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December 7, 2013 / JV

Dying at Angola

I’m working on an essay about the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, and I came across this video for an annual event called Returning Hearts Celebration. Returning Hearts is organized by Awana Lifeline, a Christian “ministry effort” that started at Angola in 2004. The purpose of Returning Hearts is to allow incarcerated fathers a day with their kids, a day to play games, eat food, and learn the Bible. According to Awana Lifeline, the bad news is that over 5,000 people are imprisoned at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison. And many of those inmates are fathers to a collective 20,000 children. What’s more, most of the inmates are serving life sentences without parole. The “good news,” though? “The good news is that over 1,000 inmates are Christians as well as the warden, Burl Cain.”

But how, exactly, is that the good news? When 95 percent of the inmates who enter Angola will die behind its walls? When 9 out of 10 of the fathers I see in this video will never spend time with their children outside of Angola’s gates, or walk outside with them for more than one day a year? When someone can be sentenced to 99 years for armed robbery, as per Louisiana’s sentencing laws? And I’m supposed to be convinced that anyone’s religious beliefs are the good news?

As I cried through the first half of the video, I was pressed to find the good news. Is it the laughter, the smiles, the tears? The contact and conversations and love? The one, or few, days a year when inmates and their visitors can just be? — in the moment, with each other, and exploring the spontaneity of social life among family and friends. These are things that all people, prisoners and not, parents and not, deserve. So in the age of incarceration, when so many people are locked away from so much of what makes up human experience, why is this made to feel like a victory?

November 13, 2013 / JV

Weird Things

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. I have plans to blog more, starting now, with weird things that might also be really good.

First, this video by FKA Twigs that was released in August. It’s a 3 minute and 23 second WTF moment. Don’t believe me just watch.

Right?

Second, this entire mixtape by Kelela, who, I think, might be perfect. In lieu of a video for a song off the mixtape that I think is both weird and really good, I’m posting the full mixtape.

And,

mutu_ashadypromise

Wangechi Mutu. A Shady Promise, 2006.

Till next time.

 

 

September 19, 2013 / JV

Reparations Now, or Ever?

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As you listen to Sarah Collins Rudolph talk about her survival of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, you almost feel like you’re being offered a glimpse into the making of an out-and-out horror story. One minute, she was a 12 year-old girl in her church’s ladies’ lounge watching her 14 year-old sister tie the sash on a friend’s dress, and the next minute, she was being carried to the colored ambulance, the BOOM! still crashing around in her head and her skin perforated by glass. After two and a half months, she left the hospital with one less sister and one less eye and a glass replacement for the eye. Fifty years later, she lives with cataracts, PTSD, and glass obstinately stuck in her stomach and her “good eye.” Despite the mountains of financial, mental, and emotional burdens Collins Rudolph has struggled to mount since the bombing, she’s received no assistance from Birmingham, where she still lives and earns minimally as a domestic worker. It’s “like they’re saying, ‘Well, you didn’t die so don’t expect anything,'” she tells the interviewer, encapsulating the absurdity of it all. Her story evokes the unreality of the black living made socially dead — its nightmarish quality is like the behind-the-scenes-but-in-front-of-the-curtain of racial terror in the US — and you are somehow vehemently appalled while also furiously unsurprised.

That Sarah Collins Rudolph is overdue for compensation seems like a no-brainer. She’s been permanently scarred by an act of terror, the effects of which have cost her money, caused unfathomable trauma, and rerouted her life trajectory in numerous ways including interfering with her goal to become a nurse. What about this is fundamentally different from the attacks on the Boston marathon and the World Trade Center? Both of which, as Diane McWhorter highlights in her excellent NYT editorial, saw an outpouring of financial aid for the victims in their aftermath. How is Collins Rudolph, who is sometimes called “the fifth little girl,” so different from the victims of the racial violence that occurred in the black town of Rosewood, Florida in 1923, when homes, churches, and stores were torched and at least six black people murdered? The descendants of whom were compensated seven decades later, when the Florida senate put $1.5 million toward reparations for survivors, $500,000 toward those displaced, and $100,000 toward scholarships for descendants and other minorities. One state senator even said, “Our justice system failed the citizens of Rosewood.” If only it were an anomaly, this whole reparations business would be a lot easier.

But the “justice system,” mayor, city council, police chief, and fire department of Birmingham didn’t simply “fail” its black residents on September 15, 1963. These municipal entities didn’t play the role of bystander who was slow to act, morally implicated but factually absolved. On the contrary, city officials were complicit, on that day of many; they were enforcers and protectors of violence and the status quo in shamelessly racially discriminate ways. In that sense, maybe Collins Rudolph’s case is more like that of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps during World War II? That was government sponsored and at some point Reagan acknowledged a fraction of its awfulness and signed off on an act that allowed $20,000 in reparations to each survivor. But then, there are many other state-sponsored atrocities still, so perhaps there is no need for, or possibility of, a methodical means of comparison.

Yet, even if we were granted the likeness of tragedy and unpunctual compensation for Sarah Collins Rudolph, there would still be questions left unanswered concerning the debt the US owes for its enslavement and segregation of black Americans. These questions would not be the ones of logistical character that seem to always crop up in discussions of reparations: How would we determine who’s owed what? and how long ago do “past” wrongs reach?* The unanswered questions would rather be with regard to our commitments as a country that has sustained the wrongs it was founded on for over three centuries, wrongs from which one group benefited and others suffered. As a country whose White House and Capitol were built by slave labor. It is amid this past that we have to consider: For how long will we banish “reparations” from the domain of politically viable issues, rendering black suffering banal and the prospect of redress unspeakable? When will we forfeit the charade and definitively draw the curtains? The horror story that is some folks’ reality started long ago and belongs to us all — so what can we do to flip the script?

—-

*It’s worth noting that despite the popularity of these questions, there have been reparations lawsuits filed, with the earliest known to have occurred in 1915 and multiple more recently. Some suits concern descendants of slaves and raise claims such as conspiracy and human rights violations against corporations, while others — like the case in Tulsa, Oklahoma — are against state and municipal actors and focus on the violent repression of Jim Crow.

July 23, 2013 / JV

In the Face of Respectability

Blackyouthculturethenandnow

Image from allthingsharlem.com

Over at Huffington Post, Romany Malco seems to have taken a page from Bill Cosby’s forever in-progress book, How to Completely Miss Every Point Ever Made About Race in the US and Blame Racism on Black Youth Instead. According to Malco, things like the criminalization of black bodies aren’t responsible for antiblack violence. That would be too obvious, and besides, we need to deal with the bigger issues of Education, Values, and Lack of Introspection before we can address racism. But in the meantime, you know what we can talk about? How cursing, twerking, weave-wearing, and designer clothes are the reasons black people die. From Malco:

I believe we lost that trial for Trayvon long before he was killed. Trayvon was doomed the moment ignorance became synonymous with young black America. We lost that case by using media outlets (music, movies, social media, etc.) as vehicles to perpetuate the same negative images and social issues that destroyed the black community in the first place. When we went on record glorifying violent crime and when we voted for a president we never thought to hold accountable. When we signed on to do reality shows that fed into the media’s stereotypes of black men, we ingrained an image of Trayvon Martin so overwhelming that who he actually may have been didn’t matter anymore.

In other words, black people put Trayvon Martin in danger of a fatal act of vigilantism through their choices to live and be seen. Black people should never be in reality shows, or vote for presidents, or tweet. We should know that each of us speaks for us all, and that we cannot be diverse, complex, independent individuals. The killing of Trayvon Martin ultimately falls on the shoulders of “the black community,” and has naught to do with his gunman’s aspiration to be a part of law enforcement, or with multiple cities’ publicly discriminatory stop-and-frisk programs, or with the fact that black people have been getting murdered for existing since long before the advent of mass media.

Malco continues:

If we really wanted to ensure Trayvon Martin’s killing was not in vain, we’d stop perpetuating negative images that are now synonymous with black men in America. We’d stop rapping about selling drugs and killing niggas. The next time we saw a man beating a woman, we’d call for help or break it up, but one thing we would not do is stand by with our cellphones out — yelling WORLDSTAR! Instead of rewarding kids for memorization, we’d reward them for independent and critical thinking.

Because if we all started rapping about our favorite shows on Nickelodeon, people would see we are nice and a black teenager walking in the rain wouldn’t be perceived as a threat, right? If only we would never talk about drugs, or use technology, or send our children to public schools, black people wouldn’t be killed, guys?! Somebody send this guy some butter, because he is really on a roll.

Lastly:

We’d spend less time subconsciously repeating lyrics about death and murder and more time understanding why we are so willing to twerk to songs that bemean women and boast of having things we cannot afford. We’d set examples of self-love for our youth by honoring our own hair, skin and eye color. We’d stop spending money on designer gear that we should be spending on our physical and psychological health. We’d seek information outside the corporate owned-media that manipulates us. We’d stop letting television babysit our kids and we’d quit regurgitating pundits we haven’t come up with on our own.

Basically, black people, stop living if you are going to insist on making your own decisions! Stop the “racism outcry” if you are not going to lead the life of a noble and sacrificial race. You have the nerve to dance? You don’t own your house, and you dare to buy a car? You haven’t been to the gym, but you’ve got a new TV?! Don’t you know that your only hope for survival as a breathing black person in this country depends on you consistently proving your innocence?

Malco’s narrative may seem marginally not-complete-bullshit at first glance: he mentions the need for “critical thinking,” and rails quite emphatically about “corporate-owned media.” To be sure — though his analysis is all hot air, no balloon — he does seem to gesture toward the issues of sensationalism, violence against women, and the race to accumulate capital. This is all frustratingly undeveloped, however, and buried beneath the oppressively thick, godawful layers of choice-policing and respectability politics. Malco’s view implies that stereotypes perpetuated by black people are the reason for the violence against them. It eschews analyses of historical, structural, state-sanctioned and extralegal racist violence, in favor of a trope that leans on personal responsibility. … Because history started sixty years ago, and in that time, any harm done to black people has been due to their moral shortcomings.

As I attempt to, once and for all, push the poisonous thinking of the Negro Police out of my brain, I want to draw a page from Malco’s book and “address young black people specifically.” I want to ask that we think about what we should not have to sacrifice in order to be seen and treated as whole human beings. It seems to me that we should not have to sacrifice our power to move our bodies and our mouths in public, make music we enjoy, participate in politics, engage with popular media, adorn ourselves. We should not have to sacrifice our power to grieve, or to protest, or to be concerned with multiple issues at once. We should be able to be weed-smoking, tattoo-having, god-doubting, pants-sagging, piercing-clad, grill-sporting, unmarried individuals if we want to — without having to worry that we will be presumed monolithic, followed, frisked, or shot because of it. We should be able to be, and to choose, and to affirm who we are, always and without shame. Because when it comes to fighting for your entire life, there is no compromise. Now let us twerk.

Posted at PostBourgie.

July 12, 2013 / JV

The Zimmerman Trial Through an Abolitionist Lens

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Dead weight seems to hang in the air as we wait for the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. My fears and hopes feel hinged on each shallow exhale as I sit at the kitchen table, sifting through articles, nibbling oatmeal, talking heads muted. Like many people I know, I’ve been angry. The murder of Trayvon Martin has been about a young person who was presumed suspicious, followed, and shot in the chest on his way back to his father’s house after stepping out for a snack. It is surely about that. But it has also been about black men everywhere who are read as a threat. It has been about the ease with which the police took Zimmerman’s word when he said he acted in self-defense, and those weeks he lived regular life after having murdered someone in cold blood. It’s especially about these facts when considered in relationship to how many black and brown people go to prison for comparatively minuscule reasons: shoplifting a candy bar, driving a little bit fast, firing a warning shot during an abusive encounter.

We have consistently been told that this is “not about race,” perhaps strategically, perhaps not. But of course — in a country where there is a $2 million bounty on the head of a black woman for allegedly killing a police officer, while a police officer who participated in the harassment and murder of a black man in front of the world on a BART platform is serving in the army — it is about race. However, it’s about race in ways other than the egregious dissimilarities between treatment of black life and white life. It’s also about the colors of the punishment system, and how we think through our relationship to it as a whole. As a person who is against the carceral state, I have struggled with my feelings about the Zimmerman trial. If I truly believe in prison abolition, then it cannot, seemingly, be a sometimes commitment.

As I await the jury, heart in stomach, I am trying to think about how this whole situation could have gone differently through an abolitionist lens. What if, when people became outraged that Zimmerman was “roaming free,” they had demanded transformative justice rather than arrest? What if, rather than sitting there dopily, George Zimmerman would have had to explain himself to Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton? A friend of mine who advocates community conflict resolution, even to the point of violence, suggests George Zimmerman deserved to get whatever may or may not have come to him without state intervention. Are these our alternatives? What do we want?

It feels easier to think about prison abolition when we confront all the damage the punishment system — which includes laws, their enforcement, and the multiple institutions and relationships involved in those practices — does to people’s lives. As the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population, the severity of the problem is blatant. As we consider the disproportionate number of black and brown people who are targeted by surveillance and other punitive procedures, the violence is clear. But if we also acknowledge that the institution itself cannot be redeemed, then that means working against its domination, even — and particularly — in cases like Zimmerman’s, when we may not be sympathetic to the potentially incarcerated. Everyday abolition has to be about thinking of ways to address conflict and harm outside of the punishment system, on a regular basis. I’m asking you to think with me about the ways that this may be possible.

If George Zimmerman is convicted, perhaps there will be a moment of joy for a lot of people across the country: here, this apparently unapologetic man who murdered a teenage boy, will be locked away for some years. He will, maybe, feel regret or fear or hurt in prison. But, for each George Zimmerman, how many black, brown, trans, gender noncomforming, undocumented, or homeless people will also be locked away? And for what we might deem far lesser reasons? How many people with disabilities or medical needs will be confined to some kind of institution, be it called a prison or a hospital?

As we sit, wait, and watch, with our hearts in our stomachs and the weight of black death in the air, what are our long term hopes for the future of this carceral state?

Posted at Postbourgie.

November 25, 2012 / JV

White Face, Black Lineage, So What?

Today a story popped up in my newsfeed: “A White Face With A Forgotten African Family.” The link leads to an interview with Joe Mozingo, a “blond-haired and blue-eyed” Californian who found out he is descended from Edward Mozingo, a black, indentured servant who gained his freedom in seventeenth-century Virginia. Joe Mozingo’s journey to trace his ancestry was first chronicled in the LA Times a couple of years ago, and has since been released as a book. I haven’t read the book, and I’m not interested in trying to figure out its relative merits as a work of art, genealogy, or anything of the sort. Nor do I want to neglect the one or two aspects of the aforementioned article that I think can be potentially illuminating. Take, for example, the following quote:

LYDEN: You stumble across many people with the name Mozingo in this book. And there in Virginia, you meet a character, Junior Mozingo. A lot of these people didn’t really want to think about having an African ancestor.

MOZINGO: He didn’t want to hear about it at all. I mean, he had lived literally on a spot where Edward Mozingo had lived 300 years before, yet he had this myth that they were Italian and they had gotten here in the 1800s, when in fact, he could trace his lineage straight to Edward.

This, I think, offers insight into how deeply intertwined people’s conceptions of whiteness are with the notion of a white (ahistorical) lineage. Through this quote, we get a glimpse into the importance of white narratives – if entirely mythical – to the formation of white identity, even if that identity is predicated on a whiteness that subsumes distinctive ethnic groups, e.g. Italians, under one racialized banner.

Beyond such moments of insight though, I found myself asking, What am I supposed to get from this? What is the significance of finding out that a person who looks white is, in fact, somewhere down the line, descended from a black person? Is this some kind of one-drop rule experiment? Am I – are we – supposed to feel differently about race now that we know that a person who looks white can trace their roots to someone who looked black?

I ask because I don’t feel differently. And, other than having a non-Anglicized, or “unusual-sounding” last name, I’m not sure Joe does either. Why not? Because regardless of how many black men are on Joe’s family tree (the violence of the metaphor is telling), Joe has lived his life as a blue-eyed, blond-haired white man. And, he will continue to live his life as such. Never will Joe’s mouth mirror Fanon’s tight smile in response to the repeated call and attendant burdens of, “Look, a Negro!”

What the article has to offer us, then, if we read it discerningly, is that Joe’s recognition of a black ancestor is ultimately insignificant to our understanding of race, except as a) a reminder of the gravity of imagined racial purity to whiteness, and b) an indicator that people still believe race is somehow contingent on biology. This is exhibited by Joe’s comment, “My initial intention was to go there and make people’s heads explode with the news that they were black, even though they weren’t.” That is to say, that them being related to a black person, despite their inexperience with situations that black people tend to face, changes them in some significant way – and not merely because it mars their narrative, but because it mars them. Race in this context is discoverable; it can be presented to someone as “news,” as though race is an ontological fact rather than a lived experience.

For the parts where the article exposes the aspirations, illusions, and delusions of whiteness, I am there with the imagined readership. But, I resist the moments where I feel as though I am being compelled – by the narrative, by the commenters – to read Joe Mozinga’s story as a humanity lesson. The lesson is that Joe being “black” humanizes blackness, and that, if only more white people knew they were “black,” racism would end. The former point, which I think is one of the main thrusts behind the Joe Mozinga story, hints at one of the messages that is embedded in articles like “A White Face”: The stories of black people are only relatable, and indeed, human, when mediated through white faces, and it is only when blackness becomes relatable, local, translatable into and behind whiteness that race and racism, for white people, become personal problems.

Posted at Postbourgie.

May 17, 2012 / JV

Why Marriage Equality Is Not Enough


As you might have heard by now, President Barack Obama has expressed his belief that gay people should be able to get married. Obama said he has talked to friends, family, and neighbors about it; hell, he has people on his staff who are gay (surprise!), and it’s not fair that they feel “constrained… because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage.” There’s a lot that could be said about what’s been called Obama’s #formemyselfpersonally endorsement of same-sex marriage–such as how he’s acting like it took Sasha and Malia being confused for him to realize that he should support the issue, and whether it’s good or bad for politics–but I want to take a moment to talk about the terms of the discussion. My concerns can fit broadly under what I’ll call The Equality Problem.

Though the potential weaknesses of equality-based advocacy are myriad, perhaps one of the biggest is that the foremost goal is typically inclusion. Wagering for inclusion with regard to marriage is problematic first of all because it affirms rather than challenges the legitimacy of marriage as the supreme institution of relationships and domesticities. As has been argued before, the primacy of conjugal status in determining things like who counts as next of kin, who’s covered by whose health care, and who can file joint tax returns is worth questioning. Fighting to extend the benefits of marriage to gay couples, on the basis that they model the nuclear mold, falls short of a “larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families.” And ultimately, as we have seen with the recent passing of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, policies touted under the banner of assumedly desirable “traditional families” are, and have been for at least five decades, about restricting state support for a range of “deviant” relationships and domesticities from unmarried partnerships to multigenerational and single parent households.

Of course, assimilation into an institution also means assimilation into a particular notion of what’s normative and acceptable. Enter: The “Just Like You!” Plea. At the end of the day, inclusion still conforms to a perceived norm, and in doing so, marginalizes other preferences, experiences, and expressions. People in gay relationships (not queer! that’s a bad word) just want to buy a house with a picket fence and have 2.5 kids like their mythical heterosexual brothers and sisters. They just want to “raise a family” and take turns walking the dog and emulate the anachronistic norm of patriarchal, economically productive homes. Right? … No? Okay, so in that case, can we stop pretending like everyone is the same? (And while we’re at it, can we stop pretending as though “opposite” and “same” sex are in any way accurate or adequate?) Progressive legislation and equal recognition need not be rallied for on the grounds that all LGBTQ couples are wealthy, white, able-bodied, cis male monogatrons who are “just like you, but gay.” Challenging this homo-normative narrative entails acknowledging that the hetero-normative illusion it claims to be “just like” is also a fallacy and furthermore unnecessary as a means for comparison. Do we all have to identify as straight, gay or lesbian, or perform an intelligible gender, or be in “incredibly committed monogamous relationships” to deserve the multiple economic and legal privileges currently provided through marriage?

Lastly, a side of the marriage equality wrangle that merits some discussion is the obsession with whether or not same-sex attraction is “natural.” With well-intentioned proponents affirming that it is, and others countering that it’s not (usually accompanied by some name game platitude involving biblical characters), the “natural” vs. “unnatural” debate almost has the appearance of being important. Yet, not only should it be of no import whether or not Cynthia Nixon was “born this way,” but harping on the matter compromises the terms of the debate and significantly clouds what should be an unstable notion of “sexuality” anyway. “Homosexuality” is not any more natural than “heterosexuality,” and, in fact, neither should be conceived as constituting some kind of fixed, continuous entity that can satisfactorily encompass intimate human activity since the beginning of time. After all, it’s been only relatively recently that marriage has become marginally less prejudicial than it’s been at times in the past, and not long before that was the discursive binary of hetero/homosexuality popularized, so there is absolutely no reason to invoke “nature” here, nor is there a need to concretize acts of sex and intimacy into identity, and identity into institution.

The aim is not to legislate how “happy,” relatively unenthusiastic, or somewhere in the middle people can be about Obama’s announcement and the drive towards marriage equality more generally, but rather to try to think about how the debate is framed, who it further excludes, and what we want beyond it. The concept of equality does not have to present problems (or at least not problems we can’t work through), and perhaps it can be useful if we ensure that it signifies more than simply drawing the circle of hegemonic normativity a little wider. In the meantime, in the midst of the political momentum surrounding same-sex marriage and with an ongoing commitment to remain critical, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Posted at Huffington Post.

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