Congratulations to Kim Socha for Writing Such a Liberating Book!

Every now and then I am asked to support the work of other writers and artists, and most of the time I am thrilled to do it when the author or the artist is actively engaged in promoting freedom and ending oppression, domination and abuse. Recently I was asked by Dr. Kim Socha, who is an educator and an activist, to write a blurb for her forthcoming book, Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, which will be available on Amazon on October 7th, 2014 (published by Freethought House).

About a decade ago, I was a vegetarian, but it was primarily for health reasons; I wanted a healthier diet, which today is a very popular idea to embrace. In recent years, I hadn’t thought much of vegetarianism or veganism, but, after reading the advance copy of Dr. Socha’s book, I must say that I am seriously reconsidering my food consumption habits from a whole new point of view, and with atheism in mind – as an ethical/conceptual framework. Upon receiving the advance copy, I found many similarities between Kim and myself, but I also came to respect her for being a scholar-activist in her own right in spite of the challenges and the hostilities that she has encountered from loyal meat (flesh)-eaters. In addition, I was keenly aware and appreciative of the way in which some academicians and some of us with PhDs are not hiding in the shadows. We are making our ideas and voices heard in the public square and articulating education as “the practice of liberation” (Paulo Freire).

Thank you Kim for giving me and all those who will read your book so much to consider about the narratives and ethics we employ to justify human domination over non-human animals. Although I have much to learn about veganism, I support your efforts to stand up to the myths that have enabled us to do harm to non-human animals in the name of human survival and nutrition. And, I am inspired that you are challenging the treatment of non-human animals as an atheist! Indeed, there are many who cannot fathom that one can be morally good and atheist at the same time, which is often an attitude exhibited by religious narcissists and fanatics who are gripped by fear, paranoia and an unrelenting desire for immortality (when, in fact, most violent and abusive crime in the U.S. – and beyond – is committed by theists).

For those of you who follow my blog, it is without a doubt that I recommend Kim Socha’s bold, new book, and I applaud and stand in solidarity with her for daring to dismantle the myths that have informed and dominated our eating habits to the point where we are not really as free as we think we are. This book is a reminder that liberation is something that we must strive for each and every day for ourselves and on behalf of others, and especially for those who cannot defend themselves against violent, malevolent powers . For more about this book, or to learn about it on Facebook, please follow this link!

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Whoopins For Your A*s: I Am Not My Parents

Of course, after recent videos of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson inflicting harm upon their so–called loved ones, we are now seeing many posts about spousal or partner abuse and child corporal punishment. So, for the record let me say that I am absolutely, positively AGAINST partner abuse and child abuse in whatever form they come; physical, mental, emotional, financial, social, political, etc. However, my parents are of a generation that utilized and advocated corporal punishment (i.e., spanking) and for a number of reasons they felt entitled to putting their hands on my siblings and I as a form of punishment or discipline (and sometimes the two were equated).

Yet, well into my adulthood those “whoopins” remained as one of the most painful memories from my childhood. Often, when I remembered them, they were emotionally terrifying and inexplicable. Now, I am grateful for those memories, for they taught me to respect myself and the importance of my feelings, then and now. Many women and children are disrespected each and every day, by those who claim to have power and authority over them. Yet such violent and dismissive  power and authority are not worthy of respect, only fear. As a result, I do not support or defend people who use fear or tradition (my mamma did it, or “we” as black people did it) as reasonable justifications for corporal punishment or domestic abuse. I am not my parents, and I am not into saving or redeeming aspects or practices of black life and culture that I feel are personally and socially detrimental. I have my own choices to make when it comes to how I relate to others, whether it be in relationship to a partner, children, or people I associate with professionally or casually. My parents are solely responsible for their own choices, and the consequences of those choices. Yet I know, because of the emotional work and self–recovery that I have initiated for myself, that some people, perhaps many people like Adrian Peterson, will attempt to defend and save their parents or a collective/cultural practice through their actions and all kinds of creative justifications of their actions. Doing either of these things is in my opinion, self–negating, which can be very hard to overcome in the long–run.

Putting my hands on another human being, to exert power or influence over them, is not something that I wish or aspire to do. Such an act of force does not make me feel powerful or influential. It does not make me feel in control. If I cannot express myself in a way that acknowledges and respects the personal space of others, including children, then I must realize that and take the appropriate action, perhaps with giving myself a time–out, talking to a trusted friend, reading an informative book, taking a class, or detaching from the situation or the person as appropriately as possible. I have dedicated my life to learning, which includes letting go of my need to control others, but it also includes modifying and sometimes even rejecting teachings and behaviors that do not serve me or others in healthy, honest ways. In addition, I see no nexus whatsoever that proves that the “whoopins” that my siblings and I endured were solely responsible for how we all “turned out” as adults. Who we are as adults today, who I am, is not something that can be positively attributed to the whoopins that were employed or advocated by my parents. Rather, the lives that my siblings and I have crafted for ourselves have been informed by a multitude of happenings in our lives, some of which were good, and some of which were not so good. I love my parents, and we now have many opportunities to talk about the past, but their disciplinary practices were just one of the many aspects of my entire life that has gone into the making of who I am today.

In summary, I am not exactly sure what it is that can be credited with my successes in life, but it probably was not the whoopins! And, as long as I am in my right mind, and I have breath in this body, nobody will ever whoop my a*s again (as in put their hands upon me or consciously hurt me for the purpose of teaching me some kind of lesson), nor will I feel entitled to “whoop” another human or non–human being’s a*s, unless it is for the purpose of self–defense.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On World Changers: The Few and Far Between

Many people claim that they want to “change the world,”

Until they actually come into contact with those who have claimed the power and the passion to change themselves in a world that is so resistant to change.

At that point, the people who actually endeavor to change the world

Become few and far between,

While the others remain many and very popular.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Joan Rivers: Remembered

I am amazed at the number of people who are doting over Joan Rivers when she recently justified the killing of the Palestinians.

I wonder how some would react had she justified the slaughter of black people here in the U.S. or in South Africa when Nelson Mandela had been labeled a terrorist by the United States government;

Or what if she openly advocated for the continued exclusion and harm towards millions of LGBTQI folk?

What if she used her position to side with the Christian Right against  atheists worldwide;

Or against health care/contraception for women employed at businesses like Hobby Lobby?

What if she called for the annihilation of indigenous peoples of the Americas, or Australia? 

Or what if she praised the senseless killing of nonhuman animals?

I suppose, for some, this kind of blatant, unabashed, racist, ignorant, violent talk only matters when it happens to their own group or cause?

If that’s the case, if some people are willing to dismiss and look the other way in the face of Joan Rivers’s unjustified, flagrant hate of a group of people that she probably didn’t even know, then I submit to you that such people are not committed to freedom and justice;

And they are opportunists.

© 2014 annalise fonza, PhD

Who’s Dumb and Stupid? Thoughts on Spin and the Potential Legacy of Don Lemon

All week-long I have watched mainstream media put its spin on the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. Like many, on the day that it happened, Saturday, August 9, 2014, I was in shock at the senseless gunning down of this young, black male. Brown’s death reminded me of the many black men and women who have been gunned down by white male police officers and pseudo police officers in the last two decades.

As I watched the news, I was reminded of how out of control the cops are in the U.S. They claim to be there for civilians to “protect and serve,” but when it comes to black life in America, it seems that the only interests being protected and served are the interests of white men and white-controlled institutions, such as police departments and correction facilities. Most of the people who I know are extra nervous when they see flashing blue lights in their rear-view windows. And, come to think about it, I don’t know one black person who does not know that the encounter with a police officer, with an over-zealous white male police officer in particular, could go absolutely, positively, horribly wrong in a matter of seconds. Having that understanding is not unjustified in any way, shape or form.

So, along comes Don Lemon in response to the Michael Brown story. Lemon has been with CNN for what – nearly a decade (since 2006) – and he goes live to the scene to Ferguson, Missouri, reporting the news. Late one night, I turned to CNN for an update on the public protest that was underway. And, I watched as Don Lemon described some of the people involved in the protests – the ones allegedly looting and being violent – as dumb and stupid. I was immediately struck by Lemon’s choice of words and his attempt to characterize certain protestors as dumb and stupid – as in lacking in intelligence; as lacking in meaning or relevance. I wondered if Don Lemon would be willing to say the very same thing on camera about the actions of certain officers of the law? I wondered if he would label certain Ferguson PD officers as dumb and stupid to their faces? I doubt that very much.

As I continued to watch the broadcast, a few things came to mind. First, I became uncomfortably aware of Don Lemon’s inability to analyze matters of race and racism on CNN adequately. Time and time again he is front and center (which is a good thing), but he never misses an opportunity to discursively degrade and dehumanize black people; often he says explicitly or implicitly that black people are operating in some dysfunctional or unacceptable way (which is a very common but bad narrative – as in disproportionate, stereotypical, and unsubstantiated). On other occasions, Lemon’s “respectability politics” have been the talk of Twitter and the subject of public backlash and ridicule. That Lemon recently characterized the alleged Ferguson looters as “dumb and stupid” caused me to question what he really knows about social protest; for he seems to lack a complex or critical understanding of looting and how the term “looting” is applied quite liberally and disproportionately to black people when a terrible disaster or injustice has occurred. Don Lemon has often chastised black people, and young, black men in particular, in this very degrading, elementary way. Therefore, I can’t help but ask aloud if Lemon has been commissioned by corporate elites – his bosses – to say – in blackface – what they would probably never say directly to black folk? All this makes me wonder if Don Lemon is the agent for a much deeper and present reality: white male supremacy.

Unfortunately, because of these mis-representations, Don Lemon is losing credibility, and especially amongst those who possess a critical consciousness, language and ability for debunking racism, sexism and heterosexism (which is an acquired skill). Given his most recent choice of words to describe what’s currently happening in Ferguson, Missouri, I personally doubt his ability to understand public protests or social movements beyond a fifth-grade level or vocabulary. I can only hope that Lemon is the puppet of CNN news elites, because if he is not, then ironically, I’d say it’s he, not the looters, who is acting dumb and stupid. And, given the dearth of black journalists on prime-time television, this is very sad to me. It’s sad that a black journalist with that much visibility and influence does not appear able to articulate the complexities and nuances of the black lived experience in the context of racist, white America. I suppose Don Lemon believes that we have actually become a post-racist society, and that racism is a thing of the past? This too could not be any further from the truth.

Of course, in years to come, there will be some who will remember Don Lemon as a trailblazing and pioneering American journalist, but if he fails to educate himself further about the history and residue of racism in America; if he continues to trivialize and demoralize the black lived experience with convenient, simplistic and shame-bearing comments, then Don Lemon’s potential legacy as an American journalist (and an openly black gay journalist at that) will regrettably be cut short by thoughtless commentary about those he repeatedly appears to despise: and that’s just plain dumb and stupid. But, I think he can do better. I hope that he will do better.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Who Are You? My First Experience as a Humanist Celebrant

I have been certified as a Humanist Celebrant for a little over a year. Humanist Celebrants, who gain their status through the American Humanist Society, which is a part of the American Humanist Association, are legally qualified to perform weddings and any other special ceremonies throughout the fifty states and beyond, just as any traditional preacher, rabbi, imam, guru, or spiritual leader does so amongst their membership or community. It has been an awesome privilege for me to recycle or reuse skills that I once developed as a United Methodist Church (UMC) clergywoman but now as a Humanist Celebrant, and to be there in an official capacity to celebrate with those who prefer to leave the idea of god, or even the mention of a god, out of their most memorable moments. Though it is quite different from what I experienced as a UMC pastor, and I am in the process of developing new skills and creative new ceremonial formats and languages, it is a great way for me to support other atheists, freethinkers, humanists, agnostics and to stay grounded and in community with others. A few months ago, I was surprised when a reporter from CNN called me to inquire about my experience; the reporter claimed that CNN was “documenting atheism” and trying to learn more about it. At that time I had not yet been invited to officiate a wedding as a Humanist Celebrant.  

All that changed on Monday, March 24th, 2014, and I officiated my first wedding  as a Humanist Celebrant here in Atlanta, in Piedmont Park. On Monday, July 28th, 2014, an article that I wrote about my subsequent experience with the Atlanta Fulton County Probate Court was published and featured at The Humanist. Here is an excerpt from that article, but feel free to click the link in this blog to read all about it. And, if you are looking for a Humanist Celebrant in your city or state here is how to find one.

The truth of the matter is that anyone who openly identifies as I do must expect public scrutiny and possible rejection. People in the United States still discriminate against atheists, even though more and more people are using the word “atheist” to self-identify. In other words, just because one uses the term openly and proudly, doesn’t mean he or she will be accepted without question or won’t face rejection. In addition, the religious bigotry and social entitlement here in the South is so pronounced—by people of every color and background. Many, including African Americans, openly discriminate against or exclude other black people from social and professional circles when they learn that those others are atheists.







Gobbledeegook Is What We Do! Feminism, Womanism and a Troubling Patriarchal Persistence in Higher Education

Last April (2014), I interviewed for a tenure track position at an historically black college/university (HBCU) with a graduate program in urban and regional planning, which is my academic discipline. Once again, I was willing and somewhat excited about teaching at an HBCU. I have very fond memories of being an undergraduate student at an HBCU, which is where I started my college-academic pursuits. Some of the best years of my early adult life were spent at Clark Atlanta University, my alma mater, and the idea of returning to an HBCU in a tenure-track position is always intriguing to me.

So, upon arriving at my interview (I was one of several finalists), I was ready and hyped for the day that I was about to experience (or at least I thought I was). Finally, near the end of the day, after I had met with departmental faculty members and administration one-on-one I gave a lecture. During the lecture I included a slide where I provided a definition of feminism and I talked about the negative and antagonistic attitudes about feminism and womanism as they are articulated in public and in the academy amongst people who are active in higher education as professors and administrators. I shared that once during a previous interview (at a predominantly white institution or PWI), I was informed (or come to think about it maybe it was a warning?) that any talk of feminism, womanism or any woman-centered, justice-seeking conceptual or methodological framework would probably be received by students as “gobbledeegook.” And, in sharing about that experience, I articulated what my response was to that comment. Recalling that experience, I explained that I think that gobbledeegook is what we – academics – do best. Further, I expounded on that saying that we, as academics, specialize in exploring and examining new topics and discourses that seem foreign or like gobbledeegook to new and returning college students. We talk and we teach gobbledeegook, or at least it seems that way for a time. Therefore, talking gobbledeegook is a part of what we do as academics; we generally have deeper, more advanced commands of intellectual vernaculars and ideas compared to the students'; and, ultimately, we are in control of the course design and curriculum development. Many graduate program professors assume that students come to graduate school with a limited or less rigorous set of educational competencies than what we have to offer (yes, structurally higher educational is hierarchical). More than likely, first-year graduate students don’t know what we know, and vice versa; so, yes, we don’t know what they know, but the power of assigning a grade rests in the instructors’ hands. Whatever the case, it is often in graduate school that students are introduced to new ideas and languages, which challenges them to go beyond the terminology and concepts that they learned in undergraduate college, and this so that they can be better prepared to go on to even more advanced intellectual or professional landscapes. At first, getting to that point may seem impossible. I remember, for example, during several semesters in seminary that I kept a dictionary next to the books that I was required to read for class. Despite the assistance that the dictionary gave me, I often felt like I would never understand the concepts in those newfound books and pages. Technically, I was unprepared, but I was wrong (momentarily) about my own intellectual abilities.

Of course, I was unprepared for what I encountered in graduate school because the new ideas and languages were much more complicated and theoretically dense than the readings that I was assigned in undergraduate college. Of course it was uncomfortable and, of course it felt like I had not been given the proper training and education to get through the readings with an understanding of the materials and books being assigned. When my classmates and I complained about our struggle to understand the complicated new ideas and languages to our professors (people like Dr. Emilie Townes, Tex Sample, and Kris Kvam) they listened, but they also gently urged us to keep up the effort and they reassured us that once they too had stood in our shoes, but that if we persisted with our discomfort that we would one day break through it and be able to read the materials with ease, comprehension and confidence. Of course, at the time, I was a skeptic because the ideas were new to me and I had to spend at least double the time preparing for class. Of course it seemed that the words and ideas in the assigned readings were beyond me or over my head, so to speak. And, of course, I/we didn’t like it.

Ironically, after I finished the lecture for my recent HBCU interview, which was a lecture that I organized so that those present (that included students, faculty and administrators) would gain a first-hand understanding of my approach to research and teaching overall, and as we entered in to the question and answer portion of the lecture, I was politely informed by one member of the faculty (one of the people who would have some decision-making power over my ability to get tenure in the department) that my lecture was very “interesting” and all (his words), but he asserted that what I had presented would probably go “over the heads” of their students. And, there it was, again. A little annoyed by his comment, I explained why I had given the lecture as I did, and I underscored how in my opinion it is very important for students and practitioners to understand the theories and methodologies that inform the everyday practice of urban and regional planning. In addition, I clarified that my reason for giving a thorough layout of my theoretical and methodological motivations was to model how one can use such theories and methodologies to address other academic and professional questions or issues (and I followed that with a little impromptu role-playing with a black male student sitting in the back of the room). These justifications, however, did not seem to suffice, and one after the other, several other faculty members chimed in and alleged that their students just need “the basics.” At that point I felt like I had been put on notice by key faculty, all men (who were the only ones speaking), that womanism and feminism were not really welcome, and regrettably, it was obvious to me (based on their questions) that teaching from a womanist standpoint (or epistemological starting point) would not be perceived as a strength by my potential colleagues and thus by those who would play a significant part in my getting tenure. To me, their line of questioning and comments had labeled and condemned my ideas as too much and unnecessary for their students, most of whom would be black (so much for academic freedom, right?). I felt like, wow, how first-world, white and patriarchal to assert this about black graduate students without first bothering to ask those students if they felt that what I was saying was indeed “over their heads” or intellectually out of their reach. Indeed, they assumed the power to speak for the students, and tacitly, they assumed the power to speak for womanism and feminism.

Episodes like this are not that unusual. In fact, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have heard this type of faulty reasoning and covert questioning from academic and professional audiences who do not have a critical understanding of womanism and feminism (they tend to go with what they have heard about womanism and feminism instead of what they actually know for themselves). And, rather than admit that they (the academicians and the administrators) don’t have the slightest clue about womanism or feminism and what those terms mean in theory and in practice (or that they are not really okay with these frameworks), they problematize the most vulnerable in the situation by singling out the students as the ones who will not be able to comprehend any more than the basics, whatever that (“the basics”) means. With this dynamic at work, the students are convenient scapegoats and a silent majority for the ignorance or anxieties of my would-be colleagues who probably wouldn’t be that comfortable in conversation with me about womanism or feminism anyhow; I mean nothing goes over their heads, right? Right. Most graduate students will not openly contest claims made by the persons responsible for their grades, especially not if they see that a faculty candidate is subtly being told by their professors to stay in her own lane or place. Blurring the lines or crossing boundaries is not something that many academics seem to be able to do all that well, even when they claim to have an alleged interdisciplinary approach to their disciplines. It’s easier to pull rank, to assert one’s power and to obscure one’s insecurities than to say that one is clueless about womanism and feminism (or theoretically against them) in front of one’s students or colleagues.

Each time I hear claims like this (at HBCUs or PWIs) I know better than to go along with the assertion and the assumption that a collective group of young, black college students (or any group of students) will not be able to get where I am coming from, and that womanist and feminist frameworks are not appropriate epistemologies for teaching courses on research methods, data collection, geographic information systems, or any other subject relative to city and regional planning in general. I am a former pastor, and I am very good at making complicated topics/matters quite plain; looking back, I have worked at it for damn near two decades. For me, this is a familiar hermeneutic; writing and teaching in an accessible way, and with a very clear understanding about where I stand as a thinker and a scholar (and whether they admit it or not, everyone stands in a particular historical place and from a particular social location and with a particular lived experience). In and of themselves, unsubstantiated claims about black college students in graduate programs and the implicit attempts that non-black men use to explain or delineate where womanist and feminist hermeneutics ultimately belong reveal to me that a very powerful and enduring white, patriarchal tradition is at work. It also illuminates popular fears, stereotypes and anxieties about black women in the academy, in addition to an irrational concern about the influence that black women may allegedly have upon black students. It is very regrettable that such thoughts are being articulated in higher education all the time, but being a professor does not rid one of biases, racist or sexist thinking. In fact, racism and sexism, all oppression, thrives on fear and institutional power. One can perceive of the oppressive weight of an institution, for example, when a powerful gathering of men or women (which could be just two or three) comes to the realization (whether consciously or not, and whether individually or collectively) that black graduate students might discover or develop deeper educational or professional interests in response to coming into one-on-one contact with older black professors who have a critical and even profound grasp of womanism, feminism or any other gender-centered ideological framework unbeknownst to them. I believe that those fears and anxieties are complicated when those with decision-making power surmise that said black graduate students might also simultaneously admire said black professors as role models, mentors or friends. Consequently, those who are nervous about the potential for this kind of attachment and the concentration of power and popularity that might develop between black women professors and their students (especially black students) don’t then seem to have a problem belittling and dismissing womanist and feminist frameworks as gobbledeegook and subsequently announcing that all this talk about womanism and feminism is much too much for students who allegedly only need “the basics.”

This kind of talk/behavior is cowardly and it puts students in the middle of something they don’t deserve. It is convenient to blame the students (as not being able to get it) and dismiss womanism or feminism as gobbledeegook and unnecessary for educational enrichment. Claims that womanism and feminism are not really a valuable part of a post-secondary education can and should be interpreted as covert smack-downs, or as attacks on the psyche of black women, black educational achievement, and academic freedom in general. This kind of institutional rejection is reflective of traditional, white, and patriarchal fears about the rise of women and men who are uniquely qualified to teach graduate students how to think and think critically and ways that are beyond the capacity or “over the heads” of those who hold the keys to granting tenure, but who have no desire to learn anything new or different from what they already know (or think they know). Without a doubt, racism and sexism, and all other “isms” for that matter, ego-trippin’ and jealousy are discernible and quite tangible among those who are employed in higher education.

Well, suffice it to say, that I am so very glad that some of my professors did not dumb me down, nor did they obscure their own theoretical and methodological motivations for a life of teaching in higher education. They did not think that just because my classmates and I had little to no knowledge of the ideas and topics that we were being introduced to in graduate school that we were incapable of handling anything beyond “the basics.” Instead, they believed in me/us, and they believed in teaching in a way that crossed intellectual and even institutional borders and boundaries. They knew how to cross the line and come back to see about me/us; to see if I/we were still trying to find my/our way around academia and the rigorous ideas that were brought to our attention by critical writers and thinkers. Frankly, it is because of professors like these, the ones who were willing to work openly out of their epistemological and ontological situatedness, and challenge me/us at the same time to do the same, that I learned to believe in my own intelligence and in the need to develop a critical consciousness towards my education. Unfortunately, my encounters with academicians and administrators who are anxious and afraid of black women in particular who are afraid to teach openly from their epistemological and ontological realities illuminates the fact that anti-woman and anti-black attitudes are still deeply entrenched in the higher education industry and that any talk or activity that disrupts white, patriarchal and hierarchical philosophies and foundations upon which higher education is built will be met with a collective and troubling control-driven xenophobia. This is the current reality that many black women face in the academy or at least the ones who dare to say and embrace the words womanist or feminist without apology.

As for me, needless to say, and after a series of actions and non-actions by the HBCU institution with whom I interviewed, I withdrew my application for the position in early July in part because, in my opinion, no job in higher education or elsewhere is worth that kind of internal and unnecessary collegial tension and treatment; and not when there are so many other viable options available today to womanists and feminists with PhDs. That situation, the fact that I/we womanists and feminist academicians have a much wider range of options, a bigger ocean perhaps in which to cast our nets than the generation of womanists and feminists that went ahead of us, is due to the courageous work of women, men and all those in between, who were not afraid to speak of gobbledeegook and of ideas and concepts that others wouldn’t be able to grasp for decades and perhaps centuries to come. And they did this regardless of the costs. For them, I am very grateful.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.