On The Assault of Jussie Smollett

Because of his fame, the assault of Jussie Smollett is gaining the media attention that women being murdered by gunmen, LGBTQ+ people being harmed daily, and women and girls being abused rampantly have failed to. The assailants called him racial and orientational slurs, used bleach, and put a noose around his neck, while telling him “This is MAGA country.”

The sandhills are soft, warm, and waiting for heads to be stuck into them again. People are accusing him of lying, or saying that the assailants didn’t say those things, or if they did they couldn’t be that bad, or if it was that bad it was still an individual and not the “MAGA Movement’s” fault.

What we must understand is that individual hatred without power is morally abhorrent, but impotent. Only when connected to the permission and the protection of power does hatred become a weapon that can be used to punish the marginalized, those with less power, with impunity.

MAGA, even in its most benign form, harkens to a fictional past where America was better and simpler than it is today. MAGA is a tightly zoomed in lens, focused on a living room in a Levittown home, where a white suburban 1950s family lives a comfortable, worry-free life. It does not zoom out to the real estate office down the street that steered the black family away, to the unmarked Native burial ground, to the urban ghettos for new immigrants from Latinx and Asian countries that would forever be seen as other, to the son sent away from that home for his desire to be with another man and living on the street.

MAGA is a lie. It is a lie based on the greater lie of white supremacy and on the heroic myths that we choose to tell ourselves instead of the brutal facts of history that tend to leave few hands clean.

We must also understand the intersectionality of power. Smollett’s fame and to a lesser extent his maleness and cis-ness will cause this to have more attention. Our society says “sure he’s gay and black, but he is entertaining, so he is valuable.” As we express outrage at this assault, we must also place it into its context.We are witnessing a rebellion of systems of power against an increase in love, compassion, and justice. Men, angry that they no longer have the right to treat women as they please, take up arms and kill them. Racists, angry that they are facing a meritocracy for the first time, attack black colleagues and bystanders. Bigots who believe gay and trans people shouldn’t be suffered to live express their violent sentiments in back alleys and subway stations. And we, too often the complicit masses, look for balance where there is none. We cry ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.

Let us lament a country that threatens to replace its motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out Of Many, One) with “Make America Great Again”, and then let us lift ourselves from the threshing floor and commit to banishing the lies of false history and denied humanity back into the pit of hell.

The Talk

What you’ll learn here is important.
Sit quietly, now, and let me explain.
I will show you how this works.

First, be perfect. No errors in diction,
in posture, attire, stride, or movement.
What you’ll learn here is important.

Second, be patient. Watch your grandfather,
mother, brother, daughter, push the rock uphill.
I will show you how this works.

The rock will slip at the top of the hill,
but see! This time it falls not quite so far.
What you’ll learn here is important.

The secret is blood and bone, piled so high,
the rock can slide no further. Progress!
I will show you how this works.

Your ankles’ skin will serve for bootstraps,
and one day, your flesh will shorten the day’s work.
What you’ll learn here is important.
I will show you how this works.

-C. G. Brown
9 April 2018

Y.N.D.

“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018

Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.

Until We’re All Free

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of years about what constitutes racial reconciliation, and what needs to happen to bring us together. In that process, though, I have found something else under the hood which is more troubling. Our society is deeply, fundamentally misogynistic. I know this doesn’t come as a revelation to many of you. It is obvious to the casual objective observer. What’s not obvious is how much it matters. Because we refuse to face how deeply disregard and hatred of women is embedded in our interaction, we’re having an incomplete conversation, laced with hypocrisy.

I hear it in hip-hop and rock-and-roll (let’s not focus on the rappers alone), where women are prop, scorecard, something to use and discard. I hear it in politics and acting, where women are asked about their families, emotions, and fashion while men are asked substantive questions about the issues or their craft. Our misogyny even informs our interaction with LGBTIQ issues. Through this lens of misogyny, a lesbian is just a confused woman who hasn’t met me yet, and who hopefully will bring her partner along to run up my score once she comes around to my way of thinking. A gay man is disgusting because he’s seen as being so much like a woman (and who in their right mind would give manliness up?). A transgender F-to-M is a child in a grown man’s shoes, playing at manhood. A transgender M-to-F is the ultimate deception.

We are trying to understand a three-dimensional cube by looking at lines and squares. Intersectional understanding is predicated on the notion that our system of interaction has unequal inputs and we should have conversations about how to ensure just (not necessarily equal) outcomes. We can’t evaluate the problems being black causes completely separately from the problems being a woman or being poor causes; they feed into each other and amplify each other.

We also know that oppression traps the oppressor as much as the oppressed, though the oppressed suffers more. Men live daily with the limitations placed on them by patriarchal notions of manhood. We can’t cry (except maybe when our sportsball team loses). We can’t be gentle and soft. We are only given anger, stoicism and strength as blunt instruments to deal with everything. What happens when we give a man a full range of healthy tools to become who he needs to be?

Each time we free a segment of society, tremendous potential is unleashed. Much of the creativity and innovation of the 20th century came from people who would have been stifled and lost a century earlier. How much business and technical innovation did we miss because of our rules? What are we still missing as technology booms and is conspicuously missing the contributions of women, black, and Latino people in proportion to their societal presence? Considering that women are half our population, how much potential are we missing by not giving them space to be their fullest selves?

Zoe as Nina and the Failure of Hollywood Imagination

I was reading this article from Shadow and Act and it made me think about something I’ve had a problem with for a while: the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone. Zoe says in response to criticism:

“I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either… An artist is colorless, genderless… It’s more complex than just ‘Oh, you chose the Halle Berry look-alike to play a dark, strikingly beautiful, iconic black woman.’ The truth is, they chose an artist who was willing to sacrifice herself. We needed to tell her story because she deserves it.”

(emphasis above mine)

I think Saldana is a decent actress and don’t have any problems with her personally. Despite this being my second article in two weeks about Nina Simone, I’m not a fanboy either; in my Swiss cheese relationship with music, Nina’s discography is one of the larger holes. What I see in her casting though is a tone deafness, a biography team that learned the whole story but wasn’t paying attention.

While I would have been really excited to see Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead and Adenike from Mother of George) in this role, I agree with Saldana when she says that it’s more complex than skin tone.  Throwing in some other mediocre actress who looked more the part would be equally problematic. However, if you look at who Nina Simone was, it’s important to recall her struggle with self-love in a world that said that dark was not beautiful, and her later speaking with an increasingly militant voice encouraging other black folks to love themselves as well. I think choosing someone who does not physically look like Nina Simone, particularly in complexion, is an insult to that particular legacy, and I have a problem with that in a way that I might not have for someone doing a biopic of, say, Donny Hathaway.

I understand that they wanted to make money and find an actress that already has appeal and will have “box office draw”. However, I see actors and actresses we’ve never heard of being elevated again and again by Hollywood until they stick, and I don’t see why we can’t find some talented dark-skinned, Nina-Simone-looking ingenue to do the same with for this role. I find it interesting as well, that movie casting teams can use their imagination to stretch a Zoe Saldana into playing Nina Simone (or for that matter Angelina Jolie as a multiethnic French woman) but they can’t imagine black lead dramatic characters in a mainstream movie. David Oyelowo, who is cast in the Simone biopic as one of her managers, stated in an interview once that when he was cast as a lead in one particular film and told his family about the new role, his young son asked him, “are you the main character’s friend?” He asked that because he had unconsciously internalized this belief that a black character doesn’t get to lead. That comment from an actor’s own son shows what a failure of imagination costs us, in lowered expectations, and down the road, in lowered achievement.

We owe it to our children, especially children from historically marginalized groups, to be imaginative. We say we’re post-racial and we live in a society where people are up in arms about the blackness (and in some cases, even the proposed blackness) of fictional characters, because even in a fantasy world with magic and bizarre creatures, we can’t imagine non-white people having roles of any importance. (Apologies to the article I cribbed that observation from, the name of which escapes me at this time but may have been over at Very Smart Brothas). If you think this is hyperbole, try performing a racial version of the Bechdel test on the next drama you watch. My proposed rules:

  1. There must be two black characters (okay, fine, even just one),
  2. who aren’t related to each other (if there are two),
  3. who have a function in their communication other than helping the white lead character on their journey or providing comic relief,
  4. [Edit courtesy of my man Damon Young‘s suggestion] and the movie is not primarily about race or “blackness”

You’ll be surprised at how many movies fail.

This isn’t really about Zoe’s fitness to play Nina, physically or as an actress. This is about our collective imagination being so weak, we can never find enough diverse talent out there, but can always find another slender, pretty white woman or handsome, wiry white guy to be the Next Big Thing.