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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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What’s Missing From The Brownsville Rape Case

According to the law enforcement, an 18-year-old girl was allegedly raped at gunpoint by a group of five teenagers while walking through the park in Brownsville, Brooklyn with her estranged father.

According to her father, he fled the scene at the gunman’s orders and after denied access to a telephone by several local bodegas, he found police officers in a squad car and led them to the scene. But, it was too late. The group had fled and his daughter had been raped.

The alleged rapists do not deny a sexual act took place that night. However, according to them,  there was no gang rape and whatever took place in the park was entirely consensual.

So many voices have spoken out to offer an account of the alleged crime however, the most critical voice — that of the victim — has been lost in a web of murky details leaving the public with more questions than answers.

Sadly, the silencing of victims of sexual assault is the chronic symptom of an archaic ideology that exploits and abuses female sexuality. These patriarchal patterns of thinking perpetuate the notion that a woman’s body does not belong to her and reinforces a culture of rape where sexual violence is trivialized and a woman can find herself on trial for her own rape.

“Individuals often talk about the woman,” New York City councilwoman Lauren Cumbo told CNN in response to the Brownsville case. “They rarely talk about the individuals who committed the rape.”

Such was the case, last month during the trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw for 36 counts of sexual battery, rape and other offenses. Not only did the 13 alleged victims who took the stand find their personal histories presented as evidence against them in court, they found their characters being questioned in the court of public opinion.

Some of the women offered brave, albethey brief, statements to the press in the days after Holtzclaw was found guilty on 18 counts and sentenced to 263 years in prison. Still, less than a month after the media circus surrounding the case, the women have retreated back into relative anonymity. Their voices have once again been silenced and their stories have been buried deep in the archives of the blogosphere.

Literary legend and sexual assault survivor, Maya Angelou once said that “there is no greater agony than an untold story inside you.” With up to 96% percent of all rapes never reported to the authorities , countless survivors find themselves in excruciating emotional and psychological pain. Until we create a culture that respects the female body with the same voracity that scrutinizes it, these women will never be taken out of their misery.

There’s a chorus of voices just waiting to be heard. All we have to do is listen.

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Photo by Jordan Confino /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