Remembering George Stinney Jr., Lena Baker and Countless Others When Pondering Dylann Roof

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Recently Dylann Roof, the white gunman that murdered 9 Black church members during a bible study, was sentenced to death. Honestly speaking, my heart felt that anything less would have been insufficient. Yet, the death sentence itself is still unsatisfactory. There is no joy here. No ease away from pain, knowing that the final minutes of the victims’ lives were engulfed in terror as they were slain in their sanctuary.

If it were up to me, perhaps Roof would be sentenced to life in prison and forced to watch an endless loop of family videos and photos of all the beautiful people he murdered every single day for the rest of his life. He would wake up and recite their names, ages, and the number of loved ones they left behind. He would hear their stories. His life would be inundated with their existence, his atmosphere would be permeated with their spirits. Every single day. And it still wouldn’t be enough.

Knowing the evil of what he has done can easily lead many to the rightful conclusion that he does not deserve to enjoy life. And yet with his sentencing, there is a constant ringing in the back of my mind that prevents me from feeling like any justice has been served. There is a Dylann Roof. A man that we all know without a shadow of a doubt is a racist murderer.

Then there is George Stinney, Jr., a young Black boy that was sentenced to death and electrocuted for a crime he did not commit. There was Lena Baker, a Black woman that was tortured by an employer, fought back in self defense, then sentenced to death. More recently there was Larry Griffin, Troy Davis and countless other Black and Brown people that were unjustly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. There have been a large number of unaccounted for state sanctioned killings of innocent Black people under the death penalty.

A study published in 2014 titled, “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death,” found that one in every 25 people on death row are innocent. Furthermore, with the high number of racial profiling, wrongful arrests, and false convictions the Innocence Project states that 63% of individuals exonerated by DNA evidence have been African Americans. Additionally, “An analysis of the 297 DNA exonerations reveals minorities make up approximately 70% of those proven innocent through DNA testing. (Innocence Project, 2014)”

This showcases a massive racial inequality in terms of wrongful sentencings and executions. And this is one of the key reasons that I am against the death penalty. The unknown number of innocent Black and Brown people that have been wrongfully executed is chilling. Curing this ill would require an end to racial profiling, prejudice and racial inequality – which is no small feat. So in the meantime, ending the death penalty could save a great number of innocent lives as our criminal justice system works through a number of much needed reforms.

Being human, I want Dylann Roof punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, in a society where innocent people are systematically imprisoned and killed simply due to their racial makeup in the name of “law and order” – it’s hard to see the shine of justice here. While Dylann Roof is sentenced to death, the criminal justice system continues to unjustly ruin and take the lives of the same people he terrorized. There is overt terrorism and covert terrorism but it is terror just the same.

It’s a troubling paradox that is hard to grapple with.

The one death sentence of Dylann Roof neither makes up for the deaths of the innocent lives he took or the trove of innocent Black and Brown people being executed along with him. I’m not sure what justice is in this case but I know for sure that the death penalty is no friend of my tribe and never has been.

 

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” ― Michelle Alexander

Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is the founder of OurLegaci.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/JAMAiwuyor.

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Where Children Touch The Walls

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From the moment I first learned about its development, the National Museum of African American History and Culture held a special place in my heart. After the last few years of construction, it finally opened this fall.

A major attribute of people of African descent (and in this case African Americans specifically) is our standing glory and liveliness. Whenever there is an upcoming Black cultural experience, I always hope for a layered approach. One that embraces the complexity of our existence, which is often laced with joy and creativity in spite of attacks or marginalization. Walking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture is like walking into a bubble of Black self-love and never wanting to come out. It’s where we can come face-to-face with our truths and stand in awe of everything we have been through, everything we have accomplished and everything the future holds for us.

There was a deep ache in the room that housed pieces of slave ships and shackles. The voice narration lingered throughout the air, speaking of slave traders raping girls not older than 10 years old. It spoke of people throwing themselves off of ships, starving themselves in hopes that with death, they will return home to Africa.

There was a rumble in the room that housed Emmett Till’s casket, while a video of his mother played on rotation. She spoke of her son, how playful he was, how much joy was inside of him. And she spoke of how he had been butchered. She recounted how murderers tried to chop off his neck, how his right eye dangled from the socket down to his cheek. She spoke of how she wanted the world to see what had been done to her son. “Let the people see what I’ve seen.”

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This is the pain, the grief that in the era of Black Lives Matter, we instinctively relive as a collective. This is not because we want to but because in many instances death associated with anti-Blackness continues to be a cruel reality.

And yet, we are still vibrant. The walls are lined with quotes from Black artists, scholars, and activists reminding us of our humanity while rejoicing in our colorful splendor. Many things were stolen from us, still many parts of us can never be stolen. I never wanted my visit to this historic museum to be about pain. Yet, the pain that I had initially set out to not feel became the catalyst for gratefulness and pride. I became more and more enamored with each step.

The greatest experience during my visit was seeing and hearing the reactions of youth.

One little boy exclaimed, “Gosh, they were strict. I’m glad I wasn’t born back then.”

A little girl read a quote on the wall about the slave blocks. She reached up high to rub the words with her fingers. She then looked down and told her sister,”They sold women and children.”

Another little girl, when seeing a hat from modern day Liberia, said her friends “Our African heritage!”

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Then there was the child, that was completely in awe of Huey P. Newton’s photo displayed in the Black Power/Black Arts Movement section.

Finally, at Emmet Till’s casket, there was a teenaged girl sobbing in her father’s arms.

Just around the corner, these same children then saw Public Enemy’s bright red banner, Oprah’s stage, huge photos of the Obamas, beautiful pieces made by artisans in the 1700-1800s, Nat Turner’s bible, Langston Hughes words towering over visitors, Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice ringing and so much more.

The children are seeing, hearing, and feeling. They are literally touching the walls absorbing history, Black history…America’s history. The museum’s ability to transport children back in time to experience the tragedies and triumphs, while ushering them into a vibrant future is perhaps it’s greatest attribute of all.

This is a place where children touch the walls.

 

JAM-TwitterJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a poet, writer and social justice advocate. She’s also the founder of Our Legaci. Rant or rave to JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com. Don’t forget to join our mailing list!

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6 Black Films & Shows to Discuss Other Than Birth of a Nation

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Can I admit that I’m tired of talking about Birth of a Nation? Even though I plan on writing my own collection of thoughts concerning the film and its surrounding controversy, I’ve noticed that all of the attention towards it, good and bad, has unintentionally pulled away from much needed discussions about other Black films and shows.

So here are 6 Black films and shows to discuss other than Birth of a Nation:

1. Queen of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o

This film has received many great reviews. It’s based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, an international chess champion that learned to play chess at the SOM Chess Academy in Kampala, Uganda. Though she’s already a world hero, Ms. Mutesi is still a young lady with big dreams. 

Film synopsis: Queen of Katwe is the colorful true story of a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.

2. Issa Rae’s Insecure now on HBO

I fell in love with Issa Rae’s work while watching the first 3 minute episode of Awkward Black Girl. She captured the everyday plight of so many quirky Black women with awkward tendencies. This is what made her show a hit. She tapped into a market and audience that had been either ignored or deemed non existent. Her new show on HBO is just has hilarious, with the same quirky, cringe worthy, laugh out loud moments. Insecure is definitely a must watch.

Show synopsis: Watch the half-hour comedy series Insecure, starring Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis and Lisa Joyce, looks at the friendship, experiences and tribulations of two black women. Created and executive produced by Issa Rae, this eight-episode series is also executive produced by Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas, Michael Rotenberg, Dave Beck, Jonathan Berry, and Larry Wilmore as a consultant.

 

3. Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe

This is a movie I’m extremely excited for. I wish we all knew more about the history behind Black women and the NASA program. As the mother of twin girls, movies showcasing the scientific and mathematical talents of Black women is a must watch in my book.

Film synopsis: Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big. In theaters – January 13, 2017.

4. The 13th directed by Ava DuVernay on Netflix

As an undergrad, one of our professors pointed out that the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not end slavery. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

She directed us to the line that states:  except as a punishment for crime.

Thus, slavery took on a new form. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture has an entire display dedicated to showing the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. Apparently, everyone in my circle has watched The 13th except me. But fear not, I will be watching over the weekend. Anything Ava DuVernay touches is gold.

Film synopsis: The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. Now Streaming on Netflix.

 

5. Atlanta produced by Donald Glover on FX

Where do we start? The fact that this show centers around Black men in Atlanta chasing the rap career dream already leads us down the road to authenticity. The admiration of lemon pepper chicken wings, saying “bet” instead of “sure,” working at the airport – so Atlanta.

Yet the most interesting aspect of Atlanta is it’s unflinching willingness to explore societal shifts, along with layered portrayals of Black life. The most widely discussed episode so far has been episode 7. The episode included a number of satirical commercials featured on a fictional tv network, parodying BET called “Black American Network.”

During the episode, rapper Paper Boi is shown on a tv panel grappling with understanding transsexuality. Then the episode shifts to a discussion of transracial identity. Instantly audiences picked up on the false equivalency that was often leaned upon during the real life uproar concerning Rachel Dolezal- a white woman determined to embody blackness through activism, hair weaves and tanning.

On Atlanta, they flip the script showing a young Black man that identifies as a 35-year-old white man, that is both transphobic and homophobic (taking a jab at Caitlyn Jenner’s contradictory homophobic statements).

Atlanta is unconventionally brilliant. There are so many things to digest here. There could be an entire article dedicated to breaking down the children’s cereal commercial in episode 7 that put the spotlight on police brutality.

Show synopsis: Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families. Donald Glover serves as Executive Producer, along with Paul Simms and Dianne McGunigle. Atlanta is produced by FX Productions.

 

6. Queen Sugar on OWN

Like I said earlier, everything Ava DuVernay touches is gold. I recently wrote about how Queen Sugar’s underlying theme is “rebirth, rejuvenation and resilience.” You can view more of my thoughts here.

Film synopsis: Queen Sugar chronicles the lives and loves of the estranged Bordelon siblings in Saint Josephine, Louisiana: Charley, the savvy wife and manager of an NBA star; Nova, a worldly-wise journalist and activist; and Ralph Angel, a formerly incarcerated young father in search of redemption. After a family tragedy, the Bordelons must navigate the triumphs and struggles of their complicated lives in order to run an ailing sugarcane farm in the Deep South.

 

Again, I will be writing my own commentary about Birth of a Nation. However, for now I’d just like to bask in the glory of all the greatness featured above.

If there is a film or show you think should be included, add it in the comments below.

 

JAM-TwitterJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a poet, writer and social justice advocate. She’s also the founder of Our Legaci. Rant or rave to JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com.

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Black Americans Wearing African Clothing Is NOT Cultural Appropriation

Maya Angelou and Malcolm X

Maya Angelou and Malcolm X in Ghana

The internet has unfortunately become a cesspool for the most simplistic arguments to be sensationalized. The latest finger pointing bandwagon phrase to hit the net is “cultural appropriation.” It’s being slaughtered, with a slew of would be  writers refusing to actually research the meaning of the term before tossing it around carelessly. So is the case with a recent article declaring, that Black Americans were culturally appropriating African cultures by wearing African clothing. It goes without saying, that this bold assertion is as deprived of history, logic and critical analysis as “reverse racism.”

Part I: Let’s begin with the definition of appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture takes, claims and establishes itself the creator of the cultural heritage and artifacts of a minority and or marginalized culture thereby erasing the history of the marginalized culture.

In Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies of a Social Logic in Literary Form, African American studies professor Ashraf H. A. Rushdy describes appropriation and how it operates:

Something gets appropriated by something else when a productive or expressive form or practices, let’s say jazz or blues or agricultural methods for growing rice, develops within one disempowered cultural group but gets used by and enriches only or mostly another empowered cultural group. The distinction between cultural groups has to do most emphatically with each group’s relationship to power, controlling the means of material production and controlling the means to mental production.

Rushdy continues:

One of the marks of that relationship between an empowered and a disempowered cultural group is that the empowered group is able to take possession of those material products, physical labors, and cultural forms and practices developed within the disempowered group. Once that something is “appropriated” it no longer functions to enrich materially or to empower socially those within whose cultural group that something developed. (p. 175)

Using Rushdy’s explanation, Black Americans as African descendants are not appropriating African cultures by wearing African clothing. The oppressive power dynamics, the enrichment that excludes African cultures, the means of controlling the material production of African clothing on the part of Black Americans is non-existent. Nor can Black American power dynamics with African cultures be compared with the power dynamics of colonial power structures that stifled Africa’s progress as was outlined in Guyanese Pan African scholar Walter Rodney’s, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Part II: Black History Is African History

The historical experience of Black Americans does not begin with slavery. It begins in Africa. This is a shocking plot twist to those wishing to disconnect Black Americans from African cultures. We did not emerge out of thin air, but are instead a mixture of African people of multiple ethnic groups predominantly from Western Africa. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery did not erase the cultural legacy of Black Americans anymore than colonialism erased the cultural legacy of African ethnic groups.

During the slave trade and chattel slavery the ancestors of Black Americans, Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbean people were often prevented from speaking their African languages and practicing their religions. Furthermore, the dominant Western culture demonized all aspects of Black African cultures. Still, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society and later the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787, which is to date one of the oldest Black American institutions in the United States of America.

They named it the “African” Methodist Episcopal Church for a reason. It was a reflection of how they viewed themselves in America. They spoke no African languages, they wore no African clothing because those things were not readily available to them. But they insisted on embracing everything about their heritage that they had access to.

Over the last 228 years, a lot of changes have taken place including the ability to reconnect with aspects of African cultures that were cut off by oppressive systems.

These reconnections are not without complications.

However, claiming that Black Americans are committing the same cultural appropriation as whites when wearing African clothing demonstrates a gross lack of basic level critical thinking skills. One can not compare attempts to reconnect to cultural origins with oppressive attempts to erase an ethnicity’s cultural legacy. Even if some Black Americans may not understand the full deeper religious meaning of various prints or tribal paints, that is completely different from seeking to erase the achievements and history of a culture’s artifacts, which is what cultural appropriation does.

Furthermore, the assumption that all Black Americans do not know the deeper meaning of various tribal prints or paints is without merit. This is especially the case due to the rising amount of African descendants converting to traditional African religions or at least bonding with various symbolic references from these religions. One can not assume, that the wearer does not know the meaning simply because they are Black American. It could be the case that they know the meaning and that’s why they wore it. It’s complicated, layered and not always executed properly, but still not appropriation.

Part III: Africa Is Not A Country, Blackness Does Not Exist In A Vacuum

Nkrumah and Dubois

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, both attended Lincoln University, the first degree granting Historically Black College in the U.S. Nkrumah, an avid Pan Africanist, often cited the interconnectedness among all members of the Pan African World, working closely with Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois. Nkrumah is well known for his vision of a unified Africa with strong linkages to the Pan African World. “I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me,” said Nkrumah.

Making the statement that “if you do not belong to an African tribe, don’t wear tribal print,” is exclusionary to people that may not know the exact tribe of their family’s origin. It’s even furthermore complicated because as a mixed people, Black Americans actually come from many different tribes. Everyone does not have the privilege of knowing what tribes they come from, but they still carry the cultural heritage of those groups.

I was fortunate enough to trace my maternal lineage, with the help of AfricanAncestry.com’s DNA program. My own maternal ancestors are from the Tikar ethnic groups in modern day Cameroon. Does this mean that I suddenly became the spokesperson for all things Tikar? The answer is no. But it does mean that I have a cultural and ancestral connection that extends beyond the history of U.S. chattel slavery and any attempts to reconnect with that at best can be viewed as cultural appreciation or acculturation depending on my proximity to members of that ethnic group. The artistry and craftsmanship that my grandmother exhibited through her quilts, statues, paintings and instruments represent her heritage as a direct descendant of the Tikar people, even though she did not know she came from this ethnic group.

This can not and never will be cultural appropriation. You can not appropriate that which is your own.

Additionally, there are thousands of different types of African cultures and sub-groups. Ethnic groups on the continent and throughout the diaspora borrow from one another through cultural exchanges. Exchanging languages, religions, foods, musical styles and clothing. Members of various African ethnic groups often wear the tribal prints and jewelry of other ethnic groups simply based on liking the style. There is no reason Black Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Latinos should be excluded from this cultural exchange. Additionally, on the economic front, many marketplace sellers and African fashion designers would cringe at the thought of limiting their work to only within the confines of their tribe.

That’s not how this works.

Black Americans and other children of the African Diaspora are included in the Pan African cross-cultural process as evidenced by the spread of hip hop music throughout Africa and the creation of Rastafari communities in South Africa and Tanzania. These are both stylistic and religious exchanges that no reasonable person views as appropriation.

Part IV: Lack of Knowledge Affects Everyone, Not Just Black Americans

Miseducation and Eurocentric thinking taught through colonialism, slavery and Western education affects all members of the Pan African World in varying levels, not just Black Americans.

The need to assert authority over Africanity in the face of other African descendants is a pettiness that stems from the designed disenfranchisement of the Pan African world. It also unknowingly reaffirms anti-Black sentiments by denying the nuanced experiences and cultural heritages of all people of African descendant. Instead relying on a limited non-layered perspective of Africanity.

Additionally, the faux concern about Black American knowledge of African prints would be more believable if critics were offering classes and books that share the deeper meaning on various tribal prints.

Part V: We’ve been told the same lie.

The limited interaction between continental Africans and African descendants is highly influenced by western based miseducation and media (in both Africa and North America) that promotes anti-Blackness at every turn, leaving African descendants and Africans on the continent circling in an endless cycle of confusion and rage uselessly aimed at each another.

This leads some Black Americans to make illogical declarations like, “I’m Black Not African American,” as if Black Land is a thing that magically exists outside of Africa. Upon asking, when did they stop being African, the response will include some gibberish about not speaking an African language, not having a red carpet laid out for them when they went to Africa and the misguided belief that Jesse Jackson created the term “African American.”

No one has yet been able to answer Malcolm X’s question, “If a cat has kittens in an oven, does that make them biscuits?”

Meanwhile, some Africans will proclaim more pride in being French or British than Senegalese, Ghanaian or Nigerian. Upon asking, why they perceive Western cultures to be superior, the response will include a puzzling look as to why you don’t understand that everything white is just better.

We’ve all been told the same lie, that somehow being African is “less-than” believing that it is more refined to be disconnected from Africanity. This has lead to many of us needlessly tearing each other apart. And make no mistake, all levels of anti-Blackness around the world stems from the historical Eurocentric perspective that African people are subhuman.

As children, Black Americans often used heard the term, “African booty scratcher.” I was called African Booty Scratcher daily, being a little dark skinned Black girl with short nappy hair. This term was not reserved for African immigrants but for all dark-skinned children. Black children were reiterating the negative stereotypes of African people that surrounded us on a daily basis through media, the Western education system and older generations. And it hurt.

In fact, there is a meme floating around the net that says, “You called me an African Booty Scratcher in school. Now you’re wearing a dashiki.”

Yet few who circulate this meme will admit that their parents also held onto negative stereotypes of Black Americans and Jamaicans, often attempting to keep them away. Using their own derogatory terms to describe them.

Though this generation has more opportunities to form cross-cultural bonds than our parents, there are those among us that are harboring hurt. And turning this pain into a “you can’t share my toy attitude.” It’s time to grow up. We’re not on the playground anymore.

We are all hurting, because we’ve been taught to believe the same lies.

In Conclusion:

Black Americans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Black Canadians, Afro-Caribbeans, whatever you want to call us, are members of the Pan African family. Wearing African clothing and tribal print is more revolutionary and impactful than upholding any stereotypes, slurs or one writer’s shortsightedness.

Our progress depends on our interconnectedness.

Over 400 years ago, many of us were torn from the shores of our homelands in Africa. We were beaten for speaking our languages, shunned for our skin, raped, murdered and brutalized. Some of us tossed ourselves over the sides of ships in order to see freedom through death. We have witnessed our family members hanging from trees. We have survived a horror like no other and still have the unmitigated gall to walk around in 2015 with our tribal print and paint. Our ancestors are somewhere smiling.

Despite not being born in Africa, like Nkrumah proclaimed, Africa was born in us. Overthrowing the tools of oppressive systems, gaining self knowledge and reconnecting with our origins may not always be perfect or without growing pains. But it is not and never will be cultural appropriation.

It’s a layered, nuanced, complicated triumph.

 

 

P.S.

I am a member of the North American Delegation of the 8th Pan African Congress.  To be included on our mailing list email OurLegaci@gmail.com.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com. Follow JAM @TweetingJAM and Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

What being let go from my job during Sandra Bland and #SayHerName taught me about diversity and inclusion.

Sandra Bland

Photo of Sandra Bland

Last month, I was suddenly and suspiciously let go from my job at a local media production company in Houston. Prior to being let go, I’d been in New York City for a couple of days hoping to retrieve the last of my things left there over a year ago.

While away, I received very few email correspondences from work, but since I had planned ahead, I assumed the non-communication was because I was out of town. I didn’t sweat it; I was actually eager to return to work. We were up for mid-year reviews and recently, two exciting projects had landed on my plate. I felt as if I could finally stretch my creative legs after six months of settling in. It had not been perfect, but I worked to be a team player and give everything I could.

The day I left New York City, I spoke to a partner to update them on my return to Houston and to find out when to expect my review. I was then emailed by another partner confirming the meeting time of 8:30am. Shortly after I arrived that morning, the partner got right to it and said, “We have to lay you off .“

I felt like someone had just slapped me. A layoff was the last thing I expected, but here they were, insisting that the decision was purely financial and expressing sympathy.

I pushed back with the details of a new hire starting that week and upcoming projects that I had recently pitched and was awarded. I mentioned the conversation about job security we had during my meeting only one week earlier, where I was assured that I was fine and had nothing to worry about.

Suddenly, I was being reminded that my work wasn’t “billable” and that projects were drying up. I remembered being told that summers were usually slow. I was confused. A sudden layoff just didn’t make sense to me. I asked if there was something else going on and got nothing. “It’s financial,” they repeated.

I cried. I shook. I left. “Downsizing” was the subject line of the email I received finalizing my termination.

I was bewildered. What could have transpired in the four days of my being in New York City that would constitute a layoff? How could the company suddenly need to lay me off without my knowing? I did work in the department that handled billing. I had nothing. Eventually, I began to consider the timing of my layoff.

I live and work 45-minutes away from Waller County, the place where Sandra Bland lost her life. I know I easily could have been Sandra Bland. I’ve driven to lots of different places for work in Southern Texas. Some places where my black woman’s body would be unwelcome and potentially destroyed, had I not had whiteness around to “protect” me. I’ve always been acutely aware of this fact, but Sandra Bland’s death made me ache with it.

The day more details about Sandra Bland’s death were revealed, I was leaving for New York City, so I was not in the office. The office where I am the only person of color — ever — to have worked. The office where I had recently experienced casual racist comments from a colleague at a morning meeting. Comments that hit a personal nerve. In an email to everyone in the office, I called out those comments. Sharing how the experience affected me and how I would like to move forward. My email was responded to with non-apologies and excuses. To my knowledge, that colleague experienced no recourse for their statements. I was only assured they “didn’t mean to hurt my feelings” via an email.

Undoubtedly, my pain about Sandra Bland would have been invisible to them had I been in the office so I was grateful to not be. I expressed this amongst a series of tweets about police brutality. Given the culture of that office, I would bet (if I had the funds) they didn’t even know who Sandra Bland was that day. But they didn’t have to know who she was or what happened to her. They don’t have to care about her death. But, it sits in my chest like a bubble and swells every time I see a police car in my rearview mirror because … I could’ve been her. My mother, sisters, cousins, and friends, all could’ve been her.

Janet-Tweet-1Twitter is my preferred social media in times like these. I follow well-informed, brilliant and humorous people from multiple and diverse walks of life. I am able to stay informed, share my thoughts and find connection when I can’t find it anywhere else. I purposely keep my Twitter updates private. I prefer to not have people see everything I’m sharing. Plus, it keeps the trolling to a minimum. It’s also not connected to my employment in a professional manner, so I kept it private for that reason as well.

A tweet about white privilege and being offended by it was retweeted though, removing the usual protection filter. I didn’t care. I was too busy hurting for Sandra Bland, for Kindra Chapman, and their families and for collective blackness to care. I was too busy reeling from another black death. It was happening again: another black person gone from trivial circumstances. This time, a woman, and we know that black women’s death under any circumstances can and has been so easily forgotten. I was committed that day to saying her name: Sandra Bland.

When I began working in Houston, I knew that the experience of racism could and likely would occur on some level. While Houston is hailed for it’s diversity, the majority of the establishment in my experience here is white centered. I understood, as a free black woman, I would have to choose if that racism was “worth” challenging. Then, how would I handle that once it happened. I even stated in the office several times that I did not like casual racism or sexism, but that was when I believed what I had to say mattered at my job. I now know different.

Racial diversity is a tricky thing. If your office is homogeneously white, you have to be intentional about diversity to have it actually be successful. It requires being willing to actually confront the very thing you think diverse hiring is the solution for: privilege. In this case, white privilege. Diversity, or rather Inclusion, requires those who don’t experience race based systemic oppression or marginalization to be challenged in ways that make them uncomfortable resulting in white guilt or “white tears”. Inclusion requires setting the precedence for intolerance to racism. It means that when an employee or colleague makes an out-of-bounds statement, you are willing to correct them, and if it’s in your power, take action to eradicate the behavior immediately.

It means that you are intolerant to any microaggressions and will listen when the person of color in your office speaks up about it. You will create dialogue and action because that is what is required for true inclusion. That didn’t happen in my office on multiple occasions, but I kept working there.

The majority of the time I kept my mouth shut when it came to questionable statements in the office. I did speak up when I was asked about Patricia Arquette’s commentary at the Oscars, which turned into an all day conversation summed up by the phrase “meant well.” I spoke up when a person of color’s name was said to make them incapable of being taken seriously. I specifically addressed this, not because of its personal foul to me but because those kinds of comments have power when voiced by white bodies and implicate flagrant bias.

Maybe I should’ve never said anything. Maybe I should have kept my head low and just kept my job and let the racism go unchecked because hey, I was employed, had bills and “White folks don’t care no way.” That’s the way it is when you are the “only.” That’s the choice or so I’ve been told over and over in the wake of my layoff. It’s the choice most marginalized persons find themselves making. Accepting environments that are dismissive and most often intolerant of their pain due to financial need and/or limited options.

Your economic stability is dependent on how you operate in what could be considered a hostile environment. An environment of constant microaggressions, confusing social interactions and unapologetic cultural insensitivity. Have the nerve to challenge it on any level? You could be fired. Don’t challenge it and still end up fired because of being deemed a threat. I had the audacity to challenge it because I was led to believe this company was open to that. It wasn’t.

I’ve come to the conclusion that people of color deserve to be in a work environment where we don’t have to be silent in the face of social injustice for the comfort of others. We deserve to not live in silence and fear of losing our job if we challenge racism. We deserve culturally inclusive environments free of unchecked and often flagrant racism. We deserve to be heard so that those with privilege can understand that their oblivious indifference and unconscionable dedication to white supremacy is the very same violence that caused Sandra Bland’s death and so many others. The same people who claim to support and exalt diversity, and who claim they “don’t see color” are the same people whose silence hurts even more than my defending my right to be comfortable alone in a culturally white space. Those who insist on my silence as a means of comfort in their existence. Those whose privilege is so intertwined with my oppression, the idea of my pain never even causes a question of consciousness or a hint of human empathy. Those whose racism shows up as complicity, duplicitous and is out of integrity with who they claim to be.

Let me say this. I don’t have any evidence that my job fired me for that tweet. This is just a feeling in my gut. It seems strange to me that they would award me projects one week and then lay me off the next. That they would hire someone a week prior to letting me go. That I wasn’t hired to have billable work in the first place but now, I’m laid off because my work isn’t billable. Without warning. Without initiated compromise.

If I was laid off for those tweets on my private twitter, that would mean that someone searched for something to challenge my role there. Maybe to stop me from working on a prized project or maybe just to put me in my place. In any event, they went out of their way to inflict their privilege on my livelihood because I made them uncomfortable and refused to be silent.

Zora Neale Hurston, one of the inspirations of my free black womanhood, says “If you are silent in your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So I refuse to be silent. I will continue saying the names of those who have experienced physical death at the hands of white supremacy. I will continue lifting up and adding my voice with those pushing back on the very racism that will never be satisfied with our silence anyway.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetUche Wogwugwu is a media professional and culture curator. Most known as the creator and outspoken co host of HipHopis4Lovers.com (HH4L). A weekly online radio show/podcast exploring the many platitudes of gender, sexuality and intimacy in Hip Hop. HH4L is presently on hiatus until the Fall 2015.

RACE AND BEYOND: The Enduring Legacy of Julian Bond

Julian Bond was such an omnipresent civil rights figure that I can’t remember the first or last time I saw him in person. During the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of my news reporting days, I had countless interviews with Bond, who seemed to enjoy the company of journalists—especially black ones like me. I appreciated the fact that unlike so many others who lived in the constant glare of the public’s curiosity, he answered questions patiently, often with an insight into the civil rights history that he had played a part in writing.

It seems now, upon hearing news of his death, that I thought he would always be somewhere nearby or just a phone call away. Maybe that’s why I never felt an urgency to celebrate Bond’s frequent comings and goings as they intersected with my own life and work: I assumed he’d be around forever. I’m sad to have been so wrong.

At the end of a charmed life filled with an array of struggles and accomplishments, Bond died last Saturday in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, of complications of vascular disease, his wife Pamela Sue Horowitz toldThe New York Times. He was 75.

Bond was a fixture in the civil rights constellation. He burst into public life in the early 1960s as a preternaturally handsome and youthful Morehouse College student, who dropped out to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, an upstart youth-led organization that challenged racist restrictions on public accommodations and voting rights.

From his early days as a leader and spokesman for SNCC, Bond worked tirelessly both inside and outside the halls of American power, serving in the Georgia legislature and eventually becoming chairman of the NAACP. He was, to use an old-fashioned term, something of a renaissance man. Or as The New York Times’ obituary described him, “a writer, poet, television commentator, lecturer and college teacher, and persistent opponent of the stubborn remnants of white supremacy.”

It’s tempting—and easy—to herald his sad, sudden, and surprising death as the end of something. But what has ended? The traditional civil rights era? Or the 1960s, a decade that was marked by the imposing strategy of sit-in protests? Or perhaps it’s the end of respectability politics—as it’s often derided by the restless youth of today—which seeks to work within existing power structures to bring about social change.

I don’t believe that Bond’s death should be viewed in such a finite way. Instead, his life should serve as a road map for social change—one that can’t easily be folded and put away simply because he is no longer among us to lead the charge.

Much like Bond’s SNCC of half a century ago, a new generation of young, energetic activists have taken to the streets today under the banner of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The similarities are strikingly similar. Black Lives Matter activists have challenged traditional political leaders to include racial justice at the forefront of their platforms. That’s in the style of SNCC, which was far more aggressive and confrontational in demanding the desegregation of lunch counters and the registration of black voters across the South than the more cautious NAACP of its day.

It’s too early to make definitive statements about the success or failure of Black Lives Matter. Perhaps, in time and through struggle, a striking figure in the mold of Julian Bond will emerge from the Black Lives Matter protests. This leader may seek to move from bullhorn agitation to voting compromise and collaboration within the larger political system.

To be sure, nobody in 1961 could have imagined how young, smart, and articulate Julian Bond’s life would unfold. The same may be said of the emerging leadership of Black Lives Matter. Regardless of what ultimately comes of the contemporary movement, however, there is a lesson to be learned, remembered, and taught from Bond’s historic legacy.

In a remarkable 2013 interview with my Center for American Progress colleague Heidi Williamson, Bond explained that he never imagined where his activism would lead, only that he thought it critical to engage in changing the nation for the better:

We didn’t plot it; we didn’t plan it. We didn’t say, “Now let’s work on this issue. Now let’s work on that issue.” The issues seemed to come to us. And we grappled with them and said, “Here is the best way to go about this thing. Here’s poverty. Here’s hunger. Here’s something else. Here’s absence of voting rights. Here’s inability to sit at the lunch counter.” All these things are both separate and connected. And we can easily handle them all if we develop a thoughtful campaign to do so. And we did.

I heard him say similar things many times over the decades. Indeed, what I learned from Bond through years of observation and countless conversations is that the struggle for equality is a never-ending journey. And it assuredly won’t stop with this singularly noble activist’s passing.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

*For more information or to speak with Mr. Fulwood, please contact Tanya S. Arditi at tarditi@americanprogress.org or 202-741-6258.

The Convenience of Forgetting

The-Democratic-Platform

In May of 2014, I published a piece about my family’s escape from sharecropping. I was surprised to learn that so many people didn’t know that sharecropping was slavery rebooted. The title of this article was Dismantling Collective Amnesia. It received a tremendous amount of feedback from writers and historians alike. I was applauded for both sharing and remembering the story. Still, it wasn’t as if I had a choice. Such transgenerational survival stories do not afford the convenience of forgetting.

Fast forward to April 2015. It was revealed that Ben Affleck participated in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s well known PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” However, when one of his ancestors (Benjamin Cole) was discovered to be a former slave owner, he requested that Benjamin Cole be completely erased from his family history. This ancestor (that Affleck shares his first name with) would not be included in Affleck’s “Finding Your Roots” episode. This was in order to avoid being associated with his ancestor’s past. Supposedly, Gates’ team allowed this erasure to occur.

This created a firestorm, in which Gates, a renowned African American Studies historian, faced criticism. It is unknown as to how much pressure was placed on the team to exclude this pivotal component of Affleck’s family history. But one thing is certain. Affleck represents America’s denial problem. His initial refusal to include the full truth of his family’s history aligns perfectly with America’s current trajectory of denial and erasure. It’s the same premise as “all this racism with no racists.” All this oppression with no oppressors. Affleck may have been trying to deter attention from someone he was ashamed of, however he contributed to the historical denial of oppression mounted on people of African descent; as if slavery were a figment of Black imagination, and slave owners are simply fictional characters that exist only in our minds.

It’s the same travesty as schools in Texas and Massachusetts seeking to rewrite history books to make slavery appear less brutal. It’s the same as publishers seeking to detract “nigger” from Mark Twain’s books to make him appear less racist. It’s the same as the years of denial that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owning rapist.

Furthermore, Affleck’s ability to dodge this history is a brilliant display of his own racially tiered privilege. Black Americans do not have the privilege of dodging history and the pains of slavery simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Black Americans do not have the privilege of making special requests to disconnect us from being the descendant of enslaved people. So much of the U.S. Black experience is systematically connected to slavery and the imagery of servitude. There is no escaping this, no matter how factually incorrect many of these depictions may be.

The truth is many people of African descent were enslaved in the Americas. The truth is there were enslavers that made this industry possible. Affleck’s ancestor was one of them. His attempt to disconnect himself, is an attempt to erase this truth, thereby erasing the truth about how racial oppression operates and who is behind it.

Ignoring these truths is not a viable solution. Acknowledgement and discomfort is necessary in order to dismantle institutional oppression. Though Affleck is a well known liberal, his denial is representative of many white liberals and conservatives alike who seek to dodge history in order to quell discomfort and personal responsibility towards acknowledging and dismantling systematic privilege.

Current day systems of oppression thrive on the lives of marginalized groups. For example, the current struggle for living wages among America’s working class is closely linked to strategies from chattel slavery for maximizing labor and increasing profit with low wage expenses.

The plantation didn’t just produce the commodities that fueled the broader economy, it also generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management. As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.

The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law. – Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman (How Slavery Led To Modern Capitalism)

In order to break these systems apart, there has to be a truthful discussion about what happened, who was responsible, and how it can be rectified. There must be a sincere attempt at truth and reconciliation.

This was Affleck’s opportunity to show his enslaving ancestor as an example of the ills of America’s past. Then show himself as a person working to rectify these ills. Instead he chose to ignore the issue altogether. For that, he reinforces a hard truth about America. Denial is chosen over healing. Erasure is chosen over accountability. Consequently, marginalized and systematically oppressed communities continue to be blamed for their own oppression, and history is laid to the wayside.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com.

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