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Somewhere Between Black Power and White Rage

25 Oct

There have been several public “events” privileging race, gender, and class during the past weeks in New York City that featured prominent Black feminists.  After the film screening of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, the conference about Anita Hill 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth, and the Occupy Wall Street  movement based in Zucotti Park/Liberty Square, I  wanted to mark how Black womanhood and Black feminist thought are positioned.

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975

The Swedish film is an incredible compilation or mixtape that chronicles the US Black freedom movement by arranging interviews, speeches, and snapshots of activists and urban Black life. The most compelling moments include Black women. There is one scene, for example, when Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) sits on an apartment floor boyishly looking up at his mother Mable.  In a “play” interview, he presses her to describe the intersections between race and class. It is a humorous, affectionate exchange that complements the defiant image of Carmichael championing Black power. Carmichael’s fiery rhetoric at the beginning is matched by Angela Davis’ cool midway through the film when she responds to a question about armed resistance. Davis recalls the 1963 Birmingham church bombings when

Picture of  four Black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair who were killed by the Klan during the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama

1963 Birmingham Klan bombing that killed four Black girls

neighborhood girls Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise were brutally murdered by white supremacists.  She places her personal recollection within a context of ongoing racial terrorism experienced by African descended people. In one story Davis reveals American hypocrisy. In one story she creates an emotional bridge to connect with the film so the audience could better understand the complexities of Black America then and now.  (The CFs in the audience echoed, “that’s Black feminism for you.”)

The Davis and Carmichael interviews are followed by a third moment, which is the most unsettling part of the film because I am left hanging, wondering what to do with a local teary-eyed young Black woman who describes how she has had to wrestle with her drug addiction after a family member sexually assaults her as a child. In the midst of the Black power movement, we are invited to read her story as part of “the ghetto” and hear the PSA-like radio voice-over about premature babies from drug-addicted mothers as hers. The film explains drug abuse by Black male Vietnam veterans who return home disillusioned, homeless and unemployed, and it illustrates gender-specific forms of (sexual) violence experienced by Black men who are tortured during the Attica uprising, but there is no commentary, no gender framework to really see her or other dazed Black women shooting up in an abandoned New York apartment. In fact, if we are to gather any meaning at all from the voice-over, street footage, and her interview, we might believe that she has failed her family and by extension the Black community—ideas echoed by the news media a decade later when audiences are re-introduced to the bad Black woman as the crack-welfare-mother.  That the director-editor, Goran Hugo Olsson, opted to let saturated images of the ghetto “speak for itself” while admittedly letting go of the archived footage of the landmark 1972 Presidential Candidate, Shirley Chisolm, suggests specific discussions about gender added an unwanted complexity to the Black power he envisioned.

Anita Hill 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth

The daylong conference began with sessions about Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings of then US Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. The Sex and Justice film excerpt and morning sessions were followed by lunch discussions about sexual harassment in the military, on the streets, and in schools, and a keynote about home with Hill herself.  Hill asked (and I paraphrase), “Is there a way to Race-ing Justice Engendering Powertalk about race that isn’t so male dominated?” Hours before Hill posed this question I asked myself, is it possible to talk about gender on a national scale that isn’t so white identified? I had come to the conference to learn more about Hill specifically and about Black feminist thought in general (as the tag was “an all day conference about race and gender identity”).  I got it even though it felt sandwiched between a kind of deracialized gender, which eclipsed the intersectionality so many women of color emphasized.  Long before Kimberlé Crenshaw reminded us about intraracial resistance to Hill and other Black women who dared to air dirty laundry, and before Melissa Harris Perry offered us her exacting critique about respectability and the reception of The Help, a New York college instructor leaned over to school the Black-girl-too-young-to-remember about the Thomas-Hill hearings. Pulling out her Black feminist good book, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, my informal Black feminist instructor suggested Hill had been embraced by white feminists because Thomas seemed less threatening to their social standing than the white men who systematically harassed Black women in the workplace.  From my back-seat instructor to the panelists on stage, it would appear the symbolic body of Hill was still very much in the making. At the daylong conference, Hill stood (in) as a testament to interracial feminist solidarity, “front line” Black feminist mobilization, and white feminist cooptation (for at least one sistah in the audience).

 

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street has been characterized as white middle class rage against the capitalist machine. Prior to the Harlem march where folks from Liberty Park joined activists of color to protest the stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino persons, communities of color insisted the “occupiers” reconsider language (e.g., replace occupy to decolonize) and reconsider tactics, such as voluntarily camping in spaces that displaced homeless persons.   The first time I went to Liberty Park, Black folks peppered the space. We were mainly on the margins, taking up space on the steps and the stone parameters of the blue tarp makeshift community.

The physical make up of the protestors at the Park and on the street during the Manhattan marches appeared to be the same, yet the meetings and talks I attended attempted to be inclusive and intentionally anti-racist even in the absence of a lot of colored folk. (See Greg Tate’s Top 10 Reasons Why So Few Black Folks Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street.) And just like I stayed at the Hill conference, I came back to Liberty Park because I wanted to hear an amazing Black intellectual, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, explain capitalism’s connection to group exclusion, criminalization, and racialized labor. When Gilmore evoked CLR James,  she reminded me of another Trinidadian thinker, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), that I had seen weeks earlier in the Black Power Mixtape. Immediately after Gilmore’s talk, I walked upstairs to see a remarkable scene for which I still have no meaning.  To my left, Rev. Jesse Jackson was surrounded by a small group of men with studio cameras and a spotlight.  To my right, the actor Rev. Billy began his popular street performance as the crowd circled. Onlookers held up camera phones to record the spectacle of the Black-led choir and the Reverend, who dramatically preached about the evils of consumerism. Each had a platform at Liberty Square to talk about economic justice, however, their messages were digested and distributed differently. Jesse was on my left, Billy was on the right, and Ruth (or Ruthie if you know her) was somewhere in between…

The Choices We Make

26 Sep

Story #1- Last Monday I picked my son up from his afterschool program and was met with a full on tantrum.  He was upset that I would not allow him to eat the gummy Starbursts given to him by his chess coach and informed me that he had already had some at “snack” time.

Story #2-On Saturday my mother asked me to pick up some food for my stepfather who is diabetic and paralyzed from the waist down.  My stomach cringed because I knew he was going to ask me to pick up something from a fast food restaurant.

Story #3-Last night I was reviewing literature for America Recycles Day in preparation for my son’s school event which is scheduled for November 15th.

Yes, I’m one of those mothers who don’t want to go along and get along. I regulate my son’s high fructose corn syrup (chemically processed corn) intake, I do not want to purchase fast food for an advanced stage diabetic, and social marketing campaigns always get the side eye (to borrow from my sisters).  Each of these stories raise concerns for me because it is damn difficult to function in this ridiculous culture of consumer capitalism because at every turn you have to suspend common sense to make decisions like purchasing school pictures and selecting the pose before your child actually takes the picture.

Here are the primary issues with each story, I had to have a 45 minute conversation with my son’s coach about the inappropriateness of giving children 25g of sugar (HFC) for an afterschool “snack.”  Food prices are increasing significantly, yet my stepdad’s double burger and fries costs $2.36.  I can barely get a cup of tea or a half-gallon of milk for $2.36, so how can I pursue a discussion about changing food habits with a family member on a fixed income.  $2.36 is not affordable food, that’s damn near free in comparison with the costs of slow food.

Finally, I want to be an active parent so I joined the Green and Healthy committee at my son’s school.  So why is America Recycles Day sponsored by Pepsico, Disney, Nestle Waters, Johnson and Johnson, LG (appliances and electronics), and Glad (plastics)?  Their investment in global supply chains that destroy natural resources and people’s lives globally is precisely the problem.

When I was young a school fundraiser was a bake sale of homemade goods or chocolates that had actual sugar not HFC.  Now a school fundraiser means talking with parents that work for Coca-Cola Inc. and online jewelry and magazine sales.  Having a 45 minute conversation every time these situations present themselves would not only usurp all of my time but it would also make me a pariah in my son’s school, afterschool, and in my family.  So I get screamed at by my son for taking away the 25g of HFC sugar, quietly hand over the bagged $2.36 meal, and hold my nose while planning an America Recycles (for a) Day activity with leading corporate plastic, aluminum cans, and energy polluters.  You may think these are minor but this is one week and simply the stories I choose to share.  I know I have “choices” and that I need to “choose my battles” but really it’s the same limited choice day in and day out—engage or resist, and I’m getting a bit worn out.

Irene, Erykah and the Stuff after Storms

2 Sep

When Irene whistled, I listened to Erykah. Curled on a daybed in the dark, I rummaged for ways to salvage stuff in the midst of a hurricane when Badu pleaded to the self-proclaimed bag lady on a drained battery to let it go.

This summer, I returned to my Virginia hometown to weather a different kind of storm. Separated from my partner and seeking a homeplace to complete research for my “tenure” book, I found myself searching in a cardboard box—a time capsule, which housed old academic awards, articles, and origami-folded, water-stained yes-no-will-you-go-with-me love letters that date back to the 6th grade. I sifted through old things to seek some form of validation or affirmation after being told by faculty unfamiliar with women of color knowledge production that my work was too little, and being told by my partner familiar with yes-man women that our relationship was too much. Retreating home to recover and write felt right until I had no electricity and I began bumping into that box and all of the baggage that I brought back with me.

And then, the hurricane came. The hurricane came when I realized the amount the stuff I carried. There was the physical stuff dispersed in offices, storage facilities, my car, my “hobo” purse, and other folks’ houses; the virtual stuff that needed constant attention lest I risked losing data or (meaningful) connections; and, the psychic stuff of growing up poor, black and female and feeling the pressure to do more and be more so that others would see me as equal.  The weight of stuff seemed to be all-consuming.

Our stuff is a product of living in a consumer capitalist culture, which encourages us to accumulate things to feed the economy, and to feed our feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction. Shows, such as Hoarders, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars represent a new genre of reality television that captures how we deal with it in our lives. After experiencing one day without electricity, my father fueled a generator for a few hours to power deep freezers, a George Foreman grill, and a portable television because we didn’t want to lose the already thawed food or the chatter that cut the silence when we ate dinner. We sat together, yet we experienced emptiness.  It was as if the room had to be filled with something other than ourselves.

Before Irene, it would have been difficult for me to imagine voluntarily moving to a new space with a single suitcase. Today, I am abandoning the bag lady for the kinda (self) love that Badu, Bambara and Crunkadelic said would make life better. It might not be the easiest thing to do, but shedding some of the stuff that I have held onto for years might make handling life’s unexpected disasters lighter.

Power restored.

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