Be Careful What You Believe About Yourself‏

Young woman in front of a mirror

“Words are things. You must be careful. Careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls. They get in your wall paper. They get in your rugs; in your upholstery. In your clothes and finally into you.” Three years ago Dr. Maya Angelou shared this insightful perspective on the power of words during an Oprah Masterclass.

The part about how words get into you has always stayed with me. Words and images carve imprints into our minds as to who we perceive ourselves to be, while shaping our identity. This is why when certain images, words or phrases are used for descriptive purposes, I become very cautious with accepting them. It also speaks to why after years of being called the N-word, even the most conscious among us can’t let it go. When Maya Angelou worked on an album with the well known rapper Common, he surprised her by using the N-word. She disagreed with it’s usage and Common stated, “She knows that’s part of me.” I’ve always wondered, “What part of you Common? What part of you is ‘nigger’?”

We’ve been called it so often, as if it were our names, at some point we started believing it represents us. I’ve written about this before, where I had to stop a first time father from referring to his newborn son as his, “little nigga.”

But it doesn’t stop with words. Imagery also plays a big role in how we view and address ourselves. For years it was almost impossible to view any realistic imagery of African Americans. Images of caricatures were sold on products around the world with exaggerated features, in positions of servitude, along with hypersexualized or asexualized messages (depending on the caricature). These images were used as a form of messaging to ignore the humanity of an entire subset of society in order to prevent upward mobility, empathy and cross-racial organizing. One of the most well known caricatures is “Mammy.” And years later we find ourselves clamoring to claim this image as something that represents us…when it never did. This is why the nostalgia concerning the Kara Walker Sphinx is so disturbing.

Reclaiming “Mammy” is just as counterproductive as seeking to reclaim “Nigger.” It’s beneath us but we keep trying to do it. Why?

As Dr. Carter G. Woodson in the Mis-Education of the Negro profoundly noted, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

These negative images and words have become so widespread that most attempts at trying to debunk them have been outnumbered and overshadowed. We’d seen them so much and heard them so much that they’ve seeped into our psyche. Thus, at times we reinforce these images without consciously meaning to do so. In fact, we’ll find ourselves fighting for the right to protect these images and words.

The women that were called ‘Mammy’ had names like Elizabeth, Rebecca, Ann and etc. They were artists, healthcare providers/healers, and organizers of rebellions. These women were humans in totality, many being brilliant pioneers in an awesome Fannie Lou Hamer type of way. Featuring that imagery on a mass level would be groundbreaking. Yet it still hasn’t been done. What would that look like? Imagine the pure awesomeness of that idea and how that idea could help young Black girls discover new possibilities for themselves.

We are more than servitude. Yet so many images surrounding Blacks in history present us in service positions. Thus it is no surprise that in 2012 the Center For American Progress highlighted that 28% of African American women work in service positions and “only 11.9 percent of African American women were in management, business, and financial operations positions. In comparison, women as a whole are employed in these fields at a rate of 41.6 percent.”

Janet Bragg
Janet Bragg

Being limited to servitude is systematic but is upheld by the words and imagery that constantly describe Black woman as people who cook, clean and take care of other people. However, even a brief glimpse into history will show that before, during and after slavery, Black women were entrepreneurs, political organizers, pilots, and scientists.

Yet, we’ve been so inundated with negative words and imagery that at times we can’t decipher between truth and fiction/ reality and perception. It’s not just an African American problem. Nobody knows who anybody truly is. And certain people understand this, so they push words and images that stigmatize groups of people causing further confusion and discord.

But even without corporations and politicians benefiting from falsehoods, how you see yourself or think about yourself can mold your life.

After the trauma of being raped, Maya Angelou didn’t speak for years. During this time her grandmother told her, some people may call you dumb but I know that one day you’re going to be a “teacher.”

When she was a young woman, one day Maya Angelou’s mother turned to her and said, “You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” It shocked her. She stopped cursing from that day forward, because she thought to herself, “What if she’s right? What if I will be somebody one day?”

The words of her mother and grandmother literally changed how she thought about herself and gave her the tools to see new possibilities. These words made an impact. The words and images surrounding her spoke life into her future despite the challenges she endured.

So think for a moment about what you’ve been told concerning who you are and what you believe about yourself. Examine which words or images have gotten into you. Be very careful of the things you believe about yourself. Reject words and images that don’t contribute to your well being. It can mean the difference between freedom or servitude.

Audre Lorde said it best, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci and Twitter.com/OurLegaci.

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Mandela, ALEC and The Fight That NEVER Ended

Photo Credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, media outlets have been flooded with the constant championing of his ability to forgive. However, the bigger lesson to be learned is, apartheid never had to happen. Apartheid was not a mystical occurrence; it was a fully planned and intentional mass oppression of a people. The same can be said for the current systematic creation of the permanent underclass.

Mandela once said,  “Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

One of Mandela’s greatest wishes was that we never forget the millions of people around the world currently living in poverty and dehumanizing conditions. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Right now corporations and organizations like ALEC should be on the forefront of our minds.

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ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is an organization of legislators, corporations and lobbyists that seek to control the global economy. In the 1980s, ALEC was a key organization that supported the South African apartheid regime and worked against divestment and sanctions.

In 2013, ALEC engineers voter suppression laws, making sure that it’s harder for Black, Brown, Young, Old, Women and Poor people, to vote in U.S. elections. They do this in order to prevent laws like The Affordable Care Act from benefiting people with low-economic statuses. Laws like the Affordable Care Act, provide a wider opportunity for the poor to have economic upward mobility.

This is a huge issue because it prevents corporations from sustaining the creation of a permanent underclass, which would allow for companies like Walmart and McDonald’s to continue their low-wage driven pay scale, thereby increasing profits. Though Walmart and McDonald’s both ended their membership with ALEC last year, they are still implementing the same policies among their workers which prevent economic stability.

In the most simplistic terms:

The poor remain poor due to their inability to access quality education, healthcare and other life saving resources. Poor education limits the earning potential of workers and substantially increases the chances of incarceration. Due to the fact that low-income wage workers can’t afford to shop somewhere else, they end up becoming consumers among the same companies and fast-food restaurants that try to suppress their votes.

 A cycle of poverty ensues leading to stress, violence, and the constant intake of low-priced highly processed foods. Consequentially, the top four causes of death for African Americans are heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. African American is not synonymous with poor, however many African Americans face historical prejudices which make it difficult for economic advancement.

Furthermore, this issue goes beyond race. Though the construction of race plays an important role in social hierarchies, people of all races and various income backgrounds are susceptible to the underclass creation cycle. ALEC and other conservative groups use race-baiting and fear mongering to prevent unsuspecting voters from recognizing this until it’s too late. By the time voters realize that they’ve been hoodwinked, their home has been foreclosed on or a family member lost their battle with cancer due to lack of proper healthcare.

Still, even these issues are first world problems. In other parts of the world, poverty can be viewed in the form of children dying from preventable illnesses like diarrhea. And though the world is often draped in luxury and decadence there are still people that die from starvation or spend their lives working 20 hr days in sweatshops and factories under the worst conditions imaginable.

Mandela teaches us that our world doesn’t have to be like this. His fight against apartheid teaches us that we must not remain silent in the face of oppression. Yes he used forgiveness and reconciliation as a tool for healing a nation. However, forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness and its blessings cannot be fully realized if the horrors of the past are white-washed, allowing for oppression to continue thriving in various forms.

Mandela’s main leadership example was fighting against the burdens placed on the poor and marginalized people of his country by the white supremacist doctrines of the National Party of South Africa and every nation, politician or corporation that supported/looked the other way while they structurally subjugated a nation of people.  (This includes Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Citigroup, IBM, General Motors Corp, JP Morgan Chase & Co, ALEC and many more.)

Though apartheid has ended, the battle against organizations like ALEC and corporations that economically oppress people around the world has never really ended. Mandela said forgive but he didn’t forget. And so in the tradition of freedom laid before us, let us not forget that there is still much work to be done.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Harry Belafonte Was Right About Jay-Z

Harry-Belafonte

Jay-ZWith the current controversy surrounding high-end retail store Barneys and racial profiling allegations, one thing stands evident. Harry Belafonte was right about Jay-Z. In the midst of this controversy, fans have called on Jay-Z to end his partnership with Barneys, in which his new holiday fashion line is going to be sold. Jay-Z’s response has been a calculated public relations effort in which he negates any real responsibility to his default, “I’m doing it for charity” statement. Currently, Jay-Z is continuing his partnership with Barneys with his collection set to launch next week.

This “doing it for charity” response only further highlights Jay-Z’s disconnect with the masses that he often claims to represent. This notion of accepting racism in exchange for charity is downright laughable. If a charity is supposed to be helping people, why work with a store that appears to marginalize his own fan base due to class and race perceptions. Now, Jay-Z claims he’s being demonized for his partnership with Barneys. He’s not being demonized. He’s being realized.

This is where Harry Belafonte comes in. Months ago Belafonte called on Jay-Z to play a more active role in social movements and help to drive social change. Jay-Z’s response was to refer to the 86-year old civil rights icon as “boy.” Jay-Z went on to state that due to his mega star status, his very presence was “charity.”

Harry Belafonte’s critiques were not superfluous statements. They were part of an insightful analysis of how star power can be used to affect societal movements. With over 50 years of civil rights activism, Belafonte can spot both genuine and superficial involvement. The latter, is what Jay-Z is often engaged in. This superficial support of “the people” is laden with corporate driven interests.

For example, during the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Jay-Z decided to make a t-shirt line based on slogans from the movement. His plans changed, once Occupy Wall Street activists asked if he would share the profits. The idea of having to share the profits (which would have helped provide much needed financial support to activists) was unthinkable to the hip-hop mogul.

Then, there’s the controversy that surrounded 2010 tax records from The Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund. During that year he reportedly earned, over $63 million but only donated roughly $6,000 to his own charity. This is not a normal practice for charity founders, who often provide a large portion of their charities’ financial costs. Out of all donors, Jay-Z reportedly gave the lowest donation to his own cause.

Finally, there is the N*ggas in Paris fiasco in which his friend Gwyneth Paltrow, decided to tweet the title of the song after attending his concert. This resulted in Twitter backlash over her usage of the term. Jay-Z, who is an enthusiastic advocate for the usage of the N-word, was silent on the controversy. Having millions among his fan base embrace the N-word is a part of his crossover hood status appeal that provides further economic security.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, in 2012 White/Caucasian audiences represented 79% of music buys, 81% of CD buyers and 80% of digital buyers. So don’t expect Jay-Z to engage in any significant dialogue with fans about using the word. With him it’s the same old, “people give words power” and “this is the least racist generation” excuse. It’s not economically feasible for him or any other corporately invested hip-hop artist to do anymore than brush off the issue. Yet this is someone people expect to fully grasp or care about race related issues?

The African American community  has to get beyond this belief that just because someone from our community attains fame or wealth, that they’re somehow intellectually superior, a role model and someone to be admired. The same can be said for Russell Simmons with his Rush Card, Blood Diamond, and Harriet Tubman controversies. And Kanye West, who often laments about racism but strives to uphold the same materialistic values that help drive economic disparities. Do you really expect any of them to be deeply invested in activism against a classist system from which they benefit?

Harry Belafonte was right. Jay-Z isn’t genuinely standing up against racism or classism because this activism may affect profit margin (something he learned while selling crack).

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.