Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quick Hit -- The Ghastly, Golden Ticket

So, Burr Oak Cemetery has reopened but only on a very limited basis. I wrote about Burr Oak in July, shortly after the grave reselling scandal broke. I compartmentalized the pain of this scandal, putting it in a little box where I wouldn't have to deal with it until any new developments occurred.

Well, that time is now. The cemetery has reopened on a limited basis, and for admittance, you have to visit their website, type in your dear, departed loved ones' name and print out the information, which includes a picture of the grave and a map to its location.

I did as instructed. Went to the website and started the long process of typing in relatives' names. My Mother, my maternal and paternal grandmothers, my great-grandmother, my great-great grandmother, both of my World War I Veteran uncles, and at least a half-dozen other assorted aunts, uncles and cousins until I just got tired. I printed out all those "tickets" and then, call it my old, newsroom gallows humor, I started humming.

"I've got a golden ticket, I've got a golden chance to make my way..."

Charlie's theme song from "Willy Wonka" spilled into my head. Because, frankly, it seems just a little bit nutty that you have to have a special "ticket" to be admitted to a cemetery where you paid for your loved ones to be buried.

Not only that, you can't drive through the cemetery to the gravesite anymore. You have to go to a transportation site and be bussed there. It all seems a little excessive but considering the extreme level of disrepair, poor record-keeping and overall disorganization, I understand why the safeguards are in place now. I understand that there are improvements to the grounds and that new signage has been erected to make it easier to find gravesites. Sounds lovely.

I originally made plans to go out there today, first day of the reopening, but ultimately decided against it. I think working in media for so long has made me leery of any whiff of public spectacle. I was worried sick for months about the condition of my family members' graves. I'm glad that, with the notable exception of my paternal great-grandfather, my relatives seem to be accounted for.

I'd like to go and see for myself. But I don't want cameras in my face when I do it. I'd like to have a quiet moment out there to examine, reflect, pay my respects -- think...without the spectacle of a prurient public story.

Honestly, I'd like to have the freedom to visit Burr Oak without having to produce a "ticket" -- a ghastly, golden ticket -- for admittance.

Sadly, there will always be a taint over this historic graveyard. Whether it's because of the media attention or the numerous lawsuits, I'm glad that it appears steps are being taken to implement the accountability at this institution that should have been in place years ago. But Burr Oak will never be an easy, or particularly peaceful place to visit -- with or without a "golden ticket" for admittance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lay My Burden Down -- Remembering Michael W. Scott

I'm devastated by the apparent suicide of Chicago Public Schools Board President Michael W. Scott.

I knew Mike Scott dating back to the time I was a reporter, and as public figures connected to the city of Chicago go, he was one of my favorites. Let's just get this out of the way: He was fine as wine! A proud son of the West Side, he was always sharp -- always clean. You tend to see and talk to the same people at the same civic events here and it gets tiresome. But I always enjoyed seeing Mike Scott at events and waiting for my hug, peck on the cheek and small talk. I remember always complimenting him on the fact that he always smelled really good.

In short, he was a brother who made an indelible impression. In manner, in word and in deed he was well-liked and well-respected. He seemed to handle the thankless pressure of the school board and all its problems with grace and humor and always seemed passionate and engaged in the monumental effort of making the community better and safer for the youth.

The polished public persona doesn't square with the man who was pulled from the Chicago River with a self-inflicted bullet to the temple. It's what has led public officials all day to express shock and disbelief at his passing.

And while I'm deeply saddened by the course of events, I can't say that I'm shocked. As someone who has previously struggled with and been treated for clinical depression, I know firsthand how good we are -- Black folks in general and Black professionals specifically -- at masking pain. I know how good we are at "presenting" well in public -- white-knuckling through the day, mustering up every bit of energy to function at a very high level, excelling at every task we're presented with -- and then falling apart in private.

I don't know if Mike Scott was clinically depressed or not, but I do know that high-functioning depressed people tend to carry a greater amount of shame and are harder on themselves for being unable to "get it together". It's hard to tell someone you want to kill yourself and have them believe you when they envy you and think you have it all.

But Mike Scott's death is a salient reminder of the danger of unexpressed pain.

Black women will reach out for help -- whether informally through friends, or professionals, or both. Black men don't. They kill themselves.

Black men are seven times more likely to kill themselves than Black women according to the American Association of Suicidology. The suicide rate among Black men doubled between 1980 and 1995 to about eight deaths per 100,000 people, making it the third leading cause of death among Black men. And while the rate has skyrocketed among Black males between 15-19, as the Scott case illusrates, it cuts across all age groups of Black men.

This phenomenon is what led my former colleague Amy Alexander to write, with Dr. Alvin Pouissant, the outstanding "Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans". "Lay My Burden Down" is a groundbreaking examination of the uncomfortable, too often unspoken issue of suicide in the Black community. Amy was inspired to explore the topic because of her own brother's suicide in 1979. Sadly, three decades after her brother's death we still have accomplished Black men like Michael Scott so despondent and experiencing pain so unspeakable that they take their own lives.

As a community we are still loathe to publicly tackle mental health issues, particularly ones that can code as chronic, like depression. We have yet to unpack the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues. Add to that the complicated history and baggage of Black masculinity and the unwillingness to relinquish "strength" (real or perceived) in favor of seeking help, and you see Black men like Mike taking their lives.

Chicago media will be relentless in uncovering the backstory that led to Mike Scott's suicide. Whatever the outcome, it's going to be ugly for his family and ultimately for his legacy. We may never know exactly what led this proud, educated, accomplished, able Black man to the edge of the Chicago River in the wee hours of the morning to take his own life.

But I hope it's a wake-up call to all of us to push past the well-presented packages of the people in our lives and pay closer attention -- even when things seem "all good." It could easily mean the difference between life and death.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why I Hated Precious...

Saw an old friend from the neighborhood who I hadn't seen in a long time when I was leaving the theater from seeing Precious. Normally, I would have rushed over and hugged her and caught up some, but I was in a bit of a fog. I got myself together enough to speak properly but apparently I was still mumbling to myself and shaking my head.

She asked, with wide eyes, whether I'd just come from Precious. I told her yes.

"So?" she asked, with anticipation. "How was it?"

"Horrifying." I said, reflexively.

I thought a little longer. Coming to the same conclusion I said, again: "Horrifying."

We exchanged a little more small talk that I can't honestly remember because I was still stuck on what I'd just seen.

I should be clear: When I say that Precious was horrifying, I don't mean it in a "Wow, kudos to Sapphire/Lee Daniels/Oprah/Tyler Perry because they just outdid themselves" and got me wanting to testify about it kind-of-way. No.

I mean, I am horrified that I spent an hour and 49 minutes watching a horrifying display of pathology on parade, and that it was Black folks themselves -- director Lee Daniels and "executive producers" Oprah and Tyler Perry -- who led me there.

Make no mistake -- Lee Daniels is a pathology pimp. Plain and simple. He's not the first. Some of our most prolific movie directors (Scorcese comes to mind...) are pathology pimps. Pathos tells good stories and, often, creates great, watchable art. But, see, this is my problem with Lee Daniels. He's a pathology pimp and he's not even good at it. His work, ultimately, is not art. It is raw, unchecked, internalized oppression that he is peddling as "important" stories about Black folk that "need" to be told.

There are elements of Precious, of course, that are real. In this country and around the world there are Black girls like Precious -- morbidly obese, abused, victims of incest, illiterate, HIV-positive, etc. There are women in my family who, in one aspect or another, have been subjected to the same atrocities as Precious.

But, really, tell me something I don't know. I live in Chicago. All I have to do is watch the news, read the paper or visit my proverbial cousins "Pookie an' 'nem" to know that there are elements of Precious that exist. One look at the health, socio-economic and class status of many African-Americans is proof of that.

But Precious is the kind of movie that will always resonate with white folks, especially white film critics like Roger Ebert and the film festival crowd who have raved about it. Because, in the end, they want to believe we're "strong" enough to transcend the most horrific of circumstances like Precious, and that on some level they played some part in the triumph. Just look at the casting. Daniels has been lauded as a genius for his quirky casting choices in Precious, and yet the overt colorism only adds to what makes this movie ultimately unwatchable for me. The only people who showed Precious any kindness, any cover, any hope -- Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz -- are all light-skinned. The din of depravity she suffers her entire life, of course, comes at the hands of dark-skinned Blacks. Hmmm....

For me? Precious, and frankly, the book it's based on ("Push" by Sapphire) -- is so over the top that all it did was piss me off. It codes as overtly racist fantasy, or the figment of a liberal's imagination about what Black life must be like. Because who hasn't seen a Black girl like Precious running down the street with a bucket of fried chicken she's just stolen? I was haunted for days thinking of that scene -- and yet, didn't Soledad O'Brien profile a Black girl from New York who claimed to be addicted to fried chicken in CNN's "Black in America 2" over the summer? THIS summer, in 2009?

It has taken me a week to process the depth of my disgust with this film. In the end, I'm sick to death of Black pathos being exploited as art. I can't celebrate Precious or laud the writer or the producers as visionary, because they're not. I can't laud a director like Lee Daniels who has hustled Black pathology into his meal ticket and has fooled white folks and Black folk who lack critical thinking skills alike into thinking he's doing something important. Did Lee Daniels passing off Halle Berry's pornographic tryst with a racist Billy Bob Thornton character in Monster's Ball teach us nothing?

Lee Daniels has said that he wanted Precious to create a "dialogue". He said that he would never look at a fat, Black girl the same way again. Well, maybe it was that transformative for him, but clearly not for everyone. In three separate incidents in Chicago since this film has been released, I've heard Black males referring to obese Black women as "Precious". Laughing, sneering. Derisive. Overall, I think that's all this movie will do -- further exacerbate the extent to which white folks, and black folks themselves, view girls and situations like this as caricatures to be either pitied or ridiculed.

I might be the only sister to say this aloud but, frankly, I don't want to see Mo'Nique nominated or possibly win an Oscar for playing this monster of a Black mother in Precious. I don't. I don't want a fictional Black mother who made her own daughter perform oral sex on her to win an Academy Award. I don't want to see Gabby Sidibe nominated for an Oscar for this exaggerated role. I'm saying it. I don't want to see it. Why is Black incest so titillating to Hollywood? I remember being so excited to see Delroy Lindo and Erykah Badu in The Cider House Rules, and then being so disappointed and disgusted because they played a dysfunctional, incestuous father and daughter. (You'll recall that the Erykah Badu character ends up killing her father who, like Precious' father, has impregnated her twice...)

I've had it. Black pathos exists. We know this intimately. But it's overrepresented everywhere, from the movies to the nightly news.

My hope is for us to stop believing the hype of pathology pimps like Lee Daniels -- and Oprah and Tyler Perry. What they are selling is neither hope nor hopeful. It is nothing less than destructive to our community and our culture.

Still shaken,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stop Scapegoating Black Women

Leave it to Oprah to finally bring me out of hibernation.

On her Friday live show, she brought together the principals in the Indianapolis case of the check-cashing clerk who prayed down the brother who walked in and tried to stick her up.

By Friday, everyone knew the story and had seen the video of Angela Montez screaming and crying and praying with would-be robber Gregory Smith. Very touching, no? The recounting of the narrative isn't what bothered me. It was the fact that, once again, a Black woman was essentially held out to blame for this.

Smith's mother, his "baby mama" -- a woman identified as Sherrie, and their 2-year-old daughter Amaya (who was celebrating her 2nd birthday that very day...) also joined the check-cashing clerk in-studio with Oprah.

When it was Sherrie's turn (, she burst into tears, saying that she thought she "drove" him to commit the attempted robbery by "riding" him to take care of his family. Smith has said repeatedly that he attempted to rob the store because he was unemployed and allegedly headed toward homelessness.

The girlfriend, through tears, revealed that she was a full-time student and that she was working full-time to support their family. She said, unequivocally, that she was the sole provider for their young family. She said that she was tired and stressed out and that it was hard -- which is why she "rode" him so hard to find a job.

Said Sherrie on Oprah: "I partially blame myself for constantly fussing at him, telling him what he's not good for and stuff like that."

Wow. Now, here's a young woman doing everything right -- working full-time and going to school full-time and parenting a toddler. Struggling? Yes. Overworked? Yes. Stressed out? Yes. Driven to commit a crime? NO. And yet the only thing Oprah had to say to this was, "So, you nagged him?"

Oprah, who has claimed for 20+ years to be all about the empowerment of women, left this young sister hanging. This young sister who was clearly in pain and still in shock about the irresponsible choice that the father of her child made to engage in criminal behavior.

Smith was applauded several times by the audience -- from the jail where he was speaking on satellite -- for being an Army veteran, for "doing the right thing" by not shooting the store clerk with the loaded gun he brought to the store, for praying and calling on Jesus to help him. Meanwhile the mother of his child -- the one who is working full-time, the one who is going to school full-time, the one who is paying ALL the bills, the one who has stayed on the right side of the law -- gets derided on national TV for being a "nag."

Not only that, despite the fact that his own mother encouraged him to turn himself in after seeing him on surveillance video shown on the news, Smith credited Angela Montez with speaking to him "like a mother" and with a kindness and generosity of spirit that he seemed to claim he had never experienced before. So despite listening to his mother talk about how she had supported and encouraged him always, and certainly recently through his unsuccessful efforts to secure employment, this young man credits the non-Black store clerk with gentle loving kindness -- and not his own mother, or the mother of his child who was keeping his butt afloat all this time.

Oprah's response to this? Nada.

I sat, frankly, flabbergasted by this and disappointed that yet again stereotypes about Black women were reinforced and underscored on this show. That we're hard and cold, that we're "nags," that we don't appreciate Black men and that the only women to show them love, affection and understanding are non-Black women.

And there Oprah sat, saying nothing. This woman who never misses a chance to let us know what she thinks -- whether it makes any sense or not -- who talks all over her guests and experts because she, of course, knows more than us all. This woman who, heretofore, never missed an opportunity to support, defend and uphold women.

This woman, Oprah, she said nothing. Except to ask the tearful young mother who is essentially single-parenting the would-be robber's child "So, you were a nag?"

At the end of their segment, the couple's daughter--celebrating her 2nd birthday on Oprah's stage--was brought out and squealed upon seeing her father on satellite, "Daddy! Daddy!" Over and over and over again. Squealed with delight and with love for this father with no idea that she was watching him from Marion County Jail. Ultimately I wondered what would happen to her.

Because Gregory Smith had a choice. He had a choice. He could have done what Black women do everyday and taken a job where he might have been underpaid and overworked, but at least was contributing to supporting his family. He could have done that. As a Veteran, he could have tapped into a myriad of resources available to him at the federal and local level -- including GI Bill educational benefits, to help provide for his family. He could have chosen to do what his girlfriend did -- work hard and go to school.

Let's be clear that although it is a blessing that he neither stole any money nor hurt the store clerk, what he did was not heroic. What he did was desperate and cowardly and it is only through the grace of God that he spared himself any worse trouble than he's already in.

Since Oprah didn't have the insight to say it, I'll say it: The real "hero" here is Sherrie -- the girl who has dated this fool since they were 15, who works full-time and is a full-time student and, clearly, takes very good care of Smith's beautiful daughter. She needs to know, unequivocally, that she is not to blame for what Gregory Smith did. She needs and deserves as much support as he will inevitably continue to receive.

We need to stop scapegoating Black women for standing in the gap and doing what they must -- for themselves and their families -- to survive.

Appropriately pissed,

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stay tuned...

This blog has NOT been abandoned. You'll be able to "hit back" again very soon.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sisters are doing it...

Hey, Hit Me Backers!

You have shown LaVida and I a tremendous amount of love since we started this blog and just wanted to take a moment out to say thank you! There are a lot of words floating around the blogosphere and it means a lot that you take the time to see what's going on in our world.

I am certainly appreciative of the subscribers and those of you who are checking in from around the nation and around the world. From Louisville to London, you're reading and contributing to the dialogue. Keep it coming!

I've also been fortunate enough to connect with some amazing bloggers who are powerful voices in the dialogue around critical race theory and around gender, class and pop culture. All the thngs we love! It's a community that's incredibly supportive -- Afrobella has sent her readers here on more than one occasion and we are grateful for that.

I'm guest-blogging for the next few weeks at What About Our Daughters, whose owner, Gina McCauley, is one of those said amazing bloggers who I've gotten to know ever since we started Hit Me Back. Gina is also the founder and architect of the "Blogging While Brown" conference. I'll be cross-posting to What About Our Daughters and would love for you to check it out.

Thanks for reading. Don't forget to let us know you're out there! Leave a comment. As long as it's coherent, we publish them whether we agree with them or not!

Hit us back here, and for the next few weeks, Hit us Back at What About our Daughters!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Quick Hit Back— Lord Jesus, my people, my people…

Grandma Effie Mae Scott and Granddad Burnell Scott

How horrific! Burr Oaks Cemetery once owned by Ebony and Jet Magazine publisher John Johnson, was the only place Black folk could be buried. I too have many relatives buried at Burr Oaks Cemetery including my grandma Effie Mae Scott who passed last Christmas. It was something that continued to run through my head as the story hit the national news.

You are right Sabrina, this behavior is definitely connected to the escalating violence perpetuated in the Black community by Black folks. In parts of our community people now live in a climate where self-hatred and the pursuit of the all mighty dollar trumps everything. This is the only thing that could explain how Carolyn Towns, a Burr Oak manager and her cronies could do what they did and still be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Was desecrating the graves of the dead worth the chump change made by these folks?

What do I say to my family, particularly my mother who is still grieving the passing of her mother? What could I possibly say to my parents when they called last week from Burr Oaks’ bracing themselves for what they might find? What about Granddad Burnell Scott (Grandma Effie’s husband), a World War II veteran who died when my mother was eight? Was his plot disturbed? What about Grandma Effie’s parents, James and Annie Long? Would my parents find their remains discarded for money? What words of comforts could I even say to her in the midst of this tragedy?

Thank God my parents were able to determine that our loved ones were not affected by this travesty but they took no comfort. The sheer number of people, police and general sadness and rage impacted them. While they knew that our folks for the most part were ok (still waiting for more information on Granddad Scott’s folks) there were many people that walked away with the pain of know that they’re loved ones were impacted.

Yes we need to talk about the regulatory agencies that should have made sure that nothing like this could have happened. Yes Carolyn Towns and the others who did this should but placed under the jail and never allowed see daylight again. But I am still struck by a culture that normalizes the devaluation of Black life. I am troubled by the fact that I have become numb to it all including the pain and rage.

I am worried about losing my humanity…