Sunday, August 24, 2014

Burying Our Babies: Letter from L.A. to Ferguson

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, there are three funeral homes within a one mile radius of each other. On bright sunny days young people pour out from their doors after viewing hours, lingering on the steps reminiscing, sporting t-shirts with pictures and art work commemorating the dead. In a thoroughfare that epitomizes L.A.’s deification of the car, cars are often rolling R.I.P. memorials of the dearly departed, the tragedy of stolen youth ornately inscribed on rear windows for the world to see.

Death is intimately woven into the experience of being a black child in America. The regime of “Black death”, as rapper Chuck D once described it, has its roots in slavery and the violent occupation of black bodies for profit and control. On Monday when Michael Brown’s family buries their precious baby it will be yet another reminder that the sacrosanct space of childhood is a white supremacist fantasy. As part of the legacy of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, the Ferguson, Missouri uprising has seared this into black peoples’ consciousness anew.

Teaching in South L.A., the trauma of constant death, loss and mourning shapes all of my students’ lives. Their oral and written stories are replete with it. When they speak of terrorism, using other language, it has an American face. Last year, when my Black Skeptics Los Angeles organization awarded five South L.A. youth of color First in the Family scholarships the world was awaiting the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Saluting our new scholars this year we mourned the executions of Brown, Ezell Ford and Renisha McBride, young people who will never have the opportunity to go to college, have a career or pursue their life’s dreams. At the end of the semester at one school I work at I was shown a list of college-bound students that had no black male names on it. It was a short list to begin with, a mere forty students out of three hundred, the majority first generation Latino graduates. That same day yet another black boy is led off campus in handcuffs by the school police. A few minutes later I meet with the Young Male Scholars group, brilliant ninth and tenth grade black boys who are becoming politicized about the fact that the curriculum does not represent them. The absent spaces on the college admissions list are a reflection and an indictment of their criminalization. Reading the dominant culture black children learn that their communities are deficit laden, that the threat of white supremacist violence disguised as law and order is normal, and that childhood may be fleeting. More powerful than any textbook, these “lessons” cause them to misrecognize themselves as the violent “nigga” predators white America loves to hate.

As a first grader I remember coming home from school in Inglewood and being excited that a police officer had come to visit our class. In that turbulent world of 1970s busing there were still a fair number of white kids in the class. Our teacher was a kind but rigorous elderly white woman who lived in the neighborhood; a remnant of the city’s bygone demographics. The ramrod straight white officer who spoke to the class said that if we were ever in trouble we could go right up to any policeman and address him as “Officer Bill”. Bill handed out kid friendly safety flyers with a twinkle in his eye, whisking off to adventures in high crime. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about kind, benevolent Officer Bill, guardian of imperiled children. When I got home my father, an activist, bitterly dispensed with this fairy tale. The police couldn’t be trusted. They were an occupying army. Some preyed on the community. Some were cold-blooded above the law killers. Growing up in the era of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, one of the first to institute SWAT teams, naked anti-blackness was a reality camouflaged by a middle class childhood.

Year after year the litany of the dead, black folk criminally robbed of victimhood, shattered any pretense of innocence, protection or security in “tidy” neighborhoods like ours, neighborhoods bright-eyed bushy tailed white reporters doing ghetto fieldwork were always surprised to know existed. In 1979, when an African American woman named Eulia Love was murdered at her house in South L.A. by two white police officers, it reaffirmed that black women’s bodies did not qualify as female, as fragile, as worthy of protection from state terror. My father took me to my first political rally in protest of her murder. For black women, home was no “safe” domestic space or private sanctuary as it implicitly was for white women. In the Ozzie and Harriet imagination of suburbanized L.A. black homes could never be more than a deviant subset of white Americana. Love’s murder further galvanized the community against LAPD police state suppression and occupation. It was a postscript to the 1965 Watts Rebellion and prelude to massive community resistance to Gates’ institutionalization of the chokehold (which Gates claimed blacks succumbed to more easily than “normal people”).

For African Americans migrating to California from places like Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama during the Great Migration era, L.A. was full of redemptive promise. It was supposed to provide a context that was radically different from the grinding everyday indignities and outright terrorism of the Jim Crow South. Yet, as Isabel Wilkerson and other black historians of the Great Migration have noted, Northern segregation was no less insidious. Blacks who attempted to buy homes in white neighborhoods were shut-out by restrictive covenants rigidly enforced by realtors and development companies. They were firebombed by white homeowners associations and villified by angry white housewives. Black workers were discriminated against by trade unions and largely shut-out of all but the most menial jobs. While white immigrant populations advanced up the economic ladder via the GI Bill, FHA loans, VA loans, redlining, the development of new highway systems and countless other “whitening” aids, blacks bore the brunt of systematic ghettoization.

The post Great Migration generation came of age as the paramilitarization of LAPD’s police force deepened. One of Gates’ signal contributions to the War on Drugs was the battering ram, a tank ostensibly used to penetrate so-called “crack houses” which destroyed innocent citizens’ homes and inspired its own rap song.

Coming home one night in the eighties from the UCLA area my friends and I were stopped by several Inglewood PD squad cars. Without bothering to do a license and registration check the officers jumped out wielding rifles, pointing the weapons squarely at us as they ordered us out of the car. Later, after my friend’s brother was subjected to the humiliation of having to lie face down on the ground before ten cops brandishing weapons, we were told that they’d mistaken a car backfire for gunshots. Nobody would’ve given a shit if we’d been smoked. It was dark and we were black teenagers in “Ingle-Watts”.

Like Michael Brown we were college-bound, guilty until proven innocent, living in the shadow of death and the violent territorialization of the black body. Unlike him we were spared the brunt of black America’s nightmare. In the weeks since his murder there has been national movement connecting police terrorism with the general climate of criminalization that exists in American schools. Expressing solidarity with the uprising in Ferguson, the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) recently highlighted the relationship between the pushout regime in schools and the onerous police presence in urban communities. If the uprising against the spate of police murders and beatings is to coalesce into a youth movement it must also expose the apartheid policies and mentalities that plague American schools. As DSC St Louis member Niaa Monee of the Missouri GSA Network commented, “I feel that we as young people really don’t have a say so in the world. It’s all about how the adults feel. Why can’t young people speak? Mike Brown didn’t deserve what happened to him, as well as all the other young people who this has happened to. Young people need to be heard, not shot. We are being criminalized and pushed out for being who we are.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is an educator and author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

White Nights, Black Paradise: A Novel on Peoples Temple & the Jonestown Massacre

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“Ain’t no white sky daddy gonna save you. Are we Black, proud and socialist? What are we?”

Why did a powerful white man utter these words and why did hundreds of black people, the majority of them black women, follow him to their deaths?

In 1978, People’s Temple, a multiracial church once at the forefront of progressive San Francisco politics, self-destructed in a Guyana jungle settlement named after its leader, the Reverend Jim Jones.

Fatally bonded by fear of racist annihilation, the community’s greatest symbol of crisis was the “White Night”; a rehearsal of revolutionary mass suicide that eventually led to the deaths of over 900 church members of all ages, genders and sexual orientations.

75% of those who died in Jonestown, and the majority of those in the Peoples Temple movement, were African American. But most of the literary portrayals of Jonestown have been by white people

Due in the summer of 2015, White Nights, Black Paradise focuses on three fictional black women characters who were part of the Peoples Temple movement but took radically different paths: Hy, a drifter and a spiritual seeker, her sister Taryn, an atheist with an inside line on the church’s money trail and Ida Lassiter, an activist whose watchdog journalism exposes the rot of corruption, sexual abuse, racism and violence in the church, fueling its exodus to Guyana.

White Nights, Black Paradise is a riveting story of complicity and resistance; loyalty and betrayal; black struggle and black sacrifice. It locates Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the shadow of the civil rights movement, Black Power, Second Wave feminism and the Great Migration. Recapturing black women’s voices, White Nights, Black Paradise explores their elusive quest for social justice, home and utopia. In so doing, the novel provides a complex window onto the epic flameout of a social movement that was not only an indictment of religious faith but of American democracy.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Getting on Up: Cult of the Charismatic Black Man

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Charismatic black men slapping black women around are funny. This was the takeaway conveyed by some audience members at a screening I attended of the new James Brown biopic Get On Up at a predominantly black theater in Los Angeles. Largely sidestepping the chronic abuse Brown inflicted on multiple spouses (Brown served jail time for domestic violence), the film all but deifies him as an uncompromising god-fearing, rugged individualist and red-blooded race man who inspired all black people to “get on up”. Yet during the film a group of male viewers howled to the rafters at a gut-wrenching scene in which actor Chadwick Boseman’s Brown sends wife Deirdre Jenkins—played by the luminous Jill Scott—crashing into a table. Later in the film we see Jenkins cowering after being verbally abused by Brown in an exchange which disturbingly segues into her initiating sexual foreplay.

The film’s uncritical juxtaposition of black male hero worship with intimate partner violence brought to mind the recent gyrations of ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith and other prominent black male media figures who've mouthed off about black women’s alleged complicity in their own abuse. Last week, Smith elicited controversy when he criticized NFL player Ray Rice’s abuse of his spouse then proceeded to admonish women about “provoking” abuse. Smith received a one-week suspension for his comments but the message was unequivocal—women need to self-police to make sure they’re not inciting violence with their out of control mouths and “bitchy” emasculating attitudes.

Bashing black women for being complicit in their own abuse has always been an insidiously popular past-time but in the age of 24/7 media it’s high sport. Recently Grio writer Boyce Watkins and comedian DL Hughley were called out by black women activists after they made similar comments as Smith’s. Both half-stepped on their stated abhorrence of violence against women by trotting out racist, sexist, hetero-normative stereotypes about gold-digging hypersexual black women’s penchant for “provoking” or tempting brothers into committing rape and intimate partner violence. Hughley, like Smith, issued a now pro forma apology after writer Kirsten West Savali initiated a widely circulated petition condemning his remarks.

But a deeper and less explored question is how this plays out for black boys in an era in which they're regularly bombarded with violent demeaning images of black women and girls in social media, video games, film and TV. How do feminist/womanist educators, activists and organizers work with boys of color around anti-violence, gender roles and sexuality? One of the first steps is highlighting how violence against women of color pervades every social institution. In our work with high school students of all genders in the Women's Leadership Project, we talk about structural oppression in organized religion, specifically how the Bible establishes misogynist double standards for women. Living in highly religious communities, what do youth of color see in their everyday experience that tells them it’s ok to denigrate cis and trans women? Talking candidly about the way religion socializes, we unpack how the elevation of charismatic heterosexual men in traditional Black Church leadership prescribes and limits women’s roles. Bad fallen women are hypersexual, loud and indiscreet; mainstream America’s template for black femininity. Good straight Christian women submit to their men, mind their families and pledge undying, obsessive love for Jesus. Because both secular and religious culture deems female sexuality impure and in need of containment men always have a proprietary right to women’s bodies. As a result, black boys are socialized to believe that “checking” an “out of control” black woman or girl is practically their birthright. I was reminded of this yet again when I passed by a young black boy with the words “Bitch Please” emblazoned in bold letters on his shirt on my way to school. Laying down the silencing epithet “Bitch please” becomes part of their easy “canon” of male performance and male privilege in classrooms, streets and on social media.

Anti-sexist work with black boys in K-12 classrooms must begin with these kinds of conversations. It is telling that the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative does not emphasize the need for anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist best practices in K-12 education. Over the past several months, Kimberle Crenshaw’s African American Policy Institute and community activists across the nation have pushed back against this omission. Far too often, “rites of passage” violence prevention programs and initiatives for boys omit engagement with the role institutionalized sexism, misogyny, heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia play in the lives and attitudes of boys of color. Far too often they bury the code of silence and complicity that exists among men about violence against women in a barrage of platitudes about “respecting” women and treating them like “queens”. Fortunately, there are rising black male feminist and womanist voices in journalism, education, community organizing and social media who challenge these regimes of violence and invisibility in their work(Mark Anthony Neal, Kevin Powell, Darnell Moore and Byron Hurt come to mind).

As I wrote in this spring’s statement “Black Men Listening to Our Sisters”, through the holocaust of slavery and racial apartheid, black men have never been told by black women that their dehumanization was normal, natural and “just the way shit is”. Yet, even when it was at their expense, black women have always been expected to uncritically support black men’s self-determination. This double standard endangers black lives.