Singing Testimony Across Difference: Anthony Russell and Berkeley’s 2014 Holocaust Remembrance Day

The following is a reflection I am pulling out of the archives on occasion of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27, 2019). It features a write-up on Anthony Russell, black Yiddish opera singer extraordinaire. I have wanted to make this public for a long time and have finally had the wherewithal to do so. Though it is dated by almost five years now, it is still relevant. I trust that you will find it of some insight around issues concerning the performance of racial identity and the role of religious music in creating a platform for cross-racial solidarity in the midst of human suffering and multi-generational trauma. 

On Sunday, May 27, 2014, the City of Berkeley celebrated its 12th Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in downtown Berkeley. Titled “Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses,” the ceremony honored the life and work of creative writer and teacher Renee Passy-Zale and UC Berkeley professor of engineering George Leitmann. Both Passy-Zale and Letmann were commissioned to recount their experiences of surviving the Jewish Holocaust by means of escape from and active resistance to the Nazi presence in Europe. The program included a distribution of lighted candles to survivors in the audience as well as musical performances by Bay Area composer and accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and African-American opera singer Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell. The latter, a convert to Judaism, recited Yiddish folk hymns alongside playwright and A Traveling Jewish Theatre co-founder Naomi Newman’s reading of work by Holocaust survivor and poet Irena Klepfisz.

Yiddish opera singer Anthony Russell

Between Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s eye-witness testimonies to the struggles of escape and the creative renderings of Jewish suffering that Gaskin, Russell and Newman offered, the ceremony foregrounded the provenance of cultural production—through autobiographical narrative, folk song, and poetry—in effecting historical redress for the wounds of war. Indeed, Passy-Zale’s harrowing account of fleeing Paris to live under an assumed identity in the south of France where, at the age of eleven, she helped to smuggle secret information to the French Resistance when her father came under suspicion, and Leitmann’s moving account of losing his father to a concentration camp before escaping from Vienna with his mother and two grandmothers to New York City in 1940 represent “unofficial” histories that might otherwise go unheard by the public were it not for the cultivation of testimonial space such as that of the Magnes.

Without discounting the significance of Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s stories in terms of redress and the role their imaginative witness to trauma and survival plays in suturing the gap between past and present, I was particularly intrigued and moved by Russell’s evocative performance of two Yiddish folk songs: Ukrainian-American singer Sidor Belarsky’s “Der Germore Nign” and “Bessarabia,” a piece attributed to Bukovinian-born folk bard Itzik Manger. The deep bass of Russell’s singing imbued each piece with an air of lament resonant with the mood of the classic Negro Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” thereby fostering a sonic entryway into what it might feel like, as per the subject matter of “Der Germore Nign,” to be a child separated from her family—an experience all too familiar to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.

Russell thus expanded the parameters of remembering and, in this, who gets to remember (more on that below), in a turn to music that served to inflect the respective narratives of Passy-Zale and Letimann with a haunting aurality. Furthermore, his singing opened up a space of contemplative silence between testimonies. Indeed, after the ceremony, as I was speaking with Russell about his performance, an older woman and Holocaust survivor introduced herself to the basso to commend him for his soulful singing.  When I asked her about what Russell’s performance evoked in her she smiled and said, “I would need to write a poem about it.” Implicit in this response is an acknowledgment of a mystery that resists category or definition. It is a submission to a kind of unknowing which occurs in the face of trauma. Her inability or, perhaps, refusal to give words to what in Russell’s singing captured her imagination points to an experience of suffering that renders language absurd because nothing save a “tear or a sigh”[1] can approximate the “unspeakable”[2] nature of its magnitude. In this, it was Russell’s role to give some melody to it.

That said, I left my conversation with Russell, which was cut short in light of some other engagements to which he had to attend, mulling over the dual question of identity politics and cultural appropriation with regard to his testimony on behalf of Jewish survivors. What does it mean for an African-American to invoke the memory of the Jewish Holocaust in a way that moves others—both those who have and have not undergone the trials of political persecution—to engage more deeply with the reality of Jewish suffering? Moreover, in what ways does Russell’s appropriation of Yiddish folk songs function as a kind of historical redress and, in this, cultural survival for Jews?

With these prompts in mind, I decided to contact Russell by e-mail to glean insight from him on his own experience of giving witness to the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust, especially in terms of his African-American ancestry and what role it might play in his engagement with the racialized violence wrought on Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Speaking to this, Russell placed himself in company with “every other Jew who has not directly experienced the Holocaust,” emphasizing the impossibility of empathizing with those who withstood “horrors of that event.”[3] He wrote that it is only by way of interaction with survivors, “singing for them, listening and speaking to them, that my attempts to invoke and honor the lives of those affected by the Holocaust has begun to approach their experiences.”[4] Russell meanwhile nodded to what his African-American heritage brings to bear on his performances, noting that he draws on the “immense historic trauma” which “looms in the background” of his cultural history to give himself perspective on the experiences of Jews.[5]

By the same measure, the [then] 33-year-old Russell found a way to self-fashion through the incorporation of Yiddish folk song into his already expansive repertoire of musical training, based mostly in the European tradition of classical opera. In this, he has drawn on the experience of Jews, through music, to give himself perspective on the experience of African-Americans.

In an article he published recently in an online edition of Tablet Magazine[6] the singer recalls his conversion to Judaism, by way of his now-partner and Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, as an invitation to find a medium of self-expression that he could not locate in the world of classical singing where he grew weary of dealing with 15 years worth of “competition, rejection [it is difficult for a basso to find key roles in a field that revolves around ‘high tones’], technical difficulties, great expense, and casual racism.”[7] “Having just left the stage,” he writes, “I tried to find a new direction in texts, narratives, and experiences I had chosen to accept as a Jew. These, in turn, led me to those sounds I had carefully tried to avoid. They led me to myself.”[8]

It was at a Seder two years ago that Russell first heard a live rendition of the first song he ever learned in Yiddish, a piece called “Piramidn” by anarchist poet David Edelstadt that tropes on Jewish enslavement in Egypt. Russell was especially struck by the relevance of the song’s primary message, a question—“People, who will free you today?”—to his own social status as a gay, black male whose cultural history finds credible parallels with the Passover story, as evidenced by the Judeo-Christian themes of the Negro Spirituals. He writes, “It may come as surprise that I—a young-ish African-African gay convert—have any affinities with the world of Yiddish song. But right there, at the beginning of my Yiddish journey, was a story I could credibly portray. I knew the discontents of a history that included ‘di viste shklafnvelt,’ ‘the bleak slavery-world’ described in ‘Piramidn.’”[9]

From there, as Russell notes, he took on the catalogue of the aforementioned Belarsky, “a rich-toned bass from Russia and one of the 20th century’s most prolific performers of cantorial music, Hasidic nigunim,[10] and Yiddish art song.”[11] This led him further into a musical tradition he had, as a young man, scoffed at for the ways in which it marked him as a raced body: the Negro Spirituals. Through his engagement with Yiddish folk song, which has turned into a career of international proportions, Russell said that he returned to the Spirituals with new ears: “I could now hear my own history along with striking projections, elaborations, and celebrations of the foundational texts I had accepted as a part of myself as a Jew.”[12] He adds:

I found that yidishe lider (songs) and spirituals had much in common: folk-derived evocations of culture and spirituality expressed against a backdrop of systematic marginalization and oppression. In both kinds of music I found resignation and despair and impatience. I found hopes for redemption invoked, sometimes cynically and sometimes with great, heartbreaking earnestness. I found voices reproving those earnest hopers-for-redemption, calling them to action, change, and revolution. Out of the smoking crucible of the 19th century, on the eve of more horrors to come, I experienced texts in dialogue with each other.[13]

Russell thus found a means to articulate his own experiences as a racialized subject into whose black body a history of political violence has been inscribed by dint of his skin color and the legacy of slavery it references. Taking Belarsky’s “Der Gemore Nign” as a case-in-point, Russell notes that he drew a striking parallel between the subject matter of that song—“Are you homesick for your / father, mother, sister, brother, / and without them, / you are like a ship without a rudder?”—and, as referenced above, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” part of which reads: “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone / A long way from home….” Echoing singer/actress Ethel Waters, Russell says he found in Yiddish folk song a “‘despair similar to that of my own people’ that tells the story of ‘my own race, too.’” And with the multi-talented Paul Robeson, Russell notes, “‘The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me.’”[14]

It is therefore out of a place of cross-racial identification that Russell has found a way to delve more deeply into his own cultural heritage without erasing the Jewish presence within it. In his conversion to Judaism and subsequent appropriation of Yiddish folk music that Russell came to acknowledge just how integral Judaism’s “foundational images and texts” are to the formation of African-American religious expression.[15] In the same way, he has witnessed the “reverse appropriation,” as he calls it, of African-American Spirituals by Jews who have incorporated songs such as “Go Down Moses” into Seders he has attended.

In all of this, Russell’s appropriation of Old World Jewish music meanwhile serves as an act of redress insofar as it functions as a kind of reparation that “seek[s] justice for the subjects of racial oppression”[16] through acts of remembering, such as singing, which articulate the needs and desires of the oppressed.[17] This is particularly evident at the level of the language itself. Yiddish is a High German language written in the Hebrew alphabet of Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European, Jews whose names derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of the ancient Jewish patriarch Gomer.

When asked about the role of Yiddish folk songs in giving witness to the Holocaust, Russell noted that “Yiddish itself is a witness to the depredations of the Holocaust, holding as it does the sounds and sentiments of many of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”[18] In this way Russell is granted access to remembering not only on behalf of, but with, the Jewish community. In this, moreover, he contributes to Jewish cultural tradition and its survival by “performing […] sounds and sentiments through song [that] educate, engage, connect and remind listeners of a world and culture that the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany attempted to destroy.”[19]

Playing on Russell’s most recent musical project which combines “African-American roots music (work songs, early blues and spirituals) with Jewish liturgical, folk, and art music from the late 19th and early 20th century [sic] to create narratives of spirituality, redemption, and hope,”[20] the cultural work he is doing as an African-American deeply invested in performances of Jewish identity through Yiddish folk song signifies a “convergence” of experiences related to racialized oppression that catalyze not only cross-racial dialogue in a spirit of cosmopolitanism, but, more to the core, the kind of empathic identification that is necessary to, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, “cultivating humanity.”

As Elaine Scarry notes and Russell himself makes clear, it is essentially impossible to fully know, if at all, another’s pain due to the “severe limits” of our imaginative capacity as human beings.[21] However, it is difficult to conceive of the formation of legal provisions concerned with citizens’ rights or the work of redress without some degree of what Scarry calls the “cosmopolitan largesse” that underlies Nussbaum’s “word-citizen” framework of civic engagement, predicated as it is on an imagining of the so-called other.

Such imagining, in which cultural producers such as Russell seem to engage, is not so much a matter of allowing one group to decide or mediate the welfare of another, as Scarry suggests with regard to the trope of “generous imaginigngs,”[22] or erasing the other’s body altogether as Hartman warns against in Scenes of Subjection, but a means to enact new modes of friendship in communities of solidarity and mutual support. In the same way that Nussbaum speaks of narrative art as a way to understand how circumstances sculpt the lives, desires, hopes and fears of those deemed different,[23] I believe Russell’s performance fosters “an informed and compassionate vision of the different”[24]—his own narrative of intercultural exchange a case-in-point—that in fact makes the so-called other more visible, more audible, and, ultimately, more human.

Indeed, his performances provide a “basis for civic imagining”[25] that is undergirded by compassion for the suffering of others in light of, at the very least, knowing pain in one’s own body and, if nothing else, making plain the plight of the ones who suffer. In his work of translating experiences of human trauma through Yiddish folk song Russell does not attempt to erase the irreconcilable differences that distinguish his personal make-up from that of another, let alone an entire population of people. Rather, he engages with the life-world and texts of another cultural tradition as a means to build bridges across those differences which requires neither an obliteration nor a reification of “otherness”—his own or that of his Jewish brothers and sisters—but an acknowledgement of shared fears, desires, and hopes that come out of historically different circumstances. This kind of multiculturalism, which refuses to flatten difference, but instead finds avenues of “convergence” is the foundation for the healthy constitutionalism that Scarry seeks and undoubtedly conducive to creating the “world citizenship” the Nussbaum espouses.

As a gay, African-American Jew, Russell does well to embody the concept of the “world citizen,” taking on the responsibility of remembering through an act of appropriation that contributes to, rather than co-opts, the cultural heritage of a community which would otherwise consider him an “outsider.” Russell’s performance of lament meanwhile references the terror and torture undergirding “sovereign violence” and its exercise in the extermination of those, such as Jews under Nazism (or African-Americans under American Apartheid), deemed incapable of bearing the “sovereign presence of the state.” [26] In so doing, his recitations of Old World Jeiwsh music restores a sense of humanity lost in what Giorgio Agamben identifies as “a flagrant case of homo sacer [i.e. ‘accursed man’]” by which the Jew living under Nazism embodied a “mere ‘capacity to be killed’” as one banned from the realm of “biopolitical sovereignty” that structured the Nazi state.[27]

In its attempt to accomplish this act of restoration, Russell’s is a work of redress that functions to bring us into a deeper awareness of the ways in which political power, when abused and unchecked by law, can lead to the kind of “grotesque moral blindness”[28] that legitimates historical atrocities such as that of the Jewish Holocaust or American slavery. As African-American cultural critic Huey Copeland notes, however, the work of redress is never done; redress is “terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[29]

For Russell this work is doubly layered, as his artistic output is situated at the convergence of identities—his blackness and his Jewishness—that each carry the burden of a history haunted by state-sanctioned racial violence. In giving representation, through his voice, to these histories Russell “invokes a lost world” via the “circular movement” of translating into song the life experiences of those who survived the trauma of the Holocaust, as well as those who died from it.[30] This makes possible networks of affiliation, communities of solidarity, essential to creating a more just society. Such community-building happens through the refusal to forget. For, as it is inscribed into the front interior wall of the Magnes: “In remembrance is the secret of redemption.” It is my contention that Russell’s act of remembering discloses just such a secret, not only in terms of the Jewish Holocaust, but also with reference to the history of American Slavery.


[1] Riffing on Paul Robeson (see below).

[2] This is a reference to Thomas Merton’s trope of the “unspeakable” as the existential emptiness, the dehumanizing void, out of which the terror and torture of war emerges. See Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966).

[3] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to author, May 5, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover,” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] From the Hebrew for “tune” or “melody.” The term refers to Jewish religious song.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[17] Riffing on Saidiya Hartman. See “Redressing the Pained Body: Toward a Theory of Practice” in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 77.

[18] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’”, op. cit.

[21] See Elaine Scarry, “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People,” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar,, March 4, 2014.

[22] Ibid., 106.

[23] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[24] Ibid., 89.

[25] Ibid., 93.

[26] Riffing on Paul Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 39.

[27] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 114.

[28] See Peter Brooks and Julie Stone Peters, “Law and Literature in Dialogue,” Modern Language Association 120, no. 5 (Oct., 2005): 1645-1647.

[29]Copeland, op. cit., 35.

[30] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.———


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brooks, Peter and Julie Stone Peters. “Law and Literature in Dialogue.” Modern        Language Association 120, no. 5. (October 2005): 1645-1647.

Copeland, Huey. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kahn, Paul. Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Nussbaum, Martha. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Russell, Anthony. “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover.” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014.

Scarry, Elaine. “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar. March 4, 2014.


What About Latoya? – On the Spectacle of “the Other” in Nicole Arbour’s “Dear Black People”

The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. – bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” (1992)

Stereotypes, however innacurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make true knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed. – bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination” (1992)

I was on facebook recently and received a notification from a group of which I am a part called White People Conference [WPC] – Got Privilege? An online forum for people of all social locations to discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality, WPC constellates around a critical interrogation of white supremacy at it shows up in instances of racialized violence—whether physical (via police brutality, for instance) or “symbolic” (via racist slurs, as an example)—in various contexts. It is also meant to be a space in which to offer viable avenues for white solidarity with the cause for racial justice.

The notification I received came from a woman of color who posted a video blog from white comedian “vlogger” Nicole Arbour with the following preface: “Who the heck is this, and WHAT is (are) her problem(s)?,” followed by the hashtag: “#whitegirlflexsherwhiteprivilege”.

Entitled “Dear Black People,” the six minute video is a tongue-and-cheek response to the nonwhite indictment of cultural appropriation on the part of white people who borrow or steal elements of food, music, style, taste, and vernacular from nonwhite cultures without assuming the burden of what it means to be an object of racialized oppression in a social system predicated on white racial domination. A social system in which cultural practices on the part of people of color have functioned as creative responses to exploitation and social dislocation in an historical context still living down the legacies of (chattel) slavery and segregation.

Arbour’s video engages racially charged humor as a means by which to deescalate crossracial conflict centered around claims of cultural theft launched against whites who borrow blindly and specifically from, in terms of this video, black cultural practices for the purposes of their own self-making. As a deconstructive move, the piece works to question the logic of such an indictment by way of Arbour’s acknowledgement that, yes, white people do appropriate from black culture, but not always blindly (that is, without understanding the history of black cultural practice), inviting “black people” by way of rather empty examples (i.e. black women sporting blonde hair weaves; black patronage of Starbucks; and black consumption of pickles, attributed spuriously to Polish people) to consider the possibility that appropriation is multi-directional—that is, appropriation goes both ways and is therefore something of which we are all guilty (or in which we are “innocently” implicated).

To illustrate the “conscientiousness” of her own appropriation of black culture as cool (i.e. “Your shit is just cooler!”) and literal consumption of it as spice (thinking here of her enjoyment of jerk chicken, as long as it’s not too spicy because of her “delicate” white girl palette, as a case-in-point), she situates her epistolary rebuttal to charges of cultural stealing in terms of a willingness to recognize that, though (chattel) slavery has ended, its residues linger in the form of wage slavery and the American prison system—each of which disproportionately affect the black population in America and which Arbour sees as “disgusting.”

Using her black friend Latoya as an “insurance policy” to further legitimate her thesis, stated in the form of a question—“Why can’t we all just enjoy whatever the fuck we want from every culture?”—Arbour engages in a form of blackface minstrelsy (embodied literally insofar as she dons a tight red design tee mottled with the cartooned visage of tilt-crowned rapper Biggy Smalls) that reduces her friend-turned-object Latoya to an absent presence in the play of her virtual performance of a blackened white identity.

In this, Arbour deploys what Toni Morrison calls an American Africanism (see Playing in the Dark, New York: Vintage, 1993) by which Arbour, as a white cultural producer, uses a one-dimensional black character as one would a stage prop by which to work out the ambivalences of her own problematic whiteness. She relies on the stereotypical image of an angry black female (the caricature-archetype Sapphire), played by Latoya, standing in as metonym for all black women, to construct a space in which she can contextualize, albeit precariously, her white performance of a blackness lampooned by her uncritical glorification of long nails and her impersonations of the guttural inflections of ghetto talk attributed to black people in the white imagination.

In this way, she participates in a fetishization of blackness that circulates within a transnational marketplace in which black bodies are bought, sold, and consumed as stereotyped representatives of a homogenized black culture, a cultural Other, from which we (i.e. white people) all can just take “whatever the fuck we want.” Arbour does this even as she attempts to establish intimacy with her black associates by picking apart stereotypes that associate blackness, namely black males, with criminality and the monstrous phallus, imitating a stuck-up and rigid white girl threatened by the sexualized and raced other.

Yet despite her feeble efforts to dismantle such stereotypes she reproduces them by telling black folks to keep the stereotype of the large black phallus, reinscribing a black male phallocentricism that black intellectuals such as bell hooks (see “Reconstructing Black Masculinity,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992) and James Baldwin (see No Name in the Street, New York: Vintage, 1972) problematize as symptomatic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Arbour reasserts white fascination with the black penis that comes to represent a specific kind of black manhood–one that is deeply misogynist, sexist, and homophobic–operative in both the white and black imaginaries and which is symptomatic of what Andrea Smith would call heteropatricarchy.

In her essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” black American cultural critic bell hooks gets at the problematic logic of such intimacy, pinpointing its inherent racism:  “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (see Black Looks: Race and Representation, 23). In the case of Arbour, she engages, whether consciously or unconsciously, in an act of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ by which she romanticizes the pre-modern primitivism that blacks represent in the white racial imagination while calling out nonwhites, unjustifiably so and perhaps jokingly (it is difficult to tell how jokingly by way of her inflection and facial expressions), for the seeming hypocrisy, if not “reverse racism,” at play in their injunctions that whites stop appropriating.41J5G72iPqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Arbour enacts this kind of nostalgia, a variation on the Marxist notion of “false consciousness” (which is to say historical amnesia), by way of implying that she is not racist, particularly in light of the fact that, as she says, “I was not there!”, in reference to the “fucked up” historical fact of (chattel) slavery. Granted, she was not “there”, yet such a stance, often espoused by whites defensive of their privilege as whites when it is called into question, discounts the fact that, regardless of whether or not they were “there” when (chattel) slavery existed, their whiteness still implicates them in a history of oppression that manifests in the contemporary moment as the supremacy which affords them the privilege to “[assuage] the guilt of the past” (hooks, 25). It is the privilege to claim: “I wasn’t ‘there’ in the context of past oppression so I am not responsible for your present oppression.”

Meanwhile, claims of reverse racism made by whites such as Arbour against nonwhites, even if made in jest, evade the actuality of institutional racism and its disenabling effects on and in the lived experiences of people of color in today’s world. That structural inequality and systematic oppression along lines of race—to say nothing of gender and sexuality—still exist renders null and void the notion of reverse racism by nonwhites against whites. Blacks, unlike whites, are not in a position of racial dominance. Thus reverse racism on the part of blacks, in particular, and people of color, more broadly, does not exist so long as white supremacy is a reality. And it is.

Even when whites at the level of the personal, or the individual, make no clear move to dominate, oppression still functions through acts of “symbolic violence” by way of “microagressions” that occur along a spectrum of desire and fear. Arbour’s vlog could well be considered one such aggression through the politics of desire in which she engages for the purposes of exonerating white people of responsibility to a heightened awareness around the problems of appropriation.

As hooks notes, “The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other,” which is implied in Arbour’s vlog piece, even when there is no “apparent will to dominate […] takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection” (25). Hooks adds, “Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (25).

Certainly, Arbour expresses no explicit will to dominate, nor do I believe that such is her conscious intent. Indeed, “Dear Black People” functions as a gesture toward deconstructing that will to dominate insofar as it pokes fun, self-consciously so, at white people who complain about being underrepresented in public celebrations of multiculturalism (as per her ironic jab at a non-specified Caribbean Festival that has no “white girl float”) or at the white hypocrisy evidenced in the simultaneous call for the (white) right to bear arms and for the imprisonment of black men (to say nothing of women) on the basis of non-violent drug crimes. This is a commendable gesture toward crossracial understanding, but it really flattens the complexity of systemic racism while associating black folks (black men, in particular) with drug consumption. It meanwhile attributes social pathology in the black community with the bastardization of the black family: “When kids don’t have a dad, they’re going to act up!”).

In this way, Arbour identifies the seeming unruliness of troubled (black) children with the absence of (black) fathers who have been jailed by an unjust system of mass incarceration that targets black folks. In this can be heard the haunting echoes of the Moynihan Report. While it is laudable that Arbour makes historical linkages between the past and the present in terms of slavery and the slaveability of black folks (thinking here of Andrea Smith’s piece about heteropatriarchy), the connections she makes are tenuous at best. For instance, what are other socioeconomic factors that contribute to the oppression of black folks in this country? In what ways does she, Arbour, play a part in this oppression by dint of her own desire to appropriate? If slavery still exists, what part does or will she play in imagining an alternative whiteness for herself and others who recognize that black folks are victimized systemically?

Arbour’s social and racial analysis is ultimately thin, cloaked in humor that, despite its irony, reinscribes a notion of blackness as part of a larger commodity culture to be consumed by whites. The thinness of her racial analysis is perhaps best exemplified in her invocation of Bill Nye the Science Guy to argue that we are all part of one race–asserting a tired notion of race as biological fact that contemporary theorists of race have worked ad nauseum to upend, favoring instead a definition of race as a social construct, a category of identity, tied up in a system of white social domination. By espousing a universal theory of race and, in this humanity, one that universalizes experiences that are actually not shared between whites and nonwhites given the reality of racism, Arbour gives herself license to borrow without keeping in mind the fact that, just because we can recognize ourselves as part of one human family does not mean we can ignore the fact that our global society is structured according to a racial hierarchy–a divorced human family, as it were–that blind appropriation perpetuates in its unwillingness to explore or acknowledge that white and nonwhites are raced (and gendered and sexed) differently.

That this stratification remains an historical fact should check her, or anybody’s, assumption that sameness is present where difference exists. That such difference is an actuality demands a conscientiousness, a race consciousness, that Arbour fails to take on in her willfully color- and power-evasive desire for the Other. This is not to say that appropriation cannot function as a means by which to bridge current divides. It perhaps can do so, but only insofar as it is contextualized by a deeper and more incisive identification with and involvement in the larger historical struggle of the Other, whose cultural practices one is adopting, against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy–lest appropriation morph into a kind of blackface (or yellow, or red, or brown face for that matter).

Though she may acknowledge this struggle, Arbour relinquishes her responsibility for and accountability to the anti-racist whiteness she gestures toward in this video by essentially telling black folks how to behave. This is particularly evident, for instance, in her charge that blacks drop the “N-word” (i.e. “nigga”) from their music so as to make it easier for whites to enjoy what blacks produce without the attendant guilt or paralysis that may come with repeating, or being tempted to repeat, what amounts to an epithet when lip-synched by a white mouth. It elides through humor the possibility that the “N-word” may in fact serve a liberatory purpose, a means by which to re-appropriate or reclaim the linguistic signifier of subhuman status from which it derives and thus counter and resist the “symbolic violence” of that inflammatory term.

In the above instance we witness a self-absolution of responsibility to an honest interrogation of her own whiteness and the ways in which that whiteness is predicated upon the “innocent” consumption of black cultural production/products that seeks nothing more than to maintain its perceived innocence against the threat of black accusation, of being called out for racism.

In the end, what we are left with is not simply an unspoken longing to become the Other but, taking what hooks says above further and keeping Morrison’s trope of American Africanism in mind, a display of desire to “make the Other over in one’s image.” Were it otherwise, Arbour would neither be speaking over and against or for a monolithic and essentialized “black people”–signified by the lone and silenced black stand-in/representative Latoya–regarding the issue of cultural appropriation.

That said, Arbour’s act of “speaking for” is nowhere better evidenced in the video than in her dynamic with the essentially voiceless Latoya, whose visage haunts the vlog like the fleeting spectre of blackness Morrison locates in the white literary productions of authors such as Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. Unquestionably, Arbour links herself with the struggle of black folks for racial justice, yet the issue of racial inequality is overridden by her claim to understand experiences of structural inequality as a woman. In this sense, gender erases race in an equation that leaves a white woman—blind to the privilege which permits her to disregard the ways in which she is oppressed differently from her nonwhite Other by dint of her class status as white subject—as the sole spokesperson for a struggle that she both “gets” and does not “get”.
At the same time,  Arbour fails to recognize the ways in which racial and gender oppression intersect within the larger confines of white supremacy, or white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She thus misses a moment to act in solidarity with blacks against a bigger systemic force that oppresses all of us, though differently, and in this acknowledge that whites too are situated as subjects in the struggle insofar as white supremacy is an assault on the dignity of the human person in general–not just nonwhites.

Speaking out of both sides of her mouth, as the saying goes, Arbour admits toward the end of the video to not fully understanding the “struggle” and asks for her nonwhite compatriots to explain it to her–thus absolving herself of responsibility to researching systemic racism, interrogating her whiteness and calling into question the privilige which allows her the lazy option of foregoing research into the “struggle” on her own (without taxing the already tapped reserves of people of color who are deemed fully answerable to white people for explaining racism).

Out of the proverbial other side of her mouth she then proceeds to “whitesplain” to black people one small part of their “struggle”—that is, the racially skewed aspects of the American prison system—preceded by her proclamation that what she “sees” happening to the black population is “disgusting” (without explaining her sympathetic, if not empathetic, identification with black blight).

This statement of recognition bookends the video’s opening sequence in which she plays on white desire for and fear of blacks by parodying white girls’ fascination with gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. before beginning her salutation, “Dear Black People…” followed by the a clip of her, hands-up, shouting “Don’t shoot!” Fooling her audience into thinking that she is on some racist rant, she adds in subsequent clip, “…is what too many of you have to say to the fucked up po-lice!” She adds, “Oh, you thought I was going somewhere else with that. That’s kinda racist of you.” It is then that she introduces her friend Latoya, tokenized as testimony that Arbour is not racist and deployed as a back-up or legitimating factor (read “insurance policy”) in Arbour’s contestation that we need to get beyond the narrow identity politics involved in debates around cultural appropriation.

Similar to what hooks says of white filmmaker Sara Bernhard whose Without You I’m Nothing associates blackness with the struggle for liberation, understood as an effort to end racial domination and free up political space for the right to black self-determination, Arbour “places herself in a relationship of comparison and competition with black women [represented by Latoya], seemingly exposing white female envy of black women [evidenced in her glorification of long nails stereotypically linked with black women as well as in her staging of Latoya as prop], and their desire to ‘be’ imitation black women; yet she also pokes fun at black females” (38).

Though Arbour may be working to establish a context, through comedy, by which to “make light” of the “awkward situation” that is race talk for the purposes of constructing some modicum of crossracial solidarity beyond the policing of racial borders evident in the identity politics of race, she in the end appropriates blackness without acknowledging the debt she owes to what she perceives as black cultural practices in food, music, style, taste and vernacular—taking up space to mock white people (“white girls” in particular) as refracted through her understanding of the stereotypes into which blacks cast her white womanhood (or “girlhood” rather), that leaves no room for black women (such as Latoya) to do it themselves. The video concludes without a trace of blackness, used and left behind as a vanishing Africanist presence by which to situate and defend Arbour’s blackfaced whiteness without any inkling of how, riffing on hooks, “the Other leaves her” (39).

While I can appreciate the notion that cultural appropriation is multi-directional and often times seemingly natural to the fabric of our exchanges with each other within and between cultures, particularly due to the fact of intercultural flow in a global marketplace where ethno-racial boundaries are so easily transgressed, I question the stability of Arbour’s argument that we should be able to “enjoy whatever the fuck we want”—even as she attempts to lay some groundwork for candid talk across the color line at the level of cultural production (in this case, comedy). Lastly, I question her capacity to speak for all white people (the video is subtitled: “What we’ve all wanted to say to black people…”). As a white person, I cannot in clear conscience say that she speaks for me.

What is lacking from Arbour’s largely social, versus political, analysis is the space to explore in a more self-reflexive way her own relationship to the stereotypes with which she engages to speak about and for black culture/people and, in so doing, “shift her positionality” (as with the character of Traci in John Waters’ Hairspray, which hooks upholds as a cultural product in line with the agenda of black liberation), in order to invite a more sustained “engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the [white] status quo” (37). There is no such sustained engagement in Arbour’s satirical response to the issue of appropriation; the finer nuances of racial analysis fall by the wayside for the sake of one-liners that preclude the possibility for deepening the dialogue about race with a critical cognizance of how power operates racially through the flows of the cultural marketplace–precisely where we find Nicole Arbour’s video. Ultimately, it seems unclear as to what Arbour is trying to accomplish.

As with what hooks says of Bernhard’s film, Arbour’s “Dear Black People” “walks a critical tightrope” insofar as it “mocks white appropriation of black culture, white desire for black […] even as [the video] works as a spectacle largely because of the clever ways Bernhard ‘uses’ black culture and standard racial stereotypes” (39). In this way, again riffing on hooks, it does not really go against the grain. It hints at a critical politics of appreciation for black culture and even identification with the black struggle for liberation, yet it falls short of going any further to disrupt white supremacy and de-colonize the white mind (diseased by white imperialism) at the site of desire (the black body) precisely because of the ways in which it flattens cultural difference, white-washing the debate around cultural appropriation through its defense of an uncritical and in so many ways power- and color-blind multiculturalism which preys as a matter of white enjoyment on the flesh of the fictive black Other.

Beyond the #BernieSoBlack Standstill: A Self-Implicating Proposal for Crossracial Solidarity in Social Reform

A Problem

I am a White radical who has been very vocal in his support for Vermont Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, an Independent who is running on the Democratic ticket. I am also a White ally who has been engaged in the fight for racial justice in this country through my involvement in mobilization efforts on the ground to the point of police arrest as part of the #KettleAtRoss, in church-sponsored marches, and in my academic life as a doctoral student doing work around critical whiteness and hip-hop. In fact, it is in large part because of my dedication to decolonizing whiteness that I, a White radical ally, have found myself so enthusiastic about Sanders’ compelling campaign with its revolutionary socialist rhetoric and its thrust toward the redistribution of wealth, which carries implications for deconstructing hierarchies that are classed, gendered, raced, and sexed.

However, in light of my ideological commitments to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I cannot ignore the protests that disrupted the Netroots Nation 2015 event (#NN15) in Phoenix, AZ on July 18 and caused a stir of White “progressive” backlash at the Black protesters for their supposedly misinformed attempts to be heard by a prospective co-conspirator in the Black freedom struggle.

In light of the call to White accountability that a movement in which I wholeheartedly believe has offered not just Sanders, but White progressives, in general, I cannot help but reassess my own, until recently, blind enthusiasm for the presidential candidate—a zeal lacking in the critical self-reflexivity necessary for White allies such as myself to be effective in the move toward freedom from bondage to White supremacy that affects us all.

Upon the kind of critical self-reflection on my investments in Sanders for which the cries of agitators at Netroots Nation called White progressives, and if I’m to be sincere with myself, this fervor for Sanders has been informed by a kind of unconscious racism on my part called White paternalism, an attitude that takes responsibility for and thus displaces the needs of the Black lives which I so often, through social media and in my own activism and academic work, proclaim matter.

That’s a rough confession to make inasmuch as it challenges me to question my perceived innocence as one who professes himself—in the spirit of Alicia Garza’s admonition to White allies of the #BlackLivesMatter movement—to be a “co-conspirator” in the fight to abolish the structural inequalities that perpetuate in and through acts of discrimination and violence against my brothers and sisters of color in America and around the world.

Alicia Garza and members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography
Alicia Garza and members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography

But I need to offer this inventory as a check on the pride, arrogance, self-delusion, and self-centeredness which would have me believe that I, a White male, know what is best for Black people. “Step back, brother,” I tell myself, and “slow your roll”—words a Black priest-friend of mine from Baltimore told me when I critiqued his own deeply personal engagement in race matters in the course of an online exchange in May of this year.

The supremacy of Whiteness and the privilege that secures its hegemonic stranglehold at the level of individual and institution is insidious. It has snuck up on me and I’ve let myself be seduced by it in my own unquestioned adherence to a campaign that, if I’m again to be honest with myself, has not been as vocal as it could be about the fact of White supremacy and its intersections with the unjust economic conditions that Sanders rightly laments. In his seeming lack of racial analysis regarding income inequality in America, meanwhile, and his unwillingness to field the questions of protestors at the #NN15 gathering concerned with his commitment to ending Black blight, Sanders reproduces the paternalism and racial privilege to which all White progressives are subject in believing they have a monopoly on the “best practices” of social protest and/or reform.

In the defensiveness I’ve felt around Sanders and the gusto I’ve mustered on behalf of his campaign, I’ve been avoiding a conscious acknowledgment of paternalism as it functions in the subtleties of my past reproach for the line of critique that claims his racial analysis is lacking.

Previous to the interruption at the #NN15 event, I have used social media, primarily facebook, to highlight the ways in which Sanders has indeed been part of the struggle for racial justice in this country, as evidenced by his involvement in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), his voting record, his own vocal excoriation of police brutality and mass incarceration, and his awareness of the disproportionately disenfranchising effects that income inequality has on people of color in this country. I also capitalized on the news concerning rapper Killer Mike’s endorsement of the presidential candidate—in no small part, whether or not I was aware of it at the time, because of the MC’s Blackness, exploiting it as testimony of Sanders’ appeal to the Black vote (as if Killer Mike is the sole representative of African American cultures) to advance a political agenda. #smh

Lastly, I recall the racially insular comfort of a conversation I had with a White friend of mine during a hike through a regional park in the hills of North Berkeley a few weeks back in which I admitted in so many words, “I think Sanders is it. I am just worried about the Black vote. I hope it does not go to Hillary.” Perhaps this admission might seem innocuous at first glance or upon hearing it in passing; but when scrutinized under the light of the critical Whiteness I espouse in my own work as scholar-activist, it reveals an ironic anxiety about the self-activity of the collective Black political body–diverse and variegated as it is in and of itself–that indeed knows what it means to take part in the political process! #smh

Admitting all this throws me into an imperative crisis of identity and identification as the defects and contradictions of my own character come roaring up at me in the mirror like monsters returned from the repression of my racial closet—the door of which was opened yesterday upon reading on my pastor Michael McBride‘s facebook wall an article detailing the incontestable uproar of Black activists at #NN15 and subsequently witnessing Sanders’ glib dismissal of their demands for recognition in an evasive reiteration of his populist economic vision—wholly lacking in the necessary humility and poise of deep listening that I believe was being asked of someone championing such political commitments as his platform proffers.

The criticisms from Black activists are incontestable precisely because the fragility of Black dignity and life in this moment and throughout the history of the modern world deems it so. My professed adherence to the Christian Gospel of Love deems it so. The pangs of a conscience I feel, which are informed by the Christian Gospel, deem it so. I say this not out of the insecurity of White guilt, which would be counterproductive to the cause, but out of the security of a self-responsible ethic of empathy.

If I am to be serious about the sincerity of my engagement with the cause for racial justice, then, it is necessary that I undergo a continual inventory on racism as it manifests in my consciousness and character if only to create a space of vulnerability and open-heartedness within myself to receive the moral indictments of my Black brothers and sisters whose rage refuses White silence (i.e. consent) and demands accountability from those touting “revolution” as a slogan for a movement not altogether unrelated to the aims of #BlackLivesMatter.

A Dilemma

Because of the messiness of splitting I feel within myself and which I am witnessing in the current battle in which White and Black progressives seem pitted against one another, I’ve had a hard time conceiving a viable picture of “where to go from here” in terms of the move forward regarding issues and stances that both Sanders and those in the #BlackLivesMatter camp hold dear and true in their hearts—issues and stances that I, myself, hold dear and true in my heart.

I am disappointed in myself. I am disappointed in Sanders. I am disappointed that he failed to receive the invitation, even if challenging, to just listen in Arizona. It saddens me that he seems to have under-utilized his privilege—which he could very well leverage given the clout he has garnered in a convincing grassroots political movement that overlaps with the goals of the global #Occupy—to talk more incisively, more intersectionally, more prophetically about systemic racism as well as the concerns voiced by those whom he chose instead to hush in Phoenix. I am equally as disheartened by the White “progressive” backlash in his defense.

At the same time, I remain wary of a wholesale rejection of his campaign. 

This is not to reinscribe the implicitly paternalistic proselytizing I believe was operative in my past endorsements of his platform, nor to claim a monopoly on the “best practices” of social reform, but to hold true to my own convictions that Sanders has a lot, if not the most, to offer the movement(s) for racial justice in this country of any major party candidate running for the job thus far–largely because of the work he’s done to combat the disinheriting monolith of monopoly capitalism that hurts racial minorities the most. By the same token, I believe said movement(s) have much to offer his “revolution” as a deservedly celebrated creative foil and corrective to his progressivism, in particular, and that of White liberals, in general (myself included), inasmuch as it reminds us all that the issue of racism must be treated as a problem in and of itself–without reducing the issue of social inequality to race alone–and that the self-activity of Black organizers must be taken seriously (see Dara Lind in Vox, “#BernieSoBlack: Why Progressives are Fighting about Bernie Sanders and Race,” July 20, 2015; see also this article in The Nation).

Neither the movement for economic justice nor the movement for racial justice is mutually exclusive of the other and I fear that what could function as an invitation toward unification across difference in the present social media uproar regarding Sanders and Black lives is instead turning into a kind of ideological race war: anti-progressive Black radicals versus anti-radical White progressives. In a word, it seems people on both sides of the divide in this specific conflict are castigating each other into corners of categorical disposal, resorting to an “all or nothing,” “us versus them,” and “black versus white” mentality that is flattening the complexity of a potentially fruitful moment for “real talk” rather than cynical stone-throwing from each corner.

A Proposal 

That being the case, as far as I can tell, I wonder what the possibilities are for a unified crossracial progressive movement rooted in more nuanced class- and race-based policy reform that brings together the predominantly White base at the foundation of Bernie’s platform and the predominantly Black base undergirding the various movements committed to ending institutional racism and racialized violence in this country. What could happen if there was a joint effort that combined the best insights of each movement for the purposes of overhauling our current political-economic infrastructure without drowning out the clarion call to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter and that racial injustice and economic injustice are intertwined?

Though he has not ignored the issue of racialized oppression in America, Sanders’ predominately class-based critique of the present economic situation fails to name the ill of White supremacy at the root of the present order of things in which economic inequality is merely one symptom of that global disease. By the same token, it’s important that the issue of economic injustice and class-based reform not be altogether disregarded either.

If anything, Sanders’ bid for president presents us with an opportune moment to at least consider the need for a co-conspiratorial grassroots movement sharpened by the precision of a race-class cultural critique that looks at the ways in which class is organized along racial lines and vice versa; that recognizes that income inequality and racial inequality work in tandem and must be addressed as two sides of one corroded coin of monopoly capitalism, the global processes of which function to erect what intellectual-activist Andrea Smith calls “the three pillars of heteropatriarchy” that constitute White supremacy: Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War.

I am not proposing anything new—see Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994), for example—yet this moment, in which class- and race-based measures for change seem to be at odds with one another in the split imaginaries of progressives isolated from one another across what is amounting to a racial divide of mutual alienation, incites us with a pivotal urgency to put theoretical intersectionality into practical action in a joint effort for policies that address classism and racism, bedfellows that they are, as well as the ties of each of these -isms to various other forms of prejudice (heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

imgresYou cannot adequately address one issue without the other in this line of logic, which accounts for how Whiteness, specifically, and class formation go hand-in-hand. I find labor historian David R. Roediger‘s insights useful here as he argues convincingly that class-based reform is as much a precondition for attacking racism as attacking racism is for class-based reform. We must all wake up to the fact that the income gap is deeply racialized and that racialized violence is deeply classed–to say nothing of the gender and sexual dynamism at play, here. I believe Sanders recognizes this, but needs to be more explicit about this. Not just by attacking racism, but by calling out this country’s “possessive investment in Whiteness” (George Lipsitz 2006) itself for its collusion with the global processes of capitalism in creating a racial hierarchy that is also classed, gendered, and sexed. imgres

That said, I think Sanders is on point in so many ways, but needs to fine-tune his approach to meet the race-based demands of those at the center of the #BlackLivesMatter movement so that the largely White progressive movement he represents might divest itself from a “possessive investment in Whiteness” (Lipsitz 2006) to which we are all victim. By the same token, it is important that those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and other organizations campaigning for racial equality fine-tune their approach to reform so as not to overlook racism’s economic dimensions. In the end, none of us can hope to accomplish anything by shouting over each other as such action only fuels a deafening resentment. On that note, it is not up to White progressives to decide what are best tactics for Black protest, particularly in a movement that purposely eschews a politics of respectability in favor of a politics of disruption. The most important step across the color line is that of listening.

Hopefully, the chaos of righteous Black indignation and the White racial anxiety it provokes will pave the way for constructive, clarifying dialogue to take place across current divides. In the meantime, it’s important that we hear each other out and keep grappling with underlying causes–to paraphrase the words of a friend and colleague who quoted Dr. King recently in a facebook thread on this very issue–so that our social analyses remain as sharp and precise as the long arc of the universe which bends toward justice.

The Fine Line Between “Identity” and “Identification”: Debating Appropriation in the Case of Dolezal

A friend of mine recently sent me an online version of an op-ed piece that the retired NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabar penned for Time magazine. Entitled, “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” the article is a tongue-and-cheek response to the righteous backlash the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP has received for lying about her racial identity. In it, the former Lakers player engages in a thought experiment about the possibility of living a lie with regard to his towering frame as a means to make an argument about the arbitrariness of (racial) identity and the ways in which we can convince ourselves and others of our social location through the power of repetition.

“Although I’ve been claiming to be 7’2” for many decades,” he writes, “the truth is that I’m 5’8”,” adding, “Just goes to show, you tell a lie often enough and people believe you.”

Good point? Not so sure. Last time I checked, no one ever believed, nor is there a chance that anyone ever will believe, that Abdul-Jabar is 5’8”. Not to mention the identity politics of race is far more nuanced, complex, and complicated than those of height–at least in terms of the present debate.

Judging by the evidence against her—from allegations of receiving a full scholarship for Howard University’s MFA program under false pretenses to those of cultural appropriation so as to legitimate her involvement in various causes for racial justice—Ms. Dolezal has woven a masterful web of deceit around her self-identity that has allowed her to commit what amounts to a crime of cultural theft and, ultimately, an abuse of White privilege. Only recently, with the stir caused by her parents’ outing Dolezal as White, has she come under the proverbial gun of scrutiny—and rightly so.


In opposition to Dolezal’s critics, however, Abdul-Jabar, an African American by ancestry, offers a sympathetic interpretation of her situation—one that he renders through the unstable metaphor of his choice to claim himself shorter than he is. The point he is making through this dubious analogy is that race is a social construct. Therefore, if this White woman, who claims a deep-seeded commitment to the African-American struggle for existential, social and political freedom, wishes to identify as Black it is damn well her imperative to do so. This is the case, Abdul-Jabar argues, particularly in light of how much Ms. Dolezal has contributed to the Black community through her involvement with the NAACP as well as her role as instructor of African-American studies at Eastern Washington University and her chairwomanship of a police oversight commission in Spokane.

I think Abdul-Jabar is right to remind us that race is merely a social construct. Indeed, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have gone to great lengths deconstructing categories of race, gender, and sexuality, revealing to us how fluid such identity signifiers actually are. The wonderfully compelling thing about the controversy surrounding Ms. Dolezal’s act of willful appropriation is that it provides a contemporary case-study by which to reconsider fixed notions of race because of how easily it can be adopted and performed (Dolezal a prime example).

After all, as Abdul-Jabar makes clear, race is not a biological reality. It is something we inherit culturally through discourse—that is, as a matter of shared values and social practices—that is not bound to or by genetic makeup. Its only tie to biology lies in the fact that it is used as a way to classify people according to phenotype, or skin color. An historical account of race meanwhile reminds us that it is an invention of White colonialism which ushered in the slave trade and, with this, a systematic ordering of people according to a hierarchy of being predicated on prejudicial assumptions about the supposedly inferior relation of non-Whites to Whites—the latter forming the top of a social pyramid into which we, as a global society, are still locked today.

While it may be true, as Abdul-Jabar writes, that “[w]hat we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another,” it is also true that the cultural histories and social conventions tied up in the physical characteristics used to classify individuals according to race are imbued with a specific politics that, for people who are actually Black or non-White, carries the weight of centuries-long oppression. In light of this burden, Blackness, even if an arbitrary construct, cannot be taken up by cultural outsiders simply by dint of waking up in the morning and deciding, “I am Black.” Especially not with the same hypothetical ease with which Abdul-Jabar imagines himself as shorter than 7’2”.

Indeed, his conceit does not hold up in large part because race cannot be so easily transcended or dismissed in a society where people are still being targeted as victims of violence based on the politics of skin color. The recent terror of the #CharlestonShooting as well as the spate of historic Black church burnings offer us horrific and sobering cases-in-point.

The problem with Abdul-Jabar’s logic, furthermore, lies in the fact that he fails to account for the ways in which Ms. Dolezal has in fact overstepped the boundaries of appropriation through her spurious claim of Blackness as a matter of “identity” rather than as a “politics of identification” (see Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness, 2010: 234ff). The distinction between “identity” and “identification” here is important (more below).

By claiming Blackness as a her racial identity when she is in fact White, Ms. Dolezal has assumed a heritage of historical burden that she has never actually had to live down—despite her claims of being discriminated against (apparently, she has alleged, as the target of anti-Black and anti-White racism, which reveals further the contradictions of her past and present social locations). While it is clear, as Abdul-Jabal notes, that she has committed herself to the struggle for Black enfranchisement and has at least ostensibly aligned herself with Blackness as a kind of political ideology that signifies solidarity with the racially oppressed, her actions reveal an overt misrepresentation of the very people with whom she has taken up a co-conspiratorial relationship in the cause for justice.

Not only has she misused her White privilege in manipulating the boundaries between races through a destructive kind of border crossing, she has also perpetuated the problem of White Supremacy by abusing her privilege to claim ownership of a cultural heritage tied up in experiences of racial oppression for which the very Whiteness she has at once eschewed and taken up (to cross borders) is responsible (riffing on the insights of Beja of the White Noise Collective; see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). She is, in sum, a walking contradiction of herself.

Furthermore, what she and, it seems, Abdul-Jabar, may deem an act of cross-racial association is really nothing more than a reinscription of an essentialist notion of race—the same notion she is supposedly attempting to disrupt, ironically, by donning a Black mask—that defeats her superficially altruistic purposes of taking up the Black fight for liberation.

By denying her racial identity as White and playing into a performance of Blackface that relies on a questionable appearance of phenotypic Blackness (i.e. Blackness by way of skin-type)–a Blackness fetishized in the White racial imagination (Dolezal’s to be precise)–she is enacting a politics of racial identity that capitalizes on a fetishizing conception of race which views it as a categorical difference rooted in skin color, thus associating Blackness with a kind of skin-deep essence that can be integrated as easily as picking up and putting on a facade for a theatrical display.

Despite Abdul-Jabar’s shaky comparison of Dolezal’s pitiful act to the potentially anti-racist Blackface of late entertainer Al Jolson, she deploys an identity politics that reinforces stereotypes of Blackness as a biological marker of identity and difference. She therefore seems to be at cross purposes with herself, at once reproducing (consciously or unconsciously) a racist construct of Blackness as a biological reality through Blackface at the same time that she is advocating for a more anti-essentialist conception of Blackness that informs her highly questionable commitments to the hard work of racial reconciliation.

Put another way, her masquerade of Blackness, replete with frizzy, Afro-curled hair and darkened skin tone, falls back on a White imaginary of lampooned Blackness that maintains a caricatured depiction of the racial other—an act she used to convince people on both sides of the “color line” (Du Bois 1903) of her status as a minority so as to further an ulterior agenda for professional advancement that works in irreconcilable tension with her professed value system.

Truth is, she is not a racial other and her motivations for appropriating Blackness prove dubious if not duplicitous.

With all this in mind, her act of cultural appropriation functions as a form of “othering” that decontextualizes, dehistorizes, and depoliticizes racial difference (Sharma 2010: 237) between Whites and non-Whites. She lifts Blackness out of the context, history and politics with which it is has been wedded since the dawn of the Euro-American slave trade (read: modernity) and thus silences, or reduces to invisibility, the historical realities that created Blackness as a social construct in the first place. The paradox in this is that her act of “appropriation as othering” is about both “‘love and theft’” as it “[works] through positive stereotyping, such as in the idealization or exotification of the other […]” (Sharma 2010: 240). In Dolezal’s case, it appears that her destructive engagement with appropriation happened as a matter of possessive love through thievery.

The sad thing in all of this is that she could have engaged in appropriation to the advantage of the people to whom she has purportedly dedicated her work. As race theorists recognize, appropriation is multi-directional (Sharma 2010:236); it flows back and forth across racial and cultural lines.


That being the case, appropriation does not have to be a bad thing. It depends on how one positions oneself in relation to those cultural formations with which one is associating his or herself. There are ways to engage in the act of appropriation constructively and with dignity, honor, knowledge, and respect for the cultural other that is informed by an awareness of the histories that have shaped the culture of the so-called other (Sharma 2010: 271). We see examples of this in White jazz musicians who contributed to the push for desegregation of clubs (Jones 1963; Sharma 2010:  264) or in White rappers who were socialized by the Black nationalist sensibilities of the crews they grew up listening to. Hinted at above, in contradistinction to the act of appropriation as a form of “othering” is that of “appropriation as identification” with the object of “othering” (Sharma 2010: 237). In this instance, appropriation signals solidarity with the cultural practices of the other rather than a colonizing co-optation of the other’s life-world—as we witness in Dolezal’s confused and delusional self-association with Blackness.

Seeing appropriation as a means of identification, however, first requires that we rearticulate the terms and politics of identity that police acts of appropriation. In so doing, we get out of thinking that appropriation only and ever equates to stealing or inauthentic borrowing (Sharma 2010).

For sure, the question of racial authenticity as it pertains to the issue of appropriation and the boundaries of cultural ownership is a tricky one to answer. Yet the fluidity of race as a concept calls us to find new ways to engage the tired politics of racial identity, challenging us to break ties with strict adherence to cultural mores around race and racial authenticity that ultimately prevent cross-racial fertilization (Sharma 2010). To sample hip hop studies scholar Nitasha Tamar Sharma: “When ‘culture’ is considered to be ‘owned’ by a demarcated group it is rendered static by trapping individuals within fabricated categories that reaffirm the logic of racism based on naturalized differences” (281).

The traditional script of racial identity politics relies on fixed, or essentialist, notions of race to say, for instance, that any non-Black performance of Blackness is racist and should therefore be dismissed as inauthentic. In recent scholarship on the matter, cultural theorists—riffing on the concept of racial formation (see, for example, Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United Sates 2014) which recognizes race as a social construct—encourage us to consider the ways in which appropriation does not necessarily equate to either fraudulence or inauthenticity; “theft” or “colonization” (Lott 1993, Lipsitz 1994; quoted in Sharma 2010: 264).

As Black sociologist John Jackson goes at length to discuss in his book Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (2005), racial authenticity claims, specifically in terms of Blackness, run the risk of “ossifying race into a simple subject-object equation, reducing people to little more than objects of racial discourse, characters in racial scripts, dismissing race as only and exclusively the primary cause of social domination and death” (15). In saying this, Jackson argues that sincerity should function as the real litmus test for cultural membership. A shift from an emphasis on racial authenticity to racial sincerity works to engage the interior motivations of those involved in acts of appropriation and gets us to consider the possibilities for coalition building through multiracial deployments of an anti-essentialist Blackness, in particular, and race, in general. In this way, race can function not as a cause for domination and death, but for mutual empowerment and life.

Again playing on Sharma, this shift in approach beckons us to interpret appropriation according to a comprehension of actors’ ideologies (238). Given the amorphous nature of race and the effortlessness with which we can find ourselves in the act of cultural borrowing, to the point of assuming a racial identity other than our own, it is crucial to interpret acts of appropriation through a contextual lens, as Sharma would have it, so as to “dislocate authenticity from the body” (Sharma 2010:272) and focus more on the issue of identification in terms of one’s approach to to Blackness, for instance, rather than on the Blackness of one’s identity (sampling Sharma 2010: 215). 51L1XZai8NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

This is to say that, following the dual lead of Jackson and Sharma, our understanding of appropriation must be informed by an awareness of the political, ethical, and moral commitments of those who appropriate rather than their bodily identity. In this way, non-Black actors can, as Jackson and Sharma suggest (see also Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity, 2003), identify with Blackness as an ideology and/or epistemology—that is, a way of knowing—and of being in the world that is tied to a conscious awareness of the history of racialized oppression against Black bodies as well as an intentional dialogue with the various Black cultural responses to said oppression that find expression in books, music, and political activism. In this way, appropriation can function as a form of flexible “identification” with the racial/cultural other.

“Appropriation as identification” in the meantime refuses to flatten racial difference—a flattening we see in the neo-liberal adherence to color-blind “multiculturalism” that actually diminishes the non-White other to the status of non-entity through its misguided celebration of sameness. We see a variation on this misguided discourse of “multiculturalism” in Dolezal’s claim to be Black inasmuch as she attempts to transcend the fact of her Whiteness by becoming Black. Her act of appropriation therefore falls short of identification in her own concern for assuming a Black identity that in fact reproduces the old script of racial politics which, unchecked, operates according to ossified articulations of race as bounded and secured. Indeed, Dolezal has locked herself into a Black identity in her act of racial crossing that, though she may believe signifies a gesture of identification, is an ironic repetition of a racial politics which says one has to be Black in essence in order to be Black in worldview–or taken further, one can assume a Black racial identity, dismissing the reality of difference, simply by adopting a Black worldview. This is not to get overly caught up in identity politics, which would be to fall into the very trap that scholars like Sharma warn us to avoid, but to reiterate the distinction between constructive and destructive forms of appropriation–a distinction that Dolezal ceases to make in act of over-identification.

Instead of either melting racial difference into a “post-racial” goop which implies a disregard for the atrocities that created racial difference in the first place or “ossifying” racial difference into a fixed dichotomy of “us” and “them” that shuts down the possibility for cross-racial exchange, “appropriation as identification” recognizes that there are specific histories to be accounted for in light of how the non-White other has been raced, or racialized, by Whites, at the same time that it seeks to create a dialogic of shared worldviews across the racial-cultural divide. This demands a practice of critical memory that resists the temptation to amnesia we see in gestures of multiculturalism; in those mistranslations of what it means to be transracial (echoing Lisa Marie Rollins; see “Transracial Lives Matter,” 2015); and in those acts of appropriation that co-opt the other’s identity wholesale while foregoing the possibility of dismantling one’s own Whiteness in self-critical rather than self-shaming ways (see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). Ultimately, what “appropriation as identification” calls for is a critical recognition of difference at the same time that it invites us to intercultural and interracial bonding.

In the case of Ms. Dolezal, she had an opportunity to employ appropriation as a form of identification. However, she overstepped her bounds by going so far as to appropriate Blackness as an identity that she never had the rights to claim. In this way, she “othered” the very ones she sought to relinquish from the burden of “othering” and ultimately confused the political ideology of Blackness as her racial identity—taking up “everything but the burden” (Tate 2003) from those with whom she says she most identified internally. 5178xVxtybL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In this, she unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, leveraged her Whiteness to gain access to a commodified Blackness (hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” 1992; quoted in Collins, 2015) that resulted in an ultimately poor and insincere—which is to say, inauthentic—act of appropriation, discrediting all of her purportedly pro-Black advocacy and revealing a skewed racial logic that has subsumed her identification with Blackness into a Black identity itself.

To play on the insights of a colleague of mine who wrote some pithy responses to this incident on his facebook wall last week, Ms. Dolezal’s experimentation with her own Whiteness offers those of us who are White and who consider ourselves committed to the cause of decolonizing Whiteness, an invitation to become race traitors ourselves (thinking here of Noel Ignatiev’s “The Point is Not to Interpret Whiteness But to Abolish It,” 1997)—not in a way that would lead to an unwitting act of “appropriation as othering,” and therefore wrongful treason against our brothers and sisters of darker hue (à la Dolezal), but of “appropriation as identification” with those brothers and sisters and their plight as the objectified targets of racial terror. In this way, we can involve ourselves in the work of deconstructing Whiteness, committing an act of rightful treason against White Supremacy and the various and insidious manifestations of it both at the level of systems (the “macro”) and everyday interaction (the “micro”), so as to rearticulate it according to a discourse of anti-racism.

I believe Ms. Dolezal’s racial insincerity prods us to consider the fine line between Blackness as an epistemology and Blackness as a racial identity; between “appropriation as othering” and “appropriation as identification.”  Insofar as she claims an investment in the ideology undergirding the Black freedom struggle—with Blackness as a political worldview informed, though not solely, by resistance to oppressive systems and structures that target racial minorities—yes, I agree with Abdul-Jabar, let her be “as Black as she wants to be.” However, insofar as she has never actually had to endure the heaviness of the historical burden that is racial Blackness by dint of her unexamined Whiteness, yet has proceeded to strip Blackness of its contextual content and meaning through identity theft and fraud, I say: “Step back, Rachel, and slow your roll.”

Dear White People: Letter to Myself in the Wake of the Baltimore Uprising

April 28, 2015

12:40 AM (PT)

North Berkeley, CA

It’s late. Or early. My body’s fried. I want to sleep, but I can’t. I’m restless. My hometown of Baltimore is up in flames.

“Race riot.”

The term is a loaded one. For those dealing with white racial anxiety, it invokes fear of black uprising–a racialized, if not racist, backlash of panic and paranoia perpetuated by what the mainstream media has portrayed as a mob of rabid-animal black “thugs” (a racial epithet in its own right, which is wrong) who do not know what they are reacting to or against. In this way, corporate network coverage has diluted the strong message and disruptive purpose of such an uproar (yes, even in its chaos, there is a purpose), reducing it to silence; dehistoricizing its linkages to a history of economic disruption in this country (Boston Tea Party anyone?); and, ultimately, recuperating it into nothing more than an empty, innocuous signifier to be invoked nostalgically in future recollections of that day in 2015 when Baltimore burned because of “dem ‘ol race riots, hon.”

“Race riot.”

When understood as nothing more than a coded term for “angry black people breaking and stealing shit for no reason,” particularly in the racially biased imaginary of white America, the term renders an illusion and evades the reality of what so many whites in crisis across the city (and country) refuse to recognize within themselves: racism. I am not innocent.

“Race riot.”

What does that term actually mean? Might it signify on that buried body of Nat Turner, resurrected and burning with holy rage, breathing a furious and prophetic fire as he’s done before into Chicago, Detroit, LA, Newark, Southampton County and Watts? What would it mean to imbue the term with a memory of slave rebellion?

What if we were to in fact see that, yes, there is indeed a “race riot” as figuration on slave rebellion going on in Baltimore and elsewhere? A riot to end enslavement to the concept of race as we know it? A riot to end the slavery to whiteness as we know it? A riot and rebellion to abolish not whites, but whiteness, as a form of racial hegemony, itself?

While this series of questions are in no way meant to imply a justification or excuse for the violence now happening on the streets of the city in which I was raised, it is meant to call myself into an exacting awareness and analysis of the ways in which my own whiteness, specifically, and whiteness, in general, factors into reproducing the racist processes which have instigated such violence. That said, neither does this refusal to condone violent protest dismiss the rationale undergirding such social upheaval. For, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, a “riot is the language of the unheard”–those exhausted by systemic abuse, neglect, and brutality manifest through racial segregation in housing, education, and the workforce. It is most certainly, when it all boils down to it, not my place, as a white man, to judge how black people negotiate the politics of their pain and respond to decades upon decades of disenfranchisement.

The call to a self-critical investigation of whiteness for which I am advocating and a searing cross-examination of its collusion in racial oppression that the Baltimore race riots invite, demands a painstaking interrogation of my own white past and the ways in which I, a white male and the youngest son of a white Baltimore City police officer, was conditioned to equate blackness with criminality. It is an equation that has taken me years to unlearn–through formal study of race matters as dealt with in books and music as well as in conversation with friends, classmates, colleagues, church family, and protest comrades of color–so as to ultimately falsify (which is to say: abolish) it.

This kind of schooling is, in fact, an ongoing, self-implicating process of (inter)personal discovery which asks that we consciously awaken to the taken-for-grantedness of our respective social locations. That we dismantle those conditions which block us from seeing that what we take to be common sense is no less than a societal ruse–a way for the inequities and injustices of power relations in this country to simply reproduce themselves ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

This kind of work demands no less than a painstaking interrogation of my own white present/presenceI feel that particularly now as I go about the work, as would-be scholar-activist, of deconstructing  the whiteness by which I was conditioned as a child to fear the racialized other. I do so through the lens and lexicon of hip-hop, the cultural politics of which is rooted in a deeply felt sense of communal belonging across various color lines. Indeed, it is in answer to hip-hop’s call for “realness” that I must continually scrutinize my own relationship to blackness and black people, and what the experiences of my past bring to bear on those relationships.

Looking back, moving forward

I love my dad. My father is a good man–dutiful and faithful to his family and his beloved Roman Catholic Church. His heart is pure gold and bigger than the life which he breathes. A traffic cop, mostly, he served 28 years in the Baltimore City Police Department (a timespan that includes the 1968 race riots) and never once lifted a finger against another man, woman, child, or animal. I’d imagine, in fact, that my dad is one of the kindest, most honest officers to have made it through a career in one of the more corrupt police agencies in the country. Though quick to temper, my dad is a gentle man who worked hard to get me and my two older brothers and two older sisters through school. He was a public servant who represented with highest honor and dignity the badge he wore with rightful and righteous pride on that crisp uniform that never failed to inspire in me a sense of admiration, trust, safety, and warmth.

By the same token, my dad is a product of his time. He grew up in a still-racist, racially segregated Baltimore, subjected to the same unconscious and unquestioned assumptions about black folk as “lesser than” by which I was reared whether my parents are/were aware of it or not—a conditioning in no small part reinforced in my dad and, subsequently, in me, by his negative experiences in dealing with blacks as the law enforcement officer for Baltimore City that he was.

Indeed, I can remember once in my childhood when some black folks were looking at a house for sale on the block where I grew up (a sleepy, predominantly white enclave on the outskirts of the City proper just South of Baltimore County).

Noticing this, my dad responded something to the effect of, “There goes the neighborhood.”

My dad, a good man, is not innocent–even in those moments, in those stories, in which he recounts experiences of cross-racial friendship in the context of his career as policeman, including those instances in which he was dealing specifically with people on the street. My father is not innocent, even in the ways in which I’ve witnessed him change and grow in his understanding of race and racism as he’s aged and gained more critical distance from police life in retirement. Given that growth, however, I have no doubt in my mind that my dad, as I know him today, would recoil at many, if not all, of his old and worn suspicions as he, too, continues to wrestle honestly with his false and unchecked assumptions about the racialized other.

On that note, and to reiterate:

I am not innocent.

For instance, it is not without remorse that I often think back on a time during my freshman year of college when I thought it would be funny to yell nigger at the top of my lungs as my white friends and I drove, windows rolled up, through the black section of Philly’s Germantown neighborhood on our way back to La Salle University from wherever we were coming on a seemingly insignificant night out (insignificant at least in my mind at that juncture of my life). I wonder about it in hindsight a lot these days, thinking about how I committed this cowardly act not as an explicitly malicious epithet directed at or against the black community, but because I was curious to play with social mores around the term in my own head and, more insidiously, curious about what effect this harmfully ludic gesture might have if heard by a member of the black community. Perhaps, too, I wanted to see how uncomfortable it made my white friends, or how it might amuse them as a jestering with my own and our whiteness in a predominately black space. Come to think of it, I’m really not quite sure what my motivations were for being so obnoxious. I can only piece them together in this ghostly fragment of a haunting, self-scrutinizing critical memory.

Point is, the act of verbal violence (against myself, my friends, and anyone who  may have been within earshot of the slur) was completely asinine, harmful, ignorant, juvenile, misguided, stupid and downright racist. It was, in a word, wrong–revelatory of a deep-seeded sickness that I inherited from a dis-eased genealogy of white anxieties in this country around the status of white racial identity vis-a-vis blacks and blackness.

It is a personally painful memory I hold close in heart and mind now as I engage more self-reflexively than I ever have in my life with all my anxieties, fears, and sorrows around inter- and intra-racial strife as it plays out nationally, transnationally, locally, and within my very own life. At the same time, I am invested in, hope for, have dreams of, and hold faith in racial reconciliation as it might take place in me, in my city, in my nation, and around the globe.

I cannot but look at myself in the mirror to really and truly do this kind of inner and outer work. Work which requires a close examination of how racism manifests and has manifested in our, my, individual behavior (i.e. through micro- or outright aggression) and, further, how that behavior is reflective of an unquestioned/unquestioning loyalty to the racial/racist status quo, reinforced daily at the level of institution (i.e. macro-aggression), including that of church, school, family, and state.

Indeed, this critical self-inquiry–a forthright examination of conscience–is necessary if I am to learn the art of loving in myself what it is I have been socialized to fear, envy, desire in the darker-skinned other. That other who, throughout American history, has been dehumanized by the white normative gaze which has willfully misrepresented the phenotypically different other in its mind’s eye, subtracting this other to the status of zero sum, to abject, to a commodified object to be exploited economically and subjugated politically under a structurally racist logic in which hatred is so circuitously hardwired that, more often than not, we whites are blind to how it operates as a function of an unexamined whiteness.

I say this as one who has acquired gains from the legal, material, political and social benefits of a socioeconomic system that privileges my maleness and whiteness—social constructs that have been used to fortify a hierarchy of being which casts the non-white other into the lowest class of the social ladder. White America has a history of inhumanity, of crimes against black humanity, to evidence this reality which coalesces at the intersection of class, gender, race and sexuality.

It does not take a specialist in American history to recognize that the failures of Reconstruction following the Civil War and the legacies of Jim Crow still haunt us today in a post-industrial predicament that has left America’s cities destitute and its inhabitants, most of whom are racial minorities, desperate. So desperate that many among them have resorted to underground economies, sanctioned by the government and its underhanded ties to global drug- and sex-trafficking ventures, which turn them against themselves and put them in a disciplining and punishing relationship to those public servants who are meant to serve and protect. Not only an intra-communal problem, this system turns whites against blacks as well. It is a problem in which all of us are implicated, most especially those (whites) who hold the most political power, secured in no small part by a police state.


As historical irony would have it, the police force in this country, derivative of an inhumane trade of slave catching, has more often than not been part of the problem rather than the solution. Meanwhile, society’s most vulnerable individuals have been criminalized and processed as numbers in a contemporary variation on a salve system that profits off the free labor the subjugated black/brown body provides for a financially, morally, and politically bankrupt “free market” economy.

This is what we whites have on our hands: the blood of those whose blackness scares us. So convinced by our own fear of it that, with the threat of black-led mutiny in our minds, we would altogether dismiss the overriding peaceful pleas for justice–coming from so many black mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who have lost loved ones in a war that is at once inter- and intra-racial–rather than consider what might be inciting such fire in the first place: white reign itself. 

If anything the history of race relations in Baltimore, let alone America, teaches us, especially now as we all stare at what’s happening on the streets from the safe distance of our laptops, it is that racism is alive and strong.

As a Baldwinian “fire next time,” the unrest we are witnessing in Baltimore–a bastion of racially motivated police brutality on and economic neglect of black bodies and souls–is a purgatorial flame singed into our collective memory that just might reorient how we remember the story of (white) American progress. It might just call us to ask ourselves in a manner of sincere, thorough and searching moral inventory:

Why are “these people” so angry? What, in Baltimore’s fraught history of race relations, has lead to this point of volcanic eruption on the part of some fed-up black Americans in Baltimore?

Upon whose backs was this country built? Who was written out of the American imaginary in the narrative unfolding of our Founding Fathers’s dreams (cum nightmare)? How does my whiteness factor into this American nightmare? How does it factor into the violence I see on the streets? What am I to do with my whiteness when I realize that I am not innocent? That my whiteness is not innocent?

What of the justice, freedom and peace we hold so dear to our understanding of American well-being? How will our understanding of justice, freedom, and peace change when we realize that our whiteness has substituted injustice, slavery, and war for those ideals throughout the history of this torn nation?

What are we to do with what cultural theorist George Lipsitz calls our “possessive investment in whiteness” the moment we realize that it is this possessiveness of/possession by a demon whiteness which is enslaving ALL of us to the forgetfulness of fear, the historical amnesia of deaf, dumb and blind white patriotism?

What are those of us who are scared of what we see on TV to do with the kind of whiteness which teaches us to be scared? What might it mean for us to reinscribe that whiteness with love and put down those shields and weapons of an old whiteness—arrogance, pride, suspicion, fear—which would have us deny the trauma of American racism as tangled in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who throw stones? Especially those who throw stones!

How might we be better able to accomplish the peace we wish to see in Baltimore and cities across the country simply by loving each other into the justice of reconciliation across the color line?

There is in fact a “race riot” in Baltimore and we cannot hold this term “race riot” lightly or use it too loosely.

We must be deliberate in how we deploy it in remembering what is happening in Baltimore and what has happened throughout North American cities in the history of race relations in the United Sates. Indeed, the real race riot began 500 years ago when essentialist racism became an institutional practice manifest in the slave trade and continually showing up through history in the failures of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, racial profiling, backlash at affirmative action, and police brutality.

The most recent race riot in Baltimore is not the first one there, nor elsewhere, in this country. We can hope that it will be the last one. Indeed, that is my hope. But it will only be so if we ourselves work to put the old armor of our defensive and anxious whiteness down and simply listen to those most affected by a system of white heteropatriarchy. Not only to listen, in fact, but also to walk with black lives–arm-in-arm.

It will only happen if we make that existential, ideological, moral, and spiritual choice within ourselves to work together and across the color line to abolish the kind of whiteness which Marxist labor historian and neo-abolitionist David Roediger calls “nothing but oppressive and false” and, in a spirit of co-conspiratorial partnership with the black struggle for racial justice, reclaim whiteness as nothing but liberative and true.roediger_abolition

Let it be known. This is not a self-induced guilt trip, which would be counterproductive to the cause, but a call to (inter)personal responsibility to stare down white supremacy as it gazes back at each of us in the mirror which is dominant society.

With that long, hard look in the mirror at my own reflection, I welcome a crisis in (my/our) white identity/ies that the Baltimore uprising incites. I offer this reflection as a cultural move geared toward doing away with the old racist whiteness that has left us cold and donning the new neo-abolitionist whiteness of anti-racism. Let this be, I tell myself, a gesture toward reparation and a conscious relinquishing of any falsely conceived white paternalism toward the black and brown other in favor of something much more constructive of, committed to, and co-conspiratorial with the struggle of my/our black and brown brothers and sisters for universal liberation. It is an invitation to to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, our brothers and sisters of darker hue, whose chains are our chains and vice versa, whose freedom is tied up in our freedom and vice versa.

This is the dream of reconciliation… that we may all one day be free of that ignorance which deafens us to the sounds of each other’s moans and shouts and which blinds us from seeing the experiences we share simply by dint of being human, together.

Those of us who are white must come to leverage what privilege we have to dismantle whiteness as we presently know it. This cannot happen until we reorient our entire understanding of history according to/from the perspective of those most silenced by old, white ways of telling it.

As a good friend of mine reminded himself in his own, critically white self-reflection I read on Facebook recently, we must break out of our own apathy and silence, afforded as it is by the lazy privilege to which we resort every time we tell ourselves, “This doesn’t affect me.”

Leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement have made it clear to us that white silence = consent. When we, as white co-conspirators (as Alicia Garza would call self-professed allies), do speak, however, we must not speak for the other. Rather, we must speak with the other, holding ourselves accountable to and amplifying black and brown voices by way of our own prophetically white witness to the possibilities for and creation of that “beloved community” which awaits us at the end of Dr. King’s arc of the universe, bending always and ever toward justice.

Let us not rest, then, until that day of reckoning as racial reconciliation comes.

And even then, we must keep going, rewriting history as we go along, birthing anew the miracle of life’s triumph over death each day in our own and each other’s lives.

One love.


8:40 PM (PT)

Toward a New “Amerykah”: Erykah Badu’s Black Feminist Politics of Hip-Hop


Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be. – Walter, A Raisin in the Sun, I.ii

Yes—just look at what the New World hath wrought!…Just look! There he is! Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir—himself! There he is—Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur! Titan of the system! Did you dream of yachts on Lake Michigan, Brother? Did you see yourself on that Great Day sitting down at the Conference Table, surrounded by all the might bald-headed men in America? All halted, waiting, breathless, waiting for your pronouncements on industry? Waiting for you—Chairman of the Board! I look at you and I see the final triumph of the stupidity of…

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The Role of Accountability in Building Power for Black Liberation

One of the best quotes I’ve heard in the last year of attending several workshops, direct actions, and conferences is:

Oppression is deeply complex; we can expect our pathways to liberation to be just as complex.

Although I don’t remember the name of the person who said this, it has stuck with me in my experiences of facilitating consciousness in various spaces and participating in the movement to build power for black liberation ever since. What I think particularly stands out to me in this evolving #BlackLivesMatter movement is the role of fostering a deep sense of accountability in the innovative and holistic spirit of creative strategic engagement for social transformation. This call for accountability is exemplified in Alicia Garza’s piece, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. I first discussed this piece in an article written last December for this blog. Since the writing of that piece, I have had plenty of opportunities to engage with the question I ended it on, “What’s Next?”

Alicia Garza

As we see the political projects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement maintaining national attention and (more importantly) gaining traction across grassroots collective organizing efforts, there is an ongoing need to mitigate the harmful effects of co-optation as it inevitably occurs. It is clear that in many ways the movement’s “hotness” is shaping and prompting more programming and generative work within progressive networks on racial and economic justice issues. However, there is a danger that happens when the language of a movement is adopted, but not the full fierce analysis behind it. Time and time again, this is how the reproduction of cultural hegemony takes place in movements for social justice which is ultimately dis-enabling. As Garza states,

In 2014, hetero-patriarchy and anti-Black racism within our movement is real and felt. It’s killing us and it’s killing our potential to build power for transformative social change. When you adopt the work of queer women of color, don’t name or recognize it, and promote it as if it has no history of its own such actions are problematic.

Within this call to be accountable to the legacies of queer black leadership in this movement and the historical and political framework set out by its creators, there is great potential for building mass participation in the work for black liberation in ways that are radically intersectional and deeply accountable to those most impacted by the violence of marginalization. Those with more access to power and resources often have more opportunities to shape public discourse than the people involved at the grassroots level. We must allow for multiple voices to take up space and disrupt this patterning in order to continue to root the work in the contributions of the organizers and the historic contributions of invisibilized collaborators in past movements for collective liberation.

Some recent, particularly impressive, disruptions of co-optive behavior that I witnessed this year occurred at the Creating Change conference on LGBTQ Equality in Denver, CO on the week of February 5, 2015. In the wake of the murder of Jessie Hernandez at the hands of Denver police, a group of queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC) organizers took over the stage and demanded that the LGBTQ movement shift its focus from access and privilege to ending state-sanctioned violence against queer and transgender people and to hire more transgender women of color in leadership positions. This protest ultimately blocked the speaking engagement of the Denver mayor, which was called out as ‘hypocritical’ given the prevalence of state violence in the city, which has the second highest rate of police killings in the country.

Following this direct action was a conversation called, Ferguson On Our Minds between the Executive Director of Race Forward and the Executive Director of Color of Change. There was a co-optive tension to this dialogue because several young LGBT activists from Ferguson were present at the conference, as well as the three queer black women who started the #BlackLivesMatter platform and neither group was asked to speak during this opening plenary conversation.

Despite the amazing work and contributions of both Executive Directors, there was this undertone of organizational clout in that dialogue and a downplaying of the trans-led action that had just taken place before the plenary discussion, which did receive a brief thanks for “keeping the movement accountable”. The next day, the conference organizers invited the Ferguson activists to speak before the State of the Movement Address, but they were only allotted 5 minutes. Instead, they took over the stage for over a half an hour and invited black trans people in the audience to take up space in that moment as well.

At a conference attended by over 4,000 people and in a movement that has been heavily and rightly critiqued by queer and trans people of color organizers, it was so potent to see a consistent string of events where folks were confronting the “business as usual” within this movement for social transformation. Soon after I returned from the conference, I was told that it is a sign of maturity when the left, right, and center of a movement becomes visible. As we move forward in divesting from these systems and ways of being in relation to one another that do not serve us, I hope that we are willing to shed all that we must along the pathways to get free.

Playing Bongos with Louie: A Reflection on Thomas Merton, Race, and Rap

A version of this article was originally published in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (2015) on Fons Vitae Press. Republished with permission. 

Bongo Louie
“Thomas Merton Playing Bongos” (1968), Ralph Eugene Meatyard

We claim the present as the pre-sent, as the hereafter.
We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun.
We are not afraid of the darkness, we trust that the moon shall guide us.
We are determining the future at this very moment.
We now know that the heart is the philosophers’ stone.
Our music is our alchemy.

Saul Williams, “Coded Language,” from Amethyst Rockstar (2001)

Though he has remained an ever vigilant presence in my life since I was first gifted Seven Storey Mountain by a close friend and mentor in the fall of 2001, my first semester of college at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, it’s been a few years since I’ve thought seriously about Merton—a man I consider, like so many other of his readers, to be a spiritual father.

This is ironic, in a way, because he led me through my undergraduate years as a student of religious studies, and continued to accompany me both personally and professionally through two masters programs—in English Literature at Arcadia University in Philadelphia and Systematic Theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University (JST-SCU)—and a slew of Merton Society meetings. Indeed, I first came to Berkeley, California, my current place of residence, almost four years ago with the intent of making him the focus of a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), where I am currently engaged in doctoral work that has very little to do, at least ostensibly, with Merton.

Upon acceptance into the GTU’s common M.A. program in the spring of 2010, however, Merton was front and center. Cultivating-Humanity-9780674179493Taking up work I had already started at Arcadia, I wanted to engage Merton as a mouthpiece for the politics of mysticism and its role in facilitating societal transformation. I had it in mind to further what scholars such as Lynn Szabo and Ross Labrie accomplished with their own detailed exploration of Merton’s mystical poetics and examine the ways in which Merton’s poetry has implications for a shift in social consciousness necessary to creating a more just society. Undergirding this claim is the still strong belief I have in the power of literature to influence human rights discourse and, as American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum posits in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1999), nurture “powers of imagination that are essential to citizenship” (85).

For sure this is a tenet that Merton himself would hold true. Hence his prophetic “Message to Poets” and “Answers on Art and Freedom,” which close his prose-poetic magnum opus Raids on the Unspeakable (1966)–a text that became the centerpiece of my GTU master’s thesis. In it I interpret Raids as a political theology using work by Christopher Pramuk and Johann Baptist Metz to sharpen my hermeneutical lens. In returning to Raids, I find Merton there embodying perhaps more fully than any of his previous works the parrhesia (Greek for “free speech”) that he does so well to unpack in theoretical terms in The New Man (1961) and which Jonathan Montaldo treats deftly in his manuscript “To Uncage His Voice: Thomas Merton & Parrhesia [Free Speech].” Merton likens the concept—which refers traditionally to the “rights and privileges of a citizen in a Greek city state” to “speaking one’s own mind fully and frankly in the civil assemblies by which the state is governed”—to human intimacy with God “in work as well as in contemplation” (NM 72).41yINHj74-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Merton meanwhile culls from the writings of the Church Fathers and his own allegorical reading of the Judeo-Christian creation myth to interpret parrhesia as the “symbolic expression” of the human person’s self-actualization in love (NM 74).  This happens by way of laboring with “some consciousness of the value of human society” that puts us “in dialogue with reality” (NM 80)—a figurative “conversation with God” which Merton understands as the “free spiritual communion of being with Being” (NM 76) that duly manifests not only in the fact of being human, but in the intimacy of being-for-other (read: human relationship).

As an expression of parrhesia, Raids provided Merton the space to come most fully into himself as activist, artist, global citizen, monk, poet, and theologian who tears the fabric of social orthodoxies through the power of “free speech” in order to do his part, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said of his own work, in ridding the world of social evil and thereby come into deeper intimacy with God. This is no small task to say the least. And it is one that Merton challenges his readership to take up in Raids when he urges us to dispel the magic of political propaganda through love (caritas)—giving witness through his own “free speech” to an underlying eschatological faith-hope in the possibility of “the word” to usher in a new dawn of fidelity to life in “the Spirit” rather than to artificial systems; to human solidarity rather than to the mere collectivity of the herd (as illustrated by Eugene Ionesco’s metaphor of “rhinoceritis” which Merton expounds in “Rain and the Rhinoceros”; see also RU 156-57).0811201015

That being said, I closed Raids with the completion of my master’s thesis and the prospects of doctoral work at the GTU looming on the horizon in the spring of 2012, wondering: Where do I go from here? What more, if anything at all, do I want to write about Merton? What do I do with the work he has left me to take up?

Feeling as though I had exhausted my stint with Merton, I have to admit that by the time I submitted a second thesis on him, I was itching to explore new terrain; to bid happy farewell to the figurative parent who reared me intellectually in/on the mystery of parrhesia and find my own voice as the would-be poet to whom Merton addressed his penultimate essay of Raids. This led me to ask the further question about what most enlivens me, about what makes me feel most fully myself (and therefore a poet as Merton would have it), particularly in terms of continuing the academic route on which I was set.

Like Fr. Louie playing bongos inside of his Gethsemani hermitage, photographed in the iconic black and white picture taken by Ralph Eugene Meatyard in 1968, I found myself drawn to the sound of the drums, specifically as elicited in the work of my favorite rap artists. Along with Merton’s catalog, it was hip-hop that kept me in step to the rhythms of life through my formative years—which included an undergrad and two grad programs dedicated to the mystic’s teachings. When finally it came time for me to solidify a set of research questions that would take me through yet another degree, I turned my attention away from Merton’s poetry and toward the poetics and politics of rap music.

Indeed, before Merton even entered my world, hip-hop taught me what it means to really “dance in the water of life” as when I was nine years old and first heard the jazzy interplay of sampled vibraphones, bass, and drum on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” bumping out of my stereo, tuned to the frequency of Baltimore’s rap radio station 92 Q. It was then that I first learned, at least unconsciously at that point, what parrhesia is all about.

81781Yet it is with the image of Merton on the bongos in mind that I presently engage what I call, riffing on American jazz drummer Max Roach, the “politics in the drums” which lies at the heart of a now global cultural phenomenon that post-colonial theorist George Lipsitz, appropriating the terminology of humanist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, coins a counter-hegemonic “war of position” (see Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-Colonial Politics of Sound” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place, 27, 38). Deeply informed by Merton’s self-identification as poet on the margins—clapping stretched canvas in happy protest of the “hegemonies that be” or listening to jazz and blues records as they spun on the turntable situated in the cosmopolitan space of his hermitage—I have found in rap music a medium of and variation on parrhesia that has allowed society’s most disenfranchised to take ownership over their own lives, as well as the means of production, through the power of the word—what in West African parlance is called Nommo.

In this, Merton has provided the inspiration, the necessary push, for me to enter the dance of parrhesia as it takes place in hip-hop culture as well as my work as a student of the rap academy, rife with street-level philosophers whose gift of “free speech” signifies the “combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist and bonz” (RU 173). By entering into conversation with these figurative high priests of rap-inflected parrhesia as (ra)parrhesia—including the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, 2Pac, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Shabazz Palaces, Ab-Soul, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Project Blowed, among many others—I enter into deeper intimacy with God, embodying my own capacity for “free speech” in the process of interpreting for and with others the insights gleaned from what a former GTU professor of mine calls “message music.” Insights that reveal a deeply invested commitment, riffing on Merton, to the pursuit of political solutions to problems “that endanger the freedom of man [sic]” (RU 171)—not least of which is institutionalized racism as it operates in a global capitalist economy that, in the post-industrial predicament of American cities, has blighted once prosperous North American urbanscapes populated mostly by racial/ethnic minorities.

Inasmuch as my current academic pursuit entails an examination of the ways in which black cultural production in the form and content of rap music (read: [ra]parrhesia) fosters new ways of being in and for the world that are deconstructive of the white supremacist status quo, I am being challenged to keep in check the egoism of the “false self” by which I have been conditioned in a socio-economic milieu that privileges both my whiteness and my maleness. Positioned in many ways as the well-meaning “white liberal” to whom Merton addresses his searing essay on American race-relations in Seeds of Destruction (1964), my work implicates me in a practice of self-reflexivity that is an act of intersubjective parrhesia in its own right.41pOurJW4eL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It invites me, echoing James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time (1963), to “fruitful communion with the depths of my own being” that serves to decenter my subjectivity (and the assumptions that inform it) in encounter with the so-called “other” (130 ff) and there root out what Merton calls in Seeds of Destruction the “cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences” (SD 45-46). Such an act of “free speech” is grounded in the purpose of fulfilling the democratic promise upon which the American project is founded, a mission Merton himself worked to accomplish during his own lifetime as a prophet of parrhesia.

Rap music—as a cultural platform for minority youth in particular and young people in general to embody the freedom of self-expression—is in its own way empowering me to answer Merton’s injunction in Seeds of Destruction to “think black” (60); that is, to reorient my understanding of the world by adopting an epistemology informed by the plight of those who suffer the injustices of systemic racism. In this performative dialogic, this dance of “free speech,” between me and the racialized other, I am called to further engage the “crisis in which we find ourselves” (SD 60) as a society still deeply entrenched in what black feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy” (see bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1999).9780896087699_p0_v1_s260x420

Furthermore, it is cluing me into the “streets” and the “ghettoes” where, as Merton notes in Learning to Love (1967), “much of the real germinating action in the world, the real leavening” lies (231). In this, I am being summoned (along with rap’s actual practitioners and other like-minded “hip-hop heads”—be they black, brown, white, red or yellow–to plumb the depths of my own unique possibilities for civic engagement and thereby conduct a Mertonian “raid on the Unspeakable,” implicating rap music, and my love for it, in what black cultural critic Huey Copeland calls, à la the intellectual contributions of black literary theorist Saidiya Hartman, a “rhetoric of redress” aimed at reparative justice (See Huey Copeland, “Fred Wilson and the Rhetoric of Redress” in Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America, 2013).

So it is to the imagined boom-bap of Merton’s playful bongo beats that I march into the matrix of cultural production that black public figures from Afrika Bambaataa, Queen Latifah, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to Tupac Shakur and his protégé  Kendrick Lamar have helped shape, remapping the global landscape into a social sphere more livable through electronically-based, rhymed storytelling that functions to develop the essential moral capacities, recalling Nussbaum’s insight into narrative, necessary for a kind of (ra)parousia to occur—understood in the context of American race relations as the realization of the Ellisonian dream of democracy that the Harlem Renaissance-era author espouses in his seminal The Invisible Man.

Signifying on traditional conceptions of what constitutes literacy so as to create an entirely new lexicon that is at once wretchedearthtextual, verbal and non-verbal, rap music acts as kind of “Talking Book,” to borrow a trope from black literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, 1988), which provides its practitioners, particularly those in ghettoized or under-represented communities where the “real leavening” takes place, a means of enunciating a specific stance, location and visibility within a broader cultural framework that has historically reduced them to the status of the invisible or, in Frantz Fanon’s terms, “the wretched of the earth.”

In the same way learning to read and write allowed slaves a means to contest their oppression and use the master’s tools of literacy to speak themselves into subjecthood, rap music’s Nommo, as an African-derived variation on parrhesia, empowers its practitioners (and its audience) to disarticulate, or dissemble, the oppressive historical circumstances in which they find themselves, and rearticulate their discursive terrain in a speech act of forthright self-assertion. As such, rap music offers the necessary resources for a subtextual analysis of history, on the part of artist and audience, which discloses unpopular political truths pertaining to systemic evils such as racism and, as black critical theorist Houston Baker Jr. argues in terms of the blues, serves to reorient historical discourse from the perspective of the oppressed (see Houston Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology and Afro American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, 1984).

Rap is in this way an exercise in an expansive kind of literacy which challenges us, as did Merton’s mystical poetics, to re-conceptualize language as more than the mere manipulation of words. Put another way, it pushes us to take language, and the way we use it, more seriously. As with Merton’s “Message to Poets,” rap’s underlying ethos invites us to see language as an embodied act of self-fashioning that takes on many forms, styles, and articulations, and has everything to do with keeping in step to the soul’s beat—that embodied metronome of rhythm and rhyme which empowers its speakers to “claim the present as the pre-sent” and, in an eschatological turn, determine the future “at this very moment.” In this same way it gestures toward the love and hope that undergirds a sturdy “politics of conversion”—what in Race Matters (1994) black cultural critic Cornel West deems the antidote to the problem of “spiritual impoverishment” in America.the-fire-next-time

That said, I’m grateful to Merton for awakening me to the narrative play that is inherent in the gift of “free speech,” as intimate conversation with God, and the many ways it manifests through different forms of poetry—be it the anti-poetics of the Trappist monk’s later prose poems that constitute Raids; the politically polemic poetics of such Golden Era rap classics as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988); or, with Sophia’s blessing, my own work as an aspiring hip-hop scholar. And I’m also grateful for the opportunity and space this essay has given me to enter into a figurative “cipher” with someone whom I consider a dear father, brother, and friend in Sophia. [A “cipher” is a situation in which two or more rappers form a circle and play off of each other in an informal performance of freestyle, or improvisational rapping/talking.]

Hers is a wisdom that Merton would find resonant in rap’s vernacular Nommo, resplendent with a message of hope for our time in its function as a kind of “free speech,” a (ra)parrhesia, imbued with potential for bringing us into deeper intimacy with God, as if in cipher, through deeper intimacy with each other and ourselves. An intimacy which, thinking of Merton in (ra)parlay with Baldwin, takes us beyond words and into a kind of “wordless communion.”

I have no doubt that were Merton still alive at the time of hip-hop’s burgeoning, and even still today as the genre continually evolves into new forms and patterns of “free speech,” he would be tuned in to the sonic frequency which is rap, “routed” in the Afrodiasporic politics of the break beat—what spoken word poet and rapper Saul Williams allegorizes in his invective, “Coded Language,” quoted in the epigraph, as the “missing link connecting the diasporic community to its drum woven past.” Indeed, I can hear Merton right now, in the spirit of (ra)parrhesia, chanting with fellow anti-poet Williams: “Motherfuckers better realize! / Now is the time to self-actualize!”

An Open Letter to Communities of Faith, Religious Leaders and Justice-Seekers

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
For Michael Brown, I’m gonna let it shine.
For Eric Garner, I’m gonna let it shine.
With the police, I’m gonna let it shine.
Until freedom rings, I’m gonna let it shine.

The grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the last few months have fueled growing alarm over inequities in our legal system and the ways in which racial bias affects law enforcement. These decisions have brought into relief the profound and deep-seated racism that affects the daily lives and deaths of people of color, especially African-American men, and have galvanized a movement that at its heart simply claims: ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬. They have also sparked many different actions of protest and dissent across the United States and around the world. Last Monday night, several students, staff and faculty from across the schools of the Graduate Theological Union, including the American Baptist Seminary of the West, Pacific School of Religion, and Starr King School for the Ministry, took part in one of those actions and 16 of us were arrested for participating in a peaceful protest.

While some have criticized the form that this protest took as both dangerous and ineffectual, we have come to understand it as part of the disruptive work that we are called to as spiritually rooted, theologically grounded faith leaders working for social change. When systems of oppression seem intractable, disruptive action becomes an important first step in transforming them. We must stop the flow of business-as-usual in order to imagine a new world breaking in. While occupying a freeway may not create racial justice, it points toward the disruptive action that will be needed to dismantle the systems of racial injustice that create the world in which Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others are killed with impunity. For Christians, this kind of disruption is part of God’s in-breaking into the world, the incarnation of Love-made-flesh. The table-turning Jesus disrupted the flow of history by enfleshing God’s love in our midst; so, too, are we called to disruptive action that embodies and animates God’s justice and compassion in the world.


Before joining our comrades in the streets of Berkeley, 35 or more seminary students, staff and faculty, clergy members and chaplains gathered in Pacific School of Religion’s chapel to remember and take on the responsibility to which God calls us. We prepared ourselves with basic first-aid kits, food, and water knowing that where there is hunger, we are called to give nourishment. That night we sought to be visible signs of solidarity, peace and hope. Some wore vestments and collars, others carried signs that said “Chaplain,” hoping to remind the police that these are peaceful protests, and to remind anyone who is fighting for their lives that they are not alone. Our marching took us from the UC Berkeley’s campus throughout the streets of Berkeley, all the while seeking to maintain the peaceful character of what came to be a crowd of thousands. In the spirit of this ministry of accompaniment, we went where the people were.

That journey culminated in a parking lot behind a shopping mall, where we and 200+ other protesters were trapped and held by police in riot gear. As anxieties, anger at the situation, and a sense of powerlessness to affect the outcome grew, it became clear that things could easily escalate. One fellow protestor asked us if we would start singing, as we had at other tense times that evening, and we did. In that moment we connected to a call that resonates in every religious tradition. We found ourselves in the position to help people remain in the spirit of the primary motivations behind their presence in these protests all along. With each song, we, protestors and police alike, became a little bit more human, a little bit more connected, a little bit more grounded in the justice we sought and the peace we protected. Even though our night would end in handcuffs, without justice or peace, for those moments we were rooted in the deepest yearnings of our hearts.

We were not there to be arrested, but the path of solidarity we chose came to that. As a group of mostly, but not all, white people, we recognize that this act of solidarity comes from a place of privilege. The reality is that we, unlike Eric Garner, can breathe, and we benefit from the same system that wrung the life out of him. But our arrests, especially for those of us who are white, implicate us in a commitment not simply to affirm that black lives matter at the level of the abstract, but also to engage in concrete action that foregrounds black voices and supports the struggle against the horrific effects of white supremacy. So the question for all of us becomes how will we advance this movement? To which communities and voices are we going to hold ourselves accountable as we move forward? How are we going to put down the figurative bullhorn and be allies as people of color lead the way toward change?

It is easy to feel powerless when confronted by systems of injustice that seem intractable. It is tempting to rely on others to bring about the change we know the world needs. We end up questioning the tactics, arguing about strategies, and throwing our hands up in despair. But Michael Brown’s death calls us to put our hands up in solidarity and cry out “don’t shoot” to a system that devalues black lives. And if we are white people, justice demands that we take part in dismantling the system of racial bias that ensures our privilege. Embodying both righteous anger and transforming love is complicated. It is always an imperfect and ever-unfolding process. Yet, we, as religious leaders and people of faith have a responsibility to take action, to embody God’s disruptive love in the world. We have the opportunity to reconnect people to the primary motivations behind their anger, their demand for justice, and their hope for a better world. We invite you to see our witness as an invitation to a broader conversation, a bigger dialogue about racial injustice in the United States that must begin with communities of color. And we implore you to find your own ways of disrupting corrupt systems that perpetuate racism, of amplifying the voices of those who cry in the wilderness for justice, and of holding us all accountable to our deepest values and purpose. How will you let your light shine in such a time as this?

In faith,

Caitie Daphtary
Tom Emanuel
Marissa Evans
Caiti Hamilton
Nikira Hernandez
Lauren Renee Hotchkiss
Lacey Hunter
Tara Limbaugh
Rob Peach
Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou
Randall Sparling
Peter Watters
Jennifer Wilkins Davidson Associate Professor of Worship and Theology, American Baptist Seminary of the West
Sharon Fennema Assistant Professor of Christian Worship and Director of Worship Life, Pacific School of Religion

One Thousand Words: A Picture of King’s Humanity

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late….Now let us begin.  Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.

KingchurchEven as I type the above quote, I can hear King’s voice; one that challenges me through words spoken long ago yet which remain as fresh as my last drawn breath. Dr King’s invitation to “struggle for a new world” still resonates with radical force today. His clarion calls to participate in a revolution of values that will usher in a society characterized by an “all embracing and unconditional love for all men” remains beating with prophetic vitality.  It is because of his brilliance, courage and resilience in the midst of fire that his name and legacy is continually evoked in the freedom struggles of today, whether in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Stanford FL, or beyond.

As one born seven years after the tumult of 1968 (that included King’s assassination), it is obvious that I never bodily shared the Earth with him.  Nevertheless, it is hard to think of King as dead because his spirit continues to be a living force within this nation’s imagination.  King lives—whether in the faded picture hung above the doorway in my grandparent’s house, or in the countless February-time recitations of excerpts of the “I have a dream” speech in grade school. King lives—whether in the numerous schools, centers, boulevards, or avenues that bear his name, or in my mother’s voice as she recounts how she, as a 20 year old young mother, made it home from her job at the phone company on an early April afternoon when my father was out of town—a harrowing journey of navigating through the mist of fresh anger in Southeast DC–an anger that quickly turned into riots in the aftermath of King’s assassination.

Martin-Luther-King-with-Malcom-XAs a child, my relationship with King was one where he was this transcendent presence hovering across the American landscape; his iconic visage appearing in grainy black and white images commanding crowds with oratory gusto.  When I was a teenager in the early nineties, this unexamined and naïve conception of a hero was challenged.  I was heavily involved in the Black intra-community debate that could be boiled down to one question: “Malcolm or Martin?” Indeed, Malcolm X did give birth to my sense of race consciousness and my burgeoning ideal of Black manhood. However, it is King who is presently nurturing my maturing sense of spiritual formation; his life modeling what it means to be a minister committed to societal transformation.

There is no doubt that King remains an indelible fixture of our popular American imagination—an iconic presence that looms large as a symbol, aspiration, the embodiment of things hoped for; an ideal and a dream. However, I strongly believe that King is most powerful when he is liberated from our force-perched pedestals of mythology. When this happens, he ceases being some transcendent character in our history books, to being one with transcendent character who is firmly rooted in history. Only by enfleshing him in the reality of his humanity can we begin to truly see his life not as an exception, but an example of what is possible.

Ultimately, King was just as human as any of us; the beautiful and flawed creatures that we are. Further, there is a special power in recognizing and encountering each other in the ground of our mutual beingness–to truly see ourselves in each other, to be moved by what we find inspiring in others, and to be appreciative of the myriad of opportunities that our sisters and brothers give us to practice patience and forgiveness.  King was human like me; going through the movements of life that metes out generous measures of both joy and grief. Sometimes these burdens take us to our knees in prayer…and sometimes it has us sitting down with a friend and lighting one up…


Regardless, I am thankful for Dr. King in all of his humanity; one who inspires me to stay engaged in the beautiful struggle of working towards the full realization of the Beloved Community.