Sunday, May 07, 2006

Nina Simone, Goddamn!

      The current issue of Fader (a magazine once so dope) has Nina Simone on the cover and a very nice, lengthy spread on her that’s comprised of interviews with her daughter, ex-husband and a slew of young artists whose work she influenced. Flipping through the articles made me ponder all over again (as if I’m ever not) the correlation between “madness” and true consciousness, “madness” and true artistry. The struggle of the deeply gifted and sensitive, whose skins must be thin enough to be sensor and thick enough to withstand assault. The interview with Andy Stroud, her ex-husband, is my favorite (right now) because in his dissecting of Nina’s personality, he captures a poignant dichotomy in which I think many “revolutionary” artists find themselves: The desire for mass acceptance (or at least recognition) and at least some of the trappings of success, even as you fight the power that be. I think all of that is bottled in this excerpt from Mr. Stroud’s interview:
      When she started writing protest songs, she would see Aretha and Nancy Wilson doing guest appearances and she would go into a frenzy, like, “Why ain’t I?!?” I said, “Nobody wants you! You can’t scream and holler about killing white people and think they’re going to have you as an entertainer.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Black Girl Blues

      Film director Cauleen Smith forwarded me the following piece by the writer Thulani Davis, whose fantastic 1996 novel Maker of Saints (inspired by the work, life and death of Latina artist Ana Mendieta) I read last year. I loved the book’s take on race, art, sexuality and gender – it’s weighty and politically charged but completely accessible. In this letter, Ms. Davis takes up the cause of the young black woman who has accused three members of the Duke University Lacrosse team of rape.

      A Call to the Sisters
      By Thulani Davis
            As anyone paying attention to the Duke University case knows, the young woman who has accused three members of the Duke University Lacrosse team of rape is now facing a barrage of attacks on her character that is unusual for its vitriol, echoing the sentiment overheard from one of the team members that “she’s just a stripper.” She also faces continued threats on her life, according to family members interviewed by Essence reporter Kristal Brent Zook. None of us know what happened at that party, yet if this African American college student continues to try to withstand this unequal battle without support, a brutish tactic to intimidate her into dropping her charges make succeed.
            A letter I received today wondered why there has been no national support demanding a chance for a fair trial and making it evident that the national black community is concerned. The letter asked simply: Where are African American women? My friend observed there has been “no NOW, no NCNW [National Council of Negro Women], no black sororities, no black women's service clubs, no black congresswomen or other pols, no black women's' professional organizations. (No national support of any kind has been forthcoming except for the Reverends Sharpton and Jackson).” On the local level, Houston Baker, professor of English and African and African American Studies at Duke and North Carolina NAACP President William Barber have been speaking out. Seeing Baker made me wonder whether the African American faculty as a whole has asked or received a meeting with the Duke’s president. This should be done.
            African Americans are concerned. The details are part of a familiar nightmare, and one which once again presents the fear that Americans will simply tolerate the possibility that harm done to black women means nothing. We are wondering how many young African American college students on campuses across the country are vulnerable to such acts of violence.
            We are also paying close attention because the prevalence of racism teaches us that stripping at a party given by an all white male group getting drunk seems an extremely risky choice. No question. But is that the reason for the silence of African American women? Are we too making a judgment that deems rape destiny for some? The language quoted thus far from that night alone, not to mention the disturbing e-mail sent by one of the players, informs us that race was inextricably intertwined with sexuality (and violence in one case) as some of these young men expressed themselves. Regardless of what may have occurred in the bathroom at that party, this is a smug, racialized milieu that must be challenged, for it presents far too many dangers to all young people. So we must stand against the tolerance of such violence and threats of violence and we must stand with this student as we would our daughters.
            We must demand that those who represent us and those who lead the many thousands of organizations to which we belong let it be known that she and her family are not alone. We would not want our daughters, who may yet be unaware of the historical vulnerability of black women, to find themselves alone facing the goons on the phone and the lawyers who would divest them of their human dignity because they chose to make charges that they were assaulted. That is already an everyday reality that can only be stopped by those of us who watch and listen. Rape is not our lot in life. Let a court make the call, not the pressure.
            If this young woman is to have a chance to finish her education, start her working life and become a member of any of our churches, professional associations and give her children those same opportunities she needs our sense of community now, not later. Today she should be a concern, a sister, to the AKAs, the Deltas, Gammas, Sigmas and Zetas, the Coalition of 100 Black Women, the National Council of Negro Women, Black Women’s Agenda, the Black Radical Congress, the NAACP, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Bar Association, the Hip Hop Action Summit, African American students’ organizations, African American educators, clergy and dozens of other groups and associations. Write or call the ones with whom you associate.

I’m Descended From Cargo

      A side-note as I write this post: When I first moved into my apartment building, a thin, slightly wild-eyed guy introduced himself as a neighbor from the fourth floor. These were his words, “My boyfriend just left me and I’m suicidal. If you hear bloodcurdling screams late at night, don’t worry. It’s just me.”
      That was almost five years ago. He’s screaming his ass off right now.

      A few days ago, I sent a small handful of friends a link to the blog writewhatilike so they could read the post for Tuesday, May 2 titled “The Price of the Ticket.” The small sampling of friends was made up of Black folk and Latinos. The linked essay was one of the few, if not only, efforts I’ve seen at seriously grappling with a black perspective on the current immigration issue, from a context that is historical/political/cultural in its analysis, and not just reduced to the simplistic “there’s tension between black and brown folk.”
      Writer Andre Banks, Associate Publisher of ColorLines magazine, throws a harsh light on how the language and politics of the current immigration movement both co-opts and obscures black historical reality and struggle in order to achieve its own goals. I don’t agree with everything he writes (Do black folk really have moral authority in 2006? What the hell does that even mean anymore?) but I think most of it is dead on. I was disappointed that I received very little feedback on the essay; that which I did receive has me seriously re-thinking a couple of relationships. But first things first.
      Early in the essay, Banks states his case:
      There is little question that the current immigration debate, though coded and contrived otherwise, is entirely about race. Yet, the framing made popular by immigrants and their advocates is so hostile to Black people and our American experience that it seems impossible for us to stake a claim with this movement…
      The language of today's movement directly evokes a painful history. Immigrants who laid claim in the past to this re-imagined American dream colluded with a system of racism that made the hope of health, safety and happiness an empty promise for Black people. Immigrants on the march today threaten to go the way of the Irish, the Italian and the Jewish: they may pay the price of the ticket for American citizenship by yielding to a racial hierarchy that leaves Blacks at the bottom.

      This is, of course, the fear/concern that many black folk have around the issue. That Negroes, with the myths, stereotypes and lies that are projected onto us and used as a crutch, will yet again be the footstool for yet another immigrant group (Latinos, this time) to hoist themselves up into privilege, power. That the racism that fuels this bitch will once again be stoked at our expense. And that fear, unfortunately has seen some black Americans make bedfellows of our enemies, racist and reactionary whites who shrewdly manipulate that fear to serve their own racist agenda. When the Minute Men showed up as part of an anti-immigrant march in LA’s Leimert Park (a bastion of LA black culture) recently, it was shameful on a host of levels – the thick bigotry being co-signed by black folk, the fact that this horse and pony show substituted for any critique of the big business and political machines that orchestrate and benefit from the despair that has lead to the influx of undocumented immigrants. That white supremacy was stirring the pot of conflict and confusion among people of color. Nothing about it was right. Still, I think the media enflames the situation and greatly distorts and mis-shapes black opinion on the matter.
      To back up for a moment, we – Americans of all stripes and hues, even those of us who are poor and struggling – absolutely have to acknowledge that the tinkering of the U.S. government and American big businesses in the affairs of Latin America – destabilizing governments, destroying local economies – has played a huge part in the creation of a desperate, disenfranchised population of foreign-born Latinos. (Google: El Salvador.) Those actions have incurred a moral debt and the obligation of this country to pay it, to somehow do right by those negatively affected by terms created so that we, “north of the border,” can buy cheaper merchandise, wag our big, hard dick on the global map, but mainly so that the bank accounts of already obscenely wealthy Americans can swell even more. See, it's not just that they pick our produce, clear our restaurant tables and take care of our children. (Okay, not my children. White people's children.) And it's not just that the economy would grind to a deadly halt if they didn't do the nuts & bolt work. It's that America has ravaged many of their countries, in so many ways. Yeah, simply as Americans we kinda owe a lot of them for what has been done in our name.
      But there is a sleight-of-hand at work that can make the hair on the back of your neck rise if you catch it, if you care at all about either black folk or truly progressive politics. As Banks writes later on his blog:
      Immigrants and their advocates have gained attention by evoking the narrative of hard-working immigrants making good in the land of opportunity - the American Dream redux - with its attendant contradictions and contrivances. With cries that "immigrants built this country," a favorite calling card, this burgeoning movement at once revoked the history of slaves and their descendants and obscured important truths about power, migration and social mobility in this country. For my great-grandmother, and generations of Black people in this country before and after her, this lie is worse than silence. It is a critical and strategic omission that adds Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans to the annals of American history while relegating Black people to its shadows.
      The narrative of the immigrant as the symbol of hard work that leads to opportunity can mean nothing but alienation for Black people precisely because we know this myth is false. Without our labor - not immigrant labor, but slave labor - in the fields and on the march there would be no market brimming with wealth and economic opportunity, nor a tradition of civil and political rights readily available for appropriation and exploitation.
      Immigration policy has routinely been used to check the mobility of Black people, blocking access to jobs, education and political rights. Whether European immigrants pulled into the economy during the industrial expansion of the early last century, or Asian professionals arriving in the 1970s and 1980s positioned as "model minorities," immigration policy has been crafted to subtly recast and reinforce this country's racial hierarchy.

      The shrewdly contrived narrative that Banks notes, and the way that it functions, are odious. You really have to be tone deaf not to hear the chastisement of Negroes beneath the slogans, underneath the selling of this new underclass. And if you are tone deaf, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, in a stroke of assholian forthrightness, sang it loud and clear when he was quoted a while back as saying that America should welcome the undocumented because, they do the jobs that, “even the blacks don't want to do." Chew on that for a minute.
      He didn't say jobs that even Americans don't want to do. He didn't say jobs that even poor Americans don't want to do. Those statements are true across the racial board. He pointedly said, "even the blacks." Why single out black folk unless you think there is some irony/humor/audacity in them getting above their station? Unless you think niggerdom is their station.
      He, too, (of course) avoided using his camera time for a critique of capitalism and its harsh human demands, or for acknowledgment of the collusion between his government and ours in stoking the desperation of so many of his own people. Swat the fly that is the nigger in order to elevate the undocumented and deflect attention from the true culprits.
      Forget, for a moment that we already did our time as slave labor. That we built this country. Built it when we didn’t even have the status of human being, let alone undocumented. Without our “contribution,” wouldn’t shit be here. The fact is, I’d wager that not too many Latino American citizens want to do those shitty jobs for laughable wages, no job security, no legal recourse for ill treatment. Stroll through the middle-America of poor white folk, that birthplace of makeshift crystal meth labs and the last refuge of the mullet, and I’d wager you won’t find too many folks there willing to be exploited like the undocumented. How many of the freshly downsized (of whatever race) are whistling while they work at harvesting produce under a sweltering sun, or sweating their asses off on a construction site for a pittance? Lastly, take a big look at larger American culture. Complete wastes of egg and sperm like Paris Hilton are modern day icons of whatever-the-hell because they embody that repulsive hybrid of an unearned sense of entitlement yoked to wealth that’s completely unattached to work, struggle or sacrifice. She sucked dick on a cell-phone camera and now she’s a star. She’s your daughter’s (or your white gay son’s) role model. The worship of and aspiration toward the trifling while feeling something is owed to you just because is an American thing, not a nigger thing.
      But the digs, in subtext as well as Vicente Fox-style blatancy, are directed at black folk. As a Korean poster noted on cultural critic Jeff Chang’s blog, when commenting on this same essay:
      When hearing stories or seeing pictures of the many demonstrations across the country, you see the American flag being waved on high, held up by brown hands in an effort to say "Yes, me too. I'm American too. I'm GENUINELY American because I live that American (immigrant) dream." But at what cost do immigrants live out the dream? The immigrant rights movement, instead of being part of a radical moment jettisoning the notion of national identity, has been couched in a discourse resembling something like "we're more pacifiable than American black folks, so we won't complain about exploitation. We're better labor." I can't knock the hustle, I'm a first generation Korean. I had that green card. I'm guilty of model minority syndrome, no doubt…
      The immigration rights movement has thus far been highly nationalist, which to me is outmoded and quite dangerous. The immigrants rights folks are going to soon sound like Pat Buchanan. Why not play up the difference in a radical move? Why not put fear in the WASPy conservative politos by saying, we're culturally different and that's the way it is. Let us in because it's morally right. It's not all about labor, it's about CULTURE as well. Andre's comments are right on because this immigration rights movement has a political unconscious that evokes the "culture of poverty" from the Moynihan report and the Clinton-era welfare agenda.

      I understand the strategic reasons for the marchers to wave the American flag and can appreciate their doing so as savvy PR image making, but I also think the poster above is absolutely correct in what he reads between the lines. But I’ve digressed a bit. When I sent out the email, I wanted to spark some dialogue, using the essay as a jumping off point. I hadn’t marched and was curious at how there seemed to be so little substance in the speeches and battle cries that emanated from the speakers and leaders who spoke on or about the day of the big march. A lot of feel-good, uplifting, crowd stroking words, which is cool… for a minute. But there seemed to be little that was truly smart or visionary in the platforms I read or snippets I heard. However, I also know that the media distorts and selectively chooses what it shows of these types of events.
      When I sent the email with the link, I was curious to know if any speakers on the day of the march (or at any other time) had noted the potential backlash built into victory if green cards/amnesty/citizenship were granted to the estimated 11 or 12 million undocumented workers. Because their appeal (and paradoxically, power) is that they are cheap labor. If they are granted citizenship or legal status, and therefore entitled to fair wages and whatever flimsy protections might still exist for workers, they are no longer attractive as workers. (The next and sure-to-come crop of undocumenteds is still hella appealing, though.)
      Do we really think the guy strapped with a leaf-blower, armed with his new legal status, is going to start making nine bucks an hour? Do you think the Guatemalan maid who is paid pathetic wages under the table is going to suddenly be granted fair overtime, monies paid into an unemployment fund, etc.? Will those construction workers get strictly enforced 40 hour weeks, hazard pay, a decent lunch break? What happens to these people as they melt into an already dire employment market? Or will they continue to exist in that shadowy world of exploitation, just to get by? What is the economic game plan post-victory? Yeah, feel yourself for a minute but know that you only got a minute. You gotta come with a plan. And clock it: as soon as the newly-legal strut into the workforce with their rights underarm, the same derogatory language and stereotypes that were created and pasted onto Negroes in order to justify bigoted hiring (and firing) practices will be recycled and applied to the new “citizens,” in order to justify the hiring of whoever is the new cheap labor.
      And if this is truly about immigration reform, can the Haitians get some love?
      The undocumented workers are asking to be absorbed into a crumbling, dying empire. The current administration has racked up a debt that will last forever (forever ever, forever EVER…).They’ve decimated social safety nets. They’ve stoked xenophobia and racism in a citizenry already frightened and anxious about the future. And that’s not just black folk. A few days ago, I watched a news segment on CNN where the question posed was, in what countries is it possible for an average Joe to achieve the American dream – going from rags to riches, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps into a higher class bracket, accumulating disposable wealth? The U.S. wasn’t even in the Top 15. You don’t need to be a psychic to know that reality is only going to get worse.
      The immigration movement has the chance – though I doubt the desire – to do some really radical shit. They can be a part of (hell, take the lead in) taking on the overlapping systems of white supremacy, corrupt governments and greedy corporations, issuing challenges to that exploitive web that links the interests of U.S. elites with the rich and powerful who reside south of the border. They can really learn from the American Civil rights movement and keep checks and balances on their leaders so sell-outs don’t have the chance to negotiate cosmetic victories that elevate a few but leave the masses ass out. They could be the bridge between the radical reformation taking place in Bolivia and Venezuela, and the sick puppy we call American government. They can redefine the American dream so that it’s not about consumption and greed, but equality and fairness. And they could defy the aged blueprint and not let anti-black prejudice (their own or that which they simply benefit from) be the oar by which they row into American society, its privileges and power.
      These were the conversations I was excited to have, with both black and Latino friends. I found it interesting that I had so many black friends who had marched or enthusiastically supported the march, who – in their conversations – were strategizing, dreaming of coalition and the opportunity to really push positive change forward. They offered some of the most cogent commentary and insight I heard anywhere. Certainly better shit than I heard from “official” advocates. I was impressed with the Okay Player hip-hop site where, anytime a poster would type something ig’nant, Negroes would come for him or her hard. Black folk there were really informed about complex taxation issues and how they affected the undocumented, social service programs, legal quagmires that unfairly net the undocumented, the assorted contributions that immigrants – legal and otherwise – make to the country. Yeah, I know that ain’t the popular media representation of black people’s reaction to this issue (and I’m not claiming it is the “true” or greater reality of black reaction) but it’s what was around me.
      Still, a lot of black folk want to know how shit is going to play out for us in this forming mosaic. I have no doubt that the great majority of us, even those who are afraid for their place in the future, will push through the fears and honor our history and cultural legacy of fighting for fairness and justice. Don’t believe the hype or the carefully chosen media madmen. By and large, we still recoil at injustice and bigotry. But there is still concern over what this new mass of power and representation might mean for us. Would this group that many of us are now supporting be true to historical precedent and leapfrog over us shouting, “See ya, niggers!” Will anyone who is actually in the movement check the not-so-subtle subtext in the advocacy language that pits the immigrants (good) against black folk (shiftless and difficult)? Will the rewriting of American (specifically Negro) history stop? And will anyone short circuit the potential déjà vu?
      One of the posters who responded to Andre Banks’ essay on his site was a Latina of African decent who heaped praise on the essay and echoed his concerns around issues of race and power as it might play out as Latinos surge ahead in America. She spoke of intra-racial racism, the anti-black prejudice that she deemed the Latino family’s “dirty little secret” and that she says needs to be challenged lest those biases be replicated in the newly forming Latino American power base. That “dirty little secret” is the seed that could so easily flower into a repeat of what Banks wrote above: “Immigrants on the march today threaten to go the way of the Irish, the Italian and the Jewish: they may pay the price of the ticket for American citizenship by yielding to a racial hierarchy that leaves Blacks at the bottom.” The black Latina asked the question, if the face of immigration were Nigerian, would Latinos come out to show support? The query is a rhetorical device intended to dislodge racial skeletons in Latin America and provide some real insight into Latin culture attitudes toward blackness/dark skin/black folk, something that might give us a clue as to racial dynamics and potential jockeying for position in the near future.
      The African presence is felt throughout Latin America (those slave ships pollinated heavily) and those individuals whose bodies (not to mention hair) now bear the imprint of that stamp are often at the bottom of not only the economic and political power structures, but also social ones. This dynamic plays out around the world. I really wanted dialogue with my Latino friends on this subject, among others.
      One Latino friend responded to the linked essay, so rich with ideas and possibility for discourse, with a tossed off sentence, an airy quick-save attached to first-response patronizing: “Blacks are seeing the parade pass them by, and now is the time to remind the marchers, the leadership, that we can't shut the door on those who helped open it.” (sic) Sounds like a politician at a chicken dinner fundraiser. Pass the salt.
      Another wrote: “isnt this part of black people feeling like they are no longer center stage on the "white people have dogged us" political, "civil" rights grandstand?… i think if black people are having trouble being heard they should look inward at the gross lack of leadership in black politics and civil rights movements, not expect the immigrants handling their own business to figure out ways to incorporate them into their movement...”
      Yeah, there’s truth in the last half of that last statement, no doubt. But the (in many ways understandable) Latino proprietary grip on this movement which has the potential to do so much more than reupholster the status quo with brown skin, and the blunt dismissal of black folk are just… wow. Special. Bayard Rustin must be doing a 360 somewhere. (And by proprietary, I don't even mean just in terms of how this shit will play out for American blacks, but how the issues and voices of other immigrant groups are given space and consideration. Again, Haiti? There seem to be three major issues at play here, overlapping yet distinct: Protests over the draconian sweep of HR4437; immigration reform in general; specifically Latino rights and issues. Acknowledgement of all the issues at play and clarity on where they all fall in terms of importance and priority -- and who gets to decide? -- all needs to be sorted out with a quickness in order to really be effective on all fronts.)
      I myself felt lodged between stupidity and naiveté after reading the responses from my Latino friends. While well aware of the ways in which the Irish and Italians “became” white in America, while aware of the fact that blackness is always the thing to be judged against – allowing you to inch up the ladder if you ain’t it – I hadn’t really tripped too much on the possibility of history repeating itself (Latinos going the way of the Irish, etc.) in part because of the people I know, these people of color who I thought hadn’t sipped the Kool-aid. Progressive, forward thinking folk. (Also, I don’t think the assimilation of Latinos will exactly mimic past blendings of white ethnic groups due to a host of factors, mainly the variable and varying of phenotype.) The breezy dismissals of mi gente and the borderline contempt for black concerns and questions floored me.
      Damn, I thought, this shit is going to play out like in the past. And it won’t be the Latino immigrants newly arrived to the country doing the worst damage. Most of them have no real knowledge of the struggles, sacrifices and contributions of black folk to make human rights an across-the-board-option in America. I understand that and really don’t trip on it. No, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are gonna be fired by those Latinos who’ve studied our history, learned from it and are ret’ ta jettison our asses as they soar forward.
      I don’t expect the salvation of American black folk or the myriad issues specifically affecting us to be a pressing concern for immigrants (of any race) struggling to get theirs right now. We are not their responsibility, and we can’t even get our shit together enough to take care of us. That’s definitely our dilemma. But the misrepresentation and erasure of co-opted black history and struggle, the unwillingness to even acknowledge the problematic subtext of the language being used to rally on behalf of the undocumented, the indifferent waving away of questions posed by those who clearly are interested in coalition building but also seeking clarity on what the future might mean for ourselves and our own children (and that’s a basic human concern) – all of that coming from amigos gave me real pause.
      When I shared some of the responses with a black friend, wondering if I were over-reacting in my disappointment, she replied, “That [the responses] really saddens me. And I’m pissed at myself for being sad.”
      I’m not going to let my own response to the immigration issue be shaped by the feedback I received from, uh, friends. I know there are larger issues at work and I know who the real bogeymen are. I also know how the media takes the most shrill and reactionary of black voices on this subject and presents them as “the voice” of black folk, and I won’t do the same on the flip-side. But sometimes you just go, damn.