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What James Baldwin Taught Me About Racist Trolls

I love James Baldwin.

As a fellow writer and Harlem native, he is my literary muse. When I first discovered his work, I felt as if he snatched the words off the tip of my tongue and splattered them on the page. He revealed me to myself, reaffirming my humanity in a country where blacks were offered a subpar education, fed subpar food, and left to rot in subpar housing.

Baldwin was and, perhaps, still remains America’s black revolutionary voice.

Raul Peck’s “I am Not Your Negro” is a visual portrayal of Baldwin’s prophetic prose. The film documents his musings on race in America and, along the way, reveals some interesting truths about how fruitful political discourse is on the verge of extinction.

In the film, Peck weaves together archival footage and excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript to reflect on the lives and deaths of civil rights legends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates a majority of the script, however there are rare moments where Baldwin, himself, speaks during a lecture at some elite university or while visiting some late-night talk show. During one of these moments, Baldwin encounters a civil rights troll who attempts to underplay the significance of race in America. In response, he delivers a fiery speech that reveals the presence of racism in nearly all of America’s institutions.

“Now this is the evidence,” Baldwin finishes. “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen!”

Baldwin’s words resonate like a Facebook post gone viral. Yet, unlike the trolls of modernity, this guy actually seemed to get it. There is no name calling in their exchange, no accusations of “reverse racism” or threats of being sent back to Africa. This troll simply nods in a manner that suggests he agrees to disagree.

Sadly, modern intellectual discourse lacks this same level of maturity. Instead, complex theories have been reduced to 140 characters and political debates have devolved into Twitter beef. Trolling is the world’s new favorite past time and it seems we’ve abandoned the free exchange of ideas for the free exchange of likes.

Perhaps most terrifying about the popularity of trolling is what this trend suggests about the future of America. I am deeply afraid that our inability to respectfully disagree will ultimately lead to an inability to coexist. I fear hat if we stop engaging with one another; if we stop opening our minds to different wells of knowledge, we will never be able to solve the problem of race in America because we’d never be able to get to the root of it.

According to Baldwin, racism stems predominately from this troll-like inability to face the facts. In order to solve the problem of race in America, whites, in particular, have to search for the root of it within themselves.

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it,” he contends. “If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

“I am Not Your Negro” is currently playing in select theaters.

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Are we witnessing the genocide of Black America?

“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.” — Howard Zinn

Today, I watched another Black man murdered in cold blood by the morally bankrupt and, quite frankly, moronic street gang we call American law enforcement. Like most Americans, I watched it on national television with some bemused cable news anchor giving a play-by-play of the events as if he were analyzing some ritual sports game. It has certainly come to feel that way. Ritual. The government-sanctioned murder of black people in this country is nothing new – I know that very well – but over the last few years, I have come to realize that it is not something one simply reads about in history books. It is a living breathing thing, an unfortunate reality of being Black in America and having the audacity to be free. The anchor’s tone was dull and distant, signifying precisely how emotionally detached American values are from the war on Black lives. I thought back to the empathy in this same anchor’s voice just a few weeks ago while reporting the death of an endangered gorilla and I marveled at his seeming inability to have the same compassion for another human being. I watched him wrap up his account of the Black man’s murder and interview a panel of correspondents to debate the ethics of criminal homicide. After a few minutes of bickering, the anchor thanked his guests for their comments and moved on to more “ pressing” matters: the presidential election and the circus that is Donald Trump. And so it was. Alton B. Sterling had joined the countless Black Americans whose lives would be remembered in hashtags and T-shirts, but never on America’s mainstage.

Although deeply moved and infuriated by the news of Sterling’s death, I can’t say that I was at all surprised. I have come to associate Blackness in America with living under the threat of one’s mental, spiritual, or physical death at all times. I expect to see breaking news headlines recounting the murder of a Black person. I expect for that Black person to have been murdered by a police officer. I expect that Black person’s name inserted into an endless stream of hashtags and think pieces — for about a week. And then, I expect for that same name to drift into obscurity. I expect it to be buried deep in the graves of history; a sacred place where I suppose all those of the lost tribe of Africa go when slain in the name of white supremacy. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Alton B. Sterling and as of hours ago, Philando Castile. These are names we evoke in our moments of mourning to somehow commemorate their stolen lives. And yet, no matter how nimble our Twitter fingers, they can’t seem to stop the steady accumulation of names on that list. America’s war against Black lives is arguably at its peak and Black folks have found themselves on the losing end of an age-old battle. We are witnessing the genocide of Black America and it seems there’s is nothing we can do about it.

Race has and continues to be the central organizing concept of American society. So much so, that to be “American” is as synonymous with being white as Beyonce is with perfection. More seriously, whiteness is, and arguably always was, the lens through which American social, political, and economic policy is formed. White supremacy is real, y’all. It is at the heart of every American system. Our education, our history, our freedom, and our lives lay in the hands of these systems. And so long as we allow these systems to exist, Black people will continue to die.

That is, so long as we allow it.

Systems cannot function alone. They do so with the compliance of the people. The people must conform to very specific patterns of behavior in order for a system to sustain itself. There must be some level of obedience, some buying into a system in order for it to persist. And yet, questions of how to dismantle these systems have been overshadowed by a collective fear of what comes after they are gone. No one is quite sure what this utopic future looks like but it is clear: our present system will continue to inflict a wave of terror on Black lives until the last Black breath is drawn.

That is, so long as we allow it.

Photo by torbakhopper / CC 2.0 

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The New Year’s Resolution Every Black Woman Should Make

resizeimageBeing Black in America is no easy feat, but to be Black and a woman is a unique dilemma.

African American women bear the double disadvantage of racism and sexism, making them prime targets for both racial terrorism and gender-based violence

According to a report by The Black Women’s Roundtable, no woman is more likely to be raped, beaten or murdered in America today than a Black woman, a point proven sadly accurate in the legion of tragic headlines in 2015. Whether it was Sandra Bland on a Texas highway or Dajerria Becton at a Texas pool, we were bombarded with images of Black Women as victims of senseless violence this year. And with each reported incident, we experienced the trauma anew, persistently picking at our blistering wounds.

As race and gender bias intersect to threaten the lives (and sanity) of Black women in America, it is more important than ever that we prioritize both our physical and psychological well-being. In 2016, there is one resolution Black Women should definitely make: Self-care.

Here are 5 simple ways to treat yo’self in the new year — as told by Beyonce ;).

MAKE YOUR BODY YOUR TEMPLE

Whether you make a choice to eat right, exercise regularly or prioritize sleep in your schedule, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is crucial to becoming your best self. Your body is your temple. Treat it accordingly.

WORK HARD, PLAY HARDER

Don’t be so consumed with your responsibilities that you forget build a life of your own. Be sure to set aside time to turn up and celebrate your accomplishments regularly. If you’re more of an introvert you might prefer to visit an exhibit you’ve been meaning to see or simply set aside time to read a chapter in a new book. When it comes to self-care, it’s the small things count.

GET CREATIVE

Creative arts can be a mindful way to express yourself and, more importantly, DESTRESS. Start a journal or invest in an adult coloring book, but whatever you do, quit consuming and start creating.  

STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES

It is easy to get distracted with the everyday mayhem of bad news, but it’s important not to let it overwhelm you. Take care to find moments to relax and center yourself. Try meditating or signing up for a community yoga class. And, if you’re feeling really fancy, book an impromptu massage or spa date.

STAY CONNECTED

While self-care is primarily about your personal well-being, you don’t have to go at it alone.   It is essential to maintain connections with the outside world in order to foster a sense of support and belonging. Spend some quality time with your friends and family in the new year. You wont regret it. 

How do you practice self-care in your life? Share your routine in the comments below.

Photo by chandlerchristian /CC BY 2.0

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2015: The Year of Black Erasure

From Maryland to Missouri, Black rage came to a boil in 2015. Reported riots in Baltimore and Ferguson summed up the country’s frustration with the government-sanctioned violence against Black Americans over the course of the year. The cry for justice was loud and boisterous, yet it would do little to stop the assault on Black bodies, Black history, and Black pride.

As if they’d been written in pencil, African Americans watched their lives and legacies scraped at and scratched out this year – our ability to live, to learn, and to love ourselves constantly under siege. 

There’s no doubt about it: Black erasure was REAL in 2015.

Although they represent only 6% of the U.S. population, a Washington Post report found that Black men made up 40% of those shot and killed py police while unarmed this year. One by one we watched the stories of these men unfold in the national media. Names like Walter Scott and Sam Dubose became a part of our dinner table discussions. It seemed like every day were  inundated with images of Black men being hunted and killed and we wondered if our brothers, our fathers or our sons would be next.

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Black women and girls weren’t exempt from the violence. Sandra Bland’s alleged suicide death after a routine traffic stop gone rogue left us with more questions than answers and the viral footage of an officer manhandling a teenage girl at Spring Valley High School left us feeling like there was nowhere safe.

Perhaps we were right.

On June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof opened fire at a historically Black church in South Carolina committing one of the most devastating acts of domestic terrorism to date. 9 people were murdered in their place of worship, simply because the color of their skin.

Perhaps more devastating than the loss of so many Black lives  in 2015, was the realization that the murderers would not be punished. In some cases, they might even be rewarded.

Dylan Roof was treated to a meal at Burger King shortly after his arrest this summer and the NYPD officer who shot Ramarley Graham four years ago received the latest in nearly $25,000 in raises.

It’s obvious: the color of justice was not Black in 2015 and the tumultuous year draws to a close with news that the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland will not be charged with his murder. While Tamir’s young life was snubbed out before it even started, his killer’s life will continue unscathed.

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Not only were Black lives under attack this year, so was the legacy of slavery. Texas mom Roni Dean-Burren called national attention to the distortion of Black history after her teenage son sent a photo of a textbook referring to enslaved Africans as “workers.” Interpreting the slave trade within the context of immigration, the McGraw Hill text deludes its readers into believing in a false history – one where slavery and, consequently, racism does not exist. As Dean-Burren eloquently put it, “THIS is what erasure looks like.”

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Finally, and perhaps most ridiculously, we witnessed countless attempt to obliterate Black pride in 2015. For merely advocating to protect the lives of African Americans under the law, organizations like Black Lives Matter found themselves under intense scrutiny by conservatives conservatives, often referred to as a “hate group.” 

(It’s worth noting that those same conservatives had very little to say when a group of masked vigilantes, unquestionably motivated by hate, opened fire on PEACEFUL Black Lives Matter protestors in Minnesota.)

Even the most harmless displays of Black pride were policed disproportionately this year with African American families facing criminal charges for cheering on their loved ones at a high school graduation ceremony and  a group of Black teenagers, including a 14-year-old in a bikini, assaulted by police at pool party in McKinney, Texas .

With our newsfeeds overwhelmed with the blues this year, we faced the unfortunate reality that the fight for Black equity and justice is far from over. Sadly, we will carry these moments of defeat with us into 2016, but we cannot afford to abandon the will to overcome them. In the words of a  Black soldier who has seen far more battles in this ceaseless war, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  

Happy New Year.

Photo by Vox Efx/CC BY 2.0

Light Handed

You ain’t gotta lie to kick it: Rachel Dolezal, white mediocrity and the idealization of blackness

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 2.53.04 PMThere was no shortage of comedic gems to stem from the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Quickly following the news that the white activist had disguised herself as African-American for years, black Twitter tackled the moment with a series of cheeky one-liners, hashtags and memes, sparking a hilarious yet honest dialogue about race.  But perhaps the most absurdly amusing part of Dolezal’s story is America’s refusal to recognize the sociopathy inherent in her assumption of a new racial identity. Rather, critics and supporters alike are immersed in a debate around the authenticity of Dolezal’s blackness; and with the public unable to come to a consensus, the term “transracial” has emerged to legitimize her web of lies and the media circus surrounding it. Drawing parallels to transgenderism and bolstered by the fluidity of race as a social construct, transracial advocates argue that if Rachel’s racial identity does not match the norms associated with her assigned race, she should thus be allowed to transition into blackness. In short, despite being born to white parents, Rachel has the right to be black.

“Well I’m definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am. So what’s a word for it?”
 -Rachel Dolezal in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie

This logic only makes one fallacious assumption: that a black identity can be assumed by merely mimicking the stereotypic physical attributes, language patterns and political interests associated with it. While a great deal of evidence suggests there is no biological reality to our understanding of race, racial identities nevertheless have real and lasting effects on our lived experiences and social outcomes. Blackness, in particular, is inextricably linked to a history of oppression and systemic discrimination; ergo, it is an experience that is in no way uniform, but inevitably influenced by white fear, insecurity and privilege. Blackness is a self-conscious existence that stifles the ability to express the nuance’s of one’s identity within a dominant culture that denies one’s humanity.  Thus, to be black is to inherit not just the historical baggage, but the psychological and emotional trauma that comes along with it. Blackness is all these things and so much more, but what it is NOT  is something that can be performed — no matter how convincing the act.

We do not live in a transracial America. The assertion, in itself, runs counter to the logic that serves it. If there is no such thing as “race,” how can one transition between racial categories that are at bottom negligible?

Dolezal’s passing is not a symptom of misplaced identity nor, as she suggests, being switched at birth. Rather, her behavior falls in line with a trend of modern-day blackface where adopting a black aesthetic becomes an instant remedy for white mediocrity. By assuming stereotypically “black” cultural codes, norms and physical characteristics, whites who are generally uninteresting, untalented, and  “unattractive,” can suddenly be more entertaining…
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and more “beautiful”…kylie jenner animated GIF

While blackface performers have historically worn their bigotry on their proverbial sleeves, today’s perpetrators justify the practice under the guise of false idolization. Unbeknownst to them, they contribute to a sordid history of cultural appropriation that makes black people the butt of an old racist joke. Just like their predecessors, they exercise imitation as the sincerest form of mockery, ridicule and disrespect.

They say if you tell a lie once, all your truths become questionable. Accordingly, as Rachel Dolezal’s lies unfold, her truths — namely her accolades and activism — have come under intense scrutiny. Yet, despite her questionable ethics, the fact that Dolezal is not biologically black has little bearing of her contributions to the black community. After all, as NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes, when considering her commitment to black equity, “does it really matter whether Rachel is black or white?”

In a world where black joy is policed with the same intensity and brute force as a criminal act, I suppose black Americans can use all of the allies they can get. White liberals have long played an important and strategic role in the movement for black civil rights and Dolezal, identity confusion withstanding, is a welcome and valuable asset among them.

Rachel, my dear, you ain’t gotta lie to kick it.

Photo by Vox Efx/CC BY 2.0