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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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Working Women? From Plantation to Public Sector

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1705 pro-slavery tract History and Present State of Virginia, planter Robert Beverley wrote that “Sufficient distinction is also made between servants and slaves: for a white woman is rarely put in the ground…and to discourage all planters from using women so.  Their law imposes the heaviest taxes upon female-servants working in the ground…whereas it is a common thing to work a woman slave out of doors; nor does the law make any distinction in her taxes whether her work be abroad or at home.” Beverley argued that the basic condition of black women was one of enslavement.  White women indentured servants had temporary servant status (and never slave status) while black women’s bodies produced new slaves, provided the lifeblood for the capitalist plantation economy, and the moral justification for white supremacist sexual exploitation.  As Beverley so brutally and vividly framed it, “Slaves are the Negroes and their posterity, following the condition of the Mother, according to the maxim, partus sequitur ventrem [status follows the womb]. They are call’d slaves, in respect of the time of their servitude, because it is for life.

Centuries later, the insidious shadow of white supremacy’s slave breeder/Mammy/ Jezebel trifecta continues to inform representations of black women’s work.  From the shiftless lazy welfare queen to the amoral prostitute and the faceless caregiver who cleans up after hapless white folk, caricatures of black women’s work play a key role in propping up income and wealth inequality while reinforcing the myth of American free enterprise. As workers mobilize for May Day and beyond, Trumpist assaults on health care, reproductive justice, environmental protections, voting rights, public education, living wage jobs, unionization and collective bargaining have made the stakes for black women workers even higher. 

May Day LA., 2017

Contrary to popular stereotypes, black women have the highest workforce participation among all women in the U.S.; at 59.2%, compared to 57% of women overall.  Despite this reality, black women have the least wealth of any group in the nation. Fulltime black female wage earners make only 60 cents to the dollar of white men and “80% of white women’s weekly earnings”.  Wealth—which represents total assets, such as savings, property and investments—is ultimately a far more important measure of economic wellness than income.  And the persistent wealth gap between white and black women remains despite the fact that black women have the “highest growth rate of college enrollment” in the nation. 

The intersection of racism, sexism, heterosexism and global capitalism drives black women’s “overrepresentation” in the workforce.  Post-emancipation, Jim Crow and de facto segregationist suppression of black wages and institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing and education meant that the majority of black women could never stay home out of the paid workforce like many white women.  Indeed, the epic resistance of black women civil rights freedom fighters was always connected to achieving self-determination and human rights in the very homes, buses, factories, train stations, schools, churches and plants where black women endured wage and sexual exploitation.  Under these conditions, black households depended on two, three and sometimes four or more incomes to stay afloat.  With the post Cold War decline of unionized manufacturing jobs, black women’s wages plummeted even further.  In the post-industrial age, disappearing public sector jobs with union protection have undermined black economic mobility as black women are more likely to be employed in the public sector than white women. (African American women have greater representation in public sector employment than both African American men and white women.)  As the New York Times noteda combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls.” These factors, coupled with “attempts to curb collective bargaining”, have kneecapped unions.

 The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR) estimates that the gender wage gap for black women widened from 2004 to 2014: ‘Black women’s real median annual earnings for full-time, year-round work declined by 5.0 percent—more than three times as much as women’s earnings overall.’”

The through line between eighteenth century injunctions against “putting white women in the ground” and contemporary race/gender schisms in wealth and wages could not be clearer.  As black communities and black women workers hang in the balance, a socialist redistribution of wealth should be at the center of anti-Trumpist racial and gender justice agendas. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Wars Inside: Black Women and Deadly Intimate Partner Violence

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Gentleman.  Man of God.  Deeply religious.  These are some of the descriptions given to the estranged husband, stalker, batterer and murderer of San Bernardino special needs teacher Karen Smith.  Smith’s recent slaying by husband Cedric Anderson was yet another tragic and unacceptable reminder of how black women’s experiences with intimate partner violence have deadly consequences that go unaddressed.  Smith and 8 year-old student Jonathan Martinez were slain by her estranged husband in her classroom (9 year-old Nolan Brandy was wounded in the attack).  She was widely viewed as a dedicated teacher who had a talent for connecting with autistic youth. Like many unsung black women teachers working in obscurity, Smith was on the frontlines of providing equitable opportunities for students of color.

As a former stalking and intimate partner violence victim my heart went out to Smith and her young student. Once again, the ostensibly “safe” space of the classroom had been turned into a killing field and trauma site.  Smith had taken the courageous step of leaving her husband—a move that many women are unable to make. A self-proclaimed pastor, Anderson had a long history of threatening and abusing other women partners.  Descriptions of him as a “pastor and a man of god” are disconcertingly similar to shopworn portrayals of seemingly gentle, morally upstanding mass murderers and serial killers. For male predators, so-called religious authority has historically provided cover for institutionalized abuse and misogynist violence toward women and girls. The imprimatur of being faith-based often gives black men carte blanche to abuse and exploit with impunity because of the respect that these roles command in African American communities.  Virtually without fail, the abusive behavior of “faith-based” black men is attributed to the individual having “strayed” from faith or the bible; a text that condones brutal violence against women.

Each year thousands of black women are shot, stabbed, stalked, brutalized and murdered in crimes that never make it on the national radar.  Black women experience intimate partner and domestic violence at a rate of 35% higher than do white women.  They are also more likely than whites to be teen dating violence victims.  And while intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for black women, they are seldom viewed as proper victims and are rarely cast as total innocents.  When black women defend themselves, they are more likely to be criminalized, as per the example of Marissa Alexander, who was infamously slapped with a mandatory minimum twenty year prison sentence after firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-spouse (a serial abuser who, like Anderson, had a history of violence against his former partners). Commenting on the Alexander case in the Daily Beast, Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence said, “When a woman or minority is claiming they are defending themselves, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt…Most battered women who kill in self-defense end up in prison. There is a well-documented bias against women [in these cases].” And the reality is that black women are three times more likely than white women to be tried, convicted and incarcerated for felony offenses. 

The pervasive media demonization of black women violence victims is a key factor in this nexus of intimate partner violence and criminalization. Several years ago, a group of white high school students in New York thought it would be cool to don blackface and reenact the 2009 beating of pop star Rihanna by Chris Brown at a pep rally.  Like the gleefully bloodthirsty white audiences that gathered to view 20th century lynchings, there has always been a robust market for white consumption of black female pain.  Similarly, the 2013 James Brown biopic Get On Up, in which Brown was depicted brutally beating his female partner, gave the impression that charismatic black men slapping black women around was a norm that couldn’t be challenged.  The erasure of rapper and TV personality Dee Barnes’ violent abuse at the hands of Dr. Dre became a central focus of black feminist criticism of the blockbuster film Straight Outta Compton. Recent violent incidents involving black women victims and black male athletes have increased the visibility of intimate partner violence against African American women. 

Unsurprisingly, the most prominent representation of domestic violence as a national cause célèbre was the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.  After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering Brown Simpson white America wanted his scalp. Nicole was the perfect victim, the beautiful tragic heroine who died too young at the hands of a savage.  The trial of the century hinged on redeeming a white woman’s honor and bringing her Negro killer to justice.  Brown Simpson was grieved globally, transformed into a symbol of the deadliness of intimate partner violence and a martyr of a legal system run amok.  This year, the legacy of the murder was further canonized by two TV productions that won boatloads of awards. 

The everyday stories of black women domestic and intimate partner violence victims have yet to receive this kind of treatment. And the intersectional issues that black women face vis-à-vis, intimate partner violence and mental health provision are often marginalized.  For example, women are the fastest growing population among the homeless and a majority of them have been victims of sexual and/or domestic violence.  One third of the homeless population in L.A. County is female. Fifty percent of the homeless are African American.  Domestic violence shelters burst at the seams and re-victimization is common. As the poorest, most underpaid women in the workforce, women of color suffer disproportionately from the dismantling of mental health care, affordable housing and violence prevention and intervention.
To be sure, there is a deep connection between the current backlash against women’s human rights and mainstream society’s messages about “acceptable” violence.  The Christian fascist propaganda of the Trump and the white Religious Right promotes a legislative agenda based on the belief that women’s bodies are vessels, hosts for fetuses who have civil rights, “pussies to be grabbed” and T&A to be sold to the highest bidder. But the complicity of communities of color that look the other way when black women are being terrorized is a lethal enabler.

For information on ways to help Smith’s family and the North Park Elementary Community:

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Future of Feminism Girls of Color Conference

Sexual violence is an important issue for communities of color because women of color are seen as lesser in value than white women and women of color aren’t getting the justice they deserve.  - Cheyenne Mclaren, 10th grade, King-Drew Magnet High School

What does feminism mean for girls of color in South Los Angeles? How do black feminism, Latinx feminism and women of color feminism disrupt narratives of white female privilege and the marginalization of women of color in feminist movement organizing? How can girls of color challenge the silence around issues of sexual violence, homophobia and misgynoir in communities of color? 

On May 25, 2017 girls of color activists and leaders from South L.A. high schools will present ongoing school-community work on anti-racism, anti-sexism, criminalization, homophobia/transphobia, sexual violence and undocumented immigrant rights with youth serving organizations across the L.A. County. 

Info: or

Two Years after Sandra Bland, Justice for Wakiesha Wilson

Family of Wakiesha Wilson, March '17

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In July 2015, African American activist Sandra Bland died in police custody after challenging a white officer who stopped her for an alleged lane change violation.  Bland’s death generated national exposure for the high rate of suspicious police custody deaths among African Americans (Bland was one of five black female policy custody deaths that July).  Like Bland, the majority of black women who die in police custody have been detained for minor, non-violent offenses.  Nationwide, one in nineteen black women will be incarcerated during their lifetimes for nonviolent offenses—four times the rate of white women—placing them at even greater risk of being re-victimized in prison.

One year after the death of 36 year-old Wakiesha Wilson in a LAPD jail cell, her grieving family is still pushing for answers and accountability.  According to the LAPD, Wilson was the second person to die in police custody in 2016.  LAPD officials claim that Wilson committed suicide, a claim that has been vehemently disputed by her family and local activists.  At a recent commemorative march and rally organized by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, family members expressed their outrage over the blatant disregard they’ve been shown by the LAPD.  Reminiscing about Wilson’s buoyant spirit, cousin Quanesha Francis said, “She brought laughter to the family.  Her life was precious and my mom considered her as a daughter.  That was Wakiesha. The police have not reached out to the family.” After contacting the NAACP, the family was only notified about Wilson’s death when she failed to show up at a scheduled court appearance.  In 2015, twelve people died in LAPD custody, “a sharp jump from 2014”.

Last year, the Los Angeles Police Commission concluded that LAPD officers were not “involved” in Wilson’s hanging death.  However, on a police report form taken at her admission, Wilson said she did not harbor suicidal thoughts or intentions to hurt herself.  Although Wilson suffered from bipolar depression, family members who spoke with her shortly after her arrest said there were absolutely no indications that Wilson was contemplating taking her own life.  According to the family, Wilson was looking forward to coming home and reuniting with her 13 year-old son.

In September 2016, Lisa Hines, Wilson’s mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.  But justice for black folks who have died under suspicious circumstances in police custody is sorely lacking.  Often, black female victims have histories of mental illness or medical conditions that require culturally responsive care.  In the same month as Bland’s death, 37 year-old Ralkina Jones of Ohio and 47 year-old Raynette Turner of New York died in police custody despite alerting law enforcement about medical conditions requiring special medication.

Although the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) “Death in Custody” Program collects data on custody-related deaths—the majority are determined to be caused by illness or suicide, and police misconduct is seldom identified as a factor.  The data are also not disaggregated by race.  Thus, according to Mother Jones, “While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race... a rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.”

Wilson’s family maintains that twenty minutes of footage is missing from the official LAPD video of her cell.  The LAPD has yet to explain why the footage is missing.  The absence of un-redacted records and full footage has been a recurring theme in cases of black women who’ve died in police custody. In early 2016, Bland’s family pushed for a federal judge to order the FBI to review heavily redacted reports on her death to facilitate their access to complete records.

In response to the egregious lag in family notification, Representative Karen Bass recently proposed a bill, dubbed “Wakiesha’s Law”, that would require law enforcement to notify families immediately when an inmate dies in police custody.  As Quanesha Francis notes, “The initial phone call we received from the police conflicts with everything they told us…they told us there was an altercation and that Wakiesha refused to stay in her cell.  They also claimed she had no possessions.” The family contends these claims are false and the final report on Wilson’s death does not indicate that there was an altercation with another inmate. Like scores of African American families facing the nightmare of loved ones victimized by state violence, Wakiesha Wilson’s family will continue to press the LAPD to account for what happened to their precious sister, daughter, cousin and mother.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Black Feminist Atheist ‘Day Without a Woman’

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Adapted from The Humanist

Over the past several years, secular feminists of color have pushed back on the reductive single variable politics of a mainstream secular movement that has all but anointed swaggering white patriarchs like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris as the global face of secularism.  Black women have stepped up to assume leadership roles in the movement by creating their own groups and organizations. They have done so in response to a predominantly white context that is still hostile to the intersectional realities of people of color in a white supremacist society. As activists, educators and writers, they’ve connected their humanism and atheism to addressing segregated education, state violence, reproductive justice, rape culture, heterosexism, homophobia and misogyny in the Black Church and economic inequality.  In a Huffington Post piece I wrote during Women’s History month last year, I profiled activists like Mandisa Thomas, Bria Crutchfield, Diane Burkholder and the Secular Sistahs who fearlessly go beyond belief by putting a black feminist progressive face on atheism in their communities. 

 As women around the world observe a “Day Without a Woman”, a strike of non-theist women would have the same grave socioeconomic implications for atheists and agnostics (estimated at around 7% of the U.S. population) as it would for religionists.  Who, for example, would do the leading, planning, troubleshooting, organizing and caregiving that powers families of all shapes and sizes from sunup to sundown? In households across the country, women of all classes and ethnicities continue to do a disproportionate amount of domestic and family caregiving tasks.  While white women earn 85 cents to the dollar of white men, African American women (who earn 65 cents to the dollar of white men) and Latinas (who earn 58 cents to the dollar of white men) are still the lowest paid workers in an increasingly segregated, neoliberal service-driven economy that depends on their cheap labor.  In communities of color, these disparities reinforce higher involvement in churches and other faith-based institutions that may provide the kind of cultural and social welfare resources wealthier white “secularized” communities take for granted.  It’s also important to note that queer black and Latino families are more “churched” than their white counterparts.  This seeming paradox speaks to why there continues to be a gargantuan divide between people of color and whites of all religious orientations.  For secular white folk, white wealth and privilege is embodied in the jobs women of color do—from low paid domestic work to farm work—to their status as fodder for and laborers in the nation’s mass incarceration regime.  Specifically, a day without the poor and working class undocumented women of color who have been targeted by Trumpist terrorism means less profit for the police state apparatus.  For progressive secular folk, the Day Without a Woman demands heightened awareness of the role racialized and gendered “others” play in validating state violence and imperialism.  It also demands that the conservative Religious Right assault on reproductive health and women’s right to abortion and contraception should continue to be exposed as a human rights crisis that has been especially catastrophic for poor communities of color.

On the Day Without a Woman, students from my South Los Angeles-based Women’s Leadership Project will be in school writing, publishing and demanding their voices be heard on the impact sexual violence has on the lives and wellbeing of black and Latina girls and communities of color.  Last week, students co-facilitated a sexual violence forum in conjunction with a presentation by black feminist lesbian activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons, whose trailblazing work addresses global resistance to rape culture and misogynoir.  Many of the young women who participated stated that the forum was the only time sexual violence had been addressed in their school-community. Resisting the marginalization of sexual violence survivors and victims of color (of all genders and sexual orientations) is one of the many reasons the work of women of color atheists and humanists has been critical to pushing change in a polarized secular movement.     

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project feminist humanist mentoring program for girls of color in South Los Angeles and Black Skeptics Los Angeles.  Her most recent book is White Nights, Black Paradise, a novel on Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Moonlight, Black Boy and Teachable Moments

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The boys walk through the school quad playing the dozens, verbally slamming another boy in absentia for being a weak “f—g” who can’t be trusted.  It’s part of the “accepted” ritual of masculine schoolyard talk, a violent dance of bonding and ostracism that every queer and cisgender boy must navigate; one that is powerfully dissected in Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.  For conscious educators who mentor and teach black boys, Moonlight’s searing evocation of the tender, ambivalent arc of black male attraction from elementary to adulthood was a welcome antidote to caricatures of hip hop hypermasculinity.  As educators attempt to safeguard students from the latest criminalizing wave of Trumpist homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism, Moonlight offers teachable moments for a humanist, culturally responsive education that centers black queer lives.

At a recent teacher training I conducted on creating safe spaces for LGBTQI high school students, a teacher asked why it was necessary to “call attention” to issues of sexuality and difference when LGBTQI students were already marginalized?  Shouldn’t educators just treat everyone with the same dignity and respect “regardless” of sexual orientation? Educational justice activists have long argued that the colorblind ethos of classroom instruction disingenuously ignores how the values and mores of the dominant culture indoctrinate us into binary norms.  In her book Other People’s Children, educational justice writer Lisa Delpit  argues that mainstream classrooms are structured around an implicit “culture of power” which disenfranchises students of color.  Consequently, a “treat everyone with dignity and respect” approach that isn’t based on a critical consciousness about how the dominant culture works undermines intersectional identities.  In the classroom, everyday assumptions about interpersonal and romantic relationships “invisibilize” queer students.   Classroom discussions about traditional straight families headed by heterosexual parents and caregivers perpetuate the idea that good, normal family units are straight family units.  Assumptions that everyone has been brought up in a conventional family structure based on a universal nuclear family norm that is uncritically faith-based, brand queer, foster, homeless and secular youth as other.    

Moonlight breaks down these assumptions in often conflicting ways.  Though the film’s protagonist Chiron lives with his drug-addicted mother he’s mentored and “fathered” by an older black man, played by Mahershala Ali, who accepts him as gay.  His loving surrogate family supports him in ways that his brittle, largely absent mother cannot.  Ali’s delicately shaded character becomes Chiron’s first crush and compass, while the women in his life are reduced to caregivers or scolds.  Although its depictions of black women play into stereotypical binaries of black womanhood, Moonlight succeeds in foregrounding how black queer youth are often criminalized when they attempt to express themselves and/or defend against bullying and harassment.  The film’s evocative rendering of black male relationships encourages discussions about the ways in which black boys are socialized to fit into the so-called “Man Box”.  These limitations require them to act hard, emotion-less and aggressive in order to avoid being singled out as different.  

During a recent Women's Leadership Project student workshop on rape culture and sexual violence featuring black feminist lesbian activist and filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, young men of color at King-Drew Magnet High School in South L.A. talked about how they’re forced to conform to these roles or risk ostracism, ridicule or violence.  In Moonlight, Chiron is goaded into fighting his campus tormentor because of a menacing environment in which he’s constantly taunted and harassed about being gay/effeminate.  This is a familiar scenario in K-12 schools where a climate of fear and intimidation among boys (across race/ethnicity and class) is virtually institutionalized, embodied in sports culture and the often perilous ecosystem of the campus quad.  Yet, traditional anti-bullying training which fixates on “dignity and respect” ignores the way strict messaging about gender non-conformity shapes the behavior and identities of youth.  Writing about a scene in Richard Wright’s Black Boy, in which Wright kills a kitten in order to best his emotionally unavailable father, students from my South Los Angeles-based Young Male Scholars’ program commented that the dominant culture’s failure to show loving representations of black fatherhood plays a strong role in the sometimes aggressive relationships they have with each other.  In Black Boy, Wright learns violent masculinity navigating Jim Crow society, black patriarchy and his family’s “spare the rod, spoil the child” religiosity.  His relationships with other boys are largely adversarial, based on boasts, one-upping and his peers’ intimidation by his intellectual curiosity.  Early on, Wright’s father becomes the negative

role model he inadvertently ends up emulating in his struggle for daily survival. Though Wright was straight, his childhood trajectory as a poor, skeptical outcast forced to fend for himself and “become a man” within the context of unrelenting violence, is similar to the young Chiron’s.  Faced with constant slights and attacks, Wright closes himself off emotionally from the world. Similarly, Chiron withdraws from all but a few of his peers, and his muteness becomes a metaphor for society’s failure to see or hear him.  

Yet, Moonlight’s concluding scene between Chiron and his nemesis/soulmate gestures toward healing and reconciliation.  Overall, the film’s timely exploration of trauma, tenderness and caring between men is an antidote to the heterosexist swagger of the Trump administration.  Re-visioning relationships between boys and men and countering the violence of homophobic, transphobic and heterosexist trauma is central to fighting sexism and misogyny.  K-12 educators have a signal role to play in shaping classroom practice, school culture and curricula that takes up this charge, and supports the intersectional lives our youth live.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

How the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline Criminalizes Black Girls

Human Rights 4 Girls

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Over the past several years, the movement to end sexual violence has been mainstreamed through social media, K-12 prevention programming and awareness campaigns. Terms like “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming” have entered the public lexicon, and the prosecution of accused sexual predators such as Brock Turner and Bill Cosby have become cause celébrès. Yet, when the media puts a spotlight on sexual violence victims they are often young, white and middle class. And while it is estimated that one in five women will experience sexual assault or rape, young black women face a different kind of risk, informed by histories of institutional racism, violence and economic inequality. According to a survey conducted by the Black Women’s Blueprint, nearly 60% of young black women have experienced sexual assault by the age of 18. In Los Angeles County, black girls also have the highest rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization and are more likely to be arrested and jailed for prostitution than non-black women and girls. In 2010, African American girls accounted for 92% of youth arrested for prostitution in L.A. County.

These statistics reflect a long history in which African American youth are disproportionately criminalized for sex trafficking. Unlike their white counterparts, they are not viewed as innocent child victims of sexual violence. This perception extends as far back as the 1910 Mann Act, which identified sex trafficking as a form of “white slavery”, and emphasized protecting the morality of white women and white families. As legal scholar Cheryl Butler notes, “Policymakers have ignored the connection between race and other root factors that push minority and poor youth into America’s commercial sex trade.”

Senate Bill 1322, which decriminalizes child prostitution, is partly designed to address this disparity. Authored by State Senator Holly Mitchell, the bill takes effect this month (coinciding with Human Trafficking Awareness month) and prohibits the prosecution of minors for prostitution. The new policy is part of a larger nationwide push to reduce juvenile incarceration for prostitution by properly identifying trafficking survivors as victims of rape and sexual assault. Last year, L.A. County joined the victim advocacy organization Human Rights for Girls in its “No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute” campaign. The initiative was designed to decriminalize and de-stigmatize child sex trafficking victims by providing them with legal, educational and social welfare services. While these efforts are an important start, more work is needed to address the underlying cultural, racial and socioeconomic factors that lead to the disproportionate victimization of black girls.

Sexual violence against girls and women of color is rarely the focus of national civil rights organizing. Shame, moral stigma, racial disparities in policing, and sexist stereotypes about black femininity often preclude attention to disproportionate sexual violence in African American communities. Slave era notions of black women as “Jezebel” breeders influence pornographic depictions of black women as expendable sex objects in TV, film, rap music and videos. Popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat provide young people with a constant stream of sexualized images and messages, making them natural vehicles for sexual predators who exploit the insecurities of girls of color in a culture that prizes white beauty ideals.

It is estimated that the majority of child sex trafficking victims in L.A. County come from foster care. At approximately 9% of the County’s population, African American children represent a staggering 29% of foster care youth.

The nexus of sexual abuse and incarceration that ensnares child sex trafficking survivors has been characterized by Human Rights for Girls as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline”. Here, exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” African American girls in particular are more likely than their non-black peers to be re-victimized by sexual abuse in and trafficking through the foster care system.

In addition to having high rates of foster care placement, black girls are especially vulnerable to this form of pipelining because they have high rates of K-12 suspension, expulsion and incarceration. Although they are only 14% of the U.S. population, African American girls comprise 33% of the female juvenile population. At the K-12 level, racial disparities in discipline—rather than higher offense rates—make black girls more likely to be suspended and expelled than non-black girls. According to Monique Morris, president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, “the behaviors for which black females routinely experience disciplinary response are [often] related to their nonconformity with notions of white middle class femininity.”

The failure to identify and tailor strategies that are culturally specific to black girls has exacerbated the problem. For example, in February 2016, the Los Angeles Unified School Board passed a resolution directing the LAUSD to create a district-wide pilot program to address the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in its school-communities.Although well-intentioned, the resolution did not identify culturally responsive prevention initiatives that specifically addressed disproportionate rates of victimization of black girls or LGBTQ youth of color, who represent a growing, yet “invisible” segment of CSEC victims. Nor did it mandate funding for the proposed pilots. As a South Los Angeles educator, I work daily with young black girls who silently cope with the trauma of sexual and physical violence in their school communities. Inundated with cultural messages that demean and marginalize them, many of my students have grown up with the idea that violence against black women and girls is normal and justifiable.

Targeted culturally responsive training, outreach and youth leadership development that addresses not just the victims and survivors of CSEC—but the educational, health and socioeconomic factors that allow sex trafficking to thrive—are essential. School-communities must make a long term investment in mentoring programs, health education and restorative and social justice leadership initiatives that provide real alternatives for foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth in heavily impacted communities such as South Los Angeles. It is only when we build a society that values and invests in the social capital of youth of color, rather than more incarceration, jails and policing, that the sexual abuse to prison pipeline can be dismantled.