Friday, January 9, 2015

Wrestling With Ghosts: On Loss, Leadership and Black Struggle

I have not yet seen Selma, but am excited to--Black woman director, stellar performances by David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, a timely discussion--what's not to like?

There is something about it, though, that makes me step lightly. And, I don't know that it has to do with the film itself. I have no doubt that Duvernay is a skilled director, that the story being told is one that hasn't been before. Still, for me, it fits somewhat into the discourse of Civil Rights activism and Post-Civil Rights activism. One might even say civil rights activism/activists vs. post-civil rights activism/activists. While I don't believe that this dichotomy is so cut and dry, the conversation has been highlighted most recently in the ill-timed and uninformed comments by Oprah Winfrey, the "backlash" against Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson's assumed leadership of the current organizing around the killing of young Black men, and, perhaps even, the much deserved failing/decline of the (not the only one) accused sexual predator/icon Cliff Hux--Bill Cosby. 

In general, Oprah's comments sum up a feeling by, sometimes self-appointed, civil rights leaders in her comments about Ferguson and the current protests happening throughout the country: 
"I think it's wonderful to march and to protest and it's wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it," Winfrey told PEOPLE exclusively in an interview in the magazine's new issue. "But it's not enough to march, said Winfrey..."What I'm looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, 'This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we're willing to do to get it.'" 

To no one's surprised in this accelerated social media moment, she was swiftly and categorically dismissed by the "lacking leadership" protesters themselves, their supporters, and anyone who understands the particular moment we are in in the 21st century.  Still, Winfrey's comments are part of an ongoing discourse about leadership, strategies, movements, and generational divides, which, slowly, seem to be part of a dying breed. While qualified as a "snub" against self-appointed, but not taken seriously Black leader Al Sharpton, her comments, for me, represent an ongoing fissure between the Civil Rights generation and the post-civil rights generation and leadership. The Civil Rights model being one that I have written about before as, often, dominating and/or erasing any recognition of movements or activism outside of this model, particularly those organized by folks born after 1965. We can’t even talk about contemporary activism without contextualizing it within a framework of the civil rights movement, i.e., the “new civil rights movement.". And, that's fine, it may be a question of semantics, but I think it also speaks to a lack of understanding or recognizing Black social movements or Black liberation outside of charismatic Black (male) leadership.  Or, as Erica Edwards reminds us in her book, Charisma and the Fiction of Black Leadership, it's an understanding that rests on believing that “freedom is best achieved under the direction of a single charismatic leader…[a] charisma as history [that] ignores its limits as a model for social movements while showing us just how powerful a narrative force it is it’s ultimately a structuring fiction of liberatory politics that reduces a heterogeneous black freedom struggle to a top-down narrative of Great Man leadership." 

That top down narrative, the constant search for "the" leader that Oprah speaks to, namely, one that fits a particular (King) profile speaks to a loss in Black social movements, Black struggle and Black politics that is both individual and collective. I've been thinking about loss in academic settings, particularly as it relates to Blackness, organizing, and community. What has been lost over time and between generations. How that manifests in this moment. For instance, even the name "Black Lives Matter" the brilliant organizing call by Patrice Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi represents a loss related to Blackness in the last 50 years. The fact that one of the basic premises of the 1950s/1960s (30s, 40s) Black Civil Rights Movement was that Black people were human, were equal, that Black folks mattered  has been forgotten in the larger cultural imagination and that in the 50 years since, the discourse has shifted back around to Black folks are not human, social problems, and expendable is a loss. That kind of loss and grief. That kind of back and forth. That kind of wrestling with history and time, a wrestling, for me, with ghosts. The ghosts of previous social movement discourse, with discussions of racism then and now and sometimes with the very leaders themselves.

But it can also be personal.

I've been wrestling with my own ghosts, as we all have, in this discussion.  It's taken me several rewrites of this post/several weeks to finish this discussion. As we are collectively kicked in the gut by the non-indictments of anyone or any structure--police, white supremacy, the media--for the violence enacted upon Black bodies by police officers in cities across the country. It started for me, not with the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for murder, but with the killing of Micheal Brown itself. The nuances of race, racism and anti-Blackness that permeates Missouri and other parts of the Midwest. I grew up in Missouri. Spent half of my life there, some three hours south of St. Louis, where Ferguson is located. As a teenager, I spent many summers in St. Louis, running the streets of Ferguson, Florissant, Normandy and other Black neighborhoods. The racism that informed the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent response is something I know intimately. The specific kind of racism between white people and Black people that remains in my bones even though I haven't lived in Missouri in almost 20 years. And it reminds me of another "ghost" that resonated when I first read and re-read "On Becomin Successful," a poem by Ntozake Shange. There she recounts her experience growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s. I was struck by her story of going to a summer camp in the Ozarks, the area that I grew up in, and emerging from a Jesse James cave (Missouri is known for its caverns/travel destinations) and having her white "friends" waiting to see the whites of her eyes.

be a blk girl in 1954/ who's not blk enuf to lovingly ignore/ not beautiful enuf to leave alone/ not smart enuf to move outta the way/ not bitter enuf to die at a early age/

That's what Missouri is like. Was like for me. And, it's the reason I left Missouri. But it hasn't been something that I could shake, which I'm reminded of in this moment and in every visit to the Midwest. And that's heartbreakingly similar to ways that racism and the current movements around racism are being discussed. Wrestling. Something we can't shake. The expectation was that I as a post-Civil Rights child would never have experienced the racism that Shange experience in '54. And certainly that no one born after me would have either. But, I did. We have. We do. Even with a promise that it would get better and with the continued assurance, as President Obama recently stated, that it has gotten better.

And so we will continue to wrestle and see what comes out of this loss. How community can create from a space of loss, and revel in what has already been created.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On Revolutionary Communism. Or, A Love Letter to Leslie Feinberg

I woke up this morning mourning Leslie Feinberg. It's the same way I went to bed last night. Mourning. Feeling an unexpected heaviness and loss that I still have as I type.

"Remember Me as a Revolutionary Communist"

Those were your last words.

Ok, I think. Of course. I will. You were.

But it's not the way that I am pulled to remember you. The first thing I remember about you is sitting, reading your words in what felt like a space only you and I had created. The way that reading 'fiction' often does. As others have testified, it was so much more than that. I get chills now, as I write. Very few books move me in the way that your novel did. Where I feel it all these years later: remember where I was when I read it---Kindred is one, Zami another.  When I read Stone Butch Blues, I was transformed. In that moment and, forever. And not necessarily because I had recently come out and was drawn to your story/a story of butch 'blues' that I would later cherish in the women--the woman--I made home with. But, I was transformed because of the integrity with which you wrote, the love that you communicated, and the beauty that emanated from your words. It left me wanting in ways I couldn't articulate then, still cannot now, but carry with me, weighted.

It's true, at the time, that I was trying to figure out something about my identity, my desires for lesbians, Butch lesbians, who I love, so your words resonated in that way. Those words always do and will. But it was something more. Something I'm trying to figure out now, even as I type. Something about being working class, celebrating that, documenting what felt and feels so misrepresented, left out and grossly caricatured. I read Stone Butch Blues as I was coming out of college, a site that both liberated me and ripped me apart. I was liberated by figuring out, after sitting in a Black feminist professor's classroom, what I wanted to do with with my life--feeling seen and heard for the first time. Ripped apart because that experience moved me so far away from my working poor/working class roots. From my working class family, a family of railroad workers, transcriptionists, nurses, and factory workers. Most of whom were or have been ripped apart by a 'globalized economy' that has so little regard for (working) people.

All throughout college, I pushed myself further and further away from my family, from my "past." I couldn't reconcile working class, poor, and college. It didn't make sense to me. I was the first to finish college in my family, the first to really go and stay. I often think back and remember how few  Black people were on my college campus, a small group of us, but they were from St. Louis and Kansas City, often, not from the small city I came from. But, I had enough connection and contact with Black folks that that wasn't what I longed for or wanted. And, I couldn't articulate it then because I wasn't supposed to. I wasn't supposed to want or remember my working class-ness. There wasn't a space for that in the upwardly mobile-become-middle-class-space that is college.

Your words brought me back to that. As soon as I read the opening pages. The letter to Theresa--I knew how I was supposed to read it and, how I did: a love letter to the woman you could tell everything to, and did. About the everyday violence and brutality, the heartbreak, the longing for her, the love between you and her. The beauty in the way you told us about this 'Butch/Femme' relationship. Love, I read that and understood it. But, I also picked up on every detail, every line about working class life. The things I missed. The things that haunted me. That comforted me. The things I longed for but couldn't communicate, couldn't discuss because there was no solidarity, no interest in blue collar life. But I missed it: the blandness of doing someone else's laundry (ring around the collar), of working as a steel worker or a waitress, the attention to clothing: boots, denim, jockeys. Maybe an outline for "Butch," but, also, such a beautiful rendition and honoring of working class people. Warriors, all.

And that's what I loved about you: how much love and integrity you had for working class people. And the love and integrity you had for all your people: your partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Transgender folks, lesbians, Jewish folks, females. I love how you loved your people, how you loved us all. That love. Or, as you once said, "exchange value of love, is love."

Is. Love.

That's revolutionary communism. You are a revolutionary communist. You are love.

RIP Leslie Feinberg. May you be remembered as you wish.

I include this photo because I. just. love. it.
photo: Estate of Robert Giard

Saturday, September 27, 2014

'We Were Never Meant to Survive' (what's been on my mind lately)

 When I heard about the death of Michael Brown who was murdered in Ferguson, MO on August 9th 2014, I felt nothing. Or, more appropriately, I felt numb. A numbness that is always accompanied by a sharp, yet dull pain related to the story, the reality that we’ve become all too familiar with:  Michael Brown, eighteen, African American and male.  Michael Brown: high school graduate, on his way to college, walking with a friend to visit his grandmother, in a neighborhood, on a street not far from his home. Michael Brown: shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson--a man we know little about other than what we may already know/assume; white, armed, inaccessible. Protected by his own call to serve and protect.  

I felt numb.

When I heard the news. Just the dull, sharp, familiar pain. It was the same feeling I had several days before with the murder of John Crawford, III, another African American man, a son and brother shot by police for “wielding a toy gun” in a Wal-Mart in Ohio[A 1] . Nor did I cry three days later, when Ezell Ford was fatally shot across the country in Los Angeles, CA. Ford, shot while, according to witnesses, he was lying face down on the ground, complying with police. I cried at none of these instances. Ached. But, I didn’t cry. My mind and body too numb, the pain/the ache too familiar. Too settled in my bones. 

Perhaps a week or so after Michael Brown was murdered, I finally cried. 

The pain, it seemed, hit closer to "home." Then, I found out that, the day after Michael Brown was murdered, a man only only identified as “John Doe,” was taken to San Francisco General Hospital where he lay, unconscious, after being assaulted in Duboce Triangle, steps away from his home. His picture was posted in the paper and he was later identified as Bryan Higgins, or as many in his radical faerie community knew him, Feather. Feather was a husband and like Brown, a son.  Unlike Brown, he was gay, white and in his thirties. He had moved—like many of us—to San Francisco from the Midwest, married and made a home for himself in his community, in the city/the area that so many of us queers—at one point or another—call home.

Several days after he was identified by a neighbor and after those who could say goodbye did, his husband and family released him from life support. His murderer, the motive has yet been found.

Finally, I cried.

I cried for days it seemed. A deep, deep cry. More than I cried for Brown, Crawford or Ford—which was none—and more than when I heard about Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson—two Black lesbians, a couple raising Jackson’s son, who were murdered, several months earlier while on a short, weekend vacation in Galveston, TX, close to where they lived.  I couldn’t cry then. Couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe.

But, I cried for Bryan Higgins. I cried for Feather.

Maybe I was crying the tears that couldn’t come when Michael Brown—who grew up and lived in a neighborhood that I spent my summers in as a teenager, a fellow Missourian, running the same streets he did as a young, Black girl. Maybe I cried for him and others as I cried for Feather, who I currently share streets, neighborhoods, “community” with. Both Brown and Higgins were someone’s sons. Both of their lives were worthy of tears, were valuable. Both of their deaths were ruthless and cold—left on streets that they knew as home.

As a queer, black woman, I connect with them both.

So, what was it about Feather’s death? The death of a young, white gay man that allowed me to feel the pain, the fear and terror of living in what I consider increasingly dangerous times? Queer times, as it were. Queer in the sense that both Blackness and queerness are highly visible, sometimes-fetishized identities in the public sphere. Ones that have been accepted, celebrated and loved in different ways, but also, clearly reviled.

These questions remind me of Audre Lorde who, in her poem “a litany for survival”--whose words I used for the title of this talk—reminds us that:

“when we are loved we are afraid love will vanish, when we are alone we are afraid love will never return and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent, we are still afraid. So, it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.”

So, I speak today, in an attempt to examine the linkages, the intersections of violence enacted on Black bodies and queer bodies—often, those are the same bodies--but also thinking and speaking about the intersections around community and organizing; around a shared experience of violence and violation.  Physical violence, murder in the specificity of the examples of Brown and Higgins (Cosby, Jackson, Crawford, and Ford), but also the physical and social death of everyday life. The physical and social death of community. Particularly, in this time of celebration, visibility, and safety.

 [A 1]Just an update, a Grand Jury just found that the police officers were not at fault, this despite protests and a video, also released yesterday that showed Crawford clearly holding a toy gun and, still shot in the back

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Where Will You Be? (Pat Parker 1978)

I've been silent here lately, but am thinking many things. Sometimes, I don't have words and rely on others.. And, it may be what I'm writing about professionally right now but, there's also something about living the San Francisco Bay Area right now, that makes these words resonate in this moment. "And they will come..."

Pat Parker, Presente!

WHERE WILL YOU BE? (click for audio)                                                    
by Pat Parker (1978)

Boots are being polished
Trumperters clean their horns
Chains and locks forged
The crusade has begun.
Once again flags of Christ
are unfurled in the dawn
and cries of soul saviors
sing apocalyptic on air waves.
Citizens, good citizens all
parade into voting booths
and in self-righteous sanctity
X away our right to life.
I do not believe as some
that the vote is an end,
I fear even more
It is just a beginning.
So I must make assessment
Look to you and ask:
Where will you be when they come?
They will not come
a mob rolling
through the streets,
but quickly and quietly
move into our homes
and remove the evil,
the queerness,
the faggotry,
the perverseness
from their midst.
They will not come
clothed in brown,
and swastikas, or
bearing chest heavy with
gleaming crosses.
The time and need
for ruses are over.
They will come
in business suits
to buy your homes
and bring bodies to
fill your jobs.
They will come in robes
to rehabilitate
and white coats
to subjugate
and where will you be
when they come?
Where will we all be
when they come?
And they will come --
they will come
because we are
defined as opposite –
and we are perverse.
Every time we watched
a queer hassled in the
streets and said nothing –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we lied about
the boyfriend or girlfriend
at coffee break –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we heard,
"I don't mind gays
but why must they
be blatant?" and said nothing –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we let a lesbian mother
lose her child and did not fill
the courtroom –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we let straights
make out in our bars while
we couldn't touch because

of laws –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we put on the proper
clothes to go to a family
wedding and left our lovers
at home –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we heard
"Who I go to bed with
is my personal choice –
It's personal not political"
and said nothing –
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we let straight relatives
bury our dead and push our
lovers away –
It was an act of perversion.
And they will come.
They will come for
the perverts
& it won't matter
if you're
homosexual, not a faggot
lesbian, not a dyke
gay, not queer
It won't matter
if you
own your business
have a good job
or are on S.S.I.
It won't matter
if you're
Native American
or White
It won't matter
if you're from
New York
or Los Angeles
or Sioux Falls
It won't matter
if you're
Butch, or Fem
Not into roles
Non Monogamous
It won't matter
if you're
or M.C.C.
They will come
They will come
to the cities
and to the land
to your front rooms
and in your closets.
They will come for
the perverts
and where will
you be
When they come?

Here's where I found it

Monday, August 11, 2014

For Black and Brown boys and girls in the U.S. and around the world. For us all.


(by Audre Lorde)
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color.” And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4'10'' black Woman's frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody's mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
Audre Lorde, "Power" from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. Copyright © 1978 by Audre Lorde.

Rest in Power and Love, Audre Lorde.