Tag Archives: Racism

The Truth Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

It’s true that the Oxford dictionary added the word post fact his year, and of course, our current administration acts like that is a goal rather than a problem, but that doesn’t mean that facts and evidence cease to exist.  Post-truthers are more than liars–they are propagandists that carefully craft narratives, leaving out facts in evidence for their own gain.  This is dangerous behavior whether you are the president or a professor.  Maybe even more so for a professor–aren’t we supposed to be professing the truth as best we know it?

So it goes with two colleagues of mine who are again peddling a concerning tale of antisemitism at Wheelock College, an institution I love–and work at.  These celebrated Professors craft a narrative so egregious it’s almost unbelievable–a single email asking for a seat at the table unleashed a storm of antisemitism that destroyed their careers and reputations.  As a lover of justice, this should alarm you, right?

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But like Donald Trump and his post fact inauguration, there is some information that throws this narrative into question.   Their story claims their email about Jewish life is what triggered retaliation from the administration, not the complaints from black students about racism in the classroom.  Oh, shit, there isn’t even the mention of the accusations of anti-black racism in my colleague’s post–strange. The pair maintains that student complaints were manufactured by an antisemitic (black) president and that black students, faculty, and administrators somehow colluded to use fake complaints in an antisemitic plot to ouster just these two Jewish professors (and not other Jewish faculty).

This tale ignores a funny part of this story–I have met real students who have complained repeatedly about the professors’ approach to teaching race and gender studies–and not just one or two. More than a handful.  Over years.  Students have posted a screen shot where one professor wrote the “word he does not utter”.

So you don’t say it but you write it.  You ask students to explore if it’s okay to say the word–so it is part of writing assignments, but like Voldemort, it’s cool as long as you don’t say it out loud.  Okay, cool, so how did you create a classroom environment where this activity allowed students to engage and learn, where students felt heard and could themselves express oppositional views? This activity is not unheard of, but in the era of black lives matter, concurrent with days where these same students laid on the hard grass in the snow in a die in to bring attention to “racial divides many refuse to acknowledge exist”, it’s time to update your pedagogy. We’re way beyond the N word. Students need real tools for the very-real-and-not-at-all-theoretical revolution.

I want to be clear–this is not a defense of snowflakes.  I believe strongly in academic freedom and the importance of tenure to protect this freedom.  I push students to think and grapple with difficult ideas and these same colleagues of mine also have.  These are not easy times for good liberal professors, and so I do not lightly enter this conversation. Exploring complex, controversial and unpopular ideas is a key part of a good education. This isn’t about over-sensitivity to hearing the N-word, or a single incident.  It is that these students had a right to have a functioning relationship with the professors they pay thousands of dollars to teach them.  It is that when there are complaints they can and should be handled with conversation that helps learning happen, not lawsuits that shut down discussion and make everybody–even me, right now–afraid to speak publicly. It is that for hard ideas to take hold they need to be fertilized by faculty inside classrooms crafted from respect, current pedagogy, and historical context.  Structural analysis is key, and as structures and the communities they structure change, we need to update what we say and how we say it.

While student complaints will need to be adjudicated as part of the pairs’ upcoming multimillion dollar lawsuit, I can tell you I have heard multiple complaints from multiple students, multiple semesters in public forums.  I have to ask, are they all lying?  I witnessed students bring forth these complaints in many town halls and open discussions with clear voices and weeping eyes.  Were they all faking it?  Students were not trying to burn down the school.  They were asking for professors to update and adapt their pedagogy in a rapidly changing world.  They were asking to be prepared to work in the social justice field with the most current understanding of critical race and gender theory. These last few years have seen a seismic shift in race and gender studies, something that shouldn’t be ignored by the top race and gender scholars.  Dickering about nigga vs nigger when police brutality was the top story in the news is not just tone-deaf, it’s irresponsible for good liberal professors.

Students spoke out in class, a class where they were allegedly reminded–theoretically of course–that tenure would protect a professor who graded all the students of color unfairly. Undeterred, students elevated their complaints through available formal channels. As scholars of race, both professors are well aware of the importance of conversation and reconciliation, but instead of participating in dialog directly with students protesting their actions they used their position to avoid engaging, and then their power as successful academics to sue the school and amplify their narrative in blog posts like this latest one and in public lectures at other institutions, flaming the school and harming the school’s good reputation. All this without a legal judgment to support their narrative and free from the voices of the students involved.

Over the past year and a half, I have witnessed students of color and allies try bravely to hold these individuals to account, asking for dialogue, and when that failed, holding town halls that the two professors didn’t attend, except for one after the lawsuit was filed where they took notes on students statements(for the lawsuit?). Students protested. They wrote demands.  For some, their studies suffered as they grappled to succeed in an institution whose commitment to racial justice was shaken.  Many staff and faculty of color faced the same emotional pain as students, and a number left at the end of last academic year. The incident had the potential to be the worst kind of oppression Olympics, lining up complaints of antisemitism against complaints of racism–dividing the very groups who were working together to create a culturally adept community. All of us worked hard to try to keep the incident and its fallout from pulling our beloved community apart.

For those of us that remained, we have worked hard to be a part of a healing institution. The two professors so wrongly aggrieved have had a full year off of work with full pay– a move made by a new President to help settle the waters while the lawsuit was filed. And it’s working.  The new administration and faculty and student groups have supported and created events, activities, committees and community days to help us grow as an institution.  This is the way forward.  It feels good to go to work again, and I trust the people I work with to prepare our future social justice warriors.  Students, faculty, staff and the new administration know it’s not easy because we’re doing the hard work to walk our talk.  We’re in a better place.  The courts will have the final say, deciding once and for all who was right and who was wronged. In the meantime, I’m more afraid of injustice than shade–I’m going to focus on strengthening students and an institution trying to make the world better.  We’re not post fact–but you can act like it if you want to.

 

 

 

 

Get Out: What it Really is (and Why it Really Matters)

(warning: major spoilers) Get Out, Jordan Peele’s hugely successful directorial debut is killing it–box office bonanza, critics’ favorite, thinkpiece heaven and somewhere, I promise you, some doctoral student is burning out an iMac writing a thesis about it. Main character Chris, ensnared in a modern day coon hunt with a twist, has stumbled on a mini market of black zombies.  That’s right. This is a zombie movie.

Get Out trades on all sorts of movie tropes and motifs, as good filmmaking does, connecting us not only to a new story but also a new way of looking at ourselves.  At its heart lies a surprisingly familiar undead corpse–the zombie.  While the word zombie may give you visions of decomposing walkers or World War Z‘s running meat bags, Get Out returns us to the original body of the zombie story. The keys to the zombie story are mind control and bodily manipulation, a focus not on head shots but on enslavement. What’s more, looking at Get Out as a zombie movie helps audiences regain an empathetic lens to see black pain.

Like all good monsters, zombies, and zombie stories, are outsiders. They come from somewhere else–in the case of the zombie story, Africa.  The origins of the idea of the zombie come from West and Central Africa.  In West African spirituality, Orishas may ride devotees: possession not like the exorcist but more like catching the holy spirit, so one individual controlling another has spiritual precident. Possesion and control are also potential outcomes of rituals and spells. Powerful spiritual practitioners may control both living creatures and also unliving entities using the practices that are a small part of the religion  of Vodun.  The idea of using spiritual methods to control others’ bodies manifests in a complex and quite different way in Benin than the brain eaters clogging up the streets of Atlanta in the Walking Dead.  Of course, the original story was dragged onto ships and enslaved along with millions of Africans, landing in Haiti. Like the Africans themselves, the story of what a zombie was and how we should feel about it was transformed under the crushing pressure of whiteness.

Imagine you are newly enslaved, shocked by the brutal middle passage and blistering in the sun of the new world being worked to death to grow sugar for the tables of the European elite.  Thes people are going to beat you to work until you die as you have seen happen to so many around you .  You are exhausted, malnourished, tortured, traumatized and caught between fighting to live and wanting to die.  But you cannot die. Your body now belongs to the master, and death seems to be exclusivley controlled by the evil who weild power. It’s not a far leap to invoke the story of possession from home to create the Haitian zombie: this is no brain craving corpse, but a sentient being, enslaved and brutalized that needs to be freed, not stabbed in the head.

Enter Clarvius Narcissus.  Poor Clarvius was just minding his own business when he was turned into a zombie using a powder of plant-based toxins and made to work on a sugar plantation for decades before eventually getting away and returning home, ragged and brain damaged but still Clarvius.  His was not the only documented case of real life zombies, and there was even some evidence of a market for people drugged into compliance who could be forced to work for free. Again, the three keys are mind control, bodily manipulation and enslavement–in both real and imagined places.

Shifting to America’s silver screen, we find at first that the origins persist.  White Zombie, a Bela Lugosi classic horror tale features a sugar plantation of enslaved blacks–and one white woman who of course does not belong there and must be saved.  Even George A Romero, the father to the modern American zombie craze originally featured a black lead in Night of the Living Dead, maintaining the black gaze–the story was his.

The scary thing in these kinds of zombie movies was that it could happen to you. The empathy in the story lay not with the person who enslaved the zombie, or even those that may fear the zombie.  The empathy in zombie stories is supposed to lay with the zombie. The enslaved Africans were the victim, not the monster, The trafficked laborers, like Clarvius, were the victim.  Zombie movies were about seeing and sharing black pain. Until the Walking Dead.

The modern obsession with zombies in this century started with the cultural explosion that is the Walking Dead.   The show is excellent has been excellent, and I count myself a fan. But unlike the zombie story which asks us to throw our lot in with the oppressed, The Walking Dead returns white people, free people and zombie haters to the center of the story.  Rick, our flawed hero, reminds everyone that they need to stick together–so nice.  But early seasons of the show find him repeatedly refusing to entertain any lasting interest in curing the walkers or even caring about them.  Zombie myth reformed.

Get Out, though, reclaims the zombie genre.  I know, I know- you probably didn’t think it was a zombie movie when you saw it.  No wandering corpses, no hoards chasing down brains.  But in the sweet sunshine of the Armitage plantation, the whites are commodifying black bodies, enslaving them using neurological means–toxic powders replaced with a scalpel.  Catherine sends Chris to the Sunken Place, and like poor Narcissus, he is still conscious, but cannot overcome the spell he is under to take agency and get free.  We see those that steal the brains are the real villains– different than Georgina, Andrew or Walter: the victims, their bodies ground up in a system that wants only their skills and not their souls. Mind control, bodily manipulation, enslavement to the extreme: zombies.

Understanding the creatures that we have been taught to fear is an important function of monster movies, especially when they are monster mash ups.  Anne Rice and True Blood’s vampires, Penny Dreadfuls Frankenstein’s monster, even Twilight’s teams give us alternative readings of monster life, helping us to care about creatures living at the edges, to see that those that are hurt and broken are still deserving of love, perhaps even moreso.  Returning the zombie to its rightful place as sympathetic victim, and reconnecting the zombie with its critique of whiteness makes Get Out not just a good movie, but an important movie.  Diversifying Hollywood has to include pushing and challenging narratives to help us see what is too often rendered invisible.

Eyes play a major role in the film, from the key shot of Chris’s face seen in the movie to Chris’s photography to the planned transplant to “get your eyes, man”.  The film asks us to see out through the eyes of the ensnared, to feel the terror of being trapped.  Where the Walking Dead teaches us a thousand ways to kill a zombie,  Get Out brings us to the sunken place where the zombies get stuck.  We see Chris stabbed with the pain of his lost mother, falling, silenced.  This is black pain separated from any of the usual stereotypical symbols of black pain like a crack pipe, gang flag or welfare check.  This is a place where Chis suffers with his humanity intact, wanting not brains (he has plenty of those) but freedom.

What is it to fall into a zombie state and witness your own brutalization?  Like having them love your body, but not you. Like watching others being rewarded for what you are penalized for. Like working yourself to death for minimum wage while being blocked from having any of the accouterments of your own labor and being blamed for wanting Jordans. Like having to choose when to speak up because you are just. so. fucking. tired. Like police videos. Like when there are so many police videos that you stop seeing them. Like protesters being pepper sprayed. Like watching the Clan take the White House.

Get Out makes black pain, as conceived of and acted by black people, visible.  Far from the sunken place, the film gives voice here in the real world to the complex nuanced nature of racism in2017.  It gives viewers of every race a story that requires them to empathize with black pain–which is too often abstracted to sell records, clothes or policies.  The vast majority of movies and TV shows frame blackness as a problem to be quashed by white supremacy.  The few films that cast blacks as innocent victims frequently require that whites still be the heroes. This film gives us neither slaves nor gangbangers and in their absence, we get a lens into a more authentic, relatable and human understanding of race and racism.  If we are ever to evolve past systems of privilege we must first make them visible.

In the end, Chirs’s woke friend Rod is the only hero that can save him, and he’s got plenty of lessons for us to remember. If you wait on the state to save you, you’re in trouble but when the ensnared work together, they can get free.   Rod’s concerns at first seem overblown, but he trusted his own understanding of racism even when others denied it. You’ve got to refuse to ignore evidence that supports what you know to be true.  Rod gave a shit, and not just because he was dogsitting.  Commitment to your brothers and sisters is key.   We too, have to keep looking.  It’s too easy to hear the clink of white supremacy and feel ourselves falling into the sunken place. Stay woke.

 

 

T(rump) Minus 6

We landed in Washington D.C. yesterday, a gaggle of activist students, their queer polis-sci professor and me, afro flying my flag of blackness above my airplane seat.  The airports, the streets are awash with pink pussy hats and red white and blue patriotic chic.  The air contains just a hint of pep rally. The grim reality gives off a scent more like that Aztec ballgame where the losers are decapitated.

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In just six hours, a few miles from here Donald J Trump and his creep squad cabinet will take over the country that I have lived in and loved my whole life.  He has promised to enact policies that will hurt the people I love and care about, including each of the students with us on this trip.  The pink hats are so cute (thanks, Aunt Kathie!) but make no mistake this is a fight.

Scene: Interior, day before the inauguration, hotel lobby. Beneath the altar of CNN on the big screen a bunch of liberals from Boston–identifiable by our Boston swag and the girls’ Olivia Pope outfits, and in that corner three women painted in stars and stripes.  The hotel staff watch the action like tourists on safari.

Hotel manager:  Ha ha, hope there’s not going to be a rumble!

Trumpette: grumbling loud enough for all to hear. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.

Me: Ha, ha…You don’t want to catch these hands.

Trumpette: Let’s be peaceful….(to her cronies.)  I hope they remember to be peaceful on Saturday [for the anticipated Women’s March]

Me: (to students) Saturday you’ll get to see the amazing tradition of nonviolent protest that is such an important part of our country.

End scene.

Would I have rumbled with an older lady in the hotel lobby?  In the rarefied air of the inauguration, the hate and division are real and palpable as my anger hurt and fear over this election and the 4 years to come. yesterday evening I replayed the scene in my mind–how easy it was for me and a stranger to escalate to threats lightly veiled in laughter in just seconds. These past few years have required me to swallow more than a little anger and hurt. I had to admit that it is too easy to slide into the playground taunting.  But in a quiet moment, I remembered that I’m not about that, no matter how much they spoil for a fight. In the land of the walking dead, its is key to remember that you are not them.

So, old lady, you may not catch these hands, but I am coming for you with the full force of resistance and that really packs a punch.  And the fight is just about to start.

Is This Sand Sculpture Racist?

Can you make a sandcastle racist? I didn’t think so, but then I went to the beach to see the amazing sand sculptures at Revere beach and I saw this one:

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Titled The Color’s In the Mind,Red Orange Green Blue Shiny Yellow Purple Too, it depicts an artist pallet of colors with an object for each color.  So cute, look at the frog and the–wait, what is that?

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Tucked between the fruit is the head of a policeman.  Okay, pretty odd to have a policeman’s head representing blue instead of fruit. And next to the cop’s head is an eggplant, sometimes used to symbolize black people in not so nice ways.

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A cop’s head and an eggplant.  Color’s in the mind.  I see a backhanded comment on BLM.  Is it me? Leave it in the comments!

Roots: Still Relevant, Kwiku Dog

Snoop Dog.  Snoop Doggy Dog. Snoop Lion.  DJ Snoopadelic.  Snoopzilla.  Big Snoop Dog. Snoop Scorcese. Over the course of his career, Calvin Broadous has worked under 7 different names. At the age of 45, he has been a rapper, actor, kids coach and rasta lion.

On the other hand, Kunta Kinte has always been and shall remain Kunta.  Please DO NOT ask him to call himself Toby.

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This week four channels under the A & E network will run the 2016 remake of the miniseries based on Alex Haley ‘s family history. The remake is well made, and as moving a story as before with an all-star team: Forrest Whitaker as Fiddler, and is executive produced by Lavar Burton.  The remake is one of a handful of recent productions focusing on America’s darkest chapter of history including Underground, 12 years a Slave and Nate Parkers much anticipated Birth of a Nation.

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But Snoop Whatever says these stories are no longer relevant.  Is Snoop right about all these slave shows?  Is America ignoring today’s racial tension in favor of whiteness’  walk down memory lane? Do these shows about the past keep us from moving forward?

Past present and future and bound together in an eternal equation. Toggling one part of the equation helps you solve for the rest.  Snoop’s right when he says black people are still suffering today.  Why not then see how those who rebalanced the equation before you did what they could?  A lesson history teaches us is that your wokeness is not enough.  Fighting, protests and even the changing will of many people has not resulted in equity for blacks–or any other group for that matter.

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Watching Kunta take that whipping reminded me of the absolute power and strength that comes from being grounded in home and ancestry.  But, at the end, he whispers Toby.  This tiny whisper I used to think of as a sigh of defeat.   When I was a child I wanted him to never give in. Now I know giving in is not giving up.  That you can take a beating and live to fight another day with integrity intact.

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As an adult traveling Americas treacherous waters of race, I was moved to see that he was willing to do whatever it takes to live and to keep fighting.  That to whisper your slave name is not to be a slave.  That Kunta–like me–could always carry his real name on the inside, no matter how the battle beats us down from day to day. Maybe that is what Snoop is missing.

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Roots is not a slave story–it is the story of Africans enslaved who never laid down, who never gave up even when they wouldn’t see the fight finished in their lifetime.  Roots shows black people in revolt, measuring their subversion for the greatest success, and building a life where there is none. They are not slaves, they are survivors.  We are right be reminded that we are the children born of such power.

For young millennials who are hellbent on changing the world, watching Roots may seem like an old folks’ history lesson, but it is their history too.  You’re wearing your hair natural, rocking dashikis and wax prints–why not a little throwback history too? When things get intense, its good to know your bloodline fought harder than a hashtag.

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That is why Roots is still relevant.  Snoop, your African name is still on the inside, too.  You’ve referenced Italian directors, Japanese monsters, and Jamaican prophets in your name; maybe it’s time you found your Roots.  You’re a child born on Wednesday:  we’ll call you Kwiku Dog.

 

 

New Walls, New Ways

2015, by any measure, was pretty shitty.  Unless you don’t watch the news, you know the past month season year has been intense–full of bad news, real tragedies and a world wide wrestling match with the most difficult issues humanity faces. I teach about media and race so this is my wheelhouse–writing about it all the time should be a given with so much to address.

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But this year has tested even those of us who are comfortable in the challenging arena of isms.  How many times can you explain that yes, racism exists, and no calling out racism does not make you a racist.  How many words can you hurl at the behemoth of hate before your arm falls off, or worse yet, you come to despise the futility of your own meager weapons?

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Tucked in between 1,134 black men killed by police, racism also made a come back in higher ed:  remember the threats at University of Missouri, racism at fraternity SAE in March and at a different chapter in November and, in case you missed it, a heated debate in higher ed around professors’ using the n– word in class.  Between writing, teaching about race and media, and fighting the local battle in my own tower, I ended the year despising more than just the futility of my weapons.

As an nontenured faculty of color at a predominately white college that focuses in part on social justice I believe I have a duty to prepare students who will combat structural inequality with a solid understanding of systems of oppression.  Not surprisingly, our little community is not unlike many of the other higher ed institutions “dealing” with diversity issues.

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I have been reminded that to speak out against racism, to name that racism exists in our community is a brave thing to do.  The unspoken flip side to this compliment is that to name racism at the institution is  dangerous business. I work on a contract, and can be released from my job of 10 years at the end of the year with no reason given.  A decade of good teaching evaluations or hard work will not protect me.  Each time I open my mouth and call out the racism I see, I am at risk.  And I have felt at risk.  Every time. Break came just in time to retreat and lick my wounds.

But every day is a new day, and a new year?  Well, that’s a time for magic.  I needed to clear the deck to get writing.  Since the year has been so heavy, this isn’t any average clear the deck–I’m in my writing room stripping shit down to the bare walls.

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Something about working on a household project unlocks a way of working on yourself.  Stripping wallpaper is a junior high level metaphor for cleansing for a new year, so no surprise  as I do I’m thinking about letting go, razing the ground to grow something, anything untainted by this years infestations.

But I’m also learning about how to pull down wallpaper that has been stuck to the wall since the 1950s.  While hacking away with water and an ice scraper, I learned something surprising.  the best way to pull it down is gently, softly and with love.  Sure the wallpaper was coming up with the scrapper in resistant tight crumpled rows, begrudgingly, and an inch at a time.  but if I spray it lightly, wait patiently and pull gently at the decay it comes off in long lacy strands that fall apart at the slightest touch.

While having drinks with my parents, my father said he always wished he could be forgiving.  I was surprised: I reminded him that he had indoctrinated me with a pathological ability to let go. So many days coming home from being bullied at school, he would simply tell me, “Not everyone’s going to like you.  Let it go.”  When I gnashed my teeth and plotted revenge he would rustle his paper, fanning away the evil deeds of the world with a terse, “Get over it.”

He laughed when I reminded him.  “I may have told you that, but that doesn’t mean I did it.  I’ve never been able to forgive.”  Quick to reinforce the old lesson, he added, “It’s good to forgive.  Then you’re free and you don’t carry it your whole life.” I’ve spent years forgiving and this year more than any, trying to be free of the pain of racism big and small.

The promise of forgiveness is freedom.  But when people refuse to acknowledge your humanity, much less take responsibility for trying to diminish you, forgiveness starts to feel too much like granting permission.  I have been pained to learn that sometimes forgiveness means you carry the memory for those who forget they victimize you, and it is them that goes free, unburdened by having to confront their own small mindedness and bad acts.

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Google wallpaper removal and their are lots of choices: chemicals to burn it off, machines to blast steam to disintegrate it off, paper tigers to shred it off.  I thought that ripping off the wallpaper would give me a chance to rip something up, to release the burden of all I have forgiven, but instead I find just another reminder that this slow gentle relentless attack, for me, is the only way.   Two days later I am still in there, peeling it off, rubbing it gently with water and then easing it off, sliding it to the floor and patting the wall clean.

Why?  I want a clean room but I care about the wall underneath–I don’t want to be left with holes to fill and scratches to heal.  My soft strategy rewards me. At the cost of checking my desire to destroy, the wallpaper comes off in long strands still holding the memory of all it saw. The war that I thought I wanted turned out to be a long moving mediation–both on the walls and in the work.

So I’ll scrape the walls slowly, and when they and my mind are clean I can return to the larger battle.  With each strand in the pile I remind myself of the reasons to keep scraping away at racism. Fuck forgiveness and the risk of raising your fist. I speak out anyway.  Because that’s who I have chosen to be.  Because the students deserve teachers willing to advocate for their dignity.  Because that is the job of a teacher–to provide a space for students to learn and grow.  Because I have a responsibility to model what I teach. Because I will not be silent when something must be said. Because with no justice then can never be peace.  Because racism hurts white people and they deserve to know the truth. Because hate will not eradicate itself. Because I believe that we can be better. Because I am black. Because I am human.  Because we the people are still trying to form a more perfect union.

Because the moment is now. Happy new year.

 

Hero With A Thousand Faces: Deal With It

Yesterday, in case you didn’t feel the ground shake, the full length trailer for the New Star Wars movie premiered during Monday Night football.  First, enjoy…

Fans of Star Wars crashed servers watching the hell out of the trailer, but it didn’t take long for the interwebz to raise one of its uglier heads.  A hashtag # BoycottStarWars appeared just hours after the trailer debuted, accusing the film of promoting White genocide.  Why the freak out?

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The main character, played by John Boyega is –wait for it–a black man. The idea that a black man is a lead, a hero and alive in outer space seems to be sending some people, well, into outer space.  Now, of course, these boycotters should feel stupid; it’s 2015, Black people are not some situation that Jim Webb controls and so you are going to see–thank God–some diversity in film.

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But when you’re done shaking your head at how cray-cray these boycotters are, consider this:  they are right in pointing out the significance of casting Boyega in the lead.  We know already that there is a real drought when it comes to lead actors of color playing the hero.  Go ahead–quick–name 5 movies with hero of color….I’ll wait while you Google it……..

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The UCLA diversity report  released in 2015 looked at films 2011-2013 and found that whites are overrepresented and minorities are underrepresented.

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When we look even more closely at the most iconic heroes conquering the silver screen, there are even fewer characters of color.  When Idris Elba’s name came up as a possible casting choice for the new James Bond, strong backlash erupted, and not just from internet trolls.  James Bond author Anthony Horowitz called Elba “too street” to play Bond.  Hey, hey, he wasn’t being racist,   just saying that Idris- friggin-Elba is “not suave” enough. What?!

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But I digress…. Celluloid heroes have always been white, sometime even when they were not supposed to be.  Remember that above all, studios are looking for products they can bank on.

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Rest easy, Star Wars producers.  Casting John Boyega as the lead is not only a good move to increase the now-dismal diversity in Hollywood films, it turns out its also good for business.  The same UCLA deviltry report found that films that featured 40% characters of color did better at the box office. Turns out, trolls, that diversity pays.

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Hollywood and the smaller tubes around are taking note of the importance of embracing diversity in order to reflect an increasingly diverse audience watching in the real world. I’m not saying Hollywood is getting it right, but they have at least identified it as an area in need of improvement.  In an increasingly diverse country, It makes good business to get out ahead of an unstoppable trend.

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Make no mistake; Star Wars is no ordinary film.  It is modern myth.  Based on the work Hero With a Thousand Faces by anthropologist Joseph Campbell, Star Wars is not just the story of a hero, it is the story of all heroes.  It is the right thing to do to create myths that reflect our culture.  We live in a world with heroes of every race, and film is long overdue to reflect this.

Boycott if you want trolls–that just leaves more seats for the true fans–those who know space has no limits.

A Year Without Sleep

This week marks the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown.  The recent graduate was walking down the street when he encountered former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.  Three minutes later he was dead.  Within hours of his death the first protests formed on the very street he was shot on.  The protests have not stopped since.

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Nor have the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the state.  The last year has seen the largest number of people killed by police, even as the nation has paid more attention to the issue, and the calls for action have been the loudest  in decades. For anyone passing through America’s race problems unaware, this year provides an answer to a question that floated gently over America on the night of Obama’s first election–is racism over?–with an emphatic no.

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From streets echoing with cries for justice to politricks and cable news echoing with old school racism, this past year has served to shake the sleepy giant of the American masses from their slumber  and awaken it from its dream of racial harmony.  Americans wake to find some of we the people are suffering the outrageous slings and arrows of white supremacy.  They wake to see young leaders of the new civil rights movement taking up the arms of protest against a sea of troubles.

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Even as republican presidential candidates bemoan the rise of political correctness, we sail past the tipping point, unlikely to make a full return to times when it is acceptable–and sometime good fun, wink, wink–to disparage blacks openly in the media. Significant because behind the battle over the words we use floats the scepter of power, hanging in the balance as the country moves towards a majority minority population. Make no mistake, this new world we find ourself in is not the promised land, but the wide murky territory between what we used to be and what we ought to be, a land full of deadly mines, traps and open warfare.

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photo credit: Tim Pierce, https://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/15353495103/

Being awake this year has been difficult at some times, soul-crushing others.  Bearing witness and speaking truth and two heavy burdens born by the conscious.  It does not alway feel good to be awake, but to close your eyes to the reality of the world you pass through isn’t really living.  To ignore the oppression of the people of your own nation stands as treason to the dream of a people created equal. So stay up, and pay tribute to the life of Michael Brown with eyes that stay open.

Flying Underground

The confederate flag is slated to come down over the capitol of South Carolina–long overdue and worth the celebration.  Public opinion was enflamed to this political movement by the terrorist attack at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, resulting in the death of 9 people.  While the flag is coming down, the racist ideology that it represents won’t go in a museum, just underground.

In our 24/7 media saturated world,  an event like the Charleston massacre takes over the airwaves, igniting public debate and sometimes–like with the flag–can result in a groundswell of movement that results in real change.  Sometimes, like in the weeks after the Newtown massacre, the public pressure to create political change isn’t enough to overcome obstructionist policies and plays.

When we are done celebrating this latest victory,  remember that the flag is gone from the capitol, but Dylann Roof has yet to be convicted of the terror attack, and the racist hate groups that radicalized him operate unabated.  Just 2 days ago the prosecutor in Roof’s case reminded us he is innocent until proven guilty.  I get that this is how the justice system goes, but it is a real reminder that in the furor over the flag little has been done to increase the accountability for domestic terrorists.  This is not over.

Symbols play an important role in society, especially because we are  an image based culture.  Simply put–optics matter.  At their heart, though, symbols are the visual representation of some object or idea.  Here is a graphic called a semantic triangle that illustrates this:

In South Carolina, we can pull down the flag, but that has not actually destroyed the ideology of white supremacy that the flag represents.  In the weeks since the debate over the flag  began, there was a sharp spike in sales of confederate flags, and despite Nascar’s best effort to eradicate the flag at it’s latest race, their flag exchange program was a bust.

Dozens of articles and hours of information have painted a clear historical line from the white supremacist ideology in the civil war, through segregation, past burning crosses and leading into the still-active and quite deadly white supremacist groups that operate in America today.  The flags innocent appearance  in Lynard Skynard t-shirts and Dukes of Hazards episodes are not separate from the more nefarious incarnation of the flag–same flag, same southern pride.   The politicians that resurrected the flag during segregation explicitly intentionally tied the symbol to southern pride in it’s tradition of segregation and slavery so that a million –sometime  unwitting–voices would keep their message alive.

The wave of public pressure on this issue has come to wipe the flag off the pole.The flag is down, the referent is gone, but the ideology persists and there is not groundswell to address the real perpetrators.  The internet hate machine, the very real domestic terrorist groups who have killed more Americans than ISIS, The kings of hate who cozy up to republicans. The flag is gone, but hate survives.

So celebrate this small victory in the summer sun, but don’t forget that there still lurks terror beneath.  We’ve going to need more sustained public engagement.  We’re going to have to admit that the most deadly terror attacks to Americans are perpetrated not by ISIS, but by US militia groups. We’re going to need a bigger boat.

 

 

 

Flags of the Fathers, Sins of the Sons

Saturday morning, activist Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole outside the South Carolina capitol building and took down the confederate flag capping a week of hot debate and fast movement towards removing the symbol of southern aggression from official state buildings.  Sadly, the flag is flying over the capital yet again, reminding us that symbols are only as powerful–or weak–as the acceptance of the ideologies they represent.  Removing the flags that celebrate America’s racist past will not eradicate the racist ideology that radicalized Dylan roof any more than removing a label from a can will vaporize what is inside.

Even as the President eulogizes the most recent victims of racism, the war rages on– arson, death and defense of the killer continue unchecked–and unexamined in the mainstream media.  Instead, the flag has taken center stage in the discussion of the Charleston Massacre.  A quick google trends search shows that the focus is squarely on the flag,  not the victims, nor the ideology that sparked the killing.

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You’ll recall the flag furor kicked up when killer Dylan Roof displayed one on his website.  But while mainstream news has focused on the flag, the actual hate groups that pushed their racist filth on the internet, and whom Roof points to in his own radicalization continue to operate.  The presidential candidates who have taken money from Council of Conservative Citizens and other racist hate groups get an easy pass for their support of the flag’s removal without addressing their own past ties to hate activists.  There was no critical questioning of candidates ties to these group son the Sunday talk circuit, but plenty of flag not-waving.

Assuring us that there’s more than one hateful racist willing to perpetrate violence, six predominately black churches have burned in a string of arson stretching from Macon to Tallahassee.    Ongoing investigations will identify perpetrators where they can, but the echo of the 1960’s replete with racially motivated murders and overt attacks on the black community via the black church sound in ears still ringing with this week’s gun shots.  Mainstream media has all but ignored this string of violence in favor of the simply packaged story of the flag which looks to be moving toward a happy ending–audiences love a happy ending!

Two children lost their lives in the course of a police chase in Detroit–a chase that had been called off by commanders concerned about the danger to the public just moments before the deaths. Gunshots, rough rides and speeding vehicles all resulting in dead black bodies still happen daily, leaving the black community decimated emotionally, socially and politically.  The flags that flies over Ferguson, baltimore and Detroit  are all American, and the struggle for justice continues in all those cities.

Lets also not forget that Dylan Roof is not an old racist–he is a young racist, a millennial–from that generation that is supposed to mark the end of racism.  The flag may be a worn out symbol, one long past its prime.  Bu the perpetrator is merely 21–a man born in the heyday of hip Hop, and only 13 when Obama was elected–so squarely a member of new school racism, a racism proving just as deadly as old school.  Racism won’t just die with the rise of the millennials–education is still key in stopping the spread of racism to yet another American generation.

The flag needs to come down.  Removing this symbol from state grounds is important, yes, and long overdue.  But more important than the flag is the ideology that the flag represents–that was what radicalized terrorist Dylann Roof and emboldened others to burn down churches or commit one of hundreds of thousands of hate crimes that happen each year.

Attacking the overt labels of racism is important.  But we’re going to have to open our can of worms racism and deal with it if we are ever to reach a place free from racism and its violent devotees.   Celebrate the small victories in this week filled with funerals, but stay conscious, stay activated and never settle for taking down the flags of the fathers without addressing the sins of their sons.