Slavery Reparations: Don’t Follow the Morals. Follow the Money.

cover-bigAs you recall, the last time I came back to blogging, it was for an ancestral moment.  So here I am again. It’s something about those ancestors that just keep bringing me back here.

But I plan to stay for a while this time. Y’all know me. I’ve saved up all the stories. And you know you want to hear them all.

Anyway, I think by now that everyone has either heard about or read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s very long and incredibly interesting, if very flawed—yes I said it—article in The Atlantic concerning Reparations for past discrimination against African Americans.  (Not just slavery, but also, Jim Crow.)

Don’t worry. I’ve no intention of writing 15,000 words. You can relax.

I have very strong opinions about the article, not the least of which are that he presented a trailer for the article, which is a clear “I said it and now, I’ve dropped the Slavery Mic”  signal if ever there was one. But, hey, we writers are arrogant. I cannot say that I, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, do not stand in my mirror and recite my poetry over and over with dramatic pauses and profound facial expressions and whatnot. So, look, let Brother Coates have his article trailer.

But there are some things that I should—nay, must—point out.

First, Brother Coates started an article discussing Reparations—a term which is associated with slavery, even if he claimed that he wasn’t writing about slavery, despite his mentioning at least one former slave in the article—with a quote by John Locke, who was a financial investor in the Royal African Company.

Do y’all know what the Royal African Company was? It was a slave trading enterprise.

Y’all know I was making the Old Black Church Lady sound: “Um. Um. Um.” 

And in addition, I kept saying, “Dang, Brother Coates. John Locke in a Reparations Article? JOHN LOCKE IN A REPARATIONS ARTICLE?!” all while I was reading the article.  I was thinking, if I really admired the work of a philosopher as Brother Coates has said he admires John Locke, I’d do more than a Wikipedia search. I might actually read up on him. And it’s not like this information on Locke is hidden. All one has to do is Google “John Locke and Slavery”—and it pops right on up.

The second thing is, Brother Coates mentioned land that was stolen from African Americans as part of past discrimination. This is a tricky one, too. Now, it seems like this is a horrible thing, to take the land from someone who has paid for it. And it is, in theory.

But consider the fact that the land—which was in North America—was initially stolen from Native/Indigenous peoples before it got to the black people, and it starts to get a little dicey there. Because the second theft was after the first theft. And if we are talking moral issues, can you really reimburse somebody for land that was stolen in the first place?

I mean, check it: suppose somebody comes by your house while you and your friends are playing spades (and drinking brown liquor) on a Saturday evening, and wants to sell some stolen goods he or she boosted.

I know that would never, ever, in a million years happen in the African American community on a Saturday night. I mean, God forbid. I’m getting outraged just thinking about it.

So anyway, in this completely hypothetical, outrageous situation, you buy something—accidentally—that kinda might be stolen. Like a purse. And then, one day while you are at the store, you forget and leave your purse in your unlocked car, and somebody reaches in and grabs your purse. But guess what? You can’t report the purse as stolen to the police because it was stolen in the first place.

Kind of like African Americans expecting to get reimbursed for land that originally was stolen from the Muskogee, the Creeks, the Seminoles, the Cherokee, and the Choctaw by white Americans, right?

But here’s my biggest problem with not only Brother Coates’s article, but with a lot of the Reparations work already done by, say, Randall Robinson, or the Republic of New Africa organization, Queen Mother Moore, and many others.

Get ready again.

The traditional argument for Reparations—or “case,” as Brother Coates put it—is based upon past cruelty done to African Americans. And that is not a sturdy foundation.

I hear a collective shouting from my readers. Because how dare I say that the pain that African American suffering is not worthy of Reparations? But I’m not saying that in the least.

Look: I’m descended on both sides from enslaved people. I have the sad family stories and I do historical research on the Transatlantic slave trade and North American slavery, in both the south and north. I write much of my creative work on the issue of slavery. I’ve lain awake at night literally screaming, after a day of reading and writing on slavery. I’m not playing with you. I would not lie about something like that.

Therefore, does my heart, spirit and ancestral memory tell me that, morally, current African Americans are owed monetary Reparations of some kind—such as forgiveness of student loans—after what our ancestors went through and the current humiliations, cruelties and physical threats that many of us still go through?

In the words of my grandmother, “You darn tooting.”

But are we going to get Reparations based on moral reasoning? Again, no, we are not. I don’t care that Brother Coates wrote in his article—which I had issues with, yes, but which had some very beautiful moments. (The brother does have a very elegant way with words. I got to give him that.)

“White folks were mean to my people” is not going to carry the day.  Moral outrage is not going to carry the day. Tears are not going to carry the day. Talking about Racial Apartheid is not going to carry the day.  This is not the emotional crescendo portion of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I had a dream speech” that gives you chills—and that speech wasn’t even supposed to be about his dream, okay? The speech used to be called the “bad check speech.”

But members of the Republican Party can’t get a fake, emotional catharsis from referring to a hot check. A Hot Check Treatise could not be used by the GOP to chide us colored folks that we aren’t living up to Dr. King’s standard.

What might win the day and some moolah—and that’s a big, fat, might, because the fight for Reparations has been going on for a couple of hundred years, at least— is a discussion about what actually happened to all that money made off the slave trade. Just where did all that money go?

I was planning to get back to blogging anyway, but this specific blog post came as a result of a discussion I had online last evening concerning slave trade money. It was something that I’d been thinking about for a while, and I actually had thought—or hoped—that Brother Coates would bring up the issue.

And here’s what I realized—and what other, far more learned folks than I already had realized: Slavery money is not clean money. It’s like any other kind of money earned from ill-gotten gains. Like organized crime money, which, when you think of it, is a perfect metaphor for slavery. It was an organized crime against humanity, involving generations of families, the government, and financial institutions.

Dirty money leaves some kind of trail. And what is dirtier than slavery money?

When certain white folks—and, it must be said, black folks, too— start talking about “that was then” they conveniently don’t get that, if wealth is handled efficiently, it generates more wealth. And that wealth is passed down from generation to generation which makes more wealth and so on and so forth. And though some of the proof for that wealth from slavery money has disappeared a lot of it is still around.

So, if “slavery was then and this is now,” how come that slavery money didn’t end “then”? How come that “in the past” money is still buying triple shot lattes now–all day, every day, today?

For example, certain insurance companies issued insurance policies for slaves, such as Aetna, New York Life, and others.

Banks have made money off of slavery. Wachovia admitted it.

Nearly all the Ivy League universities in New England and some prestigious universities in the south were financed with slave money. Here’s the link for you to order Craig Stephen Wilder’s book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Also, here is the exhaustive self-study done by Brown University on the very close ties of the founders of the university to slave traders. Brown is in Rhode Island, by the way. The whole state was slave trading and horror central.

Here is an article written by the authors of a book on the roots of slavery with American capitalism. And here’s a book written on that same subject by Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

How did I find out about these books and articles, which are just a few of the very well-researched discussions of the financial roots of current American economics? I asked my historian friends. Everyone should know or be friendly with an historian. It comes in quite handy. A sister wouldn’t lie to you.

And what about all those houses, like the Royall House that still stands, built by a slaveholder? Belinda Royall was mentioned in Brother Coates’ article.  (The former Poet Laureate Rita Dove wrote a poem for her a while back.)  Isaac Royall was Miss Belinda’s master, a Loyalist who fled to England during the Revolutionary War. His house was seized. Today, it is not a private house; it is owned by the state of Massachusetts and the house and the slave quarters constitute a museum. 

How much is that state-owned house worth now?

What about all those other Big Houses, bought with slave money, up and down the Eastern Seaboard that now belong to other state government organizations and preserved? Unless all those houses are suffering from extensive termite damage, those houses—built with slave labor and slave money—are worth a lot of cash.  Is that not present slavery money?

What about those universities that still have endowments in the billions, endowments supported by slave trade money? Is that not present slavery money?

What is my point? Well, I am not trying to hate on Brother Coates, so please understand that.

What I am doing, as one scholar to another, is pointing out that whenever one makes an argument—a case, if you will—one must anticipate the holes someone is going to poke in that argument even before the argument is put to paper. This is why right now, anti-Reparations Trolls are busy being hostile and putting Brother Coates in corners. Trolls don’t care about meanness that happened two hundred years ago. They don’t care about meanness that happened two weeks. That’s why they are Trolls.

But if we—and by “we” I mean those of us who support Reparations, which I definitely do—begin to do the hard and years-long work—to follow the money trail that has never disappeared, we might have a change. It is time for the concerted effort of many, many learned supporters of Reparations to address this issue from all sides and do the research.

Brother Coates needs to be reaching out to a bunch of historians who know far more about this subject—certainly far more than I do, so let me make that clear as well—and quoting from them and asking for their advice. Because despite his article trailer, this ancient fight is nowhere near over.

I know that it is hard for us black folks to look at this issue in a calm, clear-eyed manner, without clenching hearts. It’s extremely difficult for me. I couldn’t sleep well tonight—I’ve haven’t slept at all—after reading tidbits from the Brown University report.  But it is time for us to understand that in order to be prepared for the ugliness that comes when discussing Reparations, we need to be prepared to set aside emotion and go straight for the jugular: the contemporary American wallet that is still fat with the unpaid wages of our ancestors.

Questions for Mr. Joe Morton After Reading His Article on 12 Years a Slave in Huffington Post

Dear Mr. Morton:

I read your article today, “When Will Black Historical Films Focus on Triumph, Rather Than Plight” and I have some questions for you.

First, why are stories of slavery not triumphant?

Are you descended from enslaved people like over 90% of black folks in America (and more than a few white folks)? I am. My paternal great-great grandfather fought in a Colored Regiment in the Union Army, later went to medical school and became a doctor. And his son became a doctor.

He was born a slave. Is his story not a triumph?

His great grandson–my father–earned two degrees from Columbia University and later became only the second black person in the history of the English Department at North Carolina State University to earn tenure and full professor.

Is that not a triumph?

My mother’s great-grandmother was a slave, around six when Emancipation came. She told my mother the story of her father being sold down the river to Mississippi. She never saw him again, but told my mother never to forget the story and Mama never did. She told me and told me never to forget. And now, I’m telling you, to bear witness to what happened, lest it be forgotten.

Is that not a triumph?

Mama’s tenant farmer parents sent her to Spelman College–the first in her family. She graduated, later earned a Master’s from California State University, then a doctorate from Atlanta University, then went on to earn tenure and full professor at Talladega College, a school founded for freed slaves.

Is that not a triumph?

I–the descendant of slaves on both maternal and paternal sides–graduated from Talladega College–my mother was one of my professors–graduated from University of Alabama’s graduate school–where some of the buildings were built by slave labor–and I am now a tenured, Associate Professor at a school that hired its first African American tenure track professor the year of my birth.

I own my own home. My credit’s pretty okay, though I owe a lot of student loans. I published some books. I’m happy. I’ve never missed a meal. I’m in love and all married and stuff.

Is that not a triumph?

Mr. Morton, can I ask you, if you are so concerned about the depiction of sexual violence of white men against black women in 12 Years a Slave, how come I don’t recall your taking the time to write an article about black men’s continual abuse of black women–ostensibly their own community sisters–in Hip Hop music? Or is black misogyny not a form of psychological bondage aka slavery?

If we can support Jay-Z–probably the best known Hip Hop artist of all time–who is a former crack dealer turned misogynist rapper-millionaire as a “triumphant” story, how come there is all this black protest–including yours– over Solomon Northup’s story?

Solomon Northup survived being kidnapped as a free man into slavery, sold down south, he was rescued as a result of a loving, interracial action team, he was reunited with his intact, nuclear family, and because he was a literate man–unlike so many other black folks, since there were laws against black literacy at the time–wrote a book about his experiences, one edition of which made it to The New York Times bestseller’s list.

From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom again–what’s not triumphant about that?

Did you know George Washington, our first President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, as well as several signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders? How many times have you–or other black people–written articles in the mainstream press to protest PBS documentaries or films made on the American Revolution and its aftermath, abolition, and the Civil War?

How come I’ve never read an article written by you–or any of the other black protesters of 12 Years a Slave– in Huffington Post which reads, “A Documentary on George Washington AGAIN?! Dang!”?

Why is the story of white slaveholders triumphant, but not the stories of their slaves? Is it because, even with black people–whom I hope would know better–triumph is measured in financial holdings or paragraphs in history books, instead of moral fortitude? And do you ever wonder that if black people decide that enslaved black people aren’t triumphant enough to remember how we will get those paragraphs in history books to begin with?

Why are black people who are no longer alive–enslaved people– being made to feel ashamed for their being slaves, instead of being congratulated for surviving and passing down values to their descendants–like “y’all love each other,” like “leave no one behind,” like “God is good even when you can’t see the proof,” like “you can make it, even the toughest of times”?

How come we’ve stopped thanking them and started trying to hide them in historical closets?

Mr. Morton, do you want your descendants to forget about you and stop telling your stories if they decide you no longer fit a triumphant model?

Because you are currently playing the role of a murderous CIA Director in ABC’s Scandal. I love that show, and by the way, I love your work (going all the way back to Brother From Another Planet, which, oddly enough, depicted white-on-black violence and slavery themes, if I remember correctly.) And, well, I’m mad at you now, but I’ve always had a little crush on you.

I love that mole you have on your face. Not that this is important, but have you noticed I have a mole on my face, too?

Should I stop watching Scandal because you are playing a non-triumphant, horrible, black murderer-man on the show?–Because I won’t. I just can’t. I just love Scandal too much. Please don’t make me stop. It’s TV crack . And Kerry and Them with great outfits. And you’re so fine and sinister and very well-groomed.

Anyway.

Speaking of Jay-Z, I’m curious, are certain black people upset that 12 Years a Slave wasn’t made like their favorite Jay-Z rap music video–ending with Solomon driving back North in his gold-plated Bentley, pulling up to a mansion where his blond-weave- wearing wife answers the door wearing a mink coat draped over her bikini and thigh-high boots–and then, they both start spitting Hip Hop rhymes while young, scantily clad, biracial-looking, video vixens twerk around them ecstatically?

I should write that screenplay.

Mr. Morton, if I did write that screenplay, would you help me get it made into a triumphant movie about black history? Please support a sister.

Sincerely yours,

Honorée

 

 

Teachable Racial Moment: You’re Supposed to be Upset By a Slavery Movie. That’s the Whole Point.

I’m writing. I promise–which is why in addition to my not updating the blog like I used to, I’m supposed to be on a Social Media Fast. That is, until last night, when I sneaked on Facebook and read a comment thread where someone white was vehemently arguing against the depiction of violence in Twelve Years a Slave, the movie.

And then, I got really, really mad. And then, I didn’t get any work done.

I can deal with the Confederate Flag Toting Yahoos and their “I’m tired of hearing about slavery and now, shut up all y’all n*****s” routine.  But there’s something about Nice Liberal White People trying to trash a movie made by a black man about slavery by using the “I’m made uncomfortable by all that slavery violence” excuse that just burns my biscuits.

Sidebar: I wish that some middle class black folks who are highly educated and nice, too, would join me in telling Nice Liberal White People that it is not really their place to talk about how black folks should make their own films about their enslaved ancestors. And also, that it doesn’t matter if Steve McQueen is British because the British Empire had black folks in slavery in the United Kingdom and in British colonies, too. And it doesn’t matter if Chiwetel Ejiofor is British, either, because his parents are Nigerian and some of his ancestral kin ended up as slaves in America.

That whole “black folks are still black even when they don’t live in America” thing is what’s called the African Diaspora, just so you know.

Anyway, I have not even seen this film yet because it’s not in my town. I live in a very conservation area and I’m not even sure the film will make it to my town. But I am a serious fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, going all the way back to his Kinky Boots days.  I even saw him in Love Actually, which made me ask, “Don’t no black folks ever marry each other in the United Kingdom?” And of course, I’ve read the narrative of Solomon Northup; that was back in college, so I was excited, but after last night, I realized, it was time for A Teachable Racial Moment post before I get back to my writing.

So let me break it down:

First, you’re supposed to be upset by a slavery movie. That’s the whole point.

Slavery was bad, okay, no matter what Paula Deen tells herself. It was bad, and brutal, and dehumanizing for a lot of black folks on three continents for five hundred years.  (In fact, slavery is going on right now in this country with non-black folks.  But that’s another story.) Slavery is never supposed to give you a feel-good moment, unless somebody gets free.

When you read the classic slave narratives, like Solomon Northup’s or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom you need to remind yourself that these books were written in the age of censorship and also, delicate public sensibilities; they use a lot of euphemism in these narratives so as not to shock nineteenth-century audiences. Despite the lack of overtly violent scenes, Jacobs’s book still was shocking because she addressed the sexual exploitation and sexual assault of enslaved black women, and to a lesser extent, enslaved black men and black children.

I didn’t see Tarantino’s Django Unchained because I might have been offended by his use of violence to depict slavery, but rather, because I refused to give my money to a disrespectful, rude—and might I say, extremely corny—white man who thinks he’s been granted a Ghetto Pass. No you haven’t, Mr. Tarantino, and your black friends in Hollywood might let you get away with using the n-word in front of them, but you better not come to The Dirty South and try that out in the country, not if you don’t want to get a Grits And Streak-o-Lean A** Whipping By RayRay And Them.

As a survivor of sexual assault and childhood molestation, I completely understand that some people might be triggered by what has been called graphic violence in Twelve Years a Slave.  I don’t want to diminish people’s trauma, nor am I telling them to “suck it up” and dash headlong into a situation that may prove emotionally detrimental to them.

What I am saying is, just don’t see the movie. But please–I mean, I’m begging you–if you are a white person, don’t proceed to lecture black filmmakers about whether it’s appropriate to depict the actual violence that happened to other black people because you–a white person– might get triggered by the violence. That’s one of those unfortunate “okay back to me” examples of white privilege that makes black folks want to cuss you out. It’s also extremely ironic–and not in a good way– considering that other white folks were the ones meting out the violence towards said black people.

Now, you don’t want to be that person, do you? Look, I’m just trying to be a friend here.

Further, movies about black history shouldn’t be expected to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites or start feel-good “conversations on race.” A black director is not a race. He’s a black director. And how come when, say, Unnamed White Lady writes a book or directs a movie, it’s not a “conversation on race”? Because you know what? It is to me.

I’m reading this book or watching that movie saying, “Dang, Unnamed White Lady, how come you don’t know one person of color unless she’s your sassy, celibate, unattractive black girlfriend who lives to tell you how fabulous you are and stroke your long, silky hair”?  That lack is, in itself, a statement—to me—about race in this country, maybe because I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imaginationbut somehow, apparently, it’s not a statement on race to other readers or viewers. It’s just a film or a book about the “universal human experience.”

Do you see how that strange, double standard works? It’s odd, isn’t it?

For many Americans of all complexions, racial reconciliation has been the work that black art is supposed to do—”Race Work.” And yet, this Race Work has strayed away from its original intention of moving black folks forward in American society. These days, it doesn’t do that, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have to keep doing the same work over again.

These days, Race Work resembles a clothed version of Sex Work, making the receiver of that labor feel good, but the pleasure–or racial understanding–of the worker is incidental and not important in the least. The worker is a conduit of pleasure or understanding—or both—but never an equal participant in the pleasure or understanding. And both Race Work and Sex Work have fleeting responses, too, resulting in that need to begin again. It’s like Negro Groundhog Day.

I can attest to that, having been on many “race panels on writing,” and on which I have decided to stop appearing.  I’m just tired, because it’s always the same Race Work. I’m supposed to listen sympathetically to the grievances of colored folks about how they’ve been ‘buked and scorned, while at the same time, explain to a group of Nice White Liberal People how I do that hoodoo I do: how I write like a black person. Or rather, “Write about race.” And then, I hope that if I have been well-behaved enough, someone will invite me to a college or university and do the same thing and pay me for my Race Work.

But I’m not a race. I’m just Honorée.

I can tell you about racism in this country, but race is another matter. To begin with, it does not exist as a real, biological thing; it exists as a social and legal category, something a bunch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century white dudes made up to justify their prejudice against varying groups of people with dark skin.

Now, I can explain that, but how am I supposed to talk about how all that appears in my writing when I’m just trying my best to be an artist, and when I really want to say, “Y’all could make my job as a black writer less difficult if I didn’t have to keep trying to figure out what the heck ‘race’ was, and then, how to write about it just to make y’all happy. Because I’m going crazy over here with all this cognitive dissonance and binary opposition and whatnot and what have you.”

As the kids say, Can’t a sister live?

~

I know Twelve Years a Slave is not going to live up to my lofty expectations; no movie can do what I’ve been waiting for since I saw Roots back when I was nine years old. That was a big moment for me, but now, I look back and see a campy miniseries. That was all I had then, though, and I’m grateful. It did its job for the child I was. But I’m a woman now. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about this country.)

Roots was about racial reconcilation, and many black films have continued that tradition, but Steve McQueen has expressly stated that his film is not trying to “start a conversation about race” and for that, I applaud him. One of the biggest issues with American audiences today is that they expect to feel good after seeing a film about black history. This is what black art is supposed to do, right? It should teach. It should uplift. It should make you cry but not too much so that when you leave the theater you might feel sad, but you feel admiration for what black folks have gone through.  That’s why so many of those movies have those Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks.

And if you are a Nice White Liberal Person, in addition, you are supposed to feel guilty about the crimes of your ancestors, but never afraid that the present-day descendants of those folks are seething with anger over what was done to their ancestors. Never that.

But you know what? I don’t want to have to consider any of that when I’m watching a film on slavery. I’m just ready to see a real, good movie about some black folks, a film that makes me sigh in relief. I’m ready for a great film that happens to be about people who were enslaved. And I don’t want to be taught something on purpose. (If I want to learn something on purpose, that’s what, like, reading books is for.)

And I definitely don’t want to hear none of them Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks no more. Oh, I am so tired of those.

I just want a story about human beings that happen to be black and enslaved. I just want some art. And that’s what I heard Twelve Years a Slave was. And I’m ready for it. And then, I’m ready for another film like that. And then, another. Just keep them coming.

September 15, 1963: A Poem

Dear Readers:

I wrote the following poem over ten years ago, after listening to John Coltrane’s “Alabama,“ a song he wrote in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an event which resulted in the deaths of four little girls.

At that time, I was living in Talladega, Alabama, only about fifty miles away; that ground carried spilled blood as well.  As I listened to Coltrane’s song, I was greatly moved, even though there were no words. I was struck by the wisdom of the ancestors, how they have prepared messages for us before we were born. Today, I just wanted to share the poem I wrote with you, written in a time when I did not understand those messages; today, I do.

Let us remember the names of those children, who are now our ancestors:

 

Addie Mae Collins

Denise McNair

Carole Robertson

Cynthia Wesley

 

Love,

Honorée

 

—–

 

The Book of Alabama: Chapter Coltrane

            for Michael S. Harper

            

I’ve been plagued by spirits     visitations

of death     fire feeding off sheeted

breath     Sometimes I see the bones

of God’s back turned to me

 

(Hands stroke the lynch knot

and bear the cup I beg to pass

         There is no good news        I was born

as wood       a thrown match cutting

open the five wounds       On this ground

I am a minor prophet)

 

And sometimes I see the loins of God giving

birth to Her son       surely there is

prayer in my horn’s throat      wine

in redemption       I stand on limbo’s

chasm       play       Each note shouts gospel

 

(Things ain’t always gone be

this way       This is how to get over

       Follow the hoot owl witness

There might be consolation on this trail

grace at the tree’s root       I’m bound for the other

side of water       My feet ain’t meant to dangle)

 

Lord       I know I’ve been changed

The only sound is morning       I call You

by the thousand names You have

whispered to me in song

       Speak Your red clay promise

that blood cries out       rises from ash

that You will not rest on the seventh day

 

 

[from Outlandish Blues by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, © 2003.]

 

          

An Affirmation for This Day: Meditate on Sonia Sanchez

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A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.

She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.

And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.

I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets.  She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.

Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.

And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.

Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.

Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.

I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.

“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.

My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.

“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”

“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”

“I’m good, thank you.”

She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.

But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.

Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.

If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.

Sonia Sanchez’s official website 

Sonia Sanchez’s Wikipedia Page

Information about the Black Arts Movement

And finally, there is a documentary being made about Sonia Sanchez! It promises to be fantastic. Here is the link to the trailer of the film in progress. Enjoy!

Teachable Racial Moment ("Twerking" Late Edition): Forget Miley Cyrus. It’s ALL About Katherine Dunham.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Miley Cyrus’s VMA—ahem—performance,  which included her attempt at the African/American dance called “twerking,” and which apparently convinced a lot of people that it was okay for women (of any race) without rhythm to try anything that involved booty-shaking.

There were a lot of parents upset that their Disney-loving kids were exposed to Miley’s sexualized antics with a man dressed like Willy Wonka on Crack Having Misplaced His Bifocals, a Big Football Finger, and Several Giant Stuffed Animals, not necessarily in that order.

But my personal favorite discussion about “twerking” was an article giving a scientific explanation of how to “twerk,” by a physician who clearly didn’t know how to “twerk,” and who might be shepherding someone into a serious and permanent physical injury. I mean, dang.

However, what has been interesting is that, in the middle of all this ink (or whatever it is, now that we don’t use ink anymore) generated about Miley and the “phenomenon” of twerking nobody has gone on record saying what needs to be said: how come black folks think “twerking” is a dance that sisters made up in the strip clubs to earn money and don’t know that West African women have been dancing like this for hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years, and not for “nasty” purposes, either?

So black folks, don’t blame Miley for getting it wrong, because you got it wrong first. Blame yourselves and your own lack of cultural and historical memory.

That’s right. We are responsible for that white girl getting up on TV disrespecting and bastardizing African American culture. This is one of those “yes, I said it” moments. And I’ll say it again until the wheels fall off.

Now, let’s continue to the educational breakdown.

Decades ago in the twentieth century, there was a genius black choreographer named Katherine Dunham. She has been called the “matriarch of black dance,” and she introduced West African dance to North America.  Honestly, she is as important to American dance history as Twyla Tharp.

Dunham influenced generations of black and white choreographers.  Most importantly, Dunham helped to create respect for the field of dance influenced by the African Diaspora and its spiritual and cultural practices. Dunham pioneered the Western dance concept of “isolation”—keeping one part of the body still while moving another—and incorporating fluid pelvic moves into mainstream dance.

Pelvic moves. Sound familiar?

But those moves were ancient and Dunham just made them modern. They were West African dance moves. Moves that had been expressed for hundreds of years. Moves that were brought over on the Middle Passage, the journey of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  For example, while in Senegal, I saw “twerking” at a wedding being set up outdoors. No one treated it as “naughty” at all, either—or “American.”

Many of us blacks who have seen Dunham’s version of West African dance here on the stages of college auditoriums, community centers, gymnasiums—or in a Hip Hop video—have no idea that what we are witnessing are Diasporic expressions that she worked for nearly seventy years to bring to us and thus, reconnect us with our culture from across the water.

You know what white people do with their profound, European cultural expressions from across the Atlantic?

Well, if it’s a dance performance, they have other white people who carefully guard the particulars of the choreography, write articles about the history of the choreographer, give money to organizations so the dance can be performed, and then, dress up in expensive outfits to go see that dance performed. Like, on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City.  

Here’s a little list of those beloved European ballets: Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. We’ve all heard of those. But how many of us have heard of Dunham’s Treemonisha or Fantasie Négre?

And forget about Lincoln Center. You know what black folks do in gratitude for Dunham’s tireless work that eventually landed her in a wheelchair (because of dance-related injuries)? We take all that hard work and her African and Caribbean anthropological research, not to mention her deep spirituality—check out this little clip of her choreographed  dance “Shango,” based on a spiritual ritual for a West African Orisha—we put some twists into it, and we take it to the strip club.

The. Strip. Club. I’m just going to let that marinate with y’all for a few seconds.

And for those without a “Magic City” nearby so brothers can make it rain on women they have no kindness or respect for, there is Youtube, where collectives like The Twerk Team use variations of their ancestors’ movements to dance to a trashy Negro’s rapping, “[Insert expletive noun for female dog] sit on my [insert expletive noun for male genitalia.]”

And no, I’m not going to link to The Twerk Team. Don’t even ask me to. Don’t even.

Certainly, Miley Cyrus looked “besides like a fool” on the VMAs, to borrow one of my grandmother’s expressions. She needed to go put some clothes on and consult her therapist, her mama, or both the next time she decided to jump up on stage. And what she was doing was about as close to “twerking” as an elephant on stilts trying to execute a plie. (Actually, I’m surprised there wasn’t an elephant on stage, since she had everything and everybody else up there.)

But Miley Cyrus believed she had the right to steal our dance moves because African Americans have not documented, archived, funded—making it rain don’t count—respected or protected our centuries-old African dance expressions the same way Americans of European descent have done for their culture from “the old country.”

Even if you have no money, you can read.  And you can voice opposition to the constant sexualization and degradation of black cultural practices, which never ends well for us.

We black folks discard our cultural power, then get mad at white people for “cultural theft.” Certainly, in the past it may have been “theft.” But these days, it’s not.  These days, it’s laziness on our part, and it’s our allowing the worst, trashiest elements to take over our cultural expressions because we don’t want to be “classist.” But it does not take a so-called “high socio-economic status” person to cherish our culture. It simply takes black self-respect and self-preservation.

Miley Cyrus has no respect for the profundity of black cultural expression—but why should she? What investment does she have in our culture? And didn’t she used to be a country singer? How many times have you seen a white country musician lift up his banjo and say, “did y’all know this is an African instrument?” 

Miley recognizes power when she sees it, and she knows enough to exploit it.  We black folks cannot throw a five-dollar bill on the ground and then get mad because someone else picks it up and puts it in the bank.  And in this case, with “twerking”—or, more accurately, “traditional West African dance,”—it’s not a five-dollar bill we’ve discarded. It’s a piece of gold. And if Miley sells enough records, quite possibly, it could be a piece of platinum.

Throwback Jam: "The Truth About Women's Equality Day"

Hey Y’all:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Two days ago, Twitter was all aflutter with online discussions concerning inequality towards women of color in the mainstream feminist community. In light of that discussion, I’d like to repost a piece I wrote (and presented here) three years ago. I thought to wait until actual Women’s Equality Day, but I thought it might be best to post immediately–a couple weeks early–and I sincerely hope it puts some of the recent discussions into historical context.

Love,

Honorée

—–

“The Truth About Women’s Equality Day”

(first posted on August 26, 2010)

I was reminded this morning that today is Women’s Equality Day. On August 26, 1920 American women were granted the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. And indeed, this is a great day in history.

However, for Black women in this country, it’s not really a day that we can celebrate as a definitive moment. Because actually, to put it bluntly, this day is White Women’s Equality Day, the day they were given the right to vote.  But technically, Black women didn’t become “equal” until the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.

Why? Because Black women were specifically excluded from the U.S. Women’s suffrage movement in the nineteenth century. The early leaders of the movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, felt that the inclusion of Black women in their movement would hinder it.

In particular, Stanton was against paralleling voting rights for Black men, the Irish, Germans, and Chinese people with the White women’s struggle. She wrote in The Revolution, a publication in the nineteenth century, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”

I hope you know who Sambo is, y’all.

This racism in the movement angered Sojourner Truth, a tireless warrior for racial and gender justice in America; Sister Truth had been working with Anthony and Stanton, but then got ghost when she realized they wanted her to do the work but not reap the profits.

Later, in the early twentieth century, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett decided to start her own African American Suffragist organization in Chicago called the Alpha Suffrage Club, but at the major Suffragist march on March 3, 1913, the White organizers tried to convince Ida B. Wells-Barnett to march at the back of the procession.

Sister Wells-Barnett replied, “”I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.”  Nobody saw her at the march, so they thought she had gone home, but when her delegation started down Pennsylvania avenue, she rolled right in there and marched with the other—White—suffragists from Illinois.

Most of you–of all complexions– reading this already know this history. But for Black women, this history is personal. It’s the major reason that it’s so hard for us to embrace feminism, and to embrace issues identified as feminist. It’s why it’s so hard for us to trust women outside of our community, and sometimes, even within, in the name of “female solidarity.” It’s easier for us to focus on the fight against racism because that’s been a consistent  struggle within our fences.

Surely, in the Black community, we Sister have been told to put our own desires and needs—and yes, survival—to the side—because we have to consider Brothers first. But that’s only part of the issue.

The other issue is, nobody in the feminist movement is sincerely looking out for Women of Color, either. There’s been a good game talked, but when the stakes are high and Black women look behind them to see which White feminists have their back, all we hear is the wind. And in that wind, we hear the empty refrain, “Women, women, women.” But, we don’t hear anything acknowledging our specific identity as African American. Let’s not even talk about how the other groups of Women of Color are treated.

For example, recently, during the presidential campaign, we saw Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro take off after Barack Obama in The New York Times and make the campaign a “Black man vs. White Woman” issue; neither woman took the time to consider how hurtful this public discussion would be for us Black women, who had never had a chance to see even one person who looked like us in The White House, let alone two.

By the way, Gloria Steinem is the GODMOTHER of the only child of Alice Walker (the African American author of the The Color Purple).

At one dinner before a poetry reading, I was accosted by two young White female graduate students (who I had been having a great time talking to, by the way). They demanded to know who I was supporting for the presidential election. When I replied, “Barack Obama,” they smirked at each other and said to me, they thought so. It was clear that Black women always chose race over gender, they said.

I told them, “First, considering Hilary Clinton’s ‘Hardworking, White Americans’ statement it’s clear she’s choosing race over gender.”

“And second,” I said, “I have breasts and a vagina, but mine are brown, so you know, I can’t choose between race and gender.” (Yes, I actually said that.)

At another reading dinner, an elderly White woman angrily told me what Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro had already argued in The New York Times, that Barack Obama would never have been president if he had been a Black woman. She went on and on, to the point where I thought I would burst into tears. And I wondered, did she even see me? Did she understand just who she was talking to?

Then, I sucked it up, because if I was that angry, I wonder how upset Ida B. Wells-Barnett was, when they tried to make her march at the back of the procession.

In the aftermath of these reopened wounds, there need to be an acknowledgement of racism in the American feminist movement and a concerted effort made by White feminists to self-police. And there needs to be a real gesture toward healing. Notice that Hillary Clinton hasn’t once made an overture toward Black women to try to resolve her hurtful actions. Visiting Black churches and clapping off beat do not constitute healing. And let’s not even start talking about Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro and what they need to do. Where do I begin?.

So, I don’t celebrate Women’s Equality Day today, because contrary to popular mainstream American opinion, Women includes all American women, not just White ladies.

But I do celebrate those women who made this day possible for me, a Black woman.  I give the credit to my Sister-ancestors on this day, like Sister Truth and Sister Wells-Barnett—not a day of equality, but a day where I at least have the right to talk about how it’s not equal. And I think that’s a good compromise, considering.

Bringing the Middle Passage Home: The Schooner Phillis

Detail of Figure III in Brooks slave ship diagram. From “The Cries of Africa to the Inhabitants of Europe or A Survey of the Bloody Commerce Called the Slave Trade”, by Thomas Clarkson, circa 1821. Special Collections, Leeds University Library.

Most of y’all know that I am writing a book of poetry on Phillis Wheatley. I’ve been talking about it forever, and I’m furiously working on it right now, along with my novel.

Wondering how I am working actively on not one but two books and giving both my all? Caffeine! I’m not playing with y’all. I rise early in the morning on most days, drink some black tea, power down to green tea for noon, and then I get it going until I pass out in the mid-afternoon.  It’s going well, believe it or now, but now, I’m wearing my hair in a ponytail every day and my house is looking like Who Shot John. And who has time to fold laundry and commune with the Muse at the same time?  Not this Miss Lady.

Anyway, four years ago this summer, I read letters between Timothy Fitch, the owner of the slave ship Schooner Phillis and Peter Gwinn, the captain of the ship, which is assumed to be the ship that brought the child who would be Phillis Wheatley into Boston Harbor; the letters were on the Medford (Massachusetts) Historical Society website.

Here’s a link to the letter that sent me on this four-year journey to write a full poetry book on the life and times of Phillis Wheatley.  (After I had been writing poems on her already for a previous four years. You do the math!) 

I have my personal, sweet angel, a librarian at the American Antiquarian Society in Wooster, Massachusetts to thank for pulling this slave trade letter up–just like that!—on my laptop back in 2009. She’s a genius.

As I finish up this book–God willing–I’ll be sharing little tidbits on the blog from my journey of writing about this time, which has been very educational and even more emotional–lots of tears, because you can’t write about black folks and the eighteenth century and not write about the Middle Passage and the horror of slavery.

But now, the good news is that in the middle of those tears, I met my husband in Senegal while doing research for this book, and let me tell you, this man has provided a sturdy shoulder for me to cry on when the research for the book has led me to some painful, ancestral places.

By the way, there is no known illustration of the Schooner Phillis. The picture that I have included above is of the Brookes slave ship. (It is spelled both with an “e” and without in historical writings.) There are several other illustrations of the Brookes that were used by eighteenth-century British abolitionists to bring home the human atrocities of slavery. Here is the most well-known and commonly used illustration of that ship.  

Now you know what you were wearing on your t-shirt back in the day. Don’t you feel good knowing?!–And don’t worry, I’ll talk a bit about the Brookes at a later date.

On Don Lemon’s List: Breaking Down His Tough Black Love

Uploaded from www.dallasvoice.com

First, this blog post is not to curry favor with conservative, extremely right-wing white folks who don’t like African Americans, but who suddenly are pretending to take interest in “black community issues” so they can practice their Strange White Supremacist Hoodoo Rituals in public, instead of the privacy of their own homes.

I’m talking to you, Bill O’ Reilly.

Go sit your annoying, obnoxious self down somewhere and stop pretending you really cared about the ills of the African American community when you recently went on a tirade saying that we had serious problems, including the “drug situation,” the disintegration of the black family,” and “gangsta culture.”

You’re using your fake concern about “black on black crime” to attack black people—as you’ve attacked us in the past—and with friends like you, what black person really needs the White Citizens Council of Jackson, Mississippi or the Ku Klux Klan?

Thank you, Mr. O’ Reilly, take care, and be blessed.

Now that I have established the ground rules, let me begin to explain the mysterious ways of Brother Don Lemon.

Lemon is black and Lemon is gay. That would seem to be a recipe for the most liberal black man. Instead, he was on the TV recently, going off on black folks all in public, in a seemingly willy-nilly fashion, and aligning himself with the aforementioned Social Plague That Is Bill O’ Reilly.

Then, Lemon listed his top five issues with black people. We’ll come back to those in a second.

And then, black folks started getting upset online, in the blogs, on the comment threads of blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook, wondering whether Don Lemon was an Uncle Tom Race Traitor, whether he was off medication for a psychiatric disorder (possibly connected with his being an Uncle Tom) or whether he needed to be on medication for an as yet diagnosed psychiatric disorder (that had Uncle Tom tendencies), and so on or so forth.

Like a lot of middle- and upper-middle class black folks Don Lemon is just fed up with what is happening in this community, and so, he had one too many cups of coffee (probably), and snapped on TV. And I must say, I agree with much of his frustration.  But how much on his list really contributes to crime in the black community? Let’s examine it.

1) Don Lemon thinks black men need to forgo sagging pants.

I agree.

Many black folks know where that “sagging pants” fashion comes from: prison culture. (Brothers inside aren’t allowed belts.) We are constantly having discussions about how to keep our young black boys out of the prison industrial complex, but then, we think it’s perfectly okay to let our young black boys walk around in a style made fashionable by the prison industrial complex?

I’m confused, mightily.

But what I will say is, there is no demonstrable link between a boy who walks around looking like he’s got on a man-sized, full, dirty diaper beneath his pants and criminal behavior.  The demonstrable link is between having a job and not having a job, when he shows up to the job interview looking “besides like a fool,” in the words of my Grandma Florence.

Surely, I know that we should look past the exterior to the inside. Surely, some black boys use their attire as a temporary disguise to express their personalities. Some of them have teachers in high school or professors in college who will look past their dress to the brilliant young men inside—but some of them won’t.

Many young black men don’t have role models to guide them and tell them how to dress for a job interview or a campus visit for college, because nowadays, a middle- or upper-middle class black elder is attacked for trying to teach a poor or working class black kid about the realities outside of his own mind.

Nowadays, we’re supposed to keep quiet, instead of training these kids for mainstream American society. So we do remain quiet, and we revert to an “I’ve got mine, you get yours mentality.” And then, we middle- and upper-middle class black folks get criticized for not reaching back. It’s a racial catch-22.

2) Don Lemon says black men need to finish school.

I agree.

People who graduate high school have more access to jobs and make more money than people who don’t. Everyone knows that—but what Don Lemon should have done was exhibit some sensitivity and discussed the erosion of the public school system in America, and how, if one is poor and black one is more likely to attend a substandard school that is not getting the funds that a school in a majority white neighborhood will.

And why? Well, there are a number of factors, but one that many of us never hear discussed is the issue of property taxes. Live in a more affluent neighborhood? Property taxes provide more money per child for education, which means lower student to teacher ratio, better trained teachers, better facilities, and more after school enrichment programs. Live in an urban poor—read black—neighborhood? Then there’s lots less money per child for education. Is that fair? No it’s not, and studies have shown that poorer schools have a lower retention rate for students.

In addition, there is a demonstrable link between lack of high school education and criminal activity; if you can’t get a job, you’re going to have to make money some kind of way and crime is usually it.

3) Don Lemon says black folks need to stop using the n-word.

I agree.

Let’s face it, black folks of all classes have and will continue to use the n-word in private. I use it in private, I admit it, and that’s that.

But for the life of me, I don’t understand why reasonably sane black folks of all educational levels are putting forth valuable energy which could be used to solve a host of other community ills just to defend the right of RayRay, Pookie and Them or Famous For A Day Fill-In-The-Blank Rappers to stand on a street corner or in a music video and publicly abuse each other with a term slaveholding white folks invented to debase us.

However, there is no demonstrable link between using the n-word and criminal activity.

4) Don Lemon says black folks need to respect where they live and don’t litter.

I agree.

Littering is bad. Black folks shouldn’t do it. Everyone should respect the neighborhood in which s/he resides–but have you been to a poor white neighborhood lately? I have. They litter, too. And I teach at a majority white university and every class period I have to remind the kids to pick up their trash before they leave because their mothers don’t work there.

And is Lemon saying that if you recycle your soda cans in your neighborhood, you won’t pick up a gun and kill somebody? Because there is no demonstrable link between littering and criminal activity, to my knowledge.

5) Don Lemon says black women need to stop having children out of wedlock and black people should marry before having children.

I’m not sure what I feel about this one.

Statistics show that unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor, which means that unmarried mothers must work more hours and they don’t have as much time to spend with their children. That would be an argument against out of wedlock parenthood and for married parenthood.  But Don Lemon didn’t mention poverty. He discussed marriage from a “values” point of view, as if there is something shameful about unmarried mothers. What are we, on the second verse of Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Love Child?”

One can have a family without marriage, and one should not be ashamed if one’s parents never married. We’ve all seen many examples of happy, unwed families. (And this is coming from a happily married woman.)

I also think that the term “fatherless sons” is very insulting to apply to children born out of wedlock. Simply because a father and mother don’t marry doesn’t negate them as parents and doesn’t mean a child is “fatherless.” What I believe is more important than the legal bond of marriage is a strong bond between parent and child and that parents are committed to the work of child rearing and nurturing.  That should be the starting point, because while marriage should be a choice, abandoning your child and never looking back should not be.

And yes, there is a demonstrable link between broken families and criminal behavior, but it is dangerous to reduce that link to simply “no father in the home” without mentioning the issues of poverty, which we know is a contributing factor to crime. And what would have helped Lemon’s case is if he mentioned how there could be ways to help single mothers facing poverty, instead of shaming them by implying that every out-of-wedlock child was on a fast track to the penitentiary.

Lemon’s list constitutes individual problems in the black community—very real problems—but taken together, they don’t constitute any sort of unified solution to black-on-black crime.  And I must say that the biggest problems that I see are his issues of logic, timing, and class insensitivity.

Only a few days ago, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  It was insensitive and didn’t make much sense for Don Lemon to pretend that, coming so close after the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, his remarks would not have been taken in the context of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and as a characterization of this dead black teenage boy. And do I need to tell y’all that Lemon made himself look absolutely ridiculous by even mentioning the name of Bill O’Reilly?

In addition, Lemon clearly is of a higher socio-economic status, and if middle- and upper-middle class black folks want to be critical of pathological behavior in the black community—which is our right as African Americans—we need to be very clear on what behavior simply embarrasses us because of class sensitivity (and makes us want to invent a whole new racial category for Bourgie Negroes) and what behavior is actually criminal. In these times, it does not help to make silly, stupid, or even trashy behavior a crime when talking about the very real issue of, say, the black-on-black murder rate in Chicago.

I do believe that Lemon really does care about other black people and he really is concerned and thus, his diatribe. Many black people are concerned. Unfortunately, Lemon is a symptom of what has been happening for far too long: a failure to connect between poor black folks and middle- and upper-middle class African Americans, and an unwillingness to hear and tell the truth. And it is time for the truth—the entire truth. Lemon’s List wasn’t it, but perhaps now he has lead the charge for more black folks of his socio-economic class to be honest and say what they think that truth might be, without fear.

An Open Letter to Mr. Richard Cohen, Washington Post Columnist

Dear Mr. Cohen:

I’m writing you to discuss your latest column, “Racism vs. Reality” dated July 15, 2013 and to parse a point of logic with you—your considerably flawed logic concerning racial profiling. The gist of your column is that it’s unfair not to expect white people to be afraid of black men because they commit a lot of crime.

In your column, you wrote:

….There’s no doubt in my mind that [George] Zimmerman profiled [Trayvon] Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason. [Emphasis mine.]

Mr. Cohen, I don’t even know you, and I’m sure you mean well, but I’d like to address the issue that you raise of “understandably suspected” black men. And I’d like use your own logic to explore what might be the aftermath of racial profiling of white people by black people.  Let’s call it the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” logic of racial profiling.

As someone who is the survivor of violence, I understand post-traumatic stress. It’s a horrible thing to look at someone who resembles the person who committed violence against you or someone you love; you tremble, overcome with fear. 

My mother, an African American woman, was born in the segregated South—in Georgia—in the 1930s and remembers when a group of white men lynched four black people in a town not far away from her. There is a book written about this lynching called Fire in the Canebrake: the Last Mass Lynching in America.  Those white men never went to jail for their crime.

My mother’s great-grandmother Mandy was an enslaved woman whose first memory is of her father’s being sold down south. She never saw him again. It was a source of great pain for her. Later, however, she entered into a relationship with a white man and had a child by him; the man financially supported her biracial child and gave the child his last name, an unusual occurrence in the last 1800s.

My mother grew up in a racially terrorized South—and yet, she belongs to a predominantly white church and has several good, white friends, but according to your logic, because of Mama’s background, she is supposed to be terrified of every white person she sees, to seethe with anger or fear or some sort of traumatic emotion, remembering these painful moments from her childhood, to cook up some sort of retaliation in her Big, Black, Racial Trauma Pot. Certainly, my great-great-grandmother never would have made the romantic choice that she did.

Let’s explore the other side of my heritage: not only am I black, I’m of Native American heritage; my direct ancestors weren’t removed on the Trail of Tears, but surely relatives of mine were.  In case you aren’t familiar with the Trail of Tears, it’s the journey where thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate in the nineteenth century, after their land was stolen by the United States government.

Much of the Southeastern land that belonged to Natives was used for the cultivation of short-staple cotton; Eli Whitney made possible the separation of the seed from the boll with the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and thus, Native folks were pushed off their own property, and more black folks were enslaved to pick that cotton.

As a person of Native descent, should I suspect that every white man appearing on my porch—say, to check my gas meter, spray my house for ants, or even just inform me about the teachings of Jesus Christ (even if it is too early in the morning for me to be awake and ready to receive piety)—is there to yank me through my front door, take me clear across the country to land that’s even flatter and more unattractive than where I live now and make me stay there, and on the journey, knowingly hand me a smallpox infested blanket to wrap myself in?

According to your logic, I should.

There are all kinds of ways I could isolate myself even further:  I’m a woman who is a rape survivor and men commit over 90% of the rapes in this country.  What if every woman who was raped decided she never wanted to be touched or approached by a man again, let alone, want him for her lover or husband or the father of her children?

When I met the man with whom I fell in love and married, should I have screamed at him in his face that he was a potential rapist, or pulled out a dull nail file and tried to stab him—just in case he might have been a rapist?

According to your logic, I should.

Mr. Cohen, if someone like me—the descendant of and relative to people who were lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, called names, terrified again and again for over three hundred years—can learn to take every white person (or every man of any race) I meet on a case-by-case basis, to think the best of someone until he or she shows me differently then Mr. Cohen, how dare you—a person who looks a lot like the people who lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, verbally abused, and terrified my people for over three hundred years—tell me that it’s common sense to feel that a black man is “understandably” a criminal because of crime statistics that don’t even reach back forty years?

In the words of my mother, what kind of sense did you make in your column? Nonsense, that’s what kind. 

According to your flawed sense of logic, what would your whiteness mean to me– if I couldn’t believe in a better time, if I didn’t have faith in humanity’s ability to positively grow, if I didn’t possess a need to love my fellow man and woman, regardless of what he or she looks like, in the brightest day or the darkest of night?

At some point, you, I, and all the people who make up a “we” must take the risk of not blaming people because of past unpleasant, traumatic, or even violent experiences suffered at the hands of someone else.   It may sound naïve, but if we Americans don’t decide to accumulate courage to say “enough” we will continue to live in disharmony, distrust, and yes, hatred surrounding race in this country.

Is that how you want to live the rest of your life? I know I don’t.

We all have a bone to pick, in the ancient or recent past.  Every single one of us, regardless of race or gender, can locate a grievance of some kind against someone else. My pain is no greater than anyone else’s, and yours is no greater than mine.

We can honor the past transgressions against us personally or against our blood ancestors, but it is not fair to blame or hurt a person who has done us no immediate wrong in the here and now, just for inhabiting the skin color or gender or religion (or so on) of person who did the original crime.  

Mr. Cohen, I’m not here to argue the Zimmerman trial verdict; that trial is over, and however I may feel, I have to continue to live by my principles. What I am here to do is to remind you of what it means to be a more loving and hopeful human being, in the long run. I hope this letter has helped you on that journey.

Sincerely,

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers