Sunday, September 28, 2008

Just Keepin' It Real

Yesterday, I spent some time in a room full of African-American folks who live in this parish. In the matter of an hour, I heard three stories that made me sad.

The first one was about a young man who was arrested for some trumped up charge that wound up not even being pressed. Nearly a week went by before "the authorities" called his grandmother and told her she needed to pick him up because "something" had happened to him. She went down to the jail and found him bloody and disoriented. The officers in charge informed her that he beat his own head against the wall until he had a skull fracture and that they didn't know how he had gotten the wounds on his forearm (consistent with those of a person who held up his arms to protect his head). The young man, who had suffered for days with what appears to be a billy club gash on the back of his head before finally being given medical attention, is still displaying the symptoms of his ordeal. The grandmother, aside from being furious about what was done to the youth, is worried that he's now going to be dealing with the physical and mental repercussions of his wound for the rest of his life.

The second story had to do with an African-American man who was hired as head coach by one of the parish high schools only after a federal court forced the School Board to hire the most qualified applicant (over a White man who had virtually no athletic coaching experience whatsoever). When they buckled to the court, the School Board first tried to hire the aforementioned White man at a $100,000 salary to make him the African-American coach's boss. When they weren't allowed to do that, they simply removed all the furniture from the coaching office, including the computers, the photocopier, the television monitor and equipment (used to watch game tapes), even the chairs. So now the coach's staff has to do their work sitting around ONE desk on whatever they can find. Needless to say, the court is already involved in this, but still...

The third story was told by a woman in her fifties who was roughed up, handcuffed, and dragged to jail for standing in front of her son when an officer entered their yard and pulled a gun on the boy. The officer behaved in this way because he saw the teenager teaching his brother how to defend himself and the policeman thought they were fighting. Marching into the yard with gun drawn, the officer quickly frightened the whole family into defense mode. And the aggression built from there -- on both sides. By the time it was over, the family had been arrested, with the officer assuring them all that, even if they bring a complaint against him, it won't be the first time he's been written up. (Gee, why am I not surprised?)

When the storyteller got to that part, another Black woman turned and shot me a hateful look, which was difficult for me because most of these folks know me (though she doesn't) and I was horrified by these stories, just as everyone else was. Afterward, as things moved on, I picked up some vague hostility toward me from at least one of the people that knows me and that was even harder to take. But that's the way it is. It's not my fault I'm "White." And they know which side I'm on. But White people have been spreading so much pain around here for for such a very long time now that one European-American committed to change isn't going to fix anything, especially not feelings.

I normally hang around afterward, but this time, I didn't. I had some place else to go, but that isn't why I left before usual. I left because of my skin tone and because of the truth that had been shared. White people want (they claim) to have this patch behind us.

"Can't we just be friends?" they intone.

"Can't we stop dwelling on the past and just move on?" they query.

And the answers to these questions are yes and no, respectively. In fact, without saying no to the second one, we can't say yes to the first. We must be crystal clear that the past laid the groundwork for the present and the nightmares continue -- not just occasionally or on a bad day or as a result of a "misunderstanding" or "when somebody asks for it" -- but routinely and without apology and often, without recourse. One saying in the Black community is: "No need to explain what's already understood." Quit pretending, if you are. You're making it difficult on those of us who want to make a difference.

Essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote: "These are the essential steps toward being an activist: to see injustice; to do something about it; to be willing to risk; to be unpopular or out of step; to change your life." And that's what I'm doing. Not "trying to do," because there's a difference between "trying" and "doing it." I'm doing it. And what about you?

Dee Dee Bridgewater knows:

NOTE: The poster featured above is an example of the posters at the Syracuse Cultural Workers Collective. While this particular poster doesn't appear to be available any longer, other great ones are.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

To Register and Vote or Not -- THAT is the Question

Speaking of the election (and is there any way NOT to?), the opportunity to register to vote will be coming to an end shortly. If you're not registered, you can jump over to Rock the Vote and do so in less time than it takes to read most blog posts. And if you need more information than you have right now, Vote Smart may well have all the answers.

We are in a grave situation in this country -- much graver, I fear, than most of us know. Do our votes mean anything? I'm not convinced they do. But I'm not going to lay down and participate in the dismantling of my world using the excuse of blaming the bad guys. What I do and don't do is still a matter of my choice. Regardless of the outcome.

I'm registered. I'm active. I'll vote. As long as that's an option.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

And the Oscar for Documentary Goes to...

Once in a while in life, for whatever reason, you get to be at "the spot." You know what I mean: "the place to be," where something so extraordinary occurs that you walk away knowing you've been touched by The Force. Last night, the spot was in a Canal Place theater auditorium in New Orleans and I was there, along with Danny Glover (one of the executive producers of the film being shown), Carl Deal (the director of said film), and two bonafide heroes and stars, Kimberly Rivers and Scott Roberts (seen above with Rivers holding up the photo of her deceased mother, a photo miraculously spared by the floods after Katrina). The film? Trouble the Water. It already won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance, among other awards. And if it's not about to open in your city in the next month or so, you might want to make it a point to approach your local theater post haste with enough information to change that. This is the real deal.

The story opens with Kimberly trying out her brand new Sony movie cam in the hours before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She and Scott were living in the lower 9th Ward at that time and as she talks to the neighborhood children about who's going and who has to stay for lack of money, the audience, of course, already knows what's about to happen and views the bright young faces through the window of that knowledge.

Through the next few weeks, Kim Rivers continued to film the incredible story of survival from inside the skin of the survivors. You're with them up very close and personal when the water begins to rise, forcing them into the attic ("I can't reach it...Gimme your foot..."). You hear the stark reports of dwindling supplies. And in seamless continuity, Deal and his technical crew intersperse other film and audio clips. You see the devastation from the air. You hear the voice of a woman telling a 911 operator she isn't strong enough to break through the ceiling in her attic and she's going to drown. She isn't screaming. She's just telling someone. You hear a young Black man's voice talking to another operator, dropping into sadness with lost hope as she tells him with unemotional finality that no one -- no one -- is coming.

I've seen some hellified thrillers in my day, but it would be very difficult for a fictional presentation to reach the level of tension Rivers, Deal and the film editors produced with Trouble the Water. You watch a Black man named Larry in water almost to his shoulders making trip after trip to move others to higher ground ("I'll take two at a time," he shouts up at the folks in the window. "Bring me two at a time.") and you have no way of knowing whether he's going to go under in the next frame. You see Scott somehow -- incredibly -- maintaining his patience and his dignity while trying to negotiate a space to spend even one night out of the ruins in an abandoned naval station the military was ordered to keep the weary citizens from entering.

"How about just the women and children?" Scott says without a shred of the rage in his voice that anyone in the audience would surely have understood.

"Get off this property or we'll shoot," the soldier barks at gunpoint. You could almost feel the theater audience recoil.

A fading clip shows a weakened survivor scooting across a bridge on an office chair with wheels, pushing along with one foot as if this is the most natural thing in the world to be doing. The unfolding weeks of struggle, of relocation, of returning give not the least relief of tension to either the viewer or those being viewed. The dance with FEMA is punctuated by an understated, but stunning series of silent faces looking dead into the camera without blinking, waiting for anything to happen.

Then, completely unexpectedly, in Memphis, where the couple had escaped for a time, Kim hears her cousin thumping a CD she had made in New Orleans and thought she'd never see again. Without introduction, she jumps off into a rap that produced a spontaneous burst of applause in the theater. Not only is she really, really good, I mean seriously talented, but the story of her life as she tells it in the rap she titled "Amazing" is...well...amazing.* And the viewer is forced to realize, gasping, that these people have been surviving one Katrina or another all their lives. With all that talent. With all that strength of personhood and determination and the solidarity and kindness and respect they had evidenced before the cameras for weeks under the most mind-numbing duress -- they've been hanging by their thumbs year after year after year while the rest of the population sails blithely by, acting as if they don't exist.

Later, on the way home, the woman I was with said she was disappointed that BlackKoldMadina (the name Kim uses as a rapper) isn't a star now. Apparently, my friend wanted to see Kim and Scott living large with the rich and famous by the end of the movie, above the pain of their former lives and the terrible ordeal they somehow survived.

"But she is a star," I countered.

I mean, sometimes, being a star is having the courage to lift a camera at a time when most people would be too panic-stricken to move. Sometimes, being a star is walking through hell and still finding the strength to call yourself "Amazing." Sometimes, being a star is having a husband whose face absolutely radiates his pride when he looks in your direction. Sometimes, being a star is pushing your baby down the aisle in a theater while your hometown stands to its feet. We should all be so lucky.

*If you doubt my judgment on the matter of BlackKoldMadina's talent, I invite you to visit Born Hustler Records to find out for yourself. "Amazing" doesn't come across quite as strongly on that site, in my opinion, as it does in the film and on the cd. Still, there's no doubt about her talent and I'm very glad I bought the cd last night, unashamedly asking for an autograph while Sky, Scott and Kim's new baby girl, sitting in her stroller at my feet, played with the cuff of my brightly colored sleeve.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Aren't Presidents SUPPOSED To Be White?

Last week, I posted a doctored photo of Sarah Palin in a bikini with a gun. Some people took one kind of offense or another and I ultimately removed it because it didn't really fit the topic arena of my blog anyway and, while I do that occasionally, I don't want to make that particular move lightly. However, as I made the rounds last weekend of my usual "race" blogs, almost everybody had several posts on this woman.

I don't have the time, energy or inclination to get neck-deep in this electoral process when I don't believe we've actually elected a President since Bill Clinton (and he was no prize, what with NAFTA and "welfare reform" and all). But Tim Wise (bless his heart -- I'm sorry, but ya gotta love this guy) wrote a piece on Palin I can 100% co-sign from Why Am I Not Surprised?. It's about what a poster child for White privilege Palin is. I'd post the whole thing right here except I think we all need to go on over to RedRoom and leave some decent comments on the piece. Now, go on. Do it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Don't Kill Troy Davis

Please read Macon D.'s thoughtful and thought-provoking post on Troy Davis, the man the Governor of Georgia intends to have executed on September 23rd, even though nobody believes any more that he actually did the crime. I'm in a dark space today and don't feel much like writing, but Macon said it all anyway. One question does occur to me, though. If a governor executes an innocent man, doesn't that make the governor a murderer? I'm just sayin' is all.

Lock 'Em Up and Throw Away the Key

I'm never far removed from thinking about prisons, prisoners and those who so relish incarcerating their fellow citizens in tiny cavities of darkness and pain. Those of you who've read this blog fairly regularly know by now that I was highly involved in the national prison abolition movement in the 1970's. I've counseled prisoners and their families. I've trained people to work with those re-entering society. I've worked with teenaged boys already locked into the system and trained others to do so. I designed programs for adjudicated and "at-risk" kids for an Africentric agency for two years. And I taught a wildly popular and very reality-based course on adolescence and delinquency at a university for more than five.

I met both of my children's fathers while they were still incarcerated. I have friends who did as much as twenty-five years straight. I have friends today who are still caught up in the system in one way or another. I went up to the craft fair in Angola last October and very much want to return, if possible, next month. And I'm incredibly clear about the fact that the criminal code is the line between personal freedom and the power structure, which is made up of those, we should remember, who get to decide what constitutes a crime and how it should be punished.

There are few of us by now, I expect, who don't know that the United States has more people behind bars than any other nation in the world. Far more. Roughly two and one-half million of us are "doing time" these days. And the majority of us must surely know that men of color and most particularly, African-American men, are far and away the most disproportionately likely to be those individuals.

No wonder so many "decent, God-fearing" White folks have the impression Black men are dangerous. Why else would so MANY of them be locked up? We sure are lucky, one can almost hear average White folks say, that we have plenty of prisons to put all these bad Black guys in so we can all be "safe." Besides, prisons and jails and law enforcement bodies of all kinds provide millions of jobs for the rest of us, right? And jobs are something we're getting pretty desperate about of late.

If you find yourself agreeing with this sentiment (or even leaning in that direction), I strongly suggest that you read "Slavery Haunts America's Plantation Prisons" by Maya Schemwar. And if that article leaves you wanting more, you might read God of the Rodeo: the Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison by David Bergner. And then, if you really want to get a good grasp on the bottom line (literally), you can pick up Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

I've been talking and writing about prison so long, I'm running out of words.


The photo above appears in Douglas A. Blackmon's book, Slavery by Another Name. The poster is an example of Ricardo Levins Morales' work and is available from Northland Poster Collective. It reads "More than ninety thousand inmates in US prisons labor in a booming "prison industrial complex" for a growing list of major corporations. As unprecedented numbers of Americans are swept into the penal system by crime, drug, and welfare policies, their labor is being sold at bargain rates. Laws prohibiting prison labor have fallen as prison sales have swelled to nearly a billion dollars per year. At the close of the century, the prison workforce is an increasingly important arena for organizing."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Long Live Steve Biko's Words!

On this day in 1977, Stephen Biko, a thirty-year-old student activist leader against the apartheid system in South Africa was beaten to death by the police who were holding him in custody for his commitment to justice for all. 15,000 people attended his funeral and thousands more were turned away, but we remember him today particularly for his ideas related to the ways oppressed people internalize their oppression. His founding of the Black Consciousness movement, calling for the psychological and cultural liberation of his people so that they could then set themselves free politically, may, in fact, be the touchstone all revolutions must visit in order to be effective.

It's no wonder the Afrikaner power structure put a ban on his public speaking. Nevertheless, we can still read his last public statement, made very publicly in spite of the ban and then subsequently captured in the book Black Consciousness in South Africa, edited by Millard Arnold.

It is telling -- and chilling -- that Biko was arrested under the Terrorism Act in his nation, which gave rather broad scoped powers to those that feared him so. It is equally telling -- and chilling -- that the officers who brutally beat and starved Biko for the last twenty-four days of his life were absolved of any wrong-doing in the matter of his death, despite the medical report that he died due to a brain lesion caused by the “application of force to the head”. Increasingly, under current policy and practice, we see routine news reports of people being brutalized and even murdered by law enforcement officers in full view of witnesses without their being held legally responsible.

Time has moved on. There is a different government in South Africa, although it sometimes seems that not much has changed after all. I can't help but think that Biko would not be surprised. Worse, though, is the fact that run-amuck Terrorism Acts have now popped up as de rigeur in most nations and most certainly in ours.

I would suggest that we all need to consider what Biko was trying to tell us about internalized oppression. Before more of us have been caused to join him as heroes. Dead heroes.

Monday, September 08, 2008

More About Haiti

As my Faithful Readers know, I maintain an interest in and even connection to Haiti. It all began a little over twenty years ago, when I wound up with a student who had just shortly before quite literally escaped her homeland with her family after an aggressive attempt on their lives as a result of her father's commitment to social change.

When I asked her to tell me about what was really going on in Haiti (as opposed to what the governments and the media wanted us to "know"), she was reticent to engage in a conversation.

"Are you sure you really want to know?" she asked in warning. "Most people here in the U.S. say they want to know, but when I start telling them, they argue with me about it."

I assured her that I wanted to hear whatever it was she had to say. And she had plenty to say, believe me. Soon, I was reading about Haiti and writing about Haiti and planning an Amnesty International banquet about Haiti (with her father as the speaker) and, generally speaking, crafting a relationship with the culture, apparently for life.

Then, three years ago, I came across a website of photos of Haiti and its people and it was really on. Slowly, but surely, I tried with limited, but on-going, success to raise interest, consciousness, and funds for various causes related to Haitian children.

In July, right after I downloaded Skype, an on-line phone service that's free to use, even internationally, I discovered that I could talk with some of the kids I had been helping and, up until the last couple of weeks, we were talking as regularly as Haitian electricity availability and my difficult schedule allow. In fact, they have begun teaching me Creole against the day I come to visit them, which will be, it's beginning to appear, MUCH sooner than later. In fact, I'm nosing around for possible research funds so I can spend a month or two next summer in Port-au-Prince, looking at the effects of globalization on this tiny, poverty-stricken nation.

Haiti and Globalization, Part 1

Haiti and Globalization, Part 2

It's difficult to be in such close contact, distant as it is. The voices make the names and photos real to me, so that when Peter (who has had the most schooling and dreams of college) tells me that school for this fall is currently on hold because his sponsor has not sent the expected assistance as yet, I hear -- and feel the pain of -- his disappointment.

Still, he reminds me that "Depi nou gen la vi gen lespwa" ("When there is life, there is hope"), even though "lavi-a di depi le-m" ("life has been hard"). And I try to just keep forging ahead, living and hoping with him. A movie entitled "Strange Things" is currently under production. Maybe that will help. But when will the help arrive?

An unexpected pleasure in this process was reconnecting with my former student and friend who originally taught me about Haiti in the first place years ago. She's living in Port-au-Prince (of course) and sent me a truly beautiful photo book one of her companies published on the people, culture, and nation she loves so much. Needless to say, I'm trying to connect her to some of the kids I've been helping. And I feel the tendrils of this island country further planting themselves in my heart.

When I watched the YouTube videos above, I was reminded of a poem I wrote twenty years ago, a poem that could have been written yesterday and is still true. Between the economic devastation, the political corruption (still driven by U.S. interests), and the current horrified weather conditions, one wonders how Haiti and her people can survive. Yet, Peter tells me, when there is life, there is hope. And I cling, with him, to that thought.

~~For Haiti~~

Fire comes and fire goes
and we don't ever really know
what comes to take us by the hand
to lead us to the promise land.
We reach for stars and grasp the air.
We search for answers everywhere.
The echoes of our voices cry
through mountain passes to the sky.
We take our stand against the flood,
collect our tears and bathe in blood;
we will not stop till daylight comes
and we return to peaceful homes.

Ah, freedom.
Ah, freedom.

Time goes on while time stands still.
The scribes record a people's will.
We hold our ballots, hold our breath;
we stand in lines to meet our deaths.
With guns behind us, guns before,
we stand, steel-eyed, upon a shore.
We taste the salt, the coming tide,
and cling to hope that stirs inside --
believing that our cause is just,
agreed to suffer if we must,
committed now to fight as one
till flowers dance beneath the sun.

Ah, freedom.
Ah, freedom.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

If You Pray, Pray for Haiti and Her People

These are photos from Gonaives in the southern part of the country. They were taken BEFORE Ike hit.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

This Is Our Home

It's odd to run across this 23-minute video about housing in Post-Katrina New Orleans at precisely this moment. I picked it up from an Amnesty International petition table on the campus the last day of classes before we went home to prepare for Hurricane Gustav. And watching it as I wait to see what will happen this time is eerie indeed. Here we are, almost three years to the day after Katrina hit, watching the weather with baited breath. I'm going to schedule this to post during what might turn out to be the middle of New Orleans' next adventure. Seems poetic.

"This Is My Home" - Part 1

"This Is My Home" - Part 2

"This Is My Home" - Part 3

Update: Activist/lawyer/writer Bill Quigley, featured in this video, wrote a little piece for Truthout that captures some of the difficulties now being felt here. I'm not living in my car, but I am living without power for the fourth day, with no end in sight. Fortunately, the University got electricity today and I'm camping out big time. Still, at some point I will head back home to a hot, damp, dark place with no computer, no refrigerator, no way to cook and an iffy phone signal. Boy-oh-boy, what I wouldn't give for an oil lamp about now. Still, having a little bit of money and a few options sets you apart even during the aftermath of a natural disaster.

And Haiti's under water and waiting for yet another storm. I may be uncomfortable, but under the circumstances, I can't complain without thinking of those who still haven't gotten home at all yet or, worse, of Mike and the street kids in Haiti.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Until We Are All Free, We Are None Free

On this day in 1838, Frederick Douglass -- born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and having spent his first twenty years of life as a slave -- escaped his bonds to freedom. Inspired by William Lloyd Garrison, who ultimately became a supporter, young Douglass soon began telling his story to standing room only audiences on the abolitionist circuit.

When he published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, still in print and widely read to this day, some (White people, no doubt) couldn't believe a person raised in slavery could write so eloquently. You can read the part recounting his third and finally successful escape attempt here.

By the time he died at the age of seventy-seven, Douglass had become recognized all over the world for his political work, his writings, and the newspapers he edited. Of more immediate interest in light of Obama's campaign for the Presidency is the fact that, at the Republican National Convention in 1888 (back before they become the present-day Democratic Party), Douglass garnered the first vote for an African-American man in a major party's roll call vote, even though he was married to a European-American feminist at the time.

Here's a poem to remind us that until we are all free, Douglass' work goes on.

~~Frederick Douglass~~
by Robert E. Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.