Archive | March, 2012

LIVE @ 9am “Images In the River: Black Girls Dialogue”

30 Mar

Good morning CFC community,

After our Feminism 101 for Girls report many asked for more information about the organization and implementation of the workshop.  Well Tami Harris and Julia Stevens of the parenting blog Love Isn’t Enough have arranged an online discussion with five panelists to discuss how to introduce feminism to black girls.  The panelists include educators and activists: Mashadi Matabane, Bianca Laureano, Asha French, Sheri Davis-Faulkner, and Ruth Nicole Brown. Bios for the panelists are listed on the Love Isn’t Enough website. 

Join us for what promises to be a fantastic and necessary discussion.  We look forward to “hearing” from you.  If you have difficulties accessing the discussion from this site click here.

http://www.coveritlive.com/index2.php/option=com_altcaster/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=a47a755c8a/height=550/width=470

On Appropriate Victims: More on Trayvon Martin and Other Names You Need to Know

26 Mar

Image of Rekia Boyd

Part of the reason folks rallied in reaction to Trayvon Martin’s murder has to do with ideas about who is an appropriate or worthy victim. He was shot by a vigilante, he wasn’t armed, he was a good student, had some class privilege, he was doing something mundane, simply returning from buying Skittles and ice tea. He was “innocent” and killed in cold blood.

We have an idea of who is deserving of support en masse and who is not. And for similar reasons we thought, with 911 tapes, eyewitness testimony, national outrage that it would result in a prosecution in the very least. If anything, the murder of Trayvon Martin shows us once again that there is no such thing as an “appropriate” Black victim.

Despite all evidence, Geraldo, Gingrich and others have found a way to make Trayvon the guilty party in his own fatal shooting. When brown and black men wear hoodies, they are asking for it. In a moment when it seems undeniable that race is a factor, people are still denying it! They even use victim blaming language.

Last week was International Anti-Street Harassment Week and I was struck with the similarities between the harassment that Black and Latino men experience by the police and the experiences of trans and cis women and gender non-conforming folks on the street. The language used by men of color to describe police harassment, is very similar to the language that those of us marginalized by our genders use to name our realities. Our clothing choices, our right to be where we are, when we want are all called into question.

Stopped, Frisked and Speaking Out from NYT The Local – Ft. Greene on Vimeo.

It seems that this time we can begin to talk across these incidents of violence and see the ways in which societal oppression is killing people. When you wear your hoodie for Trayvon, also think of:

Shaima Alawadi
Rekia Boyd
Deoni Jones
CeCe McDonald

Because these victims were women, Iraqi, trans, they didn’t pass the appropriate victim test. News media and popular opinion hasn’t prompted folks to take to the streets in the same numbers for them. But people are making the connections. We can be more coordinated with our outrage. We can demand a justice that doesn’t rely on the very system that didn’t help Trayvon in the first place (will we really be satisfied with the prosecution of Zimmerman? Can’t we ask for something else?). We can build solidarity to deal with the xenophobia, transmisogyny, and racism that target our communities in similar ways. In the wake of this tragedy we can start new collaborative initiatives that support survivors and families that are recovering after loss and move our collective response from reaction to revolution!

Images in the River-Black Girls Dialogue

22 Mar

Nina Simone’s haunting ballad “Images” based on the poem by Waring Cuney tells a story about black girls we know all to well.  Not knowing our beauty and not seeing our images; for many of my friends and family it has been a struggle for us to see ourselves as beautiful, worthy of love, and major contributors to the world around us.  However, when we found Audre Lorde, Ella Baker, Angela Davis, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Darlene Clark Hine, Alice Walker, Faith Ringgold, Toni Morrison, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Smith, Shirley Chisholm, June Jordan, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu and so many more we saw our image in the river and we knew…

Currently black girls are under attack, on display, and undereducated. Cyberbullying on FB, actual bullying at school, constant surveillance by school security, heterosexism and homophobia all contribute further to the marginalization of black girls.  There are no palm trees in the streets, but they have to deal with unwanted sexual attention in public, and sometimes private, as well as fat-hatred on billboards and tv commercials.  They are not getting adequate general health education or sex education.  Neither their public or private education tells them of the streams of powerful black women and girls in their lineage.  As black feminists, womanists, Afrafeminists, women of color scholars and activists we cannot wait for them to come to us.  We must seek them out and as we guide them to the river we must listen to what they have to say.

Last year the CFC learned the power of our community when we reached out for support with our Feminism 101 for Girls workshop and we received an outpouring of love.  The workshop was a success and we provided a report back in good feminist form, but it was just the beginning.  Since then bloggers Tami Harris and Julia Stevens from Love Isn’t Enough contacted the CFC and workshop facilitators to participate on an online panel and we agreed.

Join us for a live panel discussion, Images in the River: Black Girl Dialogues, at 9 am ET, Saturday, March 31, featuring Sheri Davis-Faulkner, member of the CFC and American Studies PhD Candidate; Mashadi Matabane, Fem101 facilitator and PhD Candidate into transformative agency; Bianca Laureano, founder of the LatiNegr@s Project, who has worked with and taught youth of color and speaks at national and international organizations advocating sex-positive social justice agendas; and Asha French, member of CFC and Doctoral Student in English to discuss planning, funding and facilitating feminism 101 discussions for black girls. The conversation can be accessed on Love Isn’t Enough, Crunk Feminist Collective, What Tami Said and Cover It Live.

This conversation is about sharing best practices and learning from one another.  It is also a call to action so after the panel we encourage participants to schedule dialogues with black girls in your communities and report back.  Specific details for joining the discussion are forthcoming.  Tweet using the hashtag: #blackgirlsdialogue.

It’s time we see our images in the river.  It’s time to talk about black girl problems.  It’s time to talk about black girl joy.  It’s time to talk.

The Love of Black Mothers and the Care of Black Children

18 Mar

I

In august of 2011, I had to call my mother – on a cell phone with not a lot of power left because I had been checking Facebook and texting friends, hoping to be released from a CT Scan clinic at Duke Hospital – to tell her that in less than two hours, I would be under anesthesia and that there was a chance (50 percent, I later discovered) I might not wake up. Things, for me, felt as quick as this opening sentence: no time to think about what was happening: just hazy, blurry, rapid movement. It was difficult for me to tell: the forceful speed with which a visit to student health for what I thought to be a painful pulled muscle (and no need to inform my mother of such frivolity) turned into no less than 13 doctors visiting me in the Operating Room prep area within the span of 30 minutes, all saying “we’re surprised you’re alive!,” and hinting that had I waited another 24 hours to see about that pain – pain thought only to be the residue of a new Bikram yogi – I would likely have died. How to tell that to your mother on the phone when she is hours away in New Jersey; to receive a phone call from a nervous father not moments after speaking with said mother, attempting to explain to him that you don’t even know what the doctors meant while he sat at work, trying not to sound baffled and tear up a bit; to try to explain the severity of the issue at hand without understanding. This was the context of my visit to Duke Hospital in late August 2011. And there was a hurricane in the New Jersey area that made travel impossible so though I had a hospital stay of six days, it was not until the day after I was released that my mother made the trek to North Carolina to attend to me, to take care of me, to cook and talk and help me walk. Still, mostly I remember how I felt moments before I was wheeled into the Operating Room: on the phone with my mother while a friend from church held my hand, me laid out on the bed: and as my mother prayed that God would protect me and my theological convictions shattered because of my agnosticism, I cried like I was a five year old: confused: dazed: hoping, above all, that that would not be the last time I’d hear her voice.

Though unemployed at the time, “even if I had been working, I would have taken off to be with you,” is what my mother said, and what I knew to be true. She was with me for two and a half weeks and just having her here was of grave importance. The woman who changed my diapers and fed me in high chairs and with whom I made chocolate chip cookies while my older brother was at school when I was no more than three years old; the woman who potty trained me, who showed me how to tie my shoes – the blue Nikes with the yellow swoosh right before we walked to the Five and Dime store around the corner on South Orange Avenue – all this I remember about the interactions between a mother and her son. And all I could think about on that hospital bed not moments away from an incision and a very serious operation was, “I hope this is not the last time I talk to her.” But many recent events are making me revisit the love of mothers, the love of black mothers, for children, for black children. And I keep thinking that I, at least, had the opportunity to call my mother and say something before the unexpected erupted in our lives. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

 

II

The capacity for black women to be mothers is radically under attack presently. Of course, this is nothing new: from antebellum legal declarations that the “status” of children would follow the “status” of mothers because those persons were the reproductive force of degraded station; to the report of one such Moynihan that ostensibly blamed black matriarchy for the failures of black social life without ever interrogating the normative modes of family that Negroes “failed” to produce; to recently, the incarceration practices of black mothers who have the purported nerve to “steal” public education from municipalities.

Though Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, lived with her father part-time and, thus, was within the lines of the of Copley-Fairlawn school district, she was sentenced to ten days in prison, having stolen “quality” education for her daughters. The school district’s stance was that the tax dollars needed to stay with “their” students. Of course, it did not matter that Williams-Bolar’s father paid the very same taxes to the very same municipality. What mattered is that the person who stole education was not a primary resident of that municipality.  The idea that Williams-Bolar, or anyone really, “stole” public education should give any of us pause because such claims, particularly when thought about as a theft of tax dollars in particular areas, do not take into account the economic structure that makes such declarations of theft possible. That is, ours is a political-economic system that necessitates inequitable distributions of wealth and, attendant to wealth, healthcare, educational and job opportunities. The desire to make out of Williams-Bolar an example is nothing other than a war against the poor who point out the fundamental injustices that persist in our political-economic system that makes a poor class out of the majority. For the Copley-Fairlawn school district to prosecute Williams-Bolar was nothing other than a claim that all persons are not worthy of equitable resources in educational practices but only those born, quite literally, in the right lines. Though pardoned, the very fact of the prosecution should tell us that something is fundamentally wrong with the way resources are hoarded by some and refused to others.

Unfortunately, Tanya McDowell has not been pardoned and has a mandatory prison sentence of five years with another five probation. Though homeless, with her most recent residence being Bridgeport, Connecticut, she enrolled her then five-year-old son in the Norwalk School District. She did not plead guilty, but rather entered a plea under the Alford Doctrine, refusing to admit guilt but conceding that the state had enough evidence to convict her [and when does the state not? especially when it can fabricate…but more on that soon]. We live in a world where the very concept, that someone could possibly “steal” education, is possible. This should force us to ask some serious questions about what is at stake in educational practice as it does not seem to be raising awareness, making people critical thinkers or the affirmation of the capacity to learn. When education can be “stolen” and one “convicted” of such action, it appears that education is nothing more than a commodity that participates in the inequities that many of us are committed to dismantling. This is especially preposterous for McDowell because the folks responsible for her conviction will not say that she “stole” from a fundamentally, foundationally inequitable institution. Robin Hood be praised; black women mothers be damned, so it seems. McDowell’s purported theft only shows just how discriminatory the structure of education is.

Both McDowell and Williams-Bolar illustrate what is, quite literally, class-based targeting … no one in “good” (economically viable) school districts would be accused of such theft because, at base, they would not need to “steal” these goods in the first place. And sure, they’d argue that their taxes provide for such an occasion for educational opportunities but then obscure the fact that these possibilities for economic viability are made from the same inequitable political-economic structures that animate the educational and judicial system. The residents within the lines of the “good” school districts are there because of inequity, not in spite of it.

Hannah Arendt, though sympathetic to the Negro cause for justice in the 1950s, could never bring herself to the American south and “even avoided occasional trips to Southern states because they would have brought me into a situation that I personally would find unbearable.”[1] This while she likewise stated that she could not understand how a Negro parent would allow the school to be a politicized space, how a Negro parent could send the girl in the photograph – Elizabeth Eckford – into conditions of such violence and violation. In another version of the same “reflections” about Little Rock, Arendt stated, “My first question was, what would I do if I were a Negro mother? The answer: under no circumstances would I expose my child to conditions which made it appear as though it wanted to push its way into a group where it was not wanted.”[2] When Mamie Till had an open casket funeral for her son Emmett and had the photographs published in the Chicago Defender and elsewhere because she wanted the world to see what had happened to her son, the response from some was ‘what kind of mother would do such a thing?’

In the cases of both Williams-Bolar and McDowell – and with the persistence of such queries; and with the excessiveness of punitive response to their maneuvers and choreographies rooted in a love for their children – at issue is the question: what kind of mother would do such things? Arendt, the critique of Mamie Till, Moynihan’s “report” all show that the Negro/Black/African American Mother is a general problem for theological-philosophical thought: just how do they do the thing that they do; just how do they show care, show love, give joy, give hope, in the midst of perpetual violence and violation? From what resource do these persons draw in order to move forward, and move ever forward, faces like flint, in joy, in love, given the brutal conditions under which these persons are forced to live? Williams-Bolar and McDowell are philosophers and theologians of black maternity and we do well to listen to their resistance to the given world. But not every black mother is so lucky to have an end-date to her suffering.

III

“Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.”[3] Thus begins Hortense Spillers’s fascinating “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” focusing on the very specific, very particular material conditions of black people since historic passages through mediums and middles on bateaus, ketches and skiffs, named with conventions such as Jesus, or the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Spillers prophesied the telling of Trayvon Martin’s murder to his parents: an unmarked, unnamed body, Trayvon’s father, Tracey Martin, “thought that he was missing, according to the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, but the boy’s body had actually been taken to the medical examiner’s office and listed as a John Doe” for a day.[4] Spillers’s being marked converges here with Trayvon’s being discovered, the normativity of the conflating of blackness and anonymity, enunciated and rehearsed by some people not knowing a name, by some people not giving a damn. It is important to note – as a sign of irrepressible, irresistible life – that Spillers says “not everybody” because if she is unknown, and if Trayvon is John Doe, this is limited and not absolute, no matter how pessimistic we may appear to become.

Being marked, being discovered. What we have here is an ontological set of concerns. What when your marking is the point of your discovering; what when the thing that you constantly manifest is the thing that constantly must be found elsewhere? The manifestation of Trayvon’s being marked by George Zimmerman occurred through the refusal to be earnest. Rather, Trayvon appeared as “a real suspicion guy,” Zimmerman’s was a gaze attesting the idea that Trayvon was “up to no good” and that he seemed to be “on drugs or something.” Though raining and night time, in Zimmerman’s mind donning a hood was nothing more than an accouterment to such criminal behavior, grounded in the fact of Trayvon’s presence: “he looks black.” Literally walking down the street looking around, basic behavior in which many of us participate daily, was criminally suspect to Zimmerman, enough so that he called 911, registered a complaint, trailed Trayvon in a car, got out the car, confronted Trayvon, scuffle ensued, ending in two shots: one in the air, one in Trayvon’s chest.

There appears to be a conspiratorial nature to the Sanford Police Department’s engagement with this particular case. No longer, even no longer primarily, is this operative at the level of the individual and interpersonal, and thus, Zimmerman’s claim for “self-defense.” The institutional practices of justice are being obscured and obstructed from even an initial movement into the search for justice. The PD at best appears to be misinformed, at worst lying, about what occurred, when it occurred, who said what, and how they said it. The PD is covering up the fact of Zimmerman’s past in favor of saying that he had a “squeaky clean record.” The PD is not even willing to arrest because they feel they have no “grounds” upon which to act, though their inaction is justified only by their refusal to be earnest, to be truthful.

It seems that the Sanford PD thinks that “self-defense” is only possible as a reasonable response when the force of such purported “defense” exceeds that of the one against whom such force is supposedly necessary. That Trayvon could not ask “what’s the problem?” to a dude who was slowly trailing him in a car did not register as a desire to guard his own personhood. It is only the continual elevation of force, turned fatal, that gave Zimmerman license to claim he was merely, only acting in “defense” of his “self” (not a little problematic category in the general, given the necessarily violent and violative history of such a concept in the west. Certain folks, through privilege, can claim such status, it seems and a black boy threatened such “selfhood”). Zimmerman’s theological-philosophical understanding of “self” is the problem and we find this out based on his discovery of a marked, suspicious boy.  What Zimmerman guarded, what he fundamentally defended, was his “right” to make a claim, here in this case, that someone was “suspicious” and his “right” to protection against the very appearance of that which bodied forth his claim. He was guarding against a general antagonism – a black boy walking home, not unlike Elizabeth walking to a Little Rock school, not unlike Emmett whistling.

How does one tell and tell a mother, a black mother, that a son, a black son, was murdered for suspiciously having Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea? Sybrina Fulton – Trayvon’s mother – knew Trayvon’s name. And each time, each and every time, I watch an interview of her, I am moved by her being moved, and angry by her being angry, and upset by her being upset, and confused by her being confused. Zimmerman, as of this writing, has not been arrested yet nor charged with any wrongdoing because he claimed self-defense. Fulton has appeared in several news conferences and interviews simply asking for justice to be done…for her son. The anger and rage, the sadness and melancholy of Fulton [and, but of course, Tracey Martin as well] must unfortunately be bottled up, be channeled into niceties, sitting in seats answering erroneous questions about Trayvon and if he enjoyed eating chicken.

But most poignantly, and most upsetting, is the way Trayvon’s voice will be, no doubt, etched in his mother’s mind: the release of a 911 call clearly has the cries, the pleas, the wailings from a young black boy for help seconds before the chilling sounding out of two gunshots. And then, silence. The cry for help, the plea for aid, the wailing for release is fundamentally on the edge between the particular and the general: it is his particular lament but rehearses and improvises a long history of such lament. Trayvon’s voice echoes and is echo; it reverberates and is a moment of previous reverberation. It is this haunting, chilling and quite simply, heartbreaking sound that his mother knows is the last sound he made. His shriek shares in, and gives, eternal force. But I understand something of his crying out in despair: hoping his mother would hear him, feel him, love him…still, even under such unequivocally horrendous conditions.

I want for Fulton what I want for Williams-Bolar and McDowell: justice. I want for these mothers, these black mothers, what I want for the world: an end to suffering that we cause by the inequities we set into motion and refuse to interrogate. Trayvon’s murder is part and parcel of a political-economic system predicated upon lack rather than abundance, hoarding rather than sharing.

IV

Tarrying. Having grown up in the Black Pentecostal sect of Christianity, I learned early on what it meant to tarry: to wait on the indwelling, the infilling, of the individual with the Holy Spirit, announced by the “initial evidence” of glossolalia, of speaking in tongues “as the Spirit gives utterance.” What so fascinates me about tarrying is that it literally means, “wait” but in that waiting, a sociality is both fashioned and in process of being fashioned, is both made and being made. The sounds of wailing and moaning, of “Jesus” and “have your way!” and of hand claps and foots stomps and tambourine jingles jiggling: cacophonous transcendence that is not always and everywhere loud but is dynamic, dramatic changes in volume and breath allow for the inhabitation of the Spirit. And then, one person breaks out, speaking in tongues. Then another. And maybe, and perhaps, another. And at the end of such tarrying is praise for those who “came through.”

I end by a brief discussion of tarrying because of a fundamental concern that Williams-Bolar, McDowell and Fulton presence for us: how long must we wait for justice to be done in the world, for justice to “come through”? They are but specific examples of an ongoing, general trend for certain lives to be treated as tenuous. But from our position, the position of the underground and submerged, the position of the marginalized, we know of our lives differently. The sorta political-economic world in which we exist needs for joy and love to be a limited resource rather than a radical commitment to allowing others to live, and thrive in that living. But this other position, we know of the joy of inhabitation, of the new song. We know it because we experience it daily but there are massive and strident attempts to make such abundant life unavailable. But we make this abundance life, not because of the brutal conditions of the world, but in spite of those conditions.

People would get frustrated and not a little angry if they tarried all night long and still not have an experience of glossolalia; it seemed – because of theological conviction – the Holy Spirit was refusing to indwell a particular believer. To have some folks speak of the joy and pleasure of the experience while others – pining and climbing and reaching for such ecstasy – have it refused is not a little bit disheartening. That same frustration and anger I carry against the radical assault on women in politics today, from reproductive health rights to incarceration for the theft of public educational goods asking: How long? How long must we wait? And though we create beautiful, radical sound and sociality in such waiting – as with the tarrying YouTube clip above – we still want for such waiting to break forth and burst free into the “coming through” from it all. Williams-Bolar had to fight to have her sentencing reduced from felony to misdemeanor. McDowell will be separated from her young son for five years. Fulton? Fulton does not know if justice will be served…she knows that her son has been murdered. At least I got to call my mother and hear her pray over and for me as I laid on the hospital bed. I want that for everyone.


[1] Hannah Arendt and P. R. (Peter R. ) Baehr, The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin Books,, 2000), 232.

[2] Hannah Arendt and Jerome Kohn, Responsibility and Judgment, 1st ed. (New York: Schocken Books,, 2003), 193.

[3] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003., n.d.), 203.

[4] Charles M. Blow, “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin,” The New York Times, March 16, 2012, sec. Opinion, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/opinion/blow-the-curious-case-of-trayvon-martin.html.

Re-Nigging on the Promises: #Justice4Trayvon

16 Mar

Another Black kid is dead.

This time it’s 17 year old Trayvon Martin.

His life snuffed out at the hands of an overzealous, trigger happy white neighborhood watch commander named George Zimmerman, who thought Trayvon looked “suspicious” as he walked back to his father’s home in a suburban Florida neighborhood with a pack of skittles and an iced tea for his little brother. Trayvon was unarmed; Zimmerman was packing a semiautomatic weapon.

How do we make sense of the senseless?

From the facts alone, it is clear that Zimmerman presented the real threat. But it has now been two and a half weeks since the shooting, and Sanford Police Department has declined to charge Zimmerman with a crime. Law enforcement officials claim they have no evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense.

Apparently an unarmed, dead Black teen is not evidence enough.  If this were 1912 and not 2012, we would call a Black man killed by a one-man firing squad with no just cause what it is: a lynching. These days, we search for euphemisms.

Self-defense. That feels so inadequate.

I mean, whose selves really need defending if it is Black selves—primarily Black male selves—that keep being murdered?

It’s high time that we started asking some serious questions about how we keep ending up here.  Because there is most assuredly a racial logic—an alarming method – to this madness.

So come, let us reason, together. (Yeah, I got Biblical, because in times like these we need a savior. Take that as literally or as figuratively as you will.)

In one of the earliest reports I read about this murder, the author felt it important to mention that Trayvon was visiting his father because he had been suspended from school for a week. It infuriated me that this detail was there. It was a subtle way to suggest that this kid didn’t have his head on straight, that he had some flaw, that he had already demonstrated himself to be a disciplinary problem.

How does it feel to be a problem? It feels like gunshots, unheard screams, and a lonely, violent death.

It is now statistically documented that Black students are suspended 46% more than all other students, and account for 39% of expulsions, though they only make up 18% of the school system.  One in five Black boys is subjected to out-of-school suspension. The increase in zero-tolerance policies and automatic referrals to law enforcement are major culprits here. It is beginning to sound like schools have a zero-tolerance for students of color in general, and an aversion to Black boys in particular.

A story.

Years ago, I taught reading to a group of middle-schoolers in D.C. public schools. That year four of my male students –all African-American—were expelled. Three of them were expelled not for selling drugs on the campus, but for failing to report that they knew one of their classmates was doing so. As the Head of School told me, “we have an honor code and a zero-tolerance policy.” Nearly ten years later, I find that decision the most dishonorable of decisions I encountered at that school, which was a fairly dishonorable experience for me. What my boss didn’t seem (willing) to understand is that these students –while boarding students during the week—returned home on weekends, to the very communities where the dealers supplying the drugs to their classmate lived. To ask these students to put their lives and their families’ lives in danger in order to honor our honor code was an exercise in missing the point. So the kids were expelled.

I learned a lot then about how the cultures of discipline in public schools fail to honor the very real material realities that shape how kids engage in school. When scholars talk about a school-to-prison pipeline, they are not simply talking about the ways that systematic lack of educational access sets up Black people for a stint in the criminal justice system. They are also pointing to the fact that the very logic of public schools is designed to discipline Americans into a certain model of  citizenship, one that helps us to believe in the propaganda of equal rights that we are taught in our social studies classes, while obscuring the systematic inequalities that are on gratuitious display through the treatment of children of color, students with disabilities, and poor students.

I can’t help but wonder if it is this kind of discipline to which Trayvon had been subjected. School discipline should not be the pathway to a prison sentence or a death sentence.

A Black kid is dead. And blame must be placed somewhere.

I have zero-tolerance for a justice system that deputizes overzealous white men and vests them with the power to be judge, jury, and executioner, under the trumped up guise of self-defense . If this community fails to prosecute George Zimmerman, their silence, their acquiescence, their approval will constitute an official sanctioning of his course of action.

I can’t help but wonder what he must have thought as he was confronted for no reason by a white guy with a gun, while he was simply trying to go home.

Eyewitnesses said they heard Trayvon call for help. The police swiftly corrected them, letting them know that in fact, it was the white guy who had called for help. Even with eyewitness testimony, the police seemed incapable of seeing Trayvon as the victim. Young Black men are always the aggressors, right? Not the gun-toting white guy, who weighed 100 pounds more than Trayvon. Not the self-styled neighborhood vigilante with a documented disrespect for law enforcement. Nope. Just the Black kid, whose skin is (perceived as) a weapon.

Though Zimmerman had been charged in the past with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, officers told Trayvon’s parents that Zimmerman’s record was squeaky clean.

What is this peculiar thing about whiteness that it makes criminals look like victims and victims look like criminals?

Trayvon’s skin, not his actions, not his character, made him a criminal. Blackness always looks suspicious. Whiteness always looks safe.

A history lesson.

In 1857, Justice Roger Taney infamously declared in the Dred Scott case that “a Black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.”

In this post- most-racial moment*, we must seriously re-evaluate this narrative of linear historical progress that we are beholden to. No, Black men don’t routinely find themselves hanging from trees. But that might be less an evidence of progress and more an evidence of white racial adaptation.

“Racial patterns [will always] adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” – Father of Critical Race Theory Prof. Derrick Bell’s famous maxim echoes in my ears.

(No wonder folks were mad last week to see the re-circulated video of Harvard Law Student Barack Obama hugging his professor Derrick Bell. As Melissa Harris- Perry said, two brothers hugging one another is an unforgivable offense.)

Perhaps a hip-hop metaphor is more appropriate. Present white racial violence frequently samples its own racial past, but packages the narrative in ways that make us think we are making progress, that we are doing a new thing. But this shit ain’t original.

Take for example this 2012 campaign bumper sticker.

The challenge in getting stuck on this show of ignorance is that most racism isn’t that visible. And because it isn’t, white folks (like the many I saw comment on this photograph on facebook) can tell themselves that this is isolated racial ignorance.

They don’t have to contend with the ways that our legal justice system continues to renege on its promises of equality and justice for all, through the enactment of supposedly color-blind policies like stricter voter registration laws that are designed to exclude folk of color from voting, through campaign suggestions that racialize the welfare system, and through sentencing disparities that criminalize Black and Brown folks for life. White folks can see this bumper sticker and never think about the ways in which every one of these deadly racial encounters (which seem to be a not infrequent occurrence in Sanford, Fl.) constitutes a “Re-Nig(gerizing)” of the Black male body. 

Trayvon Martin  “looked suspicious,” Zimmerman told the 911 Dispatcher. In fact, to say  “suspicious” and “Black man” in the same sentence, feels redundant.

Black=suspicious=threat

White=safe=protection/protector

All these (short but long) years later, the racial logic remains the same. Black men are threatening. And murder is a proper response to that threat or a least an understandable one. Ida B. Wells could’ve told us that. And she did. But that soundtrack has been remixed to accompany us into a new era.

How does it feel to be white?

Whiteness, Critical Race Theorist Cheryl Harris tells us, is a “form of property.” In the classical sense, whiteness, like property, confers “all those human rights, liberties, powers, and immunities that are important for human well-being including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from bodily harm, and free and equal opportunities to use personal faculties.” (CRT Reader: 279-280)

Does it feel like freedom? Whiteness.

Well it certainly looks like justice.

The kind of justice that we want for Trayvon.

But there is one problem. Trayvon is Black. And that matters when whiteness is the sine qua non of the American legal system, when possession of a white skin is the prerequisite for justice.

And it is precisely because of this deep-seated association of white skin with property, that George Zimmerman felt he had the right to “patrol” his neighborhood for interlopers and outsiders.

 It is not coincidental that Black men are routinely profiled for looking suspicious in nice neighborhoods “because they don’t belong there.” The battle over who belongs in neighborhoods– even though Trayvon’s step-mother lived there!—is just a modern site for a long-standing warfare over white racial entitlement to control land and every thing that moves on that land.

So despite our cries of #justice4Trayvon, we know that it is a toss-up as to whether Zimmerman will be charged with anything, that it takes a literal act of God for the system to work for us. That God is all we have, when the system works against us.

We keep hoping that reason will take over, that the facts will be presented in just such a way that the crime committed here will become visible, evident, to the powers that be. Somehow, I don’t believe that this is what President Obama meant by “the audacity of hope.” And if he did, I hope he realizes that hope in the face of mounting injustice is an unreasonable thing to ask of us. We are the post-post Civil Rights Generation, the Hip Hop Generation. And we are tired of hope and dreams deferred.

If the persistence of racism has taught us anything, it is this : that racism is not rational. It literally doesn’t make any sense. Yet, we keep appealing to reason, even though we feel like taking it to the streets, because we know that such acts of violence, would be perceived as irrational. Threatening. And met with all consequent force.

 Yet we keep appealing to reason, in hopes that someone will listen.

As we appeal to the system, signing petitions calling for the prosecution of George Zimmerman, we hope against hope, that the system will not decide that Blackness alone makes one a probable threat, worthy of execution, just a few hundred feet from one’s home. And yet, that decision has been made thousands of times. Will Trayvon be any different?

You think our lives are cheap, and easy to be wasted, as history repeats, so foul you can taste it…His life so incomplete, and nothing can replace it”–Lauryn Hill

*Thanks to Rhea C. for the “most-racial” reference.

The (Public Service) Announcement: Black Women & HIV

12 Mar

March 10 was National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, a nationwide observance that is used to help raise awareness about the peculiar impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. One of the goals of the day is to help facilitate discussions and disseminate information about prevention, testing, and/or living with and coping with the disease.  On March 11, I watched the ESPN documentary The Announcement, which traces Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s discovery that he had contracted HIV in 1991 and the subsequent narrative around it, including his emergence as a spokesperson against the disease.

Needless to say, this weekend I felt hyperaware and re-reminded of the impact of HIV/AIDS on women’s lives, particularly black women’s lives.  Cookie Johnson, Magic’s wife, emerged as a heroine in the documentary, never wavering in her commitment to her husband and staying committed to him even after his announcement.  Cookie was HIV-negative, but she represents thousands of women who are unknowingly exposed to the virus and hence at risk.  A recent study states HIV is five times more prevalent among black women than previously thought.   Black women currently make up 60 percent of new infections and 13 percent of the total AIDS epidemic.  Heterosexual black women have the second highest rate of new infections and contract the disease at 15 times the rate of white women.  These statistics are consistent with conversations I have (over)heard and had over the past few years, but I cannot help but wonder why this is such an un(der)discussed and underpublicized phenomenon.  Why are the numbers getting larger instead of smaller?

Amidst a firestorm of political and social debates and cultural conundrums about women’s bodies, choices, sexuality and needs, it is important that we talk to (as)  black women about this issue.  We need to talk to our family, friends, daughters, protégés, ourselves, about the risks and why we are taking them.  I never imagined that twenty years after Magic Johnson’s announcement, which for the first time gave HIV a public and black face, and despite our national and historical awareness of how the disease is spread: having sex without a condom; sharing needles, syringes or drug works; and pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding, that HIV is still spreading at such an alarming rate.  I personally suspect it is a combination of immortality complex (the belief some people have that they are immune to the consequences that other people suffer for bad choices) and misinformation about HIV/AIDS (i.e., that you can tell if someone has HIV by looking at them, or that as long as you are not having sex with someone who uses drugs or is promiscuous, you are safe).

For many women, it is bigger than the virus.  There are social and environmental issues that contribute to the epidemic.  When folk are living in communities and under circumstances that constantly find them in desperate situations and disparate conditions, HIV infection is just another of countless dangers they encounter on a daily basis that puts their lives at risk.  For example, the CDC recognizes challenges such as socioeconomic issues like poverty, limited access to health care and housing, limited access to HIV prevention education, lack of awareness of HIV status, and stigma, fear, discrimination, homophobia and other negative perceptions about being tested as deterrents to prevention.

According to a recent study, black women in six urban areas have some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS:  Baltimore, Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, NC, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.  Further, according to the CDC,  “The greater number of people living with HIV in African American communities and the fact that African Americans tend to have sex with partners of the same race/ethnicity means that they face a greater risk of HIV infection with each new sexual encounter.”

And let’s not dismiss the very vulnerability for intimacy and connection that oftentimes causes young women to make reckless choices about sex.  When teaching a class in central Florida and discussing strategies for encouraging safe sex a student, who worked at a health clinic part time, noted that young women would come in and be treated for STI’s.  She said that even though the staff would give them tempered warnings and free condoms those same young women would come back, weeks or months later, with another STI.  When confronted about the risk of unprotected sex they responded “my boyfriend doesn’t like them,” or “he says we don’t need them (because we are in love).”  These girls were as young as fifteen and had already exposed themselves to the possibility of contracting a lifelong disease.  According the the CDC, 1 in 32 black women will be diagnosed with HIV infection in their lifetime.  87% of them will have gotten the infection by having unprotected sex with a man.  While HIV is no longer a death sentence, there is no cure.

In many ways we have heard/seen the public service announcements, we know the warnings and the risks, yet we continue to make problematic choices.  Perhaps this generation has become desensitized to the risks associated with unprotected sex.  Protected sex is not only about preventing pregnancy.  It is about preventing STI’s, one of which is HIV.  One study states that sometimes women who use hormonal birth control are more likely to contract the disease because while they are careful about protecting themselves from pregnancy, they are not always equally mindful of sexually transmitted infections.

A new campaign, Take Charge Take the Test hopes to raise awareness and urge black women to get tested and know their status.

At the end of the documentary, Magic Johnson says that his contraction of the virus has been both a blessing a curse.  A blessing, he says, because it has helped to raise awareness about the disease.  A curse because his wellness seems to be attached with a nonchalance, rather than fear, about the seriousness of HIV.  While there have been amazing medical interventions that make living longer and healthier lives (with medication) possible, there are other factors that must be considered.  One of which, as Magic explains, is that the disease affects different people differently.  Not everyone will respond to treatments in the same way that he has.  And not everyone can afford the (expensive) treatment.

A few lessons settled with me as I pushed my chair back from the articles, turned off the tv, and felt the full weight of the words, the announcements.  The lessons felt clear and intentional, like the script of an afterschool special.  I am left writing out what I want to say to every black woman I know (and will ever meet)…

  1.  Love yourself more than anyone else. 
  2. Sex should always be protected (unless you are in a committed and monogamous relationship and you have both tested negative!)
  3. Conversations about sex and past sexual partners and status should be foreplay to the foreplay.  If you don’t feel comfortable enough to have this conversation with your sexual partner, perhaps you shouldn’t be having sex with them.
  4. Use condoms even if you are on other methods of contraception for birth control.
  5. Talk to other women about knowing their status and encourage them to get tested.  (Volunteer to go with them when they go!)
  6. Initiate a conversation!  Don’t assume people (especially young people) know what they need to know about HIV.

‘Dos and Don’ts

5 Mar

The summer of 2000 I went to my hairdresser and said, “I want you to cut all of this off,” pointing emphatically to my badly-damaged permed hair.  She asked me if I was sure and I told her I was–and off went four or five inches of angst onto her linoleum floor. What was left was less than an inch of cottony soft dark brown hair.

I was both relieved and scared. I didn’t even remember what my natural hair looked like and I’d never had my hair cut so short. That very day I went to the mall and bought a whole bunch of big hoop earrings so that I “wouldn’t look like a man or a lesbian,” as my mother suggested I would and as I secretly feared. Oh, the internalized patriarchy.

It didn’t take long, though, for me to enjoy waking up every day and looking cute, taking just a few minutes to get ready, and generally having healthy hair. The stylistic change also helped to bolster my already burgeoning crunkness around gender representation. After I got my mind (and my hair) right, I never looked back.

So, when I saw Viola Davis rocking a natural ‘do on the red carpet at the Oscars’ last week, I thought, “She looks great. And she’s working that dress out.” Now, I was still giving her the side eye about The Help and her conversation with Tavis Smiley, but I hoped the sister would get an Academy Award for her trouble.

 I was also pleasantly, but warily, surprised at the generally positive review of her ‘do in the mainstream media. Giuliana Rancic over on E! News positively gushed about Davis’ hair and I read more than a few articles praising Davis’ “bravery” for wearing her natural hair. Now, I know better than to think that the status quo regarding “good hair” had been changed overnight or anything, but I did appreciate the seemingly expanded range of what is being discussed as “beautiful.” That being said, it’s a hot mess when someone is considered brave for wearing their hair pretty much as it grows out of their head.

There’s always a hater though, isn’t there? So, after all of this gushing, television personality and self-declared wig connoisseur Wendy Williams went on record saying that Viola Davis’ look was not formal enough, in addition to some other disparaging remarks.

Really, Wendy?

Now, ain’t nobody really studying Wendy like that and I’m pretty sure Viola Davis isn’t crying into her soup about this either. However, just thinking about all the crap women of color, and black women in particular, get about our hair, Wendy gets the supreme side eye for this. The thing is, all that Wendy has said is what you hear in barber shops, beauty salons, and on the streets.  Her ill-informed opinion is, all too often, not the exception, but the rule.

When I googled "Viola Davis hair" this medley of wigged out hairstyles appeared under the label "Viola's Best Hair." I'm sort of digging numbers 2 and 9.

And before the chorus of “It’s just hair!” rings out, as Britni Danielle over at Clutch recently suggested, “For centuries, our bodies, our hair, and our being have been up for public discussion and display and we cannot deny the fact that sometimes hair is political.” Let’s not get it twisted.

Between the weather running amok, Republicans trying to get all up in folks’ vaginas, and other general shamtastery, we have big fish to fry. Still, that is not to say that the politics around hair don’t matter or can’t hurt. I know I’ve seen the pendulum swing in the other direction, with folks with naturals questioning the politics of progressive folk with straightened or chemically relaxed hair, wigs, and weaves.  Really? Does the revolution have a dress code? At the end of the day, the choices around hair and representations of feminine beauty are complicated–indeed, as complicated as the folks who rock the hairstyles. If we could remember that, along with remembering that folks just want respect, we can help shift the conversations at beauty salons, among our friends, and in our families. So, with the abundance of foolishness going on I just want to send out some love to sistas rocking wigs, weaves, blow outs, tiny afros, kinky twists, locs, baldies, and any other manifestation of crowning glory. With so much surveillance over bodies (and our minds), seemingly simple acts like confidently rocking a fro or skipping down the street in a lacefront take on all types of social significance.  I’m not suggesting that we forget that, but I am saying ‘do you, boo.


no strings

3 Mar

i thought that i

could be brave enough

to make love to you

with

no

strings attached

but your arms around me felt like strings

your fingers, like strings

when you used them to massage my neck

and caress my back

and my legs

felt like strings

when i

held them around your neck

& squeezed and scratched your back

leaving marks that looked like strings

i thought

we could be happy together

laughing before, during, and after

wrapped up in damp sheets

and avoiding each other’s eyes so that we can pretend that it wasn’t that deep

all that touching and holding and moaning

we just did

because we are f’cking without strings

attached

but it felt like a string

pulling and luring me back to you

tying your hands above your head

torturing you with my eyes

because the strings would not allow me to look any other way

or place

as I straddled you and rode you to perfection

but it’s cool because

i never promised to love you

and you never promised to love me back

and i don’t need you to love me

i just want you to want me. . .back

but these strings in my heart

won’t let me

my pride

won’t let me

hold on to false strings

yet somehow i got attached

© R. Boylorn, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

This poetic response offers an extension of Crunktastic’s Birthday Sex post on March 1, 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birthday Sex

1 Mar

Today is our second blogiversary! The journey of these last two years in community with each other and all of you, our beloved readers, has been exhilarating, soul-affirming, life-sustaining, sometimes challenging and frustrating, but totally completely worth it. Thank you for joining us on the journey!

So on this day when we are celebrating our collective effort to bring into life this space of creative praxis, healing, celebration, and the very hard work of imagining and creating a better world, I find myself thinking about what practices and relationships in our lives facilitate healing, celebration, and creativity.

Sex.

Yes, sex is not the only thing that can help us to heal, to celebrate, and to create; Our work can do it; our friendships can do it; our art can do it; our families can do it; but nothing does it quite like good sex.

And frankly, in my world, a world filled (though not solely or exclusively) with highly-educated single Black women, sex perennially gets the short end of the stick. Most often because of circumstance, not choice.

One of my close sista prof friends frequently jokes that the last time she had sex, Bush was president.  I wish I could say that that she was the exception, but all too frequently among the Blackademic set, she is the rule.

At the same time, quantity is no indicator of quality. All sex is not good sex.

So where in fact, can a sista find good, consistent, sex? 

Contrary to pop culture advice in recent days, I can beginning by telling you what and where good sex isn’t.

Good sex doesn’t begin by instructing young boys to take it to the hole, as Too Short recently did. As I said last month, little boys who take that advice become grown men with little knowledge about how women’s bodies actually work. That is, if they don’t become rapists first.

Notwithstanding the title of this post, Good sex is not about letting someone taste your birthday cake, particularly if that person is responsible for nearly shortening the length of the birthdays you might have had.

And good sex certainly won’t come from the Black church’s failure to engage with the ramifications of sexual violence, a continued practice which is reflective of a larger silencing of healthy sexual ethics in the church in general.

(Selah)

During a recent conversation, one of my homegirls and I were chatting about a major career accomplishment. When I asked what she was going to do to celebrate, she said simply I’m “getting some.” Initially, I didn’t know what she meant, not because I’m obtuse, but because I knew how long her most recent drought had been. I also knew she had actively been trying to remedy that problem through online dating. No stranger to prolonged droughts or complicated dating strategies myself (Operation: Get It In 2010 comes to mind), I told her what any good friend would: “Girl, make it rain.”

And she did.

A couple of days later, she called for our standard debrief of the encounter. (I told y’all these are military-style operations.) We chatted about what worked and didn’t, and whether she’d go back for more. And then she said the word that we are taught as good pro-sex feminists should never apply to casual encounters. She felt empty. And I understood. I have felt that way.

But, wait. Emptiness?  Didn’t we (monolithic, sex-positive, feminists) already decide that it was retrograde to think that women need emo sex?

Yes. Yes we did. And rightfully so, I think.

But let me go out on a radical feminist limb here and suggest that straight-up fucking in which folks use each other’s bodies for the sexual labor they provide is not necessarily what me and my homegirls are seeking. For so many of us who followed the good girl script that education should always come before sex and boys, we are confronting a reality in which we achieved our dreams in the most extreme sense. We have more education than we can stand, but the partners that we thought would come from ordering our lives the right way are not forthcoming.Our lives may not depend on good sex , but our livelihoods and our feelings of aliveness certainly do. We are looking for connection, not just physicality.

But can connection and the intimacy it implies be a casual thing?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that’s it’s a dangerous proposition, when one considers capitalist histories of bodily exploitation, particularly as it relates to Black bodies, to ask Black women to engage our bodies in ways that make us feel like someone’s blow up doll. That tell-tale feeling of emptiness is a direct byproduct of feeling like your body is being exploited for its sexual labor, with no concern for your value as a person.

And therein lies my own ambivalence about casual sex.

On the one hand, in my own process of getting to grown, and acknowledging my needs as a grown woman, feminism gave me the language to both identify and advocate for my sexual needs, especially as a person who has been officially single for nearly my entire adulthood. Still, I find that sexual assertiveness is often met with suspicion. In the case of hetero interactions, many brothers see care as something that they only give to women they want long-term relationships with. Not fuck-buddies. Not jump offs. Not friends with bennies. Couple that with the fact that many dudes seem to have a terribly unsophisticated understanding of women’s bodies, I suspect because they gleaned many of their ideas from the 2-dimensional portrayals in porn, and you have an equation for terribly unfulfilling sex.

So how do we deal?

Well, I think that good feminist sex comes down to one basic element. No, not love. Care.

Patricia Hill Collins told us a long time ago that an ethic of care is an integral component of a Black feminist epistemology. She suggests that an ethic of care prioritizes individual expressiveness, together with a respect for emotions, and a capacity and commitment to empathy.

Good soulful, healing sex is certainly a reflection of this ethic; for it invites us to be ourselves (individual expressiveness), recognizes that our feelings matter (emotional justice), and demands that we prioritize our relationship to our partner(s) needs (radical empathy).

But in recognizing how integral an ethic of care is to our epistemological orientation (and by this I simply mean, how we know the world), we might have to acknowledge that sex without care can be and frequently is a form of epistemic violence, especially towards Black women.

How did I get there? Well, let me back up. I’m driving at something fundamentally basic.

Sex is a way of knowing the world. It is an epistemological act. There are things that we can only know about the world through sexual engagement. Great sex makes me feel fully alive, allows me to tap in to my joys, my pleasures, my desires, in a deeply embodied way.  Asexual people know the world in a different way, and I want to acknowledge that.

But what I find troubling is a situation in which Black women, both those who are highly educated, and those who are deeply ensconsed in the Church, are often forced by virtue of limited choices or limiting dogma to live asexual lives in bodies that are screaming for sexual engagement. My father, who is a pastor, once told me that a lot of shouting that goes on in churches on Sunday morning is repressed sexual energy. Since sexuality and spirituality are deeply intertwined, I don’t see shouting or its connection to sexuality as inherently a problem. But if this act of sexual-spiritual expression is happening in a context that demonizes all non-marital expressions of sexuality, then the church is creating an unhealthy mind-body split for Black women. (And there literally seems to be no fucking way out.)

Free sexual expression allows us to feel fully human. And anything that helps us colonized peoples—Black, Brown, Indigenous—to know how fully human we are is dangerous. That is why we live in a world hell-bent on regulating our expressions of sexuality.

But it is also precisely the reason why we owe it to ourselves to foreground an ethic of care in our sexual interactions. And to know that it is a feminist act to do so. 

If no strings attached is your thing, more power. I think we would do well to acknowledge, though, that sex is very much about empathetic, emotional connectivity with another person. When did it become un-feminist to desire that connectivity in a casual situation? I say the desire for care is quintessentially feminist.

 Care means that you recognize and respect another person’s humanity. You are attuned to their needs, and to the extent that you can meet their needs, you are committed for the length of the interaction to doing so. Care is not love. We do caring things every day for people we don’t even know: we hold doors open for strangers, let folks cut in front of us in traffic, pick up an item that a person has unknowingly left behind and return it to them. These are acts of care. And yet, sex-positive feminism seems to suggest that the only care required in sex is a willingness to use a condom, honesty about STD status, and a commitment to gaining consent before proceeding. If sex is purely transactional, these ethical practices are enough.

But if we want something more, then respect is just a minimum. As I said in a post last year, sex is a form of creative power. And that power should be exercised with all diligent care.

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