#MeToo: The erasure and fetishization of the Black body

Sunday morning when I logged online, a fluttering ping of status updates rolled into a steady flow of trauma to my feed.

Ping

“Me too.”

Ping

“Me too.”

Ping

“Me too.”

Often accompanied with the words:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as their status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Reading these posts, I was affected and moved. Though not moved enough share, despite my long history with sexual trauma. I confess, when I looked at the updates, they felt like another thing which wasn’t meant for me, like pussy hats or the right to breathe. Each survivor posting was white, mostly cis-het, and comfortably using the term “woman” to describe who the posts were for.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that I spotted a Black femme on my feed had posted, “Me too.” I scrolled, another Black femme, and another, and another. As I scrolled more and more friend’s posts popped up. Black, queer, nonbinary, femme, woman, man. They flooded my feed. Queer friends online had changed the text to highlight PoC, include non-binary and femme folks, as well as those who are woman-identified. Some posts included statistics for trans folks, and PoC.

This shift struck home. I recognized the truth of our experience. Sexual assault is a thing we know happens. Often. Sexual trauma is deeply rooted in the Black experience.

The first thing I learned about my body was shame. Black children, Black girls (as they call us before we can learn to advocate for ourselves) are taught that we are sex objects. We are taught this by our homes, by our society and by our experiences. As a child I taught by my white mother to close my legs to be “proper” and not entice, by my oldest white brother that I was a tool for his continued sexual amusement, and by media and society that I was only good enough to be a sex object.

Black people are taught that we are to be fetishized, sexualized and used. This is a thing which has been ingrained into this culture since its inception. From Black bodies being raped and abused on slave ships and plantations to the degradation of the Black femme and woman, to the oversexualization of the Black man. Think Jezebel, or the Big Black Cock (BBC) tag on porn sites. There is no mediocre white dick (MWD) tag. (For this I can think of many obvious reasons, chief among them is the lack of the fetishization of the white body.)

I recognize not all sexual trauma is racial. But because of the racial make-up of Maine, the struggles of Black and brown people to connect, and the general lack of understanding and appreciation for Black and brown people by white people in Maine and elsewhere, add to that my own lengthy personal experiences, I believe I can safely say that most of the sexual assault on PoC in Maine is racialized.

Given the deeply rooted trauma and intersection between Blackness and sexual abuse, as well as the consistent erasure of Black people and PoC in our stories and movements, it came as no surprise that #MeToo was started nearly a decade ago by a Black woman; try as the internet might to credit it to a white one.

Tarana Burke is a social justice advocate who has been slaying the game for years. She started her own non-profit called Just BE, Inc. which focuses on the “health, well-being and wholeness of brown girls everywhere”, contributed her magic as a consultant on the 2014 film Selma, and is currently working on a documentary entitled Songs Called Survival: The ‘me too.’ Movie. This documentary, as well as #MeToo, is tasked with bringing into the light stories of Black and brown survivors of sexual assault.

I feel it needs to be stated, for the sake of inclusivity and to stave off any arguments, that this is not the Oppression Olympics. One person’s sexual trauma is no more or less significant than another’s. Racialized or not, sexual trauma fucks a person up. Also, it is important to recognize that because of this, the issue of erasure needs to be explored.

I watched white woman after white woman after white woman post about their trauma. While I acknowledge the strength it takes to put oneself out there, I can’t help but see a community all too comfortable with leaving me, and people who look like me, love like me, and don’t love like me, out of the narrative. Can’t help but see how woman after woman was contented to see only themselves in the struggle. See how each post erased the experiences of people who are not white and do not fit into the “woman” box. Maybe women were just trying to raise awareness. Maybe they didn’t know the origins of the #MeToo movement, but to this I say, isn’t that the point?


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Changing Maine and the necessity of PoC spaces

To be a person of color in Maine is to eat sleep and breathe Whiteness. Despite the melanin of our skin, we still live, move, and operate within a reality which centers Whiteness above all things.

Because PoC Mainers operate within the long-endured rule of Whiteness, we have little to no opportunities to gather together outside of Whiteness, to address things which are also very much part of our reality. Issues which are so complex, deep, and intergenerational, while simultaneously heartbreakingly basic. Love of ourselves, for example. Love of our people. A deep understanding of our history and our worth. Learning to dream, to achieve, to accomplish in a space which does not reflect nor value us.

Unresolved we push these issues to the core of our being, allowing them to fester and run, infecting, sickening and killing us.

The good news is, self-love is on the rise. PoC in Portland and around the state are coming together to create and demand spaces which can be claimed for our own. We are beginning to foster an environment where spaces for us are not only expected, but encouraged.

Portland’s Q/PoC creatives and organizers are carving out spaces and events dedicated to, made for and in support of PoC.  Theater Ensemble of Color, which uses performance, art, community inclusion and social activism to explore and celebrate diversity; Kesho Wazo, a youth-led organization dedicated to impacting youth and expanding their minds; Black Artists Forum, which has recently found new life and is committed to sustaining the growth of Black creatives in Portland; and my baby, Bloodletting, a recurring poetry night committed to lifting up and empowering the voices of queer and femme PoC, to name a few.

When PoC come together, healing happens. This is a truth which for me can be traced most palpably to “A Distant Holla,” a month-long celebration which was held in May at the Abyssinian Meeting House (the third oldest African American meeting house in the country) and helmed by Daniel Minter, a celebrated local artist.

Only one word can describe what happened at the Abyssinian: Magic. The Meeting House swelled happily with Black and brown people from Portland and Southern Maine. There was art, music, food, wine, and people. Youth, elders, and everyone in between came together to be in community with one another. “A Distant Holla” was a necessary reminder of our power and our ability.

For too long, PoC in Maine have been pressed into misshapen versions of ourselves, attempting to contort our bodies and spirits into a version which is easily digestible to white people. Afraid to take up space, believing the lie that we are not owed any. More and more we are refusing to be reduced to stereotypes, reactions and tragedies.

To sustain our efforts, we must heal. We must have space free from the harm that Whiteness brings. I believe this is what led Samaa Abdurraqib, co-founder of For Us By Us (FUBU), to reach out to Resources for Organizing Social Change, and organize this year’s Changing Maine.

On Saturday Sept. 9,Changing Maine for Racial Justice: Centering Anti-Racism in our Movements” was held at the Lewiston YWCA. The all-day conference came just as advertised. With two blocks of workshops, each featuring a session for Black/PoC, Native American/indigenous, and white attendees (with the exception of the afternoon session, where Native/indigenous attendees merged with the Black/PoC group, due to lack of a facilitator).

Changing Maine this year embraced the power that PoC spaces hold, and in doing so, created an experience which left many people changed. Changing Maine moved me. I felt nourished, fulfilled, and achy with new thought patterns and possibilities for healing. How did such a powerful experience find its way to white-occupied, previously white-organized, Changing Maine?  I reached out to Samaa Abdurraqib to ask:

LD: I understand that you attended Changing Maine in 2016; what was it about that experience which led you and For Us By Us to partner with CM this year?

SA: It actually wasn’t the previous experience I had at CM that led me to partner with ROSC. I’d heard that ROSC wanted to focus this year’s summit on racial justice, and I was concerned that ROSC–a white-led, white-staffed organization with limited resources–wouldn’t be able to create an event that felt like it was addressing racial justice in a way that would help White organizers and organizations make the shifts necessary to introduce more racial equity into their work. I was also concerned that the summit wouldn’t address the needs of Black, brown, and indigenous people in Maine.

LD: Maine is a predominately white state, and by extension, most of its organizers are white as well. You were the driving force in bringing PoC/Native-only spaces to the conference. How did you approach bringing those spaces to CM?

SA: Well…I just asked. I stressed the importance of having a separate space because of a couple of different reasons. 1) The work Black/brown/indigenous people need to do when it comes to racial justice is different from the work that white people need to do. 2) When Black and brown people are in majority white spaces talking about racial justice, they’re inevitably looked to (by white people) to help lead them through their own processes of navigating and negotiating white privilege and white supremacy. Sometimes that means that Black/brown/indigenous folks are asked to speak for “their people.” Sometimes that means that PoCs/indigenous people are asked to manage white people’s emotions as they process the guilt, anger, fear of recognizing how they might be implicated in furthering white supremacy.

LD: This year, Changing Maine had two workshop sessions. The morning session (for PoC) was Love and Dismantling Internalized Oppression, facilitated by Durryle Brooks, and the afternoon session (for PoC/Native) was Oppression & Privilege in Multi-Racial Movements, facilitated by Yamila Hussein. 

Explain briefly why these two workshops are important to the overarching theme of centering anti-racism in our movements.

SA: Durryle’s session on love was HUGELY important to the anti-racist work Black and brown people need. Being immersed in the Whiteness of Maine can make self-love difficult. Being immersed in Whiteness also makes it difficult for us to articulate our love for each other. Durryle’s session was important grounding work. We told stories to each other about how we define love and where those definitions come from (family, society, culture). We talked about what love for ourselves (as Black/brown people) and each other (as Black/brown people) actually looks like. We talked about how we can put love into action in our social justice work. Durryle gave us much needed space to talk and dream about what we needed for ourselves and each other. It was beautiful.

Yamila talked with us about how PoC work with each other when white people are not in the room. She began with the premise that, even when white people aren’t in the room, Whiteness remains in the room. She’s totally right. This session was important because it gave us an opportunity to speak frankly about how Whiteness and proximity to Whiteness continues to divide us when we try to work together across ethnic and racial differences. Her session also allowed us to speak frankly with each other about the divides that occur that aren’t connected to Whiteness (ageism, for example).

LD: With these themes in mind, how do you feel [attendees] benefitted from experiencing PoC/Native only spaces?

SA: I think attendees felt heard, held, and supported in these spaces. I purposefully asked the facilitators to keep their agendas loose; I wanted us to have space and time to be together without spending all of the time thinking about the to-do list that we might generate. One of the attendees  (a HIGHLY experienced organizer who’s lived in Maine ALL of her life) said that she’d never been in a PoC-only space before. She said that she felt nourished and supported. Hearing her say this helped me feel like I met one of my goals.

LD: After attending CM last year, and again this year, how did your experiences differ?

SA: Well…this year felt good. It felt nourishing. It felt enabling and empowering. Last year felt perfunctory. Last year, I attended CM because I thought I might learn something that would enhance my work as an organizer. This year, I was given tools to help me internally. I was given tools to help me make stronger connections with other Black and brown people. A little over a year ago, I’d made the decision that I was going to (as best I could) shift my priorities so that I gave more of my energy to supporting, loving, and prioritizing Black and brown people in Maine. This year’s CM is a step in that process.

LD: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?

SA: I am filled with gratitude for all of the Black and brown people who showed up, despite the fact that CM (and events like CM) traditionally feel marginalizing and othering. I am grateful that Black, brown, and indigenous people trusted what I and the other organizers envisioned, took a chance, and showed up. I was moved by what happened in that PoC/indigenous space, and I’m excited to see Black and brown people continue to grow, building on all of the work, knowledge, and love that has come before us and laid foundations for us to be beautiful and dope.

Bottom line: When PoC come together, healing happens. When we stretch that power into white spaces? Well, to quote Tracy Chapman, we’re “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution.”


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The importance of AfroPunk

“We, the people commit ourselves to uphold and fight for the rights enshrined in our code. Let us honor those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and hold accountable those who curtail our liberties. Let us walk in the footsteps of the Warriors who came before us and strive to create a society based on fundamental human rights.”

– AFROPUNK
AFROPUNK FEST:
NO SEXISM
NO RACISM
NO ABLELISM
NO AGEISM
NO HOMOPHOBIA
NO FATPHOBIA
NO TRANSPHOBIA
NO HATEFULNESS

The world is a scary place. It has always been. And if we continue the way we are going, it always will be. To be Black and to have a safe space to gather, particularly en masse, is a contradiction in terms.

As Black people, we are taught that white people have claimed ownership to our bodies and culture since before we were shackled into the bowels of the first slave ships. We are conditioned to believe that our presence in this country is a gift; not that we give to the culture, but that white people have given to us. The true story of our exodus is at best whitewashed, at worst completely rewritten.

Black people are conditioned to believe that we have no place in society; that our voices, our bodies, our lives don’t matter. We are taught we are less than nothing. The language we use to express ourselves is watered down, the grit and soul tortured out of it and cast aside, deemed unimportant. We are taught that our base impulses are unnatural, the way we express ourselves savage, and our beauty barbaric. Then, we are meant to watch, docile, as our language, impulses, our expression and our beauty are watered down and sold back to us in the form of blue eyes and blond hair, at the total cost of which cannot accurately be calculated.

All that is to say: Black people need a reprieve. Black people need a moment to fucking breathe. To be joyous. To love ourselves and what we create. We are not allowed this peace in everyday life. So, we are forced to create it.

Enter: AfroPunk. AfroPunk is more than music, more than a festival. AfroPunk is a movement. It is a glimpse into a land of blackness that we are so often told doesn’t exist.

People like to laugh at us when we say that we are descended from kings and queens, yet one look around an AfroPunk festival and it becomes clear (if there was ever any doubt) that we are denied our legacy out of fear, not for lack of truth.

Everywhere I looked I saw the magic of my people. Every shade of brown represented, from the lightest tan to the deepest black. Melanin poppin’, afros glistening, edges laid, locks wrapped, fades lined, beards trimmed, hair twisted into works of art. And the clothes? Forget about the clothes. We don’t have time for the clothes. Just trust me when I tell you they were fire, you better believe they were fire. AfroPunk is filled with kings and queens and every kind of royalty in between.

AfroPunk Brooklyn had three stages and a lineup which made my dreams come true including SZA, Solange, Sinkane, and Macy Gray, just to name a few. There was tent after tent filled with black excellence. There were people braiding hair for $15, giving extensions for $18, reading tarot, providing healing sessions. I found a rad comic by Ry-El Nagasta and Anthony A. Anglero called Indigo Clan, which is about a girl who lives in Oakland who discovers she has spiritual powers and has to save the world. I scored some sweet shades which actually cover my nerd glasses, some serious blacktivist swag, and a tee shirt that reads: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I love my people. I love the way we walk. I love the way we talk. I love the way we laugh and dance and sing and breathe. Being surrounded by thousands of us? Well, I just about died and went to heaven.

Being in community is crucial to our survival. Being in a space where we can feel safe to be who we are–unapologetically, without reserve, judgment and without being turned into some kind of an exhibit–is damn near unheard of. AfroPunk provides that space. I am honored to have been able to be there, to sit in community with a people who are no strangers to struggle, but who always seem to find a way to vibrate above it.

I wonder, what happens when we truly realize our power? What happens when we wake up, rise up, and truly rebel against the truth of what history has done to us? AfroPunk is a key to the door of this truth. Through it we are shown in a brilliantly concentrated way, the culture, history, ancestry which was beaten, raped, and lynched out of us.

AfroPunk is not just a music festival, or an experience. AfroPunk is what happens when Black people are given spaces just for us where we can love each other, create, and sit in community with one another. AfroPunk is for the people. By the people. And it is growing.


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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