Our Prophets Are Dying…But They Leave Gifts

Graffiti by Toni Morrison in the Aranzabela-Salburua neighborhood, in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Photo Credit: Zarateman

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, I was set to attend an event at Bowie State University. There, I would mingle with other authors and hopefully sale copies of my children’s books. This event had been scheduled for months, but when the day finally came, I couldn’t overcome my sluggish mood. I had an eerie feeling all morning, plus I was running late. THEN, OUT OF NOWHERE, the sky cracked open.

It was literally raining sideways.

Now, drenched, I finally reached the building and unloaded. It was a slow day with a good gathering of Black authors. But the weirdness never left.

Later, after I stepped around pools of water under the remerging bright sky, I learned that Ntozake Shange had passed away that morning in Bowie, Maryland.

There were no words.

This was the woman that gave us the lines that told our lives.

“i found god in myself
and i loved her
i loved her fiercely”

“my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender” 

“somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life”

“And this is for Colored girls who have considered suicide, but are moving to the ends of their own rainbows.” 

These were the words that we knew before we heard them, so when we did, we never forgot them. She wrote our soul. Our blues, our joys, our grief, our hopes, our humanity, our love.

Ntozake Shange – “she who walks with lions”

On Tuesday, August 6, 2019, Toni Morrison passed away.

This time, I was on a train and cried out an old school church shout. Had I been in the pews, they would have fanned me and covered my legs with white cloth. It was one of those yells. The grief was too much. Our country is in the throws of mass shootings and an illegitimate racist president is running us to the ground, and now Toni Morrison dies?

Help lawd! Who told her she could die?

This is the woman that brought us Pecola Breedlove and Milkman.

She brought us:

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

“Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,’ [the land] said. ‘Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else!”

“All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her.”

These words mattered. There were incredible for their depth but perhaps mattered even more so, just because they existed. Because before reading their words, many of us didn’t know such a work could exist – that so righteously and unapologetically spoke US. Not spoke to us – SPOKE US!

We hadn’t known it was possible, until someone that loved us handed us a Toni Morrison book or had us read, watch or perform For Colored Girls.

We can do that? We can speak us?

For many, the concept is foreign in a world that tells us everyday that everything about us is wrong.

But there they were. Their presence and words changed our world and shifted the narrative around Black women’s lives. And they were so damn proud about it.

On my way home from work, after another fit of sobbing, the words came to me.

“Our prophets are dying…but they leave gifts.”

I immediately thought of all the sister friends that had called and texted throughout the day. How we all felt the absence of another giant as space and time paused.

Then I thought again of all our words. That we had taken this thing and ran with it. Their words mattered so much because we would never forget to speak us and from now on – we’d be so damned unapologetic about it.

Those are a few of the gifts.

They didn’t give us voice. They showed us our voices and how to use it.

They didn’t give us stories. They told our stories, centered us, and showed us their intrinsic value.

They didn’t give us vision. They showed us how to embrace our visions. How to carve out a space in this world and make it recognize that we exist damn it and we ain’t leaving!

They gave us these gifts…insights, paths, skills, confidence, self-awareness, and self-love. Speaking truth to power, speaking power to the truth within ourselves, and lighting the way forward – so that the new generation would rise.

Our prophets are dying…but they leave gifts.

Ashe’

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On Fairfax and Northam: How Justice Was Weaponized to Excuse Racism

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As a Black woman that has experienced sexual assault, the last few days in Virginia politics has left me reeling in a vortex of anger and distrust. Unfortunately, I’m not alone. Governor Ralph Northam effectively lost the Black community’s trust with his admission/non-admission of having posed in a yearbook photo with blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes at the ripe age of 25 years old.

Consequently, he was asked by Virginia Democrats to resign. He promptly refused, causing more mayhem. However, the glimmer of hope was the possibility of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, taking Northam’s place.

Justin Fairfax speaking to reporters.

Then, suddenly that glimmer of hope came crashing down as sexual abuse allegations spread about Fairfax. With two allegations, one from Professor Vanessa Tyson (2004) and one from Meredith Watson (2000) – it was clear that Fairfax was no longer on the road to becoming governor. It was also clear that the political circus in Virginia was going to become more complicated, more disappointing, and more enraging.

As scholar Melissa Harris-Perry pointed out on Twitter, “Now observers are wringing hands over the “racist v rapist” dilemma facing Virginia. Welcome to the intersection where black women live.”

Democrats were at first unsure how to process the Fairfax allegations. But as Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson told more of their very detailed and compelling stories, a uniformed call for Fairfax’s resignation began. There was even a delegate preparing to impeach him.

At the same time, Governor Ralph Northam was all but planning a quiet victory party, hoping to rebuild his appeal among Black voters with a new race-based agenda. The conversation about his photos with blackface and KKK robes mostly died down. Many people, including some self-proclaimed progressives, rested on the “blackface is bad but not criminal,” excuse.

Ralph Northam speaking in an interview with CBS.


These statements dangerously minimize the fact that the Ku Klux Klan is a domestic terrorist group. Black communities were not angry at Northam for having bad manners. We were angry because those photographs depict an alignment with people that have terrorized, murdered, and raped Black and Brown people across the United States of America. A 25-year-old man in medical school (FROM VIRGINIA) knows very well what the Klan is and what they represent.

If Tamir Rice was a man, if Mike Brown was a man, if Trayvon Martin was a man, then surely Ralph Northam was a man at 25 years old – fully capable of the repercussions of his actions (both then and now).

As a Black woman that has experienced sexual assault, I am in no way excusing or minimizing allegations against Justin Fairfax. Nevertheless, accountability shouldn’t be selectively reserved when it comes to issues surrounding racism and sexual assault. Though the two issues should never be conflated – we can and should hold people accountable for both.

I feared that Democrats would allow Northam and his allies to weaponize the Fairfax allegations in order to remain governor and never be held fully accountable for his actions. And that is exactly what happened. Basically, Fairfax’s sexual assault allegations became the shield for Northam’s racist transgressions. In that case, Black women, whom everyone suddenly pretends to care about, are no safer, no more protected than we were before.

It’s all a horrible mess that no one could have predicted. But we’re here now, and we have to make sense of it.

In both cases, there must be justice. Fairfax has been accused of a crime. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson should be heard. Their testimonies should be taken seriously. There should be a full investigation, and there should be full accountability. On the other hand, Northam publically aligned himself with terrorists in his yearbook photos. To me, this is enough for removal as well. And he should also be thoroughly investigated.

But now that’s not going to happen.

Between Fairfax and Northam, the only thing I’m rooting for is truth and justice.

However, we can not allow the hope for justice to be weaponized against us. Untangling this web of chaos isn’t easy. Even as I write this, I feel juxtaposed against myself. Perhaps, I am.

However, if Democrats were willing to impeach Fairfax with no specific plan for addressing Northam, they were not truly working towards ensuring justice. They’ve only allowed justice to be weaponized to protect another person in power.

Lastly, as we move closer to 2020, there are only going to be more revelations, accusations, and scandals. I strongly advise Democrats to develop a well thought out process that brings more order and equality to moves towards investigating issues and enforcing accountability.

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Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a publisher and multicultural communications specialist. To reach J.A.M., email her at JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com.

Reflections for the “Other Side”

Medgar Evers
Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers

I really don’t want to spend the next three years writing and responding to Donald Trump. In an attempt to maintain my composure – I’ve opted to take frequent breaks from theorizing our current state of affairs. However, one thing that recently struck me was Trump’s insistence that the violence in Charlottesville, VA at a white supremacist rally was caused by “both sides.” He was referring to white supremacy advocates versus their opponents – people that are anti-hatred.

Throughout American history, people in opposition to progress have always blamed the “other side” for violence that ensues when countering oppression. The issue isn’t that the “other side” is violent. The issue is that the other side won’t be passive, won’t accept things the way that they are and won’t fearfully bide in silence.

Thus, they are labeled trouble makers for their insistence that society must make positive and progressive changes.

Harriet Tubman was labeled a thief and an outlaw.

Martin Luther King Jr. was beaten and jailed.

Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten and jailed.

Angela Davis was labeled a fugitive and jailed.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and labeled a terrorist.

Medgar Evers and countless others were murdered.

They were the “other side.” Today, history is on their side.

Playing the blame game is an old tactic and I’m not surprised at all. So to members of the “other side” – keep dreaming, keep pushing, and keep disrupting.

Keep on being the “other side.” We need you.

 

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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RACE AND BEYOND: The Enduring Legacy of Julian Bond

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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.

How Innocent People Are Wrongfully Convicted

Wrongfully-Convicted-Of-Murder

“There is nothing funny about a Black man going to prison for something he didn’t do.” My excitement about watching the movie Life was quickly shut down when my mother stated those words. As a 14-year-old, I hadn’t looked at it that way before. Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, was a hit comedy about the antics of two Black men in Mississippi serving life in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder. She refused to watch it.

The truthful sting of my mother’s response was fully warranted. Being wrongfully convicted of murder happens far more often than people think and can happen to anybody but especially to African Americans. And indeed, there is nothing funny about it.

Even as far back as 1996, the book “Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy” estimated that there was an output of at least 10,000 wrongful convictions a year. The abstract states, “Even if the American criminal justice system proved 99.5 percent accurate, it would still generate more than 10,000 wrongful convictions a year and these would reflect only serious index crimes.”

More recently the Innocence Project highlighted that studies find,”between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).”

According to a 2012 report by the National Registry of Exonerations about 2,000 people have been exonerated for wrongful convictions since 1989. Still, this number is in the least bit comforting. As the report notes:

…even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.

So how does this happen?

The Innocence Project lists the leading causes of false convictions as eye-witness misidentification, false confessions, improper forensic evidence and informants. One would think that these components would only lead to rightful convictions but each is severely flawed. For example, in 73% of convictions overturned with DNA, prosecutors used eye-witness accounts. But in many of these accounts there was “cross racial identification,” a known issue because studies show that it’s harder for witnesses to remember the facial details of people from other races.

False confessions are flawed due to pressures to accept plea deals and other coercion tactics. Informants are problematic sources because they are often offered plea deals and dropped charges in exchange for their testimony.

Dateline NBC recently featured a story about Eric Glisson, a man that was wrongfully convicted of murder and served over 17 years in prison. There was no physical evidence, only the words of one “eye-witness” and two other allegedly coerced witnesses. One of these witnesses recanted her testimony stating that she only testified due to police pressure of being threatened with jail time. It took 17 years, but Glisson and his co-defendants were finally freed. A total of five Black and Latino people (four men and one woman) had been in prison for almost two decades for a crime they didn’t commit.

Then there’s the story of The Central Park Five, who were recently awarded $40 million dollars after enduring 7-13 years in prison for a 1989 rape. In 2002, they were exonerated after a confession from the real perpetrator and DNA evidence proved their innocence. In another case, Jonathan Fleming was recently released after spending 24 years in prison for a Brooklyn, NY murder that was committed while he was in Florida.

There are many more stories like these that have yet to be concluded.

I recently learned of a case that hits closer to home. Jean Pierre DeVaughn is the older brother of a friend that I attended college with. Accused of murder-for-hire in the 2005 death of his cousin’s husband, Devaughn has maintained his innocence. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison with an additional 25 years. Having no prior record, he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it, wanting to fully clear his name.

His case is fraught with a series of issues. Devaughn endured an intense interrogation by police, during which a chair was thrown at him, he was taunted and his requests for a lawyer were denied. Additionally, there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

According to his defense attorney, a key witness in the first trial testified under the false pretense that Devaughn had accused him of being the murderer. Additionally, racial bias may have tainted jury selection leading to three African Americans being excluded from the jury.

In 2009, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. endorsed a letter written to the Fulton County District Attorney Office on Devaughn’s behalf. He is now represented by Janice L. Mathis, lawyer, activist and Vice President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Atlanta chapter.

Some may think it a bit presumptuous to believe that Devaughn is innocent, but history has shown us not to ignore pleas for a second look at trials that were once proclaimed to be “open and shut” cases. For now Devaughn waits in a Georgia prison for another chance to prove his freedom. The Supreme Court of Georgia will soon review his case.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact about these cases is this could happen to anyone and exonerations are rare occurrences. Many wrongful convictions include death row prisoners, which is all the more reason to support efforts to end the death penalty.

As an article from Scientific American highlighted, “Since 1973 144 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated in the U.S. But Gross says that the analysis indicates that at least 340 people would have been put to death unjustly in that same time period.”

According to the Innocence Project, there have been only 316 post-conviction DNA exonorees, with 198 being African Americans. This is a daunting number considering African Americans only make up 13% of the US population. The numbers indicate that there is an overwhelming rate of bias concerning death sentencing for African Americans. Additionally, it’s hard to have many cases reviewed due to destroyed or lost evidence.

Something is devastatingly wrong here in the land of the “free,” especially considering the influence of corporate profits from the prison industrial complex. This is a real life horror story.

There is a perception that criminal convictions among African American youth are inherently just. But the fact is, many convictions stem from not having proper representation, not knowing the full scope of their rights when questioned by the police, being denied their rights and racially biased sentencing. An overwhelming amount of exonorees are Black men and women because an overwhelming amount of this demographic are wrongfully convicted or given harsher sentencing than their counterparts (sometimes even according to skin tone).

What can you do to prevent this from happening?

For now, it’s important to support initiatives like the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions that are doing the work to assist as many wrongfully convicted prisoners as possible. Push for your local jurisdiction to include preventative measures like recorded interrogations, proper and long-term preservation of forensic evidence, and advocating for eye-witness identification reform. 

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

IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.