“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.

The Records We Leave Behind…


Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells

I would like to think that I am cognizant and critical of what Adolph Reed has called the tendency to romance Jim Crow where the nostalgia of a more settled, dignified black community often masks class inequalities and deep economic deprivation.  I understand his point and yet, I do believe that there were some political understandings in that moment that we just do not have now.  Poverty does not make you uncritical; but today’s consumer capitalism, media, mass/popular culture surely do.  Today, I am thinking about this in terms of the record we leave behind and how we understand the lives of children of color who are not our own.

The June 12 video at the youtube channel called AllThingsHarlem made me think of this because I see the filmmaker as a Red-Record-Keeper, as part of a historical black protest tradition (and obviously, by calling him a Red-Record-Keeper, I am referencing Ida B. Wells’s writing where she chronicled and protested lynch law).

For me, this kind of video is the best of what youtube and the digital universe have to offer me.  Because our digital world is market-driven under new regimes of capitalism and the individualist, neoliberal imperative, this kind of work at AllThingsHarlem is hardly the norm.

I see this Red-Record-Keeper doing something phenomenally different from what I see many folk of color doing online when it comes to youth: building a kind of digital resume of their children’s individual accomplishments and feats.  I understand that people live long distances from their extended families and share information online but I don’t get when these sites and images are open to the public, which is more normative than not.  And I don’t get when these children’s lives are being chronicled as triumphs of neoliberal accumulation instead of openings into the larger communities in which we come to understand ourselves.


Crocodile Dundee and His Black Friend/Brother

I am reminded here of an acquaintance who pointed me in the direction of his friend, a scholar of color, who he continually INSISTED was a kind of third-world-radical, never really backing down from that position.  On the contrary, I saw this person as someone who was performing a kind of caricature of a radical-chic, never concealing how mesmerized by and covetous of whiteness they were, and claiming minority status only when it was convenient after almost a lifetime of passing as white— all of which are pretty common in academia.  Simply out of curiosity, I decided to do some google image and video searching.  I was convinced that this scholar would showcase all manner of white individualism in personal photos and videos online.  I was not wrong.  I typed in the scholar’s name and then, just one click in, there were photos of not-so-cute children (I am mean, I know, but I gotta be honest here), with one dressed as Crocodile Dundee and it was NOT even Halloween!!   That’s right: Halloween wasn’t even around the co’ner; this was a reg’lar excursion. I’m dead-serious. I really wouldn’t lie about something like this.  I couldn’t even make up something like this if I wanted to.  Yes, a “third world radical” calling their child the white male character in a horribly racist and colonialist film (I wouldn’t have actually known that the intention was for the child to look like Dundee but it was explicitly named and celebrated as such in the caption/title.)  Now, you would think my acquaintance would have mentioned or questioned this stuff since he certainly witnessed all of it way before I did and in much stronger doses (that one photo was all I could stand …I couldn’t even glance at all the foolishness captured on video).  Since all these folk proclaim themselves radical scholars, they must think that the very real nooses around black people’s necks in Wells’s The Red Record were simply a theoretical metaphor. And KRS-One’s words about police brutality must also just be more metaphor, just a background song on the video above, all while black and Latin@ children are routinely violated just on their way to school in NYC.  This very real violence is simply not part of your politics when you are digitally celebrating your children’s visual proximity to Crocodile Dundee with a peanut gallery of folk of color proclaiming and co-signing this as “radical” consciousness.

Crocodile Dundee and His Other Black Friend

Crocodile Dundee and His Other Black Friend/Brother

Even if this child wasn’t made into the Dundee-Lookalike-Extraordinaire, I would still have questions about this kind of objectification of children’s bodies in a digital universe where all children can now publicly dance, sing, and perform like Little Shirley Temples for the empire’s cameras. Be clear: I am NOT talking about recording and keepsaking children’s wonderful spontaneous moments, school events, sports, or community functions; I am talking about grown folk who deliberately create digital spectacles from children’s orchestrated, pre-rehearsed performances in a living room.  In this world, of course, the Dundees, though ridiculously exploited, still come out on top because not all children/commodities have good stock value; some can be discarded like the ones caught on the film above. Cameras can amazingly reveal what we really see and value in the world.


When a Black Man is NOT Dundee’s Friend!

I know this Dundee narrative seems like a crazy detour but it is an example of why I am so drawn to people who do the kind of digital work that you see in the youtube video that I have highlighted at the top.  This brotha is not someone who will only construct, notice, and chronicle the individualist accumulations of biological offspring.  Maybe it’s because he’s not the academy’s typical critical theorist who is reading books about radical thought but never actually thinking and doing any of it.  For him, radical ideas are NOT something that you do for university approval while you live the rest of your life as an imperialist.  Adolph Reed hit this best for me when he says such intellectuals are sealed “hermetically into the university so that oppositional politics becomes little more than a pose livening up the march through the tenure ranks. In this context the notion of radicalism is increasingly removed from critique and substantive action. Disconnected from positive social action, radical imagery is also cut loose from standards of success or failure; it becomes a mere stance, the intellectual equivalent of a photo-op.”

I hope to pay more attention to these kinds of Red-Record-Keepers today. I am grateful to my special sistafriends, real maroons, committed allies, and genuine colleagues who will challenge me if I start forgetting or slippin on that kind of work.  Otherwise, history will look back on we “radical scholars of color” who did nothing but act as neoliberal individualists who digitally chronicled, celebrated, and defended ourselves/our children/Crocodile Dundee for accumulation of white capital.

Power, Dominance & Acquiescence

I often wish that I could be faster and more critical in how I respond to oppressive circumstances in my everyday life.  I admit that there are times when I am simply dumbstruck when I should be expecting foolishness and should, therefore, be able to respond much more quickly.  Instead, I just sit there stupidly wondering: what is goin on up in here?  I can forgive myself for being slow on the uptake, but I am beginning to question how many times I am not counter-acting/counter-thinking at all.

For some reason, today, my mind goes back to a professional conference that I attended at least three years ago now.  The panel discussion that I attended was designed to be a conversation about various issues related to the labor and organization of prominent college writing programs. It should go without saying, given the trends of this particular conference/ field, that the panel was all-white and predominantly male.  Like I said, I am used to those trends so this alone was not what bothered me.  One of the panelists, a well-regarded white male scholar/administrator (at least by some), who I will here call New Henrickson, rightly problematized the ways in which the teaching of writing in his program was gendered as female labor, a trend that scholars have shown to be dominant when looking at contingent/part-time labor in colleges today, especially when it comes to the teaching of college writing.  Then the scholar went on, in what he thought was a clever quip, to say that he felt like the main character from the HBO series, Big Love, Bill Henrickson (hence, the inspiration for my re-naming here).  The audience chuckled… but my jaw almost dropped to the bottom of my chair.  Did he really just say that? Does he NOT know that he is talking out loud and that, hence, people can HEAR him?  I never said anything to anyone, just sat there, with the violence of this discourse hanging over me.

I have never actually watched Big Love— I just know it was about a Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist and Republican senator in Utah and his many wives. Supposedly, there is good social commentary about male dominance and patriarchy in the series but I never sat through it long enough to find out.  The one and only conversation that I have ever had about New Henrickson’s comment at this conference was with another male scholar in the audience. This scholar was perturbed by the comment but mostly because his program was not given an award for its innovation the way that New Henrickson’s program had been.   It wasn’t a conversation that I could really relate to: such an award is not something I would ever covet if it is offered to white men who metaphor-ize themselves as polygamist heads-of-households in relation to the underpaid/under-valued women who do the bulk of the work in the U.S. of teaching college writing.  I am reminded here of Marc Bousquet’s work:

As for gender, the rendering of faculty positions to the extreme of economic irrationality (six courses a year for $15,000, eg)  assigns them disproportionately to women, especially persons–whether male or female–married to professionals and managers. The other, primary wage earner supports the economically irrational partner, a person teaching for what used to be called pin money. This structural feminizing of the job was traditionally associated with converting the positions formerly held by men (such as secretarial positions, once a high-status job) to those held increasingly by women… a “pyramid scheme” especially for women faculty.

Broadly speaking across many disciplines and institution types women still tend to disproportionately hold low-paying, low-status, insecure teaching-only or teaching-intensive jobs while men continue to disproportionately hold high-paying, high-status, secure research-intensive and top administrative positions.

When I look at Bousquet’s work, I begin to think New Henrickson’s quip— with all its attending meanings related to race, capitalism, and gender— may have been a soberly, accurate portrayal of the academy and the field.

So how did I handle this moment?  I stayed quiet and then always steered clear of New Henrickson, his mentees, and all of his homies.  All well and good, maybe, except that this is beginning to feel like selling out.  At what point does silence become the co-signing of hegemony? And at what point do women trade in this silence in order to acquire a kind of professional comfort and ease in their disciplines, even if it means they do so at the expense of their own bodies and minds?  New Henrickson is not of my generation but his misogyny is not done, especially in this world where it is rewarded (the award his program received is an accolade that surely fared him well in the institutional hierarchy in which he can now insert himself at his college campus.)  And while women of color may be reluctant to publicly critique male scholars of color for fear of the violent, black-on-black intra-fratricidal display it will offer to white audiences, women of color are not publicly criticizing New Henrickson either and it’s not always clear where the private critiques of his male comrades of color are.   Racial respect/nonviolence in white spaces is not the sole issue here.

I am not saying that I should have jumped up and slapped this fool in the mouth– either with my hands or with my words. Like I said, I am not quick enough for that anyway.   But it does seem that if I want to claim radical anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-consumerist work, I need to reach a more definitive point where I say something, counter-theorize these very real and very everyday moments of epistemic violence, and/or set up intellectual-political shop elsewhere to really do the work that is needed.  That’s the best plan that I have for the present and future as of right now.  I am working on it!

Human vs. Liberalism

I didn’t know that the little icon next to a web address is called a favicon until mid-August when I set up this website.  I have always noticed these symbols but never thought about how they got there. Needless to say, it took me more than just a few minutes to get the favicon (as pictured here at the left) onto this website.*  Using the Faviconer website was smooth sailing.  But then I had to figure out how to put my favicon.ico file in my theme folder using FTP clients.  I had to learn how to use filezilla before I could even get started.   The reality was that I had no idea what these nouns and phrases even referenced.  I would go to the wordpress help sites and then have to google each sentence to find out what they meant.  Nothing was intuitive.  All alone in my house, I kept working at adding a favicon until I got it, hoping to accumulate yet more proof for my more digitally resistant students that if I can do this, really anyone can.

This story might seem rather silly and irrelevant, but I present my pursuit of a favicon here as a lens into how I think about self-esteem and the refusal to give in.  What might seem even stranger here is that I connect these issues of self-esteem and perseverance to Sylvia Wynter’s work and the grounds on which she has always helped me to challenge the unhealthy, dominant logic of liberalism.

At moments like my favicon creation, I do not label or understand myself as unskilled, bad at something, deficient, or remedial.  I simply did not know how to add a favicon right then, nothing more or less, and I did not attach any meaning to that.  This seems like such a trivial and small thing, but really it isn’t.  I say this because, as a teacher, I can see when students begin to run a script in their heads that they are dumb or slow when they bump up against something unfamiliar or challenging.  What I suppose I got from Professor Wynter is that these moments require more than the usual protocols of self-esteem workshops, confidence boosts, and self-help guides.   You simply need to forego a system of thinking rooted in liberalism that makes you think your success or challenge is about YOU and just go on ’bout your business. No drama, no second-guessing, no frustration.

Lesson #3

When I talk about liberalism, I mean the classical ideas about the individual, equality, democracy, and meritocracy: the idea that if you work hard, the fruits of your labor will shine like a pot of gold; the idea that individuals are the key foundation of everything and so laws and institutions exist solely to cater to the desires and needs of single individuals.  Of course, the history of the collision of liberalism and Western empire is long and complex but a central axis is still: opportunities are everywhere and so it is the individual’s job to decide which opportunities to pursue and how and when.  This means there is never a focus on equality of outcomes, actual social histories of oppression, or perpetrators of inhumanity.  Why would there be?  It’s all about YOU and YOU alone.  This also means that if you are poor, then it is your own fault because you did not pursue the opportunities that everyone has; you are, in sum, cognitively/genetically deficient.  Whatever you don’t have or don’t do well, it is your own fault: you did something wrong, because, after all, life gave you nothing but positive chances to get whatever you wanted and needed.  With this kind of mindset and system of being, it becomes easy to see how someone sitting alone on a computer making mistakes with favicon uploading can simply think they are stupid.  It is what liberalism trains you to feel and think, regardless of whether this represents any reality.  This is the moment that I think many of my students often face: where they doubt themselves. Schooling is,of course, the prime example of where the virus of liberalism can be caught.  Liberalism provides that thought and feeling of inadequacy as central to what school actually achieves.

Lesson #4

Of course, students are not only up against liberalism today, but also neoliberalism.   I use neoliberalism to focus on the uber-glitz of free markets, choice, and efficiency.  So if you ARE good at getting that favicon up there, you are supposed to use that to make money and more money.  This is success and this is a new aim of schooling.   Institutions of higher education are expected to have and market themselves with the ability to turn YOU into a consumable product. I think Professor Wynter has most brilliantly called this the social creation of a species that has been determined solely as homo-economicus. 

At the end of the day, liberalism and neoliberalism are not inevitable ways of being that we must simply resign ourselves to.  They are simply one choice amongst many.  It seems to me, with my favicon generation as just one example, that you can go so much further without liberalism where there is no doubt that as a Human, in the way Professor Wynter means it, communal achievement is already there!


*My favicon is the adinkra symbol for ANANSE NTONTAN (“spider’s web”).  It is a symbol of wisdom, creativity, and the complexities of life and makes its nod to Ananse the spider, a well-known trickster character.