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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Memory Thieves: Beyond the White Gaze of Jonestown*


By Sikivu Hutchinson

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.” Lourde was one of the most fiercely eloquent champions of the revolutionary right of black women to witness and speak their truths in resistance to silence.

Her words resonate deeply as the fortieth anniversary of the Jonestown massacre approaches. Black women lived, loved, struggled, and died in disproportionate numbers in Jonestown.  Their belief in the revolutionary promise of the settlement was a testament to their long legacy of activism and organizing in the face of erasure. Renewed public interest in the tragedy will no doubt elicit another round of questions about the Peoples Temple community, its politics, and its status as a historical “curiosity”.  In an effort to counter the marginalization of black women in these spaces, I have tried to bring black voices to the page, stage, and screen, through adaptations of my novel White Nights, Black Paradise.  As a piece of speculative fiction, White Nights, Black Paradise is interested in troubling the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction” in order to expose how myths about Jonestown were constructed over time through multiple interpretations, voices, and memories. Throughout the adaptation process, I have been acutely aware of the ways in which black experiences in Jonestown are often appropriated for mainstream consumption; taken out of context and depoliticized.  In an era in which black folk continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racialized sexual violence, the prevailing narrative of hoodwinked black women without agency has become an insidious cliché. 

In response to these issues, I organized a black women survivors’ panel discussion at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora this summer in conjunction with the screening of my short film on White Nights, Black Paradise.  The panel featured Leslie Wagner Wilson, Jordan Vilchez, Yulanda Williams, and Rebecca Moore.  The packed audience included other members of the Peoples Temple community from the Bay Area.



Building on the film’s themes, the panel was designed to elevate black women’s experiences and stories.  Leslie’s powerful book Slavery of Faith chronicles her life in Peoples Temple and her dramatic escape from Jonestown hours before the 1978 massacre.  Jordan and Yulanda were both involved with the Temple at a young age and left Jonestown prior to the massacre.  Rebecca, the only white woman on the panel, lost several family members at Jonestown and has published three books on the settlement.

The discussion ranged from the women’s personal accounts of being in Jonestown to the internal divisions that belied the movement’s veneer of multiracial harmony.  Leslie and I have critiqued the racial and gender hierarchy that existed in the movement’s leadership, and the degree to which Jones’ white women lieutenants were complicit in its escalating climate of intimidation, abuse, and harassment.  During one exchange, Leslie and Yulanda took issue with Rebecca’s characterization of power and authority in Jonestown.  While Leslie and Yulanda recalled that African American members had little official authority in Jonestown, Rebecca made reference to the diverse work assignments that black folks fulfilled.  Leslie and Yulanda vividly recalled the harsh living conditions in Jonestown and compared it to being in a slave camp.  What came through most powerfully in these exchanges was the differing “class” positions Jonestown members had within the compound’s power structure; with younger white women being the most privileged and favored.  Leslie and Yulanda also emphasized the pivotal role Jones’ whiteness played in eliciting support and adulation in the black community. 



As I have argued in previous articles, Jones’ minstrel-like ability to evoke both white savior-hood and black nationalism—in order to appeal to African Americans—is a familiar theme in American politics and pop culture.  Some on the panel likened Jones’ appeal to that of the charismatic, benevolent white Jesus figure force fed to blacks under slavery.  Panelists also highlighted Jones’ status as a power broker in the Bay Area political establishment, emphasizing how this made public officials more willing to cosign the Temple’s activities despite widespread allegations of abuse and exploitation within the church.  Some of this abuse and exploitation was directed toward LGBTQ members of the church due to Jones’ (who often went on homophobic tirades yet engaged in sex with men) internalized homophobia.   As moderator, I contextualized the way in which the African American community of Fillmore was primed to embrace Jones’ “radical” social gospel ethos in light of poverty, job discrimination, state violence, and the mass displacements that rocked Fillmore as a result of the region’s “urban renewal” regime.

Why did it take nearly forty years for this kind of discussion to take place?  The comments we received after the event indicated that there is high interest in the rich social history of black Jonestown.  One audience member commented that they were moved by “The courage, power and heartfelt words of wisdom, and that (they) did not know the majority of membership were black women.”  Another related that they were interested in “The hierarchy of the Jonestown system (and) was so honored to hear survivors”, while being “unaware of the escapees & survivors (thinking) all had perished.”

These comments underscore the need for more black feminist literary and scholarly appraisals of the black diasporic experience in Jonestown vis-à-vis religion, black women’s self-determination, and the event’s contemporary significance.  In adapting White Nights, Black Paradise as a stage play, I hope to extend the conversation.
  
The play brings the media construction of Jonestown narratives into greater focus—foregrounding the divide between the lived experiences, dreams, ambitions, and politics of its black women protagonists and mainstream fascination with the “perversity” of the massacre.  The play opens with the character of a night watchwoman at the Dover Delaware Air force Base (the military morgue where the bodies of Jonestown victims were shipped after the massacre) banging on an old TV as the sound of a newscast about the event echoes overhead.  The banging is an allusion to the throwback practice of hitting old TVs to get a clearer picture.  The distorted cultural picture that the public has been provided of Jonestown and Peoples Temple is a recurring theme throughout the play, which is “presided over” by a Greek chorus of black women who give commentary on the play’s events.  The chorus is critical to the play’s meta-analysis of the invisibility of black women’s lives, voices, and social histories in the popular imagination of Jonestown.  It is also an artistic device that seeks to problematize reductive notions of black female selfhood, identity, and religious ideology (for example, throughout the play the chorus critiques organized religion and respectability politics). In the play, as in the book, the fictional character of black activist journalist Ida Lassiter pursues an “investigation” into the Temple’s dealings and becomes personally embroiled in relationships with Jones, other members and the black press.  As a once revered independent journalist, Lassiter represents the ambivalent relationship the black and mainstream press had with Peoples Temple and Jim Jones.  Although the real life African American activist/publisher and physician Dr. Carlton Goodlett bankrolled the Peoples Forum, there has been little exploration of the black press’ role in either promoting or critiquing Peoples Temple pre-Jonestown.  Hence, I was interested in exploring the political influence the (critical) black press had on the movement, highlighting tensions between Lassiter and Hampton Goodwin, the Carlton Goodlett character.  The mass removals in the Fillmore community, and the socioeconomic challenges confronting African Americans during the post civil rights and black power eras, also take center stage in the play.

Ultimately, it is my hope that these artistic explorations lead to more platforms for survivors and scholars of color—in resistance to the white gaze “crunch(ing) us into other peoples’ fantasies.”

*This article originally appeared at Alternative Considerations of Jonestown

The first staged reading of the play adaptation White Nights, Black Paradise, will be on December 14th at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles.





Thursday, October 19, 2017

Controlling Bodies: An Interview with Author-Activist Andrea J. Ritchie on the Intersectionality of Policing, Black Women, Women of Color, Queer and Trans Communities




By Sikivu Hutchinson

From The Humanist 

In her groundbreaking new book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Black lesbian activist attorney Andrea J. Ritchie builds on Angela Davis’ vision of feminist abolitionism to provide a commanding analysis and indictment of the gendered regimes of power and authority that shape the U.S.’ carceral state.  Ritchie documents the emergence of contemporary police departments in eighteenth century slave patrols.  She powerfully unpacks the nexus of sexual violence and policing—a cornerstone of white supremacist control over Black bodies during slavery.  Beginning her book with a short overview of the role race, gender, and sexuality played in colonial occupation of Indigenous lands, she underscores the degree to which heterosexist gender binaries informed the terrorist origins of American nationhood.  Throughout the book, she critiques commonly held views which center Black masculinity in discourse about and policy reform on the U.S.’ policing regime.  She also calls out mainstream civil rights organizations for failing to address the intersection of police violence and sexual violence with respect to Black women.  Ritchie faults the hetero-normative respectability politics that inform much traditional civil rights discourse privileging straight Black male victimhood.  In this regard, “controlling narratives” about gender, sexuality, race, disability, and age have always shaped the way Black women and girls and women of color are treated by law enforcement.  These controlling narratives, coupled with a multi-billion dollar militarized police apparatus that diverts social welfare from communities and schools, makes law enforcement a grave public health threat to communities of color in general and to trans, queer, gender non-conforming and cis women of color in particular.  Ultimately, “white supremacy demands such complete control of Black women and women of color that it takes very little to perceive us as out of control”. Given these realities, it doesn’t matter how much “implicit bias training police receive or how many police reforms” are put in place.  As Ritchie argues, this regime of “complete and total control” means the only feasible solution to the police state is abolitionism.

Andrea Ritchie (By W.C. Moss)


Question number five in the interview was provided by activist and organizer Yuisa Gimeno, of the Freedom Socialist Party.

1.     At the beginning of the book you discuss personal experiences with police sexual assault and harassment which made you conscious at a very early age that police are not protectors. You also emphasize throughout the book that there is no national data on sexual assault and rape committed by law enforcement.  Certainly, mistrust of the police, and fear of police targeting men of color, have contributed to low rates of sexual assault reporting among Black women.  How does this “Catch-22” strengthen the police state and undermine attention to Black sexual violence victims?  Sexual violence against Black women has been part of the global historical fabric since 1492.  Historians have placed this within the context of the diaspora, Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  Police officers’ response to violence in the community is part of this seamless web.  This plays out in how police sexual violence remains unseen in the broader movement.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police has said that law enforcement doesn’t see communities really clamoring for action around these issues.  How are we as movements that challenge police and state violence—particularly in this reinvigorated moment of struggle around state violence—continuing to abandon Black women who experience violence at the hands of the state in the same way we continue to abandon individual Black women who experience violence in the community? The question of individual Black women coming forward and telling their stories is important but the answer is obvious.  If the people you’re told to report to are the police and they are the ones raping you then obviously the incentive to do that is quite low.  In the book, I talk about women who do come forward and are re-victimized and are put on trial for the violence that has been perpetrated against them, while the officer who assaulted them is not held accountable.  I think we need to shift away from the question of why aren’t women coming forward; or why aren’t we collecting the data, to what are we doing about it?  There is research showing that police get caught in an act of sexual violence every five days! And, of course, that is just those that get caught.  People in law enforcement acknowledge it and call it law enforcement’s “dirty little secret”.   So now it’s really on us to put the lie to statement by The International Association of Chiefs of Police and start demanding action on it.

2.     You reference numerous cross-generational, regional examples of Black women who have been murdered by law enforcement.  What role do toxic cultural constructions/notions about Black femininity and respectability play in state violence against Black women?  These controlling narratives inform every police interaction and shape how Black women and girls are seen in any given situation. I drew on Black feminist theories and applied them to police interactions.  For example, there was a case where a twelve year-old Black girl stepped out of her house and police officers who were responding to a complaint about three white women engaged in prostitution proceeded to arrested her.  The arrest of this young twelve year-old reinforced controlling narratives associating Black girls with prostitution; narratives that are as old as this nation. The police charged her with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.  Georgetown University recently came out with a study about how these narratives age Black girls and make them seem older than they really are. A twelve year-old child was construed as a physical threat.  That was an example to me of how deep these narratives run and how they control every police encounter with Black women and girls.

3.     On page 40 you note that, “Actual or perceived deviation from gender and sexual norms has served as a basis of criminalization since the colonial period…constructing a gender-normative nation.”  Your book puts a much needed spotlight on the specific ways queer folk of color are dehumanized by draconian policing policies.  How do homophobia, transphobia and misogynoir inform the way trans, queer and gender non-conforming folk of color are treated in the criminal justice system? It ends up being an amalgamation of these controlling narratives.  For instance, when police are interacting with Black trans women they are acting on these controlling narratives that frame Black women as engaging in prostitution and being sexual deviants.  They are also reading gender non-conformativity as deviant and engaging in criminalized sexual conduct; as well as being mentally unstable, fraudulent, deranged, and threatening.  For example, this consequence is manifest in the case of Tawana Johnson where police arrested her for walking around because they perceived her as “being a potential prostitute”.  They called her the wrong pronoun, labeled her a “faggot”, and assaulted her. That’s how that controlling narrative merged into a single incident.  The trans community came out to support Tawana but the local civil rights community did not. While mainstream civil rights organizations conceded that they did not agree with law enforcement’s response they also said “we do not agree with who she is”.  Trans youth are often kicked out of school for defending themselves. They are pushed out by criminalization and gender non-conformativity. Trans youth are under constant surveillance by police on the streets.  When I was researching the Amnesty International report in L.A. in the early 2000s, many trans folk expressed the fear that they can’t exist on public streets and that there is nowhere to go without cops surveilling and harassing them. Police officers routinely target women who they think the Black community won’t stand up for—i.e., those who are poor, mentally ill, in the sex trade—both queer and cis, who don’t conform with Black bourgeois respectability politics.  That is how Daniel Holtzclaw gets away with assaulting at least thirteen Black women and girls.  Holtzclaw was not challenged by any major civil rights organization.  With respect to mainstream civil rights organizations, it’s one thing to make that central to your agenda rather than just sending out a press release.  They are not taking up the issue of police sexual violence as central to their platform because it requires standing with women, trans and not trans, that are not conforming to their notions of respectability politics.  Even though there is more conversation about police sexual violence now than there was twenty years ago people are still writing books that exclusively explore policing through the lens of Black men’s experiences, period.  We need to be serious about examining police sexual violence through the lens of Black queer experiences, Black trans experiences, and Black cis women’s experiences.

4.     You discuss the connection between military violence and police violence, occupation, colonialism, and racialized gender violence toward Indigenous women.  Native and Indigenous women have some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the nation yet are routinely “invisibilized” when it comes to mainstream discussions about “proper victims” of sexual assault.  What are the dynamics of state violence toward Indigenous women with respect to federal imposition and jurisdiction on Native lands?  There is still the notion that it’s about an infringement on sovereignty.  Indian nations don’t have the power or jurisdiction to hold folks who come on Indigenous land accountable for sexually assaulting Indigenous women.  Once it gets to the federal level it’s not their “priority”.  Their “priority” apparently is prosecuting someone who has an ounce of weed in D.C.!  This is a legal problem of jurisdiction that was set by the Supreme Court and needs to be overturned.  People have been trying to figure out how to overturn it by legislative means for some time but I think ultimately it requires more than a legislative shift, it requires us to confront the epidemic of sexual violence and state violence against Indigenous women.  This is not a relic of a distant past that can be “addressed” by commemorating Wounded Knee and historical instances of assault and rape and genocide.   

5.     What would you recommend government agencies and community groups do to grapple with these issues? What do you think are some initial concrete steps?  I just released a report that outlines policy changes municipalities can make to reduce criminalization and deportation and increase safety for Black women, girls, gender nonconforming folks and fem(me)s: https://forwomen.org/resources/sanctuary-city-report/ . Ultimately, the first step for both policy makers and community groups is simply to expand their understanding of profiling, policing, police violence, and criminalization to incorporate an analysis of the experiences of Black women, girls, gender nonconforming people; when developing agendas for reform, simply ask yourself how this will play out for women/in the contexts where women tend to come into contact most with the police. If you don't know, ask women of color who are directly targeted by police, seek out the input of organizations who work with them.




Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The LAUSD's Multi-Million Dollar Police State: End Random Searches Now

Students Deserve Rally, May 2017
By Sikivu Hutchinson
It’s Thursday morning and a line of students snakes out of the door of an English classroom and into the breezeway of a South Los Angeles high school. Their backpacks have been dumped on the ground and wrenched open, notebooks spilling out underfoot as school security personnel pace around the students barking out orders. A “random” mandatory search has begun, and students mill about agitatedly, rousted from instruction for a virtual “perp” roundup that wouldn’t be out of place on an A&E reality cop show.
This is the not so new normal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation and one of the few to conduct so-called random mandatory searches on its campuses. Implemented in 2015, the policy requires wand and metal detector searches of students on all LAUSD secondary campuses (including charter schools and span schools that have students in the 6th-12th grades). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the use of random searches in schools declined from 7% in 2000 to 4% in 2014. Bucking this trend, the LAUSD stubbornly clings to searches as its police apparatus has ballooned out of control. In a recent UCLA study, the majority of the district’s college counselors reported that they have insufficient time with students. As a result, students often receive less college assistance than they need. The study also reaffirmed that college-preparedness, college-going and completion rates among Black and Latinx students consistently lagged behind that of white and Asian students. Thus, while students of color fight for quality time with the few programming counselors and college counselors there are, school police at South and East Los Angeles LAUSD campuses are in full force, patrolling school grounds and harassing students for minor dress code violations that disproportionately target Black and Latinx youth.

Nationwide, the pervasiveness of police on school campuses has become a touchstone for student- teacher activism and coalition-building. Outraged by the increasing criminalization of LAUSD youth, the city-wide Students Deserve (SD) coalition has brought together a broad cross-section of students, teachers, parents, activists (including Youth Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter L.A.) and civil rights groups to challenge the District’s overemphasis on suppression at the expense of funding for counselors, support resources, ethnic studies and culturally responsive education. As SD staff organizer Maricela Lopez notes, a big part of that battle is engaging parents who may believe that searches are a lesser evil. Ultimately, she says, the question becomes, “Who are you the parent of? Are you the parent of a young Black student that’s being targeted the most? These searches are not random and they’re happening to a specific group of students.”

Dorsey High School senior and SD member Tayah Hubbard has experienced the searches firsthand and feels that they undermine her pursuit of a quality education. Last spring, Hubbard took part in a demonstration at the LAUSD School Board in which hundreds of students criticized the impact of searches on the climate of their schools. As she notes, “Police take away Sharpies and highlighters and white out on the grounds that people will tag but there isn’t any tagging.” She also maintains that “Black girls are targeted for wearing scarves or head wraps.” She has personally been told that she would be given detention for doing so, and believes that Black girls are unfairly singled out for not conforming to school policies that penalize them for their body types and cultural traditions.

Sexist, racist and homophobic targeting and harassment of African American girls in schools has been well documented. Nationwide, African American girls have some of the highest rates of suspension and expulsion next to Black boys and are six times more likely than white girls to receive harsh discipline. Compounding matters, Black girls are more likely to experience a high level of “interpersonal violence” from peers, family and community members. Indeed, according to the African American Policy (AAPF) Institute, “In environments in which discipline is emphasized over counseling, girls who struggle with trauma and other unmet needs may come to the attention of school personnel only when their behavior leads to punishable offenses”. Here, climates with harsh discipline dissuade Black girls from coming to school and may even “exacerbate the vulnerability of girls to harassing behavior because it penalizes them for defending themselves against such acts”.

Although District policy states that “No student or persons shall be selected to be searched based solely upon their gender, race, ethnicity, physical appearance, manner of dress, or association with any particular group of persons” the practice of singling out Black girls for wearing head wraps and scarves belies this. Moreover, Black female students in the LAUSD have reported that they receive more scrutiny and discipline for wearing clothes that are considered to be too “tight” or “revealing”. Gardena High School Women’s Leadership Project students Zorrie Petrus and Kendra Taylor reported that boys are seldom called out for wearing ripped jeans to school but girls are frequently hauled into the dean’s office. This pattern of selective discipline is evidenced in other school districts where Black female students have been singled out and harassed for wearing braided hairstyles, locks and natural hair.

Dorsey High English teacher Ashunda Norris echoes Hubbard’s concern about race and gender disparities. Norris first encountered the search policy when she was giving her students a test. School police came into her classroom and made students put their hands on their desks. This invasive experience motivated Norris and colleague Sharonne Hapuarachy to become get involved with Students Deserve. Hapuarachy, a twenty year English teacher, said that the random search experience “was really frightening. They don’t tell teachers ahead of time. It was very destructive and it was hard to refocus and move on.”

Students Deserve is calling for an end to all searches, in addition to a pilot study which would evaluate schools that have successfully implemented restorative justice initiatives toward the broader goal of transformative justice (which focuses on dismantling the structures of oppression and inequity that perpetuate community violence). Restorative justice is a holistic approach to discipline that relies upon relationship-building, community-building and dialogue rather than referrals, detention and suspension. Victims and perpetrators engage in a collective process in which they publicly address the impact of harmful acts on both the victim and the community at large. Restorative justice is designed to allow school-communities to devise culturally responsive solutions that redress the criminalizing outcomes of zero tolerance policies. Some teachers and other critics argue that it is a palliative approach that has been poorly implemented in a district reeling from the consequences of coddling disruptive students. Some point to the District’s ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” (a charge that was disproportionately used to target and discipline Black students) as leading to classrooms where “anything goes”. The LAUSD was the first major urban district to end willful defiance suspensions after years of community agitation. Yet, although the number of suspensions has dropped in the district, African American students are still disproportionately suspended and culturally responsive alternatives to punitive discipline have not been widely adopted.

Indeed, the district’s support for restorative justice programming has been piecemeal. Over the past several years it has been slow to fund restorative justice counselors, only increasing the number of positions from five to twenty five as a result of community pressure. Dorsey High’s Sharonne Hapuarachy noted that although her school “had a restorative justice counselor [coverage] wasn’t consistent and staff as a whole hadn’t bought into the practice”. One former LAUSD restorative justice professional I spoke to said that, “As soon as a school is doing well [with implementing restorative justice] it seems that the funding is gone. I was only able to do a limited amount of trainings because there was not a commitment. Restorative justice is about institutionalizing a culture of caring and consistent affirmation of students’ backgrounds and cultural knowledge. But veteran teachers may subscribe to a punitive mindset, and it’s difficult to convince some that restorative justice is worthwhile.”

The majority of the district’s high schools do not have restorative justice counselors. And the overall LAUSD budget for restorative justice is around $10.8 million.




By contrast, the district has allocated millions more to school police, weaponry and surveillance systems. In 2016, the school board approved a 14% increase in funding for police, bringing its pot to $67 million. According to the L.A. Schools Report, the increases were due to “salary, healthcare benefits and pension payments”. Nonetheless, the district claims to be dedicated to a full rollout of restorative justice programming by the 2019-2020 school year. Pushback from local schools highlights both the inadequacy of the district’s outreach efforts and the tenuousness of its stated long term goal. In the meantime, Students Deserve is pressuring the seven-member school board and Superintendent Michelle King to stop criminalizing students and make good on the lip service they’ve given to restorative justice, culturally responsive education, and college prep opportunities. In a region that has the largest juvenile incarcerated population in the nation, the district’s complicity in upholding state violence can no longer be ignored.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Sally Hemings Died in Charlottesville

Jefferson's Monticello


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Sally Hemings, the black female slave who was raped and forced to bear children by third American president Thomas Jefferson, died in Charlottesville.

At his last press conference in the aftermath of white terrorist violence in Charlottesville, President Trump sarcastically noted that, since Jefferson and Washington owned slaves, their monuments, like those of white Confederates, could be next in line for removal.  In his repeated failure to unequivocally blame white nationalists for the bloodshed and murder in Charlottesville, Trump inadvertently highlighted the problem of fixating on Confederate monuments in a vacuum.  Statesman racists like Washington, Jefferson and other “founding fathers”, are rarely viewed through the same withering public lens as Confederate standard bearers, even though they were at the forefront of enshrining white supremacist policies that codified the hypocritical lie of American democracy.

In 1791, shortly after the publication of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, black scientist Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter rebuking Jefferson for his white supremacist views on African Americans:

[B]ut sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which He had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.

As Christopher Deaton notes in a recent article about Banneker’s letter, “Jefferson built Monticello into a machine. He came to realize the birth of black children on his property was providing him a 4-percent annual profit.”  He presided over a mini-manufacturing hub, fed his white family on the profits of a nailery worked by black boy slaves the same age as young Baron Trump, and viewed slaving as the most profitable “investment strategy” a good businessman could pursue.  Generations of Hemings’ family worked at Jefferson’s plantation estate and kept its enterprises running.  As a Virginia state legislator, Jefferson “blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state”. 

In mainstream America, the furor over white supremacy and organized white supremacists has obscured how the U.S. profits from the institutionalization of white supremacy every second of every minute, hour and day. Jefferson and company made their vast personal fortunes and national reputations on the back of slave labor.  They laid the foundation for a Western empire which is still powered by the exploitation of low wage black labor and bondage; from service industries to prisons.  In the popular imagination, Jefferson’s predatory history has often been spun as a revisionist comment on complicated family lineages and the cultural intrigue of DNA results (for example, the genealogy company Ancestry DNA recently featured an ad with Douglas Banks, one of Jefferson’s black descendants, expressing pride about his presidential heritage and how he got his nose from his famous white ancestor.  Banks fails to specifically name Sally Hemings).

Despite historical efforts to parse and nuance his “relationship” with Hemings—who was only fourteen years old when he famously took her with him to Paris—school children force fed the image of Jefferson the American visionary should be taught that he was a predator slave master whose vast wealth was forged in black blood.  As African American historian Annette Gordon Reed (author of landmark scholarship on Hemings/Jefferson) has argued, Jefferson’s status as a kind of tortured philosopher planter, rather than a slave master, was crucial to shaping romanticized notions about his statesmanship.  Echoing this criticism, a Chicago pastor has called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to rename public parks named after Jefferson and Washington.  And why not? Taking down Confederate statues without a willingness to engage the full legacy of slavery, and the ways in which so-called founding fathers enforced racial terrorism, is merely a stopgap.   

Indeed, conservative and centrist commentators keep telling us that the violence in Charlottesville was not representative of the “American values” slain protestor Heather Heyer was fighting for.  The domestic terrorism of unhinged white supremacists, fueled by bloodthirsty screeds on the Daily Stormer, is an embarrassment to the illusion of American exceptionalism perpetuated by the Bushes, the Joint Chiefs, and the business titans who rushed to decry Trump’s “moral equivalencies” but still cosign his racist neoliberal imperialist policies. Calling out violent troglodytes is a necessary smokescreen for these corporate multinational and military white supremacists. As Jefferson’s spiritual heirs, their brand of white supremacy is represented in the very institutions which perpetuate global capitalist terror and inequality in finance, jobs, housing, education, military deployments and drone warfare.

As Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway acidly commented about the divide between Jefferson’s public persona and his deeds, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”  Though there is no Charlottesville monument commemorating Sally Hemings, her life and influence stand as powerful testaments to the real American values that Jefferson embodied.   

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Misogynoir of Rock: Shredding While Black and Female



By Sikivu Hutchinson

The electric guitarist takes a wistful look upward, fluttering fingers in split second repose, beckoning the audience, bodies smashed together in the darkness in sweaty anticipation.  It’s Rosetta Tharpe at a seventies gig, snapshot of a rare, unguarded moment in a storied career.  The picture asks what it was like to navigate those waters, an anomaly in the tight white fraternity of touring rock musicians, a secularized traitor in the ossified world of Pentecostal gospel, a restless, Elvis-influencing blues shredder and a bisexual artist whose most enduring relationship was with another African American woman singer.  Tharpe’s photo gaze seems to foreshadow the bittersweet end of her career, during a period in which she received a new surge of white adulation memorialized in a 1971 performance at a British railway station.

Tharpe’s influence and brilliance have been spotlighted in a recent documentary, biography and stage play.  She’s become the flavor of the month for white hipster excavators of proto-feminist rock icons. Inheriting Tharpe’s mantle, contemporary black women rock guitarists like Malina Moye, Brittany Howard and Diamond Rowe are blazing ahead in the music industry.  Black women rock critics are also busting past the white male gatekeepers of rock criticism. But decades after Tharpe’s death, black women musicians still struggle for visibility in the genre she helped invent.  It’s a genre that has receded as the countercultural engine which spawned the aptly dubbed British Invasion and captivated legions of axe-slinging white Americans obsessed with electric guitar. 
Bound by blacker-than-thou identity politics, respectable black women have always been warned to beware of such musical apostasy.  Why would “real sistas” want to listen to, much less play, that “white boy music”?  Why would a genre so antithetical to black identity and cultural production be appealing to black women who should rightfully be enthralled with soul, R&B, rap and hip hop; true markers of authentic blackness?



In ninth grade I asked a white male teacher who I’d seen playing guitar at a recital at my Catholic school for advice.  I was a rock geek interested in getting my own instrument but knew nothing about where to start and I wasn’t familiar with any black women or girls who played.  In the eighties my best friend Heather and I pined to start a rock band, but there were simply no visible models.  We didn’t identify with any of the hetero-normative white women rockers who were being slobbered over in the mainstream and we were unfamiliar with Tharpe, Memphis Minnie or even Joan Armatrading.  The teacher recommended that I begin with an electric bass.  His stated reason was that it would be “easier” to handle than a traditional six-string guitar.  The implication that guitar would be too difficult for a (girl) beginner came through loud and clear in his sanitized white liberal spiel. 
In an interview with She Shreds magazine, 77 year-old blues guitarist Gloria Watkins alludes to the long history of black women playing blues guitar in the Jim Crow South.  Nonetheless, in commercial rock and R&B most black women were singers, pianists or tambourine players but never guitarists.  When rock became rigidly associated with axe-slinging, “Dionysian” white men who conflated their musical virtuosity with heterosexist conquest, the possibilities for black women rock guitarists narrowed.  As has been well-documented, white cultural appropriation of African American rock music idioms and styles fueled a global multi-billion dollar industry that effectively shut black artists out.  While white artists were free to sample and steal from black R&B and rock and still be considered “universal” rockers, black artists from the fifities on were tightly pigeonholed into R&B.  
In her book Right to Rock, which explores the founding of the still vibrant Black Rock Coalition in the eighties, Maureen Mahon discusses the implications industry segregation has had on the development and marketing of black rock musicians.  As Mahon notes, “A system of separate and unequal markets, music divisions, sales charts, and touring circuits sustained the music.  Twenty years after the apex of the civil rights movement, popular music continued to occur in a racially segregated fashion, spurring the BRC (Black Rock Coalition) into existence.”  As a result, black rock artists have been systematically discriminated against by record labels and stereotyped as not appealing to predominantly white rock audiences.



Segregated marketing, promotion and distribution played a big role in obscuring the black roots of rock music.  But the symbiotic relationship of rock criticism to this industry regime—a tradition that was almost entirely dominated by urban white males—was also a key factor in the whitening of rock music and the marginalization of women musicians. White male rock critics subscribed to an evolutionary notion of rock which venerated African American rock pioneers for their early “primitive” contributions to the genre while privileging white musicians’ “refinement” and “innovation” of the form during the 60s and 70s.  In his book Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, Jack Hamilton argues that this white “rockist” genre of criticism, which only valued black artists as the founding inspiration for white rock dynamism, reinforced black exclusion.  Here, “no black-derived musical form has more assiduously moved to erase and blockade black participation than rock music.”  



This legacy has led to racist redundancies like the very term “black rock”.  It’s illustrated by travesties in which white imitators like Greg Allman and Eric Clapton can be respectively dubbed by some as the founders of “Southern rock” and “Blues rock”, despite the pioneering Southern blues rock of black artists stretching back to Charley Patton, Arthur Crudup, Muddy Waters and beyond (The Wikipedia entry for Southern rock is dominated by white acts with a cursory nod to the Southern roots of rock music).  As Mahon notes, “(Bo) Diddley observes that what he and Chuck Berry played was rock and roll until whites started playing it and then…’they was rock ‘n’ roll and we were R&B.’”

If white supremacy in rock has had a long insidious history, the sexist, misogynist hierarchies of the genre have been even more difficult to disrupt.  Rolling Stone magazine’s 2015 “Top 100 Guitarists” list celebrates everything from the hairpin curve rigor of Robert Fripp, the nimble derivativeness of Eric Clapton (who inspired Britain’s “Rock Against Racism” campaign after a racist tirade in 1976 and was dubbed “God” by his followers for his virtuosity of theft), the whirling dervish wail of Neil Young and Hendrix’s voyages into interstellar space.  Hendrix and a handful of African American guitarists are the “privileged” exceptions to the white rule on a list that glaringly omits Rosetta Tharpe and other women of color.  Lists like these are the hallmark of a self-perpetuating and incestuous white guitar god genre that has been in sharp decline since grunge rock faded in the late 90s.

Here again, masculine swagger and the appearance of mastery are at the core of establishing legitimacy in the rock universe.  Mahon writes that in the early days of the BRC very few of the women members played male-dominated instruments like guitar or drums.  The majority were singers and/or keyboard players.  The perception that women “can’t rock” as hard as men because they don’t have the musical chops to master guitar, is a persistent cliché that has discouraged women and girls from pursuing rock guitar (especially electric).  Gayl Wald’s 2006 biography on Tharpe is replete with instances where she receives the imprimatur of skeptical males only after proving that she could play just as well, or better, as a man.   Indeed, mainstream expectations for black women in rock are that they be eye candy, sexual objects and fodder for salacious lyrics (e.g., rock playlist staples like “Miss You” and “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones; “Hello, I Love You”, by the Doors) or earthy soul mamas who provide “bottom” to white rock staples (e.g. see the 2012 documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom and the fetishization of black women backup singers like Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear).  In the article “Black Female Guitarists Get Real About How the Industry Views Them”, critic and writer Jordannah Elizabeth posed the question about the marginalization of black women who don’t sexualize themselves in the industry.  Music critic Laina Dawes, author of the2012 book What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, commented that, “They [simply] do not want to adhere to racialized gendered stereotypes.”  In a 2013 interview with NPR, Dawes reflected on being hamstrung by white racist assumptions about black women in metal and blacker than though identity politics.  This erasure plays out in the tastes of black Millennials as she lamented “finding black kids who never knew a time when hip-hop didn't exist, and never even considered listening to anything other than what they have been told is a suitable soundtrack for black people.” 

The hypersexual objectification of black women in rock is reflected in the gender politics of stage performance and commerce.  In an industry steeped in male histrionics, women of color are not supposed to imagine themselves fronting a band, playing lead electric guitar or independently negotiating with labels and managers.  Commenting on unsung black women musicians who fronted bands and controlled their own production, filmmaker Sheila Jackson notes that “The 70s also introduced Mother’s Finest as one of the first multiracial rock bands, with lead singer Joyce Kennedy. In an act of rebellion against the white male image that was fast emerging and masquerading as the exclusive face of rock and roll, Mother’s Finest wrote the underground hit “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll.”  Jackson’s forthcoming documentary “Nice and Rough” is one of the first to fully document the history of black women in rock, focusing on black female invisibility and empowerment in a genre that has been portrayed as antithetical to notions of authentic black femininity.  As the ironic title of the Mother’s Finest song attests, musical taste has always been a marker of ethnic identity.  Assumptions about who is authentically black, straight and female hinge upon consuming the right kind of music, observing the right religion, choosing the right partner, and being a self-sacrificing caregiver.   Insofar as black women rock guitarists defy these boundaries, they are outliers in both the black and white musical worlds.

My encounter with the white Catholic school teacher was only the first in a series of negative experiences trying to play rock.  When I finally decided to pursue bass lessons in college I was sexually harassed by a black male teacher and dropped the lessons. It was only years later that I took up guitar as a middle-aged adult in a climate where guitar instructors are still predominantly white and/or male.  As Jackson notes, "Black women in rock have been another one of those invisible intersections that we pretend don't exist. We are a nation full of mis-educated people. To embrace this history is to embrace our complexity and humanity", especially for future generations of black girl and black women shredders bucking misogynoir and reclaiming the black roots of rock.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise and the forthcoming novel Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe due in 2018.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

This Week in White Atheism



By Sikivu Hutchinson

When white atheist Islamophobe poster child Bill Maher referred to himself as a “house n—ger” in an interview with Senator Ben Sasse, he was not only demeaning black bodies but doing a familiar minstrel dance—appropriating a term with deep cultural and historical symbolism in black speech.  Maher has prided himself on the kind of f-you outlaw irreverence and “establishment-bashing” that only a cis-het white male with the reward of a multi-million dollar HBO contract can enjoy without censure.  Supposedly docile and less black, “HN’s” have been characterized as complicit with white massa; a distortion that erases the painful history of black female domestic slaves who were often subject to rape and other forms of ritualized violence in the so-called plantation Big House. 

Maher’s vitriol is not new to atheists and humanists of color who have long pushed back against the unapologetic Islamophobia, Eurocentrism and misogyny of Maher and fellow alpha males Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.  His identity as an atheist is relevant to this latest flap because he’s long been a golden boy of the white New Atheist clique; slobbered over for the dudebro swagger with which he’s skewered right wing and liberal sacred cows.  This kind of stagecraft pimping black experience has become a hallmark of the dudebro white atheists.  In 2013, white atheist You-Tuber “Dusty” chastised black Christians on being House Negroes and Uncle Toms because of their religious indoctrination and was called out by black atheists like myself and Foxy Jazzabelle.  Prior to that, American Atheists trotted out the black enslaved body in a 2012 street billboard campaign to boost its activist “cred” with a lily white donor base that didn’t give a damn about segregated African American communities.

Some are starting to learn.  I recently received an “outlier” email from a white donor to the Black Skeptics Los Angeles First in the Family scholarship fund who acknowledged that his primary “mission” should be to let humanists and non-believers of color lead without white intervention.  This was the recurring theme during a May forum featuring black, feminist, trans and indigenous activists across the religious spectrum at the Humanist Institute in Minneapolis.  Ashton WoodsDiane BurkholderAndrea JenkinsDesiree Kane and Sincere Kirabo spoke out powerfully on the right to self-determination of people of color in radical, progressive and intersectional movement organizing, and the necessity of getting white folk hell bent on being “allies” to sit down, shut up and retreat.

This issue of white incursions into intentional, as well as institutionally segregated, spaces of color is magnified by the seismic shift occurring in urban communities of color pushed to the brink by gentrification.  As black and brown neighborhoods are increasingly under siege from white homebuyers, developers and speculators, communities of color are in even greater peril.  Housing and rental affordability has plummeted, and the unemployment rate for African American youth has continued to skyrocket (with the unemployment rate for black male youth ages 16-24 hovering around 20% as of July 2016, in comparison to approximately 9% for young white males).  The malign neglect of neoliberal democratic policies is symbolized by the Obama administration’s piecemeal attention to black youth employment under the anemically funded My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative, which shut out African American girls—based on the erroneous premise that their status was better than that of black boys.  Since his election, Trump’s Orwellian misinformation about 59% black unemployment has only fueled the familiar narrative of pathological inner cities overrun with lazy, shiftless violent black men.

Taken in this context, Maher’s minstrel-esque appropriation of the term “House N” is even more infuriating as it implies insider-outsider status within a power structure based on white supremacy.  Outsider or outlaw status has been a card frequently played by white atheists fronting as though their non-believer status makes them an oppressed class bereft of race and class privilege.  Now, as they bemoan the Trump administration’s latest assaults on secular rights and women’s rights, more of them—as Diane and Desiree noted to the Humanist Institute’s mostly white audience—have become freshly galvanized as “freedom fighters” and allies when the liberation struggle of people of color was never on the menu before.  Maher’s use of the black body to front is yet another reminder of why atheist identity politics will always be a sham.