All posts by Desi

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?”

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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.

 A Black Sense of Place: Thoughts on Rupture and Geographies of Resistance

“Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Amidst the fervor of protest and direct action here in the Bay Area, I contemplate the co-creation of imaginative models of public intervention that nurture ways of being in relation to one another infused with meaning, hope, and love. How do we come together in mass to express our sorrow, rage and dreams of liberation in ways that shift the discourse of spatial uprising and dissent? In ways that speak to the heart? In ways that don’t reproduce cultural hegemony? As the geographic sites of Oakland and Berkeley are filled with flocks of political, cultural, and spiritual workers, what does an “enabled solidarity” and call to consciousness look like in the streets?

On December 6, 2014, at a #BlackBrunch, seeds of action manifested some strategies that speak to these questions.

Black Brunch March December 6, 2014
Black Brunch March December 6, 2014

A group of all black protesters marched together on the sidewalks of College Avenue in the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland, CA – a mostly white upper-middle class area. The group entered small businesses and disrupted business as usual to deliver the message that black lives matter. Naming the names and ages of black peoples slain by police, security officers, and self-appointed vigilantes in the last year, followed by song, silence, and witness. Chants of freedom were interspersed as they marched, one call and response historically rooted in the words of Assata Shakur:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” – Assata Shakur 

As someone who has been socialized to not take up space, being in protest has always brought me much discomfort and fear. Conversations with other queer black folks, particularly those who’ve been socialized as female, echo this truth. Many folks transcend this in different ways, but there still exist this underlying spatial and metaphorical message to “know your place” that undercuts a felt sense of agency and autonomy in our built environment.

Many of these friends have also expressed much frustration and disappointment with both “manarchist” and non-black people of color in protest space not showing a sense of consciousness and accountability in the de-centering of the voices and leadership of black people (particularly those most affected by systemic violence) in these recent mass protests against police brutality in the Easy Bay.

The #BlackBrunch action came into being, in part, as a creative response to the often-unmanageable chaos of assumed alliances in large group direct action. Stories of healing, love, and excitement came through this.This gathering centered blackness, it was intergenerational, took place in the light of day, was well organized and informed by a love ethic. This is not to completely discount the validity of nightly mass protest, but it is a way to disrupt the media making frenzy of “riot” that is more than often used to disenable and delegitimize public displays of political and social dissent.

For my final research paper project in this African American Cultural Criticism course, I have been focusing on black relationships to land, place, and space. In the context of direct action, I believe their are opportunities to undermine the spatial realities of geographic domination. Literally a chance to take up space. In Katherine McKittrick book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and The Cartographies of Struggle, she articulates the historical and present-day geographies of dominance in the United States and the geographies of resistance expressed by black women in particular.

“Black matters are spatial matters.”

“While the power of transparent space works to hierarchically position individuals, communities, regions, and nations, it is also contestable – the subject interprets, and ruptures, the knowabilitiy of our surroundings.” – Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds

Moving through the Rockridge neighborhood was an intentional decision to rupture a space where many people have the privilege to not think about the realities faced by low-income /communities of color in this country, and principally black folks. Without the visceral urgency of being in black spaces – be it neighborhoods, institutions or the embodied self, there is a spatial disconnect (this is also very a much a class disconnect that I don’t deny complacency in). This event was not meant to center the awakening of upper-middle class white people, but at the heart of it I believe was the desire to stake a claim for self-definition as a community of black people in a neighborhood where most of the time we are a mere sprinkle of presence. Indeed many of us college educated black folks are very familiar with these spaces. Yet we do not (must not) yearn to disappear in them – not knowing what we do about this world and seeing our brothers and sisters carry the weight of its unjust systems at every turn.

I believe this moment of communal fire offers a catalyst to actively re-articulate the possibilities of collective power and to take the time to build foundations of trust, knowledge, and understanding in forging meaningful alliances with one another. My central hope for an outcome of these direct actions is that they will strengthen our connections and creativity.Our movements must be constantly evolving. What will we imagine next to incite mass divestment from these structures that do not serve us?

***Full disclosure: Because of a conundrum of priorities I was not able to participate in the BlackBrunch direct action. I showed up to the community brunch gathering after the direct action to have conversations, hear report backs, and view images of a truly creative and transformative event this past Saturday, December 6, 2014 in Rockridge, Oakland, CA. I intend to be more actively involved with the next spatial articulation of black collective power in the Bay Area with this network of beautiful people.

peace and love,

Desi

Black Lives Matter: Queer Black Women and Contemporary Black Leadership

The black encounter with the absurd in racist American society yields a profound spiritual need for human affirmation and recognition –  Race Matters, Cornel West

Black Lives Matter Logo

In February of 2014 I attended a faith-based LGBT Film Festival in Pasadena, CA as part of my work with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. This festival also included a number of workshops and discussions held at a gallery near the theatre. The events were primarily attended and organized by white participants and proved to bring about quite a number of problematic moments for me as a queer black woman. One moment in particular that sticks out in my memory in the wake of recent events in Ferguson was a subtle undermining of my contribution to a room of public messages. This room was made of mirrors that everyone could draw and write messages on with colorful erasable markers. I wrote in large pink letters, “Black Lives Matter,” on one of the mirrors.

I don’t quite remember what was going on for me personally, socially or politically at the time, but I felt that that phrase needed to be added to this room that was filled with pretty tame and apoliticized phrases. I came back to the room several hours later to find that someone had written under my message, “All Lives Matter.” I was so upset about this at the time and wished that I had the opportunity to articulate to this person why the Black in Black Lives Matter was so important. I wanted to let them know that illuminating the historical and contemporaneous devaluing and denigration of black bodies as well as the contributions and resiliency of black peoples is at the heart of this campaign. To erase blackness from it is to reinscribe the inefficacy of colorblindness.

I did not realize until recently that this online media platform was created by three queer black women, one of whom I know from a circle of friends in Los Angeles. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the #BlackLivesMatter social media hashtag and have since infused their organizing efforts with analysis and action rooted in this rallying cry for the affirmation of black humanity in the face of systemic criminalization and police brutality (and perhaps by extension in the face of black cultural nihilism and cynicism).

Much of the collectivized work that has been done by these organizers and their teams of activists speaks directly to the “Crisis of Black Leadership” discussed in Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994). As he reflects on what is to be done about this postmodern gap in creative and effective black leadership in both intellectual and political frameworks, West states, “locally based collective (and especially multigendered) models of black leadership are needed. These models must shun the idea of one black national leader; they also should put a premium on critical dialogue and democratic accountability in black organizations” (45).

Organizations like Dignity and Power Now, founded by Patrisse Cullors, exemplify and expand upon the politics of this model. However the visibility of the work and commitments of these organizers are being threatened and overshadowed in waves of online, organizational, and corporate media co-optations of the Black Lives Matter messaging campaign. In an article for the Feminist Wire, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Alicia Garza discusses in detail the genesis and meanings of Black Lives Matter and the nature of the invisiblizing of black queer women’s contributions to movements for social change. She states:

When you design an event / campaign / et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice.  It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions.  Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy….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.

Just two days ago on November 29th, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry did a special on the Black Lives Matter movement titled, What it means to say ‘black lives matter.’ Guess who was not invited to this discussion? What It Means To Say ‘Black Lives Matter’ Although the cofounders of #BlackLivesMatter have been interviewed and featured in many local and independent media outlets since the online platform’s inception (as documented on their Facebook page), the nature of viral social media, national solidarity efforts, and national media discourse present familiar problems of accountability and acknowledgment for marginalized voices within social change movements.

As Garza states, this campaign and much of the organizing work we as a public have witnessed in Ferguson is “a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” How do we amplify these deeply engaged dialogues? How do we shape this call for a collective consciousness to be inclusive but not reductive of our histories and realties? What’s next?

On “Dear White People”: Blackness In A Millennial Age of Pop-Cultural Criticism

Dear-White-People stripMany critics have compared Justin Simien’s debut feature film, Dear White People (DWP) to Spike Lee’s early canon of films that tackle issues of racism and black identity, in particular Do the Right Thing and School Daze. Although DWP includes some self-reflective nods towards Lee’s legacy in both stylistic and narrative moments, the universe it inhabits and attempts to deconstruct is on much different terrain than Lee’s afrocentric representations of black life, culture, and identity.

Taking place at a fictional Ivy-League university called Winchester, the film follows four black protagonists as they navigate a predominately white institution. With the expressed goal of shedding light on the tensions and contradictions of a mythical “post-racial” America in the age of Obama’s presidency, Dear White People is premised to illuminate the ways in which institutional diversity functions in upholding and reproducing cultural hegemony, especially white supremacy. The film’s narrative strands come together at a “black culture” themed party organized and attended by white students garbed in full-on contemporary black minstrelsy. This is an explicit reference to recent real-life incidents of white college students throwing similar parties on campuses around the country that involve all manners of blackface and stereotypical props and behaviors.

Issues of black idedear white peopel 3 samntity formation amongst the upwardly mobile protagonists are woven into the story as each character wrestles with the tides of who people perceive them to be and how they see themselves and their desires in this microcosmic social bubble. The film’s effort to critically address whiteness, racism, and black identity in the span of a 108-minute satire will inevitably disappoint some cultural critics as it struggles to substantively undermine all the social ills and racial tropes it approaches.

There are many valid critiques of the film in the blogosphere including commentaries on the centering of whiteness and the undercutting messages about black women’s agency throughout the film. DWP tries to cover a lot of ground – touching on microagressions, colorism, white privilege, black respectability politics, homophobia, sexuality and desire along with a myriad of other topics. However the film’s narrative resolve offers little depth to viewers by not moving far beyond the naming of the problematic dynamics both the white and black characters engage in at this particular institutional site. Infused with more critical insights and imaginative interventions and models, perhaps this film and media like it will be more helpful than harmful in getting people to meaningfully engage in actionable and reflective ways of dismantling oppressive systems. As one of the first millennial era black filmmakers to make media that openly seeks to provoke discussion about race, the temporal significance of Simien’s work must be considered.

Reflecting BlackBlack creative projects with the potential to spark dialogue about the pervasive effects of systemic oppression while reflecting a multiplicity of black experiences are highly needed. Since the era of black cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s, mainstream waves of black media have become highly apoliticized and dehistoricized. Spike Lee, along with other filmmakers of the time that delved into sociopolitical issues, dared to stimulate discussion about race during a highly “racially repressive era” (Dyson, 25).

In an essay titled, “Spike Lee’s Neonationalist Vision,” Michael Eric Dyson, dissects the strengths and pitfalls of the film Do the Right Thing. In this essay, Dyson discusses the difficulty of complexifying black identity in film representation and also delivering mind-opening social commentary to a widespread audience that could encourage the development of a mass critical consciousness around issues of present-day race relations. Simien faces similar challenges in DWP. The film has been hailed as refreshing, setting itself a part from a sea of black media that either inscribes idealized black middle class identities or plays into a hyperbolic performance and commodification of the “authentic” blackness of poor and working class communities. Simien devotes many quips in his film to calling out mainstream mis-representations of blackness, from the minstrelsy of reality TV to Tyler Perry’s film franchise.

Much like Lee, Simien is trying to “decenter prevalent conceptions of racial behavior” while also revealing the workings of structural and institutional systems that keep those conceptions at play. Dyson argues that Lee’s use of “black [neo]nationalist sensibilities and thought” limits his work by flattening his characters and depths of his analysis in not addressing the roles of gender, class, geography, sexuality, etc. in forming racial identity and confronting racial oppression. In contrast, Simien’s sensibilities spring from a pop-cultural criticism that tends to float on the surface of the intricacies of identity politics. Discussions about racism in popular media and celebrity culture that permeate through social media, blog posts, and internet news media websites often amounts to what some call a reactive anti-racism.

Dear White People ushers onto the big screen a hip cultural awareness of race that contains all the digestible talking points of a Buzzfeed anti-racism guide. Simien’s road to making this movie is paved with the viral-making machines of Twitter, Facebook, Indiegogo, and Youtube. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Simien explains that Dear White People is a postmodern social media baby. Springing from the following of a twitter account and a crowd-funding campaign, the film acquired a mass following of people eager to see their perspectives and experiences of race relations reflected on the big screen. Much like a series of videos that jokingly reverse the tides of microgressions towards white people, DWP’s marketing campaign before and after the film’s release extended into small satirical vignettes about black identity titled, “The More You Know About Black People” and “DWP One-Offs.”

dearwhitepeoplebookIn addition to all this buzzing online conversation, the film also has a companion satirical handbook titled, Dear White People: A Guide to Interracial Harmony in “Post Racial” America. Although full of valid points and arguments there is something concerning about the simplistic packaging of these efforts to address race and privilege. Some of the videos in the playlist above unwittingly reproduce sexist and classist cultural behaviors that go unchecked in the humor of the sketch.

It is necessary to cultivate media that starts to direct people beyond “Easy as 1,2,3” know-it-all understandings of the mechanisms of oppression. Simien’s first film project and the images and symbols surrounding it make it clear that we must get more imaginative and critical in our calls to consciousness. I heard a great quote this past weekend that goes something like this, “oppression is complicated, and therefore our strategies for liberation have to be just as complex.”

Some Questions:

  1. Is there space for meaningful interventions and interrogations of racial politics in mass media production and criticism?
  2. How can liberal popular culture’s musings on racism, sexism, privilege and other social issues bring forth a deeper engagement with these topics beyond essentializing interpersonal solutions to “not being a ___ist” towards more radical formations of liberatory politics?

The Blues Body and the Jazz Citizen: Class Privilege, Black Self-Making and Intraracial Solidarity

Blues People Image

In Amiri Baraka seminal work, Blues People, he illuminates the socio-cultural significance of African American communities’ shifting relationships to class privilege and how those relations are directly reflected in the creation, distribution and reactions to black music. Baraka’s chronicle of blues music highlights historical instances of moral and psychological divides between black middle class and black working class/poor communities. Describing the growing black middle class of the industrial urban North of the early 1900s, Baraka infers that they were the latest iterations of “Negroes who thought that the best way for the black man to survive was to cease being black” (Baraka, 124). Beckoning back to the color caste divisions of slavery lies a history of black people willfully participating in this process of cultural erasure and attempting to embody forms of whiteness as a (problematic) way of resisting racism.  In an effort to disavow dominant cultural perceptions of blackness, many black middle class communities took on the work of mastering white middle class cultural mores – intellectual prowess, hyper respectability, nuclear family structures, fixed gender relations in the domestic space, and most pertinently, white European artistic and musical sensibilities. Thus the process of American citizenry is one of legitimizing the black body within white cultural norms, and often involves the repressive harm of forgetting and concealing blackness. The blues body however demands visibility and remembrance as it enacts “the natural expression of a vital [black] culture” (Baraka, 128).

The “Primitive Blues” of the free ex-slaves of the South as well as the female singers of the Classic Blues era both expressed uncensored (though often coded) experiences of emotional and physical struggle, pleasure, and pain of black bodies.  The blues was a felt expression, an “emotional confirmation of, and reaction to, the way in which most Negroes were still forced to exist in the Unites States.” Blues music shined an unapologetic light on the embodied personal lives of the exploited and devalued masses of America.

This created a socio-cultural conflict for the ever-growing black bourgeoisie, as the narrative of upward mobility called for the regulation of community standards of expression and respectability to be in alignment with that of white cultural standards. The raw vernacular, sensuous lyrics, and the overall intimacy of blues music and gathering spaces resulted in the black middle class rejection of blues music and by extension, blues bodies. Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas’ 2010 Boswell Lecture, “The Black Church and the Blues Body,” explores the severed relationship between black churches and marginalized black bodies through the lens of blues music. Douglas defines blues people as:

“Those black bodies who are accountable to blues realities, blues bodies, and thus identify not with ‘white mainstream’ norms and values, but with the experiences, values, and struggles which characterize the realities of blues people and thus blues existence” (Douglas, 9).

In this approximation, Douglas leaves space for a middle-class blues body, a queer blues body, and any black body that is consciously invested in the “life, freedom, and dignity” of marginalized black people (Douglas, 7). She makes an important statement about the complexity of the blues body, bringing to view the agency of the black middle-class to engage with the blues body from a place of content, if not technical form. Meaning, in the cultural “cleavage” space between diverse class experiences of blackness that Baraka describes as the birthplace of Jazz, there may not exist a “middle-class blues singer” but there could well exist a middle-class blues body (Baraka, 140). Delving deeper into the sensual content of the infamous female singers of the Classic Blues era, Douglas examines how the openly sexual songs of this genre served to challenge and de-authoritize the “body-negating sexual ethic” of the black church, inherited from Evangelical Protestant Puritan tradition (24). She firmly asserts that in reproducing this ethic black churches “may actually serve the purposes of white culture far better than they protect the well-being of black people” (Douglas, 26).

How can the historical “back-fire” exemplified in this tension of respectability politics inform the way in which black people across class locations are in relation to each other today? How is Douglas’ expansive view of the black blues body reminiscent of W.E.B DuBois’s notion of “double consciousness?” How might this black middle-class blues body negotiate the pervasiveness of white dominant culture and the antithetical demands of citizenship?

Both Douglas’ and Baraka’s work questions how black communities and institutions have been and should be involved in the collective survival and thriving of African American people and culture. Douglas states that “the blackness of the Black Church depends upon its ‘morally active commitment’ to advance the life, freedom, and dignity of all black bodies” (7). How is this commitment being addressed or negated in racial justice moments and movements of today?

Full Boswell Lecture: