Thursday, March 25, 2021

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

 

 



By Sikivu Hutchinson

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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



 

 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The BlackFemLens: The Media Done Responsibly 2021 Virtual Film Festival


By Sikivu Hutchinson

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

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

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

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

Tickets and info @ https://mdrff21.eventive.org/welcome

Friday, March 5, 2021

Fighting for 15, the Equality Act, and Black Queer Families

 



 

By Sikivu Hutchinson

As the Religious Right doubles down on its fascist grip on Midwestern and Southern state legislatures, the House recently passed the Equality Act, which grants historic protections to LGBTQI+ communities in the workplace, public accommodations, and public education. The Act now moves to the Senate, where it faces stiff opposition from GOP “Christian family values” bigots. The House’s support comes at a critical juncture in the pandemic, coinciding with the Democrats’ efforts to pass the Covid relief bill, increase the federal minimum wage (temporarily derailed by “Senate parliamentarian rules” bureaucracy and Democrats’ gutlessness), and institute a “child allowance”. While passage of the Equality Act would be an economic justice watershed for LGBT communities overall, the Act, along with these pieces of legislation, could significantly boost African American queer families.

Nationwide, Black LGBT families are more likely to be at or below the poverty line than non-LGBT Black families, with poverty rates of 30.8% to 25% respectively. According to the Human Rights Campaign and the National Black Justice Institute, a majority of Black youth have been subjected to homophobic climates in their schools, families, and neighborhoods. Hence, the Equality Act would be a sea change for LGBTQ+ communities long disenfranchised by everyday religious bigotry, normalized transphobia, poverty wages in the workplace, and exclusion in public schools.

The Equality Act “would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” It effectively buttresses the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, and transgender Americans. Gender identity and sexual orientation would become federally protected class categories (as race and gender are currently), affording LGBT folks legal rights to employment, schooling, and housing regardless of what state they live in. Federal expansion of civil rights to queer communities is critically important because many states in the Bible Belt and Midwest do not have laws explicitly protecting LGBT workers and families.

 The legislation has elicited the usual backlash from conservative religious groups due to the threat it poses to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFRA. The RFRA essentially gives religious groups carte blanche to discriminate against LGBT folks under the guise of protecting “religious freedom”.  According to NPR, “Under the Equality Act, an entity couldn't use RFRA to challenge the act's provisions, nor could it use RFRA as a defense to a claim made under the act.” By taking away the legal foundation of so-called religious freedom claims, the Equality Act would reinforce church-state separation and curtail religious fundamentalists’ federally sanctioned license to discriminate.

Legal barriers to LGBT equity are undergirded by disproportionate poverty levels among queer families of color. The Williams Institute estimates that Black LGBT couples earn less than non-LGBT couples, while Black female-headed same sex households earn approximately $20,000 less than Black male same sex households. African American lesbians in particular are more likely to be raising children, while being segregated into low wage jobs with few benefits and nominal workplace protections. It is projected that the child allowance would cut child poverty in half, with African American and Indigenous families reaping the greatest benefits. According to the Economic Policy Institute, over thirty percent of Black workers would get a raise if the federal minimum wage increases. LGBT families of color would directly benefit because many Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming rank and file workers are employed in low wage service and food sector jobs.

Nationwide, people of color in general, and Black youth in particular, are more likely to identify as queer, a fact still obscured by cultural representation that privileges white queer lives and childless white gay men. These major demographic shifts away from Black hetero-norms are rarely addressed in Black liberal economic justice discourse. And, truth be told, even the most “progressive” Black pundits assume straight/cis single or two parent households when condemning institutionally racist family policies. The new safety net provisions can help create and preserve multigenerational wealth among Black queer families doubly marginalized by white supremacy on the one hand, and Black heterosexism on the other. But it will only be through forging coalitions which go beyond Pride celebrations, and actively fight for Black queer familyhood, that true Black community self-determination will be achieved.  

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

 

 


 


Thursday, February 25, 2021

#Standing4BlackGirls Task Force Meeting: February 25th


In the spring of 2020, WLP youth surveyed over 150 youth of color sexual violence and harassment survivors on their experiences with mental health care. The majority of Black girl survivors who responded had never received mental health care intervention or counseling for their trauma. Moreover, according to the Black Women's Blueprint, nearly 60% of African American girls will experience sexual abuse by the age of 18, and African American women are less likely to report sexual violence and abuse than non-black women. In addition, Black queer gender non-conforming and trans youth are more likely to experience sexual violence, harassment, and displacement--while having greater risk of falling into poverty--than straight youth. These youth are triply traumatized by the culture of victim blaming, shaming, and gaslighting inflicted upon them by their own communities.

Why is there no broad community outcry about these atrocities? And what would a Black girl-survivor focused policy agenda and platform look like?

African American girls and young women and community allies are invited to the first #Standing4BlackGirls task force meeting on Thursday, February 25th.

This youth-facilitated task force, co-hosted by the Office of Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, will address developing mental health, educational, economic and social resources for Black girls across sexual orientation in L.A. County and across the state.  
Join Zoom Meeting
https://caasm.zoom.us/j/91517883069?pwd=S01WdmllSkhXZlJpZ3BuNGZhK1hydz09

Meeting ID: 915 1788 3069
Passcode: 74874

#S4BG issues survey Link: https://bit.ly/38U4RNY


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Rock 'n' Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe


A novel by Sikivu Hutchinson

COMING MARCH 2021

“Those white boys on the major labels would never give an inch to a Negro woman playing race music.”

It’s the late 1970s, and ex-Pentecostal Black female electric guitarist Rory Tharpe navigates the cutthroat world of corporate rock, dive bars, dusk-to-dawn recording sessions, and shady contracts as she travels the nation in a dilapidated tour bus with her bickering, boozing all-male band.  Much-imitated and little-credited, Rory is in a late career tailspin when she goes on tour with international superstar Jude Justis, a white woman blues-rock singer who has built a turbulent mega-platinum career out of stealing from Black musicians. Broke and frustrated by the racism, sexism, and ageism of the rock boys’ club, Rory warily joins forces with Jude. She then takes a detour through the painful past she shares with childhood nemesis Divinity Mason Mulvaney, a maverick pastor at the helm of the mega church enterprise Revivals, Inc.  

 A homage to pioneering guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is a bracing look at the power politics, heartbreak, and hypocrisy confronting a queer Black woman visionary at the intersection of music and commerce, faith and heresy, in a segregated music industry that eats its Black artists.

Praise for Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic:

If you love fearless, bold, unapologetic strong leads, then Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is for you. Paying homage to the great trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, this book is filled with twists and turns that will leave you rethinking rock music as you know it. Sikivu, you have created a masterpiece that will challenge history and entertain readers for years.

Malina Moye, electric guitarist, international recording artist, and co-founder of the Drive Hope Foundation

Rock 'n' Roll Heretic is a powerful, unflinching, unforgettable, wild ride journey into the struggles a vigorous Black queer woman artist endures to survive in an industry that does not want her there. Every daunting step Rory takes towards her rock ambitions leads her further back to a haunting childhood and Pentecostal past. On the edge of defeat, her trusty guitar is the armor that guards her sanity, allowing her to break through the “isms” that threaten to overshadow her contributions to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

--Samantha “GhettoSongBird”Hollins, Rock ‘n’ Roll singer-songwriter-guitarist 

Transhealthnow: Uplifting Black Trans/Gender Non-conforming and Nonbinary Youth

 


Black parents lead a discussion on affirming, uplifting, and supporting Black trans/gender nonconforming and nonbinary children at the Transhealthnow.com conference. Sponsored by Colors' LGBTQ Counseling Center with members from the Black LGBTQI+ Parent and Caregiver Group.

Monday, January 25, 2021

#Standing4BlackGirls Task Force Survey and Wellness Initiative


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Black LGBTQI+ and Black female identified youth have some of the highest rates of sexual violence abuse in the nation, yet seldom receive culturally responsive mental health intervention, and are routinely victim-blamed/shamed and policed by law enforcement, Black churches, families, and schools. Although psychotherapy has gained more mainstream acceptance in communities of color due to the pandemic, Black women and girls who seek out therapy are still burdened with the stigmatizing cultural stereotype that they should be "strong", self-sufficient, and supportive of others before they take care of themselves.

This summer, Women's Leadership Project youth from King-Drew Magnet conducted a wellness survey with over 150 South L.A. youth and adults, focusing on their experiences with sexual violence and harassment. Nearly 70% of Black female sexual violence survivors reported that they had not received mental health intervention (i.e., counseling or therapy) after their experiences. In anecdotal responses provided to WLP youth, African American girls who sought out therapists also reported that they had difficulty finding or being placed with culturally competent Black women practitioners. When they were able to find these practitioners some could not afford their rates.

As a result, the WLP created the #Standing4BlackGirls Wellness Initiative fund. The fund provides free, culturally responsive, humanist and secular individual/group therapy for LGBTQI+ straight/cis&femme Black girls in L.A. County from 16-24 years old. The initiative will begin this month, in partnership with Black women and BIPOC mental health practitioners from Open Paths and My Choice, My Power Counseling. Application info is available here https://bit.ly/3hwrwTi

In addition to this initiative, WLP youth are spearheading a regional Black Girls' task force to address the need for more mental health, social, economic, and educational support resources that are specifically designated for Black girls. As part of this effort, WLP youth launched a survey to collect data and information for the launch of the task force in mid-February (the first meeting will be facilitated in partnership with Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager's office). The survey is for Black and African descent girls between the ages of 12-24. Preliminary results indicate that Black girls are experiencing high rates of trauma, anxiety, and stress related to the pandemic, unemployment, domestic violence, lack of child care and health care, educational disruption, and having to work part-time or full-time to support their families.

To participate in the survey and find out more about the task force, please see this link https://bit.ly/38U4RNY