The CFC

19 Aug 2014

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

(excerpts from The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde)

As I prepare the syllabi and lesson plans for my fall classes I am dealing with uncertainty about how to teach about Ferguson and the merciless assault on black bodies and minds that is happening even as I write.  I don’t know what to say.  As I watch footage on  television, follow developments on newsfeeds, and watch news clips on social media I find myself amazed at how our foremothers and ancestors lived through the fear, anger, anguish and devastation of having their lives diminished and disrespected, their children murdered in broad daylight with no consequences, and their attempts at justice, both peaceful and passionate, met with armed guards, guard dogs, and constant threats with their own vanquished lives vanishing at a pace similar to their sons and loved ones.  I don’t know how to make sense of the possibility of Ferguson, the inevitability of Ferguson, the reality of Ferguson existing in the twenty-first century.  We are living with retrograde racism the likes of which our parents and (great-) grandparents hoped to never experience again and prayed we would never experience.   And I am struggling for words.

Every other day I learn another name I wish I didn’t know (Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford) and add it to an ever-expanding list of black victims of police and vigilante violence (Jordan Davis, Tarika Wilson, Amadou Diallo, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Yvette Smith, Trayvon Martin) because “truth is, we are all one bullet away from being a hashtag” (black women included). And that reality, and fruitless attempts to try to make sense of senselessness, means that Ferguson is not necessarily unique as a crime scene holding the dead body of an unarmed black teen, but it is a breaking point.  Ferguson is our breaking point.  The death of Michael Brown, emblematic of countless others, and the collective loss, grief and justified anger of people (of color and allies) who are tired of being terrorized and victimized by injustice requires that we say something.  But I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know where to begin.

Photo from Twitter

Photo from Twitter

I do know, as (the) Audre Lorde reminds us, that our silence will not protect us.  Saying nothing is not an option or a remedy.  I will not be a bystander or silent witness to injustice, murder, discrimination, character assassination, misappropriation, unchecked privilege and what amounts to state sanctioned terrorism of poor black and brown folk.  Silence will not do, but what do you say?  Words feel inadequate and inelegant even when attached to personal accounts or lived experience.

In the five years I have been teaching as a university professor I have not had a lack of current and present examples, both far and near, that the concept of post-racialism is a myth.  Whether it was the segregation of sororities and fraternities, racial slurs being slung at black passersby, or racial epithets being chalked on sidewalks on the campus where I teach (not to mention racial slurs on social media by students), I have experienced racism ephemerally and incessantly.  I have explained that a black president is not a panacea for racism, that listening to hip hop does not an ally make, and that assumptions and stereotypes of blackness constantly put people of color at risk.

Still, every semester students question the legitimacy (and existence) of racism, the relevance of discussions about race, and whether or not is warrants class discussion at all.  Others misconstrue racism as the mere mention (acknowledgment of the existence) of race, white privilege, and/or discrimination. Some of the problem is ignorance, a refusal to wrestle with race as a factor in how folk are seen, treated and remembered in this country.  Some of the problem is with the narrative that often blames black victims and shifts the focus of unprovoked murder away from the crime and perpetrator and onto the victims, disseminating irrelevant facts intended to make them appear suspicious.  As Jesse Williams said over the weekend, it is important that we discuss the narrative and start at the beginning.  Williams said, “You’ll find that the people doing the oppressing always want to start the narrative at a convenient part, or always want to start the story in the middle.”  Word. We can’t talk about the insidiousness of racism by ignoring its history, we can’t talk about the irrationality of white fear, the policing of black bodies, the attempts to dismantle peaceful protests without acknowledging the long and storied history of racism in America, and in Ferguson.

And we can’t talk/think about Mike Brown without talking/thinking about Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and Emmett Till.  The story about and around Ferguson is not the story of looters or riots, it’s not a story of hot-headed, irrational, felonious mobs wreaking havoc on their community, or heroic law enforcement officers protecting and serving.  The true narrative of Ferguson existed before Michael Brown walked to the store with his friend on Saturday.  It existed long before Michael Brown did.  And the narrative requires an acknowledgment that being black, poor, uneducated, intoxicated or belligerent is not an offense punishable by death–neither is being dark-skinned, big-bodied, working-class, on your way to college, sober and minding your own damn business.  But innocence doesn’t protect black people.  And racism and politics of respectability insist that black victims only deserve the benefit of the doubt under particular circumstances, wearing collar shirts and not hoodies, carrying bibles and not cigarellos, putting up peace signs and not middle fingers– but if black lives matter, and they do, then ALL black lives matter!

“The media chooses to portray black kids in the most menacing way possible in order to influence the way the world receives them. Posing and posturing has LONG been a defense mechanism used by Black people to defend ourselves, our bodies, and our communities because we don’t receive the defense or support of our government, our ‘leaders’, law enforcement, and even the law itself. #iftheygunnedmedown”                            –Terrence Merkerson

The irrationality of racism seeks to justify the death of an unarmed teenager.  Racism says that if “Mike Mike” Brown walked out of the store with a box of cigars, bucked at store owner on his way out the door, was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk, was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk with his homeboy, was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk with his homeboy (who had dreads and visible tattoos) with a handful of swisher sweets in his pocket and weed in his system and popped shit back at a cop that was popping shit at him that he deserved what he got.  Racism is a cotdamn lie!

The illogicality of respectability politics insist that black people resist rage in the face of injustice and sit quietly in the corner with their legs crossed and their pearls clutched.  Respectability says that Michael Brown (not “Mike Mike” as he was affectionately called by friends) should not have been at the store in the first place, should have shown more reverence to his elders, should have never been walking in the middle of the road, should have complied with the police officer’s demand without comment and without looking up, should have been wearing his Sunday best on Saturday, should have not been hanging around with other boys his age, who look like him, who are from where he’s from.  Respectability believes that this generation needs to have more discipline, more respect for authority, more personal accountability.  Respectability thinks rule following, wardrobe, education, class standing, “traditional families,” and political progress can save you, and that Michael’s self presentation and demeanor made him culpable in his own demise.  Respectability is wrong!

We have been force fed lies and untruths about who the victim/s are in Ferguson.  Some folk have been deceived into thinking that it was Michael Brown’s choices and not those of his murderer that led to his brutal death.  Some folk are thinking that any time a group of black folk gather together they create a mob, instead of creating a community.  Some folk have a lot to say but ain’t saying nothing (you did see/hear about the POTUS’ two press conferences, right?).  Some folk ain’t saying nothing because they don’t know what to say.

At the end of the day I don’t know if words will come as easily as tears when I stand in my classroom to talk about Michael Brown, and others like him, who look like me and have lost their lives in the last thirty days.  I don’t know what I will say when a student claims that race has nothing to do with it, when a commenter challenges Brown’s innocence or celebrates the murderer’s freedom, when a troll maintains that it is an isolated incident not worthy of discussion or media coverage, or when any one of the dozens of black men I love ask me how they can stay alive.  I may still be at a loss of words because they are caught in my throat between helplessness and hope.

I leave with another excerpt from Lorde’s essay, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”

I’m still struggling for words but I am finding a way to articulate my pain, my frustration, my rage, my fear, my sadness, my emotional exhaustion and my disappointment.  Even when I can’t speak I understand that silence in the face of social injustice and inequity is always insufficient.  Sometimes it’s not about what you say (or do), but the fact that you say (or do) something!

No justice, no peace.

Know justice. Know peace.

The CFC is partnering with #BlackLivesMatter to “bring Black folks and anti-racist allies from across the country into Ferguson, Missouri, as part of a national call to end state violence against Black people.” If you are interested in joining the Black Life Matters Ride to Ferguson on Labor Day weekend, please complete this form and visit the Black Life Matters Ride Facebook page for more information.  You can also donate to the crowdfunding campaign.

12 Aug 2014

Michael Brown

When we are young, often too young to fully understand the anxiety in their voices and the fear in their eyes, many of us listen to our parents tell us how to behave when, not if, we are stopped by the police.

Usually these cautions beseech us to be aware of our surroundings, comply and assert our compliance out loud, to polite and cooperative, not combative or defiant.  They tell us the things they think will protect us. They tell us not to be alone. They tell us to be vigilant. They know what we will face. They are black, brown, immigrant, documented and undocumented. They have survived wars. They are our mothers and fathers. Our grandparents and older siblings. Our concerned neighbors and friends. They want to keep us safe. We might not yet know how difficult it is to stay safe, because we are small and bold. Because we are tender and free. But the fear and worry seeps into their voices, because they have seen the world. The fear and worry becomes part of us, too.

Then, as we become adults, sometimes well before then, we discover the lie.

We can genuflect and comply. We can raise our arms in the air and scream that we are unarmed. We can look up at the police with our hands behind our heads and our knees on the ground. We can wait in line through checkpoints to get water and work. We can crawl through the desert in the night with our babies on our back. We will still be counted as collateral damage. That’s if we are counted at all.

We can fire a warning shot into the air to protect our children. We can follow all the rules and get all the papers. We can work 20-hour days in the field. Our compliance will not protect us. Our papers will not save us. The police are not here to protect us. In their eyes, which we see from behind riot gear, we are not human. We are not their charge.

Because we survived this long. Because we made it here. Because we never left. Because our bodies are proof.

In this country, a black man is killed every 28 hours. On Saturday, in Ferguson, Missouri a white police officer shot and killed 18 year-old Michael Brown.

Now all we are left with is a series of heartbreaking truths.

Credit: Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

Michael Brown is dead.  Next week he was to start college. His friend and several others witnessed his murder.  His body was left uncovered in the street for hours. The police officer that murdered Michael is on paid administrative leave.  Police showed up to the candlelight vigil held for him wearing riot gear. His mother is left to try and understand why her sweet boy is not home with her. Surely, she had a conversation with him about the police and how to try and stay safe from them. It could not protect him from the weapons they brought. We imagine that it could be us.

The town of Ferguson is burning. With tear-gas and a righteous rage.

We are left to try and make sense of these facts. This story is not new. There is no sense to be made here.

7 Aug 2014

audrelorde self-care

Everyday I read, watch, or discover something that makes me want to throw in the towel on humanity and crawl back into bed. I don’t really—none of us really—have that luxury though.

There are Nigerian schoolgirls still missing.

Ebola outbreaks marked by fear and/or indifference.

Kids dying in hotass cars.

There is apartheid and genocide in Gaza.

Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Marissa Alexander and other chokeholds, death grips, suicide trips.

White folks columbusing

Dead trans women every week.

Sometimes talking about self care in the midst of so many forms devastating forms of institutional violence seems like an indulgence. But then I’m reminded of Lorde’s wise words. They are not just platitudes, nor do they encourage selfishness. Lorde’s words compel us to consider that our selves matter, especially in a world where we were never meant to survive but where some of us do. It’s also important to remember that this violence from the State is also reflected all over our interpersonal interactions as well.

No matter how much I think or write about self care, there are times where I need to start back at one. And so my summer self care survival kit is small but mighty. It includes:

Countless hours of catch up phone sessions with faraway loved ones

Time loving on my niece and nephews

Sleeping in with no alarm

An awesome concert #ontherun

Laying on the beach with two of the crunkest sistas I know

Making love

Reading in the quietness of the morning.

Letting go of old hurts and moving forward

It hasn’t stopped the violence, the mayhem, and the disregard of all life.  But it has helped me do the work that I do.

What are you doing to take care of yourself?

1 Aug 2014

rices

(Trigger Warning)

I will never forget listening to the raging voice of a man I didn’t know on the other end of a phone line alongside my homegirl in Florida.  We sat in a room with the door closed while she told me what had happened the night before to preface the voice mail I was about to hear.  The man behind the voice was someone her sister had recently started dating.  He left the message on her voicemail several hours after beating and berating her in front of her child and leaving her bloody and unconscious on the concrete outside her house, speeding away in her car.

“Bitch…what you call the cops for? I didn’t steal your damn car.  I was gon’ bring it back.  And I didn’t hit you that hard, shit, you should be able to take a hit.  That’s why I don’t fuck with black women now.  Can’t take a hit and quick to call the law on a nigga.”  There was a pause. Then, “I ain’t mad, aight?  Drop these charges and we can work it out.”

His voice was almost as vile as the words and even though I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, I felt afraid listening to the voice mail he had left on my friend’s sister’s phone.  This man was dangerous, delusional and manipulative.  His words were carefully coded to make his victim simultaneously feel sorry for him and guilty for “provoking him,” not being “strong enough,” and involving the police.  The only good news was that the message was evidence and could be used to prosecute him. The bad news was that despite pleas from friends and family members, my homegirl’s sister was dropping the charges.  “She’s probably going to get back with him,” my friend said shaking her head and hanging up the phone.

I struggled the first few minutes with suffocating my anger, my concern and my judgment even though I knew (of) a lot of women who returned to unhealthy relationships (only sometimes violent), myself included.  I was, however, concerned about this woman’s safety and well-being, and that of her daughter who witnessing this kind of volatile relationship might internalize violence as love.

The reasons individuals stay in abusive relationships are varied and can range from fear, familiarity, dependency (either emotionally or financially), low self-esteem,  “because of the children,” “because of so much time invested,” “because he’s sorry,” “because I love him.”  There is a misconception that abuse is limited to physicality (or heterosexual relationships) but it’s not.  I believe emotional, psychic and psychological abuse is also unacceptable and just as damaging.  If someone is calling you out of your name, telling you you are worthless, chronically cheating on you, making you feel used, or disrespecting you in public or in private that is abusive behavior, and may very well preface physical force.

Intimate partner violence was not uncommon in the community I grew up in and to some degree, as a child, I erroneously believed that it was a signal, even a condition, of love.  It’s not.  By the time I heard that callous voice on the phone and the terror it evoked in me, a bystander, I was at least a decade into my feminism and recognizing abuse as abuse.  Still, there was nothing I could do to protect my friend, her sister, or her sister’s child.  The relationship eventually ended, but not before more damage was done, if not through physical abuse, through mental manipulation.

I immediately thought about this experience when reading about the February incident between Ray Rice and his now-wife, Janay Palmer, who got into a fight at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City.  Rice allegedly knocked her unconscious and dragged her limp body from a hotel elevator.  Video footage was released of the latter and while there was visual evidence that could be used to prosecute the perpetrator, it did not guarantee indictment.  In the weeks and months that followed the couple quickly married and participated in an ill-timed and ill-advised press conference. Rice spoke to the media and attempted to apologize, defend himself and restore his “good guy” image.  Janay, appearing uncomfortable and distracted, sat in support of her husband and came to his defense saying, “I deeply regret the role I played in the incident.”  Her words implied that she feels(or has been led to feel) she is at least partially at fault for being knocked unconscious by her boyfriend.  The Baltimore Ravens quickly tweeted her comment in an effort to spread the blame and clear Ray Rice’s name.  Not a good look.

On May 1, Rice pled not guilty and applied for a first time offender’s program (that includes counseling) that will keep him out of jail and likely clear him of charges within six months.  Recently, the NFL suspended Ray Rice for two games as a result of the incident, a penalty many (myself included) find insufficient considering the seriousness of the offense.  The proverbial slap on the wrist to a man who literally knocked a woman unconscious is another missed opportunity for the NFL to stand up against domestic violence (hell Stephen A. Smith’s suspension for a week from ESPN for his half-assed remarks about women provoking violence, which I will note later, is probably a more strict punishment than Rice will receive from his organization).   Instead the league has been focused on protecting its golden child runningback, and his reputation, at the expense of his wife.

There have been numerous reactions to this case, many now focused on Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN analyst’s, thoughtless comments about women of domestic violence being implicated in their abuse, oftentimes provoking men to violence.  It seems despite Smith’s supposed allegiance and empathy to women (in his family) his victim-blaming advice is no different from blaming a rape victim for being raped.  (“What were you wearing?” “Were you flirting?”  “Were you sending mixed signals?”)  Same bullshit, different day.  His half-assed apology (see below) does little to lessen the impact or damage of his initial insinuations.  Not only did he make an assumption about what prefaced Rice’s violent tirade but he immediately blamed the black woman/victim.  But what else is new?

The many stereotypes of black women are used to justify violence and aggression against them.  Because black women are mythologized as gold-digging, angry, physically strong, provocative shrews some black men assume (and this is something that having a mama, a auntie, a grandmother who raised you, or your own damn daughters doesn’t change) that if/when black women are hit, they asked for (or deserved) it.  At the end of the day many men emphasize with other men and instead of vilifying any act of violence, physical or otherwise, against anyone, especially a woman, they attempt to justify it.  They put themselves in the shoes of the aggressor, but not the victim, and see themselves as blameless and reactionary, rather than violent and misogynistic.  This is a failure of our culture and the cultivation of black masculinity.

The blame game is not an uncommon response to violence towards women, black women in particular.  Remember a few months ago when Columbus Short’s wife went public with allegations that he choked her, put a knife to her throat, and threatened to kill her and comedian D.L. Hughley called her a “thirsty bitch,” who should have kept her mouth shut?  And in 2012 when Chad Johnson (Ochocinco) head butted his then wife, Evelyn Lozada, and people had little empathy for her because of her infamous attitude and short fuse (with other women).  And of course there is/was the backlash Rihanna experienced when Chris Brown was arrested for beating her to the point that her face was nearly unrecognizable, and instead of vilifying the man for hitting her, people (black women included) speculated about what she must have done to trigger his anger and fiercely defended him as the blameless victim.  And these are the few stories we know about with victims who are survivors (there are others).

Our culture has a problem with silencing victims and their names (and protecting men) when the perpetrator is well known or well liked or famous or an athlete or attractive, etc. etc. etc., and it needs to stop.  Perhaps a start would be to actually hold those who are abusive accountable for their actions.  As we have stressed over the CFC for years, you can hold someone accountable and love them at the same time.  I don’t think men who participate in anti-feminist, misogynist, and/or violent acts are irredeemable (many black feminist men I know have problematic pasts, don’t we all?), and I think that rehabilitation and genuine change is possible, but it is only possible when they are called out and required to take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof).  We have to be willing to stand up against the violence happening not only in our communities but in our households.  Abuse is not normal and need not be normalized.  Blackgirl lives are at stake and they are worth saving!

We have to stop shaming victims of intimate partner and domestic violence and distributing blame as if there is anything that someone could do to justify being beaten.

As Sil Lai Abrams said in an Ebony article about victim blaming,

“Our widespread cultural acceptance of domestic violence and our overwhelming tendency to victim blame is part of what’s driving our disproportionately high rates of sexual assault, domestic violence and intimate partner homicide. We need to start raising the bar on what is acceptable in our relationships and stop doing to each other what Massa did to us.”

 

 

 

29 Jul 2014

Renisha McBride

Hopefully, you have been following the trial of Theodore Wafer, a Michigan man, who killed 19 year old Renisha McBride last fall when she came to his door in the early morning hours after a car accident begging for help. He shot and killed her through a locked door, because he claims he felt afraid. Local residents in Detroit, marched and rallied on Renisha’s behalf and ensured her killer was brought to trial. But there has been no national outrage of the sort we saw last year with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Wafer’s attorney has attempted to prove that Renisha was “up to no good,” citing alcohol and drug use.  It simply remains unclear to me how drinking, smoking, and then needing help, constitute a crime worthy of being shot in the head and left to die on a random man’s  porch. Renisha’s life meant something, and she deserved so much better than to be shot down on a cold Michigan morning, because she found herself in need of something we all will need eventually: help.

Between Gaza, Boko Haram, mass deportations, and the indiscriminate killing of Black folks by police, these are scary times in which we are living. We hope you are all taking care of yourselves, being gentle with yourselves and each other, seeking out and giving your energy to the things that matter.

In the immortal words of Tupac, Keep Ya Head Up.

Now, I want to share with you this poem, that I received after I did a recent appearance on HuffPost Live with Marc Lamont Hill to discuss Renisha’s trial.

Renisha McBride

by Sheree Renée Thomas 

“We don’t see black women as women, so they don’t get the traditional protections of femininity…”—Dr. Brittney Cooper, aka Professor Crunk

They say Medusa

was once so beautiful

a goddess envied her

drove her from

her sisters’ side

and stole her grace

Was it her dark skin, the color

of sun-ripened flesh?

Was it her locs

that writhed and swung free

with their own breath?

Banished from her throne

to lie beneath another’s heel

time ravaged her birthright

so that her very name

intoned fear

a fear that echoed

through the ages

Medusa, Renisha

What kind of fear

flings open

a closed, locked door

and blasts the head off

a lone black woman?

What kind of fear

possesses

in the witching hours

before dawn?

What kind of fear

pulls one from sleep

and blinds both eyes

to the humanity

that lives within

all skin?

What kind of fear

finds it reasonable

and honest to leap

from lending a hand

to triggering the finger

that kills?

and still

Medusa belongs nowhere

Is there a space where she belongs?

Is there a corner of a dark cave

she is free to cling to?

Where may she find

empathy, peace?

Medusa

one of triple moons

the goddess of renewal

and strength

She is bereft of her sisters

and we her sisters

mourn her loss