Tag Archives: #blacklivesmatter

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.

rachel-dolezal1

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.

51IF8CxUkNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

11178277_364989000363585_7785748639748671296_n

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.

#BlackLivesMatter

8:40 PM (PT)

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?”

national_domestic_workers_alliance_headshots12418
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!”

 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?