses on the side, but I was a history major. I remember the first year I was there -- the first month I was there, we had this special meeting of the Black Student Alliance to talk to the black men -- young black men from New Orleans, some of whom were very light complected. And they wanted to have something called a bag party. So, you know, what's a bag party? They wanted to put this paper bag over the door and anyone who was darker than the paper bag couldn't get into the party. So, you know, I looked at them -- I was secretary of the Black Student Alliance -- everyone from the North and everyone who had any kind of sense and was not from New Orleans said, "We've never heard of a such a thing. You guys can't do this. I mean, this is some sort of antiquated, sick relic of the past. I mean, you can't do that."

And that practice stopped, and then I later found out through black history classes that that sort of thing had been going on in New Orleans for a very long time. The point is that you can internalize your own oppression. You can take on the forms of sickness, through which oppressors try to control you, whether you're a woman or a gay person or a person of color. And our job, in part, as academics is to fight against those sort of tendencies within those respective groups. That's not sufficient reason -- I mean, reasons of self-esteem are not sufficient reasons to justify the existence of, say, women's studies or gay studies or African-American studies in the academy by any means. But that is an aftereffect of the kind of work that we do in the academy if you're in, say, ethnic studies.

Jfield says "that's good enough for me."

Good enough for what?

No one doubted the information -- what was questioned was whether the information called for the consequences that were stated as having happened in the original Mummert sermon: that SKSM would change the name of the brown bag lunch to something else, and the unmistakable implication that this was what good people ought to do.

Now, it appears that the consequence was stated inaccurately -- that nobody took this that seriously because they still use brown bags and go to brown bag lunches throughout the GTU.

So what happened? It's all quite unclear. Under critical questioning initiated by Peacebang, who gets reviled in the process, the thing becomes misty and vague. But the surviving message is that "don't ever question the important work that the SKSM is doing."


  1. For the love of all that is holy, please DO continue to question the work (important or otherwise) that SKSM is doing, just as you would with any other institution with its potential to guide the development of Unitarian Universalism. And speaking as an SKSM student, I thank you for leveling your criticisms in a way that avoids both the needling and defensiveness which has characterized the posts of so many folks on various sides of the recent brouhaha. (Which is probably more than I can say for myself, I'm sad to say.)

    Rather than reposting what I've said elsewhere, a brief comment on the bold bits of your last entry:

    But in an intellectual environment where the value of information is determined by who provides it, such criticism is not welcome.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the value of information cannot rest solely on the perceived authority of the person who provides it, but the identity of the person who provides the information nevertheless informs the way in which that information is heard, understood and then accepted/considered/rejected in context. So in the case of the original brown bag incident, the decision to respect the preferences of the guest speaker might have made sense given a general focus on being hospitable to guests, but instituting/implying a blanket policy around replacing language without subjecting that policy to critical analysis clearly falls short of most reasonable standards of intellectual rigor. To the extent that this tracks a real tendency at Starr King to err on the side of the speaker when considering who holds what kinds of power in a conversation, we (Starr Kingers) should certainly take home the message that we need to pay closer attention to whether this ultimately encourages or discourages genuinely productive discussion/action.

  2. Anonymous4:54 PM

    This whole discussion about the meaning of language and symbols in oppression has gotten me thinking about "Rule of Thumb." Many people believe that the phrase refers to an old law that said it was OK for a husband to beat his wife with an object as long as it wasn't wider than his thumb.

    When people learned that Rule of Thumb had oppressive connotations, they would unavoidably have an emotional reaction to it--each time they heard it, they would be reminded of men beating their wives and society condoning it. They'd be reminded of the injustice of oppression and would feel revulsion and disgust, whether or not they'd ever been beaten themselves.

    I imagine that similarly, once people learn that brown bags were used in the way they were in New Orleans, they never hear "brown bag" quite the same way again.

    A key difference between "brown bag" and "rule of thumb" is that the Rule of Thumb story is actually FALSE. The phrase has different origins that have nothing to do with legal sanction of abuse.

    However, as a rule of thumb ;-), I avoid the phrase in sermons and publications because I know that it will conger up negative emotions in those who associate it with women's oppression. It would be distracting to put a verbal asterisk after every usage of "rule of thumb" to educate my listeners about the actual origin of the phrase. It's just easier to avoid it because it's become a hurtful phrase for many women and their allies.

    Similarly, I don't think it's too much to ask to avoid "brown bag" if it's become hurtful to some of the people in the group, whether or not they were witness to any brown bag test in their lifetimes. I'm part Jewish and there are words Jews can become sensitized to also when they learn of those words uses in anti-semitic contexts.

    But as I think we agree, changing language is really just scratching the surface of the dynamics of racism. There is much more work to do, and this Harvard alum is glad that Starr King is doing it, even if they look foolish to some people some of the time.

  3. ...To the extent that this tracks a real tendency at Starr King to err on the side of the speaker when considering who holds what kinds of power in a conversation,....

    this tendency to let the complainer rule, which is common among UUs, has been called "the tyranny of the disgruntled." It is one of the tendencies that keep us talking instead of doing. It's not wrong, just overdone.
    I hesitate to wade in on the brown bag controversy, but I do have one thing to add which I haven't seen mentioned. It seems that this racist usage of "brown bag test" is old and was mostly limited to people from the New Orleans area. If we decide that everyone should know about it in order to avoid using the term, to what extent are we perpetuating an idea that might otherwise have died a natural death from people just not knowing about it?

  4. Kim Hampton6:10 PM

    I feel it necessary to correct this assumption that the "brown paper bag test" was limited to New Orleans and its environs. It was not.

    The brown paper bag test was widely used throughout the South and in many places in the North. It was a way to distinguish class amongst African Americans. The lighter skinned you were, the more white you had in your blood, the higher class you were.

    As I said in another post...my father's people are from Mississippi and my mother's people are from Alabama, and the test was used just as much there as it was in New Orleans. Skip Gates is from way-out West Virginia; and my guess is that the test wasn't popular there. (at least that's what I can see from that segment of his interview)

    There are a whole bunch of color complex issues out there. If we eliminated terms that had any connection to those issues, then there would be very little we could say.


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