Remembering George Whitmore this MLK Day

IDFor a few years now, many, many black women have recommended the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel to me.  I always promised to check it out simply because I trust sistas’ judgements about this kind of thing, but I honestly never got around to it.  Quiet as it’s kept, black women talk about the ID channel more than they talk about Scandal; at least to me, they do. What holds constant across these black women’s recommendations is the promise of a representation of bone-chilling criminality and death without the overdetermination of mass media’s (local and national news; shows like CSI, Law and Order; all of the NYPD; etc) equation of violence with blackness.  This is not the goal of the channel and race is never admitted or discussed, but it is all right there for the taking.  This winter break I started watching ID channel and let me just tell you, I ain’t never seen so many murder-hungry white folk in my life…. outside of history books, that is.  Like I said, I trust sistas’ judgements on these kinds of recommendations and they did NOT disappoint.  I can’t even watch this channel late at night because Freddie Krueger and Elm Street ain’t got NUTHIN on the kind of nightmares and fears that this channel induces.

I could tell countless stories of the things I have seen on this channel.  One story in particular fascinated me: the robbery and brutal murder of an elderly white couple in the state of Washington in the dead of winter a few days before Christmas.  (Generally speaking, after these few weeks of watching this channel, I can truly say that if you are in any small town in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota and you see/hear/feel something kinda strange, RUNNNNN FOR YOUR LIFE!)  Two young white men from the town held the elderly couple at gun-point in their car, took $8500 from them, shot them in their backs, and then threw them on the side of the road in a couple of feet of snow.  It was 20 years before the killers were caught.  One teenager, driving in the car with his mother, saw the elderly couple with the two local men (his friends), knew they had committed the murders as soon as he heard about the incident on the news, and claimed he was so scared that he said nothing about what he saw and knew about that day… for 20 years!  The two culprits moved to Alaska a few months after their crime so this man claimed fear for more than 19 years even though he never saw the two men again. The two criminals abandoned the elderly’s couple’s car at the mall where many locals saw them exit the vehicle with guns under their arms.  Because the law does not require anyone to conceal their firearms in Washington, no one thought anything of it.  Nuthin quite like American shopping malls!  And, it gets better. The two murderers had borrowed the guns they used from a friend, so they returned their borrowings to their friend who suspected what they had done.  The friend simply had his stepfather get rid of the gun to protect the murderers.  Other than a neighbor who saw the two criminals casing the elderly couple’s home, no one in this “warm, small, tight-knit community” (the townspeople’s language, not mine) said a word about what they knew.  Twenty years later, the 60-year old children of the elderly couple hired their own private detectives to secure new leads and discoveries in order to re-open this unsolved case.  At this point, the criminal pair was hidden deep in the arctic jungles of Alaska so when authorities finally found the pair, one had already died: a diabetic who used heroine profusely even though, apparently, diabetes and heroine do not mix.  The other still-living culprit was as cool as a cucumber and even paused to order hisself some chicken wings while being questioned by police. Now, this ain’t such an extreme murder case in the context of the ID channel, but what baffled me the most was the townspeople’s insistence that this town was warm and friendly.  Ain’t enough money in the world that could get me to visit that town and if I ever get stuck there, Ima get down on my knees and pray for escape ideas from the kind of North Star-knowledge of a Harriet Tubman!

In a really strange way, I began to see very clearly how the media really does twist people up.  Racially subordinated groups often believe the stereotypical images of black/brown-as-innately-violent and hate their own skin.  Racially elevated groups believe their kind can do no wrong and risk their daily lives with their inability to see the white dangers right in front of them at the gun-friendly shopping mall. Wow!  This is not a surprise, for sure, but ID channel just showcases these issues in amazing ways. Like I said, there is never any such race-dissection in the shows.  The commentators seem to believe in these delusions of white-town-innocence too.  I most certainly don’t.

So this brings me to the point of this post: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITMORE.  The ID channel showed a dramatization of the “Career Girls Murder” today on MLK Day.  There was no commentary on race, racism, and criminal justice, but the storm of evidence that the ID channel showed makes you pause and reconsider the sacrifice someone like George Whitmore made, the kind of life that often does not get chronicled when we imagine the “legends” who paved our way.  I won’t even go into criminal justice authorities’ penchant for coercing blacks’ confessions alongside their seeming utter inability to “catch” white criminals; that is just too easy and will be self-evident in the upcoming story.  Yet and still, the difference in these two cases is astounding, all based on who America chooses to always already see as a suspect.

George Whitmore Jr., a 19-year-old unemployed laborer, is shown in a Brooklyn, N.Y., police station on April 25, 1964, after his arrest in the Career Girl Murders.

George Whitmore Jr., a 19-year-old unemployed laborer, is shown in a Brooklyn, N.Y., police station on April 25, 1964, after his arrest in the Career Girl Murders.

Here’s the story for those unfamiliar with George Whitmore. On August 28, 1963, on the day and at the time when MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., two wealthy, white women were brutally raped and murdered in their Manhattan apartment on the upper east side.  The case became known as the “Career Girls Murder” since the women’s decision to have their own apartment and own jobs without a husband was quite radical at that time. George Whitmore, a poor 19-year old black boy was pinned for the murder.  Though he spent that day at his food service job in New Jersey surrounded by other black workers who were all watching MLK deliver his speech at the exact time of the murder, Whitmore was charged.  Somehow, in some way, to the detective’s supposed surprise, Whitmore wrote a 61-page confession of a murder he supposedly committed when he was working in a different state.  Even when this “alibi” was revealed, the district attorney and detectives maintained Whitmore’s guilt, coercing a woman to pin him for a different assault just for good measure.  Whitmore stayed in jail for nine years and seems to have left jail so broken (and addicted to alcohol) that he never fully achieved mental health again.

whitmore drawingWhile Whitmore was in jail, weeks before he would finally be discharged, a CBS television movie was created about him in 1973.  Whitmore received a few dimes for his involvement while he was, literally, suffering from medical issues at the state prison’s medical wards.  The only thing anyone seemed to remember and take away from the movie is the new actor who emerged on the scene and stole America’s heart as the new movie-detective: Telly Savalas as Detective Theo Kojak. The ID channel, of course, did not highlight these facts about Whitmore’s immoral treatment, nor did the ID channel contextualize the violence of the New York criminal justice system against black bodies: one detective who got Whitmore to confess was awarded; no detective on the case was ever even reprimanded even though they arrested the real killer, Richard Robles, a few months after the murder and concocted other charges against Whitmore.  Civil rights activists worked the most on Whitmore’s case, a case that became a key factor in abolishing the death penalty in New York in 1965 and in the 1966 Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona which now so infamously protects criminal suspects under interrogation.  The price that Whitmore paid for the Miranda Rights that we take so much for granted today seems all the more horrifying in light of the fact that: 1) no charges were ever brought up against the corrupt white police officers and their criminal lying, practices that were rampant in the NYPD at the time and everywhere else for that matter; 2) no loss of life or property was ever waged against these police officers who maintained a salary and pension, ensuring a kind of cross-generational economic wellness for their families that was categorically denied to Whitmore.

George Whitmore died in 2012 with very few knowing his name.  My girlfriends were right about what the ID channel introduces, introductions not made anywhere else in mass media as evidenced by the fact that no media outlet ever announced Whitmore’s death (see T.J. English in NY Times about this).  That the media and mass public jumped at the opportunity to sensationalize a fictionalized story about a young black man raping and killing white women is a history all too familiar in the United States.  A black man’s innocence and torturous journey to truth after white men’s inhumane attack on him is just not the story of America that we like to tell, though it is a mainstay of our heritage.

On this MLK day, it seems we need to remember not the HEROES and the ways they are enshrined and thereby neutralized by mass media, but the victims who our heroes fought for: the George Whitmores who carried so much on the their backs given what a white supremacist world did to them.  Especially when the load was too much for them to carry, that is when/where we need to come in and remember them… and recognize the unbroken connections between their deaths and our lives today.

 

White Supremacy & Its Cognitive Deficiencies

A Shelf in My Office

A Shelf in My Office

This post starts with an issue that might, at first, seem a bit irrelevant.  Nonetheless, I am making a point.  Here it is: I HATE COFFEE.  I am a tea drinker which means that I often travel with my own kettle: I have one that stays in my suitcase for travel; another for my home; and another for my office.  I have tea bags and tea leaves everywhere.  I drink my tea strong and with almond milk, a regrettable concession since I had to give up my true preference, a habit I acquired from Jamaican students and friends: take a big ole dollop of sweetened condensed milk and stir it up.  (That’s some good ish.)  The tea kettle in my office today has travelled with me across four institutions and has the bruises to show it.  It sits on a shelf in my office with other tea accessories; behind it is a collage created by one of my high school students from 1997, a young man who at every stage of his high school career gave me some kind of painting to thank me for helping him become the man he is today (I cried with each gift he gave me).  To make this short story long: I am serious about my tea.

I needed to take this narrative detour to set the context for just how confused I was when a white male professor at my institution accused me of stealing his teapot last year, less than 3 months that I had been on the job. Continue reading

Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

Continue reading

Cultural Assets, Language, and New Inspiration

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

Continue reading

Rough Side of the Mountain

My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools.  In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.

Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music.  As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching.  As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum.  She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum.  I visited when students did their first presentations.

BarnesThe presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also.  Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization.  One young man, bless his heart, took the podium.  It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking.  Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:

Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…

Continue reading

Race, Reproduction, Reparations (The 3 Rs)

One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you.  Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out.  That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking.  Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.

jennifer-cramblettBy now, everyone has heard of Cramblett’s lawsuit. As a recap, here is the basic gist. Cramblett and her partner are suing a Chicago-area sperm bank after she became pregnant with sperm donated by a black man instead of a white man she had picked. I can’t help but be curious to see how this case will go. Race, reproduction, and the law have always been intimately linked. As early feminists have always told us, the family (the nuclear family) is always a kind of surrogate for the nation-state and all of its attending politics and values about which race, gender, class is most worthy and most human— and therefore, legitimately replicable. I have so many questions because the outcome of this lawsuit will mean so many things. Here are just a few of these questions: Continue reading

What Will We Do When School Starts?

Ferguson 2A few weeks ago, I was on campus meeting with some students.  A conference was taking place at my college (which is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York). As is typical of area NYC colleges, you need to scan your identification card, where security is sitting nearby, to get into campus buildings. The security officers at my college happen to be our very own college students, mostly black and Latino men paying their way through college with this job, and are quite delightful. Because I was working with a small group of students, two of whom were not from my current college, I needed to inform campus security of the names of my visitors.  As I was waiting to talk with the security officer, a young African American man and rising senior at the college, I watched intently as he navigated the crowd coming into the building.  He was, simply put, quite genius.  The officer, as I am sure you can imagine, had many tasks: new first year students and their parents were finalizing financial aid and identification cards, all of whom need to be signed in; the conference attendees, obviously enthralled by the local neighborhood, had to be closely watched since they represented a continual thoroughfare through the gates; and then there were the current IDed students swiping through the gates.  I was particularly curious because most of the parents coming into the building spoke very little English and needed to be directed to their location. The young man quickly scanned their paperwork, animatedly offered a series of complex gestures showing them where to go, and then quickly ran to the side of the desk to make sure they were going in the right direction (accompanied by head nods and more hand gestures when the parents looked back at him). Needless to say, I was fascinated by this young man’s total immersion into and dexterity with this discourse community at the main entrance to the college.  In a brief (and very brief) lull, I managed to give the young man the names of the students who were coming to visit me.  He was very short and businesslike and then went back to his extra-linguistic traffic direction.  Perhaps, it was my fascination and my ethnographic mesmerization that made me slow on the uptake because I just wasn’t quick enough to respond to the next series of events.

i am a manAs I was talking to the African American male student working at the security desk at the main door, one of the conference attendees walked though gates opened from a previous entry.   The security officer reminded the attendee that he needed to show his conference badge before he entered.  While the officer was busy with more people coming through the gates, the attendee walked by me and loudly stated: “I showed you my badge, dude, but you were too busy flirting with the girl.”  I didn’t catch it right away. Continue reading