Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Rainbow on the Highway and Preventing Suicide Among Black Girls

 

 

                        #Standing4BlackGirls 2021 Rally, Leimert Park, L.A., Photo by BlueGreen

 

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“I was driving the №1 Highway in northern California and I was overcome by the appearance of two parallel rainbows. I had a feeling of near-death or near catastrophe. Then I drove through the rainbow and I went away…I put that together to form the title.” Ntozake Shange.

Poet, playwright, and activist Ntozake Shange’s 1975 “choreopoem” play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was a landmark artistic acknowledgment of the mental health toll racism, sexism, and domestic violence take on the lives of Black women. Shange reportedly considered suicide four times before writing her seminal work. Her play was only the second Black woman’s production to be featured on Broadway (after Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 smash A Raisin in the Sun). Decades later, Black female suicide is still a third rail taboo in Black communities.

It is not difficult to see why. How many times have Black folks heard that “Black people don’t” do certain things because only crazy, pathological white folks do these things? How many times have Black women, in particular, heard that running to the church, god, Jesus or faith are the most acceptable antidotes to depression, self-doubt, and suicidal ideation because “god won’t give you more than you can handle”? How many times have Black girls been gaslit into believing that staying “prayed up” will make the pain and trauma of abuse magically go away?

As an atheist and abuse survivor who has struggled with depression and suicidal ideation, hearing the litany of things “Black people don’t” do sends my bullshit detector into overdrive. The truth is, moralizing about Black conformity hinders direct engagement with the mental health risks and challenges we face — especially when it comes to addressing the dramatic increase in suicide among Black girls. Aspiring psychologist and 19-year-old college student Ashantee Polk notes that, “Suicide is simply not talked about in our communities. So many Black women and girls of all ages are dealing with mental health issues. They’re overlooked because we are supposed to be ‘strong’ and we’re supposed to be able to endure what we go through.”

The prevailing stereotype is that Black girls are superwomen in training; strong, ultra-resilient, 24/7 caregivers to everyone, and responsible for lifting up others at all costs. Fist-pumping memes and affirmations that extol “Black Girl Magic” and “Black Women Saving the World” may actually obscure the gravity of Black female depression. And, despite increasing attention to Black women’s victimization, Black men and boys are frequently prioritized in national discourse around violence and self-harm. Picking up on these cues, Black girls often see that creative Black women, or Black women who don’t conform to gender norms and expectations, are marginalized, demonized, and ridiculed. The prevalence of these messages is precisely the reason why rising rates of Black female suicide remain under the radar.

According to Time magazine, “Suicide rates among white people in the U.S. declined from 2019 to 2020, contributing to a 3% overall drop in suicide deaths in that time period. But there were no statistically significant declines in suicide rates for Black Americans or other Americans of color; in fact, for some racial or ethnic groups, rates increased from 2019 to 2020. Among Black youth and young adults, in particular, suicide rates have climbed steadily over the past two decades.” From 2003–2019, suicide among Black girls increased by 59%. The biggest increase occurred among 12–14-year-old girls.

 

What is happening in this age group? Normalized sexual violence and sexual harassment play a big role. Racist/sexist social media targeting, as well as an overall lack of protection for Black girls experiencing gender violence in elementary and middle school, are also factors. From a very early age, Black girls are subjected to a steady drumbeat of anti-Black misogyny in mainstream media and music. Glued to phones and tablets, Black girls are oversaturated with toxic imagery that brands them as bitches, hos, and thots, along with a constantly evolving array of sexists, colorist, body shaming, and victim-blaming epithets. According to the Black Futures Lab 2019 census, African Americans overall are also more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than non-Black folks (with a significant portion represented by Gen Z and Millennials), thus, constant exposure to homophobic and transphobic imagery and language are major stressors for Black youth.

In addition, the pandemic has been especially traumatic for Black girls who must shoulder the burdens of caregiving, schoolwork, jobs, and surviving rampant sexual and domestic abuseRising rates of gun homicide among Black girls and women attest to this toll. Although homicide rates rose by 30% nationwide, rates for Black women and girls increased by 33%. Writing on this issue in the Guardian, Lois Beckett and Abene Clayton note that these stats represent “a sharper increase than for every demographic except Black men, and more than double that of white women.” Living in communities where gun homicide, domestic abuse, and police violence are pervasive, there are often few outlets that provide safe spaces for Black girls.

High rates of suicide and homicide are symptoms of the same structural inequities and vulnerabilities. As Essence magazine notes, “According to the American Psychological Association, African American teenage girls surpass their White and Hispanic counterparts in suicide attempts…” Yet, some of the subject experts cited in Essence, Time, and other publications do not explicitly highlight how racialized gender disparities inform increasing suicide rates among Black girls (a 2021 Therapy for Black Girls podcast featuring Drs. Jeanette Wade and Michelle Vance is an important exception). Instead, they consistently identify racial injustice, trauma, and poverty as the most salient factors.

This is problematic. If evaluations of Black female trauma are not intersectional then prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery become even more difficult. Culturally responsive resources and safe spaces that are specifically (and unapologetically) tailored to meet the needs of Black girls are critical. Queer safe spaces such as GSA clubs have been proven to provide youth with greater motivation to stay in school, graduate, and go on to college and careers. Similarly, gender and racial justice-oriented campus and community organizations that promote civic engagement, activism, mentoring, wellbeing, professional development, college readiness, and career paths can provide safe spaces to combat depression and isolation among Black girls in particular and Black youth in general.

In a statement decrying the rise in Black adolescent suicide, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends “advocating for increased investments in programs that build a more culturally competent and minority-representative pediatric health care workforce”. Truth be told, the majority of Black youth receive mental health care at school from social workers and counselors when they receive it all. In many school districts, access to a psychiatric social worker is a crapshoot due to high student-to-practitioner ratios and policies that stigmatize Black youth as violent and criminal. This is why wellness initiatives that provide Black girls and Black gender expansive youth with therapy from culturally competent, BIPOC womanist, feminist, queer-affirming, and trauma-informed practitioners are an essential element of suicide prevention care. Informal friend, family, and mentor networks that “lead with love’, compassion, and joy” can provide Black girls across sexuality with opportunities to vent, reflect, and connect around shared life experiences are critically important.

Suicide and suicidal ideation among Black girls should be responded to holistically, utilizing a multi-pronged approach to wellness that ensures elementary, middle, and high school-aged Black girls don’t bear the brunt of normalized misogynoir and adultification. As 20-year-old Women’s Leadership Project peer educator and activist Jadyn Taylor argues, “We cannot handle everything the world throws at us, including prejudice, gender inequality, and stereotypes, with a smile on our faces and a pat on the back. We need mental health care and a system set in place for young Black girls struggling with depression. If we cannot speak about our mental health issues at home then where are we supposed to get help for free ourselves? Start paying attention to Black girls and listen when we speak because we may be begging for help without saying ‘Help’”.

*On Saturday, July 16th, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will transition to 988, offering 24/7 mental health crisis support nationwide

Mental Health Resources for African American Girls and Young Women

Black Girls Smile

#Standing4BlackGirls Wellness Initiative, provides free individual therapy for Black girls and gender expansive youth in L.A. County. The founding organization Women’s Leadership Project is a Black feminist mentoring and civic engagement program for BIPOC girls of color and LGBTQ+ youth

Wellness Action Recovery South Carolina-based suicide prevention nonprofit fun by Black female suicide survivor Fonda Bryant

Sadie Nash Leadership Project provides award-winning experiential social justice education to over 500 young women and gender-expansive youth in New York City and Newark

Therapy for Black Girls provides national resources for therapy, counseling, and outreach in addition to a mental health blog and podcast

What’s Missing from the Conversation about Black Women and Suicide with Dr. Jeannette Wade and Dr. Michelle Vance, whose work centers on suicide research & intervention among Black women and girls.

Secular Therapy with Suandria Hall

How to Talk to a Child Who is Struggling

 


Friday, June 17, 2022

Rock 'n' Roll Heretics on Stage: Black Women and Liberation

The cast of Rock 'n Roll Heretic: A Black Women's Play and Demi-Musical. Left to right: Phillip McNair, JC Cadena, Phillip Sokoloff, Janine Lancaster, Patti Henley, Brenda Lee Eager, Dina Catalid, Ashlee Olivia and Alma Schofield.
Photo by Zorrie Petrus

By Sikivu Hutchinson

It’s “Black Music Month”, and, in a parallel Juneteenth universe, Black folks would be given reparations for the looted labor of all the Black artists whose musical innovation powered the multi billion-dollar empires of white rock icons like Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. From blues to rock, R&B and beyond, early twentieth century working class Southern Black musicians were the backbone of the modern American music industry, yet they did not reap anywhere near the same benefits as white appropriators.

On June 24th, yet another Elvis biopic will drop in theaters, reminding Black folks of Presley’s role in this insidious history of white minstrelsy and theft. Elvis was one of the many admirers and imitators of Black queer blues, rock, and gospel innovator Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe pioneered electric distortion (for further information, see Jimi Hendrix’s immortal perfection of this technique) back in the 1930s and was a major figure in gospel music before Black audiences rejected her for going “secular”.  Her career and musical legacy are the inspiration for my play and “demi-musical” Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic, which debuts at the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 24th (and is adapted from my 2021 novel of the same name).

Rosetta Tharpe in Manchester, England, 1964

The play tackles the issue of Black women’s creativity in the midst of rock music industry indifference, racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia. It features original music by my band Distant Engines and sung by R&B legends Brenda Lee Eager (who has composed songs performed by Prince and a host of other music icons) and Patti Henley. Actress-guitarist Alma Schofield leads as Rory Tharpe, who is loosely based on Rosetta. 

Historically, Black women rockers were never allowed the freedom and latitude white males were. Like most Black musicians during the 1960s British Invasion era, they were shoehorned into the less lucrative and “universal” category of R&B. They were often cheated out of their royalties, publishing rights, and master recordings, while seeing their work and stylings ripped off by lesser white artists.

In the play, Rory Tharpe is pushing sixty, lives hand to mouth on the road, has her music and stylings widely appropriated by white culture vultures but has no recording contract and doesn't own her publishing rights. She battles alcohol addiction and the trauma of sexual violence in her past while trying to maintain a band. Within American literature, the “road”—as metaphor for self-exploration, abjection, and redemption—has frequently been the province of white men and white patriarchy. Jack Kerouac’s infamous road novel On the Road marked the genre as hyper-masculine. Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic seeks to disrupt these tropes by focusing squarely on a working Black female queer musician with no benefits, no job protection, and diminished expectations from a white-dominated industry that was built on the backs of Black early twentieth century Southern blues rock innovators such as Tharpe, Charley Patton, Son House, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, and Memphis Minnie.  Raised in the Southern Black blues tradition of visionary guitar artistry, Rory is a survivor of sexual abuse in the Black church and an “infidel” who rejects the Pentecostal traditions she was raised in.  

Rory (Alma Schofield, right) with her lover, Cruz (JC Cadena)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is one of the few Hollywood Fringe ensemble pieces to be written, produced, and directed by a Black woman with a predominantly Black female cast. In many regards, the production mirrors the issues Rory grapples with in the music industry. Black women producers, managers, and technicians are few and far between. And Black women musicians are often preyed on, exploited, and discriminated against by male corporate players. White gatekeeping in both the American theater and music industries prevent Black women and women of color creatives from attaining the same professional status, pay, and longevity as their male counterparts. Black women who defy artistic genres and musical conventions are at an even greater disadvantage. Commenting on this theme vis-à-vis Tina Turner’s career, playwright Katori Hall, author of the book for “Tina Turner: The Musical”, noted that both she and Turner found the greatest success and critical acclaim when they took their work overseas.

Segregated marketing, promotion, and distribution played a big role in obscuring the black roots of rock music. White-dominated rock criticism also reinforced these disparities. Most rock criticism was and is  dominated by urban white males.  The rock criticism “establishment” was also a key factor in the whitening of rock music and the marginalization of women musicians (one need look no further than Rolling Stones’ popular 100 greatest guitarist list, which has no women of color and only a few white women on it). 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 an interview with Sarah Haile Mariam of She Shreds magazine, 77 year-old blues guitarist Beverly 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. Here, Black women were pigeonholed as either hypersexualized “soul singer” Jezebels while rock guitar virtuosity was the province of white males. 


This form of erasure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Black girls don’t see Black women playing rock guitar it reinforces their exclusion from the “rarefied” realm of traditionally “male” musical instruments and genres (Google “rock music” and it’s virtually wall-to-wall white males). The play comments on this by way of the character “Sid”, who portrays a young African American girl who carries a tape recorder with her at all times. The tape recorder is a means of witnessing every day history and memorializing her own existence. It provides her with a small form of agency in a world where Black girls voices are silenced and Black cultural production is often stolen and commodified for white commercial consumption.

Rock 'n' Roll Heretics: The Play and Demi-Musical runs at the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 24th and 26th. Tickets and info

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Future of Black Wealth and L.A.'s Mayor Race



By Sikivu Hutchinson

For the past few months, billionaire Rick Caruso has been hijacking L.A.’s mayoral race, ramping up his law and order fearmongering message with a mega boost from the Police Protective League. Through an Independent Expenditure designation, the League has raised millions for attack ads smearing Congresswoman Karen Bass as corrupt, while questioning her commitment to fighting crime. The divisive race has already been sullied by Caruso’s multi-million dollar investment in wall-to-wall Youtube, TV and social media ads that have now been seen by every person with a pulse in L.A. County. Caruso’s oligarchic wealth, white patriarch arrogance, and checkbook politics have already been blasted by many community and civic leaders of color. His power grab is not unprecedented. L.A. has suffered through one rich white entrepreneur with the election of Richard Riordan’s in the 90s and the legacy election of former City Attorney James Hahn (whose dead father’s name propelled him to victory) in the 2000s.

The Police Protective League’s smear campaign is yet another assault in a race that has been tarnished by finger pointing and distraction from the bread and butter issues that directly impact L.A.’s predominantly BIPOC and impoverished communities. While folks commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the 1992 L.A. Uprising (set off by the acquittal of the four white police officers accused of beating Rodney King) last month, the question of the continuing decline of Black wealth was barely broached. Nationwide, Black homeownership has fallen off a cliff. Black homeownership rates are now lower than during the Brown vs. Board era in the 1950s. According to a recent L.A. Times report, Black employment and income rates have stagnated. Black folks in historically Black South L.A. (now a figment of the past due to the influx of Latinx, white, and Asian residents) are unable to buy even the most “modest” 1600 square feet single family homes (which have skyrocketed to one million plus) in neighborhoods they grew up in. There is a nearly $50,000 gap between Black and white incomes in South L.A. and an approximately $55,000 gap between Black South L.A. residents and white residents countywide. The unemployment rate for African Americans in South L.A. is 12%, while it is 9% for Blacks overall and 6% overall.

These bleak figures are buttressed by the continued exclusion of African American workers from higher paying professional and managerial jobs. While white and non-Black workers have experienced marked gains in private and public sector management, Black workers, and Black women especially, are grossly underrepresented. Indeed, a 2020 report by the L.A. City Controller identified an egregious pay gap between white male and Black female workers, one which only widened as Black women grew older. According to a 2017 L.A. Black Worker Center report, Black workers with a high school diploma or less education experience unemployment at almost double the rate as white workers at the same educational level. As the report notes, “over half of Black workers are employed in frontline, entry-level jobs such as floor positions and non-supervisory positions, and office work, administrative or clerical positions, which is a higher rate than white workers.” Black workers continue to experience a last hired first fired scenario, being “in senior positions at lower rates than white workers.”

At the same time, one in ten Black workers with college degrees are unemployed, while Black youth continue to have the highest rate of youth unemployment, as well as gun homicides. This perfect storm of Black wage stagnation and violence has gutted Black intergenerational wealth. As fewer Black folks can afford homes they are being pushed into homelessness, forced to double and triple up in rentals or move outside of L.A. County.

In order to confront these disparities, the next mayor will need to move beyond empty “we see you” platitudes and provide concrete remedies for redress. These remedies must include permanent supportive housing AND targeted mortgage assistance for Black homebuyers who have been priced out of traditionally Black neighborhoods, as well as investment in community land trusts, creation of youth centers for recreation, enrichment, professional development, mental health, and social-emotional learning are mandatory for Black neighborhood revitalization. For example, the Hyde Park neighborhood of South L.A. has no accessible youth centers near its feeder Horace Mann Middle School and embattled Crenshaw High School campus (Mann is adjacent to the blighted Florence Avenue corridor which has more cannabis dispensaries, storefront churches and boarded up buildings than recreational spaces for youth). Community frustration with the lack of development and accountability was reflected in a recent L.A. County town hall budget discussion meeting with Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s office. Stakeholders pushed for dedicated community services facilities, reentry services, and mental health resources — all catch as catch can in some areas of vacant-lot-rich and park poor South L.A. where the Great Migration-era Black California dream has become a nightmare, aided and abetted by complicit politicians of all ethnicities.

Congresswoman Bass has pledged to expand opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses, create green jobs, and develop more robust job/professional partnerships between the LAUSD and community colleges and universities. Mayoral candidate and community organizer Gina Viola has proposed defunding the LAPD and diverting more funding to health care, jobs, and housing, while pushing for a $39 minimum wage. Mayoral candidate and L.A. City Councilperson Kevin de Leon has proposed adding 25,000 housing units by the year 2025, expanding mental health services, and enlisting reserve officers.

None of the candidates cite policies that specifically deal with racialized gender inequities and gender violence experienced by Black women and other women of color (Bass does reference expanding access to child care). And it’s important to emphasize that the epidemic of gun violence is also an epidemic of toxic masculinity and patriarchy, which has insidious implications for racial, gender, and economic justice. Yet, these issues are not explicitly addressed in the candidates’ platforms. Nationwide, despite the rise of #MeToo and the heightened assault on reproductive rights, there is seemingly little political will to disrupt deeply entrenched regimes of sexist power, authority, and control.

The next mayor of L.A. must be prepared to step up, work with Black social justice and gender justice coalitions, push L.A. County’s workforce and economic development behemoth (which is flush with American Rescue Plan dollars), and provide concrete remedies to the continued economic disenfranchisement of Black folks. Congresswoman Bass' long track record with building social justice coalitions in South L.A, and fighting for civil rights and women's rights nationwide, makes her uniquely positioned to do this job.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Uplifting Black Community in Buffalo, Defeating White Terror in Amerikkka

 



By Sikivu Hutchinson

They came to the Tops grocery store in Buffalo to do the everyday ordinary rituals that are the unseen backbone of Black families and communities everywhere; Sunday food shopping across generations. Quick trips for a certain dinner or dessert item. Showing care in an environment that is often the preserve of women entrusted with cooking day in and day out. Giving shout outs to familiar faces in an establishment that was hard fought and hard won due to racial segregation and legacies of anti-blackness. Moments later, this normalcy was shattered, their lives snuffed out by a white predator terrorist who had methodically plotted to massacre Black folks on social media for months.

Roberta A. Drury, 32, Margus D. Morrison, 52, Andre Mackniel, 53, Aaron Salter, 55, Geraldine Talley, 62, Celestine Chaney, 65, Heyward Patterson, 67, Katherine Massey, 72, Pearl Young, 77 and Ruth Whitfield, 86.

 

These beloved family and community members are being grieved and celebrated by African American communities across the nation, reeling from the unspeakable pain and trauma of unrelenting anti-blackness.  As Jillian Hanesworth, Buffalo’s poet laureate, said recently, “So many people hate us just because we exist, and we experience that at different levels on a daily basis. We can't let society gaslight us into thinking that there's no racism.”

 

The terrorist pulled the trigger, but the ten Black massacre victims are also victims of the white supremacist nationalist hate propaganda and NRA regime relentlessly promoted by the GOP. Their blood is on its hands.

Pearl Young was a substitute teacher and ran a food pantry. Celestine Chaney was a grandmother and a breast cancer survivor. Aaron Salter was a security guard, a former Buffalo police officer and a hero who tried to stop the murderer. Robert Drury was a caregiver to a brother who had leukemia. Deacon Heyward Patterson provided transportation to folks who needed to get to the store. Margus Morrison was a bus aid. Geraldine Talley was an avid baker and mom. Andre Mackniel was a dad, brother, and uncle who was simply there that afternoon to buy his three year-old son a birthday cake. Katherine “Kat” Massey was a longtime activist-journalist and member of the Black women’s group, “We Are Women Warriors”. She was also a former block club president and prolific letter writer. Massey worked tirelessly to improve her Cherry Street neighborhood. As a result, the community has a mural and tree plantings in its front yards. Last year, she wrote a letter calling for more gun control in her community. She highlighted the deadly role that ghost guns and illegally trafficked firearms played in the uptick of neighborhood shootings. In the same letter, she ironically decried the overemphasis on universal background checks and assault weapons bans, which she viewed as a less effective remedy for urban gun violence. She also alluded to the fact that fear and anxiety over the imminent threat of gun violence in Black neighborhoods is a form of normalized trauma.

In this social media warped culture of instant gratification, letter writing has become a lost art. Massey’s letter writing ranged from spotlighting social justice issues to her favorite television shows.  Her friend and fellow community activist Betty Jean Grant noted that, “She was in love with the community and she loved Black people. She would fight for anybody, without a doubt.” Massey was part of a long tradition of Black women activist-journalists who built on Ida B. Wells’ legacy of leadership and service. These elders from the “race women” generation are more invested in giving back by mentoring younger writers than in seeing their latest piece go viral on social media.  Indeed, as more local print papers die on the vine, writing for regional publications like Massey did is also a figment of the past.

Since the massacre, there have been renewed calls for tougher gun legislation, as well as crackdowns on and surveillance of white supremacist groups. The terrorist murderer spewed his racist “replacement theory” shit manifesto and shared his horrific plans with others on Twitch, Discord, and 4chan. He is part of a long line of white supremacist terrorists who have effectively been given carte blanche due to the passivity of the federal government, the stranglehold the NRA has on gun control, the influence of de facto terrorist cells like Fox and Newsmax, and the complicity of social media corporations who aid and abet terrorist hate by looking the other way. Gun legislation and penalties for terrorist hate groups are critical to redressing this nightmare, but there must also be continued pushback against right wing efforts to dismantle anti-racist education. These racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic views on the Internet are emblematic of the erasure of BIPOC, queer and women’s history that K-12 youth encounter every day.

Citizen journalist Katherine Massey and all of the other Black women and men who were ripped from us at Tops last week were the oft unheralded movers and shakers who power our communities through their kindness, compassion, empathy, and sense of “ubuntu” or shared humanity and collectivity. A sick white terrorist lyncher will never be able to negate that.

 

Verified donor contributions to the families of the victims can be made here. Donations to the family of Andre Mackniel, who leaves behind a three year-old son, can be made here.

 

 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Sapphire Unbound: The Radical Imagination of bell hooks


WLP alumni Imani Moses at #Standing4BlackGirls L.A. 2021 rally against rape culture and sexual violence (photo credit: BlueGreen)

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Driving L.A.’s cesspit 405 freeway one afternoon in the late eighties, a voice on the radio punched out at me like a bolt from the blue. It was high-pitched and commanding, testifying to “dirty laundry” truths on sexism, victim-shaming, and Black patriarchy that Black women weren’t “supposed” to speak in public. It was a voice that calmly gave no quarter, straight up, with the lilt of a schoolroom griot. 

Discovering bell hooks’ work and voice in the twilight of the terrorist Reagan-Bush regime was a revelation. She trafficked in irreverent, daring, give no fucks language that was alternately tender and nurturing, swaggering and pugilistic. Her devotion to writing as radical resistance rocked my then twentysomething self, scribbling half-aborted stories in grubby journals; always insecure about their worth, always weathering rejection after rejection by white (and, sometimes, Black) gatekeepers, always pissing deep into the void of self-doubt and debt.

hooks’ dogged championing of Black women’s writerly self-determination in the midst of caregiving and self-sacrifice was one of many unapologetically Black feminist middle fingers she gave to respectability politics. The first pages of her 1989 book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black explore her ambivalence about being raised in a working class Southern Black family where her voracious literary interests, skepticism, and poker in the eye questioning were a source of pride and tension. Coming to voice, she reflects on how young Black girls were not recognized as rightful heirs to Black charismatic oral traditions dominated by men. As a child growing up in rural Kentucky, she reveled in women’s talk, for, it was in “this world of loud talk, angry words, women with tongues quick and sharp…touching our world with their words, that I made speech my birthright — and the right to voice, to authorship, a privilege I would not be denied. It was in that world and because of it that I came to dream of writing.” In these highly gendered spaces of Black verbal performance, “punishments for (certain) acts of speech seemed endless. They were intended to silence me — the child — and more particularly, the girl child. Had I been a boy, they might have encouraged me to speak believing that I might be called to preach…Madness, not just physical abuse, was the punishment for too much talk if you were female.”

Blasting the charmed, privileged existences of white male canonical writers, she noted that their success was undoubtedly due to having unsung, unseen women partners cook, clean, and care for them and their children. By contrast, Black women writers could never be lone wolf artistic “geniuses” because of the constant demands made on their time by family, jobs, the church, and “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. hooks’ coinage of this term laid bare the intersections of structural oppression, trauma, and disenfranchisement that Black women routinely experience in public and private spaces. Her fierce commitment to truth-telling, no matter how ugly, painful, or in-your-face subversive of sacred cows like Black patriarchy was a gold standard for Gen X Black feminist writers. Coming to voice as survivors in the post civil rights movement era, we were told that allegiance to Black men, Black patriarchy, and Christian religious mores were more important for furthering the race than our own self-determination. Hooks’ tireless critiques of the ways sexism, misogynoir, and Black folks’ investment in patriarchy undermined Black liberation were foundational for our understanding of how these disparities played out in real life. Throughout her vast body of work, she amplified the ways Black women’s bodies were commodified for capitalist consumption, power, and control. She spoke bravely of her own victimization in a violent relationship, and the silence and shame she endured disrupting the narrative of the strong, indomitable Black woman in the midst of her trauma. Long before language acknowledging victim-blaming and shaming entered mainstream discourse with the #MeToo movement, hooks broke down how toxic myths of Black Jezebel hypersexuality and Black Mammy asexuality enabled the erasure of Black women’s specific experiences with domestic violence.

Hooks was part of a rich tradition of Black feminist and womanist writers who did this essential labor. She relished her mission as a prolific writer who insisted on Black women’s “birthright” of unfettered speech — big name publishers, ivy league universities, and celebrity influencers be damned. She championed liberating feminist education and praxis from the stranglehold of colleges and universities. Her call that “feminism is for everybody” was a powerful acknowledgment that K-12 youth of all genders needed feminist education to understand and combat the direct impact institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism had on their lives.

WLP students teaching at King-Drew Magnet in South L.A.

Weaving personal narrative with critical theory and pop culture references, hooks always had the courage and audacity to challenge orthodoxies from all sides. In her 1992 essay “Revolutionary Black Women”, (from the landmark book Black Looks: Race and Representation) she cautioned against cults of personality that prevent younger Black women from learning from the examples of Black women freedom fighters like Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm. For hooks, it was important that “Coming to power, to selfhood (not) happen in isolation. Black women need to study the writings, both critical and autobiographical, of those women who have…chosen to be radical subjects.” Hooks dubbed this “critical pedagogy” an essential part of Black feminist education, of coming to critical consciousness in hostile spaces and institutions where we “are assaulted daily”.

Ultimately, “Most Black women are ‘punished’ and ‘suffer’ when they make choices that go against the prevailing societal sense of what a Black woman should say and do…whether she has called herself a feminist or not, there is no radical Black woman who has not been forced to confront and challenge sexism. If, however that individual struggle is not connected to a larger feminist movement, then every Black woman finds herself reinventing strategies to cope when we should be leaving a legacy of feminist resistance that nourishes, sustains, and guides other Black women and men.” She also recognized the value of constructive critical engagement and redress, candidly calling out the harm that Black women do to each other under the guise of “sisterhood”. When differences among Black women are demeaned and devalued, the rich complexity of Black subjectivity is suppressed. As a Black feminist atheist and humanist, hooks’ commitment to truth-telling about the dangers of Black orthodoxy has resonated with me personally. Oftentimes, some of the staunchest guardians of religious morality and respectability, as well as gender norms, are Black women who self-identify as faith-based. Having one’s Black card “revoked” for being inauthentic and traitorous is practically pro forma. Hooks’ work has always provided a framework for challenging this form of policing.

By identifying how communities of color internalize white supremacy, misogynoir, and homophobia, her entire body of work is essential to restorative and transformative justice. I’ve used hooks’ work to teach high school students to interrogate the toxic role normalized sexism, sexual violence, and harassment play in their lives. The young Black and Latinx women in the Women’s Leadership Project consistently express anger and anxiety about the devaluation of their experiences with sexism, rape culture, and victim-blaming, shaming and silencing. At the beginning of the year, most are only superficially aware of what distinguishes Black feminism from mainstream Eurocentric feminism. Fewer still are knowledgeable about the Black women pioneers who spearheaded Black liberation movements and how the issues that they fought for relate to their contemporary struggles. Yet, the seeds of anti-sexist resistance and critical consciousness are reflected in their inner voices — questioning male domination in their households, toxic masculinity in their everyday lives, and the double standards queer and straight girls experience when their sexuality is constantly policed at school, in the media, and in the community. As they move into Black feminist critical consciousness, they begin doing anti-racist peer education outreach and teaching in high school classrooms on reproductive justice, domestic and intimate partner violence, mental health, and LGBTQI+ youth empowerment. They also participate in the #Standing4BlackGirls rally and task force to develop mental health and educational resources for Black girl survivors.

From source

In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress, hooks writes that the “classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” Extending her global classroom to us through her radical imagination, hooks made this space possible for all the “yearning” Black girls who are reading, writing, speaking and blowing up the margins of silence, trauma, and invisibility.

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.