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What Freedom Has Looked Like

I’m not someone who tweets so maybe I just don’t get it.  Maybe. When I see what happens there (and yes, I do call twitter a social place/location), I am sometimes stunned.  But then again, these are the kinds of discourses that have always happened behind closed doors anyway.

Ad from Oregon PBS

Ad from Oregon PBS about History of Sex Education Classes

Let’s take, for instance, a woman who has semi-regularly tweeted photos of public sexual innuendos like signposts with the word, HUMP, on them.  It’s almost sophomoric, like in junior high sex education classes when the teacher shows photos of male and female genitalia and everyone starts laughing.  Except this ain’t a kid, this is a grown, professional woman who marks herself as a feminist.  Certainly, feminist consciousness demands that women’s bodies not be circumscribed and defined by Puritan notions of sex and sexuality and instead empowers women’s bodies from alternative spaces of consciousness and politics.  I get that.  Really, I do.  But this ain’t that so let me cut to the chase: I just can’t see myself, as a black female professor, lasting too long if I tweet out sophomoric sexual discourses for fun, with photos, and so willingly offer up a sexualization of my body in public spaces as a hobby for my pastime.  I can tell you that it wouldn’t go well for me professionally and black male professors certainly wouldn’t be out here calling me their sister-in-arms as the second coming of the Angela Davis/Black Power Mixtape. It just doesn’t go down like that.  Not for black women.  For those of us who consider ourselves real students of black women’s histories and black feminisms, we know that we live under very different scripts for race and gender. This twitter example that I am describing is not hypothetical; it represents the very real activities of a non-black female “professor” (in quotation marks since the person engages no intellectual/scholarly pursuits). Now what on earth would ever embolden a professional/professor to initiate such public, sexual invitations and expect relative impunity with no negative result?  That answer comes quite easily for me: the sense of freedom that comes with white entitlement… and, well, all of us ain’t entitled that way; all of us ain’t free.

Some might view my perspectives as conspiratorial or over-the-top but if you are a black woman, you better wake up fast because you don’t have the luxury of such dismissals.  You’ll see exactly what I am talking about when you witness white co-workers criticize black applicants for their lack of a far-reaching scholarly identity in their digital footprint though these white folk themselves ain’t got nothing nowhere about themselves and their scholarship.  You’ll see exactly what I am talking about when you witness white co-workers scrutinize a black woman’s resume, comparing it to items that can be googled— this for a black woman who has dozens upon dozens of lectures and accolades online, too many to count.  Meanwhile, the ridiculous onslaught of online tributes to vampires created by the non-black-female applicant goes unmentioned and unnoticed.  You just can’t make this stuff up.  Like I said, if you are a black woman, you would be stupid to think you can ignore this because non-black folk dismiss you as paranoid… while, of course, they never hire anyone who looks like you.  Don’t you be THAT kind of fool.

Eunique Johnson's “I am Trayvon Martin” Photo Campaign

Eunique Jones’s “I am Trayvon Martin” Photo Campaign

About ten years ago, I taught an intensive summer, 3-hour college writing course in the evenings and we had class on July 3.  All of my students in that course were of African descent; most expected me to cancel class since the 4th was the next day.   They kept asking over and over: but what will we do in class on that day? to which I answered: the same damn thing our ancestors had to do— WORK and FIGHT BACK!  You ain’t free.  Now, some of my students thought that was hilarious and appropriate; others were mad as hell at me and either way, I didn’t give a damn.  We had class and we spent the time reading and discussing “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass alongside current events of the moment.  If I were teaching that same class today, I would do the same thing.  And I would add to that assignment the footage from the current trial proceedings related to George Zimmerman’s vicious murder of Trayvon Martin.  And I would add to that  William Lamar IV’s piece at the Huffington Post on why he will reflect on the 4th of July, but not celebrate.

I am reminded every day of the ways that I am not free, even in the seemingly mundane ways that other women not-of-Afrikan-descent are so casually emboldened to do things that I could just never get away with and maintain a positive social reputation, job, and respect.  I don’t mean to be the grim reaper for my students and disempower them with stories of racism.  But empowerment comes from seeing the world as it is so that you can intervene in it, not from creating fantasies, delusions, and false belief systems. The good thing about all that is there is a tradition for the 4th of July, going all the way back to Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, leading the way.

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.

Black Bodies, Public Spectacle, and Narrative: Lessons from Karla Holloway

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

I recently listened to a talk given by Karla Holloway at Georgia Tech University.  In her talk, Holloway discusses Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now destined for HBO, courtesy of Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.  In her book trailer, Skloot herself confirms that it is the characters that basically make this science book readable and riveting to a general audience.  Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not have even health insurance.  The story is now widely known and was even dramatized/re-mixed by one of the Law and Order episodes.  What Skloot’s book does though is take us deep into the interior of this family, putting her, rightly so, in the direct line of Holloway’s fire.

In her talk, called “Henrietta Lacks and the Ethics of Privacy,” Holloway asks a compelling question: “which bodies have earned the public presumption of the right of privacy and which are available, reasonably available, for public scrutiny?”   Her own research shows that it is blacks and women who are most “readily rendered up for public storytelling,” what she calls a “persistent loss of privacy” where privacy is a “right” only granted to some audiences.  Holloway connects Skloot’s book to shows like the Real Housewives series and their exploitative representations of women, Maury Povich’s media publication of paternity cases, and Jerry Springer’s public consumption of community and family dysfunction.  She sees these media empires as the motivation and subtext for the ways in which Skloot invades and publicly showcases the lives, medical records, and stigmatized diseases of Henrietta Lacks and her family.  The most intimate medical histories are made public in this book, alongside a kind of voyeuristic unveiling of Deborah Lacks’s (the daughter) challenges with understanding medicine/science, the details of one of Lacks’s son and his time in prison, and even the amount of Deborah’s disability checks. Deborah Lacks actually dies before the manuscript was published so there clearly was none of what we qualitative researchers like to call “member checking” on the final product here.  Holloway reveals that she herself is uncomfortable in even summarizing Skloot’s book because it would mean participating in the very violation of this family’s history that the book exploits. What Holloway clearly shows here is a kind of parasitic relationship between a wealthy white journalist mining the stories and family histories of the Lacks and to brilliant fanfare given how well the book has sold and been awarded.  In sum, Henrietta Lacks’s body was “stripped” as a spectacle, first, in the name of science research, and now in the new telling that Skloot engages.   Holloway doesn’t hesitate to connect this history of violence and exploitation on black bodies in the name of academic research and public spectacle to James Marion Sims and his experiments on black slave women (Sims invented the speculum, made of bent spoons, to see inside of women’s uterus) and Katherine Stockett’s imagination of race in The Help.

What Holloway also compellingly shows me is that the focus on crafting a tantalizing, evocative narrative about black women’s bodies is rooted in historical white violence. A story is not good because it is widely read by and marketable to a general public already mesmerized by the likes of “Real Housewives,” Maury, Jerry Springer, The Help, and the general set of pathologies and dysfunction under capitalism.  This is not to say that black people do not themselves choose to offer their bodies and stories up for public spectacle, only that there is a history of white supremacy and consumption that makes this thinkable and desirable.

I am compelled by Holloway’s discussion as both a qualitative researcher and a writing teacher.  How you write, what you say, how you say it, who you talk about, and what you say/include are always deeply political and enmeshed in the ways that the culture tells you to consume black bodies. If the narratives we write as and about black women do not take as their first call of duty an unflinching critique of the unjust systems in which our bodies get defined and used, including the marketing and/or academic systems that tell/sell our stories, it seems to me that we are just being served up again as a James Marion Sims’s experiment.  Holloway has a stunning critique of these unjust systems and points us toward new directions in how we analyze, write, and talk about those systems too.