Monday, March 6, 2023

Shelter from the Storm: On Epidemic Sadness and Trauma Among Girls and Queer Youth

  #Standing4BlackGirls rally in South L.A. 2022, Photo by Isaac Barrera

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, the 19th century abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs entitles one chapter, “The Trials of Girlhood”. In it, she describes the ritualized sexual violence that enslaved Black girls were subjected to during the antebellum period. Upon turning 15, Jacobs noted that, “No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress — in either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.” For Jacobs, the fact that these atrocities were committed against Black girls under the guise of Christian morality was another brutal contradiction.

Flash forward to the twenty first century, and Jacobs’ experiences with rape culture’s trauma continue to reverberate for Black girls and femmes. According to a new CDC report, “57 percent of girls and 69 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual teenagers reported feeling sadness every day for at least two weeks during the previous year. And 14 percent of girls, up from 12 percent in 2011, said they had been forced to have sex at some point in their lives, as did 20 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual adolescents.” Nationwide, Black girls have some of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence victimization, with nearly 60% experiencing sexual abuse by the time they turn 18.

When I was growing up in the eighties, there was virtually no language to support Black girl survivors like me, much less a national platform or movement. It was “understood” that sexual harassment, sexual violence, and teen dating violence were just part of the “trials” of being young, Black, and female. It was understood that the “trials” of being a Black boy superseded and took precedence over Black girls’ trauma. Black folks did not take to the streets en masse to demand an end to sexual and domestic violence. And, beyond slavery, and misogynist, victim-blaming rap and rock lyrics, there were largely no mainstream portrayals of Black girls’ experiences with sexual violence. Influential texts such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide when the rainbow was enuf were rarely taught in middle school or high school settings. This erasure was compounded by the fact that white women sexual violence victims were almost always the lead protagonists in soap opera dramas and infamous “after school specials” that once dominated network TV.

In the 8th grade, I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and was riveted by the narrator Celie’s voice. Her poignant questioning and unapologetic affirmation of her own truth amidst the pain of rape, abuse, and abandonment powerfully illustrated how writing could provide healing space. Decades later, I was well into my thirties when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s searing indictment of sexual violence, colorism, internalized racism, and segregation is as potent today as it was during the seventies when it was published. As seen through the eyes of middle school Black girls, the story of The Bluest Eye is at once tragic and triumphant. Triumphant because it hints at the complexities of Black female agency in the midst of generational trauma. The only difference between the girlhood trials of Morrison’s protagonist Pecola Breedlove and those of contemporary Black girls is the Internet. If Pecola “existed” today, she’d be cyberbullied into silence, gaslighted about her trauma, branded as a race traitor, and told to pray it away.

According to the CDC’s Kathleen Ethier, “Of every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one of them — possibly more — have been raped…And so, not surprisingly, we’re also seeing that almost 60% of teen girls had depressive symptoms in the past year.” The report confirms that these levels are the highest reported in a decade. Moreover, “1 in 3 girls had seriously considered attempting suicide, which is up by 60% over the last decade. (And among) teens who identify as LGBTQ+ more than half reported experiencing poor mental health…(while) 1 in 5 had actually attempted suicide in the past year.” From 2003–2019, suicide among Black girls increased by 59%. The biggest increase occurred among 12–14-year-old girls.

The report was based on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey , which was given to 17,000 teens in the fall of 2021. Nationwide, girls across ethnicity are experiencing record levels of violence, much of which is normalized as a kind of rite of passage and exceeds what males are experiencing. This casual, routinized violence silences scores of Black girls, young women, and queer folks. As one of my 10th grade students put it, the violence that girls experience is so normalized that many don’t even know how to classify it. Being called out of one’s name or being slapped on the butt can easily progress to being pushed, grabbed and pressured to have sex. Victims struggle to be heard and validated, often going against the grain of school cultures where violence against girls and female-identified youth is not taken seriously. Because sexism and sexual violence are not deemed to be a public health crisis, Black and BIPOC girls face rampant denial that it is important. This lack of priority is reflected in the language used to describe, demean, sexualize, and police Black girls’ behavior.

In many schools, sexual and reproductive health are taught once in health classes, typically during 9th grade. Mandatory prevention education all four years of high school would have a critical impact on curbing high rates of domestic and sexual violence among teens and young adults. For example, a 2021 study showed a significant link between mass shootings and domestic violence. From 2014–2019, 59.1% of mass shootings were DV-related. In over 68% of mass shootings, “the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member or had a history of DV”. Granted, mass shootings only account for 1% of gun homicides in the U.S., yet their public and psychological impact is immense. At the same time, the everyday gun homicide that occurs in communities of color rarely receives the same media attention, and Black women and girls pay the steepest price.

How many Black girls have to die or psychologically languish before our communities mobilize to end the epidemic levels of gender-based violence and homicide they are experiencing? Free accessible therapy, arts-based healing, youth leadership support, and community-building opportunities and literature circles featuring Black feminist, BIPOC and queer books can provide coping resources for and safe havens from the unrelenting violence Black girls, femmes of color and queer youth experience in their everyday lives. Regular check-ins from engaged adult mentors on the hopes, aspirations, fears, and dreams of youth with anxiety can also be healing. Depression and sadness shouldn’t be normalized as the “constant companions” girls and queer youth carry with them. Black feminist, womanist and anti-racist humanistic interventions can and should be the prescription for long term mental health restoration for our youth.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Medical Apartheid in Inglewood: Justice for April Valentine


Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Reverence for white pregnant women, white motherhood, and the maintenance of white families are an integral part of American national identity. Built on a white supremacist standard of care that favors, privileges, and uplifts white bodies as the “invisible” norm and standard of humanity, Black folks are automatically dehumanized in these systems.

April Valentine, photo by Valentine family

On January 10th, April Valentine, a 31 year-old African American young woman who was pregnant with her first child, died at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood after complaining to nurses for hours about numbness in her legs. Over the past two weeks, her family and hundreds of supporters from the community have gathered at the hospital to protest her death and call for justice. Valentine gave birth to a baby daughter named Aniya before she passed away.

Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

Valentine’s cousin, Mykesha Mack, has been leading the protests at Centinela. She described her cousin as a warm, loving person who had a special passion for helping children. At this Saturday’s demonstration, she lamented that Valentine, “Couldn’t wait to be a mother, and she was robbed of that. She could be your sister, your daughter or your cousin. This is a human rights issue.”

Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

The family maintains that Valentine’s regular doctor was not present when she started to experience distress and didn’t come for hours later. They also criticized the facility’s old equipment and expressed dismay that Centinela is one of the only hospitals in the Inglewood area, serving a predominantly Black and Latinx working class community. This week, they will meet with Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell and District 35 Senator Steven Bradford. They are also requesting that California Attorney General Rob Bonta launch a state investigation into Valentine’s death. Mack has also recommend that supporters show up to Inglewood City Council meetings to provide public comment and press for accountability.

Mykesha Mack, Justice4AprilValentine rally, photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

According to Google reviews from former pregnant and parenting patients who were treated at Centinela Hospital, Valentine’s experiences were not unique. As one former patient wrote, “This is the worst hospital to have a baby. I got the worst care from an admitting nurse…She was very rude to me. She kept putting me down about my health issues and weight. When it was time to transfer to another room, she kept telling me to hurry up so my baby won’t be born on the floor. She also told me not to scream because I will scare other women. She treated my husband horribly like he was a stranger. Even told him to go outside to ask if I was being abused. I think she did that because my husband is black.”

Another patient who was 36 weeks pregnant related that she encountered rude and unprofessional behavior which made her feel unsafe. The staff member she dealt with “made comments on my personal life. Instead of helping me she was more judgmental. I wasn’t even seen by a doctor and was not provided a wheelchair.”

The anti-Blackness that these women experienced appeared to be normalized within the culture of this facility (another Black male patient also complained about racist behavior from staff and numerous posters expressed outrage about delays in treatment). Mistreatment of and disdain for Black patients is baked into the American medical establishment. High rates of maternal morbidity among Black women attest to systemic failures not only at the level of inpatient care but also at the prenatal level.

According to the CDC, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. The 2020 rate for white women was 19.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. Lack of access to overall quality healthcare due to the intersections of poverty, racism, and anti-Black misogyny, as well as underlying chronic conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity), and the “implicit bias” of health practitioners are leading factors in these disparities.

One solution that has been implemented with success is providing Black women with doula support. “Doulas offer guidance on pain or complications ahead of delivery and help clients navigate hospitals and doctors. Continuous guidance from a doula has been cited as one of the most effective interventions in easing pregnancy. Doulas offer guidance on pain or complications ahead of delivery and help clients navigate hospitals and doctors”.

Doulas are an important intervention, but preventive education that challenges racist/sexist perceptions about Black women is also critical. Centuries of anti-Black misogyny have constructed Black women as subhuman breeder/Jezebels who are immune to pain, less “feminine” than white women, and thus not worthy of care or protection. As Hannah Nikole Jones notes in the 1619 Project documentary, “All these centuries later, false beliefs about Black women’s pain and their humanity still impact the reproductive health care they receive and the consequences for black women and their children.”

As of this date, Valentine’s family has not received any information or correspondence from the hospital about the circumstances leading up to her death. Valentine’s horrific and unconscionable experience underscores why the U.S.’ medical apartheid regime continues to pose a clear and present danger to Black women, communities, and families.

Action Steps:

· Supporters who would like to donate a virtual gift card to April’s baby can contact or donate to the GoFundMe for Aniya.

· Community members can also contact the following elected officials who represent Inglewood residents directly:

o Representative Maxine Waters @repmaxinewaters or
 Senator Alex Padilla @senalexpadilla or 310–231–4494

Supervisor Holly Mitchell @hollyjmitchell or
 Inglewood Mayor James Butts @mayorjamesbutts or 310–412–5111

· Community members can also call Prime Healthcare, the owner of Centinela Hospital, and demand that Dr. Prem Reddy step down at 909–235–4366.

· Inglewood City Council meetings are held on Tuesdays at 2pm. Info on how to provide public comment

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Abortion is Economic Justice: Reproductive Freedom and the Midterms


#Standing4BlackGirls 2021 rally: Photo by Isaac Barrera

 By Sikivu Hutchinson

This morning, I listened to an abortion procedure on NPR and it was a powerful thing. A patient at a Michigan clinic had consented to having her procedure recorded. She wanted to underscore its life or death importance in a climate where Michigan citizens will vote next week for an amendment that would enshrine abortion rights into the state’s Constitution in rebuke of a 1931 law whose enforcement would impose a total ban.  The recording was also a beautiful f-you to the white Christian nationalist fascists who want to destroy pregnant peoples’ right to bodily autonomy and economic self-determination. It was a bird flip to ignorant commentary from a male voter on MSNBC who recently dismissed abortion as a “luxury” that was far less important than inflation as a midterm election priority.

To this individual and others like him; repeat after us—abortion access is not a luxury or a vanity item for suburban white women. It is lifesaving, it is health care, and, safe, unrestricted access is critical to the wellbeing and economic justice of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. Abortion was ranked as the number two concern among Latinx voters in a National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) poll and is a leading issue among Black voters. Approximately 8 in 10 Black voters disapprove of the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

Since then, women and pregnant folks across the nation have had to travel from Midwestern and Southern states for abortion care, often risking their health, jobs, financial status, and sanity. The extreme personal risk required to travel to sanctuary states for abortion care should be placed within the context of a nation that has no universal child care provisions, disgraceful Black maternal mortality rates, skyrocketing child poverty rates (which had temporarily fallen due to the Child Tax Credit, waylaid by Senator Joe Manchin), and a massive wealth gap between white, Black, and Latinx families.

A GOP takeover of the House and Senate after the midterms would deal a devastating blow to human rights in the U.S. Over the past year, SCOTUS’ singular mission to decimate church/state separation, abortion rights and worker protections has been one of the most virulent examples of Trump’s lasting legacy. The GOP threat of a national abortion ban makes passage of amendments like Michigan’s and California’s Proposition 1 essential.

Proposition 1 would enshrine the “fundamental right” to abortion and contraception into the state’s constitution, preventing future administrations from restricting access to folks seeking reproductive care. It would further cement California’s status as an abortion and reproductive health care sanctuary state. Over the past few months, the state has proactively moved to shield pregnant folks traveling to the state for abortion care from surveillance and prosecution. It has encumbered funding for more clinics and services, as well as expanded protections for trans youth.

California Republicans have vilified Proposition 1’s vagueness about “viability”; claiming that the law would permit late term abortions well beyond the 24-week viability line delineated by the Supreme Court under Roe. Doctors have pushed back on these characterizations, arguing that “viability” is a loaded and essentially meaningless term when considering the diverse circumstances of an individual pregnancy.  In May, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists removed the term viability from its guidance on abortion. As NPR notes, “The group explained that the term has become so politicized that it barely has any medical meaning anymore, and deciding whether and when to have an abortion should be left to the patient and doctor.”

That said, opponents of Proposition 1 have invoked the same dangerous anti-abortion propaganda that help enshrine theocratic power, policing, and control over women, queer folks, their families, and communities. Fortunately, 71% of California voters support Prop 1 but knowledge about its existence and implications remain limited among the very Gen Z youth it would provide the most protection for now and in the future.

Indeed, political education about the importance of unrestricted abortion and reproductive care is especially critical in a state where the “fundamental right” to abortion may be solidly protected but access is still inequitable across race and sexuality. For example, although Black women are more likely to utilize abortion care than non-Black women, Black girls across sexuality are more likely to experience victim shaming, blaming, intimate partner violence, gun violence, homelessness, low wage employment, and other physical, economic, and social pressures when they become pregnant. They are less likely to have access to a culturally competent medical provider while also shouldering the burden of being caregivers and breadwinners at an early age. The high rates of sexual and domestic violence victimization among Black girls make them especially vulnerable to disparities in access to and information about birth control, STI and STD prevention resources. Moreover, the prevalence of domestic and intimate partner violence among Black women overall puts them at greater risk of maternal and child homicide in situations with abusive partners.

The battle over reproductive rights and reproductive justice is a clear and present danger to BIPOC socioeconomic mobility. For far too long, full bodily autonomy has been the province of an elite few. Elite control of bodily autonomy is the foundation of white wealth in a capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, colonialist, heterosexist, and ableist society. Gen Z BIPOC futures depend on dismantling these regimes of power, authority, and control. 

In a post-Roe society, state constitutional amendments for reproductive freedom are a key step towards reparations.

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.