Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

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From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

Looking into the Mirror of a Great Divide: How We Define Ourselves at the Expense of Others

In the recent blogpost titled “Black Canadian Like Me,” Alyson Renaldo suggests a contention between kindred of shared borders—Black Canadians and African Americans. She recycles the “Black on Black” crime of people of shared African Diasporic experience disliking and distancing themselves from each other, suggesting that cultural cluelessness, assimilation, and a “lack of reaching back” are the culprits.  Yet in irritating this sore spot, is the author as much its promoter as its clarifier, when suggesting for example that artist Jill Scott’s lyrical references to southern cuisine lacks insight and makes her “clueless” to the cultural experiences of others, and the questions of one Los Angeles bus driver to the author about her diction suggest a universal myopia about African Americans’ understandings of other Black people’s experiences?  The post below explores the dimensions of Alyson’s argument, and the larger dilemma underlying the building and burning of bridges between Diasporic neighbors.

In the blogpost “Black Canadian Like Me” (http://www.theroot.com/views/black-canadian-me), Alyson Renaldo begins her blog sharing reflections on recently attending a Jill Scott concert in Canada with her friends.  She admires Jill’s music, acknowledging it as a portal into an intimate portrait of Jill, a translation of personal experiences churned into lyrical public artifacts.  But it is this very translation that the author criticizes and deems offensive, indicting Jill’s song on a platform larger than her lyrics, holds the song responsible for more than self-expression.  Going wider and deeper than classifying Jill’s performance as creative expression, she critiques both Jill’s song and herself as an artist.  Because Alyson and her friends were unfamiliar with some of the cuisine and cultural references Jill made, the author alludes to Jill’s references to food as intentionally excluding her and her friends from what “should” have been a concert of inclusivity. What follows are some of the comments Alyson and her friends recorded that they made during this collision between concert and culture:

“[Jill’s] just setting up her experience in the song. But, well, not really, because she’s asking us to reminisce with her, which means we’re supposed to know about these strange food combinations, too,” and “I don’t think they know there are others on the planet with them. Maybe she thinks the ‘c’ in ‘Canada’ really stands for ‘Carolinas.’”

Alyson and her friends situate Jill’s center of gravity—how she defines herself—as off-putting, and in the author’s words, “cultural cluelessness.”  She asserts that Jill Scott disappointedly does not take into consideration the experiences of others within her music; talking about certain cuisine indicative of her personal story excludes and alienates others’ stories.

The author seems to be going in the direction of a cultural indictment of a personal cuisine-based affinity upheld by Jill Scott, but is using Jill’s lyrics to lead into a generalized assumption of African Americans’ cultural insularity and exclusivity. She interprets Jill’s culinary affinity as an elitist cultural alienation of them, foregrounding it as an implication of African Americans as a whole as being culturally insular and ignorant.  Using the concert as a case study, the author devotes the rest of the blog to also discussing a premise that African-Americans participate in a self-erasure, with this erasure being a non-affiliation with Diasporic cultural and historical roots, a cultural and ethnic myopia whereby border kindred of African Descent (in this case, Canadians) are disregarded, and an unhealthy assimilation and absorption of Americana.

The blog has me pondering, and probably will continue so long after writing my own response.  Trying best to not write tit for tat, there is something about this supposition of Diasporic and border-based betrayal that does not rest well.  I think the blogpost offers a personal account about how one’s identity is formed and informed by historical and contemporary factors, but makes an over-sweeping judgment to about African Americans as a whole that further contributes fuel to an artificial fight between the survivors of the African Diaspora.

Jill Didn’t Mean No Harm

Alyson frames Jill Scott as “culturally clueless” because of the particular culinary references and cultural connections she made with them.   However, artists work on dual planes—they express a particularized experience, yet do so in forums which universalize its access and foster new possibilities.  This universal access then allows as audience to experience the framing of life as offered by the artist, while also being invited to innovate upon this offering by infusing or revising pieces of ourselves (writing a poem or essay based on a phrase, creating a dance to complement it, reminisce about a time in our lives when we experienced similar, do research, ask questions, etc.).  As another option, we can accept it at face value as just an artist’s interpretation and integrate nothing of ourselves.  To Jill’s defense (and credit), while not everyone grows up on collard greens and candied sweets as particularized by her, there is a universal human experience induced by food and tradition.  As a universal human experience, food and tradition are intertwined, used to commemorate universally human events such as rites of passage, marriage, birth, death, war, victory, etc.

Art is an invitation into a dialogue between artist and audience, a conversation amongst a multiplicity of beings.   I am a fan of Jill Scott in how she mixes a range of emotions, experiences and epiphanies with a range of sounds.  I admire how John Coltrane translates the divine into music.  Composer Clint Mansell generates a soundtrack for the movie “Requiem for a Dream” that gives a sound to addition—razor-backed, uncomfortable, brooding and solemn.  Teena Marie blends guitar and a multi-octave range to make compelling narratives.  Jamiroquai makes the ethereal into the audible.  Astrud Gilberto sings Bossa Nova in a way that is seductive, soothing, and sonorous.  Yo-Yo Ma interprets the history of countries and different music genres, rendering them into melded art.  I may not come from where each of these musicians comes from, nor agree with or enjoy everything each produces.  But, as artists do, by siphoning their specific experience through music, each provides a medium and channel into the human experience.   So to argue as Alyson does that someone’s articulation of his/her experience to be deliberately excluding of others is a huge stretch.  To suggest that an artist’s singular articulation is endemic of a practice of a people is erroneous and unfair condemnation (I’ll return back to this point in the next section).

We have to be careful of criticizing musicians (and perhaps artists in general) as cultural elitists and exclusionists because of references made in a song, and just because some references are unfamiliar or outside the realm of our specific experience.  My husband is a fan of several artists old and new, across a span of artists (from Aretha to Adele, from The Dramatics to The Bee Gees, from David Ruffin to Neil Diamond), eras (60’s, 70’s, 80’s), genres (movie scores to classic soul) and continents (here and abroad).  Several of my nieces love and grew up with Soca and Calypso.  Being around them has made for me a feeling of discomfort because I am unfamiliar with many of the songs and artists they like.  However, it is the intersection of our shared lives as family, amidst this discomfort, that has encouraged me to ask questions and penetrate past a wall of assumed difference, rather than be immobilized by assumption.  Lesson learned  and the take-away. . .while there is variance in our musical tastes, and in the content and cultural referencing of the artists, these things make for more of an opportunity for curiosity than criticism or Diasporic cutterage.


Cultural identity Held Up in the Mirrors of Others’ Eyes

Another argument made in Alyson’s blog is that there people of the Diaspora living in the United States  “process race and community differently than I” (than Canadian-located counterparts), that there was a kind of oppression-and-assimilation orientation that people of color in the United States hold compared to brethren living in Canada.  She recounts her rearing as being entrenched with identifying with the country of family origin, not current location (in this case, Canada where she was born as a citizen).  She makes several statements that that end.  For example, she states, “It was absolutely unheard of for anyone of my ilk to claim Canada,” which “absolutely everything, from your table etiquette to your family pride — was figuratively imported,” and “my generation’s parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian.”

There are two implications here.  One is that only Alyson has been reared this way, suggesting that no other immigrant groups, whether voluntary or involuntary, practice the preservation and continuation of old traditions in new lands and inculcate their young to do the same.  Second, the author implies that if someone was not raised this same isolationistic way, that she or he is deprived and “less than.”  The author’s mentioning of how she “processes race and community” seems more as to bring separative distinction and deliberate distancing to the forefront.  Isn’t this the very same elitism she accuses Jill Scott of doing during the concert?  Jill is accused of cultural elitism because of references made in a song and “promoted” during a concert, yet the same indictment could be imposed here for the author’s elevation of how she was raised to the assumed absence of how others are not.

The author also makes an interesting statement about her rearing and interracial interactions between white Canadians and people of the African Diaspora living in Canada.  She asserts that in Canada there is a deliberate distancing between those of West Indian descent and the white majority:

“. . . when it comes to my sense of self, I am Caribbean, first and foremost.

As a child of West Indian immigrants, I clearly remember my dual development: When I stepped outside, my whole world was white, with a smattering of minorities, but when I returned home, the inverse was true. My entire socialization mirrored black and West Indian sensibilities, training that took place exclusively at home. All standards of progress were set by West Indian ideals. None of this was explicitly articulated so much as explicitly modeled.

It could be reasonably surmised that, as a community, we were invested in privacy and distance from the majority. Our parents interacted with the country’s white majority as one would a friendly co-worker. Caucasians were not our parents’ superiors — nor were they subordinate. They were just people with whom our parents were expected to spend significant amounts of time. Granted, if, while using this model, they forged friendships, that was cool, but it wasn’t even remotely necessary or solicited. Also, it goes without saying that it was not considered wise to bring one’s ‘work’ home . . .

Perhaps my generation’s parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian. It meant that we could live within a white majority but not be defined by that majority. This is how our parents ensured our solid foundation, which was and remains an immeasurable gift.”

The author states that confining interactions with “the majority” to just work is optimal to preserving one’s own identity.  To contrast, it is the lack of preserving this distance, and the adoption of “the American dream” has led to the “downfall” of African Americans. Based on a brief stint of living and going to school in Los Angeles, talking with a bus driver, and attending a party with white Americans, Alyson contends her understandings about African Americans grew.  Yet the author condescending argument has holes as well, as evinced by judgmental comments about African Americans such as, “[there is the] American cultural norm of self-absorption, a trait to which black Americans are not immune,” “I had completely forgotten is that black Americans are still Americans, a nation firm in its resolve that no person or thing on this planet — or in the heavens — matters as much as they do.”

Alyson doesn’t specifically state what she believes as the way African American process race and community, and its differences to her own.  By implication, it seems from the blogpost she is suggesting “differently” that being born as an African American means to be devoid of rearing that infuses one’s growing up with being brought up with history, knowledge and traditions of Diasporic ancestry.   It also implies an over-willingness to accept, acculturate and assimilate the beliefs and practices of the dominant culture—to the consequential cheapening of one’s self.   Her premise also implies that to assimilate some beliefs, to participate in some of the traditions of one’s current country of citizenship, is a cheapening of oneself.  Suggesting that there was not enough “resistance” placed against integration and “hence the consequence” of marginalization.  As if to suggest living a daily strategic negotiation on multiple fronts of culture, employment, and identity are demeaning work.

However, growing up through multiplicity does not lead to mediocrity or “selling out.”  As a woman of color born and living in the United States, I am the culmination of various experiences.  Some directly rooted in my ancestry and ancestral history, others based on living within a multi-ethnic nation.  Some experiences I have had through growing up in a major urban city, others from visiting family in rural settings.  Some experiences are inherited from family traditions, others from sharing in the family experiences of others.  Some experiences as a woman of color have helped me ascend, other have been afflictions because of people’s assumptions based on my gender and ethnicity.  Who we come to be is more mosaic than singular.

I was not sure of the connections the author makes between Jill Scott’s music, her cultural upbringing, and suppositions about the African American experience.  What I did read and note was the tracing of experiences distancing, in both the author’s accounts and also in my experience as the audience.  A conventional conclusion that summarizes talking points wouldn’t do justice here, because what Alyson’s blogpost brings up is the need for more dialogue and conversation across borders of land and heart.

For now, for us all I offer one suggestion.  Stop placing so much responsibility on a song, and so little on introspection.

 

This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist

Article for Bronze Magazine Anniversary Issue, November/December 2011

a woman sleeps as if
tomorrow a war will begin” –Vera Pavlova

For the 1st anniversary of Bronze Magazine (http://bronzemagonline.com), I wrote this article about the activism of women locally and internationally.  It highlights the involvement and investment of women in efforts spanning environmental issues, AIDS awareness, exposing governmental tyranny, educational advocacy, self- defense, and helping adolescents plan and prepare for the future.  But the writing of the article extends beyond telling about the impact of others.  I wrote it to also make a space for women to tell about the work they too are doing here and abroad.  To create an open space to share what each of us is doing to make a difference, move others from margin to center, contemplate a new world, and speak truth to power. 

I invite you to share at the end of this article the ways YOU are making a difference.

 

This morning I began drafting a blog about inspirational women, meditating on the living examples of goodness they harbor and promote.  Sister friends like Carla, Lisa, Kim, Karen, and Tonya balancing being employed while raising children, pursuing personal passions, and nurturing relationships. Deceased kindred such as my mother, aunt, and Eastern Star sisters who by bloodline and example exemplify what can become possible.  Their dreams pulse now in my blood.  Writers like Audre Lorde who used words as tools to instigate and liberate, playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy who pushed the envelope of drama by tooling it to shed light into our darknesses.

Yet, I indulge the guilty pleasure of watching the “Basketball Wives” and “Real Housewives” franchises, with a fascination of what will happen next.  Who will be the next woman to get a drink and then a fist thrown at her, a knife of venomous words plunged into her back, a secret put on blast, a reputation that gets her thrown under the bus?  But the actions and outcomes are cyclical.  After repetitiously seeing the cattiness, two-facedness, duplicitous fidelity, diabolical planning, sinister backstabbing, escalating emotional bullying and downright physical assault, a command for different is radiating from inside. I think I reached the saturation point of witnessing the broadcast of the basest aspect of womanhood, and the affirmation such shows get in the forms of high viewership and popularity.  But at the end of the hour, what can be culled as inspiration, a lesson, experience, strategy or new outlook that we can glean from watching women on “reality” shows to then employ and emulate in our life’s work?  There’s nothing new to learn.  So why are such shows so popular, despite the nullifying examples of trailblazing women like Suzanne Malveaux, Shirley Chisholm, Cathy Hughes, Rolonda Watts, Malkia Amala Cyril, Shirley Ceasar, Ursula Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carol Jenkins, Donna Brazile, and Oprah Winfrey?

I’ve reached critical mass.  A new reaction beside distaste and criticism has to occur.  Taking my own thoughts off the video editing floor, I am taking some time to reflect on the tenacity, resilience, spirituality, talent, sacrifice, perseverance, benevolence, insight, intelligence, ferocity, savvy, surrender and serenity harbored and offered by the phenomenal women who use breath other than to bait kindred for public entertainment.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

Marypat Hector, in her recent blog “Enough with the Basketball Wives, Let’s Talk About Girl Power!” identifies several young women under the age of 30 whose lives, while not regularly broadcast on a weekly show, demonstrate contributions that confirm what our hands can produce when devoted to creating change instead of slapping a woman in the face and decimating her worth.[1]  Through her efforts as Executive Director of the National Action Network and contributing writer to NewsOne, Tamika D. Mallory uses her life and access to media outlets to bring to light issues of violence within the African-American community. [2] Dominique Sharpton, Director of Membership for the National Action Network and thespian, employs her talents resulting in the near tripling of the organization’s membership from since 2008, producing her father’s syndicated radio show, organizing marches and rallies, and creating several venues and outlets for youth to express their artistic talents.[3]  CNN Hero, activist,  author, college student and black belt martial artist Dallas Jessup, after seeing in the news the abduction of a young girl, uses her life to train girls and women in self defense through self-produced training videos, and facilitating activism within communities worldwide through her non-profit organization Just Yell Fire.[4] Environmental activist and author Jordan Howard, after being a Green Ambassador at Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, employs her learning of the environment to galvanize others, using films to educate the masses about sustainable living, leading and organizing the Rise Above Plastics “Student Speaker Series” that trains fellow young adults in how to promote environmental awareness within their communities, and participating in various political and social forums to raise awareness.[5]  AIDS activist and living testimony Hydeia Broadbent devotes her life experience of being born with HIV to inform the consciousness of the world, doing so through several national television and radio shows, educational institutions, panel discussions as well as international forums.[6]

And I’d also like to add three friends who are phenomenal agents of change. Angela Romans, currently Senior Advisor on Education to the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has worked in several community-based organizations, public schools, institutions of higher education, and political capacities to avail post-secondary opportunities to under-represented youth. [7] Tiffany Gardner is founder and Executive Director of One World Foundation, whose mission is to “develop and place young leaders (18 to 25) from poor and under-represented backgrounds in human rights and development service projects and prepare them for leadership in both the public and private sectors.”[8]  Finally, school social worker and aspiring graduate student Tonetta Collins works tirelessly in her job and within the organization CEOKids of Atlanta,[9] describing her work within the organization as helping “middle schoolers connect what they are learning in school to real world professions . . . to realize their gifts and strengths at a time when their need for social acceptance becomes important and connect them to the possibilities.”

One-sentence descriptions of the activists mentioned here is an injustice to their selfless intentions and the impact of their work.  But, the point of naming each of these women and their contributions is to reclaim space polluted with exaggerated and bifurcating depictions of women:  we have media suggesting the “best” of women that is “worthy” of extensive broadcast is the banality of the actions of a select few.   Such is the purpose, nature, and success of the beast of media. These depictions are a concerted effort toward what Martha Lauzen in the documentary “Miss Representation” associates with symbolic annihilation.  Such depictions kill off a consciousness of what we are and can be other than what is harmfully exaggerated, intentionally manufactured and massively promulgated.  “You can’t be what you can’t see,” admonishes Marian Wright Edelman, which is the point of why some media images of women prevail over others.  Ask any of us to rattle off the names of “Basketball Wives” or “Real Housewives” cast women and it can be done in a heartbeat.  Ask us to name several contemporary female activists and HOW they pave roads for change, and we become mute, having first to do some research.

The women activists in this text counter such toxic messaging.  They are mirrors for us to see an affirmative reflection of ourselves, a counter portrayal illustrating purposeful uses of our breath in harnessing and improving others’ lives.  Mirrors that empower by deflecting the media’s transmission and instead position us to learn blueprints for making a difference locally and abroad.  The “reality show” wives are not extraordinary, nor are the scope and mission of these activists outside your own reach.

The message?  Contemplate how you ARE doing something to make the lives of others better.  Why is such reflection essential to our personal and collective existence?  Because the stakes are really high.  Consider the following statistics from the documentary “Miss Representation” that illustrates the disparity in the portrayal of women, and their actual presence in important media and political junctures:[10]

  • Only 16% of protagonists in films are female
  • Women comprise only 16% of all film writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors
  • Women own only 5.8% of all television stations and 6% of radio stations
  • Only 7% of directors and 10% of film writers are women
  • Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only 17% of Congress
  • 34 women have ever served as governors in the United States, compared to 2,319 men
  • 67 countries worldwide have had female presidents or prime ministers, of which the United States is not one of them

In examining yourself, what are the ways YOU make a difference in households, schools, communities, and board rooms, regardless if the cameras are on our off?  And are you broadcasting how you make a difference in the lives of others?  Who knows the work you are doing, and using YOU as an exemplar to learn how to replicate and reproduce it?

Broadening the scope of women’s work worldwide, we recently received news of three remarkable women who do not spend their time pointing out flaws and blasting the past of cast members.  Instead, they present palms and hearts to other women as allies to prove themselves embraceable.  Use their voices for the protection of others. Offer themselves as sister kindred to create chains of solidarity.  Harness and promote others’ potential.  Their lives are proffered as a sacrificial proof of commitment.  While their stories have taken time to traverse the oceans (regrettably), Leymah Gbowee mobilizes Liberian women to save their country from 14 years of civil strife, Yemenite Tawakkul Karman protests for the rights of journalists and an end to governmental corruption, and  Liberian President Ellie Johnson Sirleaf works in private and public sectors to rebuild her beloved country.  They have, now with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, arrived on the shores of our minds, and I hope garnering a growing consciousness for what WE can do as women across borders physical and mental.

Leymah Gbowee is no stranger to the afflictions of war.  She was no stranger to children conscripted as toy soldiers and catalysts for a war they did not create but would be responsible for exploitatively executing (literally).  Young girls and women’s bodies were commoditized and brutally raped as the spoils of war.  Hunger became the crown and shroud of too many Liberians, with starved children dropping as new food for flies.  Liberia’s history of strife between warmongering avaricious warlords and a corrupt political regime, and its consequences, were regrettably familiar.  Having had enough, she prayed for peace. While pregnant with her third child, she incubated perseverance and persistence, birthing them into a mobilization of women to “pray the devil back to hell.”[11]

Leymah’s first work was transcending assumptions of religious difference, moving beyond fears of diluting or soiling each another’s religious dispositions.  Armed with conviction, and with fellow women compatriots, she mobilized Liberian Christian and Muslim women to unite in the commerce of peace, forging a collective effort to pressure religious leaders to advocate for them.   These “Market Women,” the fodder for what would later become WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network), initially began protesting in white garments along roadsides of the presidential convoy so their need for peace would glare against the tinted windows.  Despite refusals of an audience, they continued to peacefully protest until gaining an audience with President Charles Taylor on April 23, 2003.  Stepping on fear and into faith, Leymah vocalized their position statement, presenting their entreaty for peace within their nation.

Following this presentation, peace talks between then President Taylor and warring factions convened in Accra, Ghana.  Assembling with Liberian women refugees already in Accra, together with the women of WIPNET they stood guard, daily vigilant to the need for peace in their country and attentively watching the warlords and President make progress to this end. After almost two months of posturing and jockeying for position, and seeing these men enjoy comforts of hospitality they did not enjoy while in the bushes, the women were fed up, and on July 21, 2003, they locked arms around the building where the talks were being held, asserting they will not allow the men to leave until the peace talks were taken seriously, and a treaty was reached.  Subsequently the talks changed in tone, content, and direction, and with eyes and pressure offered from the international world (the threat of funding to be cut off), change came.  Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, and a transitional government was installed.  WIPNET under Leymah’s efforts, knowing that the struggle for peace just began, returned working in their communities to promote the reconciliation of Liberia (such as forgiving the rebel soldiers), as well as educating their people about the candidates, laying the fodder for sister Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to become the first woman elected President of Liberia.

I write about Leymah’s work in detail because I had never heard of her, this radical mission or the incredible accomplishments of these Liberia women, until the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize and then watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in October.  Given this event occurred in 2003, not knowing this women’s work until eight years later sheds a glaring spotlight on my own myopia.  Saturated with too many colonizing lies.   You may have experienced the same.  The rallying of women who were stripped of all things but belief, makes the rallying of women over futile gossip and fabricated drama pale in comparison.  On the “Racialicious” Blog, a blog about the intersections of race and pop culture, guest contributor RVCBard writes about such colonization in his post “Fandom and its Hatred of Black Women Characters.”[12]  Both the author and several dozen respondents commiserated that the syndicated depictions of women of color lack multi-dimensionality, yet fans’ responses have been vitriol.  To this observation, RVCBard comments that “what gets overlooked is that the way these characters are hated [referencing such characters as Martha Jones, Tara Thornton, Guinevere, and Mercedes Jones] happens in a particularly racialized and gendered way that echoes a lot of stereotypes about Black women.”[13] I would add to this mix “reality” shows as well.  Why aren’t there reality shows about women activists?  It has to go beyond simply the suppositions of low ratings and lack of interest.

Again, this is why it is so important that the work you do to make change be made known, not for kudos, but as catalysts and models for others illustrating what can be done, and how.  It took an announcement for such work to get a blip on my radar.  I am sure I am not alone.  Imagine if we pipelined the work we were each doing to improve the community and world, this information would not be exceptional.  Maybe I/we need to develop better pipelines to disseminate such information and role models to one another, instead of allowing the media to spoon-feed us stereotypes and caricatures.

Speaking of pipelines, Leymah’s work was the precedent and ground-laying foundation for another of the Nobel Peace Prize sisters.  Kindred recipient and countrywoman Ellie Johnson Sirleaf, veteran in finance and political sectors, has grounded her life’s work in nation building. Out of ashes of political strife and economic exploitation, she has been instrumental in helping the phoenix of Liberia resurrect itself.  She has served in several professional and political capacities and women’s groups.  Over the span of four decades, she served as one of the founding members  of  the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership Liberia’s Minister of Finance, President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), Vice President of CITICORP’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, Vice President for Equator Bank, and under the auspice of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) served as Assistant Administrator and Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.[14]   Even in exile she continued to work on initiatives to prosper Liberia, such as the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs, and Measuagoon, a Liberian non-profit community development organization that helps war-devastated rural communities rebuild themselves (doing such things as in 2002 bringing improved sanitation to the Budumbura Camp, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana), and later subsidizing young girls’ education.[15]  In 2003, when Charles Taylor was exiled and the National Transitional Government of Liberia was formed, she served as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission, later culminating in her unprecedented inauguration on January 16, 2006 as the first female President of Liberia.  In this role, she continued her work to build her country by fostering relationships with regional partners and the international community, and attracting resources to rebuild Liberia’s infrastructure.  She has served on several peace-oriented, women-empowerment, transcontinental and international initiatives, and several advisory boards.

The Nobel Peace Prize trinity of transformation and advocacy is completed by Yemenite Tawakkul Karman.  Journalist and human rights advocate, she has taken the tools of her voice and beliefs to collect and rally her people.   The catalyst for her activism was the refusal of the government to intervene in the intentional displacement of 30 families expelled from their village so the land could be given to a tribal leader close to the president. [16]   To quote Karman, “They never responded to one of our demands.  It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.” Engaged in weekly protests since 2007, she established with compatriots a tent camp called “Change Square” in the heart of the capital city of Sanaa.[17] [18] Tawakkul’s work has been advocating for the rights of free press, heading such groups as “Women Journalists Without Chains.”  Additional advocacy entails demanding the release of political prisoners, unabashed protest against granting immunity to corrupt government officials of the current political regime, and being a parliament member of Al-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform).[19]  She is both the first Yemenite and Arab woman to receive the award.

An intersection shared by all three NPP peacemakers is that they are all mothers.  They harness motherhood as motivation for their activism, an impetus for improving the lives of all, especially children, so they may inherit a better world.   Interestingly enough, motherhood is also a commonality shared with their “reality wives” counterparts.  The difference? The former spend no time labeling potential comrades in struggle as “worthless,” “jumpoffs,” or “crazy.”  They do not use voice or venom to garner and manufacture divisiveness, alienate or create pariahs from potential allies.  These activists employ their energies and talents to fling fists not at one another over fabricated squabbles, but to the brick and mortar of oppression.  They use their talents to channel and forge new pathways and possibilities.  They neither agitate already festering wounds, nor manufacture confrontations that last across episodes and legacies.  Leymah demonstrates cunning ability to transcend potential religious barriers to unite Christian and Muslim women in a united front.  Tawakkul transcends religious, political, and gender barriers to unite the voices of Yemeni people into one.  President Sirleaf integrates various initiatives to unite a people torn by war into a country of prosperity.

We don’t have to act like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to respond as “trained” by the media. We can bolster and build instead of berate or resign ourselves to pre-determined corners.  Our national sheroes and three Nobel Peace Prize Women Warriors offer alternative routes and models for how to use our energies and resources to magnify ours’ and other’s talents to promote and harness them all for the greater good of both gender and world. “Miss Representation” closes with offering suggestions for how we can do such work . . .

  • Stop scrutinizing each other
  • Support media that champions accomplished women
  • Boycott media that objectifies and degrades women
  • Write your own stores and create your own media about powerful women in non-traditional roles
  • Be a mentor to others
  • May we all make empowering other women and girls a priority

I am hoping at the end of this blog you will take a moment to write and post the ways you ARE an agent of change.  This could be the pipeline that activates change in others.  Please share your blueprints, and pass them down to us.  After reading a draft of this article, my friend/brother/mentor John Jenkins shared with me its impact on him:

“I am inspired to use my mouth and mind to spread good positive stories of impact so that others gain the authority to do the same. And in this way we will begin to create the counter-narrative of who we are, who women are in this world.”

In tribute to the women mentioned, and to you, I share an original poem about the fortitude of women activists and the lessons they pass down.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

****************************************


 

The North Star (for All Women Warriors)

Women/compose the North Star/

visions from their minds endow its shine,

spin its beams wide from dreams, and give it

pulsation from ripening affirmations/

transmitting from the transcended to the transcending.

 

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

clasped my hand,

hastening through muck and

dark with steeled steering

commanding, “Follow the North Star!”

 

They relay my hand to Ida B. Wells

who deposits pen into palm

to record and remind the world of

the law of lynching and lynching of the law

decreeing, “Write the North Star!”

 

She brought me to meet

Mary McCloud Bethune

who conferred my other hand with a degree/

with mind elevated, emancipated by education

declaring, “Teach others of the North Star!”

 

Then Zora Neale Hurston

visited on campus/

witnessing pen and degree advised

“Now chile, youz got th’ degree fo’ da mind,

Now ya need th’ degree of da spirit!”

Took me down to the muck,

shaking me all through

the Everglades, New Orleans, and the islands,

sprinkling dialects and roots on me,

and unleashing, “Conjure with the North Star!”

 

Then Septima Clark came forging through/

recruiting/opening Citizenship schools that

farm the word and grow the vote/

took me into crowded back rooms with adult kin

compelling, “Build a bridge for others to the North Star!”

 

She carried me West to Angela Davis

who on sidewalk and in classroom

vivified the intersections of politics, activism and

the responsibility of change/

escorting me from California to Cuba,

showing me light in prison of industry and prism of mind/

shot my arm straight into the sky

demanding, “Protest in the name of the North Star!”

 

Then we traipsed to the dance festival where

Judith Jamison and the troupe

were summoning the spirits.

The Black Swan, as principal, in principle

pulled me to her stage,

and sauntered, careened, strutted, sundered

my body into chanting limbs

proclaiming, “Dance in the name of the North Star!”

 

I pirouetted cross country back to the East

where Ntozake Shange recognized

who I was to be/

put a stage in my mouth/

sat me over roses to menstruate/

performing surgery on the art of me/

expunging mayhem/so it emote milk/

uttering, “Make language/for the North Star!”

 

Then my mother,

forger of road from heaven to earth

put her hand to her stomach

feeling for my hand back,

beckoning, “Now, come. Be the North Star!”

© TMY 2011

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It’s my sincere hope that this article/blogpost serve as a launching pad for others to become inspired by learning and familiarizing themselves about the work YOU do, to use YOU as a role model, and to contact YOU to contribute. If this blogpost does this, then the mission of writing this article has been fulfilled. To post your response, click the red “Response” button at the end of this blogpost.  A box will appear where you can type in your response.

Write a response in which you share about what organization (or movement)  you support, what communities you work within and support, the work you do, the impact you are trying to make, and contact information for more details.  Whether in your home or across the world, whether large or small scale, telling what you do MATTERS.  Amplifying your contributions to the audience hear helps us learn and grow.

Finally, please also support Bronze Magazine by purchasing a print or digital copy of the anniversary issue.  The founder and editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, created the magazine to invigorate and affirm fellow women and their work.  It is replete with information, insight, and inspiration. The site is  http://bit.ly/vtX9U6.

To read others’ responses, or to write your own, please click the red button below.  

To read previous posts scroll to bottom right side of page and click on title of choice.


[11] “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary profiling Ms. Gbowee and the work of several women to bring peace to Liberia. http://praythedevilbacktohell.com/