Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Just my Imagination...

It’s funny how my lectures seem to align almost seamlessly with what’s going on in the world. Or perhaps I’m just paying more attention now.

Early Saturday morning, Jonathan Ferrell was shot, 10 times, by a local police officer. You can read about here, here, here and here. Or, ya know, just Google the man’s name. Just two days before this young man’s death, I had a conversation with my professor and peers about violence, particularly how the state-sanctioned violence enacted abroad (via war, drones, etc) coincides with the state-sanctioned violence enacted at home (via police officers, etc).

What I didn’t talk about – because I took a day off from being “that girl” – was how the legacy of racism in the US generates fear of the black and brown “other” and legitimates violence enacted against those bodies. How, for instance, the value, or lack thereof, placed on innocent, civilian bodies abroad in, say, any nation affected by drone strikes coincides with the value, or lack thereof, placed on those non-white bodies here at home. Because, to be frank, we’re not dropping bombs on terrorist groups in England, or France or Ireland. And this isn’t the first time that the cops have used excessive force in “self-defense” and it damned sure won’t be the last.

In this particular instance, I consider how the criminalization of Black bodies legitimates fear of Black bodies which in turn legitimates violence against Black bodies. And how all of that contributes to a fundamental disregard for human life when that life is Black. What I find interesting about some of the reports surrounding Ferrell’s death is the way that Sarah McCartney, the woman who called the cops, has been characterized. I asked my fiancĂ© last night “I wonder how she feels about her role in this man’s death?” MSNBC did a “report” on the call she made (linked somewhere above) which immediately victimizes McCartney. “The young mother, alone with her 1-year-old son, rushed to the door thinking that something might have happened to her husband. But the man standing there wasn’t her husband, but a young black man.” She can also be heard telling the dispatcher that she couldn’t find any of her husband’s guns. Another report from CBS, linked also above, states that Ferrell was knocking, I shit you not, “viciously” on McCartney’s front door.

Oooooh. Scary, right. Imagine! Home. ALONE. With a child. Waking up to “vicious” knocking and opening the door to see, of all things, a Black man. By George, I’d have run straight for my gun, too. Because, people trying to break into my home and steal my things are always polite enough to knock first. Viciously, of course.

I wonder how much the fear of aggressive, “vicious,” violent, hypermasculine and hypersexual Black men played on her psyche in that moment. I wonder how this continued fear and criminalization of Blackness caused this woman to shut the door in this man’s face, without ever considering if he was in need of help, and call the cops to report an attempted burglary – a claim which I find both laughable and depressing. She opened the door, closes it, then phones the police while Ferrell is still knocking – and that constitutes attempted burglary?

Imagine where Ferrell and his family would be if we lived in country that (shock and awe) characterized Black people as people, that simply fucking valued Black bodies. Imagine a world where a Black man can knock on a door in the middle of the night and ask for aid and not have to worry about being killed by the cops. Imagine a world where I wouldn’t have to question if McCartney would’ve called the cops, and if Ferrell would still be alive, if Ferrell had been white, or presented as white.  


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Twerking to the Civil War Beat

I’m taking a course this semester on American Realism and Naturalism. To fully understand the genre we must first, of course, visit the history that gave birth to it. My professor spoke a great deal about the Civil War, the lives it cost, the landscapes it changed and the people it left behind to rebuild the country. He says that we should visit a Civil War battlefield if we’ve never done so. He says visiting these sites of destruction and violence (my words, not his) always humbles him and brings him to tears (his words, not mine).

I look around the classroom as my classmates nod their heads and sound off: Gettysburg, Antietam, just to name a few. I am skeptical of this seemingly fervent knowledge of the Civil War – as I have been since my experience as a high school student in Virginia. Can they express the same of plantations, I wonder. Can they or have they questioned how these sites of bodily commodification, rape, violence, and destruction (in various forms) became sites of expensive Southern Celebrations?

I must admit that I myself never considered these very things until I read Jesse Williams’ op-ed on CNN quite a few months ago. I am saddened by the fact that I know where the first shot of the Civil War was fired (Ft. Sumter) and where it all came to an end (Appomattox Courthouse), but that I don’t know the names of the plantations that Southerners fought so hard to maintain, the very sites of bondage occupied by my ancestors.

My history, like yours, dear reader, is incomplete.

At some point, many of us reach an age when we begin to realize that the history lessons we were taught were very limited, skewed in perspective and deliberately light on narratives that reveal America for what it is and has always been. I’m currently reading an article about the origins of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. I read this and wonder at the irony: how does a country that ignored WWII until it came to their back door, that shoved thousands of Japanese/Japanese-Americans into internment camps, that had its own Anti-Jewish sentiments to contend with negotiate that  shameful history with the shining pride of a Memorial Museum?

I read this article alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the forefront of my edition of Huck Finn, Claire Boss writes that Twain was “vigorously attacking racism” and that “the insults hurled at Jim were intended to emphasize his nobility and integrity, in contrast to his attackers.” She uses this as evidence for her claim that some critics just don’t “get” that the book is an indictment against racism and that its use of the n-word was just a reflection of the time. In a mere two pages she reduces racism to a word, and ignores the very real instances of (hipster?) racism that pervade the text. Namely – Huck’s constant objectification of Jim. He consistently refers to Jim as though he is owned – as if Jim is an object. Sure, Twain attacked slavery, perhaps in his mind even racism, but he, like Joseph Conrad, does it in a manner that continues to objectify Black bodies. I read these works and place Twain and the USHMM in the context of a society that likes to shift gazes. In other words, it likes to ignore one bad deed because the other bad deed, by comparison, is worse. Objectification of black and brown bodies is okay because at least it is not slavery. Focusing on German concentration camps is more important than focusing on Japanese internment because, by comparison, the former was "much worse" than the latter. 

What is the unit of measure for trauma to the human psyche? I forget. Is it grams? 

Which brings me to Miley Cyrus – whose actions speak to a much broader issue that people of color have been writing about and writing against for decades. The objectification of "othered" bodies.  But, I leave the task of unpacking this to Tressie Mc:
"What I saw in Cyrus’ performance was not just a clueless, culturally insensitive attempt to assert her sexuality or a simple act of cultural appropriation at the expense of black bodies. Instead I saw what kinds of black bodies were on that stage with Cyrus. 
Cyrus’ dancers look more like me than they do Rihanna or Beyonce or Halle Berry. The difference is instructive.
Fat non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units,  subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I said in my analysis of hip-hop and country music cross-overs, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself  while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact.  It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.."
You can read the rest of her awesome post here.

I get that for some of you "twerking" is something best left ignored, but unpack Cyrus's actions in light of American history, more precisely the juxtaposition of White femininity against/with Black femininity, and see where you wind up.

As America gears up for yet another war that will cost yet more lives, I find myself wondering how all of these things intersect. How do US actions on/in Syria, Cyrus, The Civil War, American racism and issues of race/ethnicity all intersect to contribute to oppressive societies - both local and global? Nothing exists in a vacuum, as they say. Each thing informs everything else. And though I don't have the answer to my own question - I am indeed working on it because we must be able to have conversations about cultural appropriation and wars around the world in the same breath. They are both indicative and symptomatic of the might and "right" of colonizing powers.

Perhaps there is no connection between Cyrus and Syria - at least no connection that is neat. But there is definitely something to be said for the positioning of whiteness against blackness. Especially given that the mentality that goes into such privileging of one over the other is the very same mentality that goes into deciding to "wait and see" what happens in a war-torn country whose victims and residents are predominately brown.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why don’t ovens come with pizza settings and other musings upon my return to Grad School

It’s been over 1 year since I last wrote here. Two since I left Purdue. It feels like not enough time has gone by. I won’t mince words – my departure from the Grad School beta was fraught with highs and lows. Mostly lows.

Depression being the lowest.

No one talks about mental health and graduate school. If you’re failing your classes – it’s because you can’t hack it. If you feel alienated from your cohort – you didn’t try hard enough to make friends. If you cry, sometimes for no reason – it’s because you’re emotional. And, when you sort of bury all of that emotion under a thick layer of “let’s ignore this” and practically live in your room for a month – CONGRATULATIONS. You’ve won.

No one talks about this shit. At least no one talked to me about it. Then I met an amazing woman who became a mentor and, I think, is becoming a friend. She was honest about her experiences as a graduate student. And she was the first person, in 2 years, to be up front with me about the toll that her graduate education took on her mental health. I’m hoping to be just as honest with you, dear reader, whoever you may be.

I worry constantly that it’ll all come back – the depression, the feelings of loneliness. And, trust me, doing this work – work that seeks to open people’s eyes to the oppressive injustices that occur around them every day – is fucking LONELY.  The things I study now and the things that I’m vocal about – racism, misogyny, homo/transantagonism, etc – tend to alienate people. But I at least I’m choosing it this time. 
And I’m armed with the love of my life, with a mentor that rocks, understanding of the importance of self-care (especially for Black women) and a growing inner circle of support. I’m working out 3-4 times a week now and doing some pretty meditative (and ass kicking) yoga.

Oh, and there’s the tequila.

Which, oddly enough, brings me to my next point. Raise a glass. I made it through day one. I was anxious, sweaty even (though I’ll blame the humidity for that). I was worried that people would see “graduate school dropout” tattooed across my forehead when they looked at me. But, after a long day of working my assistantship, running to and from class and running around campus – I no longer have the energy or desire to dwell on past events that I can never change. At least those things made me stronger and more equipped to handle take 2.  

Oh…and then there’s the tequila.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Seeing Yourself

I came in on the tail end of HBO’s “The Latino List” and had the pleasure of hearing Marta Moreno Vega share a story from her childhood. To keep it short and simple, she saw her drug addicted brother in the street one day and did not respond when he spoke to her. She “kept it pushin” as they say. And like any true sibling he ran to their mother and tattled on her! When Vega’s mother questioned her about it, and Vega admitted that she didn’t speak to him because he was dirty and so on, her mother said “…that could be you, that could be your brother, that could be your sister, that could be me. Don’t you ever… don’t you EVER not recognize yourself in somebody else.” Vega ended her story with “that’s being spiritual. My mamá taught me that.”

Of course this story gets added to the list of things that made me want to cry this week because I thought of two things – how powerful that statement is and how many things our parents teach us that we go on to share with the world.

Could you imagine if we all took the time to see ourselves in someone else? In the homeless, in those addicted to drugs, in the brown-skinned innocents that US sanctioned drone attacks kill, in the young black men being profiled (and stopped and frisked and harassed and violated and, eventually, killed) in our streets every day? Would we stop and help them?

Could you imagine if every single child saw him or herself in not only those people, but in our business owners, our president, our politicians? If our politicians saw themselves in the poor, in women, in we “voiceless” marginalized folk, in those brown-skinned innocents that they voted to kill? What a world that would create - politicians that actually begin to care about people rather than their own agenda, their own beliefs, their own hatreds and bigotry. We’d have children that would grow into adults who see themselves in every single person. Those adults would run our country and I’d like to believe they’d run it better. But, I digress.

Of the things that I learned from my parents, and still learn every day – never take any shit off anyone. They probably didn’t say it in exactly that way, but that’s how I’m taking it.
Never stop writing.
Never stop caring.
Never let anyone silence you.
Always treat others with the respect and dignity that you yourself deserve.

And, now, I add to their list – always see yourself in others; always recognize yourself in others. I’d like to believe this will make me a better person, someone that has greater drive to help others inside the classroom and out. I’ve made a real stink over women’s issues and minority issues (in television) lately and I just know that it is my singular goal in life to bring multicultural literature, film and television to students. I want them to see themselves in those people – in those actors, actresses, directors and writers.  And maybe, just maybe, they’ll leave my classroom and enter the world thinking about more than themselves. When someone says “this is a race/racial issue” they’ll be more inclined to not only listen, but understand. When someone says, “this is a women’s rights issue” they’ll be more inclined to not only listen, but understand. When they enter the workforce and go on their paths to run our country, be businessmen, police officers, etc, they’ll see a brown face and see their own. They’ll see the poor and see themselves. They’ll see brown-skinned children gunned down in the streets and they will see their own.

Think of the world we could create if something as simple as “recognize yourself in others” was taught alongside the golden rule. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true, people don’t want to care about an issue until it affects them personally. Looking at the world this way, it does, doesn’t it? 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kenyetta, Brianna and me.

I’ve been on the feminist bandwagon for a few weeks now and let me just say – or type, rather – that I am so glad I finally found something that I can truly sink my teeth into. This world where race, sex, gender, class and so many other things collide is quickly becoming my happy unhappy place. I think about it constantly – how to make people understand, how to make it better, how to teach it. Never been happier that I left biology for bigger, brighter and better endeavors.

Margaret Bowland, Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna (2008)
Margaret Bowland: Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna

I saw this on the internet today. It brought that itch to the back of my eye that foreshadows tears. But they didn’t come. One, because I’m at work. Two, because – dammit – I will not shed another tear over this.

I’ve focused a lot on identity and intersectionality over the last year in my coursework – examining the layers of black identity and how they are embraced, quelled and/or misunderstood. This image brought back all of my own personal struggles with those very things. How can I be “more” black? How can I be more…authentic? How can I be less me and more who you want me to be? How can I not be the “little white girl” in my family and the “black chick” amongst my friends? How can I be a strong, self-reliant and self-sufficient woman without being the “black woman that doesn’t need anybody?”

I was probably halfway through college before I stopped trying to be everyone else’s conception of me.  Before I stopped trying to figure out how I could be a little bit of this definition and a little bit of that – an all-you-can-eat buffet of identities.  But, dammit, those little girls in that picture. That *woman.* They bring it all back. They are me. I can’t take my eyes off of them, off of the me that I see in them. And that itch is back again.
That woman is who those little girls will become. We don’t grow out of or away from our identity crises. We either overcome them or let them overcome us. My heart breaks over this image, this “whiteface” and the shame (and shaming) that it represents. The idea that being a different color or a different shade of brown will make that shame – and the sense of pain and ugliness that it breeds – go away.  Who among us hasn’t though that life would be easier if we were rich, white men? That’s the shame I speak of. And the more I think about that shame, the more I think about bell hooks’ analysis of black women being at the bottom of the totem pole. She believed that we were the most marginalized of them all, having no community of people to other in order to make ourselves feel superior. I expand this concept to women of color in general. In my mind, because we have no “other” of our own to hate, we turn it on ourselves and on each other – denigrating other women (of color) when we really should be reaching out to them and embracing them in solidarity. We point fingers and make crass jokes about each other’s hair when we should really be saying, “hey, I may not like it – but I love that you love it.” We order ourselves along some arbitrary system – too black, not black enough – when each and every one of us is enough. We fall victim to new school twists on old school light-skinned/ dark-skinned stereotypes and classifications.   

And my heart breaks every single damned time.
It breaks every time I think about how many of my own experiences have been marred by these very things because I didn’t look the part or didn’t fit the role. How can we rally against a society that promotes a finite definition of beauty, damning those that do not fit, when we are doing the same thing to each other? How can we continue to engage in this double standard where it is unacceptable for society to tell women who they should be and look like, but acceptable for individual woman to place those same constraints on others?

I want all women to wake up and understand that I don’t have to tell you that you are beautiful. *You* have to tell you that you are beautiful. You don’t need to go outside of yourself to find beauty – it’s already there.
I want those little girls, that woman…I want to tell them that. I want them to understand that.
My natural/permed hair, skin, thick/thin/in-between thighs, my eyes, my feet, my toes, my big/small/in-between butt, my small/large/in-between breasts, are beautiful regardless of what black, white, [insert ethnicity here] men or women say. Period.

And there’s that itch again.