Privilege: Kavanaugh’s Cloak of Invisibility

America is gripped this week by the Supreme Court hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, a salacious episode of reality TV involving sex, power, and privilege. Tomorrow, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when the pair were in high school in 1982.  Even as more accusers come forward–two three five as of this writing–tomorrow’s testimony is set up to be a battle of the he-said-she-said–but there is a third element to this story we can’t ignore: the power of privilege.

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Watch any crime show and you will see the weight we put on the world of the perpetrator to mold their criminal ways.  Shoot up a school? Let’s see what video games you played.  Black criminal? a product of the streets.   It’s not unusual–and in fact is too often standard to replace evidence with character and culture when adjudicating criminals. That is until it comes to those prep school boys and their boys-will-be-boys antics. The prep school of Kavanaugh’s narrative is a virginal version of academic heaven; surely no harm can happen there? The violence of power and control that is shaped by a competitive environment where privilege protects bad behavior could not possibly have any bearing on a man 30 years after, right?

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The world of frat boys gone bad is a familiar trope in American culture. Movies like Skull and Bones, Animal House, and Private School (released in 1983 during Kavanaugh’s school days) and TV shows feature a world where boyish behavior crimes are common but consequences and parents are absent.  Hidden behind the Ivies, violence becomes tradition and assault becomes kidding around.  This rapey frat boy thing is not mere fiction: a long litany of actual news events feature young men who used their power and privilege to get out of the consequences of sexual assault, their lives deemed more important to not disrupt than that of victims, forever disrupted by a justice system that refuses to let their wounds heal.  We are surrounded with a long tradition of tales that stage whisper to us that sexual assault is a normal, if not a traditional part of private school that frat boys believe are part of their rites of passage into toxic masculinity–also know as the old boy’s network.

Neither the overreliance on environmental factors–like the Marilyn Manson theory of school shooters–nor the erasure of anything from the past as some would like to see in Kavanaugh’s hearing provides for the complex factors that make any person who they are. When we examine someone’s integrity, the past is a part of who they are.  When we are validating accusations, circumstances matter. Brett Kavanaugh’s environment in addition to Ford’s testimony should factor into verifying–or denying–her claim. We should hear from others who were there and who say they are familiar with the incident.  Hmm, we need some way to gather all this information.  Wish we had an FBI–oh we do!  A full investigation will make sure that all voices are heard and we have a tapestry of voices, not just two.

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One trait of this trope that you may notice is that this is a long list of white men.  While the GOP is bending over backward to avoid investigating old accusations about Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby is sentenced to 3-10 years in prison and is labeled a sexual predator.  As powerful as Bill Cosby once was, it was not impossible for the court and the court of public opinion to see past years of Cosby’s family-friendly work and find him guilty:  he was after all a black man, and America has a long legal tradition of finding black men guilty of being sexual predators.  Cosby lacked a prep school to blame his behavior on.  Black fame without white privilege gave his accusers a chance to be heard, and, after enormous effort, justice will finally be done as Cosby enters jail.

There is no such legal legacy when it comes to white men.  Too often white men win in the court of public opinion long before they are held to legal account. Before a word of testimony regarding the Kavanaugh’s situation is heard under oath Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising to “get through this.” Kavanaugh’s accusers are denied an FBI investigation that would examine evidence related to their claims.  The best they can hope for is that the man that perpetrated their alleged assaults doesn’t also decide their healthcare rights. The cloak of whiteness protects the old boy’s network from scrutiny; crime is redefined as horseplay, jokes, hazing. It’s easy to bend the rules in favor of the old boys’ network because the old boys are by and large the ones who get to make and interpret the laws.

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Neither the age of the allegations nor Cosby’s massive fame and fortune stopped the accusations from negatively affecting his life–as justice would require.  To be clear, this is not a defense of Cosby. He is now a convicted sex offender, while Kavanaugh will not have any judgment rendered regarding the allegations themselves.  Instead, this is a chance to point out the often invisible way that privilege works to advantage those in power.  Even as Cosby was being labeled a sexual predator for drugging women and sexually assaulting them, Trump told the media that Ramirez’s accusations of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault are not to be believed because she was inebriated. The difference between the narratives surrounding one case and another highlights the privilege protecting wealthy white men accused of sexual assault that prevents them from the scrutiny–and just process–of a trial.

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Look carefully not at the sordid details themselves, but the falling action, where boys lives are deemed relics of a past to be forgotten, where their behavior becomes an inconsequential drop in an ocean of what-boys-do.  Not only are these acts normalized by their sheer frequency, but they are excused with weak slaps, or condoned, simply a nod to tradition that remains unquestioned and un-consequenced.  We can and must do better.

America is designed to be a nation of laws, not (white) men. What’s good for the comedian is good for the supreme court judge who will make decisions that will affect women for years to come. Let Cosby’s conviction be tomorrow’s lesson: ignore the privileges that come with power. Believe the women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sisterhood of The Unraveling Rants

This weekend saw plenty of black girl anger on display from Serena’s throw down on the court to Cardi B’s blow up at Nikki Minaj during fashion week.  Seems like everywhere you turn a black woman is getting kicked out or called out for being angry. Before you start with some respectability politics a-la-well-calm-down, remember Black women are often stereotyped as out of control, but with a world on fire, acting nice is a privilege they can ill afford.  I’m not saying you should start ripping off wigs but beyond soundbites and stereotypes, anger has a place in every black girl’s arsenal. 

Serena Williams’ journey to capture her 24th Grand Slam title stopped short when she received a game violation for verbal abuse, effectively ceding the match to first time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka.  The high drama played out on the court with Williams accusing a judge of sexism for issuing a rarely-called penalty for coaching.  Unlike her brooding and unrepentant male counterparts who made screaming at refs their brand, she was penalized for her verbal outburst, costing her any remaining focus she had and the game. 

She complained bitterly that the rules were being applied differently for her versus her male counterparts–textbook sexism–and has been supported by many of her peers from Chris Everett, covering the Open as it happened to tennis and sexism expert Billie Jean King.

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Despite having a point about sexism in tennis, Williams lost the match and of course faced the usual hateful representation as an angry ape/child. Oh, and she was fined for her outburst about unfair treatment of women–she’ll pay $17,000.  Also textbook sexism

DmjIAJSV4AEJHku.jpgAcross town in a less athletic display of rage, Cardi B threw a shoe at Nikki Minaj in a scuffle best described as rap beef with great dresses.  In a scene right out of Love and Hip Hop, Cardi B pulled up on Minaj at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons party at New York Fashion Week.  The fight garnered lots of buzz throughout the weekend with bloggers turning history professors as they run down the back and forth between the self-proclaimed Queen of rap and the newcomer for the throne. 

But it wasn’t an episode of reality TV–it was two women who have more in common with each other than they have with many of the other party goers.  Both are entrepreneurs doing their best to ride the wave of celebrity before time and the next big starlet leaves them on the shore.   While their public beef will help drive records sales and blog hits this week, this is just another chapter in the ho-hum tale of ghetto girls acting badly.  Their out-of-control anger over some she-tweet-she-said is exactly what is expected out of both stars and out of angry black women in general.  This didn’t happen backstage at a Migos show–this was a show they put on for the international fashion crowd-tres boughetto. What ever happened to go high, ladies?

Before we chalk up this weekend to the same ole angry black women story we always hear, let’s not.  When we talk about how angry black women are, we ignore that black women, in reality, are not angrier than their white counterparts.  What we are repeating is an old stereotype that was used to justify oppressive practices to keep black women in check. Black women do–and have a right to–respond to attacks on their community and character with anger.  But the conflation of their temporary mood and their permanent color is classic racism, providing an easy excuse to invalidate any given black woman’s righteous anger as just a character flaw of the race.

 

In fact, recent studies show that white people are more likely to describe themselves as angry than members of other racial groups. The poll should come as no surprise: everywhere we look we see internet videos of white women going off at Starbucks, on the street, at Michael’s–and let’s face it, if crafting makes you angry you really need help.  But we don’t call them angry white women–we refer to them as Barbeque Becky, or the lady freaking out at Michaels, but their whiteness is not a key descriptor in their internet moniker like it is for Serena.  Go google angry white women, and then angry black woman–what difference do you notice in the results?

It’s not just the women who are mad as hell–there was no shortage of male violence competing for airtime this weekend–from real stories of shootings, rape, and murder to hours of news with men yelling at each other in silk suits or a day reserved for men running full speed at each other and knocking each other’s memories out of their heads on the football field. Male aggression is nothing less than the great American pass time. The consequence for men who act aggressively is winning.  They are rewarded on the field, in the workplace, and in the White House for acting aggressively, threatening and pushing, dominating and snarling.

We are a sharply competitive nation who prizes the flash of sharp teeth and the rule of the bone.   To give up your anger is to put down one of the most powerful tools in American culture, and to silence your own voice in the face of oppression.   Still, public displays of anger by black women have little benefit for them beyond being weekend clickbait and conversely carry the consequences of hundreds of years of history.  What’s a black woman to do?

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Anger is a valid and valuable human emotion.  Like any weapon, you have to be careful with it: using it to try to right the wrongs of the world is a solid move, even if you don’t always land you blow.  But using your anger to slide into a petty feud best left in subtweets is like bringing a knife to a fist fight.

Screen-Shot-2018-09-08-at-11.49.05-AM.pngUnlike Cardi B, never, never let them see you sweat over the next b.  Cardi B has been riding a wave of love for her plucky weird vibe from bump reveals to Met Gala Virgin Mary glam.  Being something other than a wild rapper is what’s getting her invited everywhere.  Don’t lose your seat at the table fighting over scraps.  There’s no black girl magic in playing out the same tired trope of hood chicks who don’t know how to act.  Best to keep your knives virtual and your bag–and your plus 1–secure.

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But anger has a place and black women have the right to display anger, to call people out with their anger, to wield their anger like everyone else in America.  We know that sexism is unlikely to disappear with a whispered “excuse me, please.” Like Serena, don’t let them talk you down when you are busy pointing out systemic inequality.  Serena may have lost the Grand Slam but she proved herself a superhero in a tutu scoring again in a match against sexism.  She kept her anger directed at a system that wasn’t treating her fair. Instead of attacking her young opponent she lifted up her sister with grace and love, despite her being all the way in her feelings.   She showed us rage done right: a new play that has room both for fierce competition and for grace and respect for the winners.

 

Kap’s Got A ‘Dream’ Contract!

Nike set the internet on fire this week, announcing  Colin Kaepernick will be the face of their 30th-anniversary Just Do It campaign by releasing this beautiful ad:

Within moments of Nike’s announcement, the you-better-stand-for-our-flag-you-disrespectful-shit-do-you-like-my-flag-shorts crowd got all fired up–literally.  The air around the nation was scented with the smell of burning Nike’s as Kaepernick detractors took to social media in protest of Kaepernick’s ascension into Nike’s hall of sports gods. This is not what Nike means by “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.  Ya dirty old socks are not a sacrifice—its a mercy killing. Anyways, later for the haters—

 

But flag waving fans aren’t the only one likely to have a match in their hand.  The NFL just signed an 8-year equipment deal with Nike worth millions, while Nike’s renewal of  Kaepernick’s deal was simmering on the back burner. The NFL can’t be happy to be tucked into bed with Kaepernick and Nike. The US military pays more than 10 million dollars to the NFL for so-called paid patriotism, including the national anthem display in games. The NFL really needs that anthem segment to go right and these protests are messing up their money. It’s not just bad blood between Kap and the NFL: a judge recently greenlighted Kapernicks lawsuit charging the league with collusion to go ahead.  Guess collusion isn’t always fake news.

Stock prices fluttered in the initial hours after the announcement, but by the end of the second day prices had recovered and stocks for Nike were near a one year high.  Unlike other recent boycotts including the boycott of the NFL that resulted in huge losses for the league or the Starbucks boycott that brought the coffee giant to heel in a matter of days, burning already purchased Nike apparel isn’t going to affect Nike’s bottom line. [Sidenote: boycotts work best if you DON’T GIVE YOUR MONEY TO THE COMPANY FIRST, DUMMY!] Also, if you Nike protesters had supported the end of police brutality instead of the end of Kap’s contract, maybe you could’ve had your football AND a decent pair of sneakers.

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This isn’t the first round of boycotts at Nike.  Nike’s labor practices overseas have long made the corporation a target of activists, and rightfully so. A nice ad campaign doesn’t erase oppressive labor practices, though it does sell a lot of iPhones and sneakers.  And yet, the mainstreaming of Kaepernick that Nike achieves with this campaign is not insignificant.   Our culture is awash in celebrities and politicians who proudly parade their lack of morals while their fans like, snap and retweet.  Kaepernick has leveraged his celebrity to address issues of injustice and is deeply involved with his charity of choice Know Your Rights.  He is an inspiration without the corporate endorsement. Now Nike’s campaign is likely to reach millions of people, presenting Kapernicks activism as an aspirational call to action punctuated with the most successful ad slogan in athletics: Just Do It. For better and worse, advertising shapes behavior.  Is an endorsement deal a celebration or a commodification, or maybe both? The complexity and hypocrisy of corporate wokeness are not limited to Kaepernick and is worth some deep thinking.

The company made a bold choice, but a safe choice as well. As a global corporation, Nike already serves a majority-minority market.  People in Asia, the global south and Africa buy sneakers–and outnumber Nike-burning NFL fans by a large margin.

In addition to our own swoon-worthy images of Kaepernick, Nike has also recently released ads celebrating women athletes in Mexico and launched a line of sports hijabs.  Nike has seen the future and it is diverse.

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We can’t deny that corporate social consciousness is hella problematic, nor can we deny that it does move the needle on issues that are ignored in the mainstream narrative. As companies move to cater to the growing share of their audience that is people of color, women, and other traditionally marginalized groups, we are likely to see more ads that package up culture and diversity.  We don’t want our deepest convictions sold back to us by people interested in the bottom line.  But Nike’s new content resonates with a world on fire and deep desire to act.  We need to think more about the lack of separation between what we buy and who we are. We need to act to bridge the separation between who we are and who we can be. Hmmm, now wouldn’t Kaepernick be a good spokesperson for that.

Reality in America is definitely crazy enough, but there’s still room to dream a more just world. Our complex media environment provides opportunities to shift existing narratives, particularly around race and gender.  We have to be careful to have our eyes wide open when we watch–both to see what’s new and to be careful not to let the same injustices get repackaged without us noticing.  This country could use a little crazy dreaming these days; just be sure not to go back to sleep.

 

BlacKkKlansman: White Mask, Black Skin

How is it you don’t feel like you have any skin in the game? The question, asked by undercover police officer Ron Stallworth to his Jewish counterpart Flip Zimmerman as they prepare to infiltrate the KKK, rests at the center of Spike Lee’s masterful film BlacKkKlansman, released Friday on the 1 year anniversary of the Nazi rally and subsequent riots in Charlottesville. The film explores the true story of a black police officer leading an investigation into terrorist activity at the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in Colorado Springs.

Here is a black man who is pretending to be a white man. Here is a Jewish man, who only sees himself as a white man, pretending to be the black man who is pretending to be a white man. Here are a group of white men pretending to be brave and powerful when they are cowards too stupid and blinded by their own beliefs to get it right.  Here is a room full of activists who refuse to pretend to be anything but black and proud. All this is set in a country built on racism pretending to be a multicultural pluralistic democracy. The brilliant interplay of masks and layers in the film reminds us of the complex dance between who we are and how we are seen by others in our racialized society.  Master the dance, and you can navigate our treacherous landscape, but make a misstep and the consequences can be lethal.

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Set in the 70s the film’s commentary on racism is uncomplicated by social media or tech tracking tools and hackers. Free from technology that so often frames our current debates about race, the essential arguments for and against racial justice stand out plainly against the backdrop of the plot. There is no quick escape for racists trolling in the real world. There is no surveillance tape or citizen video. Instead, there is slow action as the cops build a case against the klan.

Lee gives us long scenes with big blocks of dialogue—a speech from Kwame Ture (the Black Panther formerly known as Stokley Carmichael), a speech by David Duke and long sequences that bring us into the reasoning of various characters.  Most powerfully is the recounting of the lynching of Jesse Washington by Harry Belafonte to a rapt black student union. We hear people in their own words,  a broad range of points of view, complex, messy, sometimes conflicting ideas in the same mind. There is time here to reflect, to listen to the thought process behind the sound bites of ideology.

Ron and his gang must think carefully about what white supremacists want, what they fear, what they talk about when no one is listening, in order to make the klan think they are one of them, and we get to listen in on the wire. Even as we hear various points of view the film itself leaves no room for false equivalencies or the bias of both sides having “good people.” The film makes clear to us that racism is untenable both personally and politically.

This is also the second movie this summer along with Boots Riley’s brilliant Sorry To Bother You that hosts “the white voice” as an important device advancing the plot–Sorry’s voice is fantastical while Blackk’s white voice is more functional–the character’s own daily code-switching. Ron Stallworth, played by the gorgeously talented John David Washington, pulls off his brazen plan using a voice described in Boots Riley‘s film Sorry To Bother You as the white voice.

To be black in America requires you to familiarize yourself with white people who make up the vast majority of this country–about 70% currently.  Often positions of consequence–teacher, police officer, banker, politician–are more likely to be occupied by a white person. In order to navigate the world, replete with racists among the population, black people are often hyper-aware of the ways that white culture moves, thinks, and feels; as for any prey, understanding your predator is the key to survival. In Sorry to Bother You the white voice is the key to the Lakeith Stanfield’s character Cassius Green rising through the ranks to telemarketing superstardom. Being able to speak the King’s English opens doors for Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, but it is his intimate knowledge of how to speak to the soul of the Klan members that gains him access to David Duke.

Both films share the understanding that voice is not just diction but culture, beliefs, and values. Both Stallworth and Green leverage this ideological disguise to move in white cultures with such success, invisible to White people as they reflect back to whites their own cultural image. Here is where diversity behind the camera is so important: unpacking the concept of the white voice and the power it has beyond words is something that can be done best when fueled with the lived experience of a creator that has navigated this voice his whole life. This is a delicate and complex cultural process unfolding often outside the view of mainstream white America. To have this dance dragged out into the light to show the benefits and consequences of strategically navigating whiteness as a black man in this country is a gift to our dialogue about race and an opportunity for moviegoers to understand a way of being that is rarely

Image result for spike lee blackklansmanA view of whiteness through the eyes of black artists and authors is too often excluded from our media, but integral to understanding the many ways of thinking and seeing race in America.  The conversation about race in America often centers around othering people of color. In both films, the exploration of the white voice and the power it wields is an exploration of whiteness itself. In Blackklansman we have an opportunity to explore the ideology of white supremacy while listening and watching through a black lens.

Most explorations of whiteness come from white directors writers and producers.  Their lived experiences, implicit biases and beliefs infuse their work, often with a sympathetic eye. Well known movies about the klan range from the fawning–Birth of a Nation to the cautionary tale–American History X, framing the klan as heroes, antiheroes, or at worst misled youth and exaggerated nazis.  From behind the camera, Spike Lee refuses to give the klan credit for being clever monsters or pure-blooded gentry. In Lee’s film, The klansmen are farcical. They are equal parts keystone cops, 4chan losers, and townies. While watching the movie in a theater of mixed moviegoers, a single white woman guffawed at the klan’s clunky shenanigans, but her laugh echoed in the silence of the theater. The shit is not funny. The film disses klansmen but is sure to remind us the mess these fools create has material consequences like the threats hovering over the black activist throughout the film.

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We know how the story ends: Ron Stallworth, after all, lived to tell the tale and the Klan lost no one but their own members in the incident detailed in the movie. There is no such neat and tidy ending for our own time though, as Lee reminds us in a powerful coda. David Duke survived too, and now claims a friend in the President of the United States. Conversations throughout the movie that highlight different points of view on race are completely familiar, ripped from your social media feed and stuffed into the mouths of the characters. The pending Unite the Right rally coming up in DC Sunday is set to repeat the public display of vitriol from Charlottesville just a year after Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist terrorist. Police are still shooting people in the back. We are haunted years after Stallworth’s success by manifestations of racism that too many thought was long gone.

No nation can be great when part of the population is bent on genocide of the rest. The violence of oppression has a wide-ranging impact that touches every life in this country, whether people acknowledge it or not. BlacKkKlansman reminds us there is no simple mathematic formula delineating who is harmed by racism. Stallworth’s partner   Zimmerman, played by Adam driver tells him it is his [Zimmerman’s] business why he doesn’t’ think he has skin in the game and Stallworth reminds him, “No, it’s our business.” Whatever complex factors affect your own experience of race, this is your fight to win or your loss to bear.  There is no being colorblind to the dynamics of oppression. We all have skin in this game.

 

Everyday Mandela

The boat to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, is a rough ride over choppy seas even in good weather, the specter of Table Mountain growing distant as Capetown disappears beneath the screaming of birds that surround the island. As I took the boat over, I wondered how many ways Mandela’s heart broke as he watched home fade away on his way to an unforgiving rock of an island to serve 18 of the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid government.

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Mandela had much to lose by opposing injustice: from early political organizing to opposing apartheid and later championing the fight against AIDS in Africa, he risked his own conform, status, and freedom to fight oppression.  He was born a Xhosa (think Wakanda irl) son of Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a local chief, and counselor to the King of the Themba people.

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He could have stayed in his nice life, a member of the royal household, but Mandela fled position and an arranged marriage in the Grand Palace for a life in Johannesburg that soon led him from the mines into politics. During his fight against apartheid, he spent years in prison, losing part of his sight from breaking rocks day after day in the white-hot glow of a limestone quarry on Robben Island, he suffered attacks against himself and his family, and he was criticized by both left–for being too accommodating– and right–not being accommodating at all–while he served as President of the ANC. All this was part of the sacrifice he made to free South Africa.

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Back on the island loud clouds of seagulls are deafening, wheeling overhead as we are herded onto buses for the tour.  There is a snack shop. Next to it is a giant picture frame where people stop and take pictures.  Person after person lines up to frame themselves, smiling: peace from the prison camp! I have found so many of these stops on my black pain tour challenging–  how do you remember without becoming lost in the pain of the past?  how can you embrace the victory without erasing the cost? I avoid the chatty banter of the large group and look back at the shadow of Capetown out past the screeching gulls.

We ride past a tiny house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan African Conference was kept alone for years.  He was not allowed to speak to anyone for six years, during which time his vocal chords atrophied and he was no longer able to speak thereafter, even upon his release from Robben Island.  The tiny ill-fitted house is surrounded by plush dog kennels where the island’s guard dogs were kept.  I imagine sitting silently for years amidst a cacophony of dogs and gulls: animals giving voice to all you cannot.

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When we arrive at the cell blocks where political prisoners are kept we are met by a former political prisoner who guides us around.  He has a limp but otherwise seems too young to have participated in History with a capital H.  Except history was not that long ago; I remember watching Mandela released from jail on a color TV, a moment in history teetering between the fall of the Berlin wall and the first Gulf War.  South Africa has only been out of apartheid for 27 years.  The US has not had civil rights for much longer.  Both countries still struggle to actualize the freedom the law was passed to protect. The history is recycled in the present; racism persists.

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Our guide persists, too.  He walks us through the cell blocks sharing stories as he goes–where they ate, where they slept, where they played soccer.  In the cell block where Mandela was housed each cell holds the story of its former occupant: the chess player’s board, books in another, a letter penned in swooping cursive in a third.  These cell blocks, prisons though they are, now ring with the humanity of their inhabitants, standing in stark contrast to the dehumanizing machine that is the design of the American prison system. The guide talks about the community of men formed and forged here, and they way they plotted freedom for their country from their cells.

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Here is the cell where Mandela was imprisoned.  Everyone wants to peer into the place where Mandela sharpened himself to a weapon aimed at toppling apartheid. Everyone wants a picture; one by one each person has their moment to pass by the bars, contemplate the grand arc of history and snap a pic.  Morgan brought us here today.  He’s from Zimbabwe so this is the first time he’s been here.  He asks someone to snap a photo of him in front of this cell swirling with the courage of one of the great heroes of our time.  The person taking the picture fumbles with the phone.  A woman waiting next in line calls out:

Hurry up or we’re going to put you in there.

A (white) woman waiting impatiently in line calls out (with a South African accent) even though she is next, to the (black adult) man, a stranger, scolding him like a child, threatening him with the power she wields in this world, telling him to move out of the way so she can take a picture of the cell of man removed from society, moved out of the way by the apartheid government so they could take their shot at colonizing their own country. If Morgan does not move so she can take a portrait of her bloated self, stuffed next to Mandela’s cell then she will stuff him in the cell–one African in the cell is as good as another. She is so secure, so deaf to her own role in white supremacy that she calls out with no irony.

Hurry up or we (who is we?) are going to put you in there.

The air crackles immediately with multiple protests.  “That’s inappropriate,” Jordyn calls out, her voice commanding, leaving no room for back peddling or push back. A second of silence while we all pose as if for a photograph of future museum goers: “here is an example of racism, sometimes referred to soft racism but still directed at people of African descent, just like segregation, and apartheid, and slavery, and colonialism…”

But the woman does not apologize.  She slides in front of the cell and takes her picture.  I wonder what she will tag the photo–#peacemandela, #robbenislandicare, #antiracistforlife. I wonder if she will leave Morgan out of her story when she tells it. I wonder if she will even remember what she said. The year is 2018. History is present.

Mandela is adored. Today on his 100th birthday the world celebrates (couldn’t we get a Google doodle?). He gave up a life of tradition to fight for equality.  His greatness is legendary, the legend well deserved.  In our own lives, such self-sacrifice seems laudable from afar but impractical for day-to-day living.

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Legend inscribed on the bedroom wall in Mandela’s house

Remember though, it is not just the big actions, the ones that land you inside the cell, that are the only courageous responses to racism, it is also the small actions like Jordyn’s vigilant policing outside the cell in the present moment calling out racism and telling racists to their face to knock it off that are a part of the overall fight. We live in the time where racism persists, a death of a thousand cuts: be the band-aid; be the person that stops the cut; be the person that puts down the blade. On days when we celebrate one of the great heroes of the diaspora and his big actions, commit to making small actions in your own world every day.  Think globally, act locally–like really locally–every day, and as always stay woke.

 

 

 

 

 

How To Love America

A few nights ago my neighborhood filled with a haze of smoke, roads and people obscured by the fog.  Just over the tops of the houses across the street, I could see a thick cloud blazing from a house on fire.  Some people had been shooting off fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July when they set their own house on fire.  Despite the inherent tragedy, it seemed like burning down your own house by lighting off gunpowder and throwing it on your porch seems an apt way to commemorate independence day this year. This is America.

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A poll released by Gallup shows pride in America is a record low–just 47% of Americans overall say they are extremely proud of their country, and that number drops to 32% when you split along party lines to look at Dems only. Half the country loves America like a stalker screaming “I love you!” when they walk into your job with a long gun and the other half are filling out asylum applications for Canada. Just over a decade ago, more than 70% of people were extremely proud to be America.  What could possibly have caused so much hatred and division? Vlad? Don? Any ideas?

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It used to be easy to love America–we are, after all, the land of milk and honey.  Now, though, everyone is lactose intolerant, the bees are dying and our democracy is unraveling at the seams. So desperate are we to revive the myth that everyone wants to be us that we are locking up asylum seekers, claiming there’s a wave of people pushing up from the southern border.  Many people believe this narrative even though net migration has been near its lowest for several years.

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Long-term relationships are hard, and when Bae isn’t treating you right it can be easier to break up than to do the work to make up.  But you can’t dump your country of origin.  Like a marriage or your Mom, you’re going to have to try to make this work. So this 4th of July, let’s revive our flagging love affair with America. And no, this isn’t a trip down nostalgia lane wearing a MAGA hat.  These are tips for staying in the fight when you’d rather throw a firework on the porch of America and let it burn.

Image result for i love america protest signAffirm your commitment

Your anger, sadness, and fear are a result of seeing something you love be destroyed by clown-faced hooligans.  Take a minute to focus on the first half of that. Hold onto the fact that you love this country like a life raft.  Despite all that has been and all that it is now, the promise of what we could be, the natural beauty of where we are, and the vast majority of our people make the US a place worth fighting for.

Image result for iconic protest photosLove is Accountability

Any relationship that is going to last long term is going to take a lot of work.  For too long we have floated along without attending the work needed to ensure the American dream is truly available to all people.  Just like Bey and Jay, once you are aware your boo has gone astray, its time to call it out, and then work it out.  You can be mad about America acting a fool and still love it.  You can love America and refuse to let shit go. The fun time we had ignoring our problems and yelling bling bling are gone. Time to hunker down and do the work.

Image result for charlottesville protester hairspray torchDo Not Accept Violence As Love

For any relationship to last, violence has to be unacceptable. No one thrives in an abusive relationship–certainly not the victim, nor the abuser. For centuries we have had successive waves of violence aimed at nearly every part of the population. This year we have seen 157 mass shootings, many of which are spurred by the dumpster fire of hate our country has become.  Call it what it is–nationalist terrorism–and demand public officials recognize it as such.  Relational, political and systemic violence is rampant, from kids in cages to police brutality, to aggressive deregulation and harmful economic practices.  Show up and speak out every fucking time violence erupts.

Related imageDon’t Lose Yourself

Being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back is a recipe for disaster as any decent love song will tell you. While we collectively try to love this country onto the right side of history, take time out to make sure you nurture and grow yourself.  Sad to say, we are on the downhill slide, and it may take some time before we’re done with this fight.  It is okay to remove yourself, to treat your wounds while the battle rages around you.  We are legion, so self-care is possible and important.  To give love you must first give it to yourself.  Do what you need to do to keep yourself right. Fall back and pant in between crises. Paint and draw and write and plant and laugh just for your own sanity. Spend time loving the people you love. You are not America. You do not have to mirror the chaos. You can take a break from the hate to remind yourself why your life matters.

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Refuse to Let the Sidechick Win

Trump enjoys wild popularity in his party–nearly 90% of Republicans have a favorable rating of the president.  But the party is shrinking.  As Trump does Trump, more “establishment” Republicans flee the party and our polarized system breaks down.  Trump represents neither traditional political base.  Ugly, attitudinal and demanding power he doesn’t have, Trump is the typical side chick.  No matter how loud she gets, you can’t let her take your boo.  If it means you have to slap a bitch in the elevator, so be it.  Despite Trump’s claims, his rabid base is far less than half the electorate. Get your neighbors and friends into the game and remind them who this country belongs to.

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Love is not easy.  I’ve had enough crappy relationships to know sometimes you have to walk away.  These days may have you fantasizing about Canadian bacon, but the American dream is still worth loving.  This 4th of July raise your tofu pup and locally brewed craft beer to toast America.  Drink up some good summertime vibes.  As you watch the fireworks tonight, remember how beautiful the fight for America can be.

 

Prelude to a Lynching: Crying Black in Colonized Spaces

In the Black Lives Matter era, knowing that black people are frequently suffering violence at the hands of the police, these women play executioner for their own petty whims. Like the lynchings of the past, these police calls cannot be dismissed as a misunderstandings or misspoken accusations. These women call fully expecting that the police will be on their side

BBQ Beckie, Depressed Debbie, and Permit Patty rocketed to internet fame when they called the police on unsuspecting black people just trying to live their best Obama life. We’ve seen a disturbing trend of white people calling the police on black people in public spaces: BBQ Becky stayed on the phone over an hour to try to get a police response on what she thought was a park permit issue.  Depressed Debbie called the police on black people at a pool who refused to talk to her.  While their police-calling behavior is meme gold, the real-life trend of using police to enforce dominance is a dangerous game where black people have a history of being the loser.

This weekend Permit Patty called the police on a young girl selling water to baseball fans.  When pressed, she admitted that she wasn’t really on the phone with the police and she was not concerned about the permit: she wanted the little girl to be quiet. So there it is.  This white woman, like others before her, consciously purposefully used the threat of police–arrest and potential violence–against an 8-year-old little black girl in order to control a public space to her liking.

Permit Patty, outed as being Alison Ettel, who makes a living making medical marijuana for dogs without a permit–I shit you not, claims that race had nothing to do with her threat. But she lives in Oakland, the city of Oscar Grant and the Black Panthers and ground zero of Black Lives Matter.  It’s certain that she knew the kind of threat calling the police on black people is and used that threat against a girl with a water stand. That’s the reason why she did it: to play terrorist to an 8-year-old she knew would be afraid of the police.

A Documented History Of the Massacre which occured at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923.

Permit Patty is the last in a continuous line of white people, who have used police to control black bodies–from slave catchers through Jim Crow to today’s police state. Sure we’ve come a long way from the bad old days of lynchings, right?  Times were when False Accusation Fanny called rape on a black man the whole town of Rosewood went up in flames.  Or the dozens of white women rendered nameless and blameless in history whose interactions with black people–from an exchange of letters to and exchange of look–resulted in one of the thousands of lynchings during Jim Crow.

detail from Memorial to Peace and Justice showing “reasons” for lynchings

But lynching–extrajudicial killing, or killing of one outside the law, especially based on group identity– continues.  It continues in a variety of forms . Old school lynchings still pop up like unwanted blemishes across the south.  A recent study of interracial crime confirms black people are more likely to be killed by white people than white people are likely to be killed by a black person.  On top of that, the terror of extrajudicial police killing continues in the era of cell phone video. We find ourselves in 2018 with the boundaries between black and white as fraught as ever.

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In the Black Lives Matter era, knowing that black people are frequently suffering violence at the hands of the police, these women play executioner for their own petty whims. Like the lynchings of the past, these police calls cannot be dismissed as misunderstandings or misspoken accusations. These women call fully expecting that the police will be on their side–literally relying on their white privilege for the situation to go their way even as they water the streets and later the airwaves with their tears.

If race is not a factor in these stories, then why are we not seeing a large number of videotaped events where white people inform on other white people?  Since white people are the majority of the American population, it stands to reason that these incidents should overwhelmingly involve white people.  But they don’t by and large involve white people informing on other white people at all.  Hmmmm.  Though to be sure, the police did show up in force to this young white boy’s permit-less lemonade stand

In 2013, George Zimmerman played both Permit Patty and the PD when he killed Trayvon Martin. Stephon Clark was seconds from safety when he was killed in his grandmother’s backyard.  In the space in between lies hundreds of names of people killed because of a casual encounter with police.  Think about that–calling black can result in death. All of these names, this pattern that infects our country’s soul all hangs in the balance when white people call the police on black people.  Cars and cops with guns come, just like they did when black people sought to desegregate private businesses during the civil rights movement of the 60’s.

White people, I argue, know that interactions between black people and the police can be deadly and they call the police anyways.  Afterward, full of apologies and sheepish excuses, they retreat behind their own ignorance, safe from consequences–and sometimes receiving coddling and forgiveness, ignoring their complicity in creating a potentially deadly encounter.

Let’s call these 911 calls what they are: preludes to a lynching. It’s time to hold people accountable for their racism.  It’s time to admit that if you are calling the police because a person of color is making you nervous, being too quiet, being loud, or otherwise occupying public spaces then you may be okay with the death of that person by your word.  Like the women who’s interactions and accusations led to lynchings under Jim Crow, refusal to acknowledge your privilege to activate state violence to protect you does not leave you innocent of a hate crime.  Think about that before you call the police, or don’t be surprised when you get dragged by Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Optics of Oppression

Kids in cages.  “Tender age facilities.”  Baby prisons. A chorus of wailing children ‘in need of a conductor.’  This week on American Apocalypse, Trump’s disastrous zero-tolerance immigration policy separated families at the southern U.S. border, resulting in thousands of minors, including babies and toddlers, incarcerated in immigration detention centers.  Just days later Trump ends the practice, not because he felt it was wrong but because he said he didn’t like the way it looked or felt.  It was the optics that forced the reversal.

Image result for family separationAnd why shouldn’t they? Children were drowning in a sea of mylar blankets, kenneled in dog cages.  Babies weeping as their mothers are taken from them. The above image was ground zero of the outrage over zero tolerance.  The detention of people crossing the southern border is not new, nor did these childhood detention centers pop up overnight, but the images were too arresting to allow people to ignore the problem. Optics-fueled outrage forced the President to issue a new executive order–and also prompted the government to tighten down the flow of images of detained asylum seekers.

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In the battle for the soul of America, optics are the primary weapon.  We are a culture obsessed with the image, so what we see determines much of what we think and where we direct our energy.  Our media environment relies heavily on images–clickbait and real news sites alike use arresting images to capture readers attention in fast-moving social media streams. With the crush of information that we stagger under every day, only the image that shocks can cut through.  The undeniably real and awful reaches straight into our lizard brain, stopping us in our stupor.  Despite the constant obfuscation of our political and cultural climate, we are still human, and that human within us can be activated by the egregious.

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So the image of a crying girl and kids in cages galvanized a nation into a moment of wokefulness.   Even Republicans agreed that keeping kids in cages without their parents is wrong, and they pushed for a bill that would reunite kids with their parents in cages in indefinite incarceration–this way everyone is happy: cage manufacturers, tent city wardens, and virulently racist Trump supporters rejoice! In the land of optics, the devil is in the details.  What seems like relief is little more than a nod to public outrage.  Families can now be detained indefinitely, internment camps look more and more like those that held Japanese-Americans, and control tightened on images of the continuing crisis.

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Japanese Interment Camp
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CPB Detention center

 

 

 

 

 

 

The federal government is limiting access to the shelters and keeping reporters and senators alike from being able to witness or share the conditions of the immigration detention facilities baby jails.  Melani’s staged camp tour was more propaganda in a week heavy with it, the illusion of information. Yes, even now that the order has been signed. While many of us were horrified by the images of kids in cages, few of us are aware that these few images from inside the detention centers were released to news organizations for use by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and are not first-hand images collected by journalists and other witnesses during short observation visits.  By contrast, the Pro Publica audio tape of wailing children was not a piece of government content, showing that actual conditions were more stressful and traumatizing that the sanitized images of children lining up and sterile tents.

The American public can be swayed by dramatic and horrific images.  The Vietnam War is an instructive example.  During the war, the advent of color television and meals in aluminum that make for easy reheating combined meant many people spent dinnertime watching the evening news.  Each night Americans choked down the death count of American soldiers and the carnage of the war along with their TV dinner.  This exposure to the horrors of war in full color became indigestible to the public, and narratives of glory soon turned to clamor to end the war, especially after the Tet offensive.  As the optics soured and criticism grew, support for ongoing resources dwindled and political support evaporated.

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The federal government learned from this loss to optics, weaponized for the new medium of color TV.  A tacit adherence to government policy by news agencies emerged:  out of respect for the families, news agencies would not run images of returning soldiers coffins.  While its true such images could be upsetting to family members, it is also true that images of returning soldiers caskets dulled the public’s taste for war, making it hard to get the support needed to invade say, Kuwait, or Iraq, or Afghanistan.

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The suppression of images of war was managed by the U.S. government by allowing some reporters controlled access–remember embedded reporters?  This relationship between journalists and the military meant that there was lots of amazing and important footage from within the war zone, but always with a handler, a filter–a censor.  When servicemen were tortured and killed in Fallujah, debate raged whether to run the horrific images of the mutilated bodies. When a reporter published graphic images of American dead, he was barred from the field. There were consequences for journalists and outlets who chose show images the government didn’t want to be seen.

There are consequences now for journalists who question the Trump administration in this undeclared immigration war.  We have watched over the last two years as the administration eats away at the free press, shutting out those who disagree, openly disrespecting the press in rabid rallies and press conferences alike, barring journalists from taking images of asylum-seeking babies in kennels on the border.  The government has gotten smarter–they control their media as carefully as a Kardashian.

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We can talk ourselves out of anything with words.  All of the horrors of history from war to holocausts happened in real time to millions of people who had to make sense of it.  People went about their daily life eating and pooping and living while others were sold as property, captured and tortured, packed on to trains or locked up in baby prisons.  We can read what they thought or said, but the images still stand as a testament that they should have been able to see right from wrong in front of their eyes.

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In the age of information, the only image that can’t go viral is the one you can’t take.  The only atrocity you can get away with is the one that you hide. It is exhausting to be the ones to bear witness in these times, but make no mistake your witnessing matters.  Like Schrodinger’s cat, it is the power of the observer that brings the cat to life–or not.  Every horror that can befall a human can go on unchecked when we look away, all possible oppressions can happen when we refuse to watch.  As long as we watch, optics will be the weapon of our civil war.  As long as we support those who hunt for these images, we will have the ammunition we need to stand up and say no. Donate to those fighting still to reunify families, pause for a second to rest your weary eyes, and stay ready to bear witness as resistance.

 

 

 

A House On Fire

Imagine a world where there are 5 Parkland School shootings every day.  Imagine a world where there is a 9/11 every month. Now open your eyes to a country where 45,000 people a day die by suicide every year.  The suicide of two high profile celebrities–designer Kate Spade and bon vivant Anthony Bourdain–along with recent information released by the CDC have cast light on a subject that frequently goes unaddressed. Suicide–the 10 leading cause of death– claims more lives than school shootings and terrorist acts combined.

Graphic: Suicide rates rose across the US from 1999 to 2016

Kate Spade was a wildly successful fashion designer who built an empire on whimsy.  Healthy, beautiful, successful.  Anthony Bourdain was if nothing else a lover of life, taking us with him to connect with humanity over a bowl of food.  Again, wildly successful by any measures of our culture.  While we are familiar with the dark face of school shooters and struggling addicts dying from mental health issues, what does it say when those who live the lives we all fantasize about no longer want to live their lives?

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The airwaves and interwebs are full of messages about what to do if you are in crisis, ways to combat depression, helplines that are lifelines, and exhortations to check on your friend.  This is important.  Destigmatizing mental health and providing adequate supports is awesome and helpful.

Lurking beneath this mountain of advice is the subtle blame that problems with mental health occur because individuals are not maintaining their own shit.  But how can one be mentally healthy in culture so permeated with hate and violence?  How can one rise above crisis when crisis is the soup of the day every day?  What role do our wildly unstable world and crumbling communities hold in this uptick in mental health issues?

Despite the myth of the American dream, beneath the sheen of instagram feeds are lives of anxiety, sadness and loneliness.  While we can acquire the goods that mark a good life–our systems are calibrated to help us achieve the material success–we work long hours, and often end up with stuff but no satisfaction. Exhausted at the end of the day we have little energy for putting in work to sustain the relationships that sustain us.  Our communities  seem to be drifting away from an orientation of connection–people lost in their own virtual worlds building bridges online instead of next door. Our heads are bent over screens instead of lovers. And all around us, chaos and a deconstructed democracy.

Image result for american gothic trump

If we are a developed nation, what have we developed? Our country is permeated with sadness that sits just at the edge of our culture, a borderland on our beautiful dream, a place that some people journey to more than others, but a location available to everybody in this automated world of separation.  Mental health is a problem not just of individuals, but for the nation.  The National Suicide helpline and other organizations are important resources for people in crisis, but no call center can shift our damaged culture to create a space where more people feel safe and held and connected.

Image result for meme dog in burning room

There is a deep malaise at the heart of America. you might say that the dream has become a nightmare, but it always has been.  This is a country literally built on a Native American burial ground. If you’ve even seen a horror movie, you know that this is not good. With high rates of suicide, massive amounts of anxiety, rampant addiction to pain killers and drowning even at the highest levels of success–maybe especially at the highest levels– the lie is exposed for all its terribleness. Sadness and loneliness and racism and sexism and capitalism and this unattainable life: we eat and are consumed.

David Foster Wallace compared suicide to jumping out of a burning building:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

A quick trip through the headlines is enough to see that America for all it offers is a house on fire. To live in a home that is burning is bad for all the inhabitants, not just people with identified mental health issues.   The culture is not good for any of us.  Those that are struggling are an alarm– it’s past time to respond.

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If suicide is people jumping from burning buildings, then we have to start to knock down the fire in order to create healthy environments to support healing.  We cannot always know or understand the inner lives of those we love, but we can be firefighters helping to battle the flames that threaten them. We need to care about each other.  We need to check on each other. We live here in this home together, and the roof, the roof is on fire.

 

While we wait to rebuild our culture is you or someone you know is struggling please know that there is help.  Check on all your friends.

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I’m Just A Threat: Childish Gambino on America

Donald Glover wasn’t content to just reawaken our childhood trauma on Thursday’s episode of Atlanta and then round out his triple threat credentials hosting and as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.

He had to remind us what kind of threat he really is in his Sunday morning video release of This Is America.  This dark minstrel-show video is more complex than a Kanye West history revision, swinging wildly from Bo Jangles shuck and jive to a roleplay of America’s dark chaos.

The video starts with the sound of light Caribean guitar played by a barefoot man in linen pants–a moment of black joy and happiness.  Childish Gambino jerks to life to the music, contorting to adopt the tune like a demon taking possession of the black body.  The happy tune is short lived as a stalking shirtless Gambino mercs his diasporan brother, menacing “This is America” to the throb of heavy bass.  He adopts the famous pose of dancing Jim Crow when he pulls the trigger: this is the black experience in America, our connection killed, our bodies possessed by the leering dark energy of American supremacy, turned into shucking zombies.  This is probably what it looked like when Kanye lost his mind.

The new Jim Crow two steps with South African school children against a backdrop of increasing chaos.  The stereotypical images of blacks dancing and singing ‘cars, clothes, hos’ are hip hop’s most marketable products.  Against the backdrop of hundreds of years of oppression, rappers that preach the prosperity+bitches gospel reinforce the slavery-era idea that blacks were greedy, lazy bucks, undeserving of freedom or justice.  Simultaneously, they lull listeners into focusing on a little cash instead of economic justice, a little flash instead of freedom These are the kind of images mass media loves to reproduce–and ship worldwide: they support hegemonic thinking about blacks and keep everyone sipping the white supremacy juice.  A twin set of school children dance in the back under the rain of a red money gun. Jim Crow is for the kids

Speaking of the prosperity gospel, a choir preaching “get your money, black man” sings in a room removed from the chaos.  Jim pops through a door to join them in joyful worship–for a moment–before mowing them down with an AR-15. He punctuates his shots again with, “This is America.” The scene calls the Charleston church shooting to mind.  It also reminds us that as black people, buying into capitalism as a way to salvation is a dangerous business: “Don’t catch you slippin.”

Throughout the video, the background is increasingly populated with people running in all directions. black people and white people, cops, people wielding sticks or bats.  The direction of the actions isn’t clear–who is chasing who?  Is this an uprising like Baltimore or a street war like Charlottesville?  Like the news on any given day, it is hard to make sense of the chaotic images broadcast salaciously without context.

Above it all, young men in white masks bear witness, cell phones out.  “This is a celly. That is a tool.” They sit above the chaos watching and recording.  Below the school kids circle Jim Crow while the apocalypse’s horseman rides through on the white horse of death (is everything apocalyptic? [yes.]).  With cars burning and police and people rioting, it is Jim Crow’s hand extended like a gun that sends everyone running, the scene dropping into silence as he nods off high on America’s heroin, violence.

His dance is brought back with a couple quick puffs on a joint.  He perches atop a car doing his best Michael Jackson. Scattered around is a field of cars.  These are not your usual rap-mobiles.  There are no spinning rims or chrome kits.  Instead, the cars call to mind the hundreds of cars we have seen pulled over in police shooting videos.  Sandra Bland’s car, or Samuel Dubose’s–cars that belong to working people just trying to get through the day without being turned into a statistic by the state.  Jim Crow dances among the graveyard of cars, with just his linen legged brother, hooded head and guitar restored and a sister wavering sexily on the hood of a Philando Castile look-a-like car.

Even the black man that dances possessed through a wasteland of black pain, shucking and jiving to the gospel of white supremacy, mowing down his brethren, is not free (take note, Kanye). The video ends with our Jim Crow now terror-stricken, running from the faceless unfocused chaos he was dancing above.  He is no longer funny or silly or swaggy, his face full of raw fear, his body pumping all his energy towards surviving.  Judging by our present state of affairs, he’s not going to make it.

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The video gives us a lot to examine.  Childish Gambino has created this layered stew worthy of reflection and not just reaction–so what do you take away?  Some have written that he is condemning black America for embracing shallowness while massive problems loom in plain sight.  Others have said he is pointing to a cycle of violence and numbness as we try to mumble rap our way past problems we can’t ignore.  I think both of these analyses put too much burden on black America alone to do the heavy lifting of eradicating white supremacy.

To lay white supremacy at the feet of black people who like to have a good time is also to deny black people their humanity.  In the last few years, I have seen activists go so hard that their life energy was depleted like a phone charge.  We plug ourselves into pop culture to get a boost, a little levity to remind us why we fight, a little art to remind us that to be free is to take joy where you can find it. The trick is to plug into pop culture that fills you up to fight another day, and these days black excellence is giving us plenty to sup on.  Childish Gambino’s song and video are another in a long line of important work being created by black artists–Cole, Lamar, Kweli, and Buddy and Caleborate, and Beyonce, and Solange, and, Joyner, and Vic Mensa and on and on.

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Yes, yes, the commodity factory of American media keeps pumping out crap-get-money-fuck-bitches-rap. You don’t have to eat that fast food.  You shouldn’t let the fast food being produced by corporations define what hip hop is or isn’t.  Don’t be fooled: there is always conscious rap happening.  Sometimes it is harder to find than others, but it has always been a part of hip-hop, and more broadly black culture.  In every era, the rebellion leaders and freedom fighters also consumed the pop culture of their day.  In other times as in our own, artists and seers showed us the way through their painting, writing, singing, and dancing. Let’s not let each new track make us declare consciousness is now alive, now dead.  Let’s just sit in the complexity. Let’s acknowledge that our world is not binary.

America is this– forcing all experience into a simple dichotomy of good and bad, violence and justice, joy and chaos.  We have to tease out what the relationship between these elements is–where is the cause?  which is the side effect?  who loses and who loses more? This Is America juxtaposes our country’s many masks so that we can see the complexity of moving through this world.  The video is a Rorschach test, the video sows both shame and sympathy, letting you grow whichever you choose.   It is we who must do the choosing: not just for this video, not in the abstract but at this moment. To get beyond the binge/purge cycle that devours black life, we have to rise above the choice to devolve into the chaos America allows for or to rest in the embrace of the joy and lightness that we need sometimes to survive.  To do both, to be all that humanity can be–this is America.