“My identity as a Black man, a Black American, is extremely important to me. But (China) allowed me to see a certain aspect of myself outside of that, and I think that made me stronger. It made me have a great more deal of respect for what Black people brought to this world and our contributions” — Dr. Marketus Presswood
As a young college student, Dr. Marketus Presswood’s first trip to China proved to be more than just another study abroad experience. It was the beginning of a life-long journey through Afro-Asian history, with a little entrepreneurship and self-discovery along the way. In this episode of Stories from the Field, hear how Dr. Presswood’s experience as a Black man in China has impacted his research and work as a filmmaker, and also his insights on two cultures still grappling with the conversation of race.
Transformational Moments in this Episode:
- How Dr. Presswood found himself in China
- This long history of Black people in China
- The similarities and differences between racialized discourse in China and the US
- Why continuing conversations about race instead of covering them up is the only constructive path forward
Hear the Full Episode On:
About Dr. Marketus Presswood
Dr. Presswood attended Morehouse College where he received his B.A. in History with a focus on East Asian Studies. In 1997, while a student at the prestigious HBCU he studied abroad for six months in China. Later, he would move back to East Asia living in Japan for two years and China for ten years. In 2005, He founded and managed the first African American-owned study abroad organization focused exclusively on increasing the number of African American students studying overseas. In five years, His organization successfully matriculated three dozen Black students on his China program.
In 2010, He earned a master’s degree in International Public Service Management from DePaul University where his training focused on administrative and global cultural competencies in the public and private sectors. Dr. Presswood conducted extensive qualitative research in India and China for his master’s thesis– a comparative analysis of small and large-scale environmental watershed project management in China and India—interviewing a host of officials in Beijing, China and Pune, India.
Dr. Presswood completed his doctorate program at the University of California–Irvine in Modern Chinese History in June 2020 with a dissertation interrogating the historical record of socio-cultural interactions between Africa and the African Diaspora and China in both the Republican era (1912-1949) and Mao era (1949-1976). He examines the impact of pivot figures on Chinese cultural and political landscape such as Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Robert and Mabel Williams. His expertise also includes Afro-Asian History, 20th century U.S. History, 20th century African American History, Jazz History, Race and Racism, and Black Internationalism. Marketus has contributed to mainstream periodicals like The Atlantic.
He is the director, producer, and writer of the documentary film ‘Yellow Jazz Black Music’ about the untold history of African American and Chinese jazz musicians in China from the 1920s to the present–streaming on Vimeo on Demand starting July 21, 2021.
Yellow Jazz, Black Music (Documentary)
Oana Amaria: Marketus, it is an absolute pleasure to have you on our podcast. I know we’ve been trying to coordinate for a while. Our story and my connection to you through our very many versions of our lives is very important to me because you were the catalyst to a lot of my experiences in China. And you were my safe space in Beijing as I tried to land there. But I’d love for you to share a little bit about yourself and your path in academia and then what sparked your interest in China because I think you have such an incredible perspective and experience, and we’d love to learn more about how you got there.
Dr. Marketus Presswood: Sure. Well, first of all, thanks for having me. I know we’ve been trying to do this for a few weeks now, but I’m glad everything came together as I knew it would. So I guess my journey starts in Chicago. Born and raised in Chicago. From the west side of Chicago. Went to high school on the south side. From a fairly large extended family. I have an identical twin brother, a younger sister, and of course my mom. And I have a host of aunts and uncles and they all have kids. So I have tons of first cousins. So I come from a relatively large family in Chicago. It was quite supportive. It provided the cushion from all the other stuff that was going on in Chicago at the time in the 1980s and the 1990s. Right. So that’s where I started. I went to high school on the south side at Wendell Phillips.
I had a biology teacher, his name was [Dr. Bass 00:01:38], who was incredibly smart, intelligent man. Very funny, very charismatic. And when I was looking at colleges and universities, he actually paid for me to go down to the prospective students’ weekend at Morehouse. And I went there and I was completely blown away with the nurturing, intellectual environment that I’ve found there. There were all of these black men who none were the stereotypes that is commonplace for us to talk about. I mean, these were all very young, intelligent, well-dressed, well-spoken, smart, witty, funny, attractive guys who were all interested in the pursuit of knowledge. And that was my first time, really, really experiencing that and being able to have all these interesting conversations with other young black men. So I was sold on Morehouse. I was like yeah, coming here, this is where I’m coming. So I got to Morehouse and around my third year I was taking Spanish, but I had this longstanding interest in Chinese history, Chinese language, that went all the way back to my time living in Chicago.
In Chicago, like many other major cities on the weekends, there was this television broadcast and it was a television broadcast of basically Chinese martial arts films from Taiwan and Hong Kong, Shaw Brothers film. Some of this is like kind of Orientalizing in the way that they were portrayed. But what was great about these films, not just the martial arts, but it was just the story. And it was a story of redemption. Someone always gets beat up in the beginning, but by the end of the story, the person learned kung fu and then took revenge and had redemption and story ended. Right. And so for a young kid growing up in Chicago who was subject to bullying and stuff like that, I mean, that was great for me. That was like, hey, the good guys can win in the end, but the backdrop there was this culture. There was this language. There were these Chinese characters.
There was this different world that was opening up and that was very foreign to me that I wanted to know more about. So when I got to college, I was taking Spanish, but one of my professors who was from Beijing, literature professor, Dr. Gao, started a Chinese language course, and I wanted to take it, but I was taking Spanish at the time. And I was talking to Dr. Bass, who was still my mentor. And he said, well, you’ve been talking about China for a long time now, why are you taking Spanish? You need to just stop Spanish and start taking Chinese. And I said, okay, I’ll do that. So I dropped Spanish and I started taking Chinese and I was hooked. After only one semester of Chinese, went to China the next semester. I was on the first study abroad program I could find headed to China. And it was just a curiosity, the language and the history and the culture, and then nothing more.
I didn’t have a sense at the time that I was actually living through this very unprecedented moment in history of China, emerging from being this very poor country in the midst of this upheaval, this economic upheaval, social upheaval, that was the opening up and reform movement, right, of Deng Xiaoping. So that I really appreciated later. But China allowed me to open myself up and see the world and understand that I had a place in it. And I started to figure out who I was just as a person outside all of the other… I don’t want to say static because my identity as a black man, a black American is extremely important to me, but it allowed me to see a certain aspect of myself outside of that. And I think that made me stronger and it made me have a great more deal of respect for what black people brought to this world and our contributions.
And so had a greater appreciation for who I was because of that study abroad experience and then realizing that I was a part of that world. And I wanted more students to have that experience because African-Americans we’ve never made up more than 5%, 6% of all study abroad students from America. So I wanted to do something about that. And so that’s why I started the study abroad program devoted to trying to increase African-American participation in the study abroad. We did that for five years. We took over three or four dozen African-American students to China, and they all had these very transformational experiences. And some of them are still in China. Some of them are in other parts of the world in Africa. I have some former students in Ghana. There are some who are still doing work in China and other places. So I’m really, really proud of what we accomplished there.
I’m listening to your story and I’m hearing just so many amazing things, so many different strings that I want to pull on. Something that I really identified with or connected with both in what you said right now and even in reading your article in The Atlantic is the sense of being able to connect with yourself in a different way especially as a black American man when you’re removed from the context of what we talk about in our trainings, of this fog of the culture that we’ve been kind of incubated in and what it’s like to experience yourself in a different context. I studied abroad in southern Spain and I found myself thinking back to similar types of experiences.
There was this one week we had like spring break and everybody was making these plans to go travel around the country and partnering up and pairing up and stuff and I decided to travel alone. One, no one had asked me to travel with them, simple. That was one thing. And the other thing, I was like, well, this will be a good opportunity for me to go out of my comfort zone, work on my language. I took my dictionary with me. At that time, we didn’t have all these nice gadgets and stuff that you can use, but I had my English to Chinese dictionary and my notebook with my new phrases and words in it. And I took a couple of things and I get on the train and I just traveled. I went to Xi’an, which is in sort of like the middle-central China.
And it was a great experience in that I was alone. I was by myself. It was my first time ever traveling anywhere by myself ever. In the States, I had never traveled by myself. So I was particularly proud of myself for embarking on that kind of journey. And throughout the trip, I was forced to not only speak with locals and other Americans, international people that were there, but a lot of time to myself. I mean, I had lots of long hours to myself to think about my experience, contemplate, and sort of reflect on what was happening to me in the moment, and really looking at myself outside of myself if that makes sense. It’s kind of this sort of making it like an astral projection being, and looking back down on myself and saying, Marketus, who are you really? What do you want to do?
What are the things that you like? And so it was a great exploration into self. And I’m sure that could have happened anywhere, could have happened if I had went to a different country, but China was the place that I went to. So it happened there in that background and it allowed me to, one, gain a sense of confidence that I previously hadn’t had. So there was just this confidence that it instilled in me. And I understood that I can attain and reach certain levels if I really worked hard for it. If I really put my mind to it. So it was pretty bold and brave to do that. And I think that only helped me as time progressed as I was in China. So after that week of traveling by myself, when I got back to campus at the Chinese university, I just felt differently. I just had this different sense of self, this different sense of purpose of what I can do and what I could attain and achieve. Right. It was no longer restricted by the limits of who or what I thought I was before. And so that’s one of the great things about studying abroad is that you really get to see yourself. And that’s a very empowering thing that happens, and I’ve seen it with all my students, this kind of growth from African-American students who came from very humble situations, humble beginnings, but you see by the end of the program like they’re right there competing. Just the level of competence is just exuding from them. Right. So yeah, it’s a great experience to have. But I met some really nice people there my first time who sort of took me under their wing and did what they could to protect me from some of the more garish people in society or whatever.
And I look back on that, I’m really very appreciative of that. I remember we went to this one town. It was a small Chinese town. A small Chinese town is about 1 million, 2 million people. So we went to this small Chinese town and I remember getting off the bus and it’s just like, people are like, holy, it’s like this black guy. Literally, within minutes, the whole town’s just sort of surrounding and I’m just like freaking, like oh my God, so many people. And so my classmates are asking people like, oh, so have you ever seen a black person before? And little kids are like only on TV, but it was just this weird experience. But I remember having some Chinese friends at the time who sort of grabbed me and sort of ushered me through and, hey, get back, leave them alone, that kind of thing.
When I was in China on my second stint in the early 2000s, went to this jazz club in Beijing and I walked in and I hear this very familiar sound. I heard the saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, playing, the person was playing his song called St. Thomas. And I’m walking in and I see this Chinese guy on the band stage and he’s just killing it. And this guy’s name was Liu Yuan, or Liu Yuar as his fans call him. And over the course of several months, years, I got to know him and he actually let me interview him on camera. And during this interview, I was just like, man, I was amazed because he had never been to the United States at that point. He had never been to America. And he said all I had was these… They’re called “cidai” or these cassette tapes.
He had these cassette tapes or these mixed tapes that people would find and he’d listen to that. And I was like, dude, through tapes. And then he told me that he liked Grover Washington Jr. And he’s this kind of like RnB player, really soulful, just very rhythmical. And I was like, dude, you like Grover Washington Jr. So we were talking about jazz and it just got me to thinking about, okay, so his connection to black people is through jazz and the music. And it got me to thinking about what about the other African-American or black or African influences on China, Chinese people. I couldn’t find much information, but I knew it was there. And I was doing some digging. And I discovered that Langston Hughes had traveled to Shanghai back in 1933. I was reading his travel blog.
That was so fascinating. So I was thinking about research questions to come up with to go to graduate school. And I applied to several graduate programs and coincidentally, one of my friends who was my former counselor on my first program in Beijing, she was friends with a professor at University of California and he’s in Chinese studies. So I emailed him and we had this phone conversation and we’re talking about Langston Hughes in China and other black people in China and I’m like, so I want to do this research project, this dissertation on the African-American experience in China. And he was super excited. I applied, submitted all my materials, got accepted and I went to California. So my dissertation is about the experience of black people, the Black-African diaspora, particularly African-Americans in China.
Jason Rebello: Has your experience changed at all since you wrote about your time in China in 2013? What’s been the arc or the evolution of that reality?
Dr. Marketus Presswood: Yeah. And I go back to this Baldwin quote, right? Baldwin said when he was going to Europe that I met a lot of people in Europe, I even met myself. And for China, that was the same for me. I really met myself. And so there’s always, for me, going to be this sort of love for the country because of what it gave me in that sense. It could have happened anywhere, but for me, mine just happened to be China. And so it’s always going to hold this sort of special place because of that. But my arc, I guess my arc, after I graduated from Morehouse, I went back to Asia, spent two years in Japan, probably a total of 11, 12 years in China, and the experience gradually started to change. It became something different as time moved on and China was becoming a very different place for me.
When I first got there, yeah, there was always just bubbling beneath the surface this sort of xenophobia of foreigners, particularly with black people. But for me, I never felt afraid while I was there. I never felt like I was in danger. I always felt safe. But later the experience started to shift. And this is part of my research as well too when I talk about this ad nauseam in my dissertation about anti-blackness in China. So the Chinese Communist Party’s official narrative is that racism doesn’t exist in China. This is a Western thing. And if it does exist somehow in China, it was brought in taught to Chinese people by Westerners, by foreigners, by white people. And my research points to that this is a falsehood, that this is quite false. And actually, there have been black people in and around China, the Chinese lateral for over a millennium, maybe even more longer.
And this is by looking at historical documents, looking at Chinese literature and things that they’ve written about black people that have been in the space. It’s limited information, these little data points. Right. But a lot of it has been negative and it sort of created this kind of trope about blackness over a long period of time. So one of the thing that people do know and understand about China, they understand that, oh, in China, there’s this propensity to aesthetically value lighter skin or white skin, pale skin. Most people know that. Most people understand that this is a thing in East Asia. And so I took that very question and said that so if white skin or whiteness is something that’s valued in places like China, what is the value of the opposite end of the spectrum, of blackness in that sense and taking what I know about whiteness and putting that same lens on the perception of blackness.
So I’d like to say that with my research that I am not claiming that every Chinese person adheres to, follows, believes, and accepts the racial dynamic, the racial tropes that are present in China, however, everyone understands it and everyone understands the ramifications and the implications for dealing with blackness in that sense. So what are those tropes? Those tropes are that blackness, black people are unintelligent, what I call the unhygienic, blackness is dirty. Like I can’t tell you how many times someone in China has rubbed my skin to see if it would come off. And this is recent stuff, like 2017, 2018 the last time I was in China. I had an Indian-American student who was there and she was complaining about somebody on the train like rubbing her skin and saying, why are you so dirty?
It’s this unhygienic trope, unintelligent, hyper-masculine. The men are hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual, primitive, and also sort of this like infantilism, like childlike. These kind of tropes that appear that are also present in American society. But the difference is this, so the Chinese will would like to say that, oh, well these were things that we learned from the West. And these are things that we got from Americans, Europeans,, and so forth and so on. But that’s not the case. That may have helped bolster that social Darwinism and this sort of survival of the fittest, eugenics and these kinds of things like help to provide a theoretical framework for Chinese people to talk about their racism in a way that’s legible to also white people. They were like, oh yeah, we agree with you, the browns and the blacks are bad, but the whites and the yellows are better. You know what I mean. So there was that kind of discourse going on in the first half of the 20th century. But if you look at these different historical data points, these literature data points, and I go for the past 1,000 years, and we can see that there’s this very long, deep history of otherization of people who are darker. Not just black people from Africa, but even dark people from let’s say southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, these places too. So that impacts how people interact with black people. So what I didn’t know, going to China, I assumed as a black American that, oh, I’m going to China, Chinese people or people of color, it’s going to be cool. It’s going to be fine. And that was a kind of ignorance that I had about going there my first time was that they didn’t see themselves in that light. They saw themselves as, no, we’re Chinese. And whether they use the yellow moniker or the Chinese used to consider themselves white before they came into contact with Europeans, but they changed that moniker. But regardless of that, they saw themselves as not just ethnic group, but they’re their own unique race.
We can even talk about the Spring Gala, the largest television program in Chinese culture that’s viewed by over 1 billion people where they perform in blackface. Not only once, but twice after the entire world has condemned them for this performance. A year later, a couple of years later, they do it again. So there’s also this tone-deafness surrounding blackness as well.
And the problem with the way Chinese studies works in the US is that on the one hand, it’s dominated by white men. And on the one hand, you may have a portion of those white men who are Orientalizing and looking at China in a certain way. Those same white men don’t want to talk about race in America. So they definitely don’t want to talk about race in China. And so it’s a topic that they tend to either stay away from or to downplay, or to say that, “China’s not like that, you’re over determining this. It’s not always about race, Marketus.” I mean, anyone who studies race, you can see that in America it’s always gaslighted. “It’s not always about race.” But you never tell a labor historian, “It’s not always about the economy or the labor,” right? You never tell a feminist, “It’s not always about women.” No, of course it’s always about women! Of course, it’s always about the economy! And of course, it’s always about race! It’s always there. It’s never absent from anything, whether it’s the large elephant in the room or whether it’s maybe a smaller calculation into how we interact and deal with each other, it’s always there.
You don’t have a society that for 400 years has been a slave society, a society that’s created like a caste system and then you ostensibly move out of it legally for a few decades and then think that we’re free of that moment and think that somehow everything is okay, that we’re post-racial. It can’t be further from the truth. And all of this gaslighting and denial by not just by folks in power, but ordinary folks too, it’s a little bit disconcerting because it’s an issue that we have to confront that nobody wants to. And I think I went on a tangent there, so I’m sorry about that.
Oana Amaria: No, it’s interesting. So I don’t know if you’re going to remember this, but you and I went to a restaurant across the street, across the way from my building. It’s the Xinjiang province restaurant that was in the neighborhood. And it was like my early months in Beijing, maybe month in Beijing. And for those that don’t know, so I could pass for someone that may be from Xinjiang. And I remember that you were ordering something and you could literally tell me you’re going to murder me in Mandarin. And I wouldn’t have known the difference. And they deferred to me. Even saying that; all the hairs on the back of my neck are standing. And that was like my first experience where I knew my life depended on Marketus and they were deferring to me. And I have had the privilege of being a part of your arc, maybe not from high school and Morehouse, but from thereafter and even my own understanding of awareness, my own understanding of this process.
And it makes me think you have contributed to a lot of the insights that we’ve gathered for the anti-racism curriculum we do, and the insights around Asia and this piece around Chinese scholars and court officials pronounced that black and brown races were inferior and required sterilization. And we even see it in contemporary examples. You have the graphics artist, what is her name, Yang Lu, that did the German, Chinese, Eastern, Western culture examples of what is beautiful and how all of the white people want to get tan. And all of the Asian folks want to stay white. We know all the context around fair and lovely and bleaching skin and all that. So the reason I say all of this is because I think a lot has changed and there is a shift in society in our understanding here in the US with everything post 2020.
I think that there’s just this collective sense of where we are in society. I know a lot has changed for you. I don’t know if you’re going to go back to China or not. I know what that journey is like for you.
Dr. Marketus Presswood: No. At this point, no.
Oana Amaria: But I’m curious, what is the most challenging aspect for you now? You’ve experienced racism on every level of nuance. Right. What is the most challenging part of your work beyond academia because I think that’s a really big part of it, right? I’d love for you to share a little bit.
Dr. Marketus Presswood: Well, I think it’s always inhabiting the truth, even if it’s going to cost you friends, relationships, potential business deals, whatever. At this point in my life, I’m just not willing to play along with people anymore. I’m not willing to make other people feel comfortable, case in point, maybe about a couple of weeks ago I was in Atlanta and I was in this bar and met this group of people, two white men, one white woman. One guy was clearly from the deep south and we were having this conversation. And of course, we get on the topic of race and Black Lives Matter. And it’s interesting how you can almost feel like this palpable shift in the dynamics, right? And when I went to speak my truth and went to give them as a historian examples of this history and to talk about the narrative of American history that we’re all taught, but then to add a different narrative, there’s this sense of it’s not just denial, it’s this continent of dissonance that people inhabit that prevent them from even wanting to try to understand a different way of inhabiting this planet.
As a black person, or even as an immigrant or as a brown person, you inhabit a different space and a different experience even if you’re in the same space, in the same spatial and temporal sort of proximity, you’re experiencing life completely different. Right. The cheap and easy example of this would be if we were to go back to let’s say 1815 and go back to Georgia to XYZ plantation, of course, the person who owned slaves was going to be living a different life than the people who were out in his fields, right? They’re inhabiting the same space. They’re living mere feet away from each other. They are living the same time period, but they’re also going through life in a very, very different way. And I find it disingenuous for people not to want to recognize that and agree with that and just say yeah, that’s a starting point. The experience is not universal. It’s not just the white experience should be the universal experience.
That everyone has their own experience that’s just as valid and needing of attention and needing to be heard and needing to be addressed and dealt with. And this is the problem I think when it comes to diversity in this country, in particular. Those who maintain or control the dominant narrative are loath to want to think about something else, loathe to want to do something else. So as I walk in this space in the world at this particular point at 40 something odd years, I mean, half my lifespan is over. Right. I mean, what do I have left to lose? I come from that generation that was taught to pull your pants up, put your belt on, put your tie on, you speak this way, don’t speak that way, make sure people are comfortable with you. What I love about the gen Zs and even the millennials, they don’t care anymore.
They’re just like, I’m going to be like super black! I’m going to be super Hispanic! I’m going to speak Spanish. I’m going to speak AAVE. I’m just going to do it all. And I don’t care if you like it or if you don’t and I’m just like, whoa, these kids are brave. These kids have a kind of strength that we didn’t have when we were growing up, I didn’t have when I was growing up. I mean, we were scared. We were too busy, not wanting to offend anybody and trying to just carve out a little niche and a little space in society so we could be accepted. And these young kids are just saying, hey, we’re going to live in our own world. That time, where we want it to be a part of your world, that’s over. Deal with me with all the positive, all the negative, all the good, all the messy, deal with me on my own terms.
And I love that. And so I think that that’s where I’ve tried to center myself. I don’t pretend to understand everything about gen Z and millennials and their way of thinking and cancel culture and all this stuff. I have my thoughts about that, but I do want to sort of embrace that change, embrace that different outlook on life, and how to deal with white supremacy. And I know for these young kids, it has to be uber-frustrating. And so I get it. I get the anger and the frustration, and I’m all here for it. And the people who are part of the dominant narrative just have to ask themselves a very simple question, what kind of world do you want your grandchildren, your children to live in? Right. And all those things that you want for them, all those things we want for our kids too.
And we’re tired of asking for it. And this is what happens when people are tired of asking. James Baldwin said it brilliantly, was, “God gave the rainbow sign. No more water, fire the next time.” That’s what we’re faced with right now. You cannot keep denying justice, racial equality, financial equality, educational equality, to whole swaths of people and not expect there’s going to be some reaction you can’t continue to do that. Power has to be shared. Resources have to be shared. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have with people who feel that somehow everything I’ve gotten is because I worked hard for it.
Know that there’s a huge history that you haven’t been taught. And this is not to say that white people should feel ashamed or embarrassed about their particular situation. And I think this is the problem with how they’re trying to describe critical race theory. Critical race theory is not trying to teach white people to be ashamed of themselves or any of that. And most of these people talking about it haven’t even read one essay or article in critical race theory. It basically comes out of a legal framework in the early 1980s with Derrick Bell and some students like Kimberle Crenshaw, they were talking about the legal inequities in the legal system. And that is true. That’s there for everyone to see. That is not fake or false news. It’s the reality of the legal system. It has nothing to do with all this other stuff that people are trying to make it out to be.
So back to your question about how has this impacted me, how has this affected how I move in the world, it’s completely about social justice. It’s completely about rewriting history, rewriting the narrative. And for me, including blackness in that narrative and the things that we have contributed to the world. So that’s the one thing I try to do with my writing, with my documentary is that I’m writing and putting black people and brown people back in there. And I’m also saying that we as people of color also have to look at each other and talk about the ways in which we did not stand up for each other in the past. Right. We have to talk about that ugly history of not supporting each other and also practicing racism and discrimination against each other. So we have to talk about that history as well too. Right. But so that’s where I am right now. It’s completely social justice. It’s being independent. It’s speaking my truth and not really caring about who doesn’t like it. I don’t really care anymore beyond that.
Oana Amaria: Yeah. Something that you said I think is really powerful, this piece as you talked about the gaslighting and critical race theory and our role as white people and colleagues and friends and family members to have these conversations. And what it makes me think of is we have to get past the shame and the pain because it costs too much to stay there. And I think whether it’s conscious or not, that gets prioritized. And I think what we try to do with Firefly is we’ve got to get past that. We got to get past your unmet needs or your insecurities or your fears because it literally costs people their lives. And I mean, there’s studies for 100 years that you could read, right, on the impact that that has.
So I have faith, though I just like the conversations I have with people and I think people are really waking up to… And you saw, I think it’s very viral right now with the colonel testifying in front of Congress and one could argue, why does it have to take the white guy? But the fact that, that is not what they were expecting and that someone is willing to be the ally, we’re willing to have this conversation, it gives me hope. I think your current arc now is really powerful. And then you mentioned about the documentary and everything else that you’re bringing through. And it’s reflective of all of our changes in a way, each of us, like in this conversation and where our experiences have taken us.
Dr. Marketus Presswood: I’m happy to hear that you have hope. I’m still living. As Baldwin used to say, I’m still living so I need to be hopeful. Right. I’m still living, so I’m still trying to be hopeful, but I will be honest with you, Oana, half the days, I’m very much a cynic. And then the cynicism comes out of me quite readily. And part of me doesn’t even want to taper that down and tamper that down and I’m just like that. That’s just a part of it. But I think a healthy dose of cynicism is okay because I’ve seen this story before. Right. And then sometime true, as a person of color, you don’t have the privilege to be optimistic. You don’t have the privilege to be like, oh, things are getting better. If I wait another five or 10 years, then things will be better.
I don’t have that privilege. I don’t have that time or that space to wait because all of this impacts me in the here and now. It’s affecting me now. And as Dr. King would say wait almost always means never. I hear you with the optimism, I hear you, but for me, it still sounds like, wait. It still sounds like it’s just around the corner. And the goalpost keeps moving back and moving back every time we get closer. In a sense that’s why the civil rights movement was a failure in that way because it didn’t change anything structurally. And because the structure didn’t change, it was just allowed to morph into something else. I mean, immediately the Republicans and other people who practice sort of white supremacy, went to work to destroy the gains of the civil rights movement and to attack the people who were a part of that as a part of the Southern strategy.
And we’re seeing the result of that now. So the whole structure has to change. Right. We can’t just put a Band-Aid on it and expect that we’re not going to be dealing with this again, 10, 15, 20 years from now. Right. That our grandkids or great-grandkids will have to deal with this huge mess. So my question to a lot of white allies and white people who aren’t allies, is this, are you comfortable with the status quo and do you want to maintain the status quo? And for most of them, it’s a resounding yes. Even if they don’t want to admit it to me. It’s one of the reasons why black men and women can continue to be killed with such impunity is because when white people look at it, they say, “It’s not my kid. It’s not my kid. That is so far removed from my experience. It’s not my kid. It doesn’t have anything to do with me so why should I care about that,” right? We are still not seen as part of the polity. And that has to be talked about. And no matter how people want to gaslight and say yeah, you’re an American citizen. If I’m an American citizen, I’m not getting the benefits of being an American citizen. Black women are getting paid .67 to a dollar, it’s not working. It’s not fair. This is not a level playing field. Let’s just admit and agree that this is not a level playing field. This doesn’t mean socialism or communism, whatever, but this means like a secure stable society. This means that everybody has enough to eat, everybody has a place to stay, everybody’s living in dignity. And that’s something that we don’t understand with our rugged US individualism of pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Well, guess what, black people didn’t have a bootstrap for a long time or no boots. And the shoes that we have on now are falling apart.
Jason Rebello: Some would argue that the reason why they’re able to do that in Japan, and the reason why they’re able to do that in a lot of these European countries is because they are all Japanese or they’re all Swiss. There’s that element to that challenge and that desire…
Dr. Marketus Presswood: I would push back. Aren’t we all supposed to be American?
Jason Rebello: I agree. Absolutely. Yeah.
Dr. Marketus Presswood: We’re all American. I don’t see color. I don’t see race. We’re all American. And I think that we’ve made racism a very pathological word. Right. If you say someone’s a racist, it means they’re like KKK racist. Right. They’re like pathological. They’re burning the cross on your lawn kind of racist. And we need to move away from that definition because that’s not what we’re talking about. Yeah, there are those people who are like that, but we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more insidious that does a lot more damage. Right. And part of the damage is that when people don’t want to look at themselves and say, you know what, yeah, I’m a racist, I’m doing racist things. I’ve had racist thoughts. I’ve occupied that space. I am occupying that space because they don’t want to use that term. They don’t want to be labeled. Right. So I think that’s part of the problem.
Jason Rebello: So I’m going to, I’m going to close this out in a slightly different direction, maybe even like a two-parter question, but you mentioned some of the interesting projects that you’re working on. What is something that you’re really excited about right now as you move forward? And that’s the question to you. The second question is, what is your ask or requests for people like us that are on the ground doing inclusion work, DEI work? What is your ask of us, especially when it comes to communities in these global companies or how the global companies understand these different dynamics?
Dr. Marketus Presswood: Yeah. So the project I’m working on right now is it’s a documentary called Yellow Jazz Black Music, which is at www.yellowjazzblackmusic.com. And it’s a documentary that’s talking about this untold story of African-American jazz musicians who lived and worked in China in the 1920s and 1930s. And in my opinion helped establish sort of modernity in that part of the world, in terms of the music people were listening to, the revolution in the socialization in terms of the nightclubs, and then dance clubs that popped up and had a huge impact on pop music. What later became pop music in China and in Asia, that’s literally black music. So this documentary is about that. It goes from the 1920s all the way up to the present day to talk about the current black musicians too, who are also doing work in China, and how the Chinese themselves have evolved within the space of jazz. And how jazz is an art form that allows this alternative social reality to take place between Chinese people and black people and all these different groups and cultures. So that’s the project that I’m really, really excited about. And that’s going to be coming out next month in July. My ask for people like you, who do DEI work, first of all, my hat’s off. I mean, I really respect the work that you do because I know it’s extremely difficult. I’ve actually taught two DEI courses when I was at UCI. And I had enough to know that I was like, I don’t want to do this. This is too much work. Like I’ve had white man stare me down, their arms folded, and just like the death stare, looks could kill. So I know it’s hard work. I know it’s difficult work and I’m happy for the people.
And I totally respect the people who do it. Somebody has to do it. It’s tough work. And I definitely respect people who do it. My ask, to be a little bit more harsh. Like just to rip that Band-Aid off. I think a lot of times in some of the sessions that I’ve seen with people, it’s a lot of handholding. And I’m just like, no, tell them how it is. Rip that Band-Aid off. Let it hurt. Let it steam. I know you can’t do that. I know you have to be more tactical and more diplomatic, which is why, again, I understand that I’m not necessarily a diplomat. But I love what you’re doing. I respect what you’re doing, keep doing it. That’s all I can ask is that keep doing the work that you’re doing because it’s a hard, difficult space to be in, but somebody has to do it.
Someone has to pick up that mantle and speak for us in places where we can’t go. Oana, as the beautiful person you are outside and inside, you can go to spaces that I can’t go in and people will listen to you in a way that they won’t listen to me for a whole number of reasons. Right. So I admire you and I respect what you all are doing. And so I just say, keep doing it. And the optimistic side of me saying yeah, I know that there are people like Oana out there. And so that makes me smile. So yes, Oana, I’m not completely cynical, you make me smile. I know I come across sometimes as being like… That’s just the world I live in and I inhabit, but I am happy to know you. I am happy that you are a part of my life and that we are great friends. And I’m so thrilled and ecstatic to see everything that you do with Firefly and the team that you all have put together and you all working together with each other. It’s a beautiful thing. So just keep doing what you’re doing.
Oana Amaria: Thank you so much for that, especially knowing that you understand how hard… Jay and I had a good lesson on how hard, what you got to scrape together to show up sometimes, but we are honored to have you join this conversation. So thank you, Marketus.
Dr. Marketus Presswood: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Jason Rebello: Thank you. Yes, absolutely.