On Being Black and Being Sat in the Back of Literary Events

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.

I wish I could find a phrase that instantly informs the sweet, perfectly nice, very liberal and progressive white organizers of literary events that if you’ve only got four black guests in a room of over two hundred, you don’t sit one of those black guests in the back of the room, especially if she’s been nominated for a prize.

Not near the back.

In the back.

In the back, by the doors, which open up on the left to the women’s bathroom and on the right to the man’s bathroom.

I wish I could remind the organizers that when one of the honored, invited guests is an older black lady from the Deep South, being sat in the back of the room by the doors which open up to bathrooms might trigger her racially and make her think of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Being in the back might make an honored, invited, black guest feel ashamed. That might hurt her feelings.

That might make her wonder, did you really mean to honor her, or did you mean to remind her that she’s not as special as she’d like to think she is?

And why were you so nice to her and, in the past, why have you talked about racial politics–and yet, you can’t pick up on what sitting in the back of the room means for a black person from the South?

That might make your honored guest feel insane.

That might make her run a dozen, strange scenarios in her mind, when she needs to be getting sleep so she can get to Church the next morning. It might make her miss Church, where she was supposed to be praising the Lord, Who has assured her, there are no Negro seats in Heaven. Everybody gets to sit up front when they get to Glory.

I wish I could find something to say that would seem kind and polite, but in all these years, anything I think of seems ungrateful–after all, I’m an invited guest. Considering who my ancestors are, I should just be happy to be there. My unspoken objections have seemed angry and, well, BLACK.

Whenever I’ve practiced my objections in the mirror, they have made me feel like crying. And if I actually uttered those objections to someone and actually started crying, that would make me seem like a hysterical woman of any race. And I don’t want to be that person.

And I don’t want to hurt my literary career by making trouble. I want to be the “good” black person that white people love to be around. I want to be life of the party–but not in an Uncle Tom way. I want to be fun, but not too fun.

I want to make money from my writing. And if I make money, at some point, somebody will think to put me in the front of the room.

But at this age, I’ve started wondering, I’ve got maybe thirty-five or forty years of life left. And when will this mythic-sitting-in-the-front-of-the-room moment happen for me? Haven’t I been “good” for a really, really long time? How much money do I have to make to sit in the front? Is there a specific, monetary amount down to the cents?

Once, I was really excited not to be sat in the back. I was in an auditorium for the event. I was an invited guest at the event–although I hadn’t been invited to the luncheon, nor to the dinner, which really hurt my feelings, but looking back, this was probably a good thing, because sometimes, I get tired of eating by the bathroom.

Anyway.

I’d been escorted to the second row of the auditorium. I was thrilled. And then, right in the middle of the event, someone white approached me. She was an official with the organizers of the event.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move to the back. I whispered back, and I asked why, and she said, there wasn’t any room for me to sit on the second row. I glanced around. I was surrounded by empty seats. I gestured to those seats, and she said, those seats were being saved for someone else. Honored guests.

I really wanted to cry, but in a normal voice–not a whisper–I told her, I wasn’t moving.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move.

I told her–still in my normal voice, which was trembling a little bit– please stop talking, because I really didn’t want to cause a scene.

Then, I looked ahead into space, just like Mother Parks. I hoped my ancestor was looking down on me from Heaven where she sat in her front seat. I hoped she was pleased.

Afropalooza Day 4: Did Y'all Know Ruby Dee Was a Poet?!

Y’all I was just doing a random search and came upon this YouTube video from “With Ossie and Ruby.” It said, “Ruby Dee” performs her poem–and I thought, now, Miss Ruby was one of my favorites actresses, but I didn’t know she was a poet!

I clicked on it, and Miss Odetta starts singing. (Don’t know Odetta? Here’s her bio.) Then, Miss Ruby starts reciting her poem. And then, I was completely transported.

I promise y’all, this video is so luminous, and life-changing.

 

 

Early Morning Reflection: Day Two of “Afropalooza”

rising-sun-1For some reason, I woke up at 3:15 this morning, checking things off my Daily To-Do List.

Usually, I don’t awake until about 8am or even later, and when I do, I always chastise myself for laziness. I am the daughter of a woman who grew up on a farm, who rose in darkness to order the day.

I remember my mother quietly waking me in my childhood, and it never occurred to me that she actually slept like a real human being, that she didn’t keep the planet safe like a super hero or a goddess. I took my breakfast for granted.

And sometimes, even when I don’t actually play the song, I sing in my head Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version of “In the Morning When I Rise.”  It reminds me of the few, tender moments of my childhood and my mother’s voice.

This morning, I still feel pretty high about the beginning of Black History Month. Yesterday, my students chuckled as I raised my arms in a little victory dance: “Happy first day of Afropalooza, Y’all!” (They know their professor is a nerd, so they are indulgent with me, and I am grateful.)

But this morning, as I puttered around my house in the darkness, rinsing off last night’s dishes and putting dirty laundry in the washer–I am not a fan of housework–I asked myself, “Honorée, what IS it about this month that makes you feel so good?”

After all, for most of my adulthood, I spent Valentine’s Day alone. (It’s still not a favorite holiday for me.) And for the past six years, there has been sadness in this month, too, because I lost a great person in my life during this month–the poet Lucille Clifton. And James W. Richardson, my dear, departed friend, has a birthday this month, so I will probably shed a few tears during these twenty-nine days.

Yes, I call this time “Afropalooza,” and I like to think about it as a party, but there is tragedy to the African American experience, to lives of my people in this country. I, of all people, am no stranger to tragedy, though mine doesn’t begin to compare to what others have endured.

But as I thought about why I love this time, it came to me: since I was a little girl, February has been the month where I felt all my African/American ancestors gather around me, in a ring shout. They have been there, my entire life, watching over me.

I feel my strongest during this time. It’s like a church revival, where I become renewed and the Spirit runs through me. That’s such a good feeling, such a reassurance that no matter how hard things are or might be, I have this month to gather myself again, and to try to be the woman I know I was meant to be.

I hope you feel the same reassurance, if not in this month, then at another time. And I wish you strength today, and blessings this morning.

Love,

Honorée

 

It’s Black History Month, Y’all! You Know What Time It Is.

 

brownskinnedwomenearly20th

Image found at Library of Congress

It’s Afropalooza Time!!!–And I had to come back for this. I had to. You know this is my favorite time of the year.

And no, I am not going to give excuses for being gone so long. I’m just going to act like your favorite auntie: Swish in wearing my cutest outfit, pretend I’ve never been gone, and ask you to fix me a plate. (“Give me an extra pork chop, baby, and don’t tell my doctor.”)

But first, before we shake our proverbial groove thangs in celebration of Black History Month, our loving ancestors and all the glory they have given to us black folks and to the United States in general, I must needs have a word about Stacey Dash.

O Stacey, upon whom the incomparable Gabrielle Union threw the world’s best Sister Girl Shade.:

“Who… is… Stacey Dash?”

Usually, I don’t like Shade or, even, shade. But when somebody starts kicking dirt on the entire house that black people built, going back four hundred years, I live for this kind of Shade With a Big “S.”  I cannot lie.

So let the Shade against Embarrassing The Race Negroes begin.

I used to love me some Stacey Dash. Who didn’t love Deon in Clueless?

1422946880-stacey

She was cute, she had spunk, and she kept her man in check. But now, I don’t know what has happened to Stacey. I hesitate to speculate. (Forgive my iambic tretrameter.)

However, though it’s been a while, y’all do remember me, don’t you? Thus, I will speculate, indeed.

Has Stacey always been someone who hated black people, even as she starred in various iterations of R&B slash Hip Hop music videos?

Is Stacey getting paid a really huge secret stipend—aside from her regular salary—to dog out black folks (at seeming random intervals though we know there is a Master Charlie plan) on Fox News?

Is Stacey mad that she got fired from that Single Ladies show on Vh-1, after the alleged “did not happen” physical altercation with her co-star, LisaRaye? Did Stacey perhaps forget to take her earrings off before said alleged “did not happen” altercation and have to get her earlobes reattached to her head via plastic surgery and is now suffering post-traumatic stress?

It’s a mystery.

But I’m still really irritated that this woman would even fix her mouth to say we don’t need Black History Month. What is wrong with her?

I’m even more irritated that, somewhere, the many white microagressors who are constantly mentioning their one “black friend” to justify their daily racist acts have a champion in Stacey Dash.

So let me explain to those who do not know why we need Black History Month. Or as one of my dear friends from Philly says, “Let me break this down so it will forever stay broke.”

So first, let’s just pour out some very expensive adult beverage for Brother Carter G Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, which later became Black History Month. Thank you, Brother. We appreciate you so much.

Second, Black History Month begins in February, and February 1 is the birthday of Langston Hughes, and if you don’t like him, I just don’t know what to say about you.

langston-hughes

Langston Hughes (Image found at Poetry Foundation)

Except, I will try to change your mind. Here’s my favorite poem by him.

Don’t make me break into a recitation of said favorite poem, record that, and then post it to my blog. Get your mind right and get with Brother Hughes’s poetry, before it’s too late.

And then, there are a bunch of other fabulous black people born in February: Rosa Parks, Alice Walker, Melvin Tolson,Toni Morrison, Sidney Poitier, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price. Some of them are still alive, so we really need to celebrate them to the utmost, while they are still here on this earthly plane.

Leontyne-Price-8-e1356169129399

Leontyne Price  (image found at “On and Off the Record”)

Sidebar: Did I ever tell y’all about the time I was nine and saw Leontyne Price sing luminous opera music at Duke University in Durham, NC? And I got an autograph from her (that I lost somewhere)? I remember she was beautiful, she had a presence, and her false eyelashes were epic.

Anyway, just so you know, we do not need Black History Month to boost African American self-esteem, though that is a nice side effect.

We do not need Black History Month to prove why we need reparations for slavery. There is no proof needed for that. (Just Google African Americans and 1619, and that’s all you need to know.) I know I will never get my check, though, just like I will never get back that five dollars I let my cousin “hold” in 2009.

We do not even need Black History Month to promote African American unity. We already have that. It’s called “Black Twitter.”

However, we do need Black History Month because only stupid people think that the history of race relations in the United States of America began at 4:30 this morning, like some sort of bizarre, colored version of the movie “groundhog day.”

Sidebar: Those people who think race relations are great now are also those folks who claim to be “colorblind” but simultaneously can see color just good enough to constantly bring up their one “black friend.”

And we do need Black History Month because there is a lie floating around that only white folks have participated in the building of this country, from its beginning. I have met grown, white people who did not know that black men fought in the American Revolutionary War.

Now that I done said that, when it comes to Black History Month/Afropalooza, y’all know that I will most definitely extend a party.

Like, you know how some (black) folks will announce a week before their birthdays that it’s their birthdays—and then, party for an entire seven days with no shame, eating various forms of pigmeat and drinking brown liquor like it’s mother’s milk?

That’s me (without the brown liquor. I can’t handle it.) I have no shame.

So in February, there’s Black History Month and I celebrate black folks.

In March, there’s Women’s History Month, so I celebrate black women–who I already have celebrated in February because I’m, like, a woman and I’m black.

In April, there is National Poetry Month, and I’m a poet (and many of my friends are poets), so I celebrate black poets.

It’s a 90-day Afropalooza party, y’all!

So if you are tired of black people, you need to check in now, say, “Hey Honorée! It’s good to see you again, girl, FINALLY!” (That would be your own brand of shade, but I don’t mind.) And then, you can come back and visit me in May.

I’m just warning you ahead of time, because I love you.

Race + Class = What “Police Brutality” Means for Some (But Definitely, Not All) Black Folks

I  just don’t write super quickly about emotionally charged events anymore, because when I do, usually I say something stupid and hurt somebody’s feelings without meaning to. And it took me having a really deep, teary conversation with a dear friend last night (over something that didn’t even start out being about police brutality) to collect my thoughts.

So here goes.

I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s grief over the killing of the child Mike Brown—yes, child; when you get to be my age, you understand just how young eighteen is. And yes, I’m sad, too. Just because I don’t talk about my grief in a way that makes people feel comfortable doesn’t mean I don’t have it.

But I also have had some anger. And that anger is over class.

And when I say “class,” I’m not talking about those silly, obvious, and rather useless “class” markers, such as whether somebody has walked around with his pants hanging down, or whether somebody has previously been arrested, or whether somebody was “asking for it.”

And when I say anger, I’m not just talking about anger over racism—which is sticky thing to catch ahold of. I’m talking about how no one really wants to address that the lived experiences of contemporary, college-educated, middle-class, black people and the lived experiences of contemporary, formally-uneducated, poor, black people are vastly different when it comes to racialized violence at the hands of the police.

I’m not the first person who has talked about race and class, and I won’t be the last person. And I’m not the first person who has talked about violence at the hands of the police is class-based, either. But I have been searching for someone who really understands that race plus class is a very real, existing intersectionality that some black folks–even so-called “correct” black folks–don’t “get” or experience in the least.

Oh, lately, there’s so much talk about “racism in America” and what it means. So much talk about whether white folks without black friends are racist, when, let’s face it, I’m pretty choosy about my black friends. I’m pretty choosy about my white friends. I’m just choosy like that. But should I now run out and get me some more to prove something to somebody?

But let’s also face that there is a difference between the issues confronted by middle-class black people who want to be liked, accepted, and assimilated into mainstream (i.e. white) culture and who feel diminished by that culture versus the issues of life or death confronted by the bodies and psyches of poor black people in overwhelmingly segregated neighborhoods that are policed by white police officers.

Because, look, don’t no white cop shoot an unarmed black child to death because said white cop don’t think Lupita is cute and/or he ain’t got nobody black to go to the Applebee’s with Sunday after church. This goes deeper than just “race”, and this goes deeper than some ephemeral talk about “this is what slavery was like.”

Sidebar: And as a student of history, I really wish that folks who are not real students of history–or who have never been slaves– would stop thinking they know about slavery simply because they retweet something on Twitter. Try reading an actual history book or three hundred. Okay? I just needed to say that.

Let us return.

When we think about the direct line of descent from the plantation overseer—a working class white man—and the slave patrollers—made up of “Yeoman” farmers or other working class white men—down to most southern, white police forces now, we need to consider that contemporary police forces in the south are overwhelmingly populated with working class white men.

And what do the overseer, the slave patrollers, and contemporary southern police forces have in common? They traditionally have been used for the past three hundred years or so years to keep poor black folks “in line.”

By the way, I’ve read a history book or three hundred. Just so you know.

These southern, overwhelmingly white police forces impact young black people from poor neighborhoods on a daily basis. We are talking about the terrifying onslaught on poor, black neighborhoods in which the police are used to keep poor black people “in line”—and in their own “quarters.”

Yes, middle class black people have experienced racism, but we might call the first level of this racism “racial insult.” (And these are just my own categories.)

Racial insults might entail being followed in a store or being talked to in a disrespectful, cruel manner by white coworkers or student colleagues. Maybe you stood in line at the Piggly Wiggly and the clerk pretended you weren’t next. That kind of racism takes a toll on your psyche—trust, I know—but it does not propel six bullets through your body and brain.

Then, there’s the next level of racism: we might call those instances “racial harassment.”

Racial harassment entails the time or two that one middle-class young black man was stopped and harassed by the police. He might have even been arrested, pushed onto the hood of the car, roughed up and made to fear for his life. But at the end of it all, he was able to call his parents, a mentor, or reach into his wallet and pull out the business card upon which his attorney’s name has been embossed.–I am not dismissing the experience of that black man, but what I am saying is, there is a difference between a kid whose parents can bail him out of jail and a kid whose parents have to call a bail bondsman.

And then, we have the third, highest level of racism: “racial violence.” This is where a black person is injured and/or killed by someone in a hate-based crime.

And you might say now, “But, Honorée, we know your background. So who are you to bring this up? And are you seriously trying to say that you know the difference, with your bourgie, middle-class, professor self?”

But yet, I do know the difference, very distinctly. Because yes, I’ve been poor, and yes, I’ve been middle-class and yes, I’ve seen–though not experienced– all three levels of racism first hand. Surprise.

When my parents separated, we suddenly became poor.  My mother, sister, and I lived in what was then called “Section-8 housing” in Southwest DeKalb County, Georgia, and then, in a “poor” black neighborhood in Atlanta. When we visited older relatives in the country (Eatonton) who were living on fixed incomes, they would give us their commodity foods: that huge loaf of so-called “cheese”—which, somehow made the most delicious grilled cheese sandwiches—and the other, processed food products upon which the names were brandished in bold letters: “Milk”, “Peanut Butter,” and so forth.

We ate meat only on the weekends, a lot of pinto beans and cornbread, and sweetened iced tea which took away our appetite, though I don’t think my mama was considering that at the time. And we lived with whole congregations of roaches and rats, sometimes at the same moments, sometimes, at different intervals. And coming from my privileged, middle-class background of Durham, North Carolina, I was extremely demoralized by my poverty—but I soon understood, so were other black kids who did not come from where I came from.

Example: we had the “free” or reduced” stamped on our lunch tickets, and the sticker was very prominent; the kids who didn’t eat those lunches were aware of our financial state and sometimes made not-so-nice comments. And let me tell you, I was terrified that whoever had given my tasteful, carefully chosen outfits to the Goodwill might come upon me wearing them and call me out. My mother worked two jobs in addition to teaching and attending graduate school to keep my sister and me in pocket money so we could perpetrate like we weren’t poor–sometimes leading to bills not being paid–but we never brought our “friends” from school over to visit.

This lasted only four years, but the memory of poverty is as fresh as it was over thirty years ago. The only thing that saved us was that my father died. My Columbia-educated, stingy, college professor-father who, bewilderingly, had taken out a prominent life insurance policy and named my mother as the sole beneficiary. After I left my poverty behind, I knew how lucky I was. The other kids that had that stamp on their lunch card did not have the same background as I, a background which I moved into the foreground with stunningly relieved and brisk grace.

Yes, this is my “class confession.” There are many, many things you do not know about me.

I think about those kids sometimes. About those funky neighborhoods I lived in, where the white police were constantly patrolling, and where the black kids would say to me, “When they come up on you, don’t run. If you run, they gone shoot.”

At least once a month—thirty years later, as I sit in my cute, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in my white neighborhood—I think about my “cut-buddy” friends, Black and Junior and Scut. I think about whether they made it out of their twenties alive. And when I made it to graduate school, I promised myself, I would do anything to never be poor again. Anything.

And I did do anything. I sucked up to white folks to get ahead in my career, I put away my “race rage,” I learned how, when I moved my speech into the black vernacular to laughingly remind people that I was “code switching”–lest, as a (former) white friend told me once, I came off sounding ignorant– and here I am, middle-class again. I can admit the self-effacing, sometimes humiliating actions that kept my thing intact.

We talk about race of our “white allies” and “white privilege” when we talk about the fight against racism. But at some point, I would like us to think of the class of middle class “black allies” who do not have the same experiences that poor black people go through every day.

What are the roles of the middle-class black people who, once the dust has cleared from the protests of Ferguson, Missouri and a child’s funeral is over, can once again fly back home on tickets purchased with their credit cards, and then, walk through their much “nicer,” safe neighborhoods, and drive their late-model vehicles into the two-car garage attached to a home bought with credit based upon jobs at places of business (or education) where they are surrounded by white people they must get along with—and all without the daily fear of the assault on their actual bodies, but only, an assault to their feelings or senses of self-esteem?

I think a lot about the issues I’ve mentioned in this post. I’m asking you to do the same. And after you think, even if you decide you don’t agree with me, just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m not sad a black child is dead.

I Hate Hoodies. And No, My Name Ain’t Geraldo Rivera.

A few weeks ago, I posted about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the case with which most of us in America are familiar by now. This killing was and continues to be a terrible scenario, and I spoke about my pain over this situation, and the need for Black people to know our history in this country.

But if you go back and read my post, I didn’t say anything substantial about the hoodie that Trayvon was wearing that night. I didn’t defend that item of clothing. And you know why? Because I think the championing of the hoodie as a symbol of racial profiling is misguided.

For the past few weeks, I’ve  looked a pictures of folks in their hoodies, which is how they shared their solidarity with Trayvon Martin. And I’ve felt as if folks have looked askance at me, because not only haven’t I shared a picture of me in a hoodie, I’ve openly talked about the fact that I won’t be wearing a hoodie in the first place.

Just last night, I had a young girl—no older than twenty-five—call me out in the most disrespectful, harsh ways–ways that one should never talk to an elder– for my supposed “pettiness” and my being “bourgeois” when I posted on Facebook and argued that we needed to be honest with young Black men about the fact that the hoodie was not a great item of clothing for professional advancement. That young Black men wearing this clothing weren’t going to walk into a job interview and come away with employment and as a result, economic power.

Over the past few weeks, people on Twitter also have implied that I just don’t care about Trayvon Martin’s death, or implied that I have accused Black people of being stupid simply because I’ve told them that, instead of being caught up in the moment of the hoodie, they need to read and educate themselves (by going to the library) on the long history of racially profiling African American men in this country.

Can I ask you something? When did it become a crime for a Black English teacher to, like, tell somebody else Black that they needed to read a book? Because that’s what I am. I teach in the English department of a university, okay? I read, write, and teach books for a living, y’all. My twitter handle is “@blklibrarygirl”. Get it?

And then, of course, in the middle of all that, there has been the hullabaloo over the comments of Gerald Rivera, who argued that the wearing of hoodies of Black and Latino youngsters—males—is a justification for racial profiling. If this were eighteenth-century Boston, Massachusetts someone would have tarred and feathered that man and paraded Rivera in the streets. People have been so nasty and frankly, frightening, that Rivera retracted his statements.

But let me say what I have been wanting to say for the past couple of weeks, but have been too afraid to do so, lest my (admittedly much, much smaller) group of followers online do the same thing to me as Rivera had to withstand. He might have had wrong motivations for saying what he said about the hoodie and how he said it, too, but at the end of the day, the hoodie does a mixed message, sometimes a wrong message. And that’s why we need to be careful about conflating that particular item of clothing with racial profiling of young, Black men.

Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

Let me be very clear. Trayvon Martin did not have any responsibility to rethink his clothing that fateful night that he walked to the store to buy his candy and his iced tea.  Trayvon was an American citizen and he was child of American citizens and they are the children of American citizens and so on and so forth. American citizens do not have the responsibility to show their identification papers to someone who is not a police officer while walking in their own neighborhoods.  This is not 1850 and we are not living under the Fugitive Slave Act, okay?

Trayvon had every right in this world and the next one, too, to wear his hoodie. He was doing nothing wrong in the least. But  it’s not that hoodie that caused Trayvon to be stalked and killed by George Zimmerman.

Trayvon was stalked and killed because of racial profiling. That’s it, plain and simple. And, quite possibly, he might have been stalked and killed because George Zimmerman might not be all there mentally, though that remains to be seen. The hoodie had nothing to do with it.

And further, the hoodie is not always a great item of clothing.  You can call me names for saying that, you can leave mean comments below, you can say whatever you need to say to me. But you know what you can’t do?

You can’t show up to the bank and get money from a teller wearing a hoodie over your head. Why? Because your face is obscured.

You can’t go through airport security wearing a hoodie over your hear. Why? Again, because they don’t know who you are. Sometimes, I’ve even been asked to take off my glasses at the airport because I wanted to be cute in my driver’s license photo and I didn’t put them on for my picture. And in that case, you know I can’t be wearing a hoodie.

And further, you can’t take your driver’s license picture wearing a hoodie over your head in the first place.  And you know why? Because sometimes, criminals of every race, creed, religion, gender, and color actually do wear hoodies to commit crimes.

They wear hoodies to rob people. They wear hoodies to come up behind folks and shoot them dead without being recognized.

As someone pointed out to me last night online, the mock-up picture of the Unibomber pictures him wearing a hoodie. The Unibomber, y’all? The Unibomber? Do we really want to connect that handsome, sweet, beloved boy Trayvon Martin with the same item of clothing worn by the Unibomber? Think about that for a second.

Did Trayvon Martin commit any crime? Of course not.

Did Trayvon Martin have a right to wear anything he wanted to that was in his closet? Of course he did.

Trayvon Martin didn’t do anything but walk in the rain with his candy and iced tea cloaked in his Black skin, skin that is not offensive to anyone except someone filled with racial hatred or mental illness. So why on earth are we trying to champion a piece of clothing as the reason behind his getting killed? And explain to me, please, how we are any different from White supremacists when we talk about how a piece of clothing identifies a young Black man?

Take your time. I got a few hours for you to figure out the logistics of that one.

I’ve actually read Facebook status posts where people compare the hoodie to the hijab. Are you kidding me? Since when is the hoodie a religious statement going back thousands of years?

I’ve had people debate me online that the hoodie is the same as someone Black wearing his or her hair in dreadlocks or natural.  Really now? The sacred way that God made you, how S/He decided that a part of your actual body springs out of your head is equal to an item of clothing you can buy down to the Abercrombie and Fitch alongside White kids who have trust funds? Alrighty then.

I understand the long history of racial profiling of Black men in this country. Believe me, I’m aware. My mother told me that, before I was born, my father punched a man in Mississippi years ago for calling him the n-word and to this day, I wonder why he didn’t swing at the end of a rope.

I have two nephews and I worry about them, a lot. I may not ever have been stopped by the police and harassed because I was living and breathing in a Black male body, but as Tayari Jones talked about so movingly and eloquently on NPR a few days ago, I’ve spent my whole life worrying about the safety of young Black men I have loved in different ways.

And it’s because of that love and because of that worry that I’m concerned now that African American communities are championing—and encourage White people to champion—a symbol that just can’t hold the weight of three hundred and ninety three years of ancestral and cultural trauma, ever since the first kidnapped African disembarked in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia and was renamed “slave.”

Those kidnapped Africans weren’t wearing hoodies. Quite possibly, those Africans were naked, and their only crime was being in the wrong village on the wrong day, and they ended up following the tragic, mythic red path onto a slave ship.

We need to focus on the real issue of racial profiling of young Black men and understand that, though someone who was loved by his parents and was doing absolutely no wrong was killed while wearing a hoodie, he wasn’t killed for wearing a hoodie.

Trayvon could have been wearing biker shorts. In fact, he could have been wearing a corporate suit and tie. And you know what? George Zimmerman would have stalked him and killed him anyway. And that’s on him. And that’s on the tragic and brutal history of “race” this country. That’s not on a hoodie.

We need to find a more lasting –and appropriate–symbol to memorialize Trayvon, one that is not associated with actual wrongdoing, because he didn’t do anything wrong. We need to find a better way to honor other blameless young, Black men who were killed as a result of racism, who never did a thing to deserve their sad fate.

The hoodie is not that symbol. But I remain hopeful that we’ll find something else, something better, in the days to come.

.

Teachable Racial Moment: Why Do Black Folks Stick Together?

Years ago, in graduate school, I was one of only three African Americans in my Master of Fine Arts creative writing program. That was in the fall; in the spring, one of us dropped out. And then there were two.

I remember sitting in my graduate poetry workshops surrounded by folks who didn’t look like me.  Whenever the issue of “race”—meaning Black people—came up, my White peers would turn to me and ask my opinion. Sometimes, I knew. Sometimes, I didn’t know. But what always sort of blew my mind is that my peers assumed that I could speak for all Black folks. When I, like, couldn’t.  But I would try anyway because I felt it was my responsibility to do so.

This is a common story among most Black folks who have integrated–let’s face it– mostly White spaces in educational, professional, and now with legalized interracial marriage, familial institutions.  But honestly, it doesn’t get any easier for any of us  to speak for the African American “race.”

Most folks in America who are of African descent came to this country as a result of the Middle Passage, the horrific, transatlantic journey withstood by Africans who were kidnapped into slavery. There are, of course, some Black folks on this country who are not descended from slaves, what might be called African-African Americans, folks who emigrated from the continent of Africa after slavery was outlawed in the USA, but those folks are in a very small minority in Black America.

And so, the common heritage that most Black folks in this country share leads to what is called “linked fate” among African Americans, a term explored in Michael C. Dawson’s book, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics. Linked fate means that, for many African Americans, what happens to a Black individual is felt by many in the “racial” group, whether that event is joyous or tragic.

This does not mean that others individuals who aren’t Black can’t feel joy or sorrow at these events, but it does mean that Black folks feel particular emotions, as if the event impacted our own families. Linked fate means that I consider forty million people to be literal brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks becoming the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize was joyous. Thurgood Marshall’s appointment as the first Black Supreme Court Justice was joyous Barack Obama’s winning the Presidency (and hopefully you don’t need a link for that)? The heavens opened up and angels sang an aria, it was just that wonderful, okay?

And by the same token, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi was especially horrible for Black people, as was Martin Luther King, Junior’s assassination. And most recently, last month’s killing of Trayvon Martin, a young Black boy in Florida, has rubbed against Black linked fate, and reopened many traumatic wounds that really never healed.

Again, that does not mean that other people cannot be upset about tragedies that just happen—or don’t just happen—to involve Black people.  There were many  White Americans who wore hoodies this past week to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin, but just as many who admitted that pictures of their wearing hoodies does not rub against the same unfortunate racial stereotypes as pictures of Black males in similar garb.

Many White readers of my blog notice I use the terms “we” and “us” and “my community” when referring to African Americans. Those terms are also used by White supremacists, too, and I think that, frankly, it confuses White folks that I’m supposed to be about love and humanity and White supremacists are, like, not. Well, strangely enough, some of the same American history that was caused by White supremacy—a hate-filled, racist impulse–led to Black linked fate—a survival instinct. When you oppress people together, they try to withstand that oppression together.

But a funny thing happened on the (metaphysical) road to the City of Linked Fate. Some Black folks actually don’t feel linked up with other Black people. They are completely unconnected or at least partially. I am one of those partially unlinked folks who still loves the Black community. For example, while I voted for President Obama—and will do so again in November, believe that—I don’t always agree with him. And I don’t feel as if I must surrender my Black Passport just because Obama gets on my nerves sometimes and I decide to say so publicly.

Also, unlike many Black folks, I do not like commercial Hip Hop and I don’t think it’s a profound African American cultural production. (Independent Hip Hop is different, in my opinion.) I think it’s crappy, repetitive, and uninspired, I’m extremely bored by it, and I don’t like the messages of woman-hatred and LBGTQ-hatred that it propagates. And frankly, I think it attempts to take the healthiness out of Black sexual expression (of whatever kind) as well.

Those are just a couple of the ways I’m not linked to a supposedly monolithic Black community, and if you go back and read some of my other posts from the last two and a half years, you’ll find other breaks in the chain, too. I’m a complicated Sister, liberal sometimes and conservative other times.

Sidebar: And there are many Black folks who are complicated in their own ways, too. But despite that, we are Stone-Cold American Citizens and we have shown our loyalty to this country repeatedly, beginning with Crispus Attucks’ documented sacrifice. He was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre in 1770, which just had its two hundred and thirty-ninth anniversary this March.

But what I am not is “a good Black friend,” one of those anonymous, unnamed  sources that some politically conservative White folks are fond of trotting out these days when they want to say something mean or heartless or rude about Black folks and they want to get some back-up for it. Any time that I read or hear a comment that starts with “my Black friend says” or “I have a Black friend who disagrees with you,” I know my feelings are about to be hurt or that I am about to be angered.

Whether or not I’m partially unlinked, I’ve got my own back-up, because I know there are going to be at least ten folks who agree with me in someone’s Black community. But I’m guessing that there are at least ten conservative White folks agreeing with another conservative White commenter, too, whatever side he or she takes.  So why the need for the anonymous “Black friend”?

Why not simply say, “This is how I feel, and plenty White people feel the same way”? It can’t be any worse than claiming the same one Black “friend” all the time. Seriously, Sugar, please bribe some more colored people to talk to you so you can actually fill a room once in a while, okay? I know it gets lonely sometimes.

And while you’re at it, why not go back and read some American history  going all the way back to 1619? (And that’s just on my African side; you really don’t want me to go all the way back with my Cherokee folk.) Why not understand that there’s a reason I have back-up in the first place?

When someone pushes other somebodies around—steals their bodies, rapes them, dumps them in the bottom of the ocean, sells them, sells their children, and oh, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—that’s a series of traumatic events that creates back-up. These kinds of events connected Black people. They joined them together and their descendants together.

That’s why my family reunion is so big. We call it Juneteenth, don’t you know.

But now, if I ever get my forty acres that General Sherman promised, I might actually give up my very last remnants of linked fate and become somebody’s named “good Black friend” instead of just an anonymous one. But give me my land first. Then we’ll work the rest on out.

.

Little Black Boys, Candy and History (for Trayvon Martin)

Seventeen, not even marked by a real mustache. If you look at the picture, he’s still slight. Maybe he was destined to grow tall with big bones, a man’s hearty flesh clinging to his frame, but in this picture he hasn’t gotten that far.

I remember a boy I once loved at that age. His kneecaps still knocked when he stood with his feet together.

He left his house in the middle of watching TV, walked around the corner to go buy himself some Skittles, and in between his leaving and returning, he was stopped by a grown man, someone who was bigger and older in years.  Something happened and the man shot him dead.

The police came. The man was questioned. He wasn’t arrested and there seem no plans for him to be.

This sounds like a scene from a Science Fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe one written by Octavia Butler. But no, it’s non-fiction, a story repeated with a few alterations, going back in different ways to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Or Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

That’s right: Black boy. And: White man. Then:  dead child in a riddled place.

*

Just a few hours ago, I was talking to a woman on the phone about the murder of this teenaged boy, Trayvon Martin, and she said someone told her that it’s a shame that we Black folks don’t teach our children about the brutal history of this country, how Black folks were treated in the past, and how that history keeps extending its reach into the present.  It’s in a hundred history books, but how many of us will read that history?

I’m not a mother, but I know about a mother’s love. I have Trellie, a woman who tried to teach me about the world and how it would look at me as Black woman, despite her pride in me.

“You’re just as good as they are, baby. Always remember that. But still, be careful. Don’t curse anyone out because you need that job.  Don’t shout, don’t whisper, but don’t you be scared, either.”

It’s strange and counterintuitive, isn’t it? The survival lessons a Black mother must teach her child.

These days, at my age, I realize it’s only her brilliant love that kept me from dying, either by my own hands, or at the hands of a society that just doesn’t want to see a Black woman without a mop and a bucket in her hand.  Or, just thought that I was nothing better than that position one can find in the 1972 original version of The Joy of Sex.

“A la négresse [sexual position]—from behind. She kneels, hands clasped behind her neck, breasts and face on the bed.”

I don’t distinguish much between Black boys and Black girls. Little Black boys have their grave dangers they must face out in the streets and little Black girls have others that they must face in the rooms of buildings, like their own homes. But they are all someone’s children.

My mother knows this.  She had three daughters and no sons, but now as a grandmother, she has tried to teach the same lessons to keep her grandson, my nephew, from getting caught up in the American penal system, for the supposed crimes of “loitering” and “violation of town curfew.”  The lessons she must teach that young man about how American views him.

“Criminal. Blood spiller. Wasted bag of bones. Future deadbeat father of scattered seed.”

She knows that as soon as a young Black boy is snared by that penal system, that’s usually the end of freedom as he will know it, unless he is an extraordinarily unique man, like my friend and fellow poet and writer, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was arrested at age sixteen and spend nine years in prison—in adult population.

And she knows the system is only the least of it. What if the White cop who stops her Black grandson in their small town doesn’t know he is the descendant of Dr. Trellie James Jeffers, or doesn’t know who that is,  and decides to shoot my nephew dead?

She tells her grandson, “When they stop you, darling, stay still, be respectful, and don’t you talk back. “

She doesn’t tell him, “And you need to pray, too, because sometimes, all that doesn’t work.”

*

Two weeks ago, I sat on a panel with a group of writers. It was at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference and the panel was called, “Writing Race in the Age of Obama.” But my take on the panel subject was different, that it was time that White writers start writing about race, too, and not just when Black people (or other People of Color) entered their poems or stories. After all, colored folks had been doing the heavy lifting of “race writing” for at least two hundred years.

In the audience of the panel there was a Black-appearing woman, and like me, she publicly identified as having multi-racial heritage. She began criticizing me about my discussion of history, saying, “It’s a new day now. We need to be writing new stories. Why don’t you write new stories?”

When I told her that as a Afro-Indigenous woman, I write about that history, first about African Americans, and now, with a clear Indigenous presence in my work, I wasn’t someone trying to write a brand new story, but one that was uniquely my own and my people’s, she began talking about the fact that “there were multi-racial people” now, including her little boy, who she said had a Jewish father.

I began talking about the importance of listening to the ancestors and the woman smirked, as did several other people of color in the room. And then, that panel was over and it was time for me to the go to another one.  But since that panel, I’ve been thinking about what was said, and why it keeps tapping me on my conscience.  What else should I have said? What might have made the difference?

*

When I was a little girl, my mother told me stories about her past, and going back even further, stories that she had been told by her mother and father, her grandparents, and her great-grandmother, Mandy, her father’s grandmother. (Strangely enough, her mother’s great-grandmother was called Mandy or Amanda, too. This was the Cherokee woman.)

Mandy remembered slavery. She’d been a very small child when Freedom came, but she remembered even more: the day her father was sold down south to Mississippi.  She never saw him again. Perhaps it’s something my mother said to me that has imprinted upon me the important of history.

“I was just a little girl when Ma Mandy told me those stories. If I had only sat still like she told me to. If I’d only listened, I would have so much to remember.”

I am a woman who has sat still, all these years. And with my own students of whatever their cultures and colors, I tell them to listen and to remember.  To have intellectual curiosity.  But most of my students are White. I don’t have many Black kids who will take my class and through my years of teaching, I’ve figured out why.

I’m hard on them. I make them write their stories and poems and papers over and over, to make them perfect. And they don’t want to think about the past. They want to focus on the “now.”  They don’t want to know about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and what Richard Wright wrote about in Black Boy.

They want to talk about Kanye and Nikki Minag and Real Housewives of Atlanta. And they roll their eyes when I say, “Let’s talk about history first and connect the dots, because sooner or later, the ‘now’ will beat you up in a racial way and you need to understand why that is. You need to remember how to survive.”

I know it’s painful to listen to those stories of a traumatic Black past. I don’t know why I was that strange child who would listen to stories of lynchings and rapes and countless—countless—racial humiliations of Black men and women.

Maybe I listened so that I could tell somebody’s children one day, even those who are not my own. Maybe because I know that I have to tend the ancestral altar, no matter how many people laugh at me, even folks who look like me.

I saw that Sister in that audience. I believe that she chided me not because she wanted to shame me or make me feel belittled, but because I was scaring her. For if the world hasn’t changed for People of Color in certain ways, if it hasn’t become “post-racial”, then what might become of her brown son?

I said, “I wish things had changed. I thought they would have, twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. But they haven’t. And we need to be prepared as a people.”

I didn’t say, “I’m not a mother and these days, I know why I made the choice not to be.”

What an act of courage to carry a baby inside your body, share your bloodstream with him, and yes, your Spirit, to push him outside the narrow door of your body, to tend to him, to put your hopes for the future on his shoulders and then have someone shoot him dead.

How hard can a mother’s grief be? I confess that today, I really don’t want to know. As many tears as I have cried for this little boy named Trayvon, I can only imagine his mother’s screams.

But I did agree to something. To bear witness. To listen to the stories and to pass them down. To tend the altar so that the needed stories are remembered and brought forth, in a time such as this.

I’m not saying the “now” isn’t important in one way, but there is a need for Sankofa.

To move forward while looking to the past. Because if we keep ignoring the lessons of African American history and its implications for our Black sons and daughters, if we keep forgetting that history entirely, who’s going to teach a little Black boy the necessary things when he just wants to go around the corner for some candy?

Like, “Baby, come back, it’s dangerous out there”? Like, “Don’t you leave my sight”?

.

On The Help, Viola Davis, And "Black Art" Vs. "Negro Respectability"

Tomorrow night, the Oscars take place, and film adaptation of The Help is expected to sweep the Oscars. I’ve already written about what I think about The Help, a movie I had hoped would go quietly into that good night. Instead, it’s ignited many debates about the lack of roles for Black actresses, Black art, and once again, class in the Black community, even if no one wants to call it “class.”

I don’t dispute that, if things are tough for light- and medium-brown-skinned African American actresses in Hollywood, they are terrible for darker-skinned sisters, for colorism is still alive and dropping its stinking poop all through American society.

I know that things are tough for Viola Davis to get a role. You’re not going to hear me disagree with that. But I am going to say that, “I can’t get a role” really translates into “I’m having a hard time paying my bills.” And so, those of us Black folks who have loudly criticized The Help have been cast as Bourgie Villains who stand between a Sister and her money.

And that’s not all. Not only do we Bourgie Villains want to keep a Sister from paying bills, we’re also embarrassed by her playing a maid on screen.

And that’s where I get mad.

See, my mama worked as a nanny back in college during the summers. And further, my granny–her mother–worked as a maid. And I took a job as a nanny once in college as well, but after I discovered that the White lady who hired me not only wanted me to see about her child but also, clean her 4000 square foot home (which was under construction and producing sawdust every ten minutes) while the little girl was sleeping, and I refused to do all that for five dollars an hour, I got fired. This is a true story.

We’re coming to the close of Black History Month, so let me say that this sort of Black class debate has taken place in many realms of Black American life for over one hundred years. For example, W.E.B. DuBois was about what I will call Negro Respectability, an African American remix of the European concept of “The Politics of Respectability.” Essentially, the “The Talented Tenth” theory set forth by DuBois was just an extension of his championing Negro Respectability.

And of course, inherent in those remixed “Politics of Respectability” notions were the following:  marriage is good; homosexuality is bad (if even acknowledged); patriarchy—the man as head of the family, etc.— is good; higher education is required; and above all, Negroes must exhibit gentile behavior that does not “transgress” the social norms at that time for upwardly mobile behavior. And they had to do all that while wearing tailored, tweed suits.

Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, was the Black Working Class champion. In my opinion, his views evidenced a different, “red dirt” form of Negro Respectability, one that was about the survival of Black folks who didn’t have access to higher education and so, they couldn’t dress up in tweed suits and teach at Historically Black Colleges.

Publicly, Washington was an apologist for segregation and cautioned Black political patience and Black hard work; he did not believe in pushing for racial equality. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech set off the first Official Black Beef in the history of America—between W.E.B. DuBois and Washington—and from that point, it was on between the Black Working Class and the Black Middle Class/Black Bourgeoisie.

Depending upon whom you ask, one of these Brothers emerged victorious.  Of course, DuBois won the intellectual battle. There is still plenty of shade thrown Washington’s way by African American scholars and academics, but Down South when I grew up, plenty working class Black mothers were still giving their male children “Booker T” for their two first names, too. That ought to tell you something right there, so really, it’s a tie.

There were contradictions in both men. W.E.B. DuBois was all for Negro Respectability to the point where he “fudged” parts of his early life when writing about them. Now, it’s clear that he was not heir to a great family legacy, but rather born in very humble circumstances, essentially fatherless and raised in a 19th century version of the “hood.”

Though publicly, Booker T. Washington was about digging in field dirt and skinning and grinning to white racists, the man built an institution of higher learning for the descendants of slaves—Tuskegee Institute which still stands today, now Tuskegee University—in the middle of racially terrorist Alabama, and unknown to his White benefactors, he was testing segregation laws in the court through his lawyers.

And so, things have never been clear about class in Black America and where  Black folks stand. For example, I’m conservative when it comes to certain things—like public language, public dress, belief in God, and manners—and very radical when it comes to others—like feminism, sex, anti-homophobia, kindness, and art.

Sidebar: Yes, I said, “Sex.”  But what I mean by “sex” is none of your business. That’s my conservative side coming back out.

As an artist—a writer—who has violated the “politics of respectability” in the service of my own art, I’m all for transgressing acceptable notions of behavior. I’ve talked about being a domestic violence survivor. I’ve talked about being a rape survivor. Heck, I even named my own father as my molester in print, much to my mother’s and family’s chagrin.

If anyone knows what it feels like to transgress acceptable behavior, I do.

Yet, my transgressions have occurred for a reason, and not to dissolve or exhibit my own pain.  I had counseling for the pain.  I write about my pain in my art not to examine the different kinds of lint in my own belly button, but to hopefully connect and heal a new generation of women, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton did for me.

But transgression in art should be in service of something important and higher. Not in service of your financial hustle. Or in service of your ego. Or even, in service of the problems you had with your daddy who you still love like nobody knows and understands (even you).  If not, all you are accomplishing with your transgression is enacting a public tantrum and running with scissors.

So what does this all have to do with Viola Davis and The Help?

As a middle class/Black bourgeoisie African American woman, I would love to see more depictions of Black people like me on the silver screen, depictions that don’t make fun of or demonize Black middle class people, as we are wont to witness these days a la Tyler Perry.

That said, I’m a mixed class Black kid (and I’ve written about this before, too). Yes, my daddy was Black Bourgeoisie, but my mama was from the red dirt cotton fields of Georgia, and I’d also like to see more complex depictions of poor and working class Black folks, too.

For example, it would have been nice to have seen one Black man in The Help who stood up for a Black woman instead only a Brother like Minny’s abusive husband, or another who left Abilene to fend for herself in the middle of the street during a burgeoning race riot.

I grew up with working class Black men who would die for the dignity and honor of a Black woman, like my uncles. I believe my mother’s story of the time that a White man came to the house one day and cursed in front of my grandmother. When he wouldn’t apologize, my papa Charlie told his son to get his gun.  This was in the late 1940s when such an act in central Georgia could get him and possibly his entire family killed. And by the way, that White man got in his car and drove on home.

And I saw working class Black women, like my granny, who would cuss somebody like a sailor if they pissed her off, but only Monday through Saturday.  (She was the cusser in the family, not Grandpa Charlie.) On Sunday, she was a dressed up, do-right acting, child of God.

But yes, I saw some in the outside community—who shall remain nameless—who would beat a woman in the middle of the street and mothers who abandoned their children to go Up North.  I’ve seen much. I’d like to see that same “much” in films about working class Black people. I’d like to see some complexity.

I’m not upset with a “Black maid movie.” I’ve seen a few I’ve loved, including A Long Walk Home starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. But that movie featured a Black woman who had a rich life outside of her White folk’s kitchens. The Help does not. And I do not believe that Viola Davis, a Black woman born in the early 1960s who is classically trained at Julliard, can believe what she said at the NAACP Image Awards, that Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book the movie is based on) told “the truth.” Or that she wrote “art.”

Child, please.

What bothers me most, is that Viola Davis is singing that well-worn spiritual of “I’m A Black Artist And I Have A Right To Work” in order to shut down criticism of her acting in The Help, like with Tavis Smiley  on his show. And now, her “artistic choices” are being defended as transgressing Black Middle-Class values by others, instead of keeping on the real question.

And I’ll ask it: Why is it that we Black folks must keep seeing these flat, one-dimensional depictions of Black people–supposedly ourselves– in the movies? Is this really the best Hollywood can do?

Sure, I enjoy having a reasonably good FICO score as much as the next Sister. But it’s not that I need to see heroes or doctors or lawyers or Tuskegee Airmen as opposed to drug dealers or absent fathers or crack addicted sex-workers–or maids.

No, what I need is to see some real Black folks and real stories–whomever is on the screen.

Sidebar: And while we’re at talking about what I need, I could do without that sweeping, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that reminds me of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert whenever I see Black folks on screen, too. Geez Louise in Heaven.

I’m not trying to knock Viola Davis’s hustle, but in the final analysis, it is a hustle. Or maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not a hustle, depending on which Black person in whichever socio-economic class that you ask.

But you cannot tell me in the ultimate final analysis that The Help is complex, good Black art simply because a complex Black artist acted in it.  Sometimes, complex artists of whatever complexion make bad art. (I know I have.) And you cannot tell me that The Help is the best movie that any filmmaker, Black or White, could have made on working class Black life.

I think that both W.E.B. and Booker T. would agree with me on that.

.

Happy Birthday, W.E.B. DuBois!

W.E.B. DuBois

Thank you to fabulous historian, Dr. Blair Kelley for reminding me that today is the birthday of W.E.B. DuBois! He was born on February 23 in 1868.

Sidebar: Please forgive me for posting so late in the day. In my defense, y’all, last night, I came down with Some Kind of The Yucky Ick. I’m aching from my fingertips to the soles of my feet.  But I still have five deadlines between now and next Tuesday, so send a Sister some good, energetic, healing mojo, please.

Anyway, I just LOVE me some William Edward Burghardt DuBois, y’all! I own both volumes of his biography, written by David Levering Lewis. He was a genius, an activist, and the Ultimate Race Man Extraordinaire. DuBois was the founder and secretary of the Niagara Movement and one of the founders of the NAACP. Not only that, most scholars agree that he is the father of modern African American studies, even though they didn’t call it that back then.

.

W.E.B. DuBois in top hat. (I love this picture!)

.

Click here to read a condensed biography of DuBois on Wikipedia.

His Harvard University dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 , which was later published as a book, still stands as a major, germinal text on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Click here to read the entire book for free online or download to Kindle.

Further, wherever you turn in African American Studies, you must encounter W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Studying Social Work as it relates to Black folk? Have to read that book. Black politics? Gotta read it. And Black literature, Black psychology, Black history–even Black music. Here’s a link to read the entire text for free online:

But there are two texts by DuBois that I hold especially beloved. The first is his theory of Double Consciousness (contained in The Souls of Black Folk), which explains why Black folks have to remain both constantly aware of the dominant, European American culture and their own African American culture as well:

.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

.

And then, there is “Criteria of Negro Art.” Like The Souls of Black Folk, I come back to it time and again to discover how I really feel about Black cultural and artistic production. DuBois states:

.

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

.

Sometimes, I agree with him. And sometimes, I really, really don’t. I go back and forth, arguing with Dr. DuBois in my mind–as if I could tangle with him intellectually, when no one can! But I do read this essay at least once a year. (Click here to read it for free online, and be changed forever, okay?)

Like I said, W.E.B. DuBois was and is The Man. That’s why there’s even a DuBois Institute at Harvard University named after him. You can click here to read more about it.

So, Happy Birthday, Dr. DuBois! And thank you so much. You remain fabulous–and relevant– throughout these one hundred and forty-four years.

.