Monday, December 26, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Secular Studies

Clockwise from top: Anthony Pinn, Frank Anderson, Secular Sistahs, S. Hutchinson, Soraya Chemaly, Monica Miller, Maggie Ardiente, Donald Wright, Heina Dadabhoy, Daniel Myatt, Alix Jules, Sincere Kirabo, Debbie Goddard, Juhem Navarro-Rivera

By Sikivu Hutchinson
I recently submitted a course proposal entitled “Going Godless: Challenging Faith and Religion in Communities of Color” to a School of Religion at a prominent university in California. After many gyrations, it was shot down due to “lack of funding”. The course focuses on the intersectional politics of secularism, atheism and humanism, as well as the work of secularists of color like Anthony Pinn, Mandisa Thomas, Heina Dadabhoy, Juhem Navarro Rivera, Sincere Kirabo, Candace Gorham and the D.C. group Secular Sistahs. The uptick in Americans identifying as secular Nones has led to the creation of more secular courses, many of which are housed in Religious Studies departments. Despite the much ballyhooed “Rise of the Nones” there is currently only one bonafide Secular Studies department (based at Pitzer College and helmed by secular scholar Phil Zuckerman) in the U.S.

For the most part, Secularism in the American academy is a cobbled together affair, featuring one-off courses dominated by white academics with the book contracts, privilege and ivory tower “cred” to do secular work without worrying about censure or professional ostracism. Although social media bustle with black folks tweeting, blogging and sounding off about embracing atheism; the same handful of white faces preside in the academic industrial complex as “authentic” scholars of the secular, atheist, humanist experience. As a result, scholarship, classes and curricula that capture the lived experiences, politics and world views of secularists of color, especially those of women of color, are still scant to nonexistent. To date, the Humanist Institute is the only organization in the country to feature an online course I developed entitled “Women of Color Beyond Faith”.
Left to Right: Liz Ross, Ayana Williford, Laurie James,
Diane Burkholder, Bria Crutchfield, Deanna Adams,
Jimmie Luthuli, Charone Nix, Debbie Goddard,
Mandisa Thomas

Why is it important that secular people of color teach, write and publish book length scholarship, analyses, narratives and fiction on our social history? The hijacking of rock music from the African American composers and musicians who originated the genre is a case in point. African American scholar/historians like Maureen Mahon and Jeffrey Othello are among the few in the white male dominated field of rock and roll musicology and music history. This dearth, combined with the whitewashing of rock by white male critics, musicians and the music industry, has ironically marked the genre as “in-authentically” black. Recent critical works by white writers like Jack Hamilton and Gayle Wald document the travails of African American rock artists in a field black folk pioneered but are now viewed as oxymoronic in (one need look no further than the lily white bands in this year’s crop of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees to see how white supremacy informs the corporate rock establishment). The lockstep association of “black music” with rap, hip hop and R&B continues to marginalize black rock musicians. That said, if it’s black and obscure, white folk will find it, document it, and anthropologically “redeem” it for the masses as valid art and noble artifact. It’s no revelation that white validation is often the primary criterion for legitimizing black cultural production, critical theory or art in the mainstream and in academia. As August Wilson once noted, “Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as custodians of the black experience.”

When it comes to secularism, even when secular people of color appear in academic spaces, the range of lived experience that they are allowed to represent is limited and reductive. The standard caricature that bubbles up into mainstream consciousness is one of smug atheist blacks and Latinos condemning God and Tyler Perry-esque evangelicalism among folk of color. Rejecting religion becomes an end in and of itself, and not merely symbolic of a more politicized belief system based on social justice, ethics, black liberation, black feminism and serving black communities within the context of heightened anti-black state violence, segregation and misogynoir. Because black bodies have always signified an irrational supernaturalism positioned as the antithesis of the Western universal subject, black humanist atheist praxis can upend traditional constructions of racial authenticity and identity.

Similarly, black lived experience, faith and secularism are largely MIA in the literary arts; be it narrative film, theatre or fiction. While questioning faith is a familiar theme in these genres (e.g. in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain), politicized rejection of supernaturalism and religion, as a sustained critical theme in fictional works by black authors, is still rare. Indeed, only the works of Richard Wright (Black Boy and The Outsider) and Nella Larsen (Quicksand) occupy this space of aesthetic and ideological possibility. Often in black cultural production, there is the presumption of faith-based, religious or spiritual world views and experiences that preclude more complex portrayals of black life. The straightjacket of faith, spiritualism and religiosity is particularly problematic when it comes to black women characters who are allowed none of the nuances of belief and individual license afforded “maverick” male characters. Fictional black women who espouse atheism outright are either punished as traitors (Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun) or domesticated and suppressed (Helga Crane in Quicksand).

This brand of gender policing is even more pronounced in mainstream TV and film. Browse the array of popular—often straight-to-video—black films in the few video stores that remain and the majority feature stereotypically melodramatic tropes of sex, faith, relationships and family woes that are presumably designed to appeal to all black women. In his article “Black Atheists in Film and TV”, Black Skeptics Los Angeles writer and attorney D. Frederick Sparks identifies a handful of portrayals, noting the dearth of black women and the latitude allowed black men (a situation reflected in a recent episode of the sitcom Black-ish, which tamely explored the lead characters’ eldest daughter questioning God’s existence).

This erasure will become even more insidious as evangelical Trumpist white America reloads and reboots. The rising tide of reactionary Religious Right legislation against racial justice, LGBTQI rights, women’s rights, reproductive justice, public education and climate change demands concerted response and resistance from secular radicals and progressives. Countering the literary and academic whiteness of secular space and secular studies is another form of critical resistance in this neo-fascist era.

Twitter @sikivuhutch

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Segregation Now and Forever: Robber Baron DeVos and the Looting of Public Education

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” This was white supremacist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s epic battle cry in his infamous 1963 Inaugural speech demonizing the civil rights movement.

Billionaire Christian conservative Betsy DeVos and her foundation’s robber baron school voucher crusade are inheritors of Wallace’s legacy.  For over a decade, DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, has been “at the helm” of a largely unsuccessful nationwide push to gut public education through voucher programs. According to the L.A. Times, "California and 36 other states have constitutional provisions—called Blaine amendments—that ban the expenditure of public money on religiously affiliated schools. Close to 80% of private school students attend religious schools, which would be ineligible for vouchers in Blaine amendment states." 
As many left-progressive and secular critics have pointed out, a linchpin of the DeVos agenda is an assault on secular education.  The DeVos foundation has bankrolled the ultraconservative, homophobic Family Research Council and sponsored scores of insidious “school choice” bills from Michigan to Wisconsin. It is part of an extensive network of right wing foundations, institutes and think tanks that subscribe to the “dominionist” belief that “Christians must take control over societal and government institutions.” 

DeVos’ influence as an architect of checkbook theocracy in education is unparalleled. But it’s important for progressive humanists to understand that DeVos’ reactionary activism is not simply limited to the usual church/state separation issues vis-à-vis science literacy and white Christian fundamentalist efforts to shove creationism down students’ throats.  Certainly, DeVos’ blatant disregard for church/state separation would further undermine science literacy in a nation that routinely ranks at the bottom of global rankings of STEM achievement. Yet, a cornerstone of the Christian right’s privatization agenda is the destruction of racial justice in education and a Dixiecrat return to separate and unequal schools. 

The voucher agenda is a byproduct of Southern states’ efforts to circumvent Brown vs. Board of Education’s desegregation mandate.  It was and is a key strategy in the white nationalist/supremacist political arsenal that powered Trump to victory. 

Thus, as Secretary of Education, DeVos would most likely steamroll educational justice activists’ efforts to redress the federal government’s neoliberal focus on charter schools, union busting, drill and kill high stakes tests, and the militarization of school campuses.  Under Obama’s former education secretary Arne Duncan, the administration cozied up to charters and implemented wrongheaded policies like Race to the Top, which dubiously tied teacher salaries to students’ performance on standardized tests.   It made noises about shoring up STEM education and academic opportunities for young men of color (while marginalizing girls of color) but allocated a pittance to the enrichment and wraparound programming that could have changed educational outcomes.  And when it came to higher education, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) floundered, scrambling for funding, support and visibility in an administration that gave lip service to improving college access for students of color.  Despite Obama’s “yes we can” multicultural rhetoric, the so-called achievement gap between black and white students has remained static. 
Yet, for all of the Obama administration’s education policy failures, the De Vos appointment has the potential to be catastrophic.  It represents a clear and present danger to the wellbeing of scores of students of color who have been most heavily impacted by privatization and the gutting of multicultural education.   Nationwide, African American, Latino and Native American students continue to have the lowest graduation and college-going rates.  They are less likely to be taught by well-qualified teachers and more likely to be in schools where college counselors are either absent or saddled with too many students. Indeed, some urban schools of color have more school police than college counselors.  And because many students of color don’t have equitable access to college preparation curricula in the humanities and STEM disciplines they have higher attrition rates when they go to college.

Low college admission and completion rates correlate with the skyrocketing numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students who are suspended, expelled, pushed out of school and imprisoned in juvenile and adult facilities. There’s no reason to believe that DeVos wouldn’t cosign Trump’s law and order platform and increase federal funding for more police, military hardware and surveillance equipment on school campuses. 

The DeVos privatization agenda also bodes ill for undocumented students already facing a precarious future due to Trump’s threat to rescind Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  The threat of deportation, homelessness and family upheaval would traumatize already fragile immigrant communities that rely on a patchwork of social services to survive. 
Under a Secretary DeVos, multicultural education, reproductive health education and the development of safe and inclusive school climates for LGBTQI students would also come under fire.  The new regime could utilize its bully pulpit to further vilify equitable bathroom policies for transgender students, and the promotion of “abstinence-only” education would most likely be back on the federal table.  Although states would have leeway in pushing back on these policies, a DeVos education department, buttressed by a GOP controlled Congress, could jeopardize federal funding for states and school districts that buck the right wing agenda.    

As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently noted in its opposition to DeVos’ appointment, “[she] provided funding for the Center for Individual Rights during its legal battle with the University of Michigan over affirmative action.  After the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 to uphold the university’s affirmative action policy…she acknowledged that the motives underlying the policy were proper [but] stated that the policy was still unfair.”

For human rights, social justice and secular education, a DeVos regime in the Education Department would be the proverbial case of the fox guarding the henhouse.

*From the Humanist Magazine, 12-21 issue

Twitter: @sikivuhutch

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Belly of the Beast

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The text that my spouse got when the election returns first started rolling in was an early harbinger of the brutal rout to come.  His friend “Ted”, a white former union leader who’d been downsized a decade ago in his small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, proclaimed that he was voting Trump. “Build the f---ing wall,” he railed, invoking his veteran status and visceral disgust with “sanctuary cities”.

On election night, Ted and his ilk flipped the bird to the nation, making good on the white nationalist rhetoric of 2009 when the Tea Party barnstormed across Middle America exhorting the Obama administration to take its “government hands off of [our] Medicare”.  Trump’s epic reversal victory is a vindication of that backlash and a stunning rebuke to the infamous “autopsy” the GOP did after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Obama.  The autopsy suggested that the GOP would need to ramp down its dog whistle racism and snag more votes from people of color.  Trump’s shock troops are using the autopsy for toilet paper.  Now that the Republicans have locked down Congress, their post-2016 mantra will be we-don’t-need-to pander to-ya’ll-token-minorities-to- get-over-anymore.  And while you’re at it, get back on the plantation.

The formidable Latino, Asian and African American voting bloc that many had prophesied never materialized for this election. Hillary Clinton’s towering negatives, coupled with the fait accompli aura her candidacy assumed in the media, kept some people of color at home feeling angry, disgruntled and taken for granted.  According to early exit polls, “only 65% of Latinos supported her, while 29% cast their votes for Trump”. In 2012, Obama won 71% of the Latino vote compared to Romney’s 27%.  More frightening still, Trump succeeded in winning 8% of the African American vote, improving on the 1% he was pulling in early estimates.  Blinded by the “inevitability” of demographics, many liberal and progressive pundits simply assumed that the white nativist backlash was a fringe resistance movement, the last desperate gasp of a Tea Party that fundamentally defied modernity and common sense.

A recent L.A. Times article on bullish Trump support among white steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, scene of a popular Bruce Springsteen ode to the declining steel industry, highlighted how deep and divisive white angst is in the so-called Heartland. Trump victories in formerly blue states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin all reflected these racialized class resentments.  According to a CNN survey, a majority of white working class folk believe that their children will be worse off in the future.  They contend that trade agreements have eroded U.S. jobs and that the government is shafting them.  Ironically enough, the poll also indicated that this same bloc believes government should provide more assistance to the (white) working class.  Most of these “hard working whites” (the ones Hillary Clinton tried so hard to court with bigoted appeals in 2008) believe the government is already doing too much for “minorities” at their expense.

If the coronation of Trump and Trumpism illustrate nothing else, it’s that the left wing dream of interracial working class solidarity will continue to be a delusion in the face of the “wages of whiteness”.  In this regard, the ghost of the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia (site of a near upset by Trump) resonates in Trumpist propaganda about making America great again.  Bacon’s Rebellion laid the groundwork for white solidarity across class lines.  This multiracial uprising of poor whites and black indentured servants prompted the Virginia landed gentry to confer poor whites with greater civil rights in order to suppress a potential long term working class alliance against the white elite. As historian Ira Berlin notes, the Virginia Assembly “enact(ed) laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary slaves.  And they increasingly give power to white independent farmers and land holders.  We see slavery and freedom being invented at the same moment.”  For the majority of whites of all classes, white supremacy will always be the most invaluable wage.

Trump’s shock troops, the GOP, and corporate Dems are heirs to Bacon’s Rebellion.  Far too often, liberal-progressive whites seeking to forge coalitions based on workers’ rights disingenuously disregard this legacy and their own complicity in white supremacy.  As people of color organize against the coming Trump regime’s mandate for increasing criminalization, mass deportations and depletion of black and Latino wealth, the reinvigorated white working class will continue to regard equity and justice as a zero sum game.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Vote Yes on Prop 57: Education Not Incarceration

On November 8th, California voters have the opportunity to potentially reverse and redress the damage caused by Proposition 21, which locked up thousands of juveniles of color in adult facilities and helped create the world's largest juvenile justice system. Proposition 57 was co-authored by the Youth Justice Coalition, Los Angeles county's frontline organizer for incarcerated youth.

White juvenile offenders consistently receive second, third and fourth chances, while black and Latino youth get more policing, incarceration and little chance at re-entry to jobs, housing and education.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

#CounselorsNotCops: Youth Justice Against the Police State

Photo: Stephanie Monte

By Sikivu Hutchinson

At the corner of Central Avenue and 120th Street in South Central Los Angeles an abandoned Boys and Girls club trailer sits across from a fast food place and a liquor store.  The trailer is a few blocks from high achieving King-Drew Magnet of Medicine and Science, a predominantly African American and Latino school and unsung model of culturally competent instruction in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  In neighboring Compton, children navigate vacant lots, brown fields and abandoned buildings to get to school. Several miles away at Gardena High School, students are handcuffed for the “crime” of truancy.  By contrast, their white South Bay and Westside counterparts a few freeway exits away have an array of extracurricular and recreational resources to choose from, largely free from the yoke of police state suppression.

The recent murder of 18 year-old Carnell Snell by the LAPD in the Westmont community near Washington Prep High School in South L.A. highlights how the constant threat of state violence fatally undermines the learning environments of students of color.  Drive down the stretch of Western Avenue near where Snell was gunned down and the most prominent public spaces are fast food joints, storefront churches, 99 cent stores and beauty salons.  On the corner of Manchester and Western, Jesse Owens Park is one of the few in an area that has been branded “park poor” (a term that that accurately describes the need but still carries a deficit laden stigma). On a daily basis our youth contend with unsafe conditions that white teens in middle class and affluent areas of the city either don’t have to deal with or have a social safety net to shield them from. From high rates of gun violence to sexual violence, sex trafficking, police abuse and school pushout, youth of color in L.A. must navigate criminalization on multiple fronts.  
It’s been well-documented that simply having a massive police presence in the community increases the risk that youth of color will be stopped, harassed, frisked, arrested, or, tragically, murdered by law enforcement.  This threat, coupled with the dearth of community centers, afterschool programs and recreational spaces, further institutionalizes violence as a norm in working class neighborhoods of color.  The psychic and emotional trauma of living in this state of siege often goes unrecognized and untreated.

With the largest juvenile jail system and probation populations in the U.S., Los Angeles and California are world leaders in incarceration.  L.A. has the distinction of being the poorest city in the nation while having one of the country’s most expensive housing markets, just behind New York City and San Francisco.  Over the past year, L.A. has also made global headlines as the homeless capital of the nation, with 50% of youth and adult homeless folk being African American.  In the midst of these crises, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) community activist organization and member of the nationwide Dignity in Schools Campaign has presented a groundbreaking plan for a Youth Development department that would give youth of color a real shot at educational and employment equity.  YJC is calling on Los Angeles City and County government to redirect at least 5% of its police suppression and mass incarceration budgets to youth programming, recreation and job resources.  The organization estimates that redirecting suppression funds would allow for the hiring of 1000 peace-builders (offering counseling, mentoring and restorative justice assistance) as well as the creation of 50,000 youth jobs and 100 youth centers.  The initiative has been championed by L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis and L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

YJC’s proposal is based on tons of data that unfavorably compare Los Angeles’ expenditures on suppression and incarceration with that of youth education and culturally responsive social services.  For example, even highly-gentrified, segregated cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco have youth development departments.  By contrast, Los Angeles only spends $2 million on youth services, while the Los Angeles Animal Control Service spends $13 million to retrieve stray animals.  Making a substantial investment in youth services would appear to be a win-win for a city whose poverty and homeless rates have skyrocketed, but the LAPD recently announced that it is purchasing more paramilitary equipment on the public dime.  According to YJC’s report “Building a Positive Future for L.A.’s Youth”, the “proposed Los Angeles city budget for 2016-2017 includes a $180 million increase for the LAPD”. Across the nation, police departments have long exploited the fear of mass shootings, drug busts and terrorist attacks to justify multi-million dollar weapons’ expenditures. In Los Angeles, recent increases in violent crime, thefts and property crime—which some have attributed to an increase in the homeless population and employment disparities—have further stoked public fears about rampant lawlessness. If the LAPD were to be believed, more spending on tanks, rocket grenades, body armor and high tech electric motorcycles is the antidote to crime spikes.
Yet, by failing to invest in youth and youth spaces, City and County government aid and abet crime, systematically looting communities of color which bear the burden of anemic to nonexistent recreational, therapeutic and job resources. YJC’s initiative is timely and radical for a city that has a long, pernicious legacy of being a pioneer in state violence for the poor and corporate welfare for the rich.

For more info, or to join the L.A. 4 Youth Campaign:

Monday, September 5, 2016

Beyond Brock Turner: Race, Rape & Prevention

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Last week, when former Stanford athlete and convicted sex offender Brock Turner walked out into the California sunshine to the arms of his nervous parents his status as a lightning rod for outrage over the U.S.’ rape culture complicity was solidified. After serving three months of a lenient six month sentence handed down by disgraced white Santa Clara judge Aaron Persky (the subject of a vigorous recall campaign), Turner is now the poster child for new legislation that would redress longstanding inequities in rape reporting and awareness which promote victim-blaming, shaming and predatory “boys will be boys” behavior.

AB 2888 would require that the sexual assault of an unconscious victim carry a mandatory minimum sentence.  It was overwhelmingly supported by Democrats and now awaits the approval of Governor Jerry Brown.  In addition to AB 2888, California’s SB 813, dubbed the “Justice for Victims Law”—which was introduced by State Senator Connie Leyva and inspired by women who were allegedly sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby—is also pending before Brown.  SB 813 would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of rape and sexual assault. 

Of course, Turner is part of a long legacy of white rapists that have eluded justice, but the firestorm around his case reflects a genuine shift in consciousness prompted by generations of organizing against rape and sexual assault.  Yet, needless to say, the response to Turner’s crime and Persky’s transgression stand in stark contrast to what generally happens after a campus rape.
In comparison to the scores of poor women of color who experience rape and sexual assault, Turner’s victim was relatively privileged.  The intersection of race, class and gender, combined with growing awareness of the gross double standards afforded white offenders in the criminal justice system, made this case a national and legislative cause célèbre.  Yet, the victim’s privilege as a white female student at an Ivy League university did not shield her from the legal apparatus of patriarchal white supremacy.  It is estimated by the Rape and Incest Survivors Network (RAINN) that only six of one thousand rape cases ever make it to a trial that ends in conviction and jail time.  And these numbers are not disaggregated by race.  According to RAINN, college student female rape victims are the least likely (in comparison to women in the military, elderly and non-student college-age women) to report sexual assault.

By contrast, a 2005 Justice Department study found that, “black victims reported sexual assault at much lower rates than white victims, [and] while 44 percent of white victims report sexual assault, only 17 percent of black victims did”.

Such reporting disparities are no mystery, given that the dominant culture tells African American women rape victims that they are solely to blame for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong crowd, consuming the wrong things, behaving in the wrong way.  Black women are not only subject to disproportionate sexual assault by black men, but may be policed, criminalized and discredited by law enforcement when they report being sexually assaulted.

Recently, in an interview with KPFA radio, activist Aishah Simmons discussed the need to take activism against rape culture to the streets and classrooms.  Simmons’ acclaimed documentary “No!” is a must for culturally responsive curricula on sexual assault prevention education.  In the film, black women from all walks of life discuss their experiences with sexual assault and rape, connecting them to prevailing white supremacist, misogynist myths about black women’s sexuality, morality and femininity.  The commentators powerfully debunk insidious historical notions about the “unrapeability” of black women and identify the ways men of color have internalized these images.

This fall, the South L.A.-based Women’s Leadership Project for high school girls of color will be conducting sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention outreach with high school athletes and ninth grade health classes.  Students will participate in peer-facilitated trainings designed to unpack the victim-blaming, victim-shaming, complicity and silence that allows sexual assault and rape to thrive as cultural norms. While there has been a mandatory push for restorative justice alternatives in large public school districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District, sexual violence prevention education remains sparse and piecemeal. Indeed, far too often in the everyday climate of K-12 schools, girls of color in particular are admonished by adults about how their “distracting” dress, behavior and attitudes are really subtle provocations for boys to act “badly”.  At the end of the day, the culture that spawned Brock Turner is not changing fast enough for victims who don’t have the benefit of Ivy League notoriety.  And while pending legislation may strengthen prosecution of rape and sexual assault, the crisis in prevention demands that all school communities become accountable for dismantling the culture of male privilege, sexism, misogyny and misogynoir that allow rape to thrive.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nate Parker and Predators of Faith

By Sikivu Hutchinson

A man of deep faith.  That is the lofty mantle actor/director Nate Parker has self-righteously ascribed to himself in a Facebook post written in response to the firestorm around his alleged rape of a fellow student at disgraced Penn State University in 1999. 

The details of the incident involving the unnamed victim, Parker and his Birth of a Nation writing partner Jean Celestin, have rocked the Internet.  Celestin was initially convicted but the ruling was overturned on appeal four years later.  Parker was acquitted partly because the jury concluded that the victim couldn’t have been raped because she had had “consensual sex” with him prior to the attack.  According to court documents, Parker and Celestin harassed and stalked the victim.  After attempting suicide she sued the university, alleging that it had not protected her from the harassment.  In 2012, she died by suicide after battling PTSD and depression, reportedly due to the sexual assault.

Parker's and Celestin’s status as athletes at a university which has a history of complicity in sexual assault is an especially ugly irony.  Their commodity value to Penn no doubt shielded them from the long jail sentence that almost certainly would have been slapped on two ordinary young black men charged with raping a white woman.   

Yet, the phrase “man of faith” resonates with many black audiences. In this instance it’s designed to elicit an unquestioning cultural solidarity that Parker does not deserve.

The implication that “faith” defines morality is the gospel for a majority of the American public in general and African Americans in particular.  Expressing regret for his youthful “carelessness”, Parker wrote that “there is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in [that] situation”. Presumably a “man of faith”, one who adheres to the bible (with its prescriptions for the subordination and rape of women, damnation of gays, and murder of infidels) would have held himself to a higher standard of conduct.

For sexual assault survivors, the phrase is both bludgeon and vise.

How many times has a “man of faith” used his position as a respected community leader to sexually abuse a child?  How many times has a black girl been told by a man of faith that her life, her voice, her body, are less than zero in the face of violent male domination and control? And how many times have queer youth been gutted by the tale that men of faith can’t rape amoral gay, lesbian and trans folk?

Parker’s cynical manipulation of this term is repugnant, an affront to all of the sexual abuse victims who have been crushed, silenced by its use. His retrospective plea for “empathy” to his younger self is a politically expedient smokescreen.  It banishes all those who’ve been brutalized into submission because the adults in their lives—mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, law enforcement, counselors and other authority figures—have told them it’s improper to question the moral authority and righteousness of “men of faith”. 

In his statement Parker also invokes his identity as a father and husband.  But would he look the other way if one of his five black daughters—in a nation where approximately 40% of young black girls are raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust—were victimized by a man who trotted out his faith as a cover for his actions?

According to early reviews, The Birth of a Nation includes a scene depicting the graphic rape of Nat Turner’s wife. Commenting on the glut of Negro slave and servant movies a few years ago, bell hooks remarked that she was “tired of the naked, raped black female body” being used as a space of projection for white and black male subjectivity. Here, black women’s bodies become vehicles for exploring what really matters; the boundlessness of black male pain.  Thus, it is profoundly troubling, but not surprising, that Parker would depict the brutal institutional rape of African American women under slavery then have the gumption to philosophize about his faith-inspired empathy for the dead rape victim he stalked, harassed and victim-shamed.  This ardent man of faith has not connected the dots between his own patriarchal privilege, heterosexism (Parker has stated in the past that he would not play a gay character in order to “preserve the black man”) and American rape culture. In light of these revelations, his Nate Turner retelling will be read by many of us survivors as yet another instance in which cis-het black men are redeemed as proper stewards, keepers and protectors of defiled black femininity in that epic time of “celluloid slavery”—one which allows good black men of faith in contemporary America to deflect on their own complicity in normalizing sexual violence.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Khans and the Masters of War

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1919, Wilbur Little returned home to Blakely, Georgia after serving in World War I.  Instead of being heralded as a hero he was savagely attacked in public by white thugs.  The mob forced him to take off his uniform and strip to his underwear. When he refused to obey the mob’s demand that he never wear his uniform in public again he was lynched.

Little was murdered during the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919 when race riots instigated by whites swept the nation, fueled by postwar tensions over jobs, housing and the wave of African Americans moving to Northern cities. Isabel Wilkerson recalls the irony of his lynching in her landmark work on the Great Migration The Warmth of Other Suns. Instead of being treated like heroes, black World War I veterans were subjected to white hostility and outright terrorism. "America the Beautiful" hypocrisy was never more so than in its treatment of soldiers of color hoodwinked into believing Jim Crow violence would magically dissipate with military service. 

During World War I, families who’d lost relatives in combat were dubbed Gold Star families.  Because Wilbur Little was lynched on American soil, his family never received this designation, his death due to one of the longest wars the U.S. has waged—one against its own black “citizens”.
Decades later, this paradox still resonates when it comes to the fraught question of African Americans and other people of color serving a “democratic” war machine—to paraphrase conscientious objector Muhammed Ali—based on inhumane, imperialist militarism towards nations of color.   The recent flap over the Khan family’s DNC speech—parents of slain Gold Star soldier Humayan Khan, viciously maligned by Donald Trump and catapulted into the national arena as symbols of Muslim Americans’ unappreciated sacrifices to “flag and Country”— highlights the divide between the aspirations of immigrants of color and the homegrown reality of white Christian supremacy.  No matter what the “good” upstanding immigrant/person of color does to meet the litmus test of American patriotism they will never be validated by the dominant culture as human/citizen/hero—especially in times of nativist backlash. In his DNC speech, as well as during his TV appearances, Khizr Khan trumpeted the exceptionalist line, invoking the Constitution and proclaiming (in response to the outpouring of support the couple received after Trump’s tirade) that “every step they [the U.S.] take, the world emulates it.”

Throughout the GOP and Democratic conventions, both parties predictably trafficked in flag waving bombast and paeans to American exceptionalism.  Awash in “Greatest Nation” platitudes, the DNC was capped by Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s repeated invocations of the slaveholder-rapist founding fathers. 

Of course, one of the most eloquent (semi) antidotes to this propaganda came when Michele Obama referenced the slave legacy of the White House’s construction.  The First Lady thoughtfully summoned the image of her daughters romping on a lawn that black folk tending to antebellum plantations could only have dreamed of.  It was a subtle, albeit unintended, rebuke of the rabid Christian fascism spewed by Ben Carson the week before when he proclaimed that secular progressives are “antithetical” to the principles of the founding fathers.  In true lunatic fringe mode, Carson went off the rails about the Dems being in league with Lucifer, while Michele Obama highlighted the subtext of America’s New Jim Crow reality in which the descendants of the White House builders are in another kind of bondage, one cosigned by the Clinton/Obama administrations.
For his part, president Obama sounded the theme that everyone on the planet strives to emulate the U.S.  “American democracy works”, Obama declared.  “Gone” were the record numbers of black and brown inmates incarcerated in American jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities during his time in office. “Gone” were the drones that his administration has unleashed on thousands of Middle Eastern civilians marked for death in the name of American democracy.

Against this backdrop of imperialist devastation, the Khan’s display of patriotic heartbreak was tragically ironic and all too familiar.  Similar appeals touting the heroism and basic decency of Muslim-Americans were made in the wake of 9/11’s anti-Muslim backlash.  Whether viewed through the lens of 1919 or 2016, when it comes to the sacrificial bodies of people of color, this message of patriotic “redemption” is just another narrative that the “Greatest nation” will always manipulate to sugar coat its sin of endless occupation.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Black Women’s Film Confronts the Whitewashing of Jonestown

By Sikivu Hutchinson

For most people, the story of the 1978 Jonestown massacre is "simple"—a bunch of gullible Kool Aid drinking “cultists” from San Francisco followed a crazy manipulative white man into the jungle “Heart of Darkness” style and were systematically killed in the largest mass murder-suicide in American history.  For decades, a succession of Jonestown productions, most notably the 1980 TV film “Jim Jones: The Guyana Tragedy”, and countless books authored by white people, have focused squarely on the lethal charisma of the Reverend Jim Jones, leader of the infamous Peoples Temple church which emigrated to Guyana in the 1970s.  Mainstream history’s “Jones ‘jones’ “ whitewashes the fact that black people comprised over 75% of the church and that the majority of those who died in Jonestown were black women motivated by the utopic promise of a black paradise.  In the turbulence and disillusionment of the post civil rights, post-Vietnam era, Jonestown was supposed to be an antidote to the racial strife, economic inequality and segregation of the U.S.  For black women and black people looking back, one of the profound lessons of Jonestown is that these conditions have only intensified in a nation in the twilight of a black presidency.   

My 2015 novel and new film White Nights, Black Paradise are a corrective to the devaluing of this history.

I decided to produce, write and direct a short film treatment of the novel with an all-black crew and predominantly black cast of insanely talented actors out of frustration with the parade of white savior/redeemer/villain representations of Jonestown.   The short film will be a springboard for a feature length treatment.  Over the past few decades, films like Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, Django Unchained and, most recently, the cartoonish Stonewall, have used charismatic white leads to tell histories that should revolve around black folk.  Recent portrayals of Jonestown marginalize black women and omit the intersectional gender politics, queer identities and socio-historical context of the Peoples Temple movement.  Even African American documentarian Stanley Nelson’s otherwise on point 2006 film The Life and Death of Peoples Temple fails to amplify black women’s pivotal role in and contribution to the church’s activism.

Ernestine (Camille Lourde Wyatt) & Ida (Janine Lancaster) 

Doing a film adaption was also an opportunity to showcase underappreciated and underrepresented multigenerational black actresses. Many of the cast hail from screen and stage via Los Angeles’ acclaimed Black theatre company the Robey Theatre, which was founded in 1994 by actors Ben Guillory and Danny Glover.

As adapted from the book, the film production centers on black women characters partly modeled on real life Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown.  Theatre pro Camille Lourde Wyatt plays Ernestine Markham, a character based on Christine Miller; the only person recorded challenging Jones’ command that the community commit mass suicide on the so-called “Death Tape”.  Because there is so little known about Miller’s background I wanted to provide her fictional counterpart with a rich back story.  In White Nights, Black Paradise, Markham/Miller is an English teacher, politically conscious “race woman” and Temple loyalist who speaks out when the corruption and abuse in the church become impossible for her to ignore.

Hy (Aba Arthur), Jess (Dionne Neish) & Taryn (Tiffany Coty)

The diversity of belief systems in the church is reflected in the atheist and agnostic world views of lead protagonists and sisters, Taryn and Hy Strayer.  Played by electric actresses Tiffany Coty and Aba Arthur, the often contentious pair becomes involved in the Temple out of a commitment to social justice in the Bay Area.  This was the unifying theme in the lives of many surviving Temple members who lost family in Jonestown—black women and women of color like Jordan Vilchez, Juanell Smart and Leslie Wagner-Wilson (the only black woman to pen an autobiography on the tragedy*) were all motivated to stay with the Temple because of family ties and the church’s commitment to progressive politics.

The rich gender and sexual diversity of the church is reflected in the characters Taryn, Devera Medeiros and Jess McPherson.  Devera is a transwoman and writer cultivated by Jim Jones while Jess is a holistic therapist involved in an intense, often co-dependent love relationship with Taryn.   As played by Latonya Kitchen (making her film debut) and the riveting Dionne Neish, both exemplify the ways in which strong, accomplished black women became ensnared by and complicit in the Temple’s culture of persecution and terror. This dynamic is also illustrated by the role of Zephyr Threadgill, an aerospace engineer incisively rendered by Robbie Danzie, who serves as Jim’s “prosecutor” in a pernicious Salem Witch trial-esque interrogation scene. In her role as co-conspirator, Danzie is ably matched by veteran actor Darrell Philip, who nails Jones’ brooding megalomania.

Zephyr Threadgill (Robbie Danzie) & Jim (Darrell Philip)

In tackling the key role of Taryn, Chicago-native Tiffany Coty said she was attracted to the film because of the dearth of meaty, complex roles for black women in the industry.  Black actresses past the sexist “prime” of ingénue must fight tooth and nail for limited opportunities in the Hollywood pipeline.  Mainstream film has no use for older black women beyond the obligatory self-sacrificing mothers, white women sidekicks, or austere, Talented Tenth one-scene courtroom procedural judges.
In our film, black women emerge as powerful historical actors representing the entire spectrum of religious belief, “apostasy” and agency. They also have pivotal roles as documentarians of the church’s politics and power struggles.  Most fictional portrayals of Peoples Temple have avoided focusing on the complex role of the Black press in the church’s rise.  White Nights, Black Paradise highlights the influence of Carlton Goodlett, firebrand publisher of the once prominent Sun Reporter black newspaper chain as well as the Peoples Forum newspaper.  In the book and film, Goodlett’s unwavering support of Jones and the Temple is offset by the critical presence of Ida Lassiter, a fictitious investigative journalist and activist.  As played by actress and former reporter Janine Lancaster, Ida spars with Lourde’s righteous Ernestine over the emigration of the church to Jonestown and her checkered past with Jim Jones.

The limitations of interracial “sisterhood” and second wave feminist solidarity are epitomized by the divisive figure of Carol, played by Allison Blaize. Modeled on Carolyn Layton, a white Temple lieutenant, chief strategist and mother of one of Jones’ children, Carol represents one of the biggest paradoxes of the church.  White women, often sexually manipulated, were installed as “gentle” enforcers and authority figures by Jones.  The tacit conflict between black and white women over leadership upended the image of socialist egalitarianism the movement attempted to project in public. These kind of politics—all too real in this era of Clintonian white corporate feminism--are conspicuously absent from the white gaze of historical fiction. 

In White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is a space of projection for black women’s dreams, ambitions, and struggles for self-determination in apartheid America.  As Robbie Danzie (Zephyr) notes, “The novel reminds those of us passionately committed to organizations (spiritual or not), that our participation must be based on inquiry and self-study, as opposed to heightened emotion and blind faith or trust stirred by others.  Even today, there are those of us roused to action, sometimes tragically, by leaders of churches and/or political organizations, who've become intoxicated by increased money and power.”

*Jonestown survivor Hyacinth Thrash narrated her life story to an autobiographer for the book The Onliest One Alive

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of White Nights, Black Paradise and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.  The film will be released this fall.