Sunday, November 18, 2018

BlackJonestown At 40

San Francisco, 1977

By Sikivu Hutchinson

"When they begin the grind of identifying remains, who will claim us?"

Over the past forty years since the Jonestown Guyana massacre of November 18, 1978, there has been a wealth of information and analysis on the event. Scores of articles, books, documentaries, student research papers, films, and other treatments have been produced with the ostensible aim of explaining the “mystery” of Jonestown.  Though Peoples Temple was a predominantly black church, and the majority of those who died in Jonestown were African American women, the sociopolitical and historical issues that compelled black women to emigrate to Jonestown have not received widespread attention. For example, only two books among the dozens of published book length works devoted to Jonestown on Goodreads were authored by black women. The “Jonestown industrial complex”, has been fashioned through a white, Eurocentric lens, with black folks and black women reduced to gullible spectators and voiceless victims, a colorful backdrop to the antics of evil yet charismatic white saviors. This erasure is reminiscent of the way black women have been written out of the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements, of the Women’s movement and LGBTQI liberation movements, both recast with a white face.  Peoples Temple embodied the vitality and contradictions of all of these movements.  As an outsider looking in, I recognized my grandmothers in Hyacinth and Zipporah Thrash, early Temple members in the 1950s, who were part of the Southern and Midwestern diaspora of the Great Migration. Black women only a few generations removed from slavery, who believed California would be another promised land, a space of deliverance from Jim Crow terrorism and sexual violence.  Women who tithed property, income and benefits to Peoples Temple and had their dream of self-determination shattered in Jonestown.
Dissatisfied by this erasure, Jonestown survivors Leslie Wagner Wilson, Yulanda Williams, and I decided to create the website  Although by no means exhaustive, the site is designed to examine, reflect on, and memorialize the impact of Jonestown on African American people in general and African American women in particular.  We’d like for it to be a platform for an evolving body of work on the black experience in Jonestown and Peoples Temple, in order to assert black agency within a narrative that has long been framed as deviant and pathological.  

In an era in which African Americans continue to struggle with religious idolatry against a backdrop of socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement, Jonestown illustrates the steep price black folks paid to pursue what they believed would be a path to liberation.  As with so many African Americans in the contemporary U.S., black folks in the California communities where Peoples Temple dominated were being massively displaced from their homes due to gentrification and “urban renewal” (once dubbed “Negro removal” by James Baldwin).  The African American community in Fillmore, San Francisco, the church’s base, was at the eye of this storm. During the post-civil rights, post-Black Power era of Jonestown, the so-called “California dream” was revealed to be a nightmare.  Rife with racially restrictive covenants and apartheid-style policing, so-called liberal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco were just as insidiously segregated as the Jim Crow South. Some church members viewed emigrating to Jonestown as a utopic escape hatch in a climate in which blacks were fighting to keep their homes, communities, and identities.  In the twenty first century San Francisco of Silicon Valley billionaires, skyrocketing rents and unaffordable homes black folks have been pushed out of the city and into the epicenter of the state’s homeless crisis.  It is for this reason that Jonestown remains compelling to a cross-section of African Americans as both a cautionary tale and a troubling symbol of black struggle in a period in which traditional black cultural institutions like the church were perceived as either ineffective or MIA.  Hence, Black Jonestown is an effort to both document and contextualize the contemporary relevance of Peoples Temple and Jonestown for the black diaspora in the twenty first century.

On the anniversary, a “Day of Atonement” commemoration will be held in San Francisco’s Fillmore community in acknowledgment of Jonestown’s lasting impact on African Americans. The event will be the first of its kind to be held in San Francisco, the former headquarters of Peoples Temple.  At the end of November, the stage play adaptation of White Nights, Black Paradise, based on my 2015 historical fiction novel exploring the interlocking relationships, politics, and social histories of black women in Peoples Temple and Jonestown, will debut for a limited run at L.A.’s Hudson Theatre with a predominantly black female cast. 

Black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lourde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Her words resonate deeply as we confront the living, breathing past of Jonestown.

*A version of this article originally appeared in Alternative Considerations of Jonestown

Monday, November 5, 2018

‘Rent’s Too Damn High’ and More Kids Pack Skid Row: Yes on Prop 10

By Sikivu Hutchinson

During a recent youth voter education and registration outreach for high school juniors and seniors in South Los Angeles, Women’s Leadership Project program students spoke passionately about how their parents and caregivers were struggling with high rents in the shadow of eviction.  Twelfth grader Nigia Vanetty spoke of the insanity of paying for hundreds of dollars in utilities on top of rent. CSULB graduate and former homeless youth Imani Moses related how it was difficult to find a job that paid enough to do so in overpriced L.A. Even though college degrees have never guaranteed living wage employment for Black folks, joblessness among college-educated Black youth has worsened over the past decade.  For many Black youth, stress and depression, driven by unstable living situations, are a persistent source of trauma.   Doubling and tripling up in the homes of extended family, couch surfing temporarily with friends and relatives, and living in cars have become standard for basic survival.  According to the L.A. Downtown News, the number of children on Skid Row doubled in 2018.  Downtown shelters are at capacity and exposure to street violence, police harassment, sexual abuse, and food instability makes homelessness a mental and emotional health hazard for very young children who then have to cope with trying to stay in school.

During the 2016-2017 school year, there were 17,258 homeless students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Nearly 40% of homeless youth identify as queer and LGBTQI and 25% were involved in the juvenile justice system.  According to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority’s 2018 homeless count, there are 2210 homeless youth (sheltered and unsheltered) in the City of Los Angeles, a figure which includes Transitional Age Youth (TAY), unaccompanied minors, and children in young families.

Skyrocketing homelessness has been a major factor in the push for Proposition 10, which would allow local municipalities to determine their own rent control regulations by repealing the 1995 Costa Hawkins law restricting rent control.  The median rent in L.A. County is now $1676 for a one-bedroom apartment and a whopping $2175 for a two-bedroom. Major developers and corporate real estate interests have poured millions into trying to defeat Prop 10. Their efforts underscore the apartheid state of California housing. In a region with the greatest gap between rich and poor, the presence of tents, campers and folks sleeping on the street has become normalized for NIMBYs who decry homelessness but vociferously oppose the most modest efforts to construct supportive housing.  Across California, the fallout from rising rent and home prices has been particularly devastating for African American communities struggling with inveterate unemployment and wealth inequality. Traditional African American communities in South L.A. and Inglewood have become increasingly unaffordable due to rent gouging and the proliferation of developers, flippers, and white homebuyers who’ve been priced out of the Westside and South Bay. Structural racism in the rental market and housing market go hand in hand.  As noted in LAHSA’S October Ad Hoc Committee report on Black People Experiencing Homelessness, “Black folks are too often precluded from housing due to racial discrimination on the part of property owners, leasing agents and property managers.”  These factors have virtually shut out Black Millennials from the wealth generation that comes with homeownership and equity. 

Proposition 10 is no magic bullet for California’s housing affordability crisis.  Investment in permanent supportive housing, equitable job development and homebuying opportunities, wraparound services for homeless domestic and sexual violence victims and transformative justice must come from the City and County’s multi-million dollar measure H and HHH funding. But by providing a level playing field for renters Prop 10 would give working families a fighting chance in the battle to ensure that children aren’t thrown onto the street by greedy landlords exploiting the state’s supernova real estate market.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Trump’s Transphobic ‘Biology is Destiny’ Regime and Black Non-Binary Youth

By Sikivu Hutchinson

At a recent elementary school training I conducted on creating safe spaces for LGBTQI youth, the predominantly black faculty spoke candidly about the scorn little black boys get when they want to play with dolls and the backlash little black girls get when they step out of their “gender place” to “experiment” with boy clothes, short hair and action figures.  Though their world views varied, their observations were nearly unanimous—students are presenting as non-binary at earlier ages and even the most “liberal” school districts here in California are failing them in a climate where black gender non-conformity is already criminalized, othered, and erased.  

For scores of very young non-binary children, the ability to define themselves for themselves is a radical rebuke of Western Eurocentric power structures that say biology is destiny and queer sexuality should be on lockdown.  In this regard, the Trump administration’s potential recission of Obama-era provisions for inclusive and non-binary gender categories is a fascist, Orwellian assault on the gender identities of all Americans who defy the rigid hetero-norms of Christian fundamentalist America. As reported Sunday by the New York Times,  “The Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX.  The new definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable and determined by the genitals a person is born with. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.”

A recission would fatally undermine the inroads trans and non-binary folks have made in education, health care, cultural awareness, and the creation of safe LGBTQI public spaces.  Under Betsey DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education has already rescinded Obama-era recommendations for protecting trans students experiencing harassment and “reportedly refused” to file administrative claims on their behalf.

The GOP’s policing of gender identity as a biological, medically determined and “scientifically” delineated “fact” is one of the most dangerous and potentially criminalizing directives that the Trump administration has manufactured.  If the Trump administration succeeds in this assault, discrimination against the trans community would be even more deeply enshrined in U.S. public policy and practice than before, and scores of trans and non-binary children would be at greater risk of state-sanctioned discrimination in their schools. To date, only thirteen states, along with the District of Columbia, have implemented non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQI youth. Non-binary children are more likely to experience sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying than their non-binary peers.  In California, nearly 27% of youth identify as gender non-conforming.  According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, these youth were more likely to experience “psychological distress” than “conforming” youth.  Black non-binary children are especially at risk of being assigned to foster care, becoming homeless and/or incarcerated due to these interlocking systems of oppression. 

In many instances, the spiral of homelessness and incarceration are put in motion because of the absence of culturally responsive resources for queer students of color.  A limited number of resource providers and teacher allies provide the care that queer youth of color need to survive hostile, violent environments where they are being pushed out in disproportionate numbers.  Yet, some perceive adult providers on campus, including counselors, as “dangerous” because, as one respondent in a 2018 Human Rights Campaign survey commented, “they can get you killed by outing you without your permission”.  LGBTQI youth of color in predominantly religious communities are especially vulnerable because they are often subject to ostracism, shaming and harassment due to the perception that their sexuality is “sinful”, deviant or “against god”. As a result, African American trans young women are more likely to experience hostility from school administrators and faculty and to be prevented from claiming their gender identity—a precursor to the disproportionate levels of violence black trans women face.

It is a brutally profound irony that an administration notorious for trashing the scientific evidence on climate change and fetal viability has suddenly become a champion of “immutable” scientific categories on sex and gender.  The Trump administration’s cynical deference to science is steeped in medical apartheid-based policies that disenfranchised people of color, queer folks, disabled folks and women of all classes (whether it be Eugenics “science” that was used under slavery and Jim Crow to determine racial categories or white nationalist “science” marshalled to validate sterilization policies targeting women of color).

In their recent Colorlines piece, “Practical Tips for Fighting the Trump Administration’s Latest Assault on Trans People,” Key Jackson and Malcolm Shanks provide a list of trans and gender non-conforming activist organizations of color spearheading leadership on queer and trans resiliency, public policy, and education. But non-queer “allies” and accomplices, as well as parents, caregivers and resource providers, must actively step up to disrupt this latest anti-human rights offense; demanding more training, curricula, counselors, affinity groups and mental health services in K-12 schools.  The Trump-Pence regime banks on the silence and complicity of straight, cis folks to steamroll its destructive crusade over black queer and trans bodies of color. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

White Nights, Black Paradise Comes to the Hudson Theatre in November/December

San Francisco, 1975
Jonestown, 1978
They came out with pitchforks when we moved here. The women in their white pearls and pressed gloves, the men dressed to the nines in suits and ties, beat down to a steaming pulp after a long day at the office, wraiths fastening their lips to big orange bullhorns like it was the bottom of the ninth at a Giants game. The whitest of white stalking the joint, out in the street for a tea party, pinkies raised at attention. 

We could see the Bay curling out at us when we drove in from Cottonwood, California, the five of us packed into the Dodge, watching green-eyed monster waves cut in pieces by the bridge, shimmering, debating, telling us how ‘the Cause’ was gonna cure everything. 

Workshopped at the Robey Theatre Company Playwrights' Workshop

Discount code: 410

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

NARCOLEPSY, Inc Web-series Pilot Drops Winter 2018-19

"Reports of my demise are somewhat exaggerated"

NARCOLEPSY, Inc, the web-series based on Sikivu Hutchinson's Hollywood Fringe Fest play set in post-apocalyptic Reagan-era U.S., drops Winter 2018-19.  The cast features Elvinet Piard (Yuri), Cydney Wayne Davis (Garcon), JC Cadena (Dr. M) and Scott St. Patrick Williams (Friar Perry). Speculative fiction set in a theocratic state where sleep and dreams are policed and manufactured by the multinational, Narcolepsy, Inc. whose chief scientist and engineer, a queer Black woman, is under house arrest for selling company secrets. Narcolepsy, Inc. has established a racialized caste system of sleepers (teeth grinder and insomniacs) in which the dreams of lower caste members are commodified and all sleep is induced.

"PHENOMENAL!!! The writing is excellent! It weaves together the themes of life for Black women under capitalism, the role of religion in society and so much more!" Yuisa Gimeno, Review, June 2018

"A politicized contemporary Twilight Zone episode in which we don't know whether the lead character is being held in a motel room or a detention center, and we don't know if she is an idealistic whistle blower or apparently complicit with the evil deeds of an immoral corporation...Who is guilty and who is innocent?" Review, June 2018

"Fascinating, a great play, touching on Big Brother and corporations’ control of citizens. Americans of African Ancestry’s (teeth grinders) dreams are controlled by the State and corporations" Von Hurt, Review June 2018

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Shut up and Step Up: Right Whines It's 'Open Season' on White Men

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In a year that has seen the toppling of numerous “untouchable” male power brokers over sexual harassment and violence, Senator Mazie Hirono’s demand that men “Shut up and step up” concerning the sexual assault allegations against SCOTUS candidate Brett Kavanaugh is a call to action.  To all the “enlightened” males who publicly deplore violence against women, yet sit back and cosign sexist behavior and benefit from a culture of normalized sexual violence, it is a message that you are being watched and held accountable.  And to all the white women who have jumped on the character witness bandwagon to valorize Kavanaugh it should be a reminder that simply being assigned female at birth doesn’t exempt you from complicity with patriarchy and the silencing of sexual violence survivors. 

While the death threats Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford has received for speaking her truth are deeply reprehensible, they have been buttressed by female voices.  For the past twenty four hours, the major cable news networks have ramped up air time of pro-Kavanaugh ads produced by the conservative Judicial Crisis Network. The most prominent ad features respectable white women waxing about how upstanding and morally unimpeachable Kavanaugh is.  The not so subtle implication is that Kavanaugh can’t be a sexual predator, misogynist or threat to women’s equality if he’s been an “advocate” for women in his personal and professional relationships. He can’t have attempted a brutal sexual assault because he’s been an upstanding champion of female colleagues. Kavanaugh, like elite ivory tower brethren Brock Turner (the former Stanford University student whose lenient six-month prison sentence for sexual assault elicited a firestorm and led to the recall of Judge Aaron Persky), has an impeccable pedigree and should be forgiven youthful “peccadillos”.  For survivors, this paradox of exhibiting personal “integrity” while propping up racist, sexist, misogynist policies and practices is a familiar narrative.  Of course, central to victim shaming and blaming is the narrative that there are fundamentally good men who never cross the line but for the sluttish behavior of irresponsible women and girls. According to this view, predators are easy to spot, wear scarlet letters, and are always outwardly loathsome, reptilian individuals.  The only predators are serial predators and displays of decency, civility and good manners always attest to moral character.  And even respectable white women like Ford must comply with the code of silence protecting toxic masculinity.

The demonization of Ford by the right is yet another indication of how low the GOP fascists are willing to go to gut human and civil rights. According to ReproAction Network, Kavanaugh’s repugnant record on women’s rights puts him lockstep with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  His now well-documented insidious appellate court decisions include voting against abortion access for an undocumented teenager and in favor of forced abortions for disabled women, as well as judgments  opposing affirmative action, workers’ rights, disability rights, and the Affordable Care Act. 
According to conservative ideologue Ann Coulter, the fate of white men’s public integrity as a whole is at stake because of the “attack” on Kavanaugh.  In this Democratic-engineered, deep state witch hunt, it’s open season on white men and “any white male” can find himself roasting at the stake.  Coulter’s injection of white patriarchal anxiety into the controversy is fitting because it speaks to the way the mainstream hijacking of #MeToo both flouts and reinforces white supremacy—to how white nationhood, as represented by white male dominance and white female submission, must always be validated and protected at all costs. It’s no surprise that some of the most "compelling" spokespeople in this enterprise are the white women who handed Trump the presidency.  

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Future of Feminism in South L.A.: Girls of Color Speak Their Truths

By Sikivu Hutchinson

What is Black feminism and intersectional feminism and why are they relevant to girls of color in South Los Angeles? How do they disrupt white supremacy and what can younger Black, Latinx, indigenous and Asian American feminists learn from older generation feminists of color and vice versa? What does it mean, as bell hooks says in her book Feminism is for Everybody, that, “[we’re] socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action…[and] in order to end patriarchy we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism”?

Youth leaders debated and spoke to these questions at the recent Future of Feminism youth leadership conference at Cal State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH).  Sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Project, the L.A. County Human Relations Commission and Media Done Responsibly, the conference featured youth-facilitated workshops, videos, presentations, and a musical performance by women and girls of color from across Los Angeles County.  Students from Dorsey High School, Gardena High School, Fremont High School, Diego Rivera Academy, Carson High School, King-Drew Magnet High School and Miguel Contreras Learning Complex attended the conference.  The event was emceed by WLP alumni and former foster care youth Clay Wesley (WLP 2009, Mount St Mary’s University, 2018) and Drea Wooden (WLP 2017).  The conference kicked off with a WLP-produced video on sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention, spotlighting the perspectives of youth from the 2016 cohort at Gardena High School.  The video was followed by a student panel on the #MeToo movement featuring WLP students and alumni from Gardena, Dorsey, and King-Drew.  Students Imani Moses (WLP 2011), Lizeth Soria (WLP 2012), Marenda Kyle (WLP 2014), Shania Malone (WLP 2018), Cheyanne Mclaren (WLP 2019) and Lidia Colocho (WLP 2019) discussed the marginalization of black and Latinx girls in mainstream representations about the impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school communities.  The panelists also challenged straight cis young men to step up as allies in the fight against normalized sexism, sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape culture on school campuses. 

College community partners and high school youth conducted workshop presentations on sexual violence and homelessness, Black feminism, gender justice and labor organizing, countering “fake news” and disrupting criminalization in communities of color.  Students from the GSA Network, Media Done Responsibly, Peace Over Violence and the WLP alumni network presented social, racial, and gender justice youth leadership work that they have been doing at partner schools for the past several years.  Former WLP intern and CSULB graduate Marlene Montanez presented on the advantages of union organizing and involvement for women and girls of color, drawing from her experience as an undocumented student activist for the Future Undocumented Educational Leaders (FUEL) group.  Peace Over Violence students from Miguel Contreras Learning Complex discussed the intersections of sexual violence and homelessness vis-à-vis risk factors and challenges that confront sexual violence survivors of color.  CSULA students from Media Done Responsibly examined the pervasiveness of right wing political propaganda in mainstream news and its impact on representations of women of color.  WLP students from Gardena, King-Drew, and Dorsey presented their work on Black feminist cultural politics, the #Say Her Name movement, and strategies to counter victim-blaming, victim-shaming and misogynoir in sexual violence and sexual harassment directed toward Black girls.  Fremont High School’s GSA Network conducted an exhibition game on the structure of the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate impact on LGBTQI, queer and gender non-conforming youth of color. 

The conference concluded with a powerful performance by internationally acclaimed electric guitarist and producer Malina Moye.  Moye discussed her experience as a homeless youth living on the streets when she first moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of her career.  She encouraged students to pursue their dreams and aspirations in resistance to the sexist expectations of the dominant culture.  Youth participants also received books on the lived experiences of girls of color by feminist authors Iris Jacob (MySisters’ Voices), Yesika Salgado (Corazon) and Mahagony Browne (Black Girl Magic).  In July, students participated in follow-up Black Feminist and Feminist of Color Institutes that brought youth leaders together with adult mentor artists, educators, entrepreneurs and health practitioners from across L.A.  Using hooks’ book Feminism is for Everybody as a stepping stone, youth addressed public policy around abortion rights, college access for undocumented youth, underreporting of rape and sexual assault in communities of color and ending targeted searches of black and Latinx students in the LAUSD.

WLP classes and peer education outreach resumes at partner campuses in September.