“When They Reminisce Over You, My God!”: Reminiscing Racial Violence, In and Out of School

Thank you to Crystal Belle and the organizers of the Trayvon Martin Effect Conference at Teachers College for this weekend’s events and for inviting me to attend!

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
—Audre Lorde, Sister Ousider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

The stories that I am telling here all began with the image that you see above of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.  When I pieced the images together, all I could hear in my head were the words of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from their 1992 album featuring T.R.O.Y./They Reminisce Over You, dedicated to their friend Troy Dixon.  It’s the end of the first verse and C.L. Smooth’s last two bars that propels the stories that hits what I think is at stake when we let everyone know that we refuse to forget Trayvon or Jordan or Emmett or any black boy:

Déjà vu, Tell You What I’m Gonna Do

When They Reminisce Over You, My God!

It is the way that CL Smooth hits that last bar, the way he uses sound of his voice to achieve the emphasis he wants to make.  He is making a promise to the world that the weight and impact of this death, via the reminiscence, will be felt for generations to come… because you see, for me, that weight and that re-remembering is exactly what I think schools quite actively and deliberately keep us from doing.

Remembering February: Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin

jordan-davisBoth Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin would have turned 19 years old this month.  That these two births are how I will always remember February is very telling for what Black Histories and Black Todays mean.

lalo iiThe verdict against Michael Dunn, the white man who murdered Jordan Davis for playing music too loud, does not ring with justice for me.  My heart was lifted when I saw and heard Jordan Davis’s parents respond to the verdict and the sense of closure they now feel; I want to make sure that I don’t dismiss or disrespect what these parents are feeling right now. At the end of the day, however, no matter how long Michael Dunn stays in jail, the right of a while male to kill black boys was upheld in the courts all over again.

Let’s be clear here: the jury found Dunn guilty of four charges, including three of attempted second-degree murder (the shots he fired and missed). But they couldn’t reach a verdict on the actual first-degree murder of Jordan.  I don’t know how to understand such confusion.  This verdict, along with Zimmerman’s acquittal, makes me read American justice like this: if you try to shoot black boys and miss, you will be incarcerated; but if you aim at a black boy and kill him good, you go free because you will have defended yourself successfully.

lalo alcarezI can’t help but think back to how confused so many people were by the 2012 creation of one of my favorite cartoonists, Lalo Alcaraz, after Trayvon’s murder.  In the cartoon, a black mother fears for the life of her son even though he is simply going out for snacks.  If anyone thought that was extreme, I encourage them to simply remember that Trayvon and Jordan should have been celebrating their 19th birthdays this month.  American white supremacy has ensured that never happened.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963

I was so struck by the language that I heard black parents using to explain Trayvon Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal to their children this summer.  It’s not like these were new explanations for the parents of black children, surely.  Nonetheless, it was the sheer poetry, metaphorical wizardry, and rhetorical intensity that just made me stop dead in my listening tracks.  It’s the same kind of language that just sings off the page when many black authors write YAL (young adult literature) and children’s literature for and about young people of African descent.  That’s why I read African American YAL and children’s literature so voraciously, especially when those texts are trying to creatively offer explanatory models for the past and present of racial violence and an alternative image of humanity that can sustain you.

zora-and-me-208x300There’s just something about the language.  My colleague, Victoria Bond, and her co-author, T.R. Simon, is a case example. I don’t want to spoil their wonderful book, Zora and Me, so I’ll just say that the story revolves around a set of friends who learn about the saga of a woman who is passing as white.  The woman’s husband and lifestyle unleash a level of disrespect and violence onto black communities that is unforgivable.  What Bond and Simon do so beautifully is unpack that violence from the perspective and discourse of young adults who are learning to do better by their people (with one of these friends being the young Zora Neale Hurston).  While this book is, of course, a story that sociologically interrogates the politics of passing, it is also just brilliant in showing how violent this decision is for black communities… and all in a way that is understandable for 12 year olds.  Like I said, the language is just wonderful.

watsonsThat language is also the reason why I have cherished The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis since it came out in 1995.  He shows you the love, dignity, and warmth of a black family while also showing how a young boy deals with and understands the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  There is no happy ending to the book, just an ending that lets you know that black love will sustain this family and community.  When you value the language and experience of these kinds of tellings, then you just can’t help but feel real slighted when you see a Hollywood adaptation.  I finally watched the movie version of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 on the Hallmark channel this weekend.  Mostly, I was just curious to see if the film achieves the brilliance that I think Curtis’s book achieves.  I suspected it wouldn’t and I was right.

The brilliance that Curtis crafted with Kenny’s sorrow and mourning after the church bombing was simply lost.  The plot was there but not the significance, meaning, and historical impact.  What has astonished me is that so many reviews excuse the film’s domestication of Civil Rights protests in Birmingham because the movie is for children.  But the movie is based on a BOOK… a book that did NOT domesticate racist violence in order to hurry up and celebrate the triumph of the North American family (nor did the book ever offer the North as a Promised Land in relation to the Evil South like the movie does).  These tropes are so tired and played out that I sympathized with the wonderful actors in the movie who had to re-play these tropes. I found myself wondering who these domesticated images were for.  Surely, not for those parents who had to explain Trayvon Martin’s murder to their children this summer…or for the children who look like Trayvon!

Freedman_Bureau_Richmond_VAI knew I was traveling down a slippery slope when I first turned on the movie because Hallmark didn’t air the movie on the actual anniversary.  Maybe it’s because I don’t watch too much television but I also found it quite difficult to view this movie when every single commercial was white.  I have never seen so many middle class white women shopping at Walmart as I did in the commercial breaks.  No single commercial with a black family?  A black mother?  A black woman? They did, however, play the infamous Cheerios commercial where the little biracial girl pours cereal over her father’s heart many, many times. Now don’t get me wrong.  I was outraged at the racism this commercial unleashed against that adorable little girl.  But I was equally outraged when those same folk who were posting their comments and links to this commercial on youtube, facebook, twitter, or google+ have not been similarly enraged at the events with Tiana Parker or Quvenzhane Wallis.   It was as if the network just couldn’t let America see too much of two black parents raising black children.  When only biracial children are your source of attention, the hierarchy of value is clear.  I can’t help but be reminded of the white teachers who went to the south to teach black children after emancipation in the late 1800s and wrote long, tearful laments when they saw so many almost-white, mulatto children forced to share in the same racial misery as all those dark Negroes (they saw it as shameful to leave children with so much white in them with black people).  The movie may not have been historically accurate but Hallmark’s messages during the commercial breaks surely were.

As for me, I’m going to stick with African American YAL and children’s literature.  That language!  Those messages!  That’s what the U.S. still needs aired.

“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;

WITH

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.

N.H.I., Part III: Starting with the Classroom

“The price one pays for entering a profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” ~James Baldwin (quoted in Tananarive Due’s African Immortals Series)

I like what this quote from James Baldwin leans towards.  The questions remain: what do you do with this intimate knowledge?  And what kind of world does that ugly side create?

Prof-Sylvia

Sylvia Wynter, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Spanish and Portuguese

Following through on Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter To My Colleagues” means taking very seriously her claim that our very disciplines need to be interrogated for the ways that these fields discursively ignore, legitimate and, therefore, create/sustain the kinds of social hierarchies that inevitably mean racial violence.  Though her letter was written in 1992, her claims seem all the more relevant and all the more difficult today.  With academics and their work being more and commercialized and commodified (some folk like to call this being a “public/mass intellectual”) where you can become as instant of a celebrity as on cable television/youtube, the kind of deep critique of the academy that Wynter asks for seems all the more elusive.  Her frequent quote from Carter G. Woodson seems approprate here: “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom.”

I’ll quote Wynter extensively here based on my favorite subsection in her “Open Letter” essay called: “The New Question, From Woodson to Wiesel to Orr: What is Wrong with Our Education?”

Which is of course, where we come in, and the new form of the question- what is wrong with our education?  Environmental educator, David Orr, pointed out in a 1990 commencement address, that the blame for the environmental destruction of a planet on which we are losing ‘116 square miles of rain forest or an acre a second,’ and on which at the same time we send up ‘2700 tons of chlorofluorocarbon into the atmosphere’ as well as other behaviours destructive of our ecosystemic life support system, should be placed where it belongs.  All of these effects, he argues, are the results of decisions taken not by ignorant and unlearned people.  Rather, they were and are decisions taken by the ‘best and brightest’ products of our present system of education; of its highest levels of learning, of universities like ours here at Stanford.  Orr then cited in this context a point made by Elie Wiesel to a Global Forum held in Moscow in the Winter of 1989: ‘The designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust,’ Wiesel pointed out, ‘were the heirs of Kant and Goethe.’ Although, ‘in most respects, the Germans were the best educated people on earth, their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity.  What was wrong with their education?’

Click Here for Sylvia Wynter’s FULL ESSAY as published in Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century.