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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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Stop talking and start acting against police violence

How many more Black lives can we watch destroyed without justice? How many more guilty cops can we watch run free? In the candid words of Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who died while in police custody last year:

“It is time to wake up, get up, step up, or shut up.” ‪

Now is the time for us to mobilize against unjust police practices that are destroying our communities. We need a concrete mechanism to make the police accountable to the people they have failed to serve and protect.

Currently in New York City, victims of police misconduct are directed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an executive body of individuals appointed by the Police Commissioner, the Mayor, and City Council. Given its relationship with the city establishment, the CCRB is notoriously known for being biased and ineffective. Despite the guise of a fair hearing, the Commissioner has ultimate control over what punishment, if any, gets enacted by the CCRB and the board’s rulings cannot be challenged by the public without new evidence or new witnesses. Thus, victims who file grievances with the CCRB, quickly realize it is a dead end.

The system, as it stands, is not designed to protect us, but we can fight for a new one that will. An Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB) is an elected body made up of everyday people who represent communities most affected by police violence: people of color, young people, LGBT people, people in public housing, etc. When paired with an elected Special Prosecutor, the ECRB has the power to investigate, discipline, and prosecute police misconduct, holding the department en masse accountable for the abuse. We need organizations and concerned community members (like you!) to make the ECRB reality.

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN TO STOP POLICE VIOLENCE IN NYC! 

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Photo by niXerKG /CC 2.0 

 

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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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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

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A new generation of black leadership is long overdue

My grandfather was a devoted father, a brilliant and underrated black visionary and an adamant racist. I’m not quite sure “racist” is the most politically correct term here — considering racism has more to do with power than personal bias — but, nevertheless, Grandpa Bobby openly and proudly loathed white folk. And, let’s be honest, who could blame him? As a product of the Jim Crow south, one can imagine that his political beliefs were rationally motivated by a fair share of cruel and even violent interactions with white people. While I never adopted his disdain for whites  en masse,  my grandfather and his uncanny ability to insert the words “cracker” and “honkey” in casual conversation left a lasting impression on me. He passed away when I was 5-years-old, but before he did he instilled in me a keen awareness of the concept of race, the perceived differences between the races, and the unfortunate reality that those differences mattered.

So, naturally, as my education matured and my curiosity about black history piqued, I found myself particularly drawn to the separatist ideology of Malcolm X. Much like Grandpa Bobby, Malcolm’s impassioned words of wisdom inspired me to think critically about race, to recognize the duality of being both Black and American, and to reconcile what implications that had in my life. 50 years to the day after Malcolm was shot dead at the Audubon Ballroom, there is no denying that he has and will continue to inspire generations of thinkers to come. But, even more remarkable than Malcolm’s audacity to call America out on it’s flaws, was his incomparable ability to get folks — both black and white — riled up. Through his fiery oratory, Malcolm brought America’s “race problem” to the mainstage, taking the lead in convincing the world to finally address racism, for better or for worse.

When I think of phenomenal black leadership, I think of Malcolm. Unlike many of today’s appointed race leaders, he had no political agendas, no sports or music contracts, and no fear of negative press diluting his message. He was the real thing. He had absolutely nothing to lose except, of course, his life — a sacrifice he was willing to make since, as he put it,

“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”

50 years ago today, a wife lost her husband, four children lost their father and the world lost one of its most brilliant revolutionary thinkers. It is no secret that since the mass assassinations of some of the most active race leaders of the civil rights era, America has struggled to produce a single and consistent voice to galvanize the masses around race issues. While social media is proving itself s a viable tool for a new generation of activism, there is still much confusion around where or, rather, to whom activists turn once the hashtags stop trending, the media moves on, and the protests dwindle.

A new generation of black leadership is long overdue. That fact became crystal clear last October when a group of young protesters and religious leaders turned their backs on NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks during one of many mass demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo. following the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

“We got revolutionaries out here [on the streets] starving!”

“We got revolutionaries out here on [the streets] starving!” one protester reportedly shouted at Brooks, which begs the question: What exactly is this metaphorical “we” starving for?

I won’t pretend to have the answers here but I will say that “we” certainly seem starved for justice. “We” seem starved for strategy. “We” seem starved for someone — anyone really — willing to step up and propose an escape from this ideological prison that kills our sons and tells our daughters they’re ugly.  But most of all, “we” seem starved for freedom but “we” must ask ourselves: Are “we” willing to die for it?

Photo by Steve Rotman/CC BY 2.0