Over the past half-billion years, there have been at least twenty mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth has suddenly and dramatically contracted. Five of these—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they are usually put in their own category. The first took place during the late Ordovician period, nearly four hundred and fifty million years ago, when life was still confined mainly to water. Geological records indicate that more than eighty per cent of marine species died out. The fifth occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago. The end-Cretaceous event exterminated not just the dinosaurs but seventy-five per cent of all species on earth.
The significance of mass extinctions goes beyond the sheer number of organisms involved. In contrast to ordinary, or so-called background, extinctions, which claim species that, for one reason or another, have become unfit, mass extinctions strike down the fit and the unfit at once. For example, brachiopods, which look like clams but have an entirely different anatomy, dominated the ocean floor for hundreds of millions of years. In the third of the Big Five extinctions—the end-Permian—the hugely successful brachiopods were nearly wiped out, along with trilobites, blastoids, and eurypterids. (In the end-Permian event, more than ninety per cent of marine species and seventy per cent of terrestrial species vanished; the event is sometimes referred to as “the mother of mass extinctions” or “the great dying.”)
Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it generally has a new cast of characters; following the end-Cretaceous event, mammals rose up (or crept out) to replace the departed dinosaurs. In this way, mass extinctions, though missing from the original theory of evolution, have played a determining role in evolution’s course; as Richard Leakey has put it, such events “restructure the biosphere” and so “create the pattern of life.” It is now generally agreed among biologists that another mass extinction is under way. Though it’s difficult to put a precise figure on the losses, it is estimated that, if current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone.
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Abstract: How did Western culture get from Shakespeare’s Caliban to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable? This essay examines that trajectory by consider six imaginative works: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Forster’s A Passage to India, Faulkner’s Light in August, Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Cosby Show. The focus is on the projective dynamics of racisim where the racial Other is made to express feelings and desires that the dominant culture denies.
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The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery. . . . For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
– Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
There’s a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can’t tell whether he’s coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats–you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. . . Another thing, if we were just like dogs, then all the rotten things they have done and are doing to us would be okay!
– Clifford Yancy, in John Langston Gwaltney, Drylongso
Introduction: A Universe of Symbols
Each culture has a universe of symbols through which its members understand themselves and one another. We use these symbols to elaborate our mental world and to communicate with one another, for symbolism gives graphic and linguistic form to our feelings and desires. The olive branch and white dove of peace, the blood-red planet Mars betokening war, the serpent of wisdom, or of life and healing, are examples of such symbols. American society is culturally diverse. While all Americans may share some symbols–perhaps the American flag, the Thanksgiving turkey–other symbols belong to specific cultures. Each subculture has its own symbolic universe, with its own symbols.
European-American culture includes a vast network of symbols, a network in which African-Americans have played, and continue to play, an important role. The way whites symbolize blacks has more to do with the hearts and minds of whites than it does with black reality. Thus if we are to understand the role that black culture has played in the development of general American culture, we will need to understand the role that white culture has already assigned to blacks. The subject is vast, but we don’t need to survey it all in order to get the lay of the land. A few examples will serve. Continue reading