Cleveland, Baltimore and the Enduring Problem of the Colorline

If the recent protests in Cleveland and Baltimore have anything to say to us, it is that we, citizens and residents of the U.S.A., have a long way to go before we live up to claims of being a democratic society.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a group of teenagers and I engaged them in a conversation about racism. “What is racism?” I asked. Most replied with the usual: prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and name-calling. These are common words used to describe racism, but they frequently miss the mark. Each one of these words can stand alone; they don’t accurately capture the nature of racism or what it means to sustain it. For instance, one can express hate for someone or something and not be a racist; one can just be downright hateful and nasty. And, one can engage in name-calling, but not have that name-calling tinged by racism.

Racism is a very complex and systemic social phenomenon, and one that has been very misrepresented and mishandled. Racism was and is constructed on the concept of race, which was developed in the eighteenth century by Euro-scientists who ranked or categorized human beings by physical attributes. In “Race the Power of An Illusion,” which is now a PBS special, Dr. George Fredrickson asserted that, “Eighteenth century ethnologists began to think of human beings as part of the natural world and subdivided them into three to five races, usually considered as varieties of a single human species.” This ordering or ranking of humans in physical and thus in “racialized” terms became the bedrock of developing societal structures and the distribution of resources in the West. Gradually, right here in the U.S., racism became a central organizing framework, one that has been used, systematically, to situate people of European descent (and those who unabashedly support European ways of being and thinking) at the top of nearly every American institution for more than 400 years. With this kind of socio-economic positioning, one based on race that has consistently buttressed notions of white racial superiority and privilege, this nation has, unfortunately, perpetuated a racist way of life.

As a black American woman, a woman of African descent, it is fairly easy for me to understand how we are divided by race and racist practices. I know racism and other oppressions in my day-to-day interactions and from historical texts. But for many, racism is not so easy to perceive. Such widespread blindness to or contempt for racism troubles me, especially when it comes to planning for urban cities. It was Baltimore, not Atlanta or another Southern city that enacted the first racial zoning ordinance in 1910 (Silver, 1997). And, traditional land use zoning, known as Euclidean zoning, had its beginnings in 1926 in the village of Euclid, once a suburb of Cleveland. Zoning, which has been utilized for “organized” development, so to speak, has also enabled many local urban planning officials and residents to exclude unwanted uses and unwanted people in a very racist kind of way.

Recent protests behind the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, black women, such as Rekia Boyd, who are part of the SayHerName Campaign , and Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in Cleveland serve to shatter the recalcitrant denial of racism in the American context. This denial is often supported by narratives about religious freedom (initially from British oppression) and North America as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” However, today’s urban protests to the fatal interactions between white police and black residents bring us face-to-face with the “inconvenient truth” of who we really are as a nation. These protests shatter our claims about democracy, not just about who we are as “Americans.” They indicate that perhaps we are not really who we say we are.

Yes, there have been many noble moments, movements and people, but, nevertheless, the U.S. is not a nation of equals; we are not free from the threat of arbitrary state-sponsored violence against non-white bodies or those who do not bow down to this “American” way of life, and, when we see protesters demonstrate their bravery in the streets, they are often demonized by those who would not dare to put themselves on the line in the name of freedom and justice. These organized protests to the senseless loss of life at the hands of local and wanna-be police officers (like George Zimmerman) dispel our delusions about the collective American identity. The anger and resistance of the protesters bring us back to the reality that there are still wide and terrifying disparities between the American people(s), and we experience these disparities in spite of the many marches, struggles and the losses of life and limb that some have sustained in the name of freedom and democracy. Furthermore, that we have a black president and black middle class family living in the White House will not and has not fixed one of this nation’s greatest and enduring problems: “the problem of the colorline,” a phrase coined by the great W.E.B. DuBois more than a century ago in 1903.

On the one hand, I am very grateful for the sacrifices made by those who have courageously stared American racism(s) in the face, but “the problem of the colorline” will not begin to fade until we become a nation that is truly built on concepts and practices of equity, ones that value human and non-human life over material quantity and profit. And, it is with deep sorrow and regret that I must say that as long as a central organizing American framework is inequity via racism, there will always be a protest waiting to happen.

*For more on racial zoning in the U.S., I recommend: Christopher Silver, “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” in Urban Planning and the African American Community, eds. June Manning Thomas & Marsha Ritzdorf, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Are You Coming Back Tomorrow?

Recently, I have been substitute teaching in public schools, and just as I was leaving an assignment today one of the administrators turned to me and asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Immediately, I was struck by her question and by the look in her eyes. On the one hand, she looked at me with the expectation that I would say no (which is not all that unusual for substitute teachers). On the other, I could see her hoping that I would say yes. Upon my answer: “Yes, I will be back tomorrow,” she seemed pleasantly relieved.

As I walked out the school doors, the question stayed with me: “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Of course, I knew it was about the need to fill a teacher’s absence. I also knew that she was familiar with the challenges facing substitute teachers. Today’s young people are quite troubled, and they are difficult to understand. There have been times that my patience was short (or not long enough); but, then there have been days, like today, where I wanted to be there for the students, regardless of their outrageous behaviors.

Today, while we were playing outside, as a sort of reward for making it through a tough day, I saw the students’ eyes light up as I announced that I would be with them for the next two days. In their facial and bodily expressions, I saw that same pleasant relief that I saw in the administrator’s eyes in response to hearing that I would be back. Some young students are not used to seeing the same substitute for more than two days in a row. Many substitute teachers are there just for the day, and they have the option to accept or reject an assignment. And sometimes that is a rejection or the refusal to deal with the students’ behaviors. However, in that moment, when I said that I would be back, I could sense a subtle kind of trust in the eyes of several youngsters. And I thought, yes, there is something about continuity and dependability that makes us all feel good. When someone assures us, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” it conveys a sense of safety and companionship; which are feelings that we can all appreciate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and companionship these days and what it means to travel through life with willing and mindful partners. Being in the role of a teacher, I often look into the eyes of children who have seen more abandonment and loneliness that most of us would care to know about. Sometimes, after a trying day as a substitute teacher, my own life experiences seem very small compared to what I imagine theirs to be. Every now and then, when I see a young student fighting or crying, I know there are things happening that are beyond their control and behind the scenes that cause their acting out and defiance. As an adult I have a lot more control over my environment and my outlook on life. Today there was one young boy in particular who was fighting and being disruptive the entire time. Finally, when the day was almost done, I stood next to him, called his name, took a deep breath and said, “I know you can do better.” Just in that moment, he looked at me out of the side of his left eye with pleasant relief, and it was the same expression the administrator gave me on my way out. Remembering that, walking out of the building to my car, I felt good about the day and about that school and about that young boy. And, I said to myself that I would write this piece, because sometimes a simple, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” is enough to give us some relief.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Shoulda Been Gone: When Is Enough Enough?

Certainly, there are times when I have asked myself: why did I stay in that place, that job or that relationship as long as I did? Weren’t there signs or events that happened that should have made it easy for me to move on or move out? I suppose that out of a genuine need to feel that I did all that I could do in a certain place or in a relationship that I have struggled with timing an exit or an ending. Like many, I have struggled with drawing a line in the sand and letting it be. Leaving that line there or saying enough is enough in a place (such as a city) or even in an employment situation is especially difficult when others don’t want you to go or when they expect you to stay (perhaps stuck and unhappy in a city, a job or a relationship like ~ ahem ~ they are). Detaching, particularly where human relationships are concerned, is not always an easy or pleasant thing to do.

I don’t think my struggle with detachment is all that unusual. Compassionate, healthy, loving human beings want to make good decisions, and they worry about others’ feelings, not just their own. On the other hand, selfish, unhealthy, or worse yet, narcissistic, dishonest and delusional human beings could care less about how their decisions affect others; they want and justify what they want no matter what and no matter who suffers in the process, and they frequently inflict a lot of emotional pain and confusion upon themselves and others. How I appreciate displays of compassion and mindfulness. When it is a personal decision (and not the result of emotional or physical intimidation or violence), I respect that sometimes we as human beings keep trying or hoping for better situations or better behavior in people (all the while as we too are doing our best to improve or address our behaviors). Committing one’s self to gaining the best possible outcome is a very respectful, humane effort.

Nevertheless, back to my question: exactly when does one pack it all up and move on down the road? When is it time to let go of a place, a job, a person or even an idea (like a god or a religion) that is no longer fulfilling or that has run its course? There are times when people, places or things are only temporary; when they no longer provide us with a sense of meaning or safety. When that happens, it is time for me to let go, and I have learned that saying “enough is enough” is, at the end of the day, my decision. On the one hand, in making decisions of whether to stay or go, I often talk it out with others ahead of time, but it is not up to the situation or the person or the idea who is no longer enough for me to determine whether I should stay. A conscious movement away from a place, person or idea (especially one that is causing me unhappiness, stress, confusion or misery) is never easy, and to be sure, the act of severing ties with anyone or any thing can be accompanied by unbelievable grief, anxiety and loneliness. But, moving on, no matter what others might say or do to keep you from leaving, or pressuring you in to not doing what you want because they are afraid to end or bring closure to undesirable or outdated relationships with people, places or ideas for themselves (which is something I have personally experienced when exes and/or children are in the picture…and when it comes to gods or religion), is a very powerful act of self-love and self-affirmation. In a world that is constantly abandoning us and encouraging us to abandon ourselves and our agency and to conform to the status quo, it is important that we learn how to 1) take ultimate control of our own lives and choices, and 2) exhibit that power when necessary. When should you be gone from people, jobs, places or ideas that no longer work for you? Be gone when you have had enough, and only you can be the one to say when that is. The others, the ones who are left behind and not happy with you for moving on and taking charge of your own life and destiny will just have to get over it. Or not.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.: From an Atheist

On occasions, I am asked if I would date a believer, or a person who believes in a god or supernatural being, such as a Supreme Being. Being an atheist, there was a time that I said unequivocally no to that question. But, about two years ago I began to soften my response. For example, in 2012, in an NPR interview with Jamila Bey, I said openly that I was “flexible.”

Recently, I met someone who is a believer, and we connected. Although he is not what I would call a religious enthusiast or fanatic, at times he talks about his god and his faith with subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to inform me that his god is real. Because of my feelings for him, I overlook it, and there are times when I engage him gently with questions about his religious thoughts and philosophies. I am willing to be in this kind of critical engagement with him because 1) I understand his actions; I once did the same kind of thing – used every opportunity to “witness” or share my faith (often when it was not requested) with others; and 2) because it is another way for me to get to know him and the basis for his everyday actions or behaviors in life. And, I have yet to encounter a Christian who does not feel compelled to be vocal about his or her faith. It goes with the territory.

So, what did it for me? How could I allow myself to be in an intimate relationship with a man who believes in something that I don’t? On what grounds is it conscionable that I get along or share myself with a man who does not share the same ideas or philosophies that I hold? These are questions that I am contemplating at length on the 29th anniversary of the Martin Luther Kr., Jr. national holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who challenged the white racist ideology or philosophies of his time. By the 1950s and 60s, those white racist philosophies and socio-political expressions of whiteness were incorporated into federal, local and state policies and institutions, such as urban renewal, which was a federal housing policy that had a disparate impact upon former urban Negro communities, and at a time when urban blacks were fighting institutional oppression at an alarming rate. Throughout my lifetime, I have come to understand Dr. King as a man who stood against social division and exclusion on political and personal grounds. I have also come to know him as a man who believed wholeheartedly in achieving a peaceful coexistence despite everyday unjust behaviors and inhumane practices, here in the U.S. and beyond.

With regard to my political and personal commitments, I have come to realize that I do not want to section myself and my life off to only those who think or behave like me. I want to meet and know others whose lives and philosophies are different from mine and without the compulsion or the need to willfully mock or dismantle what they share with me. On the other hand, there will be times when I will be openly critical of ideas or philosophies (including religious ones) that are expressed in public that I reject or disagree with; that is something Martin Luther King Jr. did with the power of the spoken word, and he did it mainly from the pulpit, as an American preacher. Likewise, I am fundamentally empowered by the freedom of speech as we know it in a Western way. And, it is that freedom of speech that I rely on, as an atheist, to say publicly that I do NOT believe in gods of any kind. Unfortunately, I have that right, even though the majority may respond to that statement with hate, rejection or discrimination.

In addition, what I have come to learn is that I am not responsible for the thinking or the belief of others, which, I think, is one reason that I can spend my personal time and person with a man who believes in a supernatural god. I am not his keeper. I am not responsible for what happens to him when he dies or really at any time for that matter. I do not choose an intimate partner on the basis of what he believes, but on the content of his character. In other words, my being with a man is essentially not predicated on where he lives, or how much money he makes, or how supportive he is of my thinking or behavior. And, most importantly, my decision to be intimately involved with a potential partner is not determined by whether or not he believes in a god or whether he shares my worldview. My being with a man, or being with any person for that matter to accomplish any goal, is rooted in a healthy engagement of ideas and critical thinking. At the end of the day, I want to know who a man is overall. I want to know if he is committed to doing good; to being the best person he can be; if he is willing to use his talents and skills to help and empower others; and, is he a man who is a peaceful, loving person, even when his ideas are not supported or he does not get what he wants.

Indeed, this is not the kind of behavior that I have seen from many atheists or theists who use their positions and philosophies like weapons to discredit those who don’t ascribe to their ideas or theories of reality. These are extreme and unjustifiable attitudes that I cannot support as a human being because the truth of the matter is that others may not choose to walk the paths that I have taken. We each have our own paths to attend to. For example, when I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t worry about whether he was a Christian believer or not. I respect and honor him because he was a great human being who courageously endeavored to bring about fairness and equality, and not exclusively for his own clan or Christian friends. Of course, I know that there will always be those who choose to remain divided over philosophies and ideas, but I have lived long enough to know that there is no future in that position, and fortunately I know that there are those who have found the wherewithal to accept those who are different or divergent in thought, word and deed without resorting to contempt, hate and violence, but who are not willing to let injustice and hatred go unconfronted. This kind of boldness and willingness to speak compassionately and thoughtfully, I think, is a significant part of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And it is, in my humble, atheist opinion, one of the attributes that made him one of the greatest human beings who ever lived on the face of the Earth.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Saying My Name: The Power of Fictions and Everyday Name-Calling

I didn’t always like or embrace my birth name, “Annalise.”  During my childhood and adolescence years, many teased me and arbitrarily shortened my name for convenience. I suppose in that light I was very uncomfortable with my name; it seemed inconvenient, burdensome, and not “classically beautiful” or cultural-enough for a young black girl. The discomfort that others had regarding my name, with saying the name, Annalise, when referring to me, caused me to implicitly reject it very early on. For the most part, I only used Annalise – the name that was assigned to me at birth by my parents – in formal settings, or when I had to. Otherwise, in personal and familial settings, I didn’t refer to myself as Annalise for a very long time.

As I came of age, or when I began to develop my own identity (apart from my family and friends), and as my choices exposed me to the the complexities of life as a human being, I finally let go of the nicknames and used Annalise exclusively and everyday. Of course there have been some family, friends, and even some acquaintances, who have continued to “call me out of my name,” or to call me something other than Annalise. Mostly, when that happens, I take it as a term of endearment, but it also is indicative of how patterns (including speech patterns) are extremely hard to break. However, ever since I started introducing myself as Annalise, that name has been the name that I have chosen to embrace. It’s not Anna. Not Lise. But Annalise. My name is annalise [which is how I spell it intentionally – with low-case letters]!

Being known as annalise has been a very complicated affair. I didn’t know myself as annalise until I was in my 20s. Once I accepted it, and rather awkwardly back then, I gradually learned to like it, but the acceptance of my name took years to achieve.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the new Shonda Rhimes’ television series, How To Get Away With Murder. Due to the central role that black women have been placed in these shows, Rhimes has challenged many viewers to consider taboo subjects and social conventions. Through black women characters, like Miranda Bailey, Olivia Pope, and Annalise Keating, Rhimes constructs a storyline that situates black women in personal and professional (as in working or labor-related) relationships with white men. The narrative that Rhimes has put together is very complicated and complex. As a black woman, I can totally relate to the intersectionality of this landscape because race, gender, class and sexuality are always converging and often when I least expect them to meet. Many of the black women that I know personally and those who watch the Thursday night Rhimes trilogy deal head-on with living their lives in close proximity to white men who often articulate (verbal and nonverbal) troubled expressions that have been aimed historically at black women – or what I refer to as women of apparent African heritage. A myriad of issues and factors go into the lives we hold and the names we have been called by white men and others. We have repeatedly been called “bad” names: like bitch, whore, wench, and cunt. And along the way, there have been some “good” names like: colleague, lover, partner, sister, etc. [but I will caveat that to say that the terms “good” and “bad” can be quite relative]. For example, last year, in 2013, I wrote a blog voicing my initial thoughts on the Scandal series featuring Kerry Washington as the main protagonist, Olivia Pope [which is not available because I am currently editing it for e-publication].

In spite of my criticisms of Rhimes’s characters and plots, I am still glad that she does what she does: write and produce television programs. That I don’t particularly like a perspective or an storyline does not mean that I have rejected Rhimes or any of her productions. In fact, I have continued to watch for a couple of reasons, at least: 1) to show my support for who Shonda Rhimes is and what she represents in the overall scheme of “Hollyweird”; and 2) so that I can continue to articulate an opinion from an informed and intelligent place. One of my biggest peeves is when people form opinions, but do not take the time to educate themselves about the subject or the landscape of their opinions (in fact, we really shouldn’t call such talk opinion at all, because it is really just blubbering on and on). Anyhow, since watching How To Get Away With Murder, I was not ready for how affirming it would be to hear my name, annalise, repeated over and over again and in reference to a lead, black female protagonist. I was not ready for the power of that act: of repeatedly hearing the name Annalise in reference to a black woman protagonist. As humans we learn and come to understand many things in life because of repetition. Yes, there are challenging and troublesome issues or factors associated with the part of Annalise Keating, but it has been very refreshing and powerful to hear a name that I once did not embrace, and a name that many do not associate with black women or black culture personified by Viola Davis, who is, in my opinion, one of the most awesome black actresses in Hollyweird today! It was so good (positive) to hear that I often found myself repeating it after certain startling scenes from the episodes: Annalise! Annalise! Annalise! [Like the one where Annalise removed her wig and confronted her husband Sam with his naked picture on the phone].

I spent the first twenty years of my life rejecting the name, Annalise, and now, twenty years beyond that (since I have embraced it for myself), a black woman actress who I respect plays a critical role that many can identify with across lines of race, gender, class and sexuality. In watching this particular television show by Shonda Rhimes, I have felt such an amazing and warm sense of validation for who I am and how I have “named” myself via the acceptance of my birth name. Truly, that feeling caught me by surprise! Who knew that a fictive television character would have such a good and positive impact upon my personal identity through the repetitive saying of my name? Indeed, many black people have know the power that comes from saying one’s name everyday with pride and respect in a world that has historically called us out of our names and assigned us names that we did not accept or agree with. I imagine that this is one of the reasons that some black people have rejected their birth names and assigned themselves new names to give voice and power to the persons they are and to the lives they wish to live. And, as a former United Methodist minister I know that this is one reason that many people, especially black people, have embraced fictive narratives and cultural myths, like religion or Christianity (however, I am not by any means arguing that one should exclusively situate or place one’s total human experience in a fiction, a myth or an outdated belief system).

As complicated as the characters in Rhimes’s shows may be, one thing is for sure: there are some black women writers and actors who are standing in the tradition of other black women, and men, and those in between, who dared to speak up, write bold new scripts, and break down the ignorance that held them back from expressing and loving ourselves as boldly and fiercely as they possibly could! So, what have I learned by watching How To Get Away With Murder? That no matter what, we – black women and all oppressed, disinherited people – must continue to speak our names, for in the everyday calling of our names, honestly and authentically, we can come to a better understanding and acceptance of who we really are!

©2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

N/B: Please note that there are allusions to several other writers in this blog, including: bell hooks, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Howard Thurman, Pearl Cleage, Alessandra Stanley.

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.