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

A Shook Dungeon: Letter to Myself in the Wake of Berkeley Looters

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.–James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” The Fire Next Time (1963)

Christian non-violence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of man (sic). It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of man with himself, man the person and man the human family (sic). –Thomas Merton, “Blessed are the Meek,” Faith and Violence (1968)

There’s much power in anger, but love’s a bigger banger! –311, “Omaha Stylee,” Grassroots (1994)

Re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for a class I’m presently teaching on African-American cultural criticism, I am reminded that the cause for racial reconciliation begins with me. I am a white male who, in spite or perhaps because of my privilege, sympathizes with the plight of the racially oppressed, embodied by Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew to whom he addresses “My Dungeon Shook”—a public letter written in 1963 on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation.

the-fire-next-timeKeeping Baldwin in mind, racial reconciliation requires a radical self-acceptance which is neither a hasty defense of a falsely-perceived innocence nor a misinformed admission of guilt, but a “fruitful communion with the depths of [my] being”—a task to which Baldwin calls white people in his essay: “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.”

Taking Baldwin further, racial reconciliation is a matter of seeing myself as I really am: a sinnner. I do not say this in a self-flagellating way nor with the weight of an unhealthy shame that only serves to perpetuate sin. No. I am a sinner inasmuch as I do not love myself.

I sin in the conviction that there is an irreconcilable inner deficiency, a fundamental lack of wholeness at the center of my being, a space in my experience of being alive where loves does not exist. It is this kind of sin, understood as a skewed conception and willful ignorance of the original dignity of my own humanity, which gives justification for a sense of self-hatred that has dire social and political consequences. Indeed, in the conviction that I am somehow unlovable and therefore unloved merely by virtue of being me, I warp the way in which I relate to the world—responding to others with envy, lustfully coveting what I do not believe I already posses, when invited to humility.

I sin in jealously guarding my inner insecurity with anger, harboring a disease of self-doubt that blinds me to the humanity of the other, whoever that may be. For so long as I am convinced by my own unworthiness to be loved, I cast a shadow upon my brothers and sisters wherever they be located on the social map. So long as I do not love myself, I make of the other a slave to my own insatiable need for gratification—the gratification of power, status, privilege, and supremacy that betrays a deeply embedded anxiety about the actual status of my own existence in the world. It discloses an insidious pride, a compensatory arrogance that says this world exists for me, this world exists to satisfy an existential longing for love that I have been unable to locate within myself, that I have been unable, or unwilling, to identify as constitutive of what it means to be me, to be alive, in the first place.

If the history of racialized violence against black bodies in the United States is any indication, and I believe it is, we live in a society predicated on self-hatred that manifests systemically as white supremacy and all the privilege and power that comes with it. It is self-hatred masquerading as prestige that lusts after the possession of classed and black(ened )bodies for profit and, in this, the increased strength of the behemoth State—what 20th Century Trappist monk Thomas Merton would call Fatman, a metaphor for the despotic will to power which operates at all levels of society. It is Fat Man, drunk on his own gluttony for material security, who turns a blind eye to the facts of human history which detail a disorder in the human heart. A global pandemic that manifests as the prejudicial scapegoating of the demonized other, burdened with the weight of a projected self-hatred that manifests as oppression.

America has over 500 years of racialized oppression—including slavery and its treacherous effects in the ongoing socio-economic and political disenfranchisement of blacks by way of outsourced labor, the ghettoization of urban life through government neglect, and the racialized violence of police brutality—to prove that this predicament is very real. Such disorder is testament to the “inhumanity and fear” of the racist whites about whom Baldwin speaks to his nephew, warning his brother’s son that he was “born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being,” that “[y]ou where not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity” (21). This follows Baldwin’s more urgent call to awareness which is the thematic thrust of the letter: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger” (18).

Against this threat of social death, Baldwin reminds his nephew that the worthlessness which has been foisted upon his black male body is in fact reflective of white worthlessness. Knowledgeable of the danger that his nephew may indeed internalize such “inhumanity and fear” as lies at the heart of white racism, Baldwin bestows upon him a monumental task predicated on a radical self-love:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you (sic). The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them (sic). And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. (22)

This is the kind of love that infuses the spirit of the Christian Gospel. It lies at the heart of Christian Beatitude and is a fundamental tenet of Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence which sought, by way of conversion, to awaken the oppressor to his own blindness—to in fact heal him of his blindness to a history in which he is trapped, as Baldwin notes, a history he will not understand until he sees it through the eyes of those whom he has oppressed.

This kind of reconciliation is impossible without love. It is a love that is costly, demanding a willing surrender of the will to power that implicates all of us—black, white, brown, or yellow—in a necessarily disorienting process of decolonization by which we dispossess ourselves of the jealous need to possess. Only then can we go about the work of change.

Though a highly charged and strikingly visual display of frustrated anger—especially righteous if it is coming from those whose waking existence is in constant surveillance of the watchful and disciplining eye of the law—protest and rioting will only go so far, if at all, to change how we learn to be human with each other. This is especially the case when those “anarchists” parading the streets displace the matter at hand—that is, the racialized violence of police brutality—by what church pastor and civil rights activist Michael McBride calls a “manufactured anger.” It represents a disingenuous cry for revolution which has more to do with a concern for their own image and place in the world than it does with those whose lives, they proclaim, matter.

I am of course referring to myself when I offer this critique–a riff on a range of voices I’ve been “hearing” via social media in the days since the Eric Garner decision. In recognizing my own “manufactured anger,” I cannot but implicate myself in the critiques of misguided provocateurs. For I am no less guilty than the disillusioned looter of letting my misdirected hostility distract from what I would like to believe at heart is a sincere concern for the ones who are actually suffering.

Instead of cultivating into love the anger I feel at the injustices wrought on black bodies, I unleash spiteful and what one colleague would deem “polarizing epithets” against Fat Man where my rightness, righteousness, and anti-authoritarian “coolness” might be put on public display—be it on my facebook wall with the juvenile hashtag #FuckCrookedCops, a reactionary response to the unaccounted for deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among countless other unnarmed black men (and women), at the hands of white officers; or in a mutually aggressive verbal altercation with a city cop outside of the Berkeley Police Department Headquarters this past Saturday night after I was admonished for impetuously walking inside of a police barricade on my way home from dinner with a friend.

In each instance I have failed to acknowledge the disorder in my own heart, refusing to withdraw the shadow of “fear,” the terror of worthlessness, I have projected onto the demons I’ve made of the other—in this case, “the system,” or the “crooked cops” who represent it. In this way, I have failed my brothers and sisters of color who are really suffering, whose bodies are the target of the violence I decry but in fact perpetuate, my housemate reminded me after telling her of my brief brush with police, by my own frustrated and reactive anger—a rage informed by hatred rather than love.

Thus Baldwin’s challenge to his nephew is no less a challenge to me, as a self-proclaimed white ally, to consider seriously how my own sense of worthlessness—that sin of self-hatred—is part and parcel of what keeps Fatman in power as a social system structured by a discourse of deficiency. His is a language of lack which blinds us to our in-born capacity for love and the responsibility to love that this entails. Indeed, Fatman’s gluttony is my own. And until I accept myself as I am—a sinner in need of love—I will only contribute to a cycle of violence that pits “us” versus “them” rather than loving in a way that will “force [my] brothers and sisters to see themselves as they are” (24): beloved children of love who, in their sin, are in need of love. It is a love that resists definition, that is beyond comprehension, but which exists in each of us as the source of life itself.0811201015

Taking up the task which Baldwin bestows upon his nephew, I ask myself: What in me is in need of acceptance so that I may accept the demonized other—whoever that may be? What is to be gained by recognizing my own culpability in a system of self-hatred, owning my projected self-hatred, and transforming the anger I feel at the injustices I see into love for the ones who persecute? I believe a lot is to be gained, namely the freedom to end my participation in the cycle of violence which makes of racial reconciliation nothing more than the impossible dream of a soft utopian idealism.

With Baldwin, I recognize that “[o]ne can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical in the face of destruction and death, for this is what most of [humankind] has been best at since we have heard of [human]” (19). And with Baldwin, I likewise hold to the qualification that “most of [humankind] is not all of [humankind]” (19). If I didn’t believe that, I would not be writing this—an attempt at reconciling with that demon self-hatred within which, when so easily projected onto the other, aborts all possibility for calling the oppressor to historical consciousness. For calling him to a self-critical awareness of his own status as victim to an ill-conceived innocence which, Baldwin rightly notes, “constitutes the crime” (20).

As a self-appointed advocate for the racially oppressed and a self-proclaimed nephew to Baldwin, to say nothing of my location as a human being, I can  do nothing to change the system without love. So long as I resort to violence in word, thought, or deed I submit to what I’ll call the white man’s disease of “niggerism”—an unreconciled sense of inner deficiency, an original self-splitting wound of separation, that refuses to love because it cannot believe that it can be loved, yet which can only be redressed by love, in love, through love, for love.

Hence Baldwin’s closing remarks to his “truculent” recipient in “My Dungeon Shook”: “We cannot be free until they are free” (24). Riffing on this profound insight, I’d add that the dynamic works both ways: “They cannot be free until we are free.” So long as we believe we are unlovable and therefore unloved, we will not be free to love those who would have us believe in the fiction of human worthlessness—who are themselves victims of the conviction to worthlessness.

Instead, we will fester in our loathing and react in ways that do nothing to convince either our “true selves,” echoing Merton, or each other of the dignity we share by dint of being human. Let our protest, in the spirit of Baldwin, Buddha, Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Merton, Mohammad, King, X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Parks, Tubman, Douglass, Mother Mary, The Beatles, Sun Ra, Tupac, Cohen, Dylan, Lamar and so on be one of love. This is no small matter. Indeed, it is a very grave matter—a matter of life or death, freedom or slavery—that implicates every single one of us in an act of becoming. Not over and against each other, but in reciprocal appreciation for the fact that we are in this place together—saints and sinners within ourselves—who come to know love by being loved, who come to being loved by loving.

For my part, as one who claims identification with Baldwin’s nephew, as one who considers himself an adopted nephew of Baldwin in his own right, I cannot persist in hating the hater for, as Baldwin makes clear in “Down at the Cross,” to debase others is to debase oneself (113). To debase others is diabolical behavior symptomatic of an already debased sense of oneself. It is as Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation: “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed–but hate these things in yourself (sic), not in another” (122). Thus, the cause for racial reconciliation begins with me.

Hope Matters: Black Nihilism in the Post-Ferguson Moment

The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers was to create powerful buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness.

Cornel West is a larger than life character; an impressive man paradoxically enrobed in the simplicity of his all black three piece suits.  He is a whirlwind of wisdom whipping through vectors of verbosity leaving listeners both charmed and challenged by the appearance of his wide smile, and wild hair.  Admittedly, I find his presentation of prophetic earnestness in the Obama era a “little much” at times.  He aspires to be that lone wolf archetype; righteously crying out in midst of a meadow of the fawning uncritical masses. Still, despite my reservations on his present public persona, there is not much I can argue with substantively and his brilliance is undeniable.Cornel West

With that, I did not know what to expect when reading his book, Race Matters. Surprisingly, the short essay format and his elegant yet accessible language made the text very approachable and his concepts clear. Though written decades ago, it still seems particularly relevant for today.

West argues that the usual approaches to confront the issues of racism from traditionally liberal or conservative perspectives are not enough. These paradigms of action inevitably fail because they do not adequately address the “murky waters of despair” that lead to nihilism. West defines nihilism as the “profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and social despair so widespread in black America.”  He also associates it with the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”

Paul Goodnight
Paul Goodnight

This destructive feeling is baked into the makeup of a white supremacist society that originally regarded black bodies not as humans, but as commodities to be exploited and later as masses to be regulated or incarcerated. However, West points out that throughout history, blacks combated racist systems by implementing multiple modes of resistance including the creative and cultural ways that sought to protect the spirit of the people; a project of soul survival.

Today, there remains an insistent need to sustain and create new “powerful buffers” that counter the racist cultural narratives of black worthlessness in order to affirm that black lives do in fact matter.  Events like the unrest in Ferguson and the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island can lead one to become seduced by a insidious cynicism; a disposition of the soul that causes one to give up and give in to despair. Hopelessness is equivalent to a type of death, therefore life-affirming efforts to combat nihilism is vital. Scriptures says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” In like manner, where there is no hope, there is no sense of meaning or motivation to continue the struggle for a more just world.

Author and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about the existential threat of nihilism especially within the Ferguson moment.  He discusses the presence of fatalism and the rage that can sometimes stem from the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. The thrust of his argument is that, despite its justification, “fatalism is not an option” because it saps the energy to fight on to make life better for future generations. He argues that our own presence today is the evidencing or manifestation of the hope of our ancestors. As such, we are obligated to struggle on and resist the urge to give up. Coates discussed these ideas while being interviewed by Chris Hayes on MSNBC. The whole segment is worth the watch!

West ends his first chapter by exploring an idea which he terms a “politics of conversion.” It is an approach to making change rooted self love and in restoring a “hope for the future and a meaning to struggle.”  Maybe the task for today’s leaders, and especially spiritual leaders within the black community, is to not only support political efforts to effect change, but to creatively re-imagine new ways to equip our communities against the existential and spiritual threat of nihilism. I wonder what new creative expressions and methods could emerge if we allow our spiritual imaginations to be unfettered and free? Still, no matter what strategies of resistance and self-affirmation develop as we navigate through this Ferguson moment, one thing that will always remain true is that hope matters.

I conclude with a song by Mos Def, as he reminds us that “there is always a way, no matter what they say.”

Enjoy.

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?

Rap Music as “Coded Language”: A Short Note on Tricia Rose’s “Black Noise”

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

In Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America Tricia Rose examines rap’s sonic elements for meaning. She sees emotional power in its sonic power, which she argues is an outgrowth of black cultural traditions, as well as the postindustrial transformation of urban life and technology (64-65). thShe looks at the history of sampling, rooting it in black poetic traditions, as key to rap’s hybridity and complexity. Rap’s power is sonic, Rose argues, insofar as its music at once deconstructs old musical forms and recuperates them through the art of sampling (64). With its emphasis on rhythm, rap music has the sonic space to repeat, revise, and disrupt through layering, flow, and rupture (65ff).

Repetition is a means to sustain identity against the threat of disruption from outside historical forces. It defies Western classical formalism in music, which is geared toward logical progression, synthesis and conclusion (67, 69). Rap music signifies on repetition and rupture to establish equilibrium. Rose argues that rap music is more than a byproduct of industrial forces, but a cultural form that sets its own terms using orality to manipulate technology and inform the way it is used (71). Harkening the spirit and theory of Walter Ong, Rose defines rap as “post-literate” orality in which an oral tradition is revised through technological means. Both rap lyricism and sampling are forms of identity affirmation—individual and collective, respectively  (86ff). That latter is an especially apt form of rewriting and revising history. Between its use of post-literate orality and advanced technology, rap music is a byproduct of what Rose calls: “techno-black cultural syncretism” (96).

Rose meanwhile relies on the theory of James Scott to argue that rap serves as a hidden transcript that uses coded language to destabilize power and dominant discourses. Rap music is counter-hegemonic in this regard. She acknowledges the inherent contradictions of rap music insofar as it relies on mass marketing and mass consumption to relay a counter-cultural message—one that incites three forms of institutional critique in the form of police harassment, government regulation and media criticism. Rose offers a close reading of three politically explicit raps by KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions (“Who Protects Us from You?”), L.L. Cool J. (“Illegal Search”), and Public Enemy (“Night of the Living Bassheads”) to demonstrate how rap music refashions dominant transcripts and critiques the status quo.

Rose also investigates the institutional and ideological power over rap music by looking at public discourse on rap, which she links to the spatial control of black people rooted in media-created perceptions of rap as a threat. She does this is as a means to argue that black criminality and black pathology are largely socially constructed, and to claim that interpretations of rap music as hidden transcript serve to better understand the contemporary black politics—concerned as it is with the negotiation of public space in light of the problem of white paranoia.

Taking Rose up on her assessment, consider the following songs/videos as exemplary of rap’s prophetic possibilities as “coded language”:

Lastly, Rose explores the sexual politics of rap music, looking at the ways black women rappers negotiate—either by resisting or unwittingly perpetuating—dominant sexual and racial narratives in American culture. Rose applies George Lipsitz’s dialogic criticism to her examination of the complexities of black female rap, putting female rappers in dialogue with male rappers without reducing the dialogue to one of strict opposition between the two sexes. For doing so has the adverse effect of rendering the black female as invisible, as a mere response to male rap. Rose cites literature which does, indeed, pinpoint complexity of female self-expression: the work of Angela Davis, who links black music to political struggle and Hazel Carby, who charges white feminist discourse with failing to represent black womens’ voices and to examine other forms of black female self-expression outside of fiction. With Lipsitz, Carby and Davis as Rose’s methodological basis for critically analyzing black women’s identity and sexuality in relation to music production, Rose contextualizes her claim with a history of black female presence and focused attention on the complexities as they emerge within the three themes of black female rap: heterosexual courtship, the female voice, and the assertion of female sexuality and pleasure. The first theme challenges male stereotypes of women while implicitly affirming heterosexual courtship rules; the second theme links self-possession with verbal flow; and the third theme challenges male notions of female beauty.

In all of this, I am particularly interested in the how rap music signifies on traditional conceptions of what constitutes literacy so as to create an entirely new lexicon that is at once textual, verbal, and non-verbal. In many ways rap music acts as kind of “Talking Book,” to borrow a trope from Henry Louis Gates’ literary theory, that provides its practitioners, particularly those in ghettoized or under-represented communities, a means of articulating a specific stance and location within a broader cultural framework that so often reduces them to invisibility.Tricia-Rose-500

Thus rap’s orality is a political act—regardless of content—insofar as it functions as a way of enunciating presence against the reifying threat of white hegemony. 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 empowers its practitioners to disarticulate, or dissemble, the oppressive historical circumstances in which they find themselves, and rearticulate their world in a spirit of forthright self-assertion. As such, rap music offers tools 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. Moreover, rap music’s various elements can be understood to speak to those who are capable of “reading” them, à la the Gatesian “Talking Book,” and who then speak back through practices of flow, layering and rupture.

In this way, the rap lyricist, DJ, graffiti artist, and breakdancer alike exercise an expansive kind of literacy—in the lyric, in the cut, in the mural, and in the spin—which challenges us to re-conceptualize language as more than the mere manipulation of words. Rather, it is to see language as an embodied act of self-fashioning that takes on many forms, styles, and articulations which, in the context of rap music, has everything to do with the beat—that metronome of rhythm and rhyme which empowers its speakers to “claim the present” and determine the future “at this very moment.”

From Maryland Soil: A Reflection on Frederick Douglass and Family

yngdoug3In the opening pages of the introduction to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, I was greeted with a succinct summary of the legacy of this great man. Editor David W. Blight writes, “Frederick Douglas was the most important African American leader and intellectual of the nineteenth century”(1). Here is a man who lived the first 20 years of his life as a slave and eventually became the premier voice of social change in his era. His influence was so vast that he eventually counseled the Commander-in-Chief of the same country that once legally sanctioned his enslavement.

Much can be written about Frederick Douglass’ intellectual heft and his incredible ability to make a compelling argument through his rhetorical skills. However, my connection with Douglass is much more personal and really begins with the first four words and last word of his first sentence, “I was born in…Maryland” (39).

Maryland is my root soil; the place where I am “of.” It is the place that locates the living tendrils of my roots that extends through many generations of dark bodies who worked dark lands. Even though I was born and raised “Up North” because my parents moved to Connecticut before I was conceived, my large network of extended family all resided in Maryland. My parents were both raised in Calvert County; about15 miles southeast of this nation’s capital. They, like the generations that preceded them, grew up in the segregated South; working tobacco fields and raising crops.

Just this summer I visited my 96 year old grandmother, Mary Ford Pumphrey, and my 93 year old grandfather, Methuselah Pumphrey. They live on Old Sands Road in Lothian Maryland. I read to my grandmother her favorite Psalm (Psalm 139), and walked with my grandfather around the five acres that surrounded his modest country home. In between sharing stories of his youth and offering words of advice that was filled with an easy wisdom afforded to a quiet man who makes it his business to listen, my grandfather identified and had a story for every individual tree on the property. He spoke and I listened…intently.

Throughout my childhood I traveled many times “down south” to Maryland. What I remember most is the trees and how I felt that they were mysteriously tasked to hold ancestral secrets in trust. I thought of this and my walk with my grandfather when I read Douglass’ account of journeying with fellow slaves to the Great House Farm:

“While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” He said of the sorrow songs, “they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves…every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” (47)

This is the Frederick Douglass that interests me; the living flesh who toiled under a Maryland sun whose oppressive strength was magnified by the unrelenting humidity. I am interested in the young man who was given a “magical root” by an old slave named Sandy Jenkins for the purpose of protecting him from the whips of overseers (78-79). I am interested in the communities that nurtured him, laughed with him, cried with him, and pray with him. Why? Because as I reflect on my times in Maryland soil, I recognize that Douglass’ time and my own are not so far apart from each other….OakTree

After reading the Psalms to my grandmother, she took one of her many naps. I lingered in the room and looked through a seemingly ancient photo album. I opened it to see the sepia-toned images of my stoned face ancestors who looked back at me in photographs developed over a century ago. Some of those old folks whose hands touched my grandmother with care also touched the instruments of toil with hands that were not free. Maybe those same hands that broke the soil also broke bread with another fellow Marylander named Frederick. Maybe their voices were part of the chorus of voices that broke the wooded silence by sharing the melodies of those “wild” songs that reverberated in the recesses of Douglass’ memory long ago.

Who knows?

One thing that I am sure of is this: notions of the Past can be deceptive and history stands surprisingly closer to the Present than we think. With that in mind, I am challenged to channel my grandfather’s inner calm; seeking to stay quiet enough to listen to the lessons that the ever-present presence of the Past has to whisper to our Present.

Peace.

Cone’s Black Theology and the Womanist Spirit

As I immersed myself into the words of James Cone and his complex justifications in his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, I was immensely impressed with the clean logic of his argument.  His conclusion is made clear even in the first few pages when he describes Christian theology as,“…the study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence for the gospel which is Christ” (1).

This definition becomes the ground to erect a (Christian) black theology which identifies the oppressed community as the black community, and Christ as “black” because Jesus would be both identified within the black oppressed community, and the work of the Christ would be the project of “black” liberation.

I admire Cone’s theological integrity and how he demonstrates a dedicated commitment to present an unapologetically black theology using Christian resources. What I find most compelling is his insistence that the theological task, whether taken from an approach from Tillich or Barth, is only relevant when juxtaposed with how it relates to the lives of black folk.  Cone states that, “the purpose of black theology is to make sense of black experience” (25).

Though I honor Biblical resources and Christian traditions as part of my spiritual legacy and present religious language, I have a low Christology and am not interested in Christian apologetics.  Because of this, Cone’s (understandable) insistence on crafting a liberation theology through a Trinitarian conception of God and his concurrence with Barth that “the only legitimate starting point of theology is the man Jesus who is the revelation of God” (23), becomes ultimately problematic for me.  I question if there are ways of constructing a Black theology or understanding of the activity of black spirituality that is not dependent on the theological and exclusive claims of Christianity?

Womanist notions of black spirituality and Alice Walker’s invoking of “Spirit” as a descriptor of the person and work of God offers a more inclusive framework to imagine the varied ways that the black community theologizes today. Delores S. Williams speaks about how “black womanist’s love of spirit is a true reflection of the great respect Afro-American women have always shown for the presence and work of spirit”  (271). In contrast to Cone’s systematic approach to theology, Williams’s evocation of Spirit opens up a greater possibility for theological imagination. She notes that even in the black church,“…women (and men) often judge the effectiveness of the worship services not on the scholarly content of the sermon, nor on the ritual, nor on the orderly process. Rather, worship has been effective if the ‘the spirit was high’…” (271).

She goes on to say how the evidence of the God’s work is found within the divine encounter, and how privileging the “presenc-ing” of the Spirit allows womanist theologian to “give authoritative status to black folk wisdom” (Music, poetry, idioms, folk tales, and other cultural artifacts) (270). This flattening or democratization of the ground of what is considered sacred allows for a more creative approach to how conceive our “doing theology.”

Further, I am reminded of Methodist Pastor Carlyle Fielding Stewart III who says that, “African American spirituality has created a context for the emergence of a culture of creativity engendered by creative and resistant soul force…” (133). In short, there are many ways that the Spirit of God moves in the black community, and manifests as a source of liberation and creativity that seeks the total flourishing of the black community.

Sunni P

One arena where this creative force is displayed today is in the poetry of Sunni Patterson. As you observe her performance below–the words and setting, the text and sitz im lebem (that’s for you, Rob)–please consider:

What elements of womanist ideology are being exemplified in this performance?

Though there are allusions to Christian resources, the poetry is not explicitly Christian. What are some general observations about this poet’s “ministry,” and how it seeks to meet the needs of the black community?

Sunni Patterson Live at the Signature: A Poetic Medley Show

My Mama’s House is a River

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?