A film and the affirmation of Blackness…my musings on Black Panther

Like millions of others in the past few days, I made my way to see Marvel’s Black Panther. This was no small feat for me given that my interest in superheroes has always been less than zero. Growing up, my father was a sci-fi and superhero comics geek and as a result, I was forced to see television shows and movies that did not speak to me. I suspect that forced encounters with all things sci-fi and superhero related helped to cement my dislike for these genres.

Truth is that until a week ago, I had no interest in seeing Black Panther, until I started paying attention to the buzz and finally checked out a trailer for the film. Gorgeous Black women in positions of power? A nearly all-Black cast (and, I assume, much if not most of the crew)? In that case, how bad could it be? I won’t attempt to dissect the movie because my words won’t do it justice given that I am a newbie to this world. What I will say is that I cried, I felt pride and I felt represented and that’s what I want to talk about.

How utterly powerful and life affirming it is to be represented in a world where the people who look like you are typically relegated to roles that are not uplifting and do not speak to you as a person. A world where powerful and affirming representation of people of color is the exception and not the norm.

Having been born in the early 1970s, I can tell you that when I saw images of Black women in media, we were loudmouth bitches, we were downtrodden and long-suffering, we were comic relief and occasionally we were extra sexy in that way where men would be happy to fuck you but love you. Did that feel like true representation? Nope.

The first truly positive image of a Black woman that I can recall was Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. I was in middle school before I saw an image of a Black woman that represented bits and pieces of the world around me. My mom was a stay-at-home mom so while I did not grow up with a professional Black woman in my life,  I did have a mother who was nothing like what I saw on television or in movies. But I still had few images of Black women as change makers outside of their homes. Given that I only had one Black teacher in my K-12 years, that means that I spent the majority of my life not seeing women doing things that I would eventually go on to do.

When I finally grew up and decided what I would do with my life, I had no idea that my decision to run non-profits would almost be radical. Black and Brown women are over-represented in lower level positions in America’s nonprofit sector. But as recent as last year, the data showed that less than 20 percent of non-profit leadership specifically nonprofit CEOs/executive directors are people of color. Let’s not even begin to break that down to Black women specifically. I landed my first executive director position at the age of 31 but lest people think that is a norm, I am an anomaly. More importantly there was no roadmap for me because I never met another Black executive director until I took my current position in Boston and that is only because there is a support group for Black non-profit directors as we are a rare breed and we face a very specific set of challenges. That’s another piece for another day.

In case you are wondering why I am sharing this, it’s because, as I said before, representation matters. To see yourself mirrored back in the world is a powerful experience. While I grew up in Black spaces in Chicago, what was modeled was that there are limitations due to my Blackness and gender and most certainly the larger world did not tell a different story.

This is why Black Panther is so many things for the Black American diaspora. It is a chance to re-envision our Blackness and for Black girls, women and femmes a chance to see a larger world of possibilities. Even the film’s use of darker skinned Black women is modeling that Blackness is beautiful in its many forms which goes beyond the often trite “Black is Beautiful” statement. Black may be beautiful but if Blackness is best represented by lighter skinned Black women with looser curls, what message are we sending to the darker skinned women/femmes with tight curls? If we never see the deepest brown shades represented as beautiful, how can assess that we are beautiful? A question that I still at times struggle with.

As a woman who was told all too often that I was “cute for a Black girl,” I have never quite known what to do with that. Even now, as a middle-aged and now single woman, I have encountered more than a few men in the past year of dating adventures who felt the need to let me know I am okay for a Black woman. Do you know what I hear in those moments? I hear disdain for Blackness and I don’t hear a compliment.

In a world that centers all things white, whiteness and proximity to whiteness, a blockbuster film that centers Blackness and uplifts Black women is a much-needed paradigm shift. It is not just a new way to re-envision our world through the lens of Afro-futurism but it is also an opportunity to take stock of the Nakia’s, Okoye’s and Shuri’s who are already in our midst but who are often overlooked. I imagine a world where a Black woman won’t feel that she is traveling life without a roadmap as an anomaly but instead will know that she is another in a long line of changemakers because Blackness will not be relegated to the margins.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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I’m in my feelings; where are my white folks who are riding or dying for justice?

I have spent the past week unearthing my feelings regarding a recent speaking engagement that took a very wrong turn. If you don’t follow my social media feeds or missed this post, let me recap: On January 28, I and my colleague, author Debby Irving, presented our cross-racial dialogue to a group in Kittery, Maine. Our event host was the Southern Maine/Seacoast chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a group that I have worked with in the past.

By all accounts, it should have been a routine event for Debby and I. We are both seasoned presenters and this particular talk is one that is dear to both of us as it is a public exploration of a cross-racial friendship. It is never scripted and we talk about the real trials and tribulations that we face as middle-aged women of different races. It is a learning moment for all involved as we navigate authentic connections where matters of race are not off limits but instead where the lens of race is central.

The first hour of the event went off without a hitch; it was during the Q&A portion where a young white man decided to disrupt the norms and present with a menacing and demanding personality that at times made many in the audience including myself fearful of his intentions. In this current socio-political climate, such fears are not without merit.

I am no stranger to disruptive or even concerning people attending my public events. I rarely attend my own events alone at this point as a general safety precaution but never have I encountered an individual who seemed hellbent on disregarding norms and whose attempt to engage with me generated abject fear.

At this point, I am less concerned about rehashing feelings that I have shared openly on the BGIM Facebook page than I am digging into what it means to feel safe as a person of color or another kind of marginalized person (whether POC or white) when people let us down or when people tell us we are not entitled to our feelings.

In the past week, I have felt surrounded by the love and goodwill of friends and strangers alike but human nature being what it is, it is the words of the naysayers that have stuck with me. It is a lot easier said than done to disregard hostile or even hurtful words and asking me to do so feels like asking me to deny the reality of being a Black woman who does work that can make white people feel uncomfortable.  

As my profile grows so does the attention that I create and while much of that attention means change is afoot as more people are committing themselves to an active anti-racist life, it means that those who are committed to the dehumanization of Black and brown people are also becoming aware of me. Those are the people who come with either open hostility and racial ignorance, or who offer conditional support based on my not disturbing the status quo.

This past week alone, I have been told that I need to be able to debate the issue and get out of the echo chamber. I’m sorry but I don’t debate the humanity of POC or marginalized people. I have been writing about race since 2003. My body of work speaks for itself and when all else fails, libraries and Google are useful tools in unearthing the reality of our shared racial history and the dishonesty that many of us have been fed through outright lies or half-facts (Black people as “forced immigrants” or as people brought to this continent so they could be give jobs? {as some teachers and textbooks like to paint it] No, we were enslaved human beings). Or through actual erasure of the facts. Like acknowledging that Black people were freed from slavery but then failing to continue the story with details of how after Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws took over and were essentially “slavery lite” and that this was legal until the 1960s. In that context as I have said before, Black people have barely been truly free for a little over 50 years (and we’re still not as free as white people). To put that in context, my next big birthday milestone, which is only a few years away, is 50 and that certainly doesn’t feel like forever to me. My childhood isn’t ancient history.

No, we have been racially dishonest in this country and the result is that far too many white people today (the majority of them, in fact) are ill-informed about reality when it comes to race and equality, yet think themselves informed enough to lecture me—and then balk when they are corrected by people like me, often lashing out or ceasing to engage with me when faced with truth.

Just a few nights ago, I had a woman tell me that she was unfollowing me because she sees people like me as the problem. To her, I am angry and divisive. Why yes, I am angry but I’m almost always respectful and if talking about the reality of race as it is lived even now is divisive, then I guess I am guilty as charged. However, talking about race is not the problem; the problem is that we are intellectually dishonest and because we don’t talk about this stuff we continue to raise generations of woefully ignorant white people when it comes to race. That is what continues the racial divide: ignorance and silence.

If we want change, that change starts with the hard conversations. Which is the basis for my work, including this space. And when someone attempts to stifle my voice, you are continuing in the tradition that sought to destroy Black humanity by silencing us.

In this moment, now more than ever in racial justice spaces, POC need white allies and accomplices who understand that part of their work is the safety of their colleagues and friends of color. It is not enough to learn the theory and understand it. It is necessary to use your whiteness to push back against white people who want to harm POC, whether literally or figuratively. It is the strength to remove disruptive white people. It is to make sure that POC are not left feeling even more raw and vulnerable. It is to understand that POC who engage in this work in the public eye are targets and that your support also means listening to us. It means if we tell you that we don’t feel safe, we don’t want that to be your teaching moment. Shut it down.

This work is a continuous process and we are all learning. This is not the time for licking wounds. Instead, we must continue the work. But safety of body, spirit and mind is tantamount, especially as many of us carry the ancestral scars of knowing that safety was never ours. Freedom requires safety. I cannot work for collective freedom if I can’t trust that my fellow soldiers in the trenches won’t have my back. If I can’t trust that you will put your body on that line for me, then I am forced to ask what makes you any different than white people who seek my destruction?

No, to paraphrase from hip hop culture, I need you to ride or die for me. Are you in?

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

Media is feeding the toxicity; this needs to stop

I recently posted online about a toxic experience I had during a presentation in Kittery, Maine, on encouraging conversations about race and racism. Also recently, a story was run about the incident, and while me and my co-presenter and friend Debby Irving were quoted (in terms of our comments from the talk), I find it interesting neither of us was interviewed regarding the man who disrupted the event and worked very hard to remain menacing to me up until the end of the event and past it. He was given voice; I, the person who was made to feel under literal threat of harm, was not.

The problem with interviews like these with people who feel threatened by talk of racism (or feminism or LGBTQIA rights or Islamophobia or whatever)—which have become so commonplace now on cable news, in magazines, at online media venues and more—is that it gives space to people with abhorrent viewpoints that are manifestly unjust.

Now, am I saying one should never write about people like this and never interview them? No. There are times and places. But so-called “journalism” (and a lot of the journalism nowadays seems to be more and more about generating page clicks and viewers and boy does controversy and bile help that along, which is part of the circular problem we have now) is not just covering the white supremacists. Media is elevating them. Giving them forums and a voice, often entirely unchallenged. Empowering them and making them seem reasonable.

Richard Spencer dresses well and doesn’t scream at the top of his voice and avoids racial epithets on-air, and so he seems “well-meaning.” And yet he espouses white supremacy and racist policies. He see non-whites as inferior. What is well-meaning about that?

Or writing human-interest pieces on people running Nazi websites. Let’s talk about how this person who hates Black, Jews, gays and/or a heap of other “non-mainstream” folks shops at Whole Foods and loves his kids and is warm and friendly. He hates large portions of the American population for being different from him. That is not humane; why are we humanizing that kind of person with a feel-good piece?

Media stories keep justifying the views of people who literally want to oppress other people or keep them from gaining equality in life. What is justifiable about that? To do so only makes such people feel more empowered. Making them seem reasonable when they hold unreasonable views only helps make it easier for such people to insidiously sway more people toward white supremacy and making America more racist.

And people like the guy who tried to disrupt the talk I was part of in Kittery who say they are “pushing back.” Pushing back against what? I am pushing for people to be treated according to their abilities and the content of their character rather than to be judged and held back (or shoved away) because of the color of their skin or their gender or their sexuality.

White straight Christian men have long held most of the cards in the deck and still do. For them to “push back” against people like me calling for equality means they are pushing back against people being treated the same no matter what their color or gender or sexuality. To push back against equality is to push FOR supremacy. White supremacy. Male supremacy. Cis supremacy. Christian supremacy.

And when has pushing to be supreme over other people and control their lives ever been something we should cheer for—or even give the time of day in the average news story? Supremacy and control are something we are supposed to fight against as a matter of basic decency.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash