“Everything is connected.” That’s the theme behind the new film by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski, Cloud Atlas. Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the movie follows the interrelated lives of several figures across time and space–from the letters of a young lawyer in the 19th century Pacific, to the far-flung future “After the Fall.” The Wachowskis and Tykwer do their best to bring a complex literary story to life on the big screen; how close they came to hitting the mark however is debatable.
The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.
Last month fashion icons Dolce & Gabbana sent models down the runway sporting earrings carved in the likeness of black women. The uproar was instantaneous. One story described the earrings as “slave-like,” linking them to a long history of black caricatures. Another lampooned D&G for engaging in “cartoonish, debasing, subaltern imagery that would make even your politically incorrect Grandpa think twice.” The official media term for them became, “slave earrings.”
In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks, removing the last stronghold of Christendom in the East. The news sent shock waves throughout Europe. The Byzantines were no friends of the Papacy; in fact, the Eastern Christian city had been brutally sacked by reckless Norman Christian Crusaders nearly two and half centuries earlier, from which they never recovered. Still, the loss of Constantinople was a staggering blow.
For one, it placed the Sultan Mehmet II and his victorious armies right at Christendom’s doorsteps–and indeed, fears of the “dreaded Turk” would fill the minds of Europeans for generations, as the Ottomans rolled through the Balkans and reached the gates of Vienna. For the devout, here was yet another sign of the impending Apocalypse, that would pit the defenders of Christ against unbelievers. For European sailors and merchants, it meant the valuable flow of Eastern spices, silk and other goods–once controlled in great part through Constantinople–was now blocked by a hostile rival force. For investors in the profitable sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, it meant the drying up of much-needed supplies (from timber and Slavic slaves) to feed the sugar industry, and an increasingly dangerous waterway. A long period of Muslim-Christian détente would give way to religious rivalry, as two emerging fiscal-military states–the Ottomans and the Habsburgs–now battled over spheres of power for the next three centuries.
So what do Muslim conquests, the Apocalypse and trade have to do with Christopher Columbus and our primal fears of alien invaders? Perhaps everything. But if you like, you can skip past the history lesson to come and go right to Alien Columbus.
“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” – Ida B. Wells-Barnett
At a recent history conference, I had the fortune of attending a plenary titled “Mightier than the Sword: Conversations on the Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” The panel featured historians Mia Bay, Paula Giddings and Patricia Schechter (among others), all of whom have authored works on the famed anti-lynching crusader. Though I’d studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett previously, during the discussion I was once again struck by her intense radicalism, which ran counter to the sensibilities of gender, activism and racial justice that pervaded the times. As often happens, my historian’s mind wandered into the speculative–particularly steampunk, where the Victorian Age’s analogous twin across the Atlantic, what Mark Twain satirized as “The Gilded Age” and well into the later “Progressive Era,” carried a violent dark side that Ida B. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to revealing.