Friday, May 30, 2008

"See" You Next Week?

For those of you in the New Orleans area, I will be on television Tuesday morning, June 3rd, at 9:30 a.m. on NOA-TV, Channel 76. The show is called "Knowing Your Family History" and is hosted by Antoinette Harrell, an expert on geneology and the practice of peonage (present day slavery). Harrell's personal ancestral exploration uncovered her descendance from the Tuareg tribe in West Africa who she visited for a month after discovering her connection. I'll be posting more on Harrell's work next week, but in the meantime, I wanted you to look for us on Tuesday, if you can. I'll be talking about how I learned several years ago that I have ancestors who became millionaires in the early 1800's in Kentucky and Virginia by the brutal use and abuse of hundreds slaves of African descent. (You can just imagine how I received THAT news.) My understanding is that the show will appear at least a couple of times per week for the rest of June, but I don't know the exact times. And if I can work it out, I'll put a film clip on YouTube, as well.

Countee Cullen

On this day in 1903, Countee Cullen was born. A romantic poet in the fashion of Keats, Wheatley, and Dunbar, Cullen was one of the talented young African-American intellectuals who formed the backbone of the Harlem Renaissance. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU, Cullen went on to earn a Master's degree in English and French from Harvard and won more major literary prizes than any other Black writer of the time. And he married the only daughter of W.E.B. DuBois in one of the most lavish weddings in the history of the African-American community in New York. In memory of the beautiful who lived and died before us, here is one of his poems:

~~From the Dark Tower~~

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Free the Angola 3!

Thirty-six years ago, in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, one of the most notoriously bloody and unjust prisons in the United States, two African-American men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, helped to form a chapter of the Black Panther Party. Ill advised, under the circumstances of their incarceration? Probably. But they were committed to address the system of sexual slavery that lay at the base of abuse and rage so intense among the population that there was on average a murder a week inside the walls. The organizing capability of the Black Panther Party inside prison, however, was even more threatening to the Powers-That-Be than similar activities in the street at that time.

Then, the killing of a White guard in a dormitory housing two hundred men gave the administration just what they were looking for. Despite the fact that authorities had bloody fingerprints and even the knife used in the attack, all evidence was set aside uninvestigated in the interest of neutralizing Wallace and Woodfox who were charged, convicted, and put into solitary confinement for the crime. They have remained in "the hole" ever since (see their site, the Black Panther Party site, this article, or this one). The case was so rife with contradictions that a third man, Robert King Wilkerson (who was not even in the prison at the time of the stabbing), also got scooped up and placed into solitary confinement for the crime without ever even being charged with it. He was released in 2001 on a separate matter, but has not forgotten those he left behind.

With the work of Wilkerson, the Innocence Project, some lawyers out of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and Color of Change, pressure has been building to have Governor Bobby Jindal investigate this on-going travesty. These men have suffered for thirty-six years for a crime their persecutors KNOW they didn't commit (why else would they refuse to release the fingerprint cards for the two hundred men with access to the dorm where the murder took place, one of whom would more than likely turn out to be the actual murderer?) 25,000 supporter's signatures have already been collected to announce our interest in pushing this matter. The Louisiana House Judiciary Committee is set to review the case in June. If there's anything you can do to reach out to or on behalf of these men or to support the effort to release them, now's the time.

Call the governor.

Herman Wallace
#76759 Camp D, Eagle 1
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola LA 70712

Albert Woodfox
#72148 Camp D, Eagle 1
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola LA 70712

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Am I Not Surprised?

The U.S. Supreme Court made a decision yesterday that protects workers who report racial discrimination from retaliation by their bosses (see this). Does that seem like a no-brainer to you? It seemed that way to the lower courts, as well, that ruled in favor of Hedrick G. Humphries, a man who was fired by Cracker Barrel for bringing a legal complaint about the racially-motivated firing of another worker. Cracker Barrel, of course, appealed. The Supreme Court doesn't typically weigh in unless lower courts disagree, so there was real concern that the high court was going to roll back protections, remaining consistent with their now infamous ultra-conservative stance.

When it came to the vote, however, 7 of the 9 Justices agreed that the lower courts had been correct. I am, needless to say, delighted.

Who were the two Justices that voted AGAINST Humphries and FOR Cracker Barrel? Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Which is the reason for the title on this post. Clarence Thomas is an embarassment on so many levels, he reminds me of a poem by Richard Shelton:


his compass has no needle
he is everywhere at once
arriving at the wrong moment
dragging an embarrassed shadow

if he does not come by he will call
if he does not call he will come by
if he comes by he will not leave
and if he leaves he will return
too soon it takes several weeks
to spend an hour with him

he is the one subject of all
his conversations but his life
is garbled like a bad translation
his mind is a series of interruptions
his voice an insult to silence

he is needy he wants
to tell you about himself
wants to hang himself on your wall
like a coat somebody forgot
just hanging there you can't
wear it can't throw it away
and each time he returns for it
he will forget it again

at parties he violates your space
when you step back he steps forward
when you look down you feel guilty
his shoes are ashamed of his feet

ambition's blue vein twitches
in his eyelid he wants
to be famous for something
for anything to sign autographs
to be recognized wherever he goes
and eventually he is

On Emancipating Minds -- Our Own and Other's

I don't want to give anybody the wrong idea. I've assured my students here in Louisiana that institutionalized oppression in the form of racism is, unfortunately, alive and well throughout the U.S. culture. The default position in this country, I tell them, is White Supremacy. From coast to coast. Even for those -- Black or White -- who have money. (Can you imagine a major White actor being sentenced to three years in prison for being convicted of the misdemeanor crime of not filing his taxes -- like Wesley Snipes just was?) Even for those -- Black or White -- who have advanced degrees from college. (African-American men are four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men at every educational level.) It's not just in "The South," I promise you.

However, many people in Louisiana don't try to hide it as readily or as well as they do elsewhere. They aren't more racist, you understand. They're just less apologetic about it. They see it as natural. Even reasonable. And African-Americans here have been down so long, they think they prefer segregation to having White folks all up in they business. I don't blame 'em. Sometimes I don't want White folks up in my business either and I'm White (as far as I know).

That's what has bothered me most about Louisiana so far. There's much I love about it. People are often gracious. Almost anybody will feed you. Virtually everybody will invite you to church. Laughter is common. Music is lively. The food is famous. And people kiss you on both cheeks. No place is perfect, after all. But the n-word, as I mentioned the other day, is so common that I've been left off guest lists to avoid a possible scene. (Note: I'm the one left off the guest list.) Once, when I engaged a Black man in a conversation about a business matter, his White employer marched up, joined the conversation, and then summarily dismissed the African-American with a curt "Don't you have something to do?" despite the fact that we were standing in the space where he did his work. On another occasion, I was blessed with a whole collection of racist materials (including an Imperial Klans of America patch and a copy of The Turner Diaries) that a casual acquaintance had skanked from a former cop. At least half of the people of color I've talked to here have warned me in no uncertain terms to be VERY careful who I offend (as if I have any control over what goes on in other people's heads, past just shutting up entirely -- the tack most folks like me apparently are expected to take). And my least favorite moment so far occurred when I was at one point (and I swear it) called "Boss Lady."

I even had an African-American student write me an infuriated note after the grades went in because the F he received (that's going to destroy his chances to keep his athletic scholarship) was MY fault. That poor child was so ill prepared for the idea that he would actually have to do the work in the course that he was incredulous at my behavior in holding him responsible. I tried to work with him all semester, giving him all kinds of encouragement, setting him up with a study group, outlining exactly what would be necessary for him to do to make sure he passed the course, and I could tell he wasn't making the needed effort, but I couldn't figure out why. In the end, he simply didn't believe I was serious. Now where do you suppose he learned that? Black students here are by and large relegated to schools that make little if any attempt to teach even the most basic skills, are trained to believe that their only hope is in sports, and ultimately become convinced that they are incapable of even adequate academic performance, in any case. And that just eats my lunch. Yes, I know it goes on everywhere (which makes it okay how?), but I've never seen the level of self-doubt that I see in people of color here. I'm told it's worse in Mississippi, but I can't speak to that, not having lived there.

This sad reality recently caused me to realize that I now see my primary mission in education NOT as trying to raise European-American consciousness related to "race" (which I used to think), but rather to reach young African-Americans and unmask the lies they have been told as truth about themselves. I mean, I always saw this as important, too, but I used to reverse these two commitments. No longer.

Bob Marley wrote: "Emancipate your mind from mental slavery. Only we ourselves can free our minds." And he was charging all of us with this responsibility. It's no mean trick to shake off the dead hand of history (as Walter Mosley called it here) when the whole society with all its authority, culture, and media machine is ever wrapping chains around anything that moves. But some of us have not only the responsibility to emancipate our own minds, but to feed others that they, too, might free themselves. Of those with much, it is said, much will be required. What is much? It's all relative, now isn't it?

The poster above can be found at Northland Poster Collective.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer Reading

Good morning.

I guess I'm back. I'm starting to blog in my head now while I'm driving. Seeing things through not just my eyes, but through my readers' eyes. Wanting to tell you things, to share my thoughts. And that's how it started two and a half years ago.

Let's pretend we're sitting down to coffee. I don't drink a lot of it these days, being focused on my body 24-7 and all. But this morning I had to go to have blood tests before I even woke up good, so I stopped at the local Waffle House for scrambled eggs with cheese, grits, and toast with apple butter (though, apparently, they didn't know I was coming because they had somehow inexplicably allowed themselves to run out of raisin bread). And of course, I had coffee. A cup and a half. With cream and the tiniest bit of sugar. Thinking to myself, "I'll take this nice high and go home to Blog Central."

So here I am, imagining myself at my little glass-topped table (which I rarely use except to hold red flowers) sitting across from you, rambling from topic to topic in my head, with no particular order to it all.

Did I mention I've been doing a lot of reading?

Reading is the cave into which I descend when I'm depressed or trying to muddle something through. I devour books when I'm going through a crisis and escape into them when I'm trying to re-group. And not just books, but magazines. Jet and The Sun are staples -- always. And I "have to" read the occasional "scientific" piece in this or that publication (usually as a result of assigning it to students to read, really more like assigning it to myself, since most of them won't read it and I must anyway.)

But today, I'm feeling intimate, wanting to "share." So here's a few things I read recently that you might want to check out (in no particular order):

1) The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Initially, this book hit my radar when M.Dot. wrote about it back in March. So when my daughter gave me a nice phat gift certificate to for Mother's Day (wotta girl!), tucked into the box with the dvd's and cd's and hummingbird feeder was this book. I scarfed it down too fast. And read almost the whole thing aloud (the sign that I'm entranced, that the words are crafted so beautifully that their sound becomes part of the experience for me). Coates is the son of the former Black Panther who founded Black Classics Press and raised his children in a sort of boot camp to implement Consciousness (a word Coates, the younger, has now taught me to capitalize). This remarkable piece of writing (M.Dot. said it was and she was MORE than right) is not just a "coming of age" story. It's a Coming of An Age story, a description of growing up poor, Black, and male in Baltimore that will (write this down now) eventually be called the sequel to Black Boy by Richard (the original man) Wright, who landed so hard on Western literature in the 20th Century, he came with a name warning us first what he was here to do.
"The words were all braggadocios, but when done with the recital, even though I was alone, I felt bigger. I'd walk outside, and my head was just a little higher, because if you do this right, if you claim to be that nigger enough, though you battle only your bedroom mirror, there is a part of you that believes. That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledged feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book -- it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I knew...that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone."

2) The Tin Roof Blowdown and/or Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke. Even if you don't like detective thrillers, if you read fiction, you may find, as I have that Burke is a state of the art master of description. And his topic in The Tin Roof Blowdown and in the title story of his collection Jesus Out to Sea is New Orleans during and just after Katrina hit. Burke has the credentials to do this justice since his folks have lived in New Iberia (maybe 90-minutes from The Big Easy) since 1830-something and he has the horrifying clarity of vision and cajones to write it the way it really happened. If you've got the willingness to read on after he has systematically gutted all your gentle sensibilities, then take one of these to the beach. It'll give you something to think about the next time somebody mentions Mardi Gras or beignets or jazz or the night the levees broke.
"A hurricane is supposed to have a beginning and an end. It tears the earth up, fills the air with flying trees and bricks and animals and sometimes even people, makes you roll up into a ball under a table and pray till drops of blood pop on your brow, then it goes away and lets you clean up after it, like somebody pulled a big prank on the whole town. But this one didn't work that way. It's killing in stages.

I see a diapered black baby in a atree that's only a green smudge under the water's surface. I can smell my neighbors in their attic. The odor is like a rat that has drowned in a bucket of water inside a superheated garage. A white guy floating by on an inner tube has a battery-powered radio propped on his stomach and tells us snipers have shot a policeman in the head and killed two Fish and Wildlife officers...

'You guys got anything to eat up there?' the guy in the inner tube asks.

'Yeah, a whole fucking buffet. I had it catered from Galatoire's right before the storm,' Miles says to him."

3) The Angels of Morgan Hill by Donna VanLiere. I bought this book for $3 at a Books-a-Million and it kept me up all night. Admittedly, I thought it was a memoir and it turned out to be a novel, but the fact that I didn't realize it was a novel until AFTER I read it shows you how meticulous the detail is and how real the characters seem to be in this story about the coming of integration to a small town in eastern Tennessee in the late 1940's. The drama is gut-wrenching and the tension of almost ever-present violence forms a skeleton on which the poverty of the entire town hangs like tatters of clothing left over from a former life. If this is just supposed to be an inspiring read, I'm okay with it. Sometimes, I need to be inspired.
"'That little nigger boy livin' with you now?'

The words rang out in the stillness and a shiver ran down my spine. We all looked up the embankment and saw Beef and Clyde smiling at us from Beef's porch. Mama took hold of Milo's hand and threw up her other hand in a wave. 'Mornin'.' She appeared to hope that if she left Beef and Clyde alone they'd leave us alone.

'I don't think Lonnie'd be too happy knowing what's going on at his house,' Clyde said. Mama held tighter to Milo's hand and I grabbed John's, pulling him along. 'He wouldn't like that nigger smelling up the place.'

I felt my heart in my throat and ran to keep up with Mama.

'He's a pretty little nigger,' Beef yelled after us."

4) Respect in a World of Inequality by Richard Sennett. I have to begin by admitting that I've only read the first fifty pages of this one. And it's a totally different kind of read, being rather unapologetically sociological, but at least early on, Sennett manages to weave his early years in Cabrini Green in Chicago into a more over-arching consideration of the difficulties with trying to get past the cultural perspective of individualism that often leads us to determine that only certain people in the U.S. are worthy of respect. I don't know exactly whereall Sennett intends to take his readers yet, but I already want to know and think it will be worth the trip.
"Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form. No insult is offered another person, but neither is recognition extended; he or she is not seen -- as a full human being whose presence matters. When a society treats the mass of people in this way, singling out only a few for recognition, it creates a scarcity of respect, as though there were not enough of this precious substance to go around. Like many famines, this scarcity is man-made; unlike food, respect costs nothing. Why, then, should it be in short supply?"

5) Finally, I want to recommend a magazine, The Crisis, published by the N.A.A.C.P. The tricky part (or great part, depending on how you look at it) is that when you join the organization, you automatically get a subscription to the magazine for free (how cool is that?) At the risk of sounding as if I'm hawking memberships (not that I'd be ashamed to do that, you understand), I am SO impressed with the Spring 2008 issue of this 64-page magazine that I have to suggest that the magazine alone is worth the price of membership ($30 a year). It's super glossy, slickly produced with LOTS of strong photographs, well-crafted, intriguing articles, and the printed equivalent of dozens of sound bytes of interesting worthwhile information. So far, I've read a piece about a female jockey who went from being homeless to winning races, a fine interview with Tom Joyner (accompanied by a photo that is probably the best I've ever seen at expressing the soul of this man), an insightful consideration of Richard Wright's work, a grading of the members of the U.S. Congress based on their voting records on race-related issues, and an article on a new publishing house established by a former New York Times senior editor to bring out works by prisoners and ex-prisoners (see Think Outside the Cell). If you've never looked at The Crisis before or not recently, you might want to. I've been taking mine on the road around town, to read when I'm stuck in a waiting room or grabbing a bite of lunch.
"...[T]hough the elites of academia have claimed [Richard Wright] and indeed deconstructed and post-deconstructed him, he belongs in the end to the community. Bigger was electrocuted by the state, x-rayed by academia, given care and attention where academics can be most generous -- and yet, elusive still, he is alive and kicking out there, seeking answers to questions that are being asked manifold." (Julia Wright on her father's legacy; in "Native Son" by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, The Crisis, Spring 2008).

Now don't say I didn't tell you. ;^)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remember Me?

Well, this has turned out to be harder than I thought. Apparently my new condition, discussed here, is more demanding physically and emotionally than I had expected. Some days I feel just like I always have. Some days -- for weeks at a time -- I feel like I'm car sick. Some days I feel vaguely depressed for no reason. Though of course, when you feel vaguely depressed, everything is a reason. Some days I get through the day, but by the time I do my now necessary work out at the gym, I'm just too played out to do anything but play a few games of Solitaire and collapse.

To make things worse, if that's not enough already, I often feel as if I'm drowning in a sea of "race" here. I mean, I'm always hyper-sensitive to "race" everywhere I go and always find plenty to be hyper-sensitve about. But here, aside from stuff I'm just not prepared to go into today, de facto segregation alone means that I can be with Black folks or White folks, but rarely with them both and frankly, I hate that. At work, I have to leave my building to have a real conversation with a person of color who's not a student. And, since not everybody knows me personally, I never know when a White person will haul out the n-word (behind African-Americans' backs, of course), leaving me with the hot potato and no idea whether or not it's even worth saying something to rank strangers who might, in fact, be dangerous to me or someone else, if they get their panties in a bunch.

I can go to a family gathering with an African-American friend, but after a few times of this, I'm almost ready to give it up. She can introduce me as her "sister" all she wants, but they're not buying it. And I don't blame them. Why should they trust some trouble-making White woman? And what is she up in here for anyway?

I do have several African-Americans I consider close friends now, but our relationships are conspiratorial in nature. We compare notes, shore each other up, and plan insurrections, laughing in that dark way that soldiers laugh in the trenches.

And as I'm now in the process of being moved into a permanent position, after all, it finally occurs to me what the implications of all this are for someone like me. Good golly, Miss Molly! I'm a highly Conscious White woman living in what might as well be rural Louisiana. I'm not complaining. I'm ready to do my part. But some days, I really don't want to leave my apartment. And it's lonely there.

So I feel sad. And weak. And heartsick (about all the oh-so-obvious effects of the on-going nature of racial oppression all around me -- everywhere, yes, but amped up some here, in spite of my quick disavowals of that in earlier months). And tired (all of this plus 300 students will do that to a person). And daunted by the idea of these circumstances and feelings lasting for the rest of my life.

Then, since I'm not blogging, I don't read blogs either. I mean, I can't bare to lurk when I don't feel up to playing, and apparently, on some level, I don't think I deserve to be part of it all because I'm not holding up my end (whatever I perceive that to be). And since blogging and bloggers are the joy of my life, I ain't having a lot of joy these last few months.

May I please come home?

Is there anybody there?

I got a shit-load of stuff to write about.
The image above is from Kaotic Enzymes, which is a tattoo blog(!)