The Flies & Barnyards of the Rich & Shameless: Gentrification in BK

gentrifyGentrification takes on new meanings when you live in Brooklyn/New York. The all-encompassing, rapid, commercial take-over is astounding. I moved into my Brooklyn home in 1998 after living in an apartment for five years. I was a public high school teacher with a savings account from the Municipal Bank, got a home loan through FHA, and moved into what we called back then, an “FHA neighborhood.” My down payment on my house cost less than the broker’s fee+lease agreement for most Brooklyn apartments back then. “FHA” meant that I got a fixer-upper in a neighborhood where I was once robbed by a crackhead— or rather, accosted, since the crackhead didn’t get anything off of me (as quiet as it’s kept in this world that treats crackheads like scary monsters, they are actually physically weak so, in other words, it doesn’t take too much to whup one’s ass which is exactly what I did). The crackheads that weren’t jacking wallets and purses were hookin on the street corner. Those days are long, long gone now though. A new 14-story high-rise dots every five blocks on the avenues.  A typical 2-bedroom apartment (maybe 800 square feet) will run you $3500.00 right now.  Needless to say, ain’t no crackheads in these parts today!

There are many places that give wonderful social, economic analyses of the calculated displacement of brown and black peoples in 21st century Brooklyn/New York (older, white residents still desperately try to hold on to rent-controlled apartments and get treated so much more sympathetically by NY media venues). That’s not what I want to talk about though. I want to talk about the thing that no one mentions in terms of gentrification in Brooklyn and all of these so-called improvements: the everyday aesthetic demise. Continue reading

My Father’s Black Working Class Consciousness as an Academic Necessity

My Father as a Young Man

My Father as a Young Man

When I have heard white working class people talk about becoming academics/joining the academy, they seem to often talk about an estrangement from peers, neighborhoods, and, especially, from family.  I hear black academics sometimes talk this way also, usually in reference to the brothas and sistas on the block who no longer accept them.  I just don’t get it. I just don’t have these issues, never have, and don’t imagine I will in the future either. The older that I get, the further “ahead” (in years, I mean) that I move into the academy, the more I seem to be able to talk with and relate to my father.

My father is a retired heating and air conditioning mechanic and seems to be able to fix any motor/engine/system on the planet.  As is always so startlingly true of the discarding of black bodies, talent, and genius under white supremacy, in another world, my father could have been an engineer and inventor (I won’t even go into the everyday assistantship I have had to provide on his homemade barbecue grills and electric traps to catch squirrels and critters that eat the garden’s tomatoes).  His garage is the 21st century version of Fred Sanford’s junkyard/frontyard with anything that you could ever need to fix anything that is ever broken.

Sanford and Son

Sanford and Son… Now Insert Me as Daughter

For most of my life, my father worked as custodial staff for the federal building.  Today, he gets hassled daily for any odd job that any black person in that part of Ohio seems to need done, so much so that he never answers his phone anymore, forcing me to buy him a cell phone and put it on my account in order to talk to him (preachers seem to be his arch-nemesis for trying to get free or cheap work done).  As a scholarship student at an elite high school, my high school peers were the sons and daughters of lawyers and judges so they knew my father from their parents’ frequent visits to the federal building where my father worked.  To my peers, I was the janitor’s daughter and it didn’t seem to make a difference that my father was not the janitor at OUR building, he was just a janitor out there somewhere and so that was his and my only identity.  I won’t lie and say that I didn’t feel like an ugly, unwanted, poor black girl for most of my high school years— it was what that culture engendered— but I wasn’t estranged from my father’s class consciousness and had a full-blooded, full-bodied critique of elite and upper middle class white people.  Today, as a recently tenured professor of English, I relate to my father even more by nature of the work and white supremacy that I navigate daily in the academy.  What on earth would make anyone think that it would look any different for me than it did for him?

Being raised in a (very) large, black working class family is what I count as my greatest blessing and asset today.  The language and vernacular that redefines and plays, the ability to read whiteness and its violence, the knowledge that pleasure and sustenance won’t come from work, the explicit naming of unfairness in everyday banter, the transformation of the mundane (fish fries, the electric slide, etc) into the sacred have sustained me in ways that are beyond even my conscious awareness.

Last week, I mailed to my father one of the first copies of my first book.  When he received it, he called me and was stunned that it was 336 pages and DONE!  The thing he kept saying, over and over again, was this: “uhn, uhn, uhn, this is a whole lotta work, baby.”  He told me that it was time to rest now before I get back up and get back at it.  It was the best recognition of what I had done and the best advice for what I need to do next that I have received to date!  I knew he would understand just what I was feeling, down to the core.

Winter Solstice 2012: Tis the Season!

SolsticeIf Thanksgiving perplexed me, then this Holiday season overwhelms me more. Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, reindeer, and a host of 5-foot-tall Christmas Nutcrackers appear to be visiting Baby Jesus in a lit-up manger right up my block.  The owner of the home, Tom, was so happy putting it all together that it’s hard for me to even be mad at him. I must admit that I like watching people like Tom find such immense joy at what appear, to me at least, to be some of the tackiest, most contradictory aesthetic displays imaginable.

I have fond, childhood memories of this time: the kitchen of the aunt who helped raise me and the joy and laughter everywhere when we were stuck inside in the Ohio, winter months.  I have memories of my cousins, the single mothers, who always talked to me like an adult even when I was really young, explaining how they planned and saved money for their children’s gifts beginning in July and August.  They were all struggling in all kinds of ways but always saw to it that their children would smile every Christmas morning (it was only as an adult that I figured out that my mother was doing the same.)  It wasn’t about the gifts ever, just surrounding their children with the kind of wonder and awe that poor people are not supposed to experience. The financial planning that working class/working poor single mothers did back then during the holidays (no one I knew had credit cards) represents a financial genius that could re-organize our collapsing economic system, if that was what we really wanted!  A working class, single mother who is doing it all on her own, without the social imprint of needing male (sexual) attention or patriarchal protection, has a formidable skills-set, at this time of the year and every other time. So every year around now, I especially remember these women.  I certainly see and appreciate all of the listings of suggested eco/cultural/conscious gifts to buy during the holidays, but I also remember an anti-capitalist analysis of the greatest ploy in the Western world to keep today’s working class in debt.  It was young, working class black single mothers— my very own cousins who made me into the little sister who would carry their heart’s torch— who gave me this political lens.

At this time of year, I also turn my gaze to the Winter Solstice, thanks to the help of a college friend a few years back who has shared some of the most significant spiritual insights with me. Now, let me be clear. I am no Solstice Purist, Expert, or ardent Practitioner.  There have been times when I try to get out of Solstice work by seeking an astrological reading.  The results usually tell me that I’m stubborn, stank, and sometimes rather unyielding, things I already know.  I don’t get much from this information other than, perhaps, a justification for why I have a tendency to yell at folk in the NYC subway: “get…YO… a$%… out… the… way!”  (I mean, really, you canNOT stop and answer a text message on a subway stairway when 50 people are coming full force behind you!)   I have, thus, figured that I can’t really replace the opportunities that the Winter Solstice provides with an “astrological reading.”

The Winter Solstice takes place this year for four days and four nights, December 21 to December 24 (according to nautical calendars), the time when the sun is at its southernmost position. This is that time when the sun rises at the latest in the day and sets at the earliest of the entire year. The day is shortest; the night is longest. For the Ancients in Kemet, enlightenment is literally written into the cosmos, in this very movement of the sun and stars. Light gradually increases in the winter sunrise, hence, offering a kind of spiritual rebirth. This means that you can use the time of the Winter Solstice to discover your purpose and realize true spiritual power, but only if you slow down and tap into it.

9067250My ideas are shaped mostly from Ra Un Nefer Amen who makes a plea for intensive meditation during the Winter Solstice when the gates between the spiritual realm and the lived world are open (by spiritual realm, he means spirit, subconscious, or even what Jung called unconscious.)  Though I am not following his prescriptive formula for meditation at the Solstice, Ra Un Nefer Amen’s teachings seem invaluable, namely that we often live out a toxic program that we intentionally create for ourselves.  We are not passive onlookers of our own lives and instead invent and design our own programs of stunning self-destruction with the choices we make: how we spend our money, who we choose to have intimate relationships with, how we treat our bodies/our health, and how we approach or stall our work/career.  Since spirit carries out the behavior that manifests these negative things in our lives, then spirit is what we need to work on.  What makes ancient cultures important here (Amen’s focus is on Kemet) is that they believe the Winter Solstice was the time that the spirit could receive a new message and, therefore, discard old, toxic programming.  Getting rid of a toxic program is not an easy thing, a feat few people ever really achieve (and spend a lot of money on therapy for), hence, the importance and weight of the intervention of the Winter Solstice. These are all, of course, very simplistic lenses into what Kemetic philosophers like Amen believe and say, but you see where I am going here.

My Christmas TreeMy ruminations here on the Winter Solstice might seem strange or even offensive to friends who are, on one side, atheist or agnostic, and, on the other side, deeply committed to their specific church or religious doctrines.  I myself have not been fully acculturated into these belief systems and do not go any deeper than what I have said here. I intend no disrespect to anybody, only the suggestion that the ways the Ancients saw these coming days, the axes of the sun, the value of deep meditation, and the general process where you slowwww down can’t be all that bad.  I can’t see a more pressing need for exactly such a practice when all anyone seems to be doing now is spending money, accruing debt and interest on charge cards, running around frantically, or being angry at hyper-consumerism.  This seems like the best time for me to be tapping into who I am and all that I can still become.  Though I couldn’t articulate it back then, I now see the working class/working poor single mothers who cocooned my girlhood as women who must have been able to tap into a powerful site where their spirit resided.  Yes, they used their youth, radical black female subjectivity and working class consciousness to read their political environments brilliantly, but they also lived their lives from a powerful center/spirit.  There is just no other way that you can move the kinds of mountains they did without that.  As I finish my last days grading and work towards the challenge of reconnecting with my own spirit, I’ll be thinking of them.

Protest, Mourning & Remembrance (Personal Notes on Thanksgiving)

“Well, here we go with another holiday that America loves to celebrate, Thanksgiving Day. I know this has been said numerous times by many Native people of this country, but it is just not a day for many of us to celebrate. Although some things have improved on some reservations, there are an overwhelming number of us that have nothing to celebrate. These are the people who still have my concern, my hope and my love that things will get better. I’m talking about the people of Big Mountain, some of whom have already received their eviction notices. It’s about the Western Shoshone, about the people all over this continent who are fighting for their treaty rights and sovereignty. It’s about the people in Chiapas, the people in Central and South America who are being tortured and slaughtered every day. It is about the people whose stories we do not hear. The people who are resisting by simply surviving the “third world” conditions that they live under in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

As you gather today at this historic spot, remember those who struggled and gave their lives before you. Remember those who are in prison and those who are being tortured and denigrated today. Remember those who gave you the teachings that were handed down generation to generation. Remember as you continue the struggle for justice and equality in this land that is ours to caretake…Thanksgiving is every day. Wake up and thank the Creator for a new day every day.” ~Leonard Peltier, 1998 Thanksgiving Statement

Thanksgiving is a tricky concept for me.  On the one hand, the moment of pause, reflection, and gratitude that the concept suggests is one that I support.  On the other hand, we have enshrined yet another European celebration/manifestation.  The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) actually offers a short lesson plan and extended curriculum for grades 4-8 that help classroom teachers begin to dig deeper into the ongoing imagination of the Indigenous people breaking bread with the  “pilgrims” at the “First Thanksgiving” in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Certainly, Indigenous nations have designed systems for giving thanks to the earth but the trope of Thanksgiving that we often celebrate is actually a mixture of Puritan religious practices and  European festivals of Harvest Home (which included sports, like our current marriage of Thanksgiving with football), and that incorporated the Indigenous foodways that we take for granted.  All of this information is widely known and accessible and yet most elementary kids will still come home with the same things that were used to teach me about Thanksgiving more than 30 years ago: sketches where you trace your fingers and make that into a turkey; some sort of headband with a paper feather; and/or drawings or texts that enshrine pilgrims in that classic black and white attire.  I can walk for ten minutes, in any ethnic direction, through the segregated neighborhoods of my Hometown-Brooklyn and tell when there are small children in the home: these textual representations of the myth and dominant fantasy of Thanksgiving are glued everywhere to front windows and doors this week.

I don’t think I can afford to ignore these tensions when the United American Indians of New England (UAIME) have declared Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning since 1970.  Instead, the UAIME marks this day as one of remembrance and spiritual connection alongside protest of the racism and oppressions that Indigeneous Nations experience NOW. This year’s 43rd Day of Mourning is dedicated to the political prisoner and artist, Leonard Peltier (all artwork on this page is by Peltier). I see the UAIME as letting us know that we all have some mourning to do.  And even though I won’t be attending the Day of Mourning in Massachusetts this year, I recognize, in both my head and heart, the remembrances, spiritual connections, and fight against oppression that the UAIME represent.  I also recognize, in my head and heart, the very gift of seeing the new day, the Thanksgiving everyday, as Peltier suggests. So this Thanksgiving will mean doing some small-scale recognizing of events and people in my individual life alongside the large-scale work of recognizing and mourning human loss under oppression.

As corny as it may sound and as trite in comparison to the history I have talked about here, I want to remember my closest friends and family, making sure that I recognize who they are and what they bring to my life.  I think about a girlfriend with a family, home, exacting teaching load, heavy service expectations at her university, administrative assignments, and publication demands who never, never once, put me aside when I needed to think through some piece of writing or idea I was working on, though her schedule doesn’t easily accommodate the time and depth we usurp for our emailing alone.  I will never consume her real-time support and spirit and then dissolve her presence by comparing/juxtaposing her with someone else.  That kind of consumption would only mean that I have sacrificed her collegiality, friendship, and loyalty to the forces of oppression in an inability to recognize her true, unique value.  As simple as it seems, maintaining friendships and the value of human lives outside of the patterns of exploitation that permeate everything is quite radical: that’s how I understand the remembrance that UAIME asks of us.

I think about my mentors who, just in their letters of reference, took the time to craft words that offered such vivid descriptions of me that I sound like no one else and who, in turn, made me see who I am.  They seemingly transformed even a bureaucratic and bourgeois process so that I would not be another woman-thing in the academy to be institutionally-exchanged, discussed, dissected or claimed as an object of ownership, desire, or tokenism.  I recognize their ability to stand outside of the current econo-cultural climate and really see and do.  I think about my real friends and family who let me be BOTH weak and strong, loud and quiet, scared and bold, focused and confused and who never conflate my achievement of professional success with my experience of joy and pain.  I think about girlfriends with whom I mine the darkest depths of trauma and hurt— both theirs and my own— without letting that dictate a negative path and spirit for our conversations and very foundations of friendship/soulship.  Living one’s life past/beyond oppression is no small task but, at least amongst one another, we have offered one another our whole selves with realness, clarity, and vision.

That we have survived is a feat in and of itself. When it comes right down to it, it’s about connection and remembrance… and sustenance through the material, everyday practices of what we say and do.  Although the culture sets us up to alienate the very real labor of maintaining friends and family in our daily lives, we do not have to abide by that culture.  That’s the kind of Thanksgiving worth having.

Occupying Wall Street: Literacies and Education for the 99%

Today I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion with two, wonderful colleagues, Christine Utz and Jon L. Peacock, both creative writers who worked as two of the 60 writers to create the text, Occupying Wall Street:  The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America.  Unsurprisingly, it was probably one of the most direct and unflinching conversations that I have been involved with about social action and critique against capitalism in my current space (Here is the plan/outline of today’s discussion.)

I have read/heard many people talk about Occupy Wall Street (OWS)  as a literacy/educational movement, but usually only in the context of the uses of social media.  I think we miss so many ideological issues when we only focus on these seeming processes of participants’ and onlookers’ conversations and discourse arenas.  The OWS book really helped sharpen these thoughts for me.

In particular, I am struck by the educational, participatory model that OWS models for us.  To get at what is radically literate and educational in OWS, we have to look particularly at the nestings of horizontal participation and the value of labor.  What I am also interested in is the galvanization of a new kind of (college) student.

On the heels of Hurricane Sandy’s still disastrous impact in New York City, with so many of my students and colleagues still without electricity and/or homes, I keep thinking back to this past summer.  My Brooklyn neighborhood, in its pre-gentrification phase, was primarily people of color who worked for the city— municipal workers (I, myself, was a public high school teacher when I moved in). One neighbor, one of the few oldheads left on my block, works for Con Edison so I have witnessed, vicariously through him, the complete disintegration of workers’ dignity and actual jobs in these past 14 years living here, all alongside the CEOs of this utility company bursting at the seams in profit.   Yet I have heard very few activists, including those of color, embrace and/or link the strike that these Con Ed workers waged for a good part of last summer, many of whom were people of color, to the very conditions that so many poor communities of color are facing in NYC post-Sandy: the slow work and/or overwhelmed-ness of Con Ed workers (many of whom were downsized or ousted long ago) and the general degradation of poor and working class peoples (that results in the downsizing of their jobs and the supersizing of CEOs’ pockets).  Given how difficult it often is for even activists to see just how linked our fates are as workers, I am struck by the ways OWS made these connections real, especially for college students, who organized alongside and with labor unions as part of the work they did at OWS.   Here we have an educational climate that, by and large, tells you that you are simply supposed to get your degree, whatever the financial debt may be (which, after all, helps you value the degree as it adds to schools’ financial portfolios), compete and beat out everybody else for that job at the end of the line, and not think about any one but one’s self (with little critical awareness of that self).  And yet, despite all of that and maybe even because of it, here we have college students walking out of classrooms to work with union organizers and other workers at OWS.  This requires a complete mutation in how you define and do the work of being a “student” and that, to me, is what we need to be theorizing and defining as the new literacies and educational praxis of OWS.

I am also inspired by the way the book was written which, as Jon showed us, is further indication of  the way work was organized and valued at OWS where every role is seen and valued vs. commodified according to individualistic monetary gain.  I see the book as a history of OWS but also as an unfolding of its praxis/theory of social change. Christine also pointed out, rather brilliantly, that the book is also a protest manual and in that sense, it seems like something invaluable to those of us interested in literacy and education for change which must, at its heart, always be doing some protest.