Wednesday, July 28, 2021

No, ‘Jesus’ Won’t Save You: Black Communities and Deadly Vaccine Hesitancy

 You got to be delusional to take this poison.”

“Let the wyt (white) folk have that. 

WE don’t want it.”

“Only Jesus can save us [from Covid].”

These were three of the choice YouTube comments left in response to a BNC news video of the recently relased pro-vaccination song “Vax That Thang Up” by rapper Juvenile. The “controversial” song seeks to counter vaccine hesitancy among young African Americans.

Entering the abyss of YouTube comments is always a time-sucking crapshoot. But as Covid and the new Delta variant ravage under-vaccinated Black communities, YouTube chatter is an important window onto unfiltered anti-vax perspectives. In state after state, the march of Black death from Covid outstrips the Black vaccination rate. In L.A. County, fewer than 30% of young African Americans under 29 are vaccinated, while Black Angelenos are three times as likely as whites to get Covid, require hospitalization, and die from the disease. In New York, only 33% of African Americans are vaccinated. In Washington DC, African Americans have received 43% of vaccinations, while they make up 56% of Covid cases, 71% of Covid deaths, and 46% of the total population. Nationwide, many mass vaccination sites have closed due to low demand, despite the fact that the more deadly Delta variant’s viral load is 1000 times higher than the alpha version of Covid.

Prior to the emergence of the Delta variant, Covid rates had plunged for every other group besides African Americans. Granted, low Black vaccination rates continue to be driven by deep skepticism about long histories of racist medical experimentation on Black bodies as well as access disparities that disproportionately impact poor, low income, elderly, disabled, and unhoused African Americans. But this perfect storm has also been fueled by the resurgence of an anti-vax movement cosigned by the Nation of Islam (NOI) and every other right wing conspiracy theorist quack on the Internet. As daily reports of rising Covid hospitalizations and deaths mount, social media and the anti-vax movement have gained momentum in African American communities vulnerable to the religious demagoguery of individuals like the NOI’s Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Farrakhan has argued that vaccines are a fiendish population control plot specifically designed to destroy Black folks. The Nation’s website features an ominous collage of a screaming Black child, outsized horror movie-style needles, and an elderly Black man being injected by a white male. “Don’t let them vaccinate you with their history of treachery through vaccines and medication”, the website beseeches. The NOI has a long history of opposing vaccines, stretching all the way back to leader Elijah Muhammed’s opposition to the polio vaccine in the 1960s. In 2017, NOI spokesperson Tony Muhammed began railing against vaccines as part of an insidious CDC plot to cause autism in Black boys. Although the connection between autism and vaccines has been roundly debunked, their stance precipitated a strange bedfellows' alliance between the NOI and notorious anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This spring, Kennedy’s Children's Health Defense organization released a documentary entitled “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid”. The documentary exploits African American fears of racist medical experimentation and abuse, while deceptively enlisting pro-vaccine medical experts to bolster its case.

One of the biggest canards in the documentary is the suggestion that “the anti-vaccine movement is heroically engaged in a new civil rights campaign, meant to stop experimentation on the Black community.” This boldfaced lie is itself akin to social and medical malpractice. The cold reality is that between 97% to 99% of patients dying from Covid are unvaccinated. Skepticism about racist medical legacies should not be a barrier to common sense and the overwhelming evidence that being unvaccinated is equivalent to playing Russian roulette on the Titanic. Ultimately, as infections continue to ramp up among the unvaccinated during the summer, low vaccination rates in vulnerable communities of color will have tragic consequences for the families of children returning to school (some states in the South and Midwest are not even requiring masks for K-12 students). And the pandemic has overwhelmingly demonstrated that extended Black and Latinx families who live in close quarters are the most susceptible to infection, hospitalization, and death. In addition, Covid transmission from vaccinated folks is higher in communities with low vaccination rates.

So, no, “Jesus” will not save you from Covid, nor will bashing the scores of Black doctors, scientists, educators, activists, and average folks who are knocking on doors, conducting workshops, having one-on-one conversations, and advocating for vaccination as a fundamental human right and Black community imperative. At the end of the day, the Covid vaccines are not a colonial conspiracy to take out Black folks (as Internet nonsense has insisted) but the tragic anti-vax propaganda and reckless hesitancy that are contributing to mass Black death could very well be construed as one.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Shredding While Black and Female: Juneteenth Rock 'n' Roll Heretics @ Museum of the African Diaspora

Juneteenth multigenerational dialogue on the intersectional journeys of Black women guitarists in rock, literature, and music education, featuring Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe! The discussion will explore Black women rocker’s perspectives on confronting racism/sexism/ageism and homophobia in corporate rock, defying cultural and gender expectations in the Black community, honoring unsung Black rock heroines, and lifting up Gen Z Black girl rock musicians.

Praise for Rock 'n' Roll Heretic

A broader commentary about the struggles of Black musicians maintaining access to their music and getting equal respect and rights within the music industry, and society at large. Hutchinson has written a complex story about genuine people and situations but above all, I see this as a story of love, and eventually, acceptance. The intricate, and even difficult, relationships that the characters have with one another are genuine, leaving the reader with feelings as complex as the story itself. Chick Lit CafĂ© highly recommends this amazing, powerful and inspiring book.

As with her debut novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, Hutchinson proves herself adept at creating and occupying the mind-set of multiple complex characters while deftly jumping back and forth in time to elucidate on their development...Her novel is a passionate critique of the corporate music industry and its exploitation of Black musicians and appropriation of their work, which falls hardest upon Black women artists.

--David Anderson, Goodreads

If you love fearless, bold, unapologetic strong leads, then Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is for you. Paying homage to the great trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, this book is filled with twists and turns that will leave you rethinking rock music as you know it. Sikivu has created a masterpiece that will challenge history and entertain readers for years.
Malina Moye, electric guitarist, international recording artist, and co-founder of the Drive Hope Foundation

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Over Our Dead Bodies: Ending Misogynoir and Domestic Violence


Photo by Zorrie Petrus, Leimert Park Los Angeles, 2020

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Audre Lorde once wrote that “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives”. Lorde was a literary badass who never held her tongue or shied away from calling out how white supremacy and Black sexism led to “scarred, broken, battered and dead daughters and sisters” whose trauma never makes headlines.* When I desperately needed Lorde’s voice in my teens and twenties, I became one of those battered sisters, surviving intimate partner violence in a world where “good” Black women did not buck Black patriarchy, the Black church or any other symbol of Black gender orthodoxy. Then, as now, these institutions demanded that survivors remain silent about domestic violence and sexual abuse.

This 21st century culture of silence is especially pronounced when it comes to Black women’s experiences with gun violence in the context of intimate partner violence and sexual violence. As the U.S. marks the grim milestone of 240 plus mass shootings this year, every day, Black men, Black women, and Black communities continue to shoulder the disproportionate weight of normalized death and violence. In April in Chicago, 7 year-old Jaslyn Thomas was gunned down at a local McDonalds, becoming the third child to die from gun violence there this year. According to Everytown Policy and Research, African Americans “experience nearly 10 times the gun homicides, 15 times the gun assaults, and 3 times the fatal police shootings of white Americans”. Nonetheless, gun violence in African American communities is marginalized as well as pathologized. It is viewed as a symptom of the racist stereotype that Black folks in the “inner city” are more prone to criminal violence. And it is downplayed in mainstream narratives about the prevalence of gun violence.

Commenting in Essence Magazine, former Ohio Congressional candidate Desiree Tims wrote, “As devastating as it is to acknowledge, America’s gun violence problem particularly haunts Black women; our sons, brothers and fathers are 10 times more likely to die from gun violence than their White counterparts. Equally as troubling, Black women die from gun related domestic partner abuse at disproportionately higher rates than any other group” and Black women are more likely to die from gun violence than are white men. These two key facts continue to drive a wedge in racial justice activism. Time and again, Black women across sexuality and gender identity (for example, Black trans women have the highest homicide rates among trans women in the nation) are mowed down in disproportionate numbers, yet the stigma around Black feminist anti-violence prevention education and engagement remains. Despite the fact that domestic and sexual violence affect the bodies of women of color every day, “quietly”, under the radar, domestic violence generally only pricks public consciousness when there is a high profile tragedy against white women or a mass shooting rampage committed by a stalker-abuser. As the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) noted recently, “Such violence has long been a public health issue and central concern for all women, and Black women in particular. Yet it has been largely overlooked by the public, state, and judicial systems.”

In March, the AAPF released a series of memes on the impact of “private violence” on Black women and girls. Black women are 2.5 times more likely to die by homicide. Be they trans or cis, the majority are killed by an intimate partner or relative. Black women are also more likely to experience sexual harassment at work. Normalized violence, coupled with systemic disparities in wages and health care access, have devastating implications for young Black girls into adulthood. In schools where youth have little to no sexual harassment prevention education, victim-blaming and shaming of Black girls are legion. When there is no attention to the culturally specific ways Black girls are hypersexualized and “adultified” — both by the dominant white culture and African American culture — Black girls are targeted as unrapeable aggressors who provoke violence by flouting respectability. And when there continues to be denial about the gravity of sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence in Black communities, all Black children and Black people suffer.

For example, in California, where homelessness among African Americans has skyrocketed, one in three Black women have experienced intimate partner and domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the leading catalysts for homelessness among women. Yet, as the Little Hoover Commission recently noted, “California does not have a substantial prevention or early intervention program.” In April, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence asked the state legislature for over $15 million from the Department of Public Health to coordinate statewide sexual and domestic violence prevention efforts. Part of that funding would go to prevention education, as well as food, transportation, and childcare for survivors. A core piece would provide assistance to young men and boys who are experiencing domestic abuse-related trauma.

The Partnership’s campaign for greater state funding is especially critical given the grave impact Covid shutdowns, layoffs, and school closures have had on women and girls of color globally. According to a 2021 California Study on Violence Experiences Across the Lifespan (Cal-Vex), reports of physical violence against women, including threats with a weapon, increased from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2021. Globally, there was a 25% increase in violence against women, while a majority of shelters and DV (domestic violence) providers were forced to curtail or cancel services due to Covid. Only 22% of all individuals experiencing abuse reported seeking mental or medical intervention. And 8 in 10 Californians support alternatives to incarceration for domestic abusers, and, not surprisingly, fewer Black and Latinx folks believe police are effective in violence intervention (former Assemblymember and current State Senator Sydney Kamlager has sponsored a bill that would institutionalize community-based alternatives to emergency response).

In the midst of escalating racialized state violence and terrorism, the focus on ending rape culture and domestic violence must not dim. Creating culturally responsive K-12 domestic and sexual violence prevention education that examines how legacies of white supremacy, misogynoir, colonization, segregation, heterosexism, and economic inequality shape sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and intimate partner violence is critical. Ensuring that this curriculum is mandatory for all youth across gender and sexual orientation beginning in late elementary or middle school is essential. Ensuring that boys and young men are trained to be allies in identifying, questioning, and ultimately disrupting sexual harassment and sexual violence is fundamental. Ensuring that queer lived experiences and that of disabled youth of color are valued, lifted up, and made visible, is also essential. Although California passed a sweeping CA Healthy Youth Act in 2016 mandating comprehensive HIV/AIDS and sexual violence prevention instruction for middle through high school grades, most students only receive piecemeal instruction if any.

On June 16th, youth and adult allies from the #Standing4BlackGirls task force and coalition will address these issues at the 2021 annual Future of Feminism conference which is dedicated to spearheading community-based solutions to end sexual violence and rape culture against Black girls and girls of color. At the beginning of the year, the task force spearheaded a wellness initiative fund to provide free culturally competent therapy services for Black cis/straight and queer female-identified survivors in partnership with the BIPOC queer-affirming Open Paths Counseling Center in Los Angeles. Making this resource accessible to more young women, as well as developing a California state bill that provides mandatory anti-racist and queer-affirming domestic and sexual violence prevention education, are priorities of the task force. Investing in prevention and Black girls’ self-determination will ensure that the deadly reality of “one in three” broken, battered and dead sisters comes to an end.

*Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining,” from Sister Outsider

Sikivu Hutchinson is a writer, educator, and director. Her books include Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical and the new novel Rock ’n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe. She is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, Black Skeptics L.A., and a co-facilitator of the Black LGBTQI+ Parent and Caregiver group.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

#Standing4BlackGirls Sexual Assault Awareness Month Task Force meeting

"For every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not report."

Every year, thousands of Black women are shot, stalked, brutalized, murdered, and sexually assaulted but this "pandemic within a pandemic" violence never makes it on the national radar. Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate of 35% higher than do white women.

According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, "Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their white counterparts. And, more than 9 in 10 black female victims knew their killers. Black women also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse — including humiliation, insults, name-calling and coercive control — than do women over all."

Moreover, according to a Black Women's Blueprint study, between 40-60% of African American girls will experience sexual abuse by the time they turn eighteen. Black girls are also less likely to report sexual abuse and rape than non-Black girls, while being systematically victim-shamed, blamed, criminalized, and gaslighted when they speak up about rape and sexual assault. According to a 2020 survey of over 150 South L.A. youth by WLP students, a majority of African American girl sexual violence and harassment survivors did not receive help, therapy or mental health intervention.

On April 29th, join the Women's Leadership Project and sexual violence prevention activists Chardonnay Madkins and Imani Moses for a youth #S4BG task force discussion on community-based outreach, prevention and policy strategy to end rape culture and sexual violence against Black girls and girls of color. 

Article: "Why It's Harder for African American Women to Report Campus Sexual Assaults"

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Justice For Ma’Khia: Abolition Blooming Rebellious

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom Rebellious. Living. Against the Elemental Crush — Alice Walker, “Revolutionary Petunias” (for Ma’Khia in National Poetry Month)

Four shots. Yesterday, four shots from a terrorist claimed a vibrant young life. They shattered the fleeting justice celebrated in Black communities around the world after a Minneapolis jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of manslaughter in the murder of George Floyd. On Tuesday, Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, was killed by four bullets fired by a Columbus, Ohio police officer who used deadly force after responding to her 911 call for help. According to testimony from her family, Ma’Khia was defending herself from “several adult women” who had come to fight her at the foster home where she was living. She was slain the same afternoon Chauvin has led away from the courtroom in handcuffs. As George Floyd’s brother Philonise noted after the verdict, the decision was bittersweet, because “we will have to be here (protesting and marching) for the rest of our lives”. His words hold painful resonance for the family of Daunte Wright, gunned down last week by a white female police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, as well as that of Ma’Khia and so many others grieving police murder victims brutally denied justice.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Sexual Violence and the Ballad of Black Genius



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her 1970’s anthology In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker asks, “What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time…Did you have a genius of a great great grandmother…whose body was forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)”? It is a question, she says, “with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.” The question of the deferred artistic dreams of Black women ancestors is central to the new National Geographic Aretha Franklin biopic Genius, written by acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Genius attempts to peel back the onion layers of Franklin’s meticulously crafted public image. In so doing, it foregrounds the normalized violence Black women experience in Black families, the church, and the entertainment industry.

As an admirer of Franklin’s towering 1972 Amazing Grace church concert album, I was excited to see the biopic. Franklin’s gifts as an accomplished pianist, writer, composer, and arranger are often given short shrift in her deification as soul music’s paragon. These gifts are on full display in the 2018 Amazing Grace documentary, which showcases Franklin’s musical dexterity and command, as well as her volatile relationship with her father, civil rights icon Reverend C.L. Franklin.  There is a vivid scene in the film in which C.L. pats sweat from Franklin’s brow as she sits at a piano onstage.  This intimate gesture is a subtle yet telling window onto their alternately tempestuous and tender history; one that was fraught with the secrecy of sexual and domestic violence. Genius interweaves scenes of the domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and early pregnancies Franklin suffered with references to C.L.’s rape and “impregnation” of a 12 year-old girl in his congregation.

As a revered Christian patriarch, C.L.’s heinous actions have often been rationalized as an artifact of a “less enlightened” era (indeed, the word “rape” is seldom used to describe the trauma he inflicted on the young child). Part of the reason why I wrote my new novel Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe was because I wanted to explore how White and Black America reveres and reviles self-determining Black women musicians steeped in these histories of sexual violence and resistance. Raised in the Southern Black blues tradition of visionary guitar artistry, Rory, the novel’s protagonist (loosely modeled after trailblazing Black queer rock, blues and gospel guitarist Rosetta Tharpe), is a queer former child prodigy battling depression, addiction, and music industry marginalization. A traveling musician with no recording contract, she fronts an all-male band whose dependency is an albatross as she fights to secure her publishing rights and regain her footing in the corporate rock regime of the late seventies. Her relationship with her organist-manager mother is foundational to both her creative struggle and inner demons as a survivor of sexual abuse in the Black church.  Traveling from a middling dive-gig in Boise, Idaho to Nashville, she becomes entangled with the rock industry juggernaut of a Janis Joplin-type figure named Jude Justis.  Justis/Joplin, of course, signify the long tradition of white minstrelsy and theft that has historically informed the commodification of African American cultural production in general and rock music in particular.

My novel also situates this conflict within the context of cult religion, the prosperity gospel, and the rise of televangelism as a cultural force. For Black women, respectability politics are a crucial element in the enforcement of these morally policing institutions. Respectability, or the conformity to “feminine” norms of purity, piety, and submission, based on deference to heterosexual male authority, is especially constraining for Black women sexual violence survivors. Genius spotlights the intersection of Black women’s creativity and respectability politics amidst straightjacketing Black Christian religious traditions. Franklin’s struggle for independence and control from her father shapes the series’ stab at a womanist ethos. Long perceived as the prototypical “strong Black woman”, Franklin’s resistance to C.L.’s efforts to dominate her career and personal life gives rare insight into the creative autonomy of an elusive figure whose artistic discipline has long been dwarfed by her legend status.

Alice Walker addresses this dynamic in Gardens. She frames Black women’s creativity as a constant process of reinvention. It is a process that involves reclaiming the lives of "grandmothers and mothers of ours (who) were not Saints, but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release." Acknowledging, calling out, and coming to terms with the legacies of abuse that these women (often) suffered in silence is central to this journey.

In her piece “Aretha Franklin, Sexual Violence and the Culture Dissemblance”, Rachel Zellars argues that respectability politics, Black patriarchy, and silence around sexual violence in African American communities contributed to Franklin’s deep guardedness about her career and family. The long tradition of protecting Black men first and foremost, while prioritizing racialized violence against Black men, has often undermined Black women’s push for accountability on sexual violence. As Zellars notes, “This seemingly intractable custom of silence has been long curated and reinforced in Black communities, Black organizing, and Black intellectual work. Against a backdrop of enduring stereotypes about Black womanhood and a reactive protectionism extended primarily to Black men, the ‘culture of dissemblance’ has helped minimize Black women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence. It has, at times, encouraged a short-sided historical narrative of plantation violence, emasculation, lynching, and mass incarceration while centering the experiences of Black men. Pragmatically, it has fostered a decorum of intracommunity censorship that pits Black women who remain silent, powerfully, against those who detail their own stories and name names.” Genius juxtaposes multiple scenes of graphic and implied violence with Franklin’s meteoric rise as a multi-talented musician who commands both studio and stage with her expertise.  It implies that women who did name names, such as Franklin’s mother, Barbara Siggers (a talented singer and piano player in her own right who died at the tragically young age of 34), were “invisibilized”.  

In Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic, women who name names are also penalized and victim-shamed by the community, while those who remain complicit are alternately rewarded and betrayed by the very Christian religious power structures they cosign. Fellow Black women who cosign, downplay or deny sexual violence are key to the novel’s raw exploration of Black women’s stifled creativity and ambivalent solidarity, which troubles the highly westernized, male-centric narrative of the singular “genius”.

In Genius, Franklin is shown rising to the challenge of the political turbulence and racial strife of the sixties and seventies while maintaining her artistic integrity in a white man’s corporate music world. Yet, legacies of trauma and abuse still informed her desire to craft a storybook public image and family life. In this regard, as Zellars notes, she was like scores of everyday Black women, who, “faced with social conditions too commanding to…overcome, found a way to keep going, to keep working, and to manage the terror of violence by holing it up and tightly protecting its secrecy.” It is a lesson that continues to be a bitter pill to swallow in our celebration of Black genius.

Rock 'n' Roll Heretic will be featured at the Saturday, March 27th, Women’s Leadership Project Black Women in Rock Women’s History Month youth-led roundtable with Black women electric guitarists from across the nation.



Saturday, March 6, 2021

The BlackFemLens: The Media Done Responsibly 2021 Virtual Film Festival

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Back in the day, before digital video and the Internet, independent filmmaking was regarded as a “mystical realm” dominated by charmed white boy wunderkinds and the “odd” man of color “maverick”. As independent film has exploded, so has the market for film festivals, such that there is one to fit every niche and predilection. Unfortunately, many of these ventures run on the same old cronyism, Eurocentrism, and hetero-norms that continue to tokenize and ghettoize women of color filmmakers. Case in point is the Philip K. Dick Science Fiction and Supernatural festival, a platform that boasts a standalone category entitled (direct quote), “Best African American, Latino and other Person of Color Science Fiction Movie”. Giving the huddled masses of the “other person of color” community a nice pat on the head, Dick’s programmers swaggeringly note that “we are the first US festival that offers this long-awaited category.”

The film industry is rife with great white savior proclamations like these, which is why Media Done Responsibly’s (MDR) new virtual film fest is a timely antidote. Founded by Shaunelle Curry, MDR’s CEO, the festival kicks off this weekend to mark Women’s History month, focusing on emerging independent BIPOC, immigrant, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ filmmakers. According to Curry, “The goal is to center the voices of diverse storytellers by amplifying their complex humanity from their perspectives, in their words and through their lens”. The event is a signal opportunity to boost the voices and visions of artists who are often “invisibilized” in a film world where Black women still comprise fewer than 1% of major studio film directors. As per the 2019 USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the dearth of Black women directors is compounded by the underrepresentation of women of color editors, production designers, composers, cinematographers, producers and critics in the multi-billion dollar film industry.

By challenging the gatekeeping white folks’ regime, festivals like MDR’s can play a critical role in advancing Black women as drivers of production and film innovation. The festival slate includes works that examine state violence against Black folks (Man Down, January 14th), adultification/criminalization of Black girls (Pushout), LGBTQIA acceptance in families (Parental Guidance SuggestedProud Dad), mental health care (Mickey Hardaway), suicide (Baby Steps) and unhoused African American women and girls (Defining Ourselves). I am honored to have two short films that were chosen as Official Selections at the festival — White Nights, Black Paradise, and my sci fi webseries Narcolepsy, Inc, which both feature older women of color actresses as protagonists; a demographic that is all but invisible in mainstream film. I am also a producer on teen filmmaker Zorrie Petrus’ Official Selection student documentary, “Defining Ourselves, For Ourselves”.

The festival will feature panels with filmmakers and community organizations, as well as sessions focusing on the work of acclaimed documentarian Byron Hurt (creator of the landmark social justice film, Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes), and young entertainment and arts activists. The MDR festival runs from March 4th-11th.

Tickets and info @