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Alien Nation, Part Two
Where is our humanity?

by DK Holland

The Oscar-nominated, controversial film Django Unchained, directed by white director Quentin Tarantino, exploits the exploitation of blacks by depicting a gruesome caricature of the slave Django and, in general, of slavery in 1858, seven years before all slaves were freed by law. In Tarantino’s film live slaves are torn limb from limb by snarling dogs as white men look on. The strongest of male slaves are forced to fight to the death for the sheer amusement of the plantation owners. Attractive slave women become sex slaves. Director Spike Lee, a descendant of slaves, called the treatment of African Americans in the South “a holocaust” and refused to see Tarantino’s film because he anticipated it demeaned his ancestors. But audiences—white and black alike—cheer (spoiler alert) as the super strong and now ultra-savvy Django cleverly wipes out all the whites (and the heartless “Uncle Tom”) on the plantation and burns it to the ground before riding off into the sunset with his gorgeous, gun-totting African American bride Brunhilde, whom he has just liberated. Some thought this film would have been more aptly titled, The Thirteenth Amendment.

Even though slavery is officially outlawed by all countries, it’s estimated that between 12 and 27 million people of many cultures are held against their will today (particularly in Asia, but also in the United States) and forced to perform demeaning acts. Much of slavery still revolves around the economics of cheap, unskilled labor.

A sense of hopelessness, of being trapped in a loveless relationship, no-growth job, deprived of access to a path up and out of a situation, unable to move on with your life—these are forms of slavery. If you don’t see a choice, you have no options; if you have no options, you are enslaved. To this we can all relate. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed nearly half a century ago, was extended to protect racial, ethnic and religious minorities as well as women (who, of course, make up half the world’s human population) against public discrimination. But even after this Federal act was passed into law, some Southern states still refused to inte-grate schools and some states forbade blacks and whites to wed. In 1964, Virginian Judge Leon Bazile rationalized that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents...The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

While exaggerated and demeaning tales may perpetuate stereotypes, the tables are often turned to create awareness; fighting fire with fire. In fact, photography and other media (television, film, newspapers, magazines) have helped push through some hard-won laws by using emotionally-charged imagery, artfully manipulated to spur emotions. The recent HBO documentary The Loving Story tells of the lives of Mildred Jeter, a gentle beauty, part African/Native American, and blonde-haired, muscular Richard Loving. In another era, in another place, they could have been homecoming king and queen. But this was 1959, in the state of Virginia, so instead they were sentenced to prison for cohabitation. The film talks about how the married couple, after getting suspended sentences, fled north so they could start a family. But Mildred wanted badly to go home and all Richard wanted was her happiness. So she wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who referred her to the ACLU. The Supreme Court ultimately heard the case and in 1967 reaffirmed the inherent promise made to all citizens in the Constitution of the United States, that all people should be afforded the freedom to pursue happiness. We empathize with the Lovings’ plight and, in doing so, we care about their rights knowing they are our rights too. Without LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet’s breathtaking still photography of the Lovings and Nancy Buirski and Elisabeth Haviland James’s heartrending HBO documentary, the lessons of Loving v. Virginia may have remained buried in history.

Designer Lisa Babb, a person of color, moved South for love, to start a family in a small rural Georgia town right outside Atlanta. “Moving from Brooklyn to segregated Georgia was staggering. The looks I would get!” She became a professor of design at Savannah College of Art and Design. “I told my husband we had to move into Atlanta, which is better, but still, every time I go to a client meeting I wait for the ‘surprised look.’ Someone told me ‘You can always tell when a black person designed something.’ I was totally shocked! This is the perception. I tell all my students ‘There are two different kinds of design: good design and bad design. That’s it.’

“I have to work harder than white people. My father taught me that.” Babb feels it’s important that her students see her as a qualified designer, to help to destroy the stereotype. “When I teach, I affirm to my students, ‘This is why I’m at the helm of this ship.’”

Babb’s maternal great grandparents were sharecroppers who worked the fields of South Carolina. Her paternal grandfather stowed away on a ship at the age of nine to work on the building of the Panama Canal. He helped the canal workers unionize for better working conditions. Her parents had dignity and discipline. They wanted a better life for their children. Babb recalls, “It was 1986, I was at Notre Dame, in pre-med, when a teacher asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of graphic design? You have a gift.’ I realized this was my passion. I told my parents I was going to study design. My father said, ‘You can’t do that. You should be a doctor.’ He saw design as a hobby, not a career.”

This was a pivotal moment for Babb who toughed it out to break into design, a profession in which people of color have always been very poorly represented. She says, “I’ve never had the luxury of being under-qualified. After I graduated from college I worked for Arnold Saks in New York where we did annual reports. It started out as a nothing job. I organized the paper swatchbooks. I was the only African American there except for a guy who was a kind of boy Friday. Arnold figured out I had nothing to do and plugged me into the senior-level designers, who taught me production. They apprenticed me.” Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.