Friday, May 29, 2009

The Hit Back...A Black Love Ethic

Hey Sabrina,

I am also alarmed at the number of children dying in Chicago and how the larger culture has not responded. Black and Brown life does not have value. But what is more striking to me is OUR lack of response to this violence. What do people on the block think? What do we think as the larger Black community?

As an organizer I can certainly look at systems and structures that exacerbate the situation. We can talk about how the closing of Chicago public schools and federally subsidized housing has forced students to leave their communities. While I don’t think dilapidated housing and ill-performing schools should be maintained, we have to consider how their closures have impacted the community.

In lieu of dismantling federally subsidized housing, mixed income housing has been put in in its place. With mixed income housing, only 1/3 of the units are set aside for low income people. The remaining 2/3 must find their own housing and by default are displaced.

The same can be said for the newly created schools, which are mostly charter schools. After a poor performing schools is reopened children who initially attended the schools are not guaranteed placement. Enrollment is now open to the entire city and neighborhood kids are forced to enter a lottery to secure a slot. If they are not accepted they will have to a attend school outside of the neighborhood and more than likely it is similar in performance to the school that was closed.

They also have to deal with additional safety issues because they now have to cross gang lines to get there. I have heard colleagues describe incidents where mothers in tears have pleaded with CPS officials not to send their sons to schools outside of their community because they were frightened for their safety. How can these children feel valuable and worthy when things are always closed down in their name and whenever anything is new and improved it’s never for them?

But you know what? We have heard this all before. In fact I am tired of talking about the problems in our community in the same old antiquated ways. You are right Sabrina, this is not just about more resources and social programs. While targeting issues like housing and education is part of combating violence, we have to seriously consider the larger problem of self hate. Because our children have repeatedly been told that they are not valuable and now they believe it. What else could explains the blatant disregard for life? Violence is so normalized that we have become desensitized. Something has died in the hearts of our children and what’s left no one recognizes. Talking about, modeling, and creating a culture of self-love, Black love is far more daunting than tackling any other issue.

As a people historically we have struggled to make it but there was always a Black middle class. Back then we all lived in the same neighborhoods; doctors and teachers on the same block as number runners and garbage man. No matter what obstacles we faced -- ill-equipped schools, run down housing, lack of political power -- we always believed that education was the key and our children could and would be better off than us.

It was this belief that created historically Black colleges. It was burned in our hearts that these opportunities were bought in blood by those proud Black folks that went before us. It’s the same story that Michelle Obama shared at the Democratic National Convention. Her parent made sure that she and her brother had opportunities.

So what changed? All I know is that something happened with the baby boomer generation. Maybe we are seeing the consequences of an 80s drug culture that eroded segments of an entire generation. Maybe poor youth no longer are reminded of the possibilities because Black folks with class privilege no longer have to live in the hood. While I can continue to speculate on why, what I know for sure is that there is hope.

But what about President Obama and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to be nominated for the Supreme Court? Here you have two people of color who did not come from privileged backgrounds but worked hard and made it. Real people that look like them and with similar backgrounds. In spite of all barriers, they made a choice to move in a different direction.

When I think about all the violence our children witness daily, I am reminded of the work I do in the domestic violence community. It takes a survivor on average seven times to leave an abusive relationship. Exposure to violence can begin to impact their sprit and forces them to make decisions that are not healthy in order to navigate the situations they are in. Maybe this Black love ethic must be coupled with non-judgment and the understanding that this situation was not created over night and won’t be solved in a day.

While I don’t have all the answers I will hold on to our history and the image of Obama and Sotomayor standing together at the White House. I will also pray that our youth will see this image and be able to recognize themselves in it.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

When and Where I Enter...


Watching Barack Obama name Federal Appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor as his Supreme Court nominee gave me chills; it was an example of coalition building at its finest.

It was a singularly stunning moment: the nation's first African-American president, born of modest means and raised by a single parent, proferring this honor upon a Latina of Puerto Rican descent, born of modest means and raised by a single parent. Hey LaVida, listen closely -- hear that? It's the sound of a paradigm shifting.

You just know that privately, conservatives everywhere were rolling around on the floor in a circle like Curly from the Three Stooges, frustrated. Mad!

They are mad because, like with Obama, there's little they can legitimately assail about Sotomayor. Both Obama and Judge Sotomayor are beneficiaries of affirmative action and the Civil Rights movement who, unlike Clarence Thomas, have engaged those advantages in thoughtful, strategic and forward-thinking ways. She's a solid moderate with at least 400 published opinions for which very few have been overturned.

So I had to laugh listening to Ann Coulter, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, assorted Republican legislators and others of their ilk call the Ivy Leagued-educated appellate judge everything from stupid to "racist" for the now-famous line from her 2001 speech "A Latina Judge's Voice" where she asserted,
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Their reactionary fog, of course, prevents them from seeing that affirming herself and her experiences does not negate white men or anyone else. The exploitation of that quote got me to actually go back and read the entire speech and it made me respect her even more. Sotomayor was born in 1954 -- the same year as the landmark Brown v. Bd. of Ed. decision, and the era she grew up in is never lost on her. I think there's great beauty and great intellect in her acknowledgement of how she moves through the world.

That she talks with as much ease about growing up in a Bronx tenement eating arroz, gandoles y pernir with family members as she can about the negligible representation of Latino and African-American judges in the federal judiciary speaks volumes. Sotomayor is not interested in downplaying any part of herself, as she recognizes that she doesn't have to. That she loves and values her Latina self as much as she does her legal scholar self should be applauded, not feared. You can't recognize one without the other and all of it makes her better.

Obama's selection inspired a TIME Magazine piece claiming that this is a bridge in the Black-Latino divide. The story fails to take take into account that there has always been coalition building between Blacks and Latinos on important issues, from them standing with us during the civil rights movement to us standing with them on various issues, including Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers and all of us standing together to usher Obama into office shouting and singing "Si se puede".

I was reminded, watching coverage of Judge Sotomayor's nomination, of the great quote from African-American educator and feminist Anna Julia Cooper's 1892 speech to Black clergyman: "When and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood...then and there the whole race enters with me."

Viva Sotomayor!


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can Johnny Make it to 8th grade? A response to violence against Chicago schoolchildren

I'm too depressed to write anything particularly witty today. Why? Because when I started writing this piece 36 children of color were dead in Chicago. Now there are 37. Mostly Black, a few Brown. All Chicago Public School students.

And there are still four weeks left in the school year. And it's getting hot out.

LaVida, you know what all of that means. We're in for a long, deadly summer.

Meanwhile, this story largely eludes mainstream media. There are no cute, missing white girls involved so, you know, there are no screaming headline, sensationalized, serialized cable-news specials from Nancy Grace or Jane Velez-Mitchell. There are no segments on the morning shows dedicated to deconstructing this "phenomenon" like there was over "sexting" -- where a fairly small number of suburban white kids have been prosecuted for sending around naked pictures of themselves via cell phone. There are no town halls, no outraged legislators holding news conferences, no protest records.

CNN aired a documentary on this issue with Anderson Cooper, but there already were more than three dozen kids dead by the time that happened. NPR's Michel Martin produced a salient two-parter on it with the bulk of interview time focused on the faith community's response. Activist priest Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic parish and Rev. Marcia Dyson (Michael Eric's wife) both were interviewed because of their respective drastic responses; Pfleger has taken to running the American flag upside down outside of his parish -- historically a military distress call -- and Rev. Dyson is fasting.

They covered familiar ground, about how the lack of media attention underscores how much Black life is devalued, how there should be conflict resolution training in the schools, and really trying to get to the root of why this is happening at such an alarming rate in Chicago. Martin noted that other major cities of comparable size and urban population are not experiencing youth homicides in the same numbers as Chicago. Not only that, Chicago has already outpaced itself this year by nearly double -- there were 21 total homicides of school children during the 2007-2008 school year. That, alone, is abominable; to be at 37 before the end of this school year is unfathomable.

The explanations and the responses in the NPR piece all felt vaguely unsatisfying. Have we normalized violence against Black and Brown children?

My completely unscientific theory is that the willingness to kill in Chicago is residue from the city's storied gangster and gang history. From Al Capone and the still-in-business mafia "outfit" to the legacy of Jeff Fort and his Black P. Stones and the El Rukns, folks in Chicago -- Black, White ethnic or Latino ain't afraid to shoot! From the audaciousness of the St. Valentines Day massacre which was orchestrated by Capone and killed seven, to the insanity of a punk (who was a bad shot) opening fire on a crowded CTA bus and killing honor student Blair Holt, there is an unforgiving, historic pathos in Chicago that seems largely rooted in gang culture.

So, what, then, is a reasonable response? How do we break this cycle? And why aren't we -- Black folk, Latinos, Chicagoans, educators, legislators, organizers, parents, police -- more outraged? The Wall Street Journal weighed in today on "community activists" calling on President Obama to formulate a more vocal, effective response. Pfleger and Chicago "activist" Mark Allen were quoted saying Obama hasn't said or done enough, and I'm sure plenty of others here agree.

He probably hasn't said or done enough -- yet. But isn't it a little too convenient to lay blame at Obama's feet? And isn't it disengenuous? I think it underscores a desperation we're all feeling because nothing's working. Nothing that any of the "community organizers" referenced in the piece is doing is working. No matter how many after-school programs, Boys & Girls Clubs we open, teen mentoring programs we've funded, CAPS meetings we've attend, candlelight vigils and "anti-violence" rallies we hold over and over and over, nothing is working. Whatever sadness, outrage or desperation we feel has not prevented the murders of 37 young people who didn't live to see the end of the school year. Neither has it created any collective outrage here in Chicago or particularly innovative, collective organizing and strategizing around it -- and some of the most brilliant organizers and academics in the world live here.

I'm owning that my "solutions," too, feel unsatisfying. Pfleger was on the news at a school near his church having kids sign a contract that they will never touch or use a gun. As much as I generally respect Father Mike, that felt like more of a camera stunt than the upside down flag. What about the guns that are already in their parents' homes? What about the popular culture they're exposed to that glamorizes violence and, in many ways, legitimizes it? But I give him credit for leveraging his media relationships to draw some attention.

But how are we tackling this when the cameras are off? What is our critical response despite the lack of media attention? What about the cycle of poverty, the sorry physical and academic condition of many Chicago public schools, and the internalized oppression our children are dealing with? How many of these YBC's (young brothers cappin') feel the same way as Tupac's character Bishop in "Juice" when he tells his boy "I ain't shit and I ain't never gonna be shit"?

I'm worried, Vida. Because on this issue, the personal really is political. I'm worried about my 12-year-old nephew as he prepares to move into his teen years -- without a father who, himself, was lost to gun violence. I worry about our boy cousins -- 13, 16 and 18 -- who are his upstairs neighbors and are being raised by their great-grandparents. Who are in their 80s. Their respective fathers are not in their lives either, and their mother is unable to parent them.

They are all Chicago Public School students. They are all Black boys who not only have to concern themselves with the potential of violence from their peers but -- let's take it there -- also the potential of violence from Chicago police. I've held my breath and said a silent prayer that it's not them each time one of these incidents is on the news.

I talk to them a lot about school, about keeping up their grades, their extracurricular activities. The ones who are old enough to work I've helped find jobs. I'm glad that they all keep busy with productive things. I talk to the younger ones about high school, and to the older ones about college. I talk to them about my international travels. I talk to them about the world. Because I want them to know that their world is so much larger than their block, and that as children of God and citizens of the world, they are entitled to experience it. I talk to them about the men in our family -- hardworking men, educated men, strong men -- and hope they draw some inspiration from it.

I talk to them about the future, simply, because I want them to know that they have one. I pray fervently that the Creator keeps their cards in the deck and proves me right.

Maybe none of that is "the" solution. But I hope it's a start.

Hit me back, Vida.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Hit Back...

Sabrina I have to agree with you, Christopher Hitchens piece was nothing more than hate! It was obvious he had a problem with this articulate, confident, unflappable Black man being in charge -- and that he had the nerve to selected a Black woman comic that could take him on and the rest of the world. He was so blinded by his hate for all things Obama, that he created this revisionist history about last year’s Al Smith dinner.

While John McCain was quite funny, probably the only moment where he did not come off as a crotchety old man. Obama was quite humorous too. He was able to take on all the stereotypes about his background and what it meant to be the first viable Black presidential candidate. He did this with not only with elegance and grace, but enough confidence to be self-deprecating. This same wit was present during the White House Correspondents Dinner. From poking fun of his use of teleprompters to highlighting missteps in selecting his Cabinet, Obama did not hesitate to offer himself up.

Maybe if Obama was a philandering pig or incompetent leader he would have had better material to meet Hitchens’ standards.

As for Wanda Sykes the entire first half of her act was poking fun at president Obama. From discussing the many photos of him without a shirt on to telling him he would no longer be the first Black president but the first half-white president or “mulatto” if he screwed up, she did not pull any punches. Sykes even went after Vice-President Biden, Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. No one on the left was spared. She was a equal opportunity offender. As for the jokes about Hannity and Limbaugh I agree she just said what everybody else was thinking and that made it funny!

I think Christopher needs to check himself. Is this really about the poor performance of Wanda Sykes and President Obama or is he uncomfortable with non-white men commanding the stage? And for the record what the hell is "mildly racist"? It’s like being a little pregnant, is not possible!

Yes Sabrina it’s a new day! Obama won the election and Hitchens and folks like him need to get used to it!



Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wanda Sykes: Comedian-in-Chief

Hey Vida, this Slate piece by Christopher Hitchens on Wanda Sykes was being discussed on Twitter last night and I had to chime in:

First things first: I think Christopher Hitchens needs to lay off the dairy because methinks he might be a little constipated...

Did we experience the same White House Correspondents Dinner? Because the Wanda Sykes I saw "brought it" with the same trademark biting, wryly hysterical wit that made her a hit on HBO's Chris Rock Show. Hitchens' clear unfamiliarity with Sykes and her humor and the suggestion that she "didn't get" what her role was supposed to be underscores that the script is being rewritten in the Beltway in a way that old hacks like him still aren't ready for.

He references Correspondents' Dinners past and notes that those comics tweaked the noses of the presidents. He asserts, in fact, the role of the comic at these events is to tweak the nose of the president -- to roast him. Does anybody even remember previous WHCD's? Name one comic who performed in the last five years besides Stephen Colbert...exactly. Crickets.

It was another one of those small but meaningful moments that normalized our presence and influence by having an African-American Commander-in-Chief. This year's dinner brought with it an entirely new audience. Now, I'm a news geek and have watched the dinner previously on C-Span but I can't tell you how many folks emailed, Tweeted, texted and sent Facebook messages about it -- African-Americans, youth, etc. I know firsthand the rigors of the vetting process for anybody who appears with this POTUS, so, trust me, Wanda Sykes was carefully screened before she got up there clowning Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Sykes was excoriated for "joking" about the 9/11 tragedy and had to defend it. I loved her response to a reporter asking her if she thought 9/11 was funny. She quipped, "No, of course 9/11 isn't funny...but the joke wasn't about 9/11."

Well, exactly.

What Hitchens' and writers like him don't get (he even called her "loud" -- the default criticism by whites scared of Black women...) is that her appearance was part of the larger history and continuum of the role of Black comedians who, in our community, have always been among the most salient griots and soothsayers. Why would Sykes "roast" Pres. Obama when the right already does that everyday? No, this night was about bringing the keen, deeply brilliant and unique insights of an African-American comedian to the fore. Because in somebody's house, on somebody's front porch, at somebody's cookout, Big Mama and Uncle Ray Ray and 'nem have thought something similar about Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other reactionaries who wake up in the morning thinking about how they can take this uppity negro president of ours down a notch.

So, to Hitchens, I say: Get over it. Or, at least, get used to it. Like the Will.I.Am song says, "It's a new day."

Hit me back, chica.


The Hit Back...


I viewed this piece with a couple different hats:

1) My journalist hat: My biggest criticism of this piece is that it's mostly a didactic "thumbsucker." It's an unengaging "explainer" lacking a "nut graf" -- one central paragraph (usually no later than 5 paragraphs in...) that ties it together. That's a Journalism 101 thing but, as MHL is fond of saying -- she ain't a journalist.

If there is a "nut graf" at all, it's buried at the end when she admits that she admires Michelle Obama's "traditionalism" i.e. the perceived privilege to be at home kickin' it and not working like a dog in academia or elsewhere as a wage earner.

It is honest but it is, indeed, sorely lacking in genuine, thoughtful feminist critique. Which leads me to the other hat with which I viewed this piece:

2) My feminist/womanist hat.

The beauty of Michelle Obama's position is that she is the manifestation of what we and our feminist forebears claim we have been fighting for: The economic, educational, social and political freedom to choose.

The reality is she's literally only a year or so removed from being the kind of middle-class Black mom Melissa references in the piece. Even when she was a highly paid executive at University of Chicago Hospital, Mrs. Obama was very clear that her priority and primary role was that of mother. Who do you think was carting Sasha and Malia around to soccer games and play dates and other engagements, and cooking, cleaning and putting those girls to bed when their dad was in Springfield for legislative sessions as a state senator or lecturing at night at University of Chicago Law School?

In essence, Mrs. Obama's dialogue that her family is her priority has been consistent and unwavering -- it's just being viewed now on the largest stage in the free world. That's not at odds with any of the important work she did when she was on someone else's payroll and it's not inconsistent now.

Let's also not forget that Michelle Robinson Obama is the daughter of a stay-at-home mom. Marian Robinson never worked outside of the home -- and by now we all know that this family was not "privileged" but was, indeed, a prototype of many working-class families living in Chicago's South Side "Bungalow Belt" in that era. Looking at how well her children turned out, who could assail or undervalue the effectiveness of Mrs. Robinson's work?

So I agree with you LaVida. Mothering -- effective mothering -- is, indeed, feminist work. It's not an either/or kind of thing -- it's part of the continuum of who we are and how we've evolved as women. Who she is, how she moves through the world and how she positions herself as a mother co-parenting her children with her spouse is reflective of all that Mrs. Obama has experienced and had access to, and the women who've opened doors for her (from her stay-at-home mom to her fellow Ivy League-educated execs).

And isn't that the point?

I think the Melissa's suggestion that Mrs. Obama's position as "Mom-in-Chief" could be used as fodder for conservatives and potentially, as she writes, "undercut support for public policies focused on creation of a just and equal political and economic structure..." is disengenuous.

We are, as those womanists before us asserted, "the ones that we've been waiting for." Michelle Obama -- without exception, without qualifiers, without being contextualized and constrained by white gender norms or societal ideals -- is the absolute embodiment of that.


Thoughts on the Mom-in-Chief...

This blog post from Melissa Harris-Lacewell in The Nation caught LaVida's eye:

Sabrina I was little taken aback by Melissa’s article. Particularly the “progressive feminist “critique of Michelle’s decision to make motherhood the primary focus. While I agree with Melissa’s thoughts on race, specifically how powerful the image of a Black woman parenting her children is (something privileged white women never had to worry about), I am still stuck at the assumption that making motherhood primary is not feminist.

So what a feminist looks like is already predetermined? Maybe it’s me but I thought this whole feminist thing is about honoring our whole selves, so that we can make our own decisions. By questioning Michelle’s choice to be “mom in chief” what are we saying about women’s work? Maybe making sure her girls are supported through this transition to DC is something she WANTS and ENJOYS doing. Maybe she knows that she would not be where she is today if her family didn’t do the same for her. We have to be careful that we do not suggest that the countless hours that women have spent raising children, working jobs that did not pay them their worth, and doing all the things that are taken granted really don’t count. Yes there are many of us who did not have a choice but we can’t pretend that if money was not an issue some of us would prefer to work from home and raise kids. We shouldn’t make women’s primary responsibility parenthood, say something wrong with those of us who desire it or dismiss those us who are trying to negotiate our lives along the continuum. For another conversation, what are we saying to men that are struggling to balance their work and family lives.

We have got to stop talking about feminism at closed doors. And how arrogant! Where is the class analysis in this? I find the so called progressive feminist critique to be solely rooted in academic privilege. While we are not a monolith, we have to be careful not to define the possibilities of feminism in just one reality. There is a real danger in putting women in a box.
If we keep framing the empowerment of women as the vehicle to emulate male power structure, feminism as we historically know it will be dead. Hillary Clinton lost and the 80’s shoulder pads are now gone. Young women of all races rejected this line of thinking during the elections. We have the right to be critically thinking and do whatever makes sense for us.

Yo, hit me back!



About us...

Sabrina and LaVida have been friends since they were students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign almost two decades ago. It's hard to believe these two were ever residents of an all-female dorm but that's exactly where they met and began the studying, organizing, nurturing and strategizing around race-consciousness, feminist/womanist theory and community, that has endured to this day.

Sabrina is a veteran, award-winning journalist and media professional who worked for mainstream newspapers long before the implosion of that industry, and she subsequently transitioned into media consulting, public relations and freelance writing. She proudly served as deputy communications director for African-American media for Obama for America. She is a past recipient of the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism, the Miami Herald Distinguished Writing Award and is the founder and president of South Loop Media, LLC. She lives in Chicago.

LaVida is a veteran community organizer and trainer. She has extensive experience in creating grassroots campaigns that engage community members, major stakeholders, and elected officials. She is the principal and founder of The Asha Group, a collective of women of color who have come together to be a clearinghouse for resources and tools to support systemic change in people of color communities. She also consults with the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network on their Domestic Violence 40-Hour Training. Currently she also works on international and domestic hunger and poverty issues with a national faith based nonprofit.

Their busy lives keep them from seeing each other as much as they'd like, but they spend a LOT of time deconstructing the issues of the day via phone and email. As with many sister girlfriends, technology has become their figurative and literal lifeline to one another as they continue navigating and negotiating what it means to be bright and shiny Black women in a world that still has a little trouble with both. So, have a seat. Listen in. And if you have something to say, "Hit us back!"