Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Georgia Prisons: Locked Down for Liberty

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a short piece for a book about an underground newspaper collective I used to belong to back in the early 1970's. The paper was originally called the Penal Digest International and was touted as "the voice of the prisoner." The collective was also the base for the National Prison Center, the National Prisoners' Coalition, and the Church of the New Song, all of which get mentioned here and there on the internet still, but not very correctly and mostly pretty negatively, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the Church of the New Song managed to win its suit against the prison system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anyway, in the process of writing, I was caused to take a walk down memory lane and I'm having trouble finding my way back.

One reason is that, as I point out in the piece I wrote, I never really left the "prison abolition movement" even when I burned to a crisp and walked away from the PDI et al. During that time and ever since, I've written letters to the editor, newspaper columns and articles, and spoken at every opportunity on what prisons are and what they represent in a country that uses them to push a White Supremacist and reactionary political agenda as a capitalist enterprise.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dr. Ron Walters Passes the Torch



A few days ago, I was informed that, on September 10th of this year, while I was busy, busy, busy and paying little if any attention to the outside world, a preeminent leader and scholar, a lovely and humble man, and a man who affected me greatly in the short, but intense time we spent in each other's company, left me -- and the rest of us -- behind to muddle through without him in the world.

Dr. Ron Walters spent 25 years as a professor and chairman of the political science department at Howard University before going to the University of Maryland, where he directed the African-American Leadership Institute. He also taught at Syracuse and Princeton Universities, was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a former member of the governing council of the American Political Science Association and a member of the Ralph Bunche Institute at City University of New York’s Graduate School and University Center. He played a principle role in both of Jesse Jackson's ground-breaking runs for the Presidency. He wrote a string of books and articles examining with elegant clarity such issues as how a Black Presidential campaign might be victorious (as it was while he was thankfully here to see his ideas successfully implemented). And he socially and intellectually reproduced himself for decades wherever he made an appearance to teach, to speak, to organize or to learn -- because he was always learning.

So, how did someone like me in the wilderness of Louisiana get to spend three-days straight with such a person? I was introduced to Dr. Walters on a poverty tour of the Mississippi Delta organized by Gathering of Hearts founders Antoinette Harrell and Inez Soto-Palmarin in February of 2009. It didn't really make a dent when I was told in passing he was going to be there. In all honesty, I didn't even know who he was and was only introduced when we were already in the SUV on the road.

Antoinette had engineered the five-hour trip north to make sure Dr. Walters, she and I would be riding in the same vehicle. And the more we talked, the more I realized I was in the presence of a truly great intellect, even without reading his bio first (which I most certainly would have done had I fully realized the position I was going to be in). The way it was, I wound up spending most of the next three days studiously nodding in silence, gasping with astonishment at his bold analysis and straight-forward statements, or running my mental legs off trying not to fall flat on my face in comparison -- often on live radio.

We were up late, rose early, went without breakfast, grabbed food as possible, stood interminably in the rain, and proceeded from one planned activity to another without pause or (it seemed at the time) consideration. Yet Dr. Walters, who was years older than me and was, I suspect now, already gravely ill, never complained, never flagged, never missed a cue to be attentive or reach out graciously to those we were "visiting," and never failed to amaze when the mic was live.

Not only did he rise to the occasion himself, but he inspired me to stay strong, focused and effective, as well. His public statements were so blatantly and urgently honest that they forced me to new heights of honesty and urgency myself, which as those of you who know me can attest, is really saying something. Now, knowing that he died of cancer less than two years later and knowing the kind of fighter he surely must have been, I cannot but imagine that he was already very ill, standing there in the rain, which serves to teach me yet another lesson in dignity and purpose even now.

In any case, others who knew him better than me have weighed in here and here and here (and believe me, that's not even the tiniest tip of the iceberg). The YouTube video above tells the story of how and how long ago he started his odyssey to model unflinching commitment to justice. And the YouTube video below demonstrates how elegantly and pointedly he addressed even the thorniest of questions. If after seeing this post, you want more, you may be interested in viewing a longer presentation he made at Florida Atlantic University last year.

Beyond that, I just want to say here that I am proud to have shared a moment in time, a car seat, and a microphone with this brilliant and exemplary man. I could not on my best day hope to hold up by myself the torch he has passed on, but together, you and I and all of us who believe as he did -- that it's not enough to ponder, one must face reality, tell the truth, and act to bring about change -- can do him proud.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Free the Scott Sisters!

A few weeks ago, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald raised his voice about a case that has been crying for justice from coast to coast the last couple of years. It has to do with a pair of sisters in Mississippi (yes, I know, but that doesn't make it okay) who've already "served" more than fifteen years in prison for supposedly setting up a robbery that injured no one physically and netted a whopping $11 for the five people involved (that's two dollars apiece, folks). He wrote:

"Let’s assume they did it.

"Let’s assume that two days before Christmas in 1993, a 22-year-old black woman named Jamie Scott and her pregnant, 19-year-old sister Gladys set up an armed robbery. Let’s assume these single mothers lured two men to a spot outside the tiny town of Forest, Miss., where three teenage boys, using a shotgun the sisters supplied, relieved the men of $11 and sent them on their way, unharmed.

"Assume all of the above is true, and still you must be shocked at the crude brutality of the Scott sisters’ fate. You see, the sisters, neither of whom had a criminal record before this, are still locked away in state prison, having served 16 years of their double-life sentences.

"It bears repeating. Each sister is doing double life for a robbery in which $11 was taken and nobody was hurt. Somewhere, the late Nina Simone is moaning her signature song: Mississippi Goddam.

"For the record, two of the young men who committed the robbery testified against the sisters as a condition of their plea bargain. All three reportedly received two-year sentences and were long ago released. No shotgun or forensic evidence was produced at trial. The sisters have always maintained their innocence.

"Observers are at a loss to explain their grotesquely disproportionate sentence. Early this year, the Jackson Advocate, a weekly newspaper serving the black community in the state capital, interviewed the sisters’ mother, Evelyn Rasco. She described the sentences as payback for her family’s testimony against a corrupt sheriff. According to her, that sheriff's successor vowed revenge."
Want to know more? The best rundown I've seen to date was written by Richard Prince and published on Black Agenda Report.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Every once in a while, in the process of everyday life, you can run across a combination so pretty, so beguiling, so talented, sophisticated and smart that all you can do is kick back and grin. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have that effect on me. Even if you don't like "country" music, you really owe it to yourself to open your mind for just long enough to watch this YouTube video. These folks make me glad mine isn't the last generation.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

"Tis The Season To Be Jolly


Ho! Ho! Ho! And a Meeeerry Christmas! Maybe the economy is shot to hell, but even the Aryan Brotherhood is in a festive mood this holiday season. Still, I can't help but wonder what kind of human(?) mind wakes up one snowy morning in early December and says, "I think I want to build a snowman that looks like a KKKlansman on his way to a lynching!"

AOL calls it "weird news," but Mark Elieseuson of Hayden, Idaho (near the old Aryan Nations National Headquarters -- why am I not surprised?) was quoted as saying he doesn't get why it was a problem. That was right after the police informed him that he either had to knock it down or be arrested for "creating a public nuisance," which covers things "offensive to the senses."

Flipping the switch is easy on this one. Can you imagine what the cops would have done if a Black man in Detroit put a snowman out in front of his house with a sign reading "Kill Whitey"? Uh-huh. No question about it. That's why jails have basements.

Anyway, Bubba...er...Mark knocked the snowman's head off and took the noose back into his garage, I would assume, since you can see the garage walls covered in the photo below with what I must imagine are garish white power flags. Wotta guy! I wish he was MY neighbor. Come to think of it, I live in Louisiana and he -- or somebody very like him -- probably is. Sigh.

In any case, since this guy obviously wants so desperately to be noticed, some would suggest that the best way to handle the situation is to ignore him. I think not. I think he and all the others like him should be taken very, very seriously. They mean harm to the rest of us. So it's important for them to stay clearly identified.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Buika: My One and Only Love



I've been away. As you can tell. Away in my heart. And with my heart. I tried to be in love with someone besides My Work. And it didn't work. Why am I not surprised? He wasn't.

But I'm back. The next two weeks are the last two of the semester. So I may be here or not. But you will be hearing from me shortly and much, much, much.

In the meantime, to remind you that I do, in fact, despite any message my absence sent, love you all and this blog more than I can say, I'm posting a new find: a woman born to African immigrants on the island of Mallorca and named Buika who was recently introduced to many of us in the U.S. by National Public Radio. In the YouTube clip above, she performs with trumpet virtuoso Terell Stafford.

Friday, September 10, 2010

So What If I'm Crazy? by Ruth C. White

At the risk of appearing to poke my nose in other folks' family business, I'm going to post here today a short piece by Ruth C. White, an African-American social worker and professor who has something to say to the Black community that I have thought for years needed to be said. With all the stereotypes African-Americans have to confront on a daily basis, no matter how "well-adjusted" they appear to be, I can only imagine what the fear of outing oneself as having a mental illness on top of everything else must be like. Additionally, White Supremacy encourages African-Americans to see as "crazy" what are, in fact, reasonable concerns about and responses to institutionalized oppression. So it must be very hard to figure out just what is what. Nevertheless, my experience has been that what I won't face WILL smack me in the back of the head at some point. With that in mind, I present:

So What If I'm Crazy?

by Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW

I am a strong African American woman: The kind that aced two challenging concurrent grad school programs while pregnant, spent years of duty as a single, professional mother thousands of miles from family, backpacked alone through Central America in my 40’s, soloed up 6000+ft mountains, worked as a social worker with challenging populations in Canada, the USA and the UK, rode the rapids of the White Nile in a tiny kayak and on a big rubber raft, got tenure, and started a highly successful maternal and child health project in Africa. I’ve earned a cape and a big ‘S’ on my chest.

I am an African American woman with a brain disorder – aka mental illness (specifically manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder). I have spent time in a mental health treatment facility, will probably need medication for a lifetime, and have spent many hours in a therapist’s office. I’ve got a whole professional team that works with me to keep me sane.

I used to be ashamed and secretive of the reality described in the previous paragraph but proud of the life described in the first. Now it’s an integrated whole. I know that taking off the cape and stripping my chest of the ‘S’ doesn’t make me any less of a strong African American woman. Superhero status is not required. I cannot save the world and sometimes I’m the one that needs saving.

Like many people I once felt that having a mental illness was a sign of personal weakness. As a mental health professional I spent lots of time convincing people otherwise, but when it was my turn I felt that going to the psychiatrist was a sign of failure. I tried running, acupuncture, yoga, Chinese herbs, meditation – anything but get ‘mainstream’ medical attention. I did not want to go to a psychiatrist because,“ Nothing is wrong with me. I’m not crazy!”.

I had no issue with going to the dentist, gynecologist, or orthopedist. Like many African Americans I stigmatized mental illness in a way we do not stigmatize obesity, diabetes, hypertension and so many other chronic and life-threatening illnesses. We will take pills to lose weight or lower our blood pressure but not to get or stay mentally well.

According to the mythology that surrounds the strength of African Americans, ‘falling apart’ is just not something we do. We survived the Middle Passage, slavery, racial oppression and economic deprivation. We know how to “handle our business”, “be a man”, or “be a woman”. We see therapy as the domain of ‘weak’, neurotic people who don’t know what ‘real problems’ are. Instead, to deal with our psychic pain we eat our way into life-threatening obesity, excessively use alcohol and drugs, and act-out violently through word and deed, but we do not go crazy.

Because being ‘crazy’ means you can’t handle life and in our story of who we are, we are survivors who can handle anything,; which means we do what we have to do to survive. But this does not usually include a trip to the mental health professional of our choice. It is time to add this to our survival toolkit.

Is it really better to be a drug addict, obese with high blood pressure and diabetes, or be verbally/physically/emotionally violent to those around us, instead of seeking help for that which troubles us so deeply that we choose to self-destruct - though perhaps not in the stereotypical idea of what suicide looks like to us? I don’t think so.

At some point we must stop worrying what other people are going to think and get about the business of getting well and moving forward with our lives.

So how do African Americans begin to eliminate the stigma of mental illness so that we can get the help we need sooner rather than later, and support those who need it?

1. Talk about it. Don’t whisper or gossip about it. Talk about it at the BBQ. From the pulpit. On TV. On the radio. With our doctors. With our loved ones. If we can talk about our ‘sugar’ and our ‘pressure’, then we should be willing to talk about our depression.

2. Support each other in getting help. We send friends to the doctor for the nagging back pain so send them to get relief from their mental and emotional pain too. And don’t forget to ask them how they are doing as time passes; they need friends more than you know.

3. Let us not stigmatize the brain. It is attached to the body so mental illness IS a physical illness, especially as chemical imbalances are at the root of their expression. Furthermore, the biochemical impacts of a brain disorder are felt throughout the whole body, not just in the brain.

4. Say, “This person HAS a mental illness”, NOT “This person IS mentally ill”. We do not say, “That person IS cancerous”. Words have power.

5. Acknowledge that those who survive a brain disorder are as much survivors as family and friends who survive life-threatening diseases. Understand that we work just as hard to stay sane as the addict does to stay sober. As cancer or addiction go into remission so too do brain disorders.

6. Support people who share their stories of brain disorders. It is time to show that the faces and lives of African Americans with a mental illness are not just the faces and lives of the homeless person talking to the unseen. It is my face and my life; and the faces and lives of so many other men and women like me.

7. Advocate for accessible and affordable, culturally appropriate mental health services.

“Coming out” requires courage. Like any other consciousness-raising process, a range of role models that represent a variety of experiences with mental illness will change perceptions. As a community we have lists of accomplished African Americans to inspire us in our various endeavors. We need a list of African Americans with mental illness who have survived and thrived.

No doubt due to the stigma, it was difficult to find names of well-known African Americans with a “‘confirmed“‘ history of mental illness – and this is no place for innuendo or rumor-mongering. So I will start this list with me: My name is Ruth White and I have manic depression. I am a mother, poet, researcher, writer, kayaker, hiker, traveler, professor, swimmer, and as sane and happy a person as you would ever want to meet. My brain disorder does not define who I am.
______________________________________________________
NOTE: Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW is associate professor of social work at Seattle University in Seattle, WA and the co-author of Bipolar 101: A practical guide to identifying triggers, managing medications, coping with symptoms and more (New Harbinger Publications, 2009) Her blog on how to live successfully with mental illness can be found at Bipolar 101.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Damian Jenkins, R.I.P.

A week ago Thursday a little after noon, an eighteen-year-old African-American boy climbed up the football stadium bleachers and over a chain link fence at Franklinton High School here in Louisiana and jumped thirty-five feet to his death. He was always dressed to a t. The starting center on the varsity basketball team. A jokester. The class clown, some said. And described by one of my students (who had classes with him last year before she graduated and came to college) as "just SO nice to everybody all the time." And now Damian Demario Jenkins is dead.

I got an email about it the morning after the event occurred. Questions were being asked. The word was out that Damian had wound up in the Vice Principal's office for cutting in the lunch line. What happened there is, of course, a matter of conjecture. But folks are saying that the Vice Principal told Damian he would never amount to anything, that he was always going to be a nobody. The way it's told, Damian responded, "Well, if that's the way you feel, I might as well just go out and kill myself." And moments later, he did just that, over the objections of a friend who tried to stop him.

Needless to say, the family wants an investigation. They want to know if the school administrator made such a statement. And I don't blame them. Though I've also heard that Damian had problems at home, as well. And if that's true, he might have been especially vulnerable to an authority figure's verbal attack.

Still, the Vice Principal is White. Damian was Black. And Franklinton has had a running dialogue on an internet forum for the last two years under the title, "How racist is the town of Franklinton?" Why am I not surprised?

In any case, the latest addition to the story is that, at a memorial service at the school, a woman who also lost her son called out to him, saying, "If Damian is okay and with you, send a rainbow." And the result is all over the internet. Which makes for a lovely ending. I guess.

Except that, according to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the third largest cause of death for African-American males ages 15 to 24 and the rate has doubled since 1980. Why is that, I wonder? I write much on this blog that paints a very dark picture of the life chances for people of color under the default position of White Supremacy in the U.S. I actually had a Black student write me a note last semester, saying "Lighten up on us. Most Black students know how bad it is out there."

But do most Black students know it's bad out there NOT because they're a "nobody," but because that's the okey-doke, that's the way it's been set up to keep them "in their place"? I've been thinking a lot about this lately because I'm priming up to do an event on our campus in a couple of weeks on retention of minority (read: Black) students. From what I've been told, overall, six out of ten of our Black students never graduate from our institution and only two of ten Black males finish their degrees before leaving.

The fact is, I would argue, that they don't quit school or choose to die because someone else is going to make it hard for them. They quit school or choose to die because they suspect deep in their souls -- in the face of all contrary evidence -- that they really are lacking the most basic kind of worth. They're bombarded from birth, every time they come into contact in any way with the White world that surrounds them on all sides, with the idea that they somehow missed the boat by being born Black. That they are less than. That no matter how hard they try, they do not deserve to succeed because they don't have what it takes. That they are hopeless.

Psychologists call it "stereotype threat," the fear that you will be judged and found wanting because you're perceived to fit the steretypes you've always heard others apply to your ethnic group. This is quintessentially tidy for those with the power to define and their attendant academic lackeys who always seem to find ways to make institutionalized oppression the problem -- and the responsibility -- of the oppressed. It's not that the White Power Structure WANTS him to see himself as incapable, you understand, it's that he erroneously sees himself this way. So you explain to him that the exam is fair or that he can really get the job and he'll do fine. Or not.

On the other hand, I see the problem as the result of infecting Black children (and most especially Black boys) at a very young age with the virus of internalized racism, a vision of oneself as so flawed -- because of the skin tone with which you were born -- that no amount of effort or talent or style or intelligence can ever make it right. The only hope, then, is in telling them the truth: that the locus of the problem is not deep in their souls, but deep in the psyche of those with the power to define White as human and all else, at bottom, an unfortunate failure to be...well...White.

It is a brutal vaccination. But when they get it and it really sinks in, their heads raise, the terrible sorrow leaves their eyes, and a joy I would do anything to see creeps up into their faces. Soon, of course, they find their rage and that is a delicate moment. But they finish school and they don't self-destruct and I, for one, think we have no other choice.

Friday, September 03, 2010

A Narrative About A Narrative

Time is an interesting thing. First of all, of course, it's one more of those social constructions. I mean, it didn't exactly come as part of the life-on-Earth starter kit. There was most certainly, I would imagine, a period early on when humans just lived in the moment. Indigenous people living traditionally still do, from what I understand. But as for us, we wear watches and calibrate gestation and are interminable consumers of calendars which all become obsolete annually. We wear time like spandex, allowing it to constrain us and demand of us lest it leave us, somehow, inexplicably, behind.

The fact is, though, that frustrating as all this often is, it is quite interesting sometimes to consider our and other people's lives in the temporal context, juxtaposing them to see where they meet or influence each other. For example, in 1970, when Angela Davis was arrested in New York City, I was in San Francisco, stretching my wings as a radical and absolutely unaware of her. How could I have been unaware of her?

In any case (unbeknownst to me), she was on the cover of Life magazine that summer and now, a copy of that cover hangs on my home office wall between a photo of the Angola 3 and a painting of a woman Zapatista. She's one of my heroes. And today, I'm reviewing her presentation of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself, brought out this year -- forty years after her arrest -- by City Lights, the highly respected San Francisco publishing house. It's a veritable kaleidoscope of magical coincidences, is it not? But I'm not finished yet.

See, this exact date in 1838 was the day Frederick Douglass broke through to freedom, escaping his bonds on his second try, at the age of twenty or so (he couldn't know for certain). Asked what it felt like to be free that day, Douglass wrote to a friend, "I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil."

And so, I approach this task -- a simple review of the book -- with just such a lack of confidence that I can possibly communicate what I think of a book with so many reference points for me.

I could try to be "critical" and point out the obvious. Like the fact that the first ninety-six pages of the book are made up of an editor's note, an introduction by Davis, an introduction to a presentation of two lectures by Davis in 1969, the lectures themselves, William Lloyd Garrison's preface to the original publication of the Douglass' narrative, and a letter from Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass upon the original publication of the narrative in 1845. And frankly, that was a bit much for me. Maybe it shouldn't have been or maybe I shouldn't admit it. Maybe I was overtired (I was) and hot (it is Louisiana here). But whatever, until I reached The Narrative, I was somewhat distracted. Not enough not to read it all, you understand (well, all right, I didn't read ALL of Garrison's preface and I skipped Phillips' letter entirely), but I chalk that up to my shortcomings as an academic and a reader rather than as a fault of the manuscript. In fact, I can't believe I just told you all this. Good grief. Have I no shame?

And another thing that unnerved me somewhat was that in her two lectures delivered in 1969, Angela Davis (my hero, keep in mind) was talking all this high-falootin' theoretical analysis -- and she does that very well -- while using the pronoun "he" to refer to everyone human. Davis writes in her introduction: "[T]oday I find it...somewhat embarrassing to realize that my UCLA lectures on Douglass rely on an implicitly masculinist notion of freedom" and admits that it was during her time in prison that she "began to recognize the fundamental importance of developing gender analyses," but she doesn't specifically mention the blatant use of language that we were virtually all raised using, but which I found so jarring for some reason, possibly because I held her -- unreasonably, I guess -- to a different standard. I respect that she didn't "fix" the language the way some theorists (such as the famous liberationist Paulo Freire) have done. But still. I'm just sayin' is all.

Now don't get me wrong. When Davis writes: "[T]he master feels himself free...because he is able to control the lives of others...The slave understands that this is a pseudo concept of freedom and at this point is more enlightened than his master for he realizes that the master is a slave of his own misconceptions, his own misdeeds, his own brutality, his own effort to oppress," I am undone. Davis' brilliance and erudition are clear throughout, demonstrating a command of language and facility with philosophical thought that often reaches rapier level. I read: "The first phase of liberation is the decision to reject the image of himself that the slave-owner has painted, to reject the conditions that the slave-owner has created, to reject his own existence, to reject himself as slave." And I want to put the lines on a billboard.

Davis' clarity and logic is perfect when she writes: "How could the master have been independent when it is the very institutions of slavery that provided his wealth, that provided his means of sustenance? The master was dependent...for his life on the slave...If the slave were not there to till the land, to build his estates, to serve him his meals, the master would not be free from the necessities of life. If he had to do all the things that the slave does for him, he would be just as much in a state of bondage as the slave...[I]t is the slave who possesses the power over the life of the master; if he does not work, when he ceases to follow orders, the master's means of sustaining himself has disappeared."

And goodness' knows, I remember well what works in progress we all were in the 1960's and 1970's. Davis remains and will remain one of my heroes. But it is nevertheless true that it was unsettling to read in this volume that even she had not yet developed (in 1969) a consciousness about this particular patriarchal conditioning.

Having said all this, however, let me now proceed to brandish a grateful salute in Davis' direction for shining the spotlight on Frederick Douglass' absolutely remarkable narrative of his life as a slave. Having embarrassed myself already by pointing out a hero's foible, I must embarrass myself yet again by admitting that I had never read Douglass' work before this.

*Cringe*

And I was mesmerized.

Now, if you are a regular reader, you know that I have at least something of a clue about the socially-constructed, political notion of race and the history of race relations over the past few hundred years. Some of my students are convinced that I think about little else (and they are only wrong in that I sometimes think about gender relations). But Douglass dragged me limping and aghast through the brier patch of slavery and I am the better for it. His accounts of beatings make the Roots television series look mild-mannered. And his detailed descriptions of slave-holders' ways and the anguish of slaves' souls are equally garish.

I highlighted so many lines in the narrative that I hardly know how to find any quotes to include here. But how about this discussion of slaves singing on their way to the "Great House" to pick up their monthly fare for an example?

"While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness...They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone...They told a tale of woe...[T]hey breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains...Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds...I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness...The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."

When Douglass' master instructed his wife not to teach Douglass to read because it would make him unfit to be a slave, Douglass committed himself to learn to read or die, but having done so, he discovered the skill to be a two-edged sword.

"The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men...I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me...The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness...It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm."

Eventually, Douglass was "put out" to be broken by a man with a proud reputation for the success rate of his brutality and, according to the narrative, the man was as successful with Douglass as he had been with others.

"We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him...Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!"

Ultimately, however, Douglass won, refusing to allow the "nigger-breaker" (as he was called) to beat him yet again and putting the man in a position to have to hide Douglass' belligerance rather than to publicly admit his defeat at the hands of a sixteen-year-old boy.

Then, on September 3rd, 1838, after returning to his legal master, Douglass put on a sailor's garb and quietly walked away. He ends the book clarifying his perspective on the practice of the so-called Christianity he had been forced to witness during his life as a young slave. Not only is this my favorite part of the whole book, but it occurs to me now that I end my own book on race with a discussion of Christianity's lack of discomfort with institutionalized oppression in the name of racism and I am pleased that I followed Douglass in that. But Douglass does it better.

"[B]etween the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference -- so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked...I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity."

And he's barely warmed up there on his way to what he really has to say about the subject. But you'll have to get the book to read that.

The bottom line is that Frederick Douglass' narrative should be required reading for every person in the United States. But more to the point, it should be on the bookshelf in every home in America. The passion, the beauty, and the truth of Douglass' work is such that it calls into question not only the peculiar institution of slavery, but the ongoing acceptance of White Supremacy as the default position in this nation today. His argument is irrefutable. And Angela Davis' wisdom in exposing the unaware to this man and her analysis of his work at this time in history deserves, in my opinion, to be recognized and appreciated. If Frederick Douglass had not escaped his chains, this narrative would probably not exist. On the other hand, if Angela Davis and City Lights had not blessed us with this edition, many (like me) would remain ignorant of its magnitude.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Party Over Here!

They say (whoever the heck they are) that there's nothing new under the sun. And I -- like most other "adults" (whatever the heck that means) -- have pretty much long decided that this is true.

We shuffle through life (or tear through it, as I am often wont to do) shrugging at one unsurprising situation after another. And then one Saturday morning, while visiting friends in Lafayette, Louisiana, you wind up at the Cafe' des Amis and suddenly, all bets are off.

As many of you know, I moved to Louisiana three years ago and embarked on an adventure that, at the time, had me scared, quite frankly, half to death. I was SO scared, I took the "Eracism" bumper sticker off my car (for fear my inveterate mouth -- both in and out of the classroom -- would get my tires deflated or my car keyed). I was SO scared, I stuck to the lit roads after dark and made it a point not to make eye contact with young White men hotrodding their big trucks down main streets. And I was SO scared (I swear), that I even admitted my fear to a couple hundred Black men and women at a community event early on, talking about how concerned I was that I'd wind up being found out in the woods somewhere sooner rather than later. I have no idea what they thought at the time. And I have, in fact, lived up to my reputation as a rabble-rouser, so maybe now some of them get why I was scared.

But the bottom line is that, while I didn't wind up (yet) being found out in the woods, I have seen and heard plenty that I expected to see and hear. And most especially, a marked lack of social interaction between Blacks and Whites.

Oh, they work together and they wait on each other at Walgreen's. They stand in line together at the DMV counter and sit interminably together in doctors' offices and, to a lesser degree, in church. They'll second line together in New Orleans in a heart beat. And some of them even go to the same schools. But overall, African-Americans and their White counterparts don't socialize more informally much at all. And there's almost a phobia about actually touching.

As a matter of fact, the phobia about touching is so marked, I always make it a point to touch the hand of every Black worker who hands me change. It's a small thing, but I can only imagine the kind of training that goes into producing the knee-jerk practice of carefully laying the coins in the middle of the bills so that there's no actual skin contact. Sigh. And I don't play that.

Anyway, I said all this to help set the stage for my shock and surprise when I entered the bustling Cafe' des Amis to the rollicking sounds of a great Zydeco band -- Joe Hall and the Louisiana Cane Cutters -- whose six members, by the way, represented a range of skin tone themselves. Not only were there wait staff moving through the crowd like ants before an incoming storm and tables loaded with diners relishing the Louisiana-delicious breakfast fare, but the room was fairly vibrating with energy as a sizable dance floor literally rocked with dancers old and young, male and female, Black and yes, my Faithful Readers, White. Together. Laughing and get-ting down.

One Black guy was wearing a t-shirt that declared "I'm here to party," while a White guy leaning against the wall with a frosty Abita beer in his hand (at breakfast, remember) wore one sporting a "Save our coast" message. A couple sitting just in front of me were dressed in motorcycle gear. The woman behind me was wearing serious cowboy boots. And everybody was dancing with everybody.

And I'm not just talking "dancing" here, like kids did on American bandstand. I'm talking full tilt boogie Zydeco. The floor was jammed and the folks were jammin'. (Don't get discouraged at the Whiteness right at first. Just keep watching and you'll see what I mean.)

So, I guess I've seen it all now. Right here in Louisiana. I didn't think it was possible. But if we can do it in the heart of the Southland, folks, we can do it anywhere.

One mo' gin, Joe!

Joe Hall, Lafayette, LA: Phone 337-780-1769

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NOTE: I'm having trouble cutting, pasting and embedding today. Sorry.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity

Okay, so here's the situation: a White woman of a certain age (that would be me) watches a film made by a young White man (that would be Robert A. Clift) about how African-Americans in the hip-hop scene feel about White people who appropriate Black hip-hop images and rap, while claiming they do it for the love of the art form.

With me so far?

It's a complicated dance, made much more complicated by Clift's insistance on leaving no stone unturned. If there's a Black person in hip-hop out there who didn't speak into Clift's microphone, I can't imagine who it was. From DJ Cool Herc to Russell Simmons and beyond, they weigh in one after another without apology, rooted in analysis by a range of heavy thinkers both Black (such as poet-activist Amiri Baraka and the well-known and controversial comedian Paul Mooney) and White (such as Maurice Berger, historian at The New School in New York City and John Leland, author of Hip: the History). Then, to make sure our brains are really fried, Clift adds White rappers -- professional and otherwise, serious and comedic; teen-aged White "wiggers;" White Al Jolson fans; and even Stephen Foster, who is quoted as saying he wanted to be the greatest Ethiopian songwriter of all time (try processing that, why don't you?). If the film wasn't so mesmerizing, it would be utterly overwhelming.

And as you watch the film, which debuted on public television last December 19th, you don't get a minute to catch your breath either. I've watched it four times now, twice with other people and one of those times being with a student of mine who is a knowledgeable young man on the topic of hip-hop history and culture. Rather than this repeated exposure clarifying what I think about the film and its topic, however, each subsequent viewing has left me more disturbed -- and more impressed -- than I was before.

I could shrug my shoulders and beg off by citing my age, my race and my class. After all, how many women like me have a clue about hip-hop in general, let alone an ability to speak intelligently about its nuances and cultural implications?

But you know me better than that. I love to learn. Especially about the socially-constructed, political notion of race. And if I can't learn it all at once, I'll keep chipping away at it until I at least understand more than I did at the beginning. (That's why I called in my student, who graciously agreed to "school" me, knowing it would be, at best, an uphill battle.)

If four viewings, a one-on-one lecture on the backstory, and thirteen pages of notes haven't prepared me to approach this review with confidence, though, why should you rush right out to view and/or buy* "Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity"? Because if you don't, you've missed it. You're out of the loop. And the finest possible examination of one of the most fascinating questions of our age will have passed you by. But it's up to you.


The fact is White people have apparently always cuddled up to Black folks' culture. Even while darkies were still on the plantations, minstrels were traveling around the country "entertaining" other White people in blackface. More recently, Gauguin and Picasso boldly demonstrated their appreciation for things Black. Hugely popular radio stars Amos and Andy were, in truth, White men pretending to be Black. And Irving Berlin wrote so many of what were called "coon songs," it was said he must have had a little Black boy in a closet somewhere. On this note, by the way, I was horrified to finally realize in a blinding flash of the obvious that "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown" (a popular song sung around many a campfire when I was but a girl) was blatantly racist. Duh. (One can only wonder what Black girl scouts sing.)

And this is the kind of thing that makes "Blacking Up" such an experience to view. Clift offers no easy answers and no get-out-of-jail-free cards. Articulate, well-meaning White folks candidly confide in Clift their heartfelt attachments to a cultural milieu of which they cannot claim any part. And their yearning writhes before us like a worm on a sidewalk, out of place and hyper-visible in its vulnerability. They not only love the music/the art/the artifice of rap, they could not (it would seem) walk away from it in any case, no matter how they are criticized, ridiculed or punished for espousing it so publicly.

Clift admits that he was himself called a "wigger" (putting "White" and the n-word together to describe a White person who wants to be Black) when he was thirteen or so, causing him to rip the page from his yearbook. It was this memory and his desire to make sense of his feelings about it that urged him to take on what ultimately became a very ambitious project. Clift didn't just seek out an adequate number to address "each side" of the issue. He somehow identified and included so many shades of perspective that some truly famous people only appear for one short quote. And yet, the tapestry of topical consideration is such that, rather than attempt to convince the viewer of anything in particular, the film outlines and presents a set of ideas simultaneously contradictory and complementary. In other words, it's sophisticated, fearless and in many ways, downright genius in its scope and treatment.

Comedian Paul Mooney kicks things off by pointing out that the White man stole Africans from Africa, so stealing culture from the Africans themselves is no new thing. And Amiri Baraka asks, "If Elvis Presley is king, who's James Brown -- God?" Hip-hop is a way for White people to "be 'hood'" without having to actually do any of the things that earn that right, suggests Power of the Wu-Tang Clan. White people trying to present themselves in what amounts to a modern day form of blackface, adds Mooney, is nothing less than a form of insanity. White "aggression junkies" that were formerly into heavy metal, posits author and cultural critic Nelson George, jumped on the hip-hop bandwagon when it rolled by. "White people should educate White people as to what's going on," asserts rapper M1 of Dead Prez, in giving props to filmmaker Clift and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's commitment to air "Blacking Up."

Then we change skin tones. "Lots of folks are looking for a license to be masculine," counters John Leland (and being allowed to say "bitch" apparently satisfies this for some of them). "I didn't want to be Black," says Andrea Van Winkle, caught in the middle of a White-on-White "race riot" in a Morocco, Indiana, high school in 1993, "I wanted to be cool." "I love Star Wars, but I've never been to space," points out White rapper Aesop Rocks. "We're not just taking; we're giving something back," claims Too White Crew, who call themselves a "tribute" band. "I don't want a box," declares White woman rapper Empire Isis who performs with another White woman in New York City using exaggerated Caribbean accents, "I want a world. It's about letting go of how you perceive identity."

See what I mean?

Still, Amiri Baraka grounds the exploration in his comments throughout the film. Reminding the viewer that White people and Black people have been blending bloodlines since the earliest days of this nation, he suggests that it can all be reduced to something James Baldwin once said: "I'm Black because you're White." In other words, he goes on to say, the working class has been separated through the use of institutionalized racism so we are no threat to the real Powers-That-Be, but we keep feeling the connections, whether we understand them or not.

Nelson George adds, "Black people grew up on this music, but they've always been uncomfortable with certain aspects of it. Now, Whites mimic it under the banner of 'entertainment,' raising the level of Black discomfort. This culture teaches us to like and consume, but not really hear."

My student -- a young man of color who often gets taken for White -- uses the web identity Defiant on his blog and has been involved in the music scene himself as an accomplished musician and rapper since his mid-teens. After bringing me up to speed on the history of hip-hop and "rhythm-applied poetry" (or "rap"), he added his two cents without a flinch.

"Rap is about authenticity," he began. "It's about being real. So White people who grew up in the suburbs and want to talk about the 'hood' are posers. You'll notice, they perform 'Black,' but then in interviews, typically sound 'White.' They use hip-hop as a commodity that can be discarded at will when it's no longer useful to them. It's not part of their past and it's most likely not part of their future either."

"Eminem," Defiant went on, "took rap and sold it to White people. He's a good writer, but who does he represent? Himself and the rich White executives who backed him when he came out of the suburbs. Mimicking is either making fun of something or commodifying it. Some say it's a form of flattery, but nobody likes being mimicked."

Paul Mooney, as quoted in "Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity," would, I think, agree. He likes it that White people who seemed so dead-set against having Black people in their neighborhoods, now have children who have become walking advertisements for all aspects of Black culture. Still, he's adamant: "When White people get chased by the police and shot in the back just for being White, then they can do all the hip-hop they want."

Until that time, I guess, we can at least watch Clift's film. If we have the nerve and the willingness to face one more difficult and complicated reality related to race relations in America.
_____________________________________________________
NOTE: This film is available from California Newsreel.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Blitz the Ambassador: Something to Believe

I'm getting ready to post -- finally, I might add -- my review of a documentary on hip-hop, race and identity. So, to prime the pump, as it were, I'm posting right now a video I just came across by an artist YouTube tipped me to. (Sometimes, there's something to be said for the way they target us with what we seem to want, huh?)

Anyway, let me introduce (if you're as clueless as I was) a most interesting young Ghanian man who raps as Blitz the Ambassador. And if you're as impressed as I was, then you might want to read this.

Enjoy.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is the White Man Superior to Jesus Christ?

As an old guard journalist who used to compose headlines while pasting up underground newspapers in the middle of the night back in the day, I'm a headline junkie. Sometimes, the headlines are all I read for a day or two. The headline's really gotta grab me fast or I move on.

So imagine the bells and whistles that exploded into third gear immediately when I read this one: "Americans still linking Blacks to apes".

Yeah.

I mean, I didn't know whether to read the article and risk being horrified and depressed -- not to mention feeling that I would then have to pass the link on to my Faithful Readers for them to be horrified and depressed -- or just hit the delete button and move on (only to return later in a rabid attempt to relocate the piece and then post the link). So I chose the former.

Yeah.

The Science Blog post tagged with the headline in question briefly outlines a multi-part study conducted over a six-year period by Stanford, Pennsylvania State, and University of California at Berkeley graduate students. Its findings are just as disappointing as I expected them to be. And why am I not surprised?

Apparently, many White Americans subconsciously associate Blacks with apes and are, therefore, more likely to condone violence against Black criminal suspects who are not seen as fully human. That certainly explains a lot of stuff, huh?

No wonder African-Americans often report feeling depressed and shame-ridden, no matter how successful they have become in U.S. society. As I explained a couple of weeks ago, the system of White Supremacy that benefits all White people all the time in one way or the other whether they notice or ask for it or not, means for Black people to feel that way. And one of the ways ordinary White folks participate in this madness is to not question their vague uneasiness with all things (and people) "Black."

White people -- or at least the vast majority of them -- swear there are "good reasons" for feeling some generalized negativity toward African-Americans. Then, when asked to elucidate, they pass the feelings off as connected to what "everybody knows" or some specific experience they had with one or two individuals or their family's attitudes when they were growing up or what they see all over the media on a daily basis. But when presented with research demonstrating how far wrong they are or how differently people of color are treated in the criminal just-us system, they brush off the facts in favor of what they want to cling to in any case. In fact, it's interesting to note just how often the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card is handed to White Supremacy at exactly the same moment some nameless Black guy gets handed a Go-Straight-to-Jail-Do-Not-Pass-Go-Do-Not-Collect-$200 card. And White folks want to complain about how tired they are of seeing the "race card" played...!

Keep in mind that the folks surveyed by these studies were White male undergraduate students born after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's so we're not talking about a throwback from some Neanderthal era when Brett and Scarlet tipped the light bombastic. We're talking about White folks who were raised, by and large, in schools that were supposed to be integrated (though not in my parish); White folks who grew up with the option to watch The Cosby Show (and what could be less stereotypical than a doctor and a lawyer living in a two million dollar brownstone in Manhattan?); White folks who were raised hearing Eminem get his "Black" on. So, whassssup? (Right?)

Nothing we didn't already know.

All this started back when Europeans were looking to bankroll the Industrial Revolution and establish themselves as God's chosen so they could convince themselves they were intended to dominate the world. The shortest distance between being a Wanna-be Rich White Person (or nation) and an Obscenely Rich White Person (or nation) conveniently presented itself in the form of the Middle Passage with millions of Africans crossing the Atlantic Ocean against their will and millions of dollars going back across in the opposite direction, winding up not surprisingly in the coffers of the ones who thought up White Supremacy in the first place.

European "religion," "law" and "culture" all played their roles tidily to justify and rationalize these practices. But "science" (the newest monster at the vampire buffet glorifying White skin) was, perhaps, the most lethal. The race-based theories of such "scientists" as Samuel George Morton, Josiah C. Nott, George Robins Gliddon, and Cesare Lombroso have now been resoundingly debunked. Still, they not only ruled the ideological roost in the field of "criminal justice" for nearly 150 years, but their ideas were key to deeply embedding two crucial concepts into our social institutions in general: that Whites are the highest embodiment of human evolution and that Blacks are not only inferior, but even bestial. Even as recently as 1970, for example, Time-Life released a volume on Early Man that carried within it the now famous illlustration at the top of this post, clearly portraying visually what Morton et al at least purported to believe to be true.

I use the word "purported" because, as a social scientist myself, I have never been able to get my brain around how somebody could muster the audacity to suggest that a specific group (of which they are a member, of course) is superior to all other groups and that this superiority is indicated by a characteristic such as skin tone -- when history so glaringly demonstrates otherwise. Further, I reject out of hand the rationality of anyone who would accept as objective knowledge the work of a "scientist" who has "proven" that his particular skin tone indicates superiority. I don't know who disgusts me more: Dr. Superior or his band of merry yes-people .

In any case, it seems to me that Morton, his followers, and those White male undergraduates surveyed for the studies now being discussed ignored an example that begs to differ with their grasp of human reality. You see, it's a matter of historical record that the man so many commonly refer to as Jesus the Christ was a man of color. In fact, the best computer drawing we have based on written accounts, Biblical and otherwise, portrays him this way:

Now, this isn't terribly problematic for people who believe that the story of Jesus parallels that of Horus, the Egyptian god, to a striking degree. And it doesn't matter, I'm sure, to anybody who isn't themselves a "Christian." But for those folks who simultaneously support the ideas of White Supremacy and Christianity (such as those hawking "Yup, I'm a racist" t-shirts at a recent Tea Party event), this could really present a dilemma. I'd sure like to hear how they explain that one.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How White Supremacy Works

Ever since I was interviewed on the C.O.W.S. radio show, I have been going deeper in my exploration of the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." I have been going deeper and learning more and examining more fearlessly and forgiving less of the damage that continues to be inflicted on people of color by the ideology of White Supremacy that operates like a rabid, raging bull in a shop full to bursting with the finest china. And I'm getting help in the way of opportunities to face more and deal with more, though definitely no freebies. I used to think I knew a thing or two, but these days, I feel increasingly like a wobbling toddler of an intellect (or whatever it is I see myself as being).

So it is with some considerable trepidation that I approach this particular post.

Last week, I got an email that read:

"I always condemn the media in my writing, but there are times where I'm so overwhelmed with the news when it concerns crime committed by blacks. Today is one of those times. I read about how a group of black men were beating up someone while being taped. I read how almost 20 gang members were netted, all of them black men.

A town near where I live has seen an increase in shootings, violence and other crimes over the past 3 years. Most of them involved young black males. I look at news like this, and despite my disdain for the news and how they project blacks, especially black men, I still feel intense shame, and it gets worse whenever more news about crimes committed by blacks surfaces. Then I start struggling with the issues. Sometimes I think that maybe there is something wrong with us. I struggle not to think like there is something wrong with blacks. I try to think about how the news tries to make one-dimensional stories of everything. I try to think that there must be some explanation behind all of this, but the shame seems so strong within me. I ask myself why; why us, and what is done or can be done to stop it other than the default response of putting more cops on the streets?

I know that those people must be held accountable, but what happened? What made it come to this? I hate to admit this, but there are times where I wish I was gone. I get so ashamed that I feel like just giving up, and that it will always be this way. I know it's silly to think this way, but when you're bombarded with news like the ones mentioned plus more, you wonder what's going on.

So, right now, I'm extraordinarily depressed, not to mention helpless as I don't know how to even approach this problem.

I try to avoid local news even though my family watches it. I avoid them whenever they watch the news because I expect the first 5-10 minutes to be about crime, and that they will either have mug shots of blacks or provide descriptions which will likely be described as young, black and male.

Despite knowing the economic, social, educational, and even historical factors that come into play, the shame is still prevalent even when I look for crimes committed by whites as a way of reassuring myself that it's not just blacks. I told my family about this once and they confessed they feel the same way. It's as if the media is purposely trying to make blacks look less-than-human with no remorse. It's like they want to show society how bad black people are regardless of how it makes blacks feel. The media will make excuses and shift the blame back onto us which helps it seem like there is something wrong with blacks.

I know there are people and programs doing what they can to save young blacks at risk, but even so, the shame caused by those who've lost their way continues. So, I ask why, why us, and why me alone in my room trying to make sense out of this nonsense?"

I was brought to a halt by this email. And despite pondering and asking for input and reading and poring over files and pondering some more, I still feel (appropriately, I think) overwhelmed by this man's question.

I have, of course, posted a number of times on some of these issues, even recently. But who am I, I ask myself, to even participate in any discussion of such gripping difficulty? I feel inadequate and insecure. And, I suspect, finally, appropriately, so. That is to say, perhaps it is about damn time.

In any case, I have been asked and I will offer what I can (so far). Hopefully, over time, I will either have more to offer or learn how to butt out, one or the other.

Let me begin by writing that I believe the Email Writer's response is EXACTLY the response the White Supremacist system is shooting for from African-Americans: self-doubt, desperation, helplessness, hopelessness, resignation, depression, shame and more shame. It isn't "silly" to feel those feelings. And it's not "LIKE they want to show society how 'bad' black people are regardless of how it makes blacks feel." It's they WANT African-Americans to feel crappy about being Black. It's a two-fer. White people get to see Black people as inferior, anti-social, dangerous, and 'bad' while seeing themselves as the opposite. And Black people register and virtually drown in feelings that these descriptors MUST be about them because, as the Email Writer suggests, the images actually "bombard" them from all sides continuously. The desired effect is for African-Americans to become convinced on a deep level, not that a system calculated to destroy them psychologically, emotionally and physically is "wrong," but that there MUST be something "wrong" with them.

Consequently, it's not that some poor African-American man (or boy or woman or girl or group) "lost their way." It's that they were herded off a cliff, a cliff reserved expressly for Black people, where the screams of the falling horrify and terrorize other Black people and the resultant carnage occurs at such a rate, it becomes virtually impossible to clean up the broken and bleeding psyches filling the Black community's waking dreams.

I use a concept in the classroom I call the "functional result." If one or more people knows perfectly well what the outcome of a situation is going to be and he, she or they do nothing to stop the process or change the outcome, then they might just as well have intended for the outcome to occur because the "functional result" is the same as if they had. If I know, for example, that the ceiling is dripping and I do nothing to trace the drip to its point of origin or stop it, then, when the ceiling falls in, I'm responsible. The result would have been the same if I had meant for the ceiling to cave in. It's that simple. And I no longer accept that White people in general mean well. It doesn't take a Ph.D. or a psychiatrist to know that what's being done to Black people is not only wrong, it's effective. James Baldwin said, "You can learn everything you need to know about race in America by asking a White man would he want to be Black."

So I'm laying your pain, Email Writer, at the door of White America, myself included. You have done nothing wrong. And even those who have, as you put it, "lost their way" have rather developed, I think, a condition sociologist Calvin Hernton discussed in his essay, "Dynamite Growing Out of Their Skulls" in the late 1960's. Hernton wrote in his unapologetic warning that if the population of the U.S. didn't stop tormenting African-Americans, it would be responsible for unleashing generations of young Blacks with "the psychology of the damned," the sense that there was nothing to discuss or negotiate because they would no longer feel they had anything left to lose.

And that, I would argue, is EXACTLY what we see reflected in the media. I come back to this theme over and over again. And have been thinking about it all anew this week while following the case of Dontae Rashawn Morris, who's been arrested for the murder of two police officers in Tampa, Florida, where I used to live before coming to Louisiana. Even if Morris committed the murders (and murder is ALWAYS a tragic event, not just when police officers are the victims), I am absolutely positive that his life has unfolded in ways that made the outcome inevitable in one way or another. It doesn't take Morris off the hook. But it does add us on there with him.

As Frantz Fanon wrote, "Torture rearranges the mind of the tortured." Which means that we are, just as Hernton warned, increasingly likely to see manifested in our society nightmares first visited on children of color and now, ultimately, returned to us, writhing like snakes hatched in ignorance and back to exact an unexpected karmic justice. "[T]he unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps," wrote Fanon further. And I would add to this the clarification that if we see the lazy, cowardly, "educated" class as White America disconnected from the mass of people of color in the U.S., then we might finally begin to recognize where the tragic "mishaps" (on both sides) are really coming from.

Add to all this a system guaranteeing that African-American men in particular will experience their access to jobs as greatly reduced and their likelihood of arrest as greatly enhanced and you have a self-fulfilling prophecy and social script engineered to produce a deepening morass of social issues mascarading as personal problems. Frost this ugly poisonous cake with a frothy mound of what has been called "historical unresolved grief syndrome" or "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome" (watch a YouTube video on the latter here) and you have the piece de resistance at the White Supremacist banquet.

"We are compelled to resolve," writes Toi Derricotte near the beginning of The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, "not only our personal wounds, but the wounds of our ancestors...Now I realize that the depression and fear of suicide that made me begin the work of this book was really a first re-memory of 'killing' voices from my childhood. It was like feeling returning in a limb that has been asleep...I often feel sad, guilty, frightened, and confused. Perhaps my anger isn't just about race. Perhaps it's..a way of dulling the edge of feelings that lie even deeper...What if that feeling of separation and distance from the 'other' is fear of being one with the self, a fear to take in emotionally the meaning of a part of the self that one is not yet ready to handle?"

"I am sure," continues Derricotte later in the book, "that years of conditioning in a society that blamed us for our own destruction -- they're animals, they don't deserve any better -- being aware of what power white people's thought has over our lives, made us feel especially vulnerable. If we controlled our anger, were kind, responsible, dressed in good clothes, drove expensive cars, racism would not affect us. But then there is always the story of the black middle-class doctor stopped in an all-white suburb because the police thought his car was stolen. It seems that many of the shames and desires of the black middle class had at their base a desire to change the perception of whites. This is not just a hangover from slavery, it is an accurate assessment of the danger in the world we live in today. Just about every black person I ever met has some tale of arbitrary cruelty."

Calvin Hernton outlined his agreement with this in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers when he wrote: "In all oppressive situations, it is deemed a virtue for the oppressed to identify with the world-view of the oppressors. The oppressed are 'praised' and 'rewarded' for loathing themselves and for admiring their oppressors; they are derided, made to feel ashamed, and are punished for embracing any ways they themselves might develop, and are instructed and forced to manifest allegiance to the ways of those who oppress them."

But Derricotte has something for this: "Whiteness has to be examined, addressed, not taken as 'normal.' White people have to develop a double consciousness, too, a part in which they see themselves as 'other.' We are all wounded by racism, but for some of us those wounds are anesthetized. When we begin to feel it, we're awake...If we don't recognize anger, if we don't allow for it, if we're not ready, if we don't, in fact, welcome it as a creative force, then I think we're going to end up blaming and dividing people even more...A black person and a white person are not just two individuals who have to decide whether they like each other; but representatives carrying huge expectations, beliefs that they must scale like dangerous mountains, trying to reach each other...Can whites begin to understand and take in the pain of this racist society? So often white people, when a deep pain with regard to racism is uncovered, want it to be immediately addressed, healed, released. Black people have had to live with the wounds of racism for generations. Even goodwill and hard work won't make the personal hurts cease. If this book has any purpose, it's to show the persistence of internal conflicts, of longing, shame, and terror. It represents a twenty-year obsession to observe myself when these feelings arise, rather than to deny or repress them. I have found that there is no cure. Perhaps awareness can give us a second to contain, so that we do not pass these damages on to others."

And finally, Derricotte writes about the terrible price of silence: "Our truths divide us. We fear speaking to each other, black and white, men and women, rich and poor. Yet it is possible to see the context, how we have all been the victims, how it has damaged us. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Of making things worse. Of proving that we really are as bad, stupid, or wrong as we suspect the other one thinks. Yet our silence makes us not trust our perceptions, not trust ourselves, and in the long run, it keeps us 'safe,' unthreatened, but stops the really important movement of change through us. The inner structures with all their defenses must tumble...What a terrible knowledge for our children. We close our mouths...We wait until they can take it. Or we say nothing and let them find out for themselves, slowly, as we found out, walking through the world, often alone...We say, 'I don't want to make them paranoid, to make them go around with a chip on their shoulders'...It is the silence that I fear more than anything, the pretense, the way it seems that, in the silence, suddenly some violence springs out that [appears to be] unconnected."

In his poem, Dark Heritage, Louisiana-native Marcus Christian reminds the reader:

“In times of stresses, wars and blasting storms
This one thing I shall evermore remember:
That all of the strength and the blood and the sweat of me --
That all of my longings, my sorrows, my hopes and my joys
Went into making this great land of ours;
That this is my land by the right of both God and of man --
That this is my land, wet with my own life's blood --
That it is enriched with the flesh and the bones of my fathers --
That this land is mine, grown big through my pain and sufferings;
That all I am today and ever shall be
Lies deeply buried in her plains and valleys,
Swamps, hills and mountains,
Meadows, lakes and streams.
I shall forever be a part of her
And she will always be a part of me.”

Theologian James Cone seemed to underscore Christian's sentiments decades later speaking with Bill Moyers on the relationship of the Christian cross to the lynching tree: "[W]hen you can express and articulate what's happening to you, you have a measure of transcendence over it. It gives you speech. It gives you self-definition. And when you have self-definition, and are not defined by the world, then you transcend what is happening to you. Anytime you can see and articulate your reality -- including your loss, tragedy, that's the terrible beauty. See, the beauty is you not being defined by it. The tragedy is looking at that reality, looking at it sharply, plainly, not avoiding it. It's kind of, as James Baldwin said, an ironic tenacity. It is claiming a sense of yourself, even in the midst of misery. So, you can look anywhere. There's always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word? There is always hope."

I'll close this compendium of sources and thoughts from so many different directions with one last quote, this one from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time: "If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious Whites and the relatively conscious Blacks who must, like lovers, insist on or create the consciousness of others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."

Amen.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Police Hall of Shame

I've decided that it would be appropriate to add yet another list on this blog. So, from now on, if you scroll down just a bit and look on the right, you'll find a permanent link to this post containing The Police Hall of Shame. Then I will update this post with links to stories, videos, and websites outlining cases anywhere in the United States at any point in history when one or more police officers killed a person. The person may or may not have been a suspect. The person may or may not have been guilty of anything. The person may or may not have been wielding a weapon at the time. The one thing all of the victims will have in common is that they're dead now and that their death is known to have been at the hands of the police.

I considered including all manner of violence, especially permanent maiming, but that would quickly become completely unmanageable. So I'm going to put the stipulation on those included that the event must have been fatal.

I've started by listing the first few that came to my mind. Please help me with this, okay? And when you send me names with the date of death, don't forget to include a link of some kind giving the details. The link can be to a post on your blog.

Also, while I'm interested in posting cases from the past, what I really want to start doing is listing cases as they occur. In other words, if someone in your community is killed by the police tomorrow, please send me the name of the victim and a link to the story. And if you think it reasonable, publicize a link to this post so the word will get out about it. That way, we will soon see demonstrated the full impact of the carte blanche freedom the police in this country have to "enforce" the "law" with latitude that would put others in prison.

It's not that I think all police officers are irresponsible, racist, wanta-be murderers. It's just that when one of them does go ballistic (literally), nothing typically happens to increase the likelihood that it won't happen again. So -- with your help -- I want to start keeping track.

Most folks hope the police will protect them when needed. But for people of color and most particularly Black people, we have to wonder who's going to protect them from the police? And the answer has to be: us. The population of this country. And it begins by keeping a log.

THE POLICE HALL OF SHAME