Decent People Action Alert: Troy Davis

I’m not someone who wholeheartedly agrees with the death penalty, but honestly, I’m not someone who rules it out either. When I do agree with the death penalty in those rare cases, it has to be because someone did something truly, truly horrific, and that horrific act must be proven beyond doubt.

Troy Davis (from The Color of Change website)

Lately, though, those rare cases are getting rarer for me, as I read the history of the death penalty in this country over the last nearly four hundred years, when people were put to death for social transgressions that did not involve taking a life at all, but rather for being the “wrong” race or daring to challenge the power of the state. Certainly some of those folks who have been executed were guilty of murder, but history shows us that the death penalty has been applied overwhelmingly in this country because of class and race bias and not in the service of justice.

Today, I saw a link on Facebook from The Color of Change about a man named Troy Davis, and I’m embarrassed to say, I almost scrolled past it. But when I stopped and read, I’m glad I did. Y’all know I’m from Georgia, and so, the case of Troy Davis hits literally close to home. Here is The Color of Change webpage for him.

If you want to read in depth about Troy Davis’s case, click this link for articles on him on Amnesty International’s website.

There have been several cases in the past few years of Black men who were convicted and sentenced to death based upon eyewitness testimony, only to have DNA evidence exonerate those men. Some of these Brothers have spent at least a decade on death row before getting out. That is indeed horrible, but they are the lucky ones, because we African Americans all know the history, the true stories of other Black men who were put to death for crimes they didn’t commit. In Georgia, as in all the Deep South states, these kinds of stories are all too frequent.

Given the current crisis facing the Black community in regards to the prison industrial complex and the rush to imprison Black men–and to make them work as free labor, in some cases–we definitely need to know absolutely that a murder has been committed before a state takes the drastic step of executing a human being.

I don’t sign a lot of things–I’m pretty skeptical–but I want y’all to know that I signed my name to the Color of Change petition to stay the execution of Troy Davis. I am asking everyone who reads this blog not only to sign the petition, but to spread the word about this situation immediately. Time is of the essence.

If we can get the news out about somebody’s latest rap video and get it a million hits on You Tube, surely we can move the news of this man through the internet grapevine to save his life–at least until all the facts of the case are in. Click on this link, please, to sign the Color of Change petition for Troy Davis.

Whether or not you believe in the death penalty—and I’m positive some of y’all do believe, and trust me, I’m not trying to judge if you do—ask yourself this: if this man Troy Davis was your brother or father—or you—wouldn’t you want there to be no doubt at all before an execution took place?

Thank y’all for reading.



A Long (Elastic) Goodbye

In November 2009, I had my uterine fibroids removed; it took me seventeen years to make that decision. During those years, I tried everything to shrink them or make them stop growing, but they kept getting larger. By the time I did discover that a low-fat/high fiber diet, exercise and stress management would help me keep my fibroids from growing and maybe even shrink them, they had become too large and were causing serious health problems, though I kept up a public front.

During the final eight years that I had fibroids, I endured solicitous pats on my stomach from other women, and that dreaded question, “When are you due?” (Even men felt as if that was a polite question for them to ask.) I started trying to avoid both people and looking at myself in the mirror, and at times I did feel like an oddity of nature. Strangely, though, I learned to love and accept myself inside a way I never had in the past.

And I learned to love elastic-waist pants.

I first encountered these pants when I had a serious weight gain back during my first real relationship, in graduate school.  It was 1991. My boyfriend was thin and his metabolism was freakishly high.  I adored him and wanted to make him happy, so I learned how to cook the richest foods I could find in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook, like homemade chicken potpie with a butter crust.

I gained fifty pounds in a year and a half.  He, of course, stayed the exact same weirdly thin weight. Then, we broke up, but not before I went looking for new clothes and discovered the immeasurable joy of wearing pants with snap-and-give waists. By the time I lost forty of those pounds, I’d been diagnosed with fibroids, and discovered that as long as I didn’t dip below a size fourteen, I could still get pants with elastic in the waistband.  Who in her right mind would relinquish this kind of pleasure? It was a soul mate situation.

Years passed and I found the upscale “women’s” section in every department store in every city I moved to. The more money I made, the more I paid top dollar for my clothes, and even if I didn’t like my body, I draped it in the best fabrics and styles I could find. (WAY cuter than the pants in the picture up top, okay?) As my fibroids grew, I discovered that it didn’t matter if I lost weight. My hips grew narrow with weight loss, but my waist continued to expand. So, I had to keep buying my clothes in the “women’s” section.

Elastic was a good friend to me; it made it possible for me to wear pants in the first place, and once my tummy got really large, I just gave up dresses and skirts altogether, for the most part, because they were so unflattering. Frankly, though, nothing really flattered my body anymore, so I settled for comfort, and that became most important, as I started working on myself emotionally and on my writing career. For the first time in my life, after a miserable childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I was really happy. I’d started loving myself, despite what I looked like on the outside.

But a year and a half ago, I decided that my greatest act of self-love was to finally have fibroid surgery. One of the reasons I waited is that I’d been afraid of getting “butchered,” but then, my university switched to a better insurance that allowed me to choose my own hospital and my own surgeon. My doctor was a brilliant man who’d taken his surgical fellowship at Harvard, and once my post-opt morphine drip wore off, he told me, “I had to give you a vertical incision because the fibroids were so large, Miss Jeffers, but don’t worry. I cut in the natural separation between your muscles. I made sure you can have a six-pack, so get ready for some great changes in your life!”

Bless his heart, he actually said the above a couple of times when he came to check in on me at the hospital, and then twice again when I came back for post-surgery check up. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and tell him, I didn’t care what he did when I was under. A waistline was not in my future, much less a six-pack.

After surgery, I kept all my elastic-waist pants, but I noticed that they looked strange on me. The waist bagged and the crotch of the pants was way down to my thighs. I was forced to buy regular pants with no snap-and-give. Also, I had to purchase a belt because my new pants fit my hips but were too big in the waist; this is a common problem with Black ladies, but I’d never paid attention to Sisters complaining because the fit of clothing had been the last thing on my mind when I had fibroids.  A few months after my surgery, I gained some weight, but it didn’t matter; my waist was still nearly a size smaller than my hips.

But I kept my old pants, anyway. I planned on getting them altered. You just don’t throw away quality clothes on some whim.

I’m now twenty-five pounds over the weight that I was when I went into surgery, but because  I lost nearly twenty pounds of fibroids and all of that weight was in my stomach I look very different. When I run into people who haven’t seen me since before surgery, they always say, “Oh my goodness! You’ve lost so much weight. You look fantastic.”

Correction. When I run into men, they say that. Usually, the women say nothing about how different I look, although these were the same women who were full of advice about what I should do about my body when my stomach was poking out to, like, Utah. They would tell me they were “frightened” for my health. Or say, “You would be such a pretty lady if you did something about those.” Sometimes, they would ask me, “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” And then they’d give me nightmare stories about their last babies that were conceived right before they went through The Change. (Which is a a little ways off for me.) But now that I have a couple of curves, I get no “wow, you are such a pretty lady” speech. It’s a little confusing.

This past weekend, I decided to clean my closets of all my old pants. I had to accept that I didn’t have the time or money to get them altered so they looked right on me, but as I pulled my pants off their plastic—never wire—hangers, I said to myself, “These are great pants! Look at this material! I paid $80 on sale for these pants!”

Giving up my fibroids with all their attendant health problems was the best decision I could have made, and I know I am lucky to have come out of surgery with no complications and with a much smaller mid-section. I’ve made even healthier choices after the surgery. I’ve been a vegetarian for eight months and recently, I decided to give up sugar and take up Ashtanga yoga as well.  Yet saying my final goodbyes to my elastic-waist pants and to all the memories of when I chose comfort over vanity—well, I’m really, really sad. I know it sounds silly, but I wept salt tears when I packed those pants away to donate to the Salvation Army.

Me and my pants, we had some times. We traveled the country together; I gave the first important poetry reading of my career (in 2000 with Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey) in a pair of elastic-waist Capri pants that I made myself from pink silk shantung. That silk cost $30 a yard, but I didn’t care, because everyone said how cute I was.

We had our tough moments, too. We endured the intrusiveness of well-meaning, nosy heifers in grocery stores. But we survived those embarrassments and became stronger, and finally happier.

Now, I’ve got to forge ahead with some flimsy, low-rise pants that cling to a butt I didn’t even know I had; those kind of pants don’t really count. But I have to believe I can go it alone. And I have to believe there is a nice lady somewhere, one who is waiting to open her heart and home to all my pants with the snap-and-give waists. Right away, she’ll see how easy they are to love. I hope she remembers not to use wire hangers.

Cherry-Picking Our Shining Black Past

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be in the audience when historian Annette Gordon Reed lectured at my university on her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello.   In case you don’t know about her, Gordon Reed is the stone cold sister who basically proved—through the use of meticulous forensic evidence–that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a decades-long romantic relationship that produced children, a claim that most of Thomas Jefferson’s heirs still strongly deny. This information was in her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy which appeared before the DNA evidence came in linking a mixed race descendant of Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson.

During the question and answer period after Gordon Reed’s lecture, a White man stood up in the audience and said, “Well, there’s still really no definitive proof that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children, is there?” And then he hemmed and hawed and said a bunch of nonsense and foolishness that I didn’t remember because I was so mad I thought I would bust something loose inside.

But Gordon Reed admirably kept it together. She replied in a dry voice that it was true that we couldn’t prove that all of Sally Hemings children belonged to Thomas Jefferson. We only had the date mapping that showed that every time Jefferson visited Monticello, Hemings gave birth no more than nine months after he left, and that Jefferson recorded these births himself. We only had the DNA connecting one of Hemings’ male children to a close male descendant of Jefferson. And we only had the oral testimony of one of her sons about his years at Monticello and his claim that Jefferson was his father. That’s all we had. (The irony in Gordon Reed’s voice was palpable.)

And then she went on to say, we actually have no proof at all that Jefferson’s legitimate White heirs are his children biologically, because all his legitimate children were women and you can’t test the DNA evidence from a maternal line of descendants.  All we had were the words of those descendants of those women, and no one ever had disputed their claim, because they were White.

And that’s when that White man in the audience sat his crazy, rude self down.

I know it may seem strange, but I’ve thought about this encounter in these few days since the new biography of Malcolm X has hit bookstores, and what the legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X have in common.

If you’ve been without the internet for the past few days, you haven’t been reading the news about Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which is Manning Marable’s current biography of the civil rights leader. But if you’ve been online, I’m sure you’ve seen all the news about the book, and also, how upset Black people have been about a few claims made in that book, most notably that Malcolm X engaged in homosexual activity with a White businessman, back when he was Malcolm Little.

I guess I’ve been living in some Shangri-La-La Land because when I saw the news about the (alleged) homosexual activities of Malcolm, I was like, “Okay.” I didn’t get excited one way or the other. Most of my friends are Creative Writers and some of them are gay or bisexual,  so I’ve learned not to trip about these things regarding the sexual surprises of historical figures, or even folks who are still alive. I just roll with it.

In the Creative Writing community, if you are homophobic, you aren’t going to have very many friends. You either accept the homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered identity of folks, or you get out of the Creative Writing community. It’s that way with most of the arts.

It’s not that we writers have more LGBT people in our ranks than the rest of the world, I suspect. I just think that folks feel more comfortable coming out in the writing community—at least these days.  And don’t think we don’t have our share of present homophobia; it’s just that our bigots know they have to go underground with it, because the public attitude is one of tolerance in the writing community.

So I’ve been sort of struck by the level of public, African American nastiness leveled at Manning Marable—who, along with Malcolm X is dead. Marable is a man who spent twenty years researching Malcolm X, whom he greatly respected and admired, in an attempt to provide the truest depiction he was capable of writing, yet Black people are attacking him. Many are saying that Marable is trying to tear down our hero. He’s throwing tarnish on Malcolm, our “Shining, Black Prince,” and on Malcolm’s legacy of being a do-right, disciplined Brother.

Once I realized that, addition to my Shangri-La-La Land citizenship in the writing community, I also live in a real world, I saw that in alleging Malcolm was bisexual, Marable has more than just nudged up again The Black Homophobia Thought Police; he’s taken out a bat and commenced to beating them about the head and shoulders. Then he’s thrown tear gas into their ranks, and chased that with a grenade.

Even some of my academic friends who have their anti-homophobia vocabulary seriously together have been thrown by the thought of Malcolm under the sheets getting busy with a man. A man. A MAN!

Aside from the obvious question, which is, of course, why our Black princes can’t have sex with other Black princes, and still be royalty, the other obvious question to me is, how come in the Black community we love to find out all the juicy sexual gossip of White folks, like who all the famous, heroic White men in history have secretly been Black ladies’ baby daddies or who have secretly been gay or who’ve secretly been molesting children, etc?

Essentially, we want to know who did the nasty with or onto whom (in the case of rape or molestation), and hopefully this nasty took place between two folks it shouldn’t have, but when it comes it our own Black heroes’ sex lives we want to get all outraged and say stuff like, “That’s between him and his wife. The man is dead. Can’t we let him rest in peace?”

I mean, really. For those people who are so outraged, just grow up. In case you don’t get it, history is about not letting anything or anyone rest in peace, okay? Everybody historians talk about is dead. That’s why it’s, like, history.

And this is exactly why I told my students the other day that I want to be buried with a complete copy of my medical records, an unpublished memoir, and a note: “Dear nosy historians, please don’t bother cutting my bones into pieces and digging into my background. Just read the enclosed materials and get the [insert expletive noun] up out my casket.”  And all those materials will be printed on acid-free paper, by the way.

The above scenario will only happen if I ever become famous, however. If I don’t become famous, nobody will care about how many people I slept with (which is none of your current business) or whether I loved my mama (and you already know the answer to that).

And that’s the whole point about Malcolm X.  It is precisely because of all the good works that he did, and his brilliance as a political figure that Manning Marable spent all that time researching that man, and why we want to read what Marable wrote about Malcolm. And this is the same reason that Annette Gordon Reed spent that time researching Thomas Jefferson; we want to know about his brilliance and his sense of foresight about building this country. No matter whom Thomas Jefferson liked to sleep with, you cannot sleep on his most lasting legacy—besides all them kids he had with Sally—which is the Declaration of Independence.

These two men of different races had impact upon this country, and their words fueled the political zeitgeists of their time. Their lives meant something and still do, and people should be interested in what went into making these men up—the whole men, not just what we pick and choose to know. And we should be interested for more reasons than we just want to say to ourselves, “Well, will you look at that? He was a Rick James Super-Freak.”

In both cases, both Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X (allegedly) had aspects of their humanity—things that went into making them the whole, brilliant men they were—that they had to keep hidden because of the social and sexual mores of their individual eras. To me, it’s not an outrage that these things are coming to light now. To me, it’s just sad that they had to keep them hidden in the first place.