“Don’t You Ever Not Recognize Yourself in Somebody Else”: Words of Wisdom from Marta Moreno Vega

I found myself listening to Marta Moreno Vega’s words last week.  It offered some sanity after an Atlanta-based rapper released a video on social media of 1990s sitcom actress, Maia Campbell, who was completely unraveled in a conversation with him at a local gas station.  I cannot vouch for the young man actually being a rapper; certainly, no one ever really heard of him until he used his phone to garner internet fame by exploiting a Black woman who was once a beloved child-star.  It becomes quite obvious in the video that Maia, who has battled bipolar disorder and drug addiction for many years now, is not doing well and is in complete relapse mode.

The video, which of course went viral, was meant to be “funny.”  The wanna-be rapper who filmed Maia even defended his actions, ranting about how he was not sorry for what he did (he has recently recanted, claiming that he jokes with Maia like this often).  I won’t link the videos here because they are too traumatizing, both Maia’s obvious breakdown and the young man’s willingness to dehumanize her (I won’t say the rapper’s name either since he does not deserve more air time than he has gotten). I see this as yet another example of the spectacular spectacle of Black women’s dehumanization that runs the gamut from Iyanla Vanzant’s/OWN’s pseudo-therapeutic “intervention” in Maia’s life to a young Black man’s calculated decision to humiliate and hypersexualize her.  While it may seem extreme to connect Iyanla to this wanna-be rapper, they connect quite seamlessly for me: both offer up Maia’s body solely for PUBLIC, CONSPICUOUS consumption; neither offer her substance or support in return for the otherwise unttainable attention and stardom they achieve via their chosen media outlets.

As I stated in my opening, in times like these, you need the words of your elders to show/remind you who you really are in the world.  This week, for me, that has meant the AfroLatinx activist, scholar, and teacher, Marta Moreno Vega.  Her closing story in the video below is especially relevant here where she describes her brother’s childhood friend, Jimmy, who was an addict.  One day, Jimmy spoke to her on the street and in her teenage/youth arrogance, she decided he was too dirty and embarrassing to warrant a response or acknowledgement from her.  When Jimmy told Vega’s mother about the incident, Vega was quickly punished and warned that Jimmy’s life could very well be her own, her brother’s, her sister’s, or even her own mother’s life.  Her mother warned her that she must never NOT RECOGNIZE HERSELF IN SOMEBODY ELSE.  As much as social media has offered radical opportunities for a radical Black Presence/ Black Voice/ Black Vision/ Black Humanity, it can eradicate all of that at the same time. The generational wisdom of the elders here as passed down to us from Vega seems critical… seeing ourselves in Maia rather than so easily exploiting her belongs to a legacy of Black expectation that we need to uphold now more than ever.

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.

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Cyber Monday 2013 & the Inanity of Whiteness

I did a lot of babysitting as soon as I hit my teens.  From early October to December 24, I exploited the fiction of Santa Claus as much as possible.  While I understand many people’s animosity and hesitation with this concept, it made my babysitting days so much easier.  You can really work that fiction to get kids to behave.  A recent lecture by Dr. Nteri Nelson filmed by Paul Gibson, however, has helped me to reach deeper understandings of the ancestral connections that have drawn black folk to Christianity, celebrations of Christmas, and Santa Claus and other holiday emblems.

Given the African American draw to Christmas and our Black Buying Power, it seems like the endless Christmas animations, the Hallmark movies with their messages about love/family/rebirth, the window displays, the Santa Claus images and look-alikes, the flying angels everywhere, the traditional children’s stories, and all this Christmas paraphernalia wouldn’t all be so damn white.  Last year, on Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone, African Americans spent more time browsing online for toys than any other group.  It seems like a good capitalist would capitalize on all that and do a full-blown black-up of all children’s marketing.  But capitalism is not logical and it is never just about making money.

ST_PERFECT12I recently watched the movie, The Perfect Holiday, where Morris Chestnut was a shopping mall Santa who enchanted three little kids and their mother (played by Gabrielle Union; the added bonus as Terrence Howard as a rat, evil dwarf, etc).  Morris Chestnut is one Santa no one would need to make me believe in!  Clearly, capitalists don’t care about black people’s dollars; otherwise we’d see family movies like this everywhere. Instead, this year’s blockbuster will be a black man dressing up as a black woman who then dresses up as Santa (i.e., Madea) for a 2013 Christmas Coon Extravaganza.  The images that we see and don’t see of black people during these holidays are not motivated by the economics of neoliberalism alone; these economics are nested quite snugly with maintaining a white lens and a white world, a reality 100s of years in the making given the history Dr. Nelson provides us.  Like I said, if it was all about money, BLACK WOMEN would be the center of all marketing campaigns since we are the ones with the most buying power.   You know something deep is going on when NO ONE tells you this.  I am not suggesting that buying power and wealth are the same thing and that black women and communities have wealth in the United States.  It just seems telling to me that American consumerism functions according to a logic that deliberately omits black faces but exploits their cultures and dollars.

Outside of home, friends, and family, the many white intellectuals, scholars, teachers, and so-called “educated” people who I work with still won’t get— don’t want to get— why black folk focus so much time and energy on constructing positive images of ourselves and releasing all the negative.  Truth is, we don’t have time to worry about these people who don’t want to understand this.  They just aren’t worth it. This December, however, I am doing what I often do when I am looking for images and concepts that DON’T destroy black children and families when a dominant white image/mindset completely saturates every turn you make: I turn to African American children’s literature.  Beginning with this year’s Cyber Monday, this black woman is spending her ancestral time/energy and her Black Buying Power looking for African American children’s literature that offers real and soul-sustaining Black lenses and belief systems about this time of year.  I’ll share my favorites in the coming days and weeks.

When White People Drop the N-Bomb

DeenBetween packing up my office, moving to a new university, and participating in the protests related to Trayvon Martin’s murder, I missed an important diss-able moment here: doggin out PAULA DEEN.

Black folk on twitter kept me afloat during that time and I’m not even on twitter.  And in case anyone was confused about this, yes, we are laughing AT Paula Deen, not with her.  Everything about her— her dishes, her health, her children, her Bubba— got publicly dissed on every social network site imaginable.  It was the most lovely way to treat a white supremacist.  The memes alone inspire deep pride for me. It made it that much easier to dismiss all those “liberals” saying black people were too sensitive or blowing things out of proportion. If my recent trip to Savannah, Georgia is any indication, then it seems safe to say that social networking brought down Deen: every time I passed a Paula Deen Tour Bus, it was E-M-P-T-Y!  Personally, I think all of those very public disses of Paula Deen should be a model for how we treat anyone who thinks we should dress as/be slaves, serve them sweet potato pie (and everything else), and/or maintain confusion about the N-bomb.  Descriptions of Deen’s racism are hardly over, including the ongoing testimonies of black women in the recent NYTimes who Deen exploited while thiefing their recipes and expertise as cooks.  It seems like Deen’s empire really was run like a plantation: the exploitation of black labor, ingenuity, and skill while she sat back, rich and fat, grinning for the public as if she had herself pioneered something.  A plantation, indeed.

Like I said, Black Twitter was a thing of beauty, but my heart goes out to AfricanoBoi who gave the best commentary on Paula Deen yet!  For all non-black folk, no, you can not laugh at this but you do get to hear how WE HEAR white supremacy.   For all black folk: yes, you can roll all over the floor and laugh your hearts away!!!  I know I still am.  Sometimes, laughing back and talking back go hand-in-hand because, given all that is coming to light about Deen’s labor practices, AfricanoBoi might not be exaggerating that much.

“This Woman’s Work”: Sybrina Fulton

Mamie-Sybrina Collage

My Collage of Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmett Till, Sybrina Fulton, and Trayvon Martin

“Trayon Martin is the Emmett Till” of our time… that’s a statement I have continually heard in these past days and I would have to agree.  The corollary is also true here:  Sybrina Fulton is the Mamie Till-Bradley of our time.  In Sybrina Fulton’s talk at the rally at One Police Plaza in New York City this past weekend, I was particularly inspired by these lines:

As I sat in the courtroom, it made me think that they were talking about another man. And it wasn’t. It was a child, who thought as a child, who acted as a child, who behaved as a child. And don’t take my word for it. He had a drink and candy. So, not only—not only do I vow to you to do what I can for Trayvon Martin, I promise you I’m going to work hard for your children, as well, because it’s important. (see 16:43 to 17:20 of the footage shot by Democracy Now).

When you think of the difficulty Mamie Till-Bradley had in securing her son’s body (Mississippi seemed to block her every move to have his body shipped to her in Chicago), it seems strangely reminiscent of the days Sybrina Fulton had to wait for her son’s body to be named Trayvon Martin, rather than the original John Doe white police proclaimed him to be, unworthy of even an investigation. It is not simply that both mothers lost their sons to white violence, publicly paraded by the courts’ refusal to convict their murderers.  It is the way these women opened up  their grief to the world and to a social analysis of that world.

Mamie Till-Bradley has not often been written into the chronicles of history as radical; it has mostly been black women and black feminists who have done this work and will continue to do this work with Sybrina Fulton’s life also.  Both of these women’s radical, emotional openness is simply chilling for me.   Ironically, we are in an age where everybody thinks they are “radically open” because they can post photos and videos on any and every social networking site of: 1) their children performing liberal rituals of white, nuclear American familyhood such that facebook, google+, and youtube become the new “Leave it to Beaver”; 2) themselves, friends, and family and the neoliberal objects/vacations/outings/performances they have materially acquired as the site of today’s corporate-induced narcissism.  All that “openness” but ain’t none of it like Sybrina Fulton’s! Or Mamie Till-Bradley’s!  An openness that looks American apartheid right in the eye rather than promote its whiteness!  At a time when most people use the “public forum” to simply promote the system we are in, Mamie and Sybrina halted the empty notions of progress, material celebration, and mainstream values that a white world would want to visually represent as Truth.  If there was ever a definition of speaking Truth-to-Power, this is it.

I think about Sybrina Fulton quite often and I cringe at the label that I hear too many often giving to her: strong black woman.  Yes, Sybrina Fulton is strong.  Who would suggest otherwise?   Yes, I understand the sentiment because so many of us hold her close and dear to our hearts and prayers, hoping she will know she is loved and cherished, shaken to our own core by the pain we can only imagine she is enduring.  Yes, we feel the awesomeness of her ability to stand in the face of that pain, brutality, and ugliness. But we need some deeper understandings of this legacy of black women and black mothers who defy all odds to love their children and challenge a world that hates black people.  Violence against black children is violence against black mothers so strength ain’t even the half.

Our current context is one that melds:

Multimedia cartels where most Americans visually circumscribe and incessantly celebrate mainstream, white familyhood, a continual site of historical violence and exclusivity in this country— I am not suggesting this is limited to the U.S., you need only watch the current foolishness surrounding the Royal Baby in England to know the U.S. has never been alone in mobilizing white imperialism to define family/nation;


A world where black motherhood is demonized and made into public spectacle for a gaze as white as the viewing of Gone with the Wind Tune in any Tuesday or Wednesday to Tyler Perry on OWN; he, of course, has not invented these images but when we promote them ourselves then you KNOW we’s in trouble (last night, Big Momma sang a slave spiritual to her white female boss, further castigated her own black daughter-turned-prostitute, and begged/sobbed for son’s release from prison).

When you place Sybrina Fulton into this kind of context, you begin to see why the label “strength” just won’t do for a black woman like her.  And you begin to see why so many black women will write her body, story, and pain so centrally into the history of black people and black freedom.