Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Quirky Black Girls! Yes-sir-eee!

M.dot's done it again. Already this morning, she introduced me to some folks and a space I've added to my blog roll. I wanted to reprint their Manifesta in electric purple, but that turned out not to be an option on Blogger. I'm posting it anyway -- with a warning. Don't read this if you ain't ready to do feel the music. 'Cause it'll getcha. Right where you live.

Here's to the quirky Black girl. Let her know today how much you dig her.

"The Quirky Black Girl Manifesta

"Because Audre Lorde looks different in every picture ever taken of her. Because Octavia Butler didn't care. Because Erykah Badu is a patternmaster. Because Macy Gray pimped it and Janelle MonĂ¡e was ready.

"Resolved. Quirky black girls wake up ready to wear a tattered society new on our bodies, to hold fragments of art, culture and trend in our hands like weapons against conformity, to walk on cracks instead of breaking our backs to fit in the mold.

"We're here, We're Quirky, Get used to it!.... Quirky Black girls don't march to the beat of our own drum; we hop, skip, dance, and move to rhythms that are all our own. We make our own drums out of empty lunchboxes, full imaginations and number 3 pencils.

"Quirky Black girls are not quirky because they like white shit; rather they understand that because they like it, it is not the sole province of whiteness.

"Quirky black girls are the answer to the promise that black means everything, birthing and burning a new world every time.

"Sound it out. Quirky, like queer and key, different and priceless, turning and open. Black, not be lack but black one word shot off the tongue like blap, bam, black. Girl, like the curl in a hand turning towards itself to snap, write, hold or emphasize. Quirky. Black. Girl. You see us. Act like you know.

"We demand that our audiences say 'yes-sir-eee' if they agree and we answer our own question 'What good do your words do, if they don't understand you?' by speaking anyway, even if our words are 'bruised and misunderstood.'

"Quirky black girls are hot!
"Whether you're ready to see it or not.

"Quirky means rejecting a particular type of 'value,' a certain unreadiness for consumption and subsumption in an economy of black heterocapital. This means that Quirky Black Girls act independently of dominant social norms or standards of beauty. So fierce that others may not be able to appreciate us just yet.

"No matter what age we are, we hold onto that girlhood drive for adventure, love for friends, independent spirit, wacky sense of humor, and hope for the future.

"Quirky Black Girls resist boxes in favor of over lapping circles with permeable membranes that allow them to ebb and flow through their multiple identities.

"Quirky Black Girls - Embrace the quirky!"
The photo above is a self-portrait of LaVonna Varnado, one of the quirkiest Black women in my current world.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Poverty = Violence

On Thursday, as I prepared to leave my home for the five hour drive to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I was committed to participate in a public hearing on poverty in Lambert yesterday, I found the following comment on my post about the last visit I made to the Delta:

"When I found out about this article, I just had to read & respond to it. I am a resident of Lambert,Ms. I too have lived there all of my life. I attended the public schools there. When you live in an rural area such as Lambert, you don't have many choices. You either apply yourself in school and go on to further your education or you CHOOSE to be content with your life and surroundings. I chose the first.

"There are MANY who chose to better themselves. My friends and neighbors are teachers, nurses, law enforcement officers, highway patrolmen, lawyers, dentists, doctors, school administrators, casino workers, grocery store workers, farm attendants, you name it. I say all of this because WE ALL CAME FROM THE SAME PLACE.

"Yes, Lambert is the, 'City of Hope.' But you must have the drive within to want a better life. I can say this because I see the good and the bad in my community everyday. Lambert does not have a grocery store, doctor's office or a general merchandise store. We do have access to all of the before mentioned. We have 5 housing complexes, all with central heating and air. Everyone who qualifies for a program called Mis-State, which will pay electricity, gas and qualify you for food-stamp assistance. No one has to or should live in the conditions that family lives in. I do believe on helping the community. Yes we should take care of the elderly, children and those who cannot do for themselves.

"I do not think that our community should have to be responsibe for able-bodied, young adults. I am a young adult. I attended the Quitman County Schools. I could have dropped out and hung in the streets but that wasn't an option in my household. As with a lot of households, my sibling and I had to graduate from high school and attend college. My mom always told us that she wanted her children to have more education than her. My mom has her Master's in Education. I am working on my Master's in Nursing. I am a firm beliver that you shape how you want your life, no matter the circumstances. I am from a single-parent household. My mom taught school during the day and went to college at night. I have friends who became pregnant while in highschool. That didn't deter them from graduating and going on to college.

"There are families that have received new free homes and end up losing the homes because they borrowed money against the home or they never pay the property tax. There is a lot of good going on in Lambert. We are a small community and we try to take care of the truly needy. There are families who went thru the proper channels to receive new homes. There are many programs out there for those who truly want help." -- DownHomeDiva

I appreciate your taking time to share your perspective, Diva, and I congratulate you on your professional success. Actually, I wrote this response to your comment while in Lambert and just wasn't able to post it until now, and I did see that parts of Lambert are as lovely as any other community I might visit.

The point is not that there's poverty in Lambert or even that some people are particularly poverty-stricken -- for whatever reason. And certainly, I would not suggest that we should just hand out free houses or free cars or free anything necessarily. I was in Lambert yesterday because of the way poverty has been institutionalized in our country -- and not just in Lambert -- to disproportionately shut many poor people and, most particularly, poor people of color out of the loop of financial well-being and economic development entirely.

Is it possible for an African-American brought up in a single-parent home to earn a Master's Degree in nursing? Absolutely! Frederick Douglass was born a slave, after all. I myself -- though admittedly not African-American -- spent five years on welfare in my thirties and now I teach college. One of the reasons I became a sociologist is that I celebrate the indefatigueable human spirit. To paraphrase Maya Angelou's poem, "We rise. Like dust. We rise."

Nevertheless, Martin Luther King, Jr., understood when he kicked off the first Poor People's Campaign in Marks (just a few miles from Lambert) in 1968, that poverty is violence and that, while it is always true that some will "make it" somehow, the majority of those in truly abject poverty have difficulty doing so and the causes are known. It's hard, for one thing, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when somebody stole your shoes. This country became the rich nation it is on the free labor of African people who received no acknowledgement and no financial benefits from that labor during or after it was appropriated. Just because it was never paid doesn't mean the debt doesn't matter. Only a couple of decades ago, cotton field workers in the Delta were still making $80 for working an 80-hour week. What kind of life could be built on that kind of foundation?

Another reason people sometimes get stuck is that they don't have immediate role models. It cannot be underestimated the power that relationships with successful individuals has on children. Conversely, the power of being surrounded by people whose lives are a testimony to their discouragment, depression, and hopelessness is at least equally powerful, if not more so. When I was told by my father, for example, at eighteen years of age that "women are for sex and cooking," it would not have affected me nearly so much if I had known one woman personally who had broken through that barrier. As it was, it took me twenty years to get over the infection that statement imbedded in my psyche.

You mention growing up in a single-parent household, but you also mention that your mother was a teacher while you were still a child. What if she had been a former sharecropper -- now unemployed -- who had to drop out of school at thirteen to eat? Do you imagine you would still be earning your Master's Degree? Statistical data tells us that the single greatest predictor of how far a child will go in school is how far their parents went. That doesn't mean it's impossible to go beyond, just that the odds are against the child who has to scale uncharted territory.

Yet another nail in the coffin of persistent poverty is the expectation of others. In a country where the default position is White Supremacy, children of color from coast to coast routinely meet reduced expectations in school and otherwise. It's a matter of public record that the effects of this over time are damning to the developing souls of children. And I would argue that along with the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent and the continuing travesty of Black men languishing in the bellies of this nation's prisons and jails without cause, what is being perpetrated against children of color under this U.S. system will send the decision-makers in this nation to hell if there's any justice in this universe at all.

This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the first Poor People's Campaign in 1968 and why Antoinette Harrell and Ines Soto-Palmarin co-founded Gathering of Hearts and called for yesterday's poverty tour and public hearing. They're not saying people need more free stuff. They're saying we shouldn't keep operating as if money is more important than life. They're saying that we can't morally defend prioritizing war over job development. They're saying we need to remember that all children have an inalienable right to adequate nutrition, safety, medical attention, and education. And they are saying that, without a vision, the people perish.

You and your immediate neighbors may have jobs and homes and vehicles, but when 30,000 textile factory jobs left Mississippi and were not replaced in the 1990's a lot of people became long-term unemployed. Not to mention the fact that, while your mother was able to supplement your education, the Mississippi schools in general are statistically the worst in the nation. These are things government officials can address. Unfortunately, they're so committed to putting money in corporate pockets -- and their own --they claim not to have anything left to meet these other challenges.

Nobody's criticizing your hometown, Diva. We -- just like MLK before us -- are simply saying that the citizens of the United States should be able to expect a reasonable quality of life, no matter whether they're Black or White, male or female, from Michigan or Mississippi. Everyone's all in a lather about the formerly middle class (and above) White folks who are having trouble meeting the mortgage payments on their quarter of a million dollar houses now because the job market's gone belly up. Gathering of Hearts is just trying to remind us that there are people in America who were already poor before last year. They were at the bottom of the ladder before and being ignored. Now, with the new economic developments, there's every possibility that they'll go from being ignored to being forgotten completely.

I live in a parish in Louisiana where 60% of the public schools are still segregated. Some people drive their kids all the way from Mississippi every day to attend these segregated schools and the ones that are racially identifiable as White look like palaces compared to the ones that are racially identifiable as Black. African-American men are four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men at every educational level. African-American life expectancy is shorter. African-American babies are more likely to be born with low birth weight. And European-American families hold on average eleven times the wealth of African-American families. Sociologists call the practice of holding people responsible for attacks against them "blaming the victim." Even victims of attack have power -- especially in numbers. But that doesn't make the attack deserved.

What I describe is only the tip of the iceberg and it all suits well a system that is calculated to keep the most of the best for people that look like me and relegate African-Americans to whatever's left over. Then, when someone like you, Diva, makes it out from under anyway, those with the power to define point at you and say, "See. Black people have the same opportunities as White people. If they aren't doing well, it's their own fault." And they've said it so long and repeated it so often, they've convinced even you that it's true.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Poor People's Campaign 2009 on 6/19

Photo by Walter C. Black, Sr.

As you may recall, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Antoinette Harrell's poverty tours in February. The one I went on involved the Mississippi Delta region near Marks, where Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked off his Mule Train for the first Poor People's Campaign in 1968. It was a life-changing experience. Even my post about it generated attention from a wide range of readers, including, for example, a producer from Al Jazeera in Washington, D.C.

Harrell co-founded, with Boston city planner Ines Soto-Palmarin, an organization they call "Gathering of Hearts" and on Friday, June 19th, Gathering of Hearts will host an all-day event in Lambert, Mississippi, intended to raise national awareness of the condition of the people who still live there in much the same type of financial crisis that drew Martin Luther King's attention in the first place.

King's original focus, of course, was racial inequality and in the mid-1960's, he was riding a huge wave of public support on that issue. Then, on April 4, 1967, King delivered a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at New York City’s Riverside Church. It outlined, as only King could, exactly how he had come to feel about the war in Vietnam and about the government’s practice of allocating funds to the military “with alacrity and generosity” while turning to the poor with “hostility,” divvying out poverty funds with “miserliness.” Those that agreed with his stance were thrilled, but there were many who turned a jaundiced eye on his foray into a much less clear-cut political arena not seen as directly related to de-segregation issues.

Determined to address this major root cause of inequality and pain in the nation, King moved shortly into talking – loudly and eloquently – about the many abjectly poverty-stricken in the U.S., whether African-American or not. Soon, he was including Latinos, Native Americans, and even poor Whites from the Appalachian mountains in his discussions about what was wrong in America and what needed to be done about it. He had never left them out entirely, but now he spoke not as a Black leader of Black people, but as an American leader of poor people. And there are those who believe that this is what cost him his life.

Soon, King and the other founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council were deep in discussions planning a Poor People's Campaign that would give a voice to a “multicultural army of the poor.” Senator and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy instructed Marion Wright (now Edelman) to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington, to make them visible. And King answered the call.

By the time he and the other SCLC leaders reached Memphis in April of 1968 to support a strike by the sanitation workers for better conditions and the right to unionize, the decision had already been made to take a mule train from Marks, Mississippi, to Washington, D.C., to demand a Poor People’s Bill of Rights. King called the Campaign the “second phase” of the civil rights movement and massive government jobs programs, affordable housing, and a guaranteed annual income for the poor were only the beginning of what was going to be presented as non-negotiable expectations. The Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.” But the day after King arrived in Memphis, he was shot and killed, insuring that he would never see the Poor People's Campaign become a reality.

Photo by Laura Jones

Undaunted, the multicultural army King had enlisted gathered and made the trek to Washington in May, where 50,000 marchers established a shanty town they named Resurrection City. With 2000 to 5000 residents, Resurrection City had a sewer system, health care, schools and even a mayor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy. Each day began with a demonstration at the Department of Agriculture and then various groups would descend on the office of their primary interest. At night, musicians would entertain. Jimmy Collier sang. Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. Even Pete Seeger made an appearance.

But an almost incredible amount of rain soon turned the City into a mud hole of soggy despair that no musician could brighten. And by the time government bulldozers rolled into the camp on June 24th, many, if not all, of the residents were doubtless relieved, though broken-hearted that the Poor People's Campaign, valiant effort that it was, had joined the one who conceived it as only a historical note.

Nevertheless, one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many memorable quotes is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.” And so it is, that, 41 years after the first Poor People's Campaign, Gathering of Hearts has stepped up to the plate to re-awaken history by calling for a new commitment by a new Presidential administration to the old problem of poverty – even deep, deep poverty – in the United States.

The new Poor People's Campaign will begin with a poverty tour from 9:00 a.m. until noon on Friday, June 19th. Anyone who wants to participate should meet before 9:00 a.m. at the Quitman County Elementary School on Highway 3 South in Lambert, Mississippi. A Public Hearing at that same school from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. will feature speakers such as the Rev. Dr. Al Sampson (one of the planners of the original Poor People's Campaign); long-time organizer Dr. John Perkins of the John M. Perkins Foundation; Snoop Dogg's father, Vernell Varnado; and Nation of Islam Student Minister Ava Muhammad. For more information about the poverty tour or the afternoon press conference event, call 985-229-8001.

The Southern Christian Leadership Council has organized an SCLC fundraiser breakfast and a Poor People's Campaign march in Jackson, Mississippi, for the following day, Saturday, June 20th. For more information about these events, call 404-522-1420.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Pitts: You Don't Really Know Me

The following was written by Leonard Pitts, Jr., of the Miami Herald. I virtually never post anything in its entirety, but this is extraordinary. Leonard Pitts is a highly respected columnist who happens to be African-American. This is his take on White people who always seem to blame a Black man when they want to create a believable villain:

"I am your scapegoat. I am your boogeyman. Brown-skinned, kinky-haired, black man, me.

"So I was not surprised (it was just another day at the office) last week when a white woman from suburban Philadelphia called police from her cellphone, claiming she had been locked in the trunk of a Cadillac by two black men. Nor was I shocked (it was just another day in the life) when police said Bonnie Sweeten was actually holed up in a luxury hotel at Walt Disney World, and there never was a kidnapping, much less by two black men.

"I'm your scapegoat. I'm your boogeyman. So I'm used to these things.

"In fact, they happen often. Happened just a few months ago when that John McCain campaign worker said she was robbed by a burly black man who carved a 'B' into her face . . . as in 'Barack,' get it? Turned out she carved the letter herself, then blamed a black man. Just as Charles Stuart did when he killed his wife in 1989. Just as Tanya Dacri did when she dismembered her 7-week-old son that same year. Just as Susan Smith did when she rolled her car, her two boys inside, into a lake in 1994.

"University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, author of The Color of Crime, has documented 92 such incidents between 1987 and 2006. She cautions that white men are sometimes victims of racial hoaxes: witness the cases of Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse team.

"But she says the overwhelming majority of the time -- 67 percent, to be exact -- it is the other way around: white liars blaming black men for things that did not happen. Russell-Brown is particularly intrigued that Sweeten identified her supposed kidnappers as driving a Cadillac. That fits a pattern, she says. 'When it's someone white alleging they've been harmed by someone African American, there are these fantastic racially laden stereotypes that are used. Whether it's dreadlocks, or smell, or big and burly. This fits right in, the Cadillac.'

"Naturally. Because I'm your scapegoat, your boogeyman. Cadillac drivin', pimp-walkin', white woman-lustin', me.

"I am the shape and size and sound of your fears. You know me on sight, know me before you know my name, know me before I even stick out my hand and say Hi. You know I have no feelings beyond your perception of me, no thought beyond what you impute to me, no purpose beyond your fear of me. I live in the shadow of your consciousness, do not exist outside of you.

"But can you imagine if I did? Boy, can you imagine the ache and anger if I did?

"It's a good thing I don't, a good thing I am only what I am: scapegoat, boogeyman, the car window you roll up, the door you lock, the ATM you avoid, the crime statistics you glance right by because they try to tell you I'm not what you think I am, didn't do what you thought I did.

"Hell, you don't need some researcher's 'statistics' to know about me. We've known each other for years. Dozens of years, hundreds of years. Remember when you denied me a job, then called me a thief? Remember when you blew up my school then called me ignorant? Remember when you killed my father, then complained I was filled with rage?

"No, you're right. There's no point in remembering that. Why should you remember a past that makes you uncomfortable? Why do I even need a past, existing as I do only within the confines of your awareness? All we have -- or need -- is the now. And in the now, Bonnie Sweeten has been exposed and she'll face the law and that's all we can really ask, isn't it? There's no point in digging deeper, no purpose served in wondering why, when she wanted to put a face to a crime, she chose mine.

"We already know. I'm your scapegoat, I'm your boogeyman. And I have no feelings beyond those you give me.

"But can you imagine if I did?"

Leonard Pitts, Jr., can be contacted by email at lpitts@miamiherald.com