Current Events

On Black women, girls and a side of Lemonade

Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s; I often felt like I didn’t belong. Sure, I had my family, which was for the most part loving and no more dysfunctional than any other family…though we might have been financially broker than most. But as a Black girl who dreamed of being the titular character in Harriet the Spy and later a bounty hunter or assassin…yeah, I was different.

My earliest school memories are of being in kindergarten and being seated behind a girl whose name was “Kate.” Kate was everything that I wasn’t: blue eyed and blond with a cool lunch box and even cooler school supplies. Even at five, I had started to internalize the deceptive and destructive messages that white was better, though it would take decades before I could even begin to unpack that. I just knew that the girls who looked like Kate seemed to be treated better than me.  As the years went on, the Kates of the world were my nemeses; they were everything that I could never be. In high school it only got worse. When I should have been discovering young romance, I was doomed for a life of always a friend and never more because I was seen as “pretty for a Black girl.” That is a phrase all too often used for Black women whether directly or indirectly but , in fact, a young dude used that exact wording with me in the 10th grade and I have never forgotten the sting of those words and the feeling of rejection. The truth is even now, occasionally my 16-year-old self rears up inside my 43-year-old body. I am too rarely seen as a pretty woman but as someone who would only truly be pretty if I were white. Too often I’m only desirable as some fetish object or as an exotic distraction, if I’m found desirable at all.

Always an avid reader, I immersed myself in books only to still find myself longing to be what I could never be because at that time far too many of the fun and desirable characters in books were always white. Sweet Valley High anyone?

No, I could never be pretty enough but damn it, I could most certainly be weird enough. So in the late ’80s, I attempted black girl Mohawks and I wore Doc Martens and black lipstick while chain smoking my non-standard little cigarettes. I wore my grandfather’s old trenchcoats to my grandmother’s horror and I listened to music that scared the shit out of my folks and occasionally wore chains as necklaces. Fake ID allowed me to dance all night and drink too. It was my pushback against a norm that I knew I could never meet.

It would only be that when I finally made it to college in my mid 20s after marriage and motherhood that I would encounter classes that would shift my perspective and that would allow me to understand that this culture was the result of white supremacy and that women like me would never find a home in it. We would have to push back against it and work to claim and even reclaim our personhood and womanhood as Black women.

The thing about this system is that, to be honest, it’s not good for any woman. But it is downright toxic for Black women and girls. How do you exist in a place where you rarely if ever see yourself modeled? Where your representation is flat and two-dimensional and lacks wholeness? Where your humanity, dignity and worth is rarely validated or even acknowledged?

Raising my second and last child, my now-tween daughter, I am utterly aware of how Black girls in particular have to fight to be seen. How their intelligence is not assumed, how their soft spots are not recognized and how utterly dehumanized they are. And as a Black girl who has now become a Black woman raising a Black girl, I refuse to let this system have my girl…yet I know I am fighting a war that I may not win. There are moments when my daughter and I are talking when I have to fight my instinct to scream out and punch the air against this system that is already starting to sow the seeds of doubt in her despite my efforts to keep her safe. The subtle messages that she is just starting to internalize that subtly tell her that girls like her don’t have place. To live this life as a Black woman raising a Black girl understanding the psychic scars is something that only another Black woman knows and understands fully.

It’s why when Beyoncé’s latest album “Lemonade” came out that it has resonated so deeply with Black women beyond the story of alleged infidelity. “Lemonade” is an acknowledgment of Black womanhood put on display in a way that has rarely been captured. It is a celebration of Black female personhood in our full spectrum of human emotions with no hiding. I am hardly a Beyoncé fan but watching the visual album  caused emotions to well up in me that have long been dormant and, based off the many pieces I have now read on this album, I am not the only one.

I have written before about how vitally important it is to see representations of ourselves and increasingly we are turning a corner where representations of Black womanhood beyond Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire are starting to happen. While it gives me hope for the future, there are many of us for whom this shift is too little, too late. In the same week that we celebrate Black womanhood thanks to Beyoncé, pictures surfaced of rap star and legend Lil Kim who over the years has transformed herself from a gorgeous brown-skinned woman to a caricature of a white woman. Her appearance is heartbreaking because over the years, Kim has spoken about the pain of being just a regular Black girl and the pain of being dismissed because of it. This is the legacy of white supremacy and the toll it takes on Black bodies. Some of us reach a place where living in these Black bodies becomes too much.

Which brings me to the last story this week that has just gutted me as a person, a Black woman and a parent. A 16-year-old Black girl, Amy Inita Joyner-Francis was beaten to death in a school bathroom.  A young girl walked into a bathroom at school and left on a stretcher being airlifted to a hospital and, within hours, is dead. We live in a world where even among ourselves seeing our own humanity has become increasingly harder to do and instead violence becomes our norm. Yet in many ways, violence against Black women and girls has been the norm since our ancestors, enslaved Africans, were brought to a  land that was not theirs and forced to work and give life against their will. Many times having their children taken away from them. This is a nation and a culture that has normalized violence and dysfunction against Black women and girls.

But the pushback has started. And it begins with the recognition of Black female humanity and a tearing down of all that holds us back from full participation in the human experience. We’ve been here a long time; soon enough, we are going to make sure society does not ignore or disregard us any longer.

So, if you have been, wake up and take notice. We’re not going away; we’re not going to cringe in the shadows.
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The Value of Black Lives in The Presidential Race and Mainstream Media

Today’s post is written by a special guest, Teddy Burrage is a Portland, Maine native and local activist who focuses on social justice. He is an organizer with Portland Racial Justice Congress, a group of students, activists, and concerned citizens who are promoting multiculturalism, social consciousness, and racial justice in the Greater Portland area. Teddy’s writing can be found on his blog

There has been a major call for racial justice across our country with millions of people taking to the streets, organizing, and literally crying out for the lives of their communities. Despite catching mainstream attention, the recent movement for Black lives is often dismissed and trivialized while still being exploited for TV ratings and political gain. We expect descent from Republicans but how responsive have progressives and Democrats been? Are our leaders and presidential candidates really listening?

THE REAL MESSAGE

The Black Lives Matter Movement has it origins in the epidemic of police brutality and misconduct that has plagued Black communities for decades. Having made Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland household names, the movement has also inspired important conversations about what it means to be Black in America:

The typical Black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household. More than 60% of the people incarcerated in this country are Black or brown. Predominantly Black communities such Flint, Michigan face neglect and blatant mistreatment by their state governments. Transwomen of color bear the brunt of transphobic violence and murder. And even Black school children suffer from this disparity as they are subject to a disproportionate amount of suspensions and detentions in school districts across the country.

It’s hard to argue that these statistics are not the result of 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, only ending one generation ago. And that was just on paper.

THE MEDIA PORTRAYAL

Regardless of the complexity and urgency of these issues, politicians and media still frame the Black Lives Matter movement, and its protests, in a single dimension. If one relied solely on the word of our leaders or cable news for their information (which many do), the take-away would be that the Black Lives Matter movement is just a group of angry, unorganized, and irrational Black people who interrupt America’s favorite white politicians, disrupt travel, and burn down CVS drugstores for fun.

The belittling, exploitative, and dehumanizing lens through which Black plight is portrayed in the mainstream contributes greatly to the ignorance and acts of violence exemplified by recent Donald Trump rallies.

We all saw the young black woman who was assaulted at Trump rally in Kentucky and the Black man who was sucker punched at another in North Carolina. In both incidences, Donald Trump encouraged the violence and even offered to pay the legal fees of the batterer in North Carolina. Ted Cruz said that the Black Lives Matter movement was about “celebrating the murder of police officers” and former presidential candidate Chris Christie agreed with Cruz’s misrepresentation. But the buck does not stop with Republican candidates and their supporters.

It’s easy to call out those who we consider the opposition, but the true measure of integrity is when we allow ourselves to critically examine the attitudes of self-professed progressive allies and leaders.

PROGRESSIVES AND RACIAL INSENSITIVITY

The recent Hillary Clinton rally during which her husband “shutdown” protesters was actually the impetus for this post. He doubled-down in defending his wife’s use of the racially coded term “super-predators”—a term she’s expressed regret for using. He went on to say  to the protesters, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.” Again, I repeat, the Black Lives Matter movement has come to the defense of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland among others – but in many ways that is beside the point.

It’s also important to note that despite the mainstream reports, it’s not even clear if the protesters were part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In an interview with Mic, one of the protesters said: “We were not there to say black lives matter, just there to show discontent with Hillary Clinton because she’s profited off of the black vote and now she’s going after mothers who’ve lost their children due to unjust policing.”

Former-President Clinton is often characterized as an “honorary Black person” which makes his brash attitude towards the protesters a bit dismaying. Moreover, the grievances and concerns of the protesters were legitimate and deserved a more understanding response.

With all that said, one can understand why he came his wife’s defense: it was a rally intended to boost her credibility and campaign and he was there as keynote speaker. But the question remains, is this an instance of him wanting to have his cake and eat it, too?  Does he get to receive affection from the Black community while dismissing and deflecting their concerns?

The incident seemed to be only an extension of uncomfortable and racially insensitive moments in the Democratic primary.

At the beginning of the race, Governor O’Malley said in response to Black Lives Matters protesters at Netroots Nation Conference,”Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter” for which he later apologized, recognizing that the comment was inappropriate in the context of systemic racism and the murder of Black people. In March, a peaceful protester was removed from a $500 per plate Clinton meet-and-greet where attendees hissed and jeered at the young Black woman.

Even at a Bernie Sander’s rally in Seattle, Washington, supposedly one of the most liberal bastions of the country, a Black Lives Matter protester was booed and heckled by audience members as she tried to explain the atrocities that were happening in her community. While it was commendable that Senator Sanders gave the protesters the stage, as with other incidences, it was most disheartening to witness the negative reaction of self-professed progressives in the audience and on social media in the following days.

DEMOCRATS VS REPUBLICANS

It’s clear that Democrats are more sympathetic to concerns of the minority communities, and many of them express that they are committed to substantive efforts to reform public policy to improve lives of Black Americans. Out of the 43 Black members of Congress, only 3 are members of the Republican party, so that says something.

There are also stark differences between the priorities and messages of the two major parties on most issues. The 2016 Republican debates can only be described as something between a circus and playground quarrel, while the Democratic debates have covered real policy and solutions.

But at the core of this post is the question are we committed to equality and justice even above political party?

Paying allegiance to a certain affiliation, candidate, or political ideology doesn’t make you immune to being part of the problem. To solve issues like racism (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc., etc.), we need to shed our political labels and have hard conversations.

Mainstream liberalism has proven time and again that it is okay to protest and stand up in the name of Black lives at conservative events, but when those protest fly in the face of liberal white leaders, it’s gone too far. That, my friends, is what you call hypocrisy.

During the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. often talked about the subtle racism of Northern white liberals and how it was just as dangerous as the segregationist attitudes in the South. He recognized that people can contribute to racism regardless of being liberal or conservative; Democrat or Republican; Confederate Flag waving KKK member or self-professed ally.

In order to realize equality, justice, and every other right we are promised in this country, we must look beyond the narrow scope of the mainstream. We must seek common ground with people outside of the framework of Washington, DC and Augusta . We must put integrity above all else if we are going realize the dream Dr. King described on the steps of the Lincoln Monument fifty-three short years ago.


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Dead Dreams and False Hopes…Reflections on this Election Season

My father was raised in rural Arkansas where, until the age of 11, he picked cotton after school and during the summer alongside his siblings and parents who were sharecroppers.  Dad was almost a teenager before he lived in a house with running water and a toilet that flushed…time frame, the 1960’s. The way the story has always been told to me, he graduated from high school on a Wednesday, his graduation gift that afternoon was a trunk and he was on a bus to Chicago later that night and for the most part he never looked back. Within two years, he would meet and marry my mom and I would arrive in early 1973.

For the bulk of my childhood, Dad worked physical jobs: forklift operator, doorman, dry cleaner and the best job he ever held during my childhood was as an officer with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which was short-lived because the stress of being in law enforcement took a toll on my dad. Most of my childhood was spent in the working class with the occasional detour into poor, yet it was a different time. My mom was primarily what we now call a stay-at-home mom during my childhood. Over the years, I have marveled at how my folks did it, how mom would stay home taking care of us, trusting that everything would be all right, even when times were so rough that we were once reduced to eating tuna sandwiches with mustard because we couldn’t afford mayonnaise and we were in between pay cycles.  She never really did  work outside the house until my dad was diagnosed with what appeared to be terminal throat cancer during my junior year of high school.

Yet as hard as times were for my folks, they believed that their kids would and could do better. They shoved college down our throats and it broke their hearts when I refused to go back to school at the beginning of my senior year of high school. My early marriage and entry into motherhood at 19, shattered my mom but the day that I graduated with my bachelor’s degree at 28 was one of the happiest days of their lives. The other happiest day was when my brother graduated from college earning his BA in architecture, the culmination of a dream that started in his preteen years when he loudly declared that he wanted to make houses and by his teens was drafting professional-level blueprints. They even scraped the pennies together during his high school years to send him to a study abroad program in Germany so he could study architecture.

My brother graduated from college in the spring of 2003 and was accepted into the graduate architecture program at the University of Toronto. He would start graduate school that fall. Unfortunately my mom’s life journey, unbeknownst to us at the time, was winding down. Less than a year after watching her youngest child graduate from college and get accepted into graduate school, my mom would be dead. A fast-moving lung cancer that went misdiagnosed for months would later metastasize to her brain and her journey from diagnosis to death would be eight months total.

A blow indeed, as my dad would later muse, to lose his beloved wife. But for a boy who came out the cotton patches of Arkansas, he felt blessed to have seen life, traveled a little and seen both his kids go farther than him and access the opportunities he never had access to.

Once upon a time in America, a man or woman could live a decent life that didn’t require multiple degrees to earn a good salary. I have often shared over the years the story of my maternal grandparents who were solidly middle class despite holding factory jobs. They had savings, a home, an annual vacation to Jamaica and the family homestead in Texas. Now their two grandchildren hold five degrees between the two of them (2 undergraduate degrees and 3 masters degrees) and barely get by in this brave new world.

I was raised to believe that if I worked hard, I would get ahead; instead I have worked hard at places where despite my sacrifices and hard work, in the end I was disposable. I have seen my cost of living rise as the wages remain stagnant. The dreams I had even at 30 are pretty much shattered and in my private and real moments, I can admit that I will probably die before I retire. In fact I should hope for that, since at the current rate of things, my retirement will be spent being a drain on my children and hoping that programs like Meals on Wheels still exist so that I can get one good meal a day as I supplement with kitty chow the rest of time.

As dire as this sounds, millions have it even worse, millions who didn’t rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt just to lick at the counter of the “middle class”…millions who, like my dad, have worked hard and are now redundant and shit out of luck in an ever changing world where a smartphone is no longer a “luxury” item but a necessity in a world where you barely can even find a payphone. (Few weeks ago, my phone started acting up, I went to look for a payphone…it was a cruel wakeup call).

The economic calamity facing millions of Americans in many ways is what lies at the heart of this election year angst. The dreams that we were raised with were really only fairy tales since few people have ever stood on their own merit to advance. Almost always a connection or luck involving more than hard work has been at play but that goes against the feel-good Horatio Alger story we have been fed.  Throw in the very secretive nature of money in our society and we create a recipe for disaster. Since it is always easier to imagine that someone has it easier or is getting something that we believe we are entitled to (false beliefs that people of color are getting “free” college educations, anyone?) than to see that we are actually all in the same slow sinking economic boat and that only a few of the very fortunate are prospering.

It’s one of the many dangers of Donald Trump. He speaks a language of hope that hearkens back to a time when a person was “prospering,” hence the slogan “Make America Great Again.” However, making America great Trump style is never going to happen because he a snake oil salesman peddling bullshit despite the the feel-good, folksy persona that some of his supporters are connecting to. Trump promotes himself as self-made but that is no more accurate than saying the the Bush brothers are self-made men. Reality and facts often go out the window when hard realities and emotions are at play. Thus we have people like former child actor Scott Baio loudly proclaiming that he supports Trump because Trump “Speaks Like I speak” which in many way sums up the appeal of Trump to many. He doesn’t come across as a son of privilege, he seems like the self-made man many dreamed that they could be but that will never happen. Instead we are all marching to our collective doom as we sit on the cusp of civil war.

To make America great again requires more than the dreams being peddled on either side of the political aisle. For starters we need to acknowledge that our “greatness” came at a great cost and the backs of people who never received their due rewards for their labor…and then work our way forward from there. It also requires acknowledging that we are in the midst of societal change and then work towards a consensus that betters the masses. Change that involves acknowledging all of the inequities that currently exist and might involve examining who exactly is best served by the current free market and state and capitalism and whether or not such a system is truly feasible moving forward.

In the meantime, steer clear of Trump rallies and let’s hope the nation survives this election cycle. Or we can start planning for the cardboard village that will house all of in our old age. Perhaps we can buy the kitty chow in bulk and share. 
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