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Saturday, March 28, 2015
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Project Dedicated to Documenting Origins of Texas Freedmen's Towns Seeks Participants #BlackHistoryMonth #Texas
Sunday, January 18, 2015
I have a lot to say about the movie Selma, but I frankly feel like I’ll need to see it again before I play armchair filmmaker. What I do feel confident talking about is Selma as a storytelling enterprise.
Storytelling is on my mind a lot lately. Mostly because it is a large part of my doctoral research in community planning. I am documenting creation stories of rural black communities founded during the Reconstruction Era in Texas. I don’t just collect stories, but I am really trying to gain insight into how these stories are used in service of community today. Second, I have always thought of myself as a writer first. I feel I have strayed from that a bit since entering graduate school, but story is still central to what I do. I apprise to be an academic and a storyteller.
However, it is problematic to tell any story, even your own, right?
We can all recall moments that may matter to you, but not to anyone else. I’ve found many times, that people I knew in high school or college recall moments I totally forgot. They held onto these moments for decades as the principle representation of “Andrea”. They aren’t wrong, they are just telling a different story, limited by time, perspective, and the face I wished to show the world at any given moment. Some moments reflect who I like to think I am, others, not so much.
To be clear writing a dissertation is not providing a script or even a memoir, but the document will inevitably tell a story of sorts. My own field research includes ethnography, documenting stories, and conducting interviews using methods with historical and anthropological rigor. Follow these methods, document stories a certain way, and people are more likely to believe your stories or more than “just stories.”
However, even history is fundamentally a story, not fact. It is a representation of what moments mean. Did this cause that? Would this have happened if that didn’t happened? Is he responsible for that, or is she really the reason they succeeded? These questions facilitate interpretation and we depict the results or conclusions in the form of some narrative with a beginning, a climax, and resolution. This we forget, particularly true when we talk about film, especially those depicting historical moments and figures.
Being a film director is a bit like being a storyteller. According to something called the film terms glossary , a director is a sort of storyteller. A director is
“the creative artist responsible for complete artistic control of all phases of a film's production(such as making day-to-day determinations about sound, lighting, action,casting, even editing), for translating/interpreting a script into a film, for guiding the performances of the actors in a particular role and/or scene, and for supervising the cinematography and film crew. The director is usually the single person most responsible for the finished product, although he/she couldn't make a film without support from many other artists and technicians”
Currently, Filmmaker Ava DuVernay is viewed as that “single person responsible” for telling the Selma story, and her telling has been nothing short of controversial. Was her depiction accurate? Did she tell the truth? All assume the purpose of film about historical moments or figures is to set the record straight, prove, and teach. If the film has been judged to have achieved any of these deceptively objective goals, then it is a success.
However, is that the true purpose of story? Film is always interpretation and a projection of values and meaning rooted in our own memory and limited exposure to elements of the past, material or human. In oral traditions, access to the human (oral history/song) is privileged over the material (maps, legal documents). Still film is a bit of human and material storytelling, right?
Ava DuVernay is one such storyteller. In “Ava DuVernay: ‘Selma’ Is the ‘Vision of a Black Storyteller Undiluted’”, Mychal Denzel Smith interviews the film maker, who explains that
For a filmmaker or storyteller, telling a story about the past and for it to feel current and urgent and immediate, through no doing of mine, but because of the time that we’re in is certainly moving and certainly an honor for us to have something to say during this time. It’s really just trying to provide some connective tissue between then and now and to just remind folks that this is not now, and maybe just illuminating that fact in some way might change some of our ideas about what the next steps are. If you know that what we’re taking is not a first step, but a step from a journey that’s been decades long, centuries long, then that perhaps changes the way you walk.
Connective tissue. If nothing else, her film is a connective tissue. It focuses on a moment that is part of a long human rights struggle. Selma, is but one of many battles in a long war against white supremacy. The film is also a subversion of the way western society often uses story.
Ava is a griot. Griots are historians, storytellers. Griot’s have a privilege position in society. Two heavy hitters lent them some of theirs. Oprah and Brad Pitt are producers. These and other backers empowered her, gave agency to be not just a director, but to be a real storyteller. Women told stories with the weight and power of law in Africa, and they still do:
In the movie, Selma, the role of Black women as nurturers, confidants, and front line soldiers are told. They are especially visible in Selma along with a consciousness of being a link between a noble African past and white supremacist present in 1960s Alabama.
In UPRISING , a modern day griot explains the purpose of the ancient storytelling tradition.
Selma is also reflective of how non-linear African storytelling really is. While even saying it is cyclical is limiting, it is fair to say that the weight, the echoes of the past embedded in story are not just de ja vu or coincidence, they are grounding, meaning making, and foundation for political project. Personal is indeed political. See Ava’s own rootedness in the Selma story:
She speaks of bringing order to the streets where at another time, every movement of black bodies were once controlled, oppressed, and beaten. It provided another layer of meaning to her approach to depicting the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that has less to do with accuracy but more with meaning and respecting memory.
Ava is a griot, engaged in diasporic filmmaking, rooted not merely in Africa, but African traditions. Filmmaking in this tradition is not just entertainment or a golden statue, but meaning. In the African Diaspora (not just rooted in the continent but in the struggle in the preservation of those sharing the condition of Blackness), story gives your life meaning. Stories tell you who you are, why you “decided” to come here. It is not proof and it is far from a lie. However, sometimes, no often, we all search for meaning more than truth. Stories and memory reinforce values.
At its best, storytelling is an act of radical representation. Selma succeeds as an unapologetically “Black” depiction of resistance to white supremacy and dare I say civil rights movement history’s love affair with patriarchy. While many would center the depiction of LBJ and decry the omission of other figures and story lines, I argue Ava has told a story that gives black life meaning. It centers Black voice, Black soul. Selma is a reminder of why black life matters, and how our ancestors had to believe black life matters to lay down their very devalued Black bodies for the bodies of those many would never live to see.
Amazingly, Ava DuVernay had no knowledge of Ferguson, Michael Brown or Eric Garner when her film making began. However, after seeing Selma, you’ll believe that she had to know that her depiction of the stories of the past had the potential to order the disordered, encumbered steps of the protesters in the present.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
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Friday, December 19, 2014
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I awoke this morning feeling a little weary. Groggy, and frankly disappointed. But I felt compelled to write this for a number of reasons. I recalled that I am the first generation able to reap the benefits of my ancestors’ struggles. The first post segregation, affirmative action baby generation. Yes, my birth certificate says Negro, but I am sure that mine was probably one of the last few. I have a nephew named Benicio that I love to pieces. He is brilliant, kind, handsome, and well behaved. He is ten. I worry about him getting to be a big boy, which used to mean he was growing up a little, but now it means he may be viewed as a bigger boy than he is, and thus a threat. Black boy = threat. This is an equation or formula we memorize as young people in the Black community, and I am sick of us having to do it. If you are white (without family, students, community members, children or a spouse of color) you have a distance from this that right now I resent and have no patience for, and this is the unfairness that made me want to stop and write this. This is an unfairness that festers, causes cancer, keeps us angry, stress eating, and disrespecting ourselves, and consistently feeling less than no matter what we achieve or do, because we feel helpless that doing things by the rules doesn’t pay. I don’t want to give up on the rules, but I do give up on upholding a charade of the equitable enforcement of said rules. I want an America in which justice is not some abstract idea embedded in process more than result. I also endeavor to live my truth, individual and collective truth(s). So, here is my effort to unpack and validate my truth(s), formulate an (ongoing) analysis, and offer some recommendations for moving forward.
I kept staring at the TV screen last night, flipping between MSNBC and CNN, and Fox (to see how long I could endure it. I know it is awful, but it’s a little game I play with myself), hoping things weren’t going to get as bad as they did last night in Ferguson in the Country. However, things were really bad or let’s say worsened over the course of the day and night. Let me clarify what I mean by really bad.
First, the grand jury decision had been made by noon, but it wasn’t released until very late last night. The decision was constantly postponed and an alleged negotiation with Darren Wilson was leaked. Wilson was said to be resigning. The Governor’s press conference in the afternoon was organized but included an announcement that seemed illogical and reckless on its face event to the press, who questioned why the decision wouldn’t be released until 8 pm central. The Governor’s reaction was telling as it was at out sync with the rest of the press conference. See below:
Throughout the day, the media (24 hour news channels specifically) police are framed as those known for the facts and keeping the peace, and protesters as people out of control, emotional and illogical. This framing works and all networks perpetuate the idea of that resistance or disagreement is acceptable as a perfunctory ritual but not as an action thought to have an impact or facilitate change. People also begin referring back to the LA Rebellion as LA Riots. Revisionist history continues all day.
No corrections, no context. Much hyperbole.
Then of course, rather than seeing the planned, organized marches and mass actions, we are forced to see County Prosecutor McCullough ramble on for 30 minutes. We miss what the protesters have had planned for months. We hear, instead, a 30-minute defense of Darren Wilson, questions from local media and a pseudo Communist Party plant. Nothing new, lots of cherry picked testimonies, and insincere apologies to the Browns, who got the news of the announcement like the rest of us on social media.
I am disappointed in the grand jury decision, which was the most orchestrated scapegoating of a deliberative body I have ever seen. We are of course not supposed to complain because the system works, we must accept their decision. If we don’t, we are simply emotional crybabies who don’t understand how grownups run the world. In the real world, a process is followed there is a result and you accept it. I don’t know that he could have been any more patronizing last night. This is far from transparent, and not even close to acceptable. And there’s nothing worse than throwing 12 people under the bus so you can absolve yourself of responsibility. Cowardice, Just complete cowardice.
What kind of prosecutor dumps a bunch of information on a grand jury with; little guidance and instruction, rather than take one day to indict himself? He wasted energy, money, jeopardized public property and safety, and traumatized the Brown family. It was maddening to watch the city go up in flames as well. And I’m disappointed in that too. No, not in that “Bill Cosby says pull your pants up, My Kind of People, Upper middle class, I’m not like those black people” way. That thinking got us here more than the provocateurs and repeat offenders we saw burning businesses last night. How?
The “us versus them” approach to gaining civil rights has contributed to African Americans leaving a whole segment of our community out of national conversations on race, validating the assumption that if we “prove” that we are human then we will be “worthy” of full citizenship. In the process lots of people have figured out how to make money off our “shame”. This ludicrous assumption is killing us as much as white supremacy, sexism, and every other ism. The New Jim Crow talks about all this much more artfully than I do here. But I guess concurrent with fighting structural racism, we need to do some work and not the kind the conservatives are talking about, actually they won't like any of this.
Yes, most of us are fighting everyday for full employment, opportunity, voting rights…so I do not mean to dismiss the hard work of a whole group of people. Rather, I am illuminating what’s at stake when we subdivide the “we” or when we only care about our own little nuclear family, our own bills, our own vacations, and our own retirement funds. And some of us traded off a lot of to currying favor and power. Exhibit A is Bill Clinton’s passage of the Welfare Act and the Crime Bill. We sold a lot of our brothers and sisters out, not brining Clinton to task holding his feet to the fire. This unity is not just an emotional loss, it is a concrete loss. More felons in our communities equals less eligible voters. More prisons equal empowered, mostly white rural communities increasing their tax base and voting bloc, and controlling the outcome of elections. Its all connected, really.
So what do we do?
I know there are creative people out there who will organize flash mobs, mass actions. In my dream world, all our musical artists and Black reality TV stars start discussing race relations, policing, and police brutality during their shows. But enough fantasizing. Here are a few ideas:
- Boycott Black Friday. If you do shop, reinvest in local small businesses only. Better yet, in lieu of gifts, donate to civil rights groups like Color of Change in the name of the gift recipient. Or ,in memory of someone who has been a victim of police brutality. Start a fund for victims’ families. Just do something else with your money! Why? We need to shift our priorities away from consumerism and protection of property to protection and prioritization of people.
- Nonprofits, frats, sororities, churches, etc. – Formally bury respectability politics and grow a “Moral Mentor” program for our youth rooted in our history of struggle, resistance, and political organizing. A good example was the Children’s Defense Fund. However, I worry that struggle has become too sanitized. We use our history programs to show how the talented-tenth successfully mimicked white supremacy and separated themselves from the poor, unwashed masses of black people. This hasn’t done us much good. Yes, we have hard working African Americans who have given time and money to charitable causes; I have been one of them. My issue is that this internal separation has hurt us in very concrete ways. It has taken us too long to fight injustices in the criminal justice system because of our shame and self-hatred. However, we have learned that our class status, education, or gold club membership won’t protect us from police harassment or even death. Good kids who make good grades and do what they are supposed to do are shot. A Moral Mentor program is not just about pulling up pants or not listening to rap music. Instead it is a return to our collective roots in civil rights struggle AND rebellion, going back to our resistance to white supremacy during slavery. Also, if you go to a church that says to just pray all this away, leave it, because they must not be reading the red parts of the Bible. Jesus was about prayer AND action. Church leadership need to plan actions, like community walks, meetings with local police chiefs. Raise money for bail for getting some of these protesters out of jail. As you can see, I’ve got a long list of things for our talented tenth and faith communities to do. J
- Stop these one off, gimmicky racism remedies. I offer your two approaches. The first is what the Obama administration has selected. This administration has assumed that restoring the nuclear family or patriarchy is the solution to all of the African American community’s problems. Citing statistics about incarceration, graduation rates, and the income disparities of two versus single parent households, they’ve created, and funded, a male-centered program called “My Brother’s Keeper”. This has been the sum total of the things this administration has done that are explicitly black, meant to address “black “problems. If you cared about systemic change you wouldn’t just promote some Moynihan report inspired, reactionary, Focus on the Family, initiative. And for those that say this is the only way he could do it and placate the right wing, I don’t buy it for a second. He’s been running scared and it has not served him. This is a big lesson of his presidency from which we can all learn. An alternative strategy (of the many strategies required), would be to take that same money and fund ways to keep people out of the criminal justice system for nonviolent or drug related crimes, reward people for hiring such people, and funding child care. Or, they could look at the toll the economy and that same system has taken on black women. They might find disparities they didn’t expect to see.
- Show up where they do not expect you to show up, and demand that agendas reflect the priorities of Black and Brown communities. This means showing up to those groups we often criticize for being ineffectual, not radical enough, or too radical. I know it is hard and we all have many obligations, but if you are able try to join the league of Women voters or other groups that formulate questions for candidates during debates. Require candidates (from dogcatcher on up!) into forums and signing pledges. Such pledges might include making race and policing a priority, as well as dismantling the criminal industrial complex (including wrongful incarceration of immigrants) a part of their platforms. These can become the litmus test issues that abortion, taxation, and affirmative action are, but we have to get to the table early to secure their primacy. We can’t wait until presidential elections or only address issues on that level. And national activists have to reconnect with local actors. I see a Justice Department open to this, but we need to keep applying pressure to the wound.
- We need our elders. AND the personal is political. Moral mentors are not only people who are educated or well to do. They need to include our elders. And I mean elders broadly (70+). This struggle for criminal justice reform within our community and outside it is something we have to integrate into our daily lives socially. We have to talk about it during family reunions and explain where to show up and when to shape agendas. This moves us from after the fact complaints, to shaping our future. It also prevents us from reinventing the wheel or leaving all the work to professional activists. Our elders resisted in so many ways, but we won’t know if we don’t listen to them. Knowing our history is not a feel good exercise or about pride. It is about capturing, documenting, and passing on the knowledge that kept us alive in the face of much worse than what we are experiencing now. This knowledge includes approaches to organizing, tactics, mutual aid and support, spiritual reinforcement in the face of defeat…we cannot lose this capital!
- Ask Foundations to support grassroots organizing and educational initiatives that address systemic inequity, invest in police accountability, and prioritize restorative justice. The Bread and Roses Fund is a great model for progressive local foundations. Please check out their Resources for Racial Justice in Philly and Ferguson Initiative released this morning. http://breadrosesfund.org/ferguson-giving-pledge/ . They have figured out how to tie constructively local struggle to Ferguson through financial support of social justice efforts in Philadelphia and in Missouri. Yes, supporting the United Way, fighting to head start, and other services that maintain healthy communities are all about justice as well. But those people on the front lines explicitly addressing injustice and inequality need money and real support, because their efforts have become largely invisible. Never say, “nobody’s doing anything” or “those people don’t care about their communities”. It is not true. Get on the ground and learn who is doing the work. They may not do it like you do, but they are doing it all the same
- Academics, learn what your discipline or school is doing that contributes to healing or improving race relations and addressing structural inequities. If they aren’t doing enough, figure out how to change that. This question must become the topic of panels, forums, and professional association position papers. My fields are Planning, Preservation and Heritage. I’ll be contemplating this over the next few weeks, during the Freedom Colony Summit in East Texas June 27, 2015, and leading up to next year’s planning conference in Houston. At the summit, we will talk about how you organize communities out of nothing and in the face of state and local violence. We’ll also learn how our ancestors that founded communities after Emancipation learned to resist and stay alive to fight another day. What were are “indigenous” forms of justice, arbitration and problem solving? Can we use those methods now? During the planning conference, some of us will put a panel together to identify the place of healing in planning within communities of color. If you are in planning, I challenge you to think about what a physical environment that facilitates justice, safety, and decreases recidivism looks like. And what do we do about the fact that a majority of the population in some zip codes are formerly incarcerated people or people in some way under criminal justice system control making their communities more like reservations or apartheid era places, and not integrated parts of cities.
What the “Fire Next Time” Should Look Like
We had a fire last night, but they’re nothing like the flames yet to come. We simply can’t tolerate this much longer. But I’d like the next fire to keep us warm and not burn us all to death.
Why did I write all this? Because I feel like America is in the ER when it comes to our legal system. Those seeking justice especially the poor, black and brown among us, have come to the ER waiting room window with a broken arm, and staff has told us to sit and wait without making a sound. We’re in pain and watching others get attended to wit lesser injuries. And when we finally do get attention, we get a glass of warm water an aspirin. We don’t have to prove we are worthy of relief. We all deserve care, justice, love.
People loot, people rebel/riot. Media covers it. None of that as anything to do with justice for Mike brown and the hundreds of other instances of state violence against youth of color. They aren’t animals and aren’t inherently immoral animals. But rather than waiting time proving that, we have to move. That will look different for all of us. It may not even be a public act. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you do, move.
By the way, I referenced, as many will over the next few days, The Fire Next Time, a book about America and race by James Baldwin throughout this post. Here’s a Carter Family recording of the song containing the line called, “God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign”. The song was a pre-Civil War Negro spiritual with the line "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time." Ironically, I haven’t found any African American recordings of the song with the line in it about a Fire Next Time.
You see, here's another thing we've forgotten.