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…

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quick Hit -- Jesse Jackson, go...take a nap

Jesse Jackson holding court in the center of the madness with families at Burr Oak.

So after unearthing even more human remains on the grounds, Burr Oak Cemetery has been formally declared a crime scene and for the time being shut down. My own father was one of many people who went out to Burr Oak in the rain on Friday, sat in a line of cars down 127th Street and was ultimately turned away. To date my family and I still have absolutely no information about the condition of our relatives' graves and probably won't for the forseeable future.

After failing to receive any assistance calling the 800 number or the local number set up by the Cook County Sheriff's Office, I sent an email to the address they set up (burroakinvestigation@gmail.com) and got this response:

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the investigation at Burr Oak
Cemetery. Everyone who sends an email will receive a personal
response, but we ask for your patience, as the requests have been
overwhelming. Thank you.

Now comes word today that Cook County Sheriff's will be processing paperwork at Eisenhower High School near the cemetery and that Jesse Jackson is leading some kind of prayer vigil for the families at the burial grounds today. Several friends called or texted to tell me about it and ask if I was going. My answer is a resounding "no."

Already I've grown weary of Black grief being publicly exploited during the course of this story. I can't take one more family member -- usually a Black woman -- on TV wailing about this. Let's face it -- our emotion makes great TV. And the thought of Jesse Jackson, once again, capitalizing on that grief is too much.

I don't know about anybody else but between being quoted everywhere and showing up at the Michael Jackson memorials in L.A. AND Gary, Indiana AND showing up behind Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart at nearly every stand up about Burr Oak, I've had just about enough of Jesse.

Haven't you?

The last thing we need right now is more spectacle. The last thing we need right now is rhyming and rhetoric.

We need less public grief and more answers. Less wailing and more strategy. I can pray and grieve privately -- and I have. I don't need Jesse Jackson's help with that. Jackson's Rainbow PUSH has helped families with filling out paperwork about family members buried at Burr Oak -- which, frankly, is the responsibility of the Cook County Sheriff's Department and what's left of Burr Oak's front office.

My faith informs that we come from the earth and to the earth we shall return. My faith informs me that my loved ones are not "there" in Burr Oak, but are with the Lord. I believe that and take solace in it.

But that doesn't mean that the people responsible for this unconscionable betrayal of the public's trust (and it goes far beyond the four who have been charged) shouldn't be held accountable legally, ethically and financially for what they have done. I don't want a public prayer vigil -- I want action.

It's been revealed that Illinois lacks tough regulations for cemeteries and the state has little regulatory oversight by law -- which ought to quiet critics who've tried to blame family members for "not visiting" Burr Oak often enough to do something about the lack of maintenance and oversight. Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes has just now started proceedings to revoke the trust fund license of Burr Oak's Phoenix-based owner, Perpetua Holdings.

If Jesse Jackson insists on being involved in the Burr Oak tragedy I hope he uses his influence to organize families to advocate state legislators for stronger laws on Illinois cemeteries. Help families sort out exactly what their rights are civilly and criminally as it relates to this case.

He doesn't have to hold court at a presser or a public "vigil" surrounded by news cameras for ANY of that to happen.

But I bet he will.

Still seeking justice,

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Souls of Black Folk -- The tragedy of Burr Oak Cemetery

Two dozen ancestors. Two dozen that I could count off the top. Probably more.

My Mother, Elizabeth. My maternal Grandmother, Louise. My maternal Great-Grandmother, Mama House. Her son, my Uncle Joe, a World War I veteran. Three of Uncle Joe's brothers -- Uncle Willie, Uncle Steve and Uncle George; two of his sisters, Aunt Angeline and Aunt Maz. Aunt Big Mama and her sister, Aunt Lil. Lil's husband, Uncle Allen -- a high school janitor who spoke three languages and read the classics for fun.

My paternal Grandmother, Mama Sweetie. Her three sisters, Aunt Annie Mae, Aunt Mattie and Aunt Gertrude, a WAC who traveled the world and was an equestrienne. Their father, my paternal Great-Grandfather Papa Levi, who "came north" to Chicago in search of a better life for his girls. My nephew's father, Big DuFray. Eunice. Corrine. Idella. Carrie Mae. Maternal cousins. Paternal cousins. Lots of them.

My childhood friend, Julie.

They are all there.

I sat disbelieving when I first heard there was a gravedigging scheme on Chicago's outskirts, with as many as 300 disinterred bodies, caskets and all, dumped into a mass grave and their plots resold and refilled for profit.

I collapsed into a slow-burning cry as I started calling the names of those ancestors...remembering where they were buried -- some since the 1930s -- and whether they had headstones or not. I kept coming back to my Mother. My Mother. My Mother. Ma. Mommy. My sweet, sweet Mommy who died unexpectedly in 2000 just 42 days after her own mother and is buried near my grandmother.

I remembered my extreme reservations about burying my Mother at Burr Oak in the first place. I remembered how shocked and disappointed I was the first time I saw the condition of her grave and the unpaved, uneven, poorly maintained, dusty road it took to get there. I remembered thinking that the grave in front of hers was too close and didn't seem to be anywhere near a casket length apart. So many nagging questions about the maintenance and management of this place that went unanswered. Nagging questions that I took to higher authorities to no avail. So many nagging questions that I finally made my peace with the bodies and souls of my Mother and Grandmother, and I stopped visiting Burr Oak altogether.

I thought about all of that. And then I got mad.

Because as I looked at the mugshots of the accused -- a cemetery manager and three workers, all African-American and all now facing felony charges of dismembering human bodies -- I wondered: just exactly what kind of trifling, gutbucket, soulless and depraved negro do you to be to do such a thing?

Who digs up the graves of their own people, dumps the bodies like roadkill and then resells the plots for profit?

The same people who shoot into crowded CTA buses and kill honors students. The same people who shoot in broad daylight in residential neighborhoods and kill little girls washing their dogs on the side of the house. The same people who kill 2-year-olds in isolated fields.

We don't even value our own lives; it stands to follow that we wouldn't respect our dead.

Carolyn Towns, a Burr Oak manager and the alleged ringleader of the scheme, is old enough to remember a time when Burr Oak and Lincoln Cemetery (where another slew of relatives are buried) were the only places where Black people could be buried here. For all we know, she might well have kin buried there herself.

Instead of honoring the history of Burr Oak, Towns and her cronies chose to desecrate it. She earned herself $300,000, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart -- and a trip to the psych ward where she sits while awaiting court.

Instead of honoring Burr Oak as the final resting spot of scores of African-Americans whose history in Chicago dates back to the early 20th century, their bones were discarded in a pile, much like a heap of Lem's rib tips.

Instead of honoring Burr Oak as the final resting spot of notable African-Americans like Dinah Washington, Willie Dixon, Noble Drew Ali, Otis Spann, Negro League baseball players, Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson, jazz musician Malachi Favors, and, of course, Emmett Till, they dumped Burr Oaks' dead into a human landfill.

We survived the Middle Passage for this?

Towns even set up a bogus Emmett Till "memorial fund" and pocketed money from that too. She rolled the dice and profited from our long-dead but never forgotten.

But we have never, never forgotten. More than 2,000 people flooded the gates at Burr Oak on Thursday to try to make sense of this tragedy and learn the status of their loved ones. From what I understand, most didn't get very much information. Neither did I when I called the 800 number set up by the Cook County sheriff's office. My dad and other relatives are planning to go out there on Friday to try to sort things out in person but he has already warned that we should manage our expectations.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. This incident is not just about the four who got caught. The reality is they profited as much from their own desperate greed as they did from the chronically poor management and oversight from out-of-state owners and law enforcement who, for years, have turned a deaf ear to maintenance complaints and other legitimate regulatory issues and reported improprieties until they couldn't any ignore it any longer. Despite the best efforts of many, nobody cared all that much about the "Black" cemetery until it was time to show off the grave of Emmett Till or someone else "famous" who was buried there.

Someone must pay for these unearthed souls. Someone must pay for the double-stacked graves, and bones and skulls piled up and strewn about the earth like a ghoulish trash heap.

We must hold them accountable for what they have done. We must hold them accountable for my two dozen ancestors and many, many more.

It ain't over.

Seeking Justice,

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lessons from the Steel Mill...Understanding Papa Joe

Among the many notable oddities in the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death was the behavior of his iconic and, literally, iron-fisted father, Papa Joe.

We collectively cringed at utter lack of public grief over his son's sudden death and his cheesing, preening appearance at the BET Awards. We rolled our eyes watching him promote his record label at a subsequent news conference. We wanted him to be quiet and the family seemed to listen -- Papa Joe has once again retreated from the public's eye and Jermaine, sans that crazy, conked hair, has emerged as a formidable family spokesman.

But to really understand Papa Joe, you have to go back to the steel mill.

Papa Joe, now 80, worked in Gary, Indiana's steel mill, US Steel, for years, managing to eke out a meager living to support his brood of 9 children. The mill was steady work for many Black men of that generation. But it was dead end, heartbreaking, soul-crushing work that exploited the labor Black men provided it, while being firmly entrenched in the type of institutional racism that denied them promotions and raises that they deserved. And let's face it, Gary, Indiana -- "the G.I." -- ain't a great place to live.

For many of those men, if they had any opportunity to get out -- any at all -- they'd do it.

For my own father, just a year younger than Joe Jackson, working the blast furnace at the steel mill on Chicago's far Southeast Side was a way to save money for college. He was smart, professional and a solid worker -- exactly the type of man they wanted to keep on board.

My dad had a plan from the beginning that didn't involve spending the rest of his life working in a blast furnace and when he had amassed enough money to return to school and tendered his resignation, Dad's white supervisor laughed. Told my dad that a "smart boy like him" could go a long way at the steel mill and wondered aloud why he'd want to return to college. The supervisor initially didn't even turn in dad's name as having quit because he was so convinced that dad would come back.

My dad collected his last paycheck and never returned.

He always told this story whenever we were driving along Torrence Avenue the minute we got a whiff of the foul-smelling emissions from the old mill. He's grateful he was able to use that steel mill money as a springboard for a successful career in academia where he ultimately earned a bachelors, two masters, and is "ABD" on a doctoral degree.

For Papa Joe, escaping the steel mill and the limited life that came with it meant pushing his five oldest sons to perfect their musical skills in what would become the Jackson 5ive, the most popular pop group of its generation, and perhaps unbeknownst to him, to create the greatest pop singer and entertainer of all time, Michael Jackson.

While I don't condone Joe Jackson's style of parenting or business management, I understand it as the motivation of a bygone era. An era where a man's love was measured by how well he could provide for his family and how tough he could make his children to shield him from the harshness of a racist world. There's no mistaking that Joe is a cold and violent man.

But he's also very shrewd and disciplined, and whether we like it or not, laid the blueprint for superstardom of the man we mourn and celebrate today, Michael Joseph Jackson.

Thinking of Michael's own difficult relationship with this father reminds me of the passage in Toni Morrison's masterpiece "Sula" where Hannah questions her mother's love and Eva responds, "What you talkin' bout did I love you? I stayed alive for you!"

Watching the Jacksons miniseries on VH-1 over the weekend -- again -- reminded me just how desperate Papa Joe was to get his family out of Gary. Extreme tactics or not, like Eva, Joe Jackson loved his family desperately. He loved his family enough to get them out of the G.I.

I also thought of how accurately that desperation is captured in Samuel L. Kelley's stage play "Pill Hill," currently showing at Chicago's eta Creative Arts Foundation. eta is Chicago's oldest African-American cultural arts and theater institution and, ironically, is located just a few miles from the Southeast Side neighborhoods where the story is set.

"Pill Hill" follows the lives of six Black men, all close friends, over a decade between the early 70s and early 80s as they negotiate their own precarious relationships to Chicago's steel mill. Will they make it out and find good jobs that will move them into the nearby, prized Pill Hill neighborhood? Some of them do whatever it takes to make it out. Others are resigned to the relative financial stability the mill brings. Still others, like the protagonist (also named Joe) straddles both worlds -- smart enough for college but lured and pacified by getting those "next two or three paychecks" from the mill.

I took my father to see "Pill Hill" for Father's Day and he said it triggered a flood of memories -- some funny, some painful -- about this own tour of duty at the mill. Joe Jackson would probably say the same.

The ubiquitous influence of these mills on an entire generation of Black men -- its heartbreak, its blood money and its motivation for those who wanted out -- can never be underestimated.

It doesn't excuse anything either we, the public, or his own family dislikes about Papa Joe. But it certainly helps understand what he did for his family and why.
Missing Michael,

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson, the Hit Back…

I was sitting at my desk at work when I first heard that Michael Jackson was rushed to the hospital not breathing. The day had already seemed weird with Farah Fawcett having died of cancer earlier and I was still tired from last week’s work trip to DC. I was swamped with follow-up work and just trying to stay awake. All I could think during the few hours it took for major news outlets to confirm his death is—“God please do not let Michael Jackson be dead”.

You got to understand I had already been feeling melancholy about getting older. I was turning 38 the next day and everything seemed to be changing. Last Christmas with the passing of Grandma Effie it seemed like I moved up a space in the pecking order. I was one step closer to dealing with my parents’ mortality and ultimately my own. My sweet faced poor bear (Asha) was no longer my baby. She was now in middle school, had boobs, almost my height, and had a life completely separate from me. Hell, I was no longer the cool mom but the mother that Asha didn’t want to talk to.

The cultural bench marks of my youth were aging as well. It’s been 20 years since Spike Lee’s land mark film Do the Right Thing. I remember seeing that movie opening weekend and being struck by how beautiful the Black folks looked in the film. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to discuss race in urban America. And hell yes Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet was the soundtrack for all of it. Everything that I loved about my adolescence was now considered old school. When in the hell did I become old school?

Now one of the earliest voices of my girlhood was dead. Michael was my unspoken idol and the one person that my entire family enjoyed listening to. Whether hearing “I Want You Back” at a family barbeque or dancing in the front room with my sisters and brothers to "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough", I can’t remember a time when a Michael Jackson’s song wasn’t playing in the background.

Like everyone else Thriller was huge in the Davis household. My brother Keith especially loved this album. We got the album for Christmas and wore it out. I remember all staying-up late with my siblings to watch the premiere of the Thriller video on Friday Night Videos. Keith practiced the dances moves all night.

My first slow dance with a boy was to a Michael’s Got to be there and he was the first celebrity poster I hung on my bedroom wall. Even as I got older and embraced Prince, DeBarge and pop/rock groups like the Police, Wham, INXS and U2, Michael was still there. I always looked forward to hearing his tender voice and how he would elevate the game not only with his music but also with his performances in videos.

None of this means that I didn’t have underlining critiques of Michael Jackson especially towards the end of his life. I was very concerned about the numerous plastic surgeries that not only changed his nose but lightened his skin color. What happened to the beautiful brown skinned man that I hung on my wall? For Black girls of my generation Michael Jackson was the male image that we dreamt of marring. If Jackson was not happy being Black, would he not think I was beautiful? Did he hate being Black so much that he would willfully morph into a bizarrely contorted face and ultra white skin that resembled no one on earth? I know internalized oppression affects us all in this white supremacist culture. I often wonder if more of us had access to his resources would there be more folks walking around looking just like him?

There were also the numerous accusations of child molestation. I know one case was settled out of court while he was exonerated of another. We can talk about the many reasons that helped create his stunted emotional development but it is never ok for a grown man to share a bed with children. I wish people would stop defending Michael’s alleged behavior by stating that you don’t believe he was gay. Pedophilia is not an extension of homosexuality!

My love for Michael and his music does not require me to pretend he was a perfect man. I think we do a disservice to legacy and ultimately his humanity when we render whole parts of his life invisible. My father once told me that the things I find useful about his life take it and the things I find deplorable, leave it. No one should or can be defined one thing. I hope the large culture begins to understand that.

Sabrina, it’s taken me over a week to finish this piece and this is what I have concluded—Michael was a huge talent whose contributions will live on forever. I am personally grateful to have his music as a reminder of the wonderful parts of my growing-up.

Michael may you rest in peace…


Quick hit: Safe at the Taste but what about the 'hood?

Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis (l) with Mayor Richard M. Daley

I was walking my dogs near the Taste of Chicago venue this morning, the final day of the food fest, and was marveling at how well it went this year. The physical security measures that were put in place in relatively short order for the first time this year have made all the difference.

Last year's shocking shootout in the Loop following the July 3rd fireworks (four people shot, one fatally), put Chicago Police and new chief Jody Weis, and Mayor Daley on notice that things had to change. Daley, especially, had extra incentive for a glitch-free Taste, as he is mortgaging our city's time, talent and resources on a formidable shot at getting the 2016 Olympics.

Dedicated entrances and exits, gates and tarps around normally open areas of Grant Park and uniformed 5-0 walking in packs throughout Grant Park and at CTA stations made a noticeable difference this year. Also, having Taste workers check bags added an extra measure of security. Weis also reported that there would be increased plainclothes officers and that police would be closely monitoring police cameras strategically placed near the festival.

So far, success. As of today, there have been only a handful of arrests and no major incidents in or around the festival site.

I live near the Taste venue and, frankly, appreciated the police presence. I actually joked with an officer that those few city blocks had to be the safest and most heavily patrolled in the city. Safer eating a turkey leg at the Taste than anywhere else in the city for these few days. He agreed.

But it got me thinking -- if the best and brightest among the Chicago Police Department can strategize and devise a plan well enough to protect tourists and other visitors coming downtown to get their grub on, why can't we dedicate that kind of strategy, time and talent toward protecting residents in some of our roughest neighborhoods?

Although Chicago Police reported on Friday that there was a 10.4 percent drop in crime citywide in June compared to June 2008, it is little consolation as news reports of black children -- being shot by one another and police -- continues to grow.

Just Thursday, police shot and killed 16-year-old Rakeem Nance in the West Side's Lawndale neighborhood after they claimed he pointed a gun at them -- a story that's being challenged by several witnesses, including one who said on the record that the young man was actually trying to pull up his pants. Is it possible that police mistook Rakeem's pulling up his pants for reaching for a gun? That gets into an entirely different rant for a different day about these brothers and their sagging pants...but today the fact still remains that Chicago Police have gunned down another young black man -- which seems to happen in disproportionately high numbers in Chicago.

Where are all those great police minds when it comes to patrolling Lawndale, Englewood, Humboldt Park, the "Wild 100s" and what's left of the public housing corridor? The time, attention and resources spent protecting Mayor Daley's central business district are gravelly needed in the city's high crime areas. Security cameras hoisted above these neighborhoods has made some difference but not enough to dismantle and diffuse the gangbangers from shooting in broad daylight, and not enough to stop police shootings against young men whose actual alleged guilt is sometimes dubious. And frankly, the city's CAPS and faith-based programs are making little difference.

By failing to dedicate resources and devise a comprehensive plan for these neighborhoods like he did for the Taste, Mayor Daley, and by extension Chicago Police, continues to devalue the lives and safety of its most vulnerable residents -- the majority of whom, of course, are Black and Brown. Our neighborhoods shouldn't become a police state, but imagine the kind of impact in our neighborhoods of the kind of police presence and resources that were at the Taste.

Chicagoans deserve better than feeling safer grubbing on a turkey leg downtown at the Taste than in their own neighborhoods or in their own homes.

On the real,