Search

E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems

Month

January 2014

Models Monday: No Explanation Necessary

I just left a very lively, engaging conversation with a very prominent legal scholar whose brilliant work has greatly influenced how scholars discuss identity. During this occasion, however, the young people in attendance expressed what has become, for me at least, this boring, misguided approach to inhabiting racially diverse spaces and encountering hostile identity based interactions. Their entry point into questions about civic life assumes that everyone in the room shares the same ideas about a definition of “success” and the substantive qualities that make for a good life, and thereby face the same quandary over the obstacles we confront in realizing common goals. For the young people of color who I routinely interact with, their chief question about unburdening themselves of racism is, “how do I explain to X why I belong here or that I deserve to be here.” Instead of the expected showing of sympathy and support, irritation and near disgust best describe what must be the look on my face. Rather than “how” being the most urgent question, I don’t understand the dismissal of “who” and “why” as important ones: Who are you to ask me about where I belong? Why do you assume that I have a responsibility to answer your questions? It’s the other person’s question so they should be the one doing the work of answering it–but the answer can’t be found in putting me to work; calling for my subjection to your authority. It is incredibly presumptuous to make someone else your research assistant or student. I don’t have a single peer who I defer to for the purpose of dignifying my humanity or in justifying my efforts to define and live out my version of what it means to live well. When I was growing up, I didn’t know many people who weren’t as peeved as I was about this very thing.

I think it’s in Jonathan Rieder’s book, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., where he recounts King’s response to a journalist who questions his right or preparedness to denounce the Vietnam War. “I’m sorry,” King replied, “you don’t know me.” King’s response emerges from both critical consciousness and a sense of respect for the value and validity of his work. If King’s response was one that could be uttered within the context of the apartheid conditions that the United States called itself moving away from, why are young people of color, nearly fifty years beyond the passage of the voting rights act, asking “how” they should be going about explaining themselves to white people? These same young people are also the loudest proponents of how far this nation has come with respect to racism. If that were true, they wouldn’t assume the burden of teaching people that they are not a character from The Wire or a stripper doing her thing on a pole in a strip club like you see in any number of hip hop videos. From this perspective, such recognition would prepare these young people to recognize how systems of domination currently assert power through the guise of “innocent questions.”

The last time I was confronted with this same kind of problematic assumption that my personhood was tied to some tired stereotype of who I was supposed to be, I was livid–but prepared. A colleague assumed that my rank silenced me, but much unlike these young people of color who I work with, I didn’t feel responsible for teaching my colleague that she was not Justice Taney and that I was not Dred Scott. Since I did not regard her remark as an innocent one that took place beyond a history of racist identity politics, my response was to fight back. In the end, I got just what I wanted: her departure from my office. Unlike so many young people, I have absolutely no interest in being in community with people who think, like Justice Taney did, that I “[have] no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” I am by no means as polite or as eloquent as Dr. King, but his response to that journalist was a model one: “you don’t know me.” No explanation of who you are, what you know, or where you belong is owed to people who assume their dominance or mastery over you. Racist assumptions should not be met with explanations, but with resistance. King demonstrates that resistance comes in many forms and knowing your own name and claiming it count as work against this notion that docility (as one of my readers pointed out) engenders social change.

Models Monday: MLK, Jr. Holiday and Your Grandparents

I often think about Toni Morrison’s interview with Anne Koenen in 1980 where Morrison reflects on a stunning conversation she has with a young girl:

When I talked to a very young black girl recently, it seemed to me that she had never heard of anything. They’re grown up like they never had grandmothers. Of if they had them, they never paid them any attention (p. 73 in Conversations with Toni Morrison).

I’ve had similar conversations with young people who dismiss their grandparents’ critique of racism in contemporary American culture. “My grandmother talks about the past like it’s still the 1950s, and I’m like, ‘grandma,’ things are not like that anymore,” they flippantly offer when recalling their grandmothers’ views. Their opinion suggests that their grandparents have grown old and their bodies bear its markings, but their analysis of race never left the Cold War era. If you recognize this description of a young person you know, here are a few examples of how much farther the country needs to advance in order to overcome its racial demons:

1. Neshoba: The Price of Freedom details the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. The unabashed hatred and venom that white supremacists offer as active expressions regarding the justifiable fate of these three young men may be startling to advocates of the nation’s post-racial status.

2. After viewing Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, turn the attention of young people in your life to contemporary Halloween costumes featuring American youths demonstrating their understanding of American history:

cimeno

These Florida twenty-somethings actually staged the murder of a 17-year-old boy as comedy and not tragedy and were shameless enough to publicize their efforts. For more racist costumes, check out the Ebony magazine slideshow of 2013 (not 1913) lowlights.

obama-brewer-blog480

3. This ugly photograph of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer wagging her finger at President Obama and appearing to scold him like he’s a child prompted my thinking about other shameless, racist representations of the President and undignified interactions with his leadership.

There’s so much work to be done before “we shall overcome” becomes a fait accompli. If you engage with young people, encourage them to pay attention to their grandparents, what they have to say about racism might literally be lifesaving.

Models Monday: Baby it’s Cold Outside

One day after the southern style Atlanta cold kept teachers and educators inside, I dressed my son in corduroy pants, turtleneck, sweater, his thickest winter coat (Ezra Jack Keats Snowy Day Peter style), hat and gloves while the car warmed for at least 15 minutes before we set out for school. All this for about three minutes worth of time between our house and the car and then from the car into his school. Given all the clothes I wrapped around my son, it was heartbreaking seeing middle-school aged children wearing either sweatshirts, or sweaters, or just plain t-shirts waiting for the school bus. It was especially heartbreaking to see so soon after Christmas. Does Santa not bring coats to middle-school children in the South for Christmas?

My thoughts didn’t immediately turn to Santa when I saw these freezing children, I thought of their parents. Honestly, I cursed them for buying video games, non-essential things, instead of coats as Christmas presents for their children. Given the thinking and the writing that I’ve been doing about black boys in American culture, I uncritically associated the parents of those inadequately dressed children with some of the parental cruelties I witnessed in some of the trials that so many black boys had to experience alone. For example, Antron McCray was one of the wrongly accused and convicted teens in the Central Park jogger case. Bobby McCray, Antron’s father, convinced him to

antron-mccray-160
Antron McCray was a juvenile when he was convicted in the Central Park jogger case.

confess despite Antron’s denial of guilt. His father believed it best to tell the police what they wanted to hear so that he could go home. By the time the trial began, Bobby McCray could not tolerate  the harsh, venomous anger directed at his son, so he abandoned his family. Antron idolized his father and never forgave him–even after his father and mother reconciled. Eventually, Antron’s father succumbed to illness and it was only at the funeral that Antron regretted not forgiving the man who had been the coach of all of his Little League teams and an overall superhero to him before the wrongful conviction.

Recently, I started listening to Thomas Cahill’s book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green and the tragedy made of his life breaks your heart from his birth to his

execution. Green was physically abused by his mother, raped by a priest while attending Catholic school, raped by guards at the juvenile detention centers where his mother suggested he be kept. Eventually, his mother, who was diagnosed as mentally ill, was allowed to testify at his trial of her son’s probable guilt concerning the crime. The psychologist who was supposed to testify on Green’s behalf, maintained that black people were more likely than others to commit violence.

Despite Green’s many betrayals, the murder victim’s family contested his execution and Archbishop Desmond Tutu called him, “a remarkable advertisement for God.” Although these examples offer only a faint glimmer of hope for such abandoned and neglected children, it is a flicker that suggests the possibility of warmth when it’s cold outside.

Yep: Fan Sums up Cleveland Browns’ Season

Though in my case, I'd add 20+ years to his sorrow.
Fan’s sign reads: “Thanks for 15 years of pain and misery.”

To this perfect message, I would only need to add 20+ years to this man’s “pain and misery” to capture my tireless commitment to this team. You definitely know you’re from Cleveland when instead of a win, you’ll accept a close loss as a slight victory.

Models Monday: Investigation Discovery and Us (Black Boys in American Culture Part 3)

If I’m not watching sports on television or something sports related, the only network that I watch is the Investigation Discovery (ID) network. The network does not in any way acknowledge race as a relevant category of analysis regarding its programming, but I would say that 95% of the stories feature crimes committed by white people against white people. When black men or boys are involved in an episode, the words “savage” and “thug” work there way into the language used in describing the crime. The network would most likely describe the crimes featured in their programs as “crimes of passion” stemming from adultery or jealousy; a fair number occur because of money: one spouse doesn’t want their ex to have any or because one spouse wants to benefit from the insurance policy they’ve taken out on the other one; and then, of course, there’s always some serial killer on the loose or there’s some maniac who wants to know what it feels like to murder someone.

Since these shows seldom feature black folk as victims or villains, not a word gets said about degeneracy, senseless violence, poor parenting, ignorance, or bad neighborhoods. In almost every episode, you hear all this stuff about how “they seemed like the perfect couple,” “we lived in a community where things like this just don’t happen,” “she was beautiful and didn’t deserve this (I guess if she were ugly there’d be no problem with her being raped and murdered).” Another really fascinating aspect of these shows is that the police officers and the detectives actually do investigative work! They dust for fingerprints, secure DNA evidence, look for clues, interview friends, family, and suspects. If you’ve read my previous posts on black boys in American culture, then you are well aware of the fact that none of this work goes into determining whether a black male is suspected of killing, raping, or recklessly eyeballing a white woman. When black boys are suspected of committing a crime, detective work involves getting in your squad car, spotting a random black boy, and deciding that he did it; that’s it, end of story. They will only fingerprint and take a DNA sample from the decided upon black criminal to add to his booking file. Then, a jury that has watched the ID network (before that Perry Mason, Matlock, and Murder She Wrote) and has seen the detective work featured in its programming assume that this black suspect must be guilty because those charged with serving and protecting our communities are always on the case…and so it is. These juries, however, should read more from W.E.B. DuBois. In the January 1913 issue of Crisis magazine, his discussion of race and crime reflects traces of the bloodlust we see in contemporary judgements:

Far too many, North and South, would preserve one foolish white woman if it costs the degradation of ten innocent colored girls, and who would greet the death of every black man in the world with a sigh of infinite relief.

I recently watched The Trials of Darryl Hunt on Netflix and the circumstances that I have been describing reflect what happened to him. Darryl Hunt spent nearly 20 years in a North Carolina penitentiary for raping and then stabbing to death a white journalist, Deborah Sykes, in 1984. Hunt had the great misfortune of being friends with a man named Sammy Mitchell.

Sammy Mitchell was the name given by an alleged witness in a 911 call reporting the crime against Sykes. Mitchell claimed he knew nothing about the call so the police decided to question his friend, 18-year-old Darryl Hunt, who then agreed to it and the rest follows the narrative of black boys and accusations of guilt–oh you did it: GUILTY!

Unlike the other cases I discussed in Parts 1 and 2, the police were never able to coerce Hunt into signing a false statement. For 18.5 years, he always maintained his innocence. Too, this is the only case, in the documentaries I’ve discussed, where the attorneys involved cited history as the most significant factor in the injustices Hunt suffered. One of his lawyers even says that Hunt wasn’t physically lynched but that he certainly was a victim of a “judicial lynching.”

Here are a few things that I’ve reflected on after watching The Trials of Darryl Hunt that will be helpful in raising my black son:

1.) Fairness is a fiction whenever you’re involved so you need to develop some coping skills to help manage this.

2.) Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of quoting Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” There has yet to be a torrential down pouring of justice in your case so expect a drought and pray for rain.

Odd Sightations

A sightation is a term I coined to refer to a visual reference, an optical echo that re-stages some primary, illustrated source. Angela Y. Davis has been one of the most eloquent critics of contemporary sightations of historical images that empty them of political content by substituting a distorted replication that represses radical resistance against systems of domination. In her case, Davis describes how contemporary representations of her lead many young people to associate the oppositional challenge she asserted against the United States as a police state for a hairstyle, an afro. Such historical oblivion erases the terror that Davis confronted during the time she was one of the FBI’s most wanted, as well as the terror greeting those black women with afros who were mistakenly identified as Davis.

Popular American culture continues to make these troubling sightations. Take this one of Jay Z and Kanye West, for example:

1960 | In a Los Angeles hotel suite, John F. Kennedy confers with his brother and campaign manager Bobby during the Democratic National Convention, at which JFK was picked as the 1960 party nominee. Originally published in the July 25, 1960, issue of LIFE. Read more: John F. Kennedy - TIME - News, pictures, quotes, archive http://topics.time.com/john-f.-kennedy/pictures/#ixzz2pIbtflM2

I see this as a clear sightation of this 1960 photograph of John F.Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy:

1960 | In a Los Angeles hotel suite, John F. Kennedy confers with his brother and campaign manager Bobby during the Democratic National Convention, at which JFK was picked as the 1960 party nominee. Originally published in the July 25, 1960, issue of LIFE. Read more: John F. Kennedy - TIME - News, pictures, quotes, archive http://topics.time.com/john-f.-kennedy/pictures/#ixzz2pIbtflM2
1960 | In a Los Angeles hotel suite, John F. Kennedy confers with his brother and campaign manager Bobby during the Democratic National Convention, at which JFK was picked as the 1960 party nominee. Originally published in the July 25, 1960, issue of LIFE.
Read more: John F. Kennedy – TIME – News, pictures, quotes, archive http://topics.time.com/john-f.-kennedy/pictures/#ixzz2pIbtflM2

Perhaps Jay Z and Kanye West’s sightation of the 1960 photo seeks to call attention to their brotherhood, affluence, and power, but it fails to capture the turbulence that will mark their legacies. To me, the image of the Kennedy brothers as triumphant, which the original backdrop of JFK  becoming the Democratic party nominee suggests, obscures the tragedies of their shocking assassinations in 1963 and 1968. Seems to me that before the contemporary brotherhood associates their Throne with the Kennedy legacy, they should more carefully read the history of their anguished fate.

A few days ago, I stumbled across another disturbing sightation. This photograph of Memphis rapper, Yo Gotti, situates him into a historical narrative that completely misses the point of the original :

Unknown-1 Not a single one of the placards in this rendering say anything about being a man; quite unlike the original:

Ernest Withers
Ernest Withers

The Withers photograph of the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike in 1968 has certainly become iconic. It depicts those workers whose demands Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed and whose spirits he sought to buoy as they faced the intransigence of city officials. King’s assassination at the Loraine Motel in Memphis also haunts this image. The strikers’ declaration of manhood highlighted their desire for adequate wages so that they could provide for themselves and for their families. Their declaration contained their need for better, safer working conditions. Their declaration also voiced their desire for independence from having perpetual adolescence thrust upon them due to the absence of a living wage that virtually guaranteed their dependence on government aid.

While I understand that the young people in the Gotti sightation may use the term gangsta to signify their toughness and their ability to make their way through a merciless and hostile terrain, it is oftentimes a weak social critique because it acts more as a complaint instead of an analysis of democracy and citizenship for black Americans. Too, hip hop cultures’ reading of gangster culture as portrayed in Coppola’s most famous and masterful trilogy, often cited as a great influence on rappers and their musical personas, misses the point of the films. Though The Godfather trilogy is beautifully told and beautifully executed as cinema, the overall story is tragic. The Don didn’t want Michael to be a gangster. Michael was supposed to attend college and marry a white, anglo saxon, protestant woman; they are supposed to have children and live in safety thereby living out the American dream. The Don is heartbroken when he learns of Michael’s involvement in the family’s retaliation for the assassination attempt against him. Early in part II, Michael reiterates his promise to Kay that he will leave gangsterism behind so that they can live safely as Americans through legitimate business practices. In the final film, Michael clearly says, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Michael didn’t want to be a gangster, an outlaw, he wanted to be an American.

Hank Willis Thomas offers a very striking meditation on the legacy of black American claims to manhood:

Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas

Thomas ends with a declaration regarding black humanity as he closes with, “so be it,” by divine right. I find it striking that not a single one of those placards in Yo Gotti’s sightation say anything about being a man and so self-sufficient and released from thug stereotypes reified through the criminal justice system. Gangsters reify American history and culture as the Hobbesian characterization of a state of nature wherein life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the last speech Dr. King gave on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination in Memphis, he offers a rejection of martyrdom: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.” Gangsterism advances brevity, a figurative boyhood and so stands in direct opposition to “I Am a Man.” The ostensible glamour of gangsterism, its sightation, is shortsighted.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: