Wednesday, December 29, 2010
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
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
"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
Saturday, December 04, 2010
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
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, 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.
“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
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.
Friday, September 03, 2010
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 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.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Monday, August 16, 2010
One mo' gin, Joe!
NOTE: I'm having trouble cutting, pasting and embedding today. Sorry.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
Thursday, August 05, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
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?
Sunday, July 11, 2010
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.
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.
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."