This was written sometime in the very early ’60s — or perhaps even ’58 or ’59, — when I was a Morehouse College student. From time to time, usually through the auspices of some religiously oriented campus group, we’d be invited to meet with our white counterparts at Emory or Agnes Scott. We’d wear our Sunday best and sip tea and eat cookies. Typically a well-meaning white student would say as we were parting — ‘If only they were all like you.’ That prompted the poem.” — JBond.
A memory of dance with Julian Bond
My very first day teaching as a professor at UVA in 1996, Julian Bond sat in on my hiphop class titled Black Popular Music Culture aka Music 208. It was such an honor. 80 of the 90 students who showed up that first day in a choir room in the basement of Old Cabell Hall were black (that happened only one at a predominately white institution (PWI) but it seemed that none of them recognized who he was or knew the legacy he’d built as a civil rights activist.
I started class with a poem about The Lawn and me professin hip-hop “Dat don’t mean I know everything, jus means I got a jawb— to represent!” and taught them how to do “Check One,” a body musicking exercise I invented to teach black musical ideals like individuality within collectivity, call and response, syncopation and the musical break. I remember introducing him and being so honored by his presence in very first class teaching at Thomas Jefferson’s university or Uncle Thom’s plantation as I would satirically call it.
Julian Bond invited me to lunch. We walked to the Corner — the site where Martese Johnson, an honor student was brutally beaten and wrongfully arrested by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control because of the color of his skin in March of 2015.
Back in 1996 over lunch at The Corner, I asked Julian if he had learned any dances and what he could remember about them. I was exploring how musical blackness was learned and thought this was a great question to ask the Civil Rights Leader who help found SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). He insisted he didn’t know how to dance. He had two left feet. But about 15 minutes into our conversation, he suddenly got up and showed me the only dance he knew. He grabbed the inseam of his pant-leg with his dominant hand, lifting the hem about an inch above his ankle. “This was the dance anyone could do if you didn’t really know how to dance.” He pivoted back and forth on his dominant side while the other leg remained planted to an imagined beat from the days of Segregation. That moment made my day! It was such a pleasure.
Julian was a lecturer then. I think many of us who knew his legacy were shocked that U.Va. had not granted him a professorship. But perhaps being a lecturer was perfect for the ongoing work and activism he continued through his lifetime, ended too soon but surely packed with profound contributions that most of us never witness in far fewer years. To his family and close friends, I send my condolences.
He nor his legacy will not be forgotten. I intend to use the poem above as part of my scholarship and as a dedication in my upcoming lectures in Minneapolis and at U.VA this fall when I talk about twerking and a conscientious connectivity to black girls online. Bond’s poem was and continues to be a testament to the lives of black girls and women as they stomp and roll their blues away in an era of increasing segregation, poverty and the social immobility of black children under 18, as well as the continued wealth gap between whites and blacks that has seen little change in the last 50 years.
The brief but profound poem by Bond reminds me how much orality, poetry and the word matters to black people despite what others say about our speech, the ways we talk and the ways we are literate (or not). #blacklifematters
All we have always wanted is a little respect and the dignity every human being deserves. In honor of Bond’s legacy, a little girl shakin it to respect.
You may not care for this but I have to say, I LOVED IT!!! The bleeps in advertising and media don’t stop the hate or the violence and they ain’t filling no ones #swearjar. So let’s get real!
NOTE: The comment about twerking at 1:15″
Only critique I have of this is that there should be MORE black and brown women represented here. Little white princesses cussing is one thing. But perhaps our empathy meter goes WAY DOWN when people of color quotient goes WAY UP. #blacklivesmatter
This is from the Centers for Disease Control (including intimate partner violence):
Dating violence is widespread with serious long-term and short-term effects. Many teens do not report it because they are afraid to tell friends and family. A 2011 CDC nationwide survey(http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/nisvspubs.html) found that 23% of females and 14% of males who ever experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age. A 2013 survey found approximately 10% of high school students reported physical victimization and 10% reported sexual victimization from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed.
Need more facts to get agitated into action? Here’s recent data from 2014:
Where the relationship could be determined, 94 percent of black females killed by males knew their killers. Nearly 15 times as many black females were murdered by a male they knew than were killed by male strangers. http://www.vpc.org/press/1309dv2.htm
VPC, a national organization working to end gun deaths, reported that 94 percent of the black women killed knew their killers. More than half were killed by gunfire. And 64 percent of black victims who knew their offenders were wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of the killers. http://thegrio.com/2013/10/20/domestic-violence-awareness-month-black-women-homocide-intimate-partner-violence/
“…i wanted to be a new person and my rebirth was stifled not by the master but the slave.” – Nikki Giovanni.
Celebrating Juneteenth – and a letter from my great great grandfather
The United States freed its last slaves on this day June 18, 1865, 149 years ago. Officially commemorated as Juneteenth, this holiday goes unmarked and unnoticed by the majority Americans, including many African-Americans. Which begs the question: why? When TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt received a copy of a letter from her great great grandfather, a former slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, his handwritten words opened her eyes to how limited, fragmented and ephemeral narratives of slavery still are. A shorter version of this story appears on the ideas page of TED.com.
NOTE: I hope readers will consider that online literacy leads to emancipation for black girls and others, too.
In March 2014, I was struck with tears after opening an email from my mother that began: “Read this history about your great, great, great grandfather. Wow, what a rich heritage!”
Attached was a copy of a letter, titled “LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.” I was a letter my great, great, great grandfather had written in 1855, 159 years ago on February 15th. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. I was reading the words of one of my kin — in his own hand.
The letter had been sent to my family by a reporter from Portsmouth, who explained that Ford had written this letter to a friend once he’d reached Philadelphia, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail at the time. They would be left behind; a causality of emancipation. The letter had been published in 1872, in a book by William Still — a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Here is the text in full:
LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.
BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.
No. 2, Change Avenue.
MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.
SHERIDAN W. FORD.
The Debt of Forced Migration: Local Memory
I was overcome with heavy tears at what this letter meant to me. His writing spoke of options I never knew or realized slaves had even as a professor. He was literate and well versed in writing by 1855, and he clearly articulates the value his freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino could ever aptly capture. This was not mediated by images but across generations of forgotten memories of my kin.
Here was a letter written phonetically in respectably lucid language, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from the Compromise of 1850 — which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class ranking Jim Crow laws. My great great grandfather could have been snatched back to the South if ever found in the North by his lawful captors.
This is more than any memory passed down orally, and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence, a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned in a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, his humanity and the justice in being newly free.
It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone who I am related to, who I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery.
Why? White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history.
1863: 5 Million Freed, 1 Million Lost
According to the 2013 US Census, there are 41 million people who identify as African-American and I could lay money on that fewer than 1% will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — when it rolls around next year, even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called united states.
On that day in 1865, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America. They were not slaves, they were Africans. General Order No. 3 was announced in Galveston:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States [originally signed two years earlier by Abraham Lincoln], all slaves are free. … The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
African Americans don’t have many stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape.
When I grew up no one talked about slaves inside black family life. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner and the talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved Africans). We were property – not our humanity or ethnicity. And we had our nationality stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip.
Most people today know they set “us” free in 1863. But no one ever knew told me that Lincoln freed 5 million enslaved African people and that 1 million of the newly liberated women, men and children died within the first year. With Emancipation came starvation and other effects of being freed among Southerners who still wished to chase former slaves with bloodhounds in the name of their own right to life, liberty and property.
African American remembering is more lore than lived memory. Most often we cherry-pick popular slave narratives or mediated memories like those in Alex Haley’s ABC mini-series Roots: “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” Comedy is sadly much more common. Our memories are like second-hand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all of the broken backs who once carried them. Mostly, we nurse broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.
When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s story of a mother’s love expressed in the salvation of killing her children rather than allowing them live as chattel slaves. But mother’s love is supposed to deny such a thing as infanticide.
Most African-Americans will never even have read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I haven’t, though I have quoted a part about singing. I didn’t even know it was from his tongue. I own a recording of his words loudly declaimed by esteemed actor Ossie Davis on a set of recordings about African American music:
Slaves were expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave was not liked.
And thus, we continue our silence in a post-racial America.
Today, many African Americans do not know Douglass’s literate freedom nor Harriet Jacobs. We remain in the bondage of our own lack of curiosity surrounded by institutional miseducation about who we were and who we can be. So reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather first-hand — it changed something in me.
It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and we must be re-membered to more of these kinds of memories. The inscribed evidence: “i love my freedom.” An ownership of not just one’s liberty but of one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendance from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction. No more silence, writing next time.
Find William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, in which Sheridan Ford’s letter was originally published, on Gutenberg.org.
After spending all of my adult life on what I will generously call the Left, I have become suspicious and uninterested in any Art tied to an ism. I agree with Adrienne Rich’s call for an art that “goes to the edge of meaning” as well as Art that discovers new resonance in the familiar. But, if ever we need an avant- garde (for lack of a better term), it is now.
This essay/talk was given by poet by Sekou Sundiata. Must read. This doc was discussed and dissected at HarlemStage Friday night. It challenges people of color and “people of whiteness” to rethink not diversity but our democracy and this State. A poet, Sekou speaks also to the power of words, imagination and art to facilitate the 51st state of our union.
My work has always existed at the intersection of art and democracy with girls, learning and ethnography at the center of it. Socialization of self, group and how we represent ourselves in seemingly sovereign ways to others and how we seek to maintain our cultural values and ways in this democracy.
The blogosphere of Facebook, Twitter and sites like HuffPo have been amplifying an unsuspecting yet powerful voice of reason, irony, and insight–the former championship basketball player from the Bucks and the Lakers, one of my favs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as writer.
He’s been offering his critiques on popular media from the HBO series “Girls” to his most recent POV on the Best Picture nomination of director Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).
In the early days of Abdul-Jabbar’s professional sports career, he like many other African-American athletes faced racism. In a recent interview that appeared in the Harvard Business Review (biz types love to explore links in unusual places these days), the former champion formerly known as Lew Alcindor was asked:
In the NCAA and the NBA you occasionally faced racism. How did you play through those distractions?
[Abdul-Jabbar]: If you let it distract you, you’re playing into their hands. Their whole purpose is to distract you and prevent you from succeeding. And for me, success was the goal. My success and the success of other black Americans was exactly what would silence people who indulged in racism. So it was “Keep your eyes on the prize.” That was one of the messages of the civil rights movement, and I tried to do it.
Since retirement, Adbul-Jabbar has shared is other loves with his followers including his love of the writing of Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), who actually identified himself as a mulatto, of African descent, in French society. Abdul-Jabbar offers on his official website:
Once when someone insulted [Dumas] about his racial background, he said, “It is true. My father was a mulatto, my grandmother was a negress, and my great-grandparents were monkeys. In short, sir, my pedigree begins where yours ends.”
I think Kareem identifies with someone like Dumas at this latter stage in life because he can find his successes off the court speaking to issues of race that matter to him whereever that may be. TV and film is a great place to find your voice as a critic of American culture. What’s noticeable about Kareem is that he loves irony not unlike the comment by Dumas. So why wouldn’t he love Tarantino’s film. What’s not to love!?!
His take on Django Unchained gives us an unexpected skyhook to the right that shows his love of things far beyond just basketball. I’ve enjoy reading his thoughts on popular culture while also observing how readers respond since most times our society’s expectation of sports figures, especially black men, does not include listening to them think.
Kareem’s review of Django appeared this week in Esquiremagazine, distinguished as an early publisher of “New Journalism” and awarded often for its provocative pieces targeting men. In the Esquirereview Kareem wrote,
Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie. That’s not an insult. I’ve been in B movies, many of my favorite films are B movies, and B movies tend to make a lot more money than A movies.
Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action. With the exception of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Stephen, the characters are fairly stereotypical. Pro-slavery characters are grotesque cartoons and those against (mostly the slaves themselves) are admirable and inspiring. And that makes Django melodrama, not literature. It offers no insights, only the most familiar observations.
Abdul-Jabbar is getting a few minutes “court-time” in the media for his take on Django, which I too loved at first glance. An appearance following the piece on Conan O’Brian’s show is making the rounds via a viral video but since I don’t have cable or watch late night shows online, I first learned of the piece on the Colorlines site under “Now in Racial Justice” section via Facebook.
While Kareem’s critique is likeable and definitely worth the read, I beg to differ with his comment Django offering “no critical insights into the circumstances [of slavery], no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does).”
A noted scholar, Dr.Jim Downs (Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction), mentioned at an Emancipation 150 event hosted by WNYC-FM at the Greene Space in January, that Django depicted the experience and terror of being a slave much more so than Spielberg’s Lincoln did at any level.
Downs said that of the 5 million slaves freed by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, 1 million died in the first year. A quarter of the population starved, froze to death, couldn’t subsistence farm or other. Whole families died in their newfound freedom. In Django Unchained, one need only recall the scene using the dog to attack the runaway slave nearer to the end of the film (having taken us many places to get there emotionally). But there was also the scene soon thereafter of the lock box in the heat of the midday sun that Kerry Washington’s character “Broomhilda von Schaft” is removed from when Django (Jamie Foxx) arrives to save her. In that moment, we witness Django’s lack of freedom to scream her suffocation while we must suffer with him waiting for their moment of escape. We are slaves watching these scenes.
Just one glimpse of either scene (and there are others) that are far from the workings of what one might call a B movie. This film had the power to emotionally wrench me from this present moment back into the realities of slavery I have never witnessed being born just before the Civil Rights Act was even introduced.
EMANCIPATION: DJANGO vs. LINCOLN
There is no amount of “nuance” that could explore that reality effectively and neither Spielberg nor Daniel Day Lewis took me there in Lincoln. The genre of film, much more sophisticated than a B movie, that consummate filmmaker Tarantino is divining in, allows us to peer into a reality that historical writing or memory cannot capture at the level of social phenomenon today. Film is pivotal in this way and lest those of us how know better forget, too often our “top” filmmakers will not allow such depiction when it comes to African American subjects or subjects that not only put our eyes on the prize of freedom but call our minds to the injustices and exploitation of people of color or women and women of color. These films are still not made for public reception.
So I’ll take Django Unchained any day over Lincoln (which I enjoyed though a slow film for me). Yet I think it’s wrong to compare the two films. Just because they occupy the same historical reference point does not mean they are comparable films, films one should compare. They are not the same genre, the same space or the same race of film. Correlation in this case would be wrong in my view. They context of the 150th anniversary is really the only connection as far as films go.
And I want to remind myself and others that Django Unchained as a Oscar nominated film for Best Picture is not simply Tarantino’s film to claim. This film would not be what it has become without the cooperation of its black actors as well as its nonblack actors, all of whom contribute to its brilliant representation. One sorely needed, whose time finally came, among African Americans of all classes but, more so, among nonblacks of all classes–perhaps a more likely candidate of a post-racial Obama era than any.
This film belongs to its co-producers including Reggie Hudlin and even more so it belongs to us–the people. It’s the closest thing to a people’s history of slavery re-presented in a modern skin. It’s all about how we the people read Django Unchained as-text and the fact that so many people have been moved into public discourse around the film, into a discourse about slavery, film-making, genre, acting, irony, history and injustice, and more. All of that makes it an Oscar worthy contender.
I doubt it will win Best Picture. Why?Because of the subject matter, its treatment and the reaction of its black audience members who loved it too much for some fellow theatergoers. That kind of behavior “insubordination” during the Obama era can’t be allowed…at least that’s what people say.
I’m willing to be wrong. Django did something no other film has done for me. It allowed me to have a fantasy of revenge IN PUBLIC, in mixed company. It freed my laughter that hides pain, my sorrow that hides decades of struggle to be free, it unchained people’s disbelief and made possible riding off into the sunset for once. All that made me feel free in a way that I never thought possible in public, in mixed company. It was liberating and OK.
The film also provided a kind of vindication for white guilt with which anyone whose taught racism courses or courses involved black culture must constantly contend. This was a depiction of a white man, the hero, who let his compassion lead him to sacrifice himself for those considered less human than other white men. Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Dr. King Schultz does that for us, but let us not forget it was the writing and the film direction that allowed him to freely act that part, portray that possible reality.
So my vote Sunday night is for Django Unchained for Best Picture 2012 and much more. If it doesn’t win, I’ll be ok. The film will remain to save the day.
3 THINGS I NEVER KNEW ABOUT DJANGO
I hope you find this trivia as interesting as I did.
Although the film is technically a part of the western genre, Quentin Tarantino preferred to refer to the film as a “southern” due to the films setting in America’s deep south.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays villain Calvin Candie in this film, was originally the first actor choice for the role of antagonist Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino‘s previous film Inglourious Basterds. However, Tarantino decided that a fluent German-speaking actor should portray the character, and the part went to Christoph Waltz, who portrays Dr. King Schultz in this film, marking Waltz’s second film collaboration with Tarantino. DiCaprio can however speak some German.
Director Quentin Tarantino revealed at Comic-Con that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington‘s characters are meant to be the great great great grandparents of the character John Shaft from the Shaft movies. An overt reference to this connection can be found in Kerry Washington’s character’s full name: Broomhilda Von Shaft. (all from IMDb.com)
Calvin Candie: [to Django and Schultz] Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.
See the shorter, tighter version here on the TEDFellows Blog.
I am doing the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog challenge and Day 2 asks that we write a list post. My post title is reminiscent of the narrative titles from the earliest printed books in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a time, I must remark, when enslaved Africans were not allowed to read and write or play drums for fear of the power to communicate. Now that we’s free, we black folk got lots to say and too many don’t care to hear.
We professors often learn to trade and mediate between worlds which can be a blessing and curse. But as I see it, communication and writing–having a voice–is essential no matter who you are. Blogging is a mechanism I downplay too often to get my thoughts across even though I have had 3,000, 6,000 and even 12,000 reads on something I’ve written before. I still resist owning my own voice. In 2013, I am putting more of my words out in the blogosphere.
Books tell stories as can list posts. I realized my list could tell my story of microaggressions. You may ask, what is a micro-aggression?
Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressionsas, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” These can be both racist and sexist.
My list of 12 Microaggressions adds a bit of irony, not unlike my descriptive narrative subtitle recalling the descriptive titles in the 18th and 19th centuries
12 Lessons in Micro-aggressions: A Guide to the Memories of a Learned Black Womanist Professor Upon Writing A List Post for Black History & Women’s History Months Which Can’t Begin to Scratch the Surface of the Deeper Politics of Racism and Sexism Women and People of Color Encounter Still Today.
12 DON’TS THAT DO MICROAGGRESSIONS
Don’t ever read June Jordan’s “Poem about Police Violence” in a racism course with any white male student who once loved you. His version will be: What if every time you follow suit, I threaten to file a lawsuit? You think the litigation rate for reverse racism would drop subsequently?
Don’t play a female rapper first in a hip-hop course. Queen Latifah might have said “Ladies first” but women in hip-hop are supposed to only be one of the boys or a bitch at best.
Don’t be surprised when in 1997 you get hate mail addressed “Dear Ms. Afro” after your first semester teaching at the University of Virginia. And there won’t be a check in the mail across the Mason Dixon line.
Don’t sing the Negro National Anthem after the Star Spangled Banner at a joint concert of the choirs from the University of Virginia and Hampton University. One of your conservative white women students who is majoring in music will complain and even if you can convince her to study the history in her final paper where she learns and even teaches you that James Rosamund Johnson and his brother wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” BEFORE the Francis Scott Key anthem, she will not let her white privilege be shaken. No older anthems, she will conclude, should be allowed.
Don’t dance in your white colleague’s African Drum and Dance ensemble unless you are ready to deal with the tensions that will rise between you of always being considered the teacher and her resenting that you’ve never been to Africa. Skin color privilege and mental slavery still trumps travel.
Don’t defend your group’s ability to name itself when even a white Jewish colleague with a Ph.D. in public administration lapses in judgment when she asks why you call yourself “African” American. You’ll be asked by other acquaintances on the Air Train. Be prepared. Her rationale will be that her friends from Senegal are Senegalese American?
Don’t hesitate when your music department chair, a composer of Western art music, asks how much time are you actually teaching music as an ethnomusicologist. Don’t forget to simply answer 100% to battle potential rage or cry in her office later telling her you won’t stay if her lack of support continues.
Don’t dream it won’t happen again that while supporting the 100-member gospel choir from U.Va. as they sing at the predominately white episcopal church across the street from campus that a white church member, seated just in front of you, turns, sees you, and then shares how much she loved your singing. They call us the “frozen chosen” she adds to soften the blow.
Don’t hate when your white date whom you thought might be a real boyfriend asks you to teach him how to dance right after spending the whole afternoon with a dozen of his white friends on Memorial day. Their earlier episide of trauma sharing after the BBQ, going round the table one-by-one to share how burnt they got while tanning that summer while they wait silently for you to go will be penance enough. Just join in the color blind fest and teach him tonight.
Don’t expect to get the $700 for writing a test item for the ACT about Bessie Coleman or the Negro National Anthem coming before the Star Spangled Banner. They will reject your question informing you that any questions that would disturb [white] testers are not allowed.
Don’t get riled up and lose your mentor cool when a liberal white student asks you rather than his black peers why black students don’t apply to live on the Lawn at Thomas Jefferson’s University with no running water, no toilet, and an “outhouse” in the back that comes with your own rocking chair and fireplace too. Roughing it on T.J’s former plantation should be an esteemed part of a public education in our century.
And finally, don’t go Django on ’em (meaning “off the chain”) when you learn that you can’t visit the ruined slave quarters at Monticello in the winter time. The docent will remind you that the regular patrons would find it uncomfortable cuz’ it’s all about the main house.
Each of these incidents actually happened in my 15 years as a professor or in my personal life experiences during that period. Some happened at Baruch College-CUNY, most are from University of Virginia which was rich and contradictory space in which I taught both black music studies and hip-hop culture with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as a backdrop.
But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.–Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately[Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.
One of the hardest moments of recent years came after a white male student at CUNY threatened to sue me. I had been his advisor and he had deeply admired me before taking a course titled “The Evolution and Expressions of Racism” where I read a poem on police violence by Brooklyn poet June Jordan. I realized I coddled him too much as his advisor — wanting to be liked in a department that tried to sack me after the first semester.
In a ten-page single-spaced paper (that’s term paper length and he was eager to share it with others), he accused me of saying all white people and all white cops should be killed. (June Jordan’s poem never distinguishes between white and black cops on the NYPD.) He went to both my department chairs. I was jointly appointed. He went to the Dean and the president of the college. (Not the first time a student went that high in a complaint about my teaching.) After 6 weeks of it unrequited complaints, we had a mediation. I was mentally shaken afterwards but I pretended to be strong as I ran to catch a taxi to Soho from Midtown and was refused by several empty yellow cabs.
I recall commiserating with a friend about the incident (or complex of incidents) at a conference for global transformation who was also a black woman professor. She shared that my experience was not uncommon in hers — that of having a white male student wheel about and turnabout and jump Jim Crow once racism as an education became part of the picture.
I want to read, play, be surprised and sing; I want to dance, defend, hesitate and dream; I want the freedom to hate, expect, get riled up, and go to those places where conventional black history months don’t go.
Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March should be more of a space for all kinds of dialogue not just some predictable presentation of firsts or facts about women and African Americans.
Fear of Change
It’s sad to me that black cultural confrontations of structural racism often require humor or irony to be digested but I also realize this is true of all taboos of cultural norms. Status quo discourses often seek to replicate themselves through our fear of change. We might be sittin’ in garbage but it’s familiar garbage all the same. And we often cannot see what change might be needed. Something simple, easy to master would do but it feels so monstrous when we encounter problems of race and racism, sexual power and sexism.
Darren Rowse, the author of 31DBBB, created a list of 21 ways to write posts that are guaranteed to grow your blog. It it included:
Write something useful
Write something unique
Write something newsworthy
Write something first
Write something that makes those who read it smarter
Write something controversial
Write something insightful
Write something that taps into a fear people have
I hope my list taps into a few of these ways. Every professor hopes we she/he does makes you a little smarter. You be the judge and don’t hesitate to let me know whatever your reaction.
2013: THRIVING AGAIN
I mentioned in a previous post how academia had beat my love of reading out of me and yet late last year I started learning to love reading and writing again. Maybe some of these microaggressions have had me more than I imagined. I am thankful that my desire for both reading and writing has begun to thrive again.
Presently, I am reading Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness–which is a brilliant remix of literature, thought and music. In it Young writes:
“[T]he lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes everyday. The book that memory, time, accident and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read. […] As African Americans, we have gone over the past century and a half from Reconstruction, to resistance, to recovery–and today, to a real need for reclamation. Forget reparations–we need to rescue aspects of black culture abandoned even by black folks, whether it is the blues or home cookin’ or broader forms of not just survival but triumph” (Kindle Loc 199 ff.).
POSTSCRIPT FEB 8th:My Facebook friend Suzanne Broughel recommended the great Tumblr blog on microaggressions where you can post your own.
See the shorter, tighter version here on the TEDFellows Blog.