To Honor Great Ones

I am watching the movie Roots

To honor great ones

Those who surpassed terror.

And one day those who come after me

Will honor me

And my struggle

By having the wisdom and the courage

To re-member my story

And my roots.

 

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Dude, Read My Book! Tanner Colby, Kansas City, and the ‘Psychological Wages of Whiteness’

I was excited when I heard that Tanner Colby was coming to Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss his “best-selling” book, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. His being at Rockhurst (a private Catholic/Jesuit institution), held on Monday, April 18, 2016, was promoted to be a “conversation on diversity, inclusion, and cross-cultural communication,” and it was facilitated by Lewis Diuguid who is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

A little bit about my excitement: I had read parts of Colby’s book at the recommendation of my colleagues at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Initially, I thought those parts that I had read detailing what is known locally and perhaps beyond as the “Troost racial divide” in Kansas City (what Colby describes on pg. 77 as “the Berlin Wall of Kansas City”) were worthwhile and compelling. Kansas City is a place that has a very visible racial divide between black and white neighborhoods/residents/communities; and, throughout the city there are many pockets or spaces of uneven development that articulate socio-spatial disparities and the complexities between race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. At one time in Kansas City, black residents couldn’t even think of going west of Troost to socialize and to own own a home. Kansas City’s earliest and most notable racial divisions were set in place largely because of the the infamous developer/real estate practices of J.C. Nichols (and others) who crafted racially restrictive covenants to create exclusive all-white neighborhoods and spaces in areas that were once the white suburban hinterlands of Kansas City and the neighboring suburbs of the Kansas, and thus what we know as the Kansas City metropolitan area is “hypersegregated.” Unfortunately, Nichols wasn’t alone. The landscape and thus many of the neighborhoods located east of Troost are mostly black, poor and lacking in development and resources (you might want to check out this recent video documentary on KC, “Our Divided City,” but please note that I think that it is lacking on several accounts!). They were created through the exploitation of human fears of the other or the unknown. Due to racist real estate practices, white xenophobia about black humanity and any other culturally-othered groups for that matter (including Latinos), the landscape west of Troost has been constructed as white, privileged, and a preferential focal point of local community and neighborhood development. In contrast, the landscape east of Troost has been consistently othered, ignored and demonized by real estate and business developers, .e.g., one might say many areas or neighborhoods east of Troost are consistently underdeveloped.

Ironically, Rockhurst University is situated in 49/63, which is a neighborhood on the east side of Troost. In the 1960s, residents of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition organized against racist real estate practices  and real estate brokers; specifically they stood up to Bob Wood, who rather blatantly took advantage of its white residents’ racial fears. In his book, Colby  wrote about Wood  – a real estate developer – who openly spread the word to neighborhood whites that blacks would be moving to the neighborhood and he then offered to buy their homes at a low rate and then resell them to blacks at a higher rate (This is called “blockbusting and it is what most decent and rational people would characterize as predatory and unethical lending). In an effort to stop Wood, the organization of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition created a local movement to mitigate neighborhood white flight and the furthering of the “racialization of space” (for more on this subject I recommend Kevin Fox Gotham’s book: Race, Real-Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000).

Upon hearing of Colby’s talk at Rockhurst, I wondered how he would articulate the basis for his book and I was definitely curious about how he would talk about diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication (especially given the fact that he did not grow up in the Kansas City metropolitan area nor does he live here at the present time – he lives in Brooklyn, NY). But, I regret to say that Colby’s delivery and conversation about his book and about race, racism, diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication were so disappointing that I don’t know if I will ever use it or recommend it again. Here is why.

Lewis Diuguid, who first-off reminded me of “Grady” on Sanford and Son, was probably the most non-challenging facilitator who could have been chosen to moderate the talk with Tanner Colby. If you know anything about Sanford and Son (a 1970s sitcom – and it re-aired in the 1980s ) and if you know Mr. Diuguid then you might understand why my reference to the character “Grady” is even worth mentioning (if not maybe it will come to you when you watch this link). On the other hand, I do think that Diuguid asked some very useful questions, like “How long did you [Colby] spend in Kansas City researching for the book?” – to which his answer was one month; and ,”What are your thoughts on racism?” I also think the conversation with Mr. Colby would have been very different had the questions been asked by someone who didn’t talk like a therapist, but most of all if the questions were asked by someone who has made the study of racism and urban systems central to his or her life’s work. Indeed, this is NOT to say that journalists like Diuguid and Colby cannot or do not speak intelligently on the racialization of urban space, but, if CNN or other media outlets have anything to show us it is that often high-profiled journalists’ understandings of these issues are often quite limited and often quite elementary.

Secondly, I took issue with Colby’s claim that there is nothing that can be done about the racism or racist thinking of his generation or those otherwise known as Generation X (according to Colby “they are already half-baked”). Much to my dismay, Colby believes that there is hope for his children (he has two under the age of five) to overcome racism and the legacy of racist real-estate practices. This was shocking and beyond comprehension to me. I mean how on earth are the children of “half-baked” parents going to learn from parents who model acquiescence or compliance with the status quo; how will they learn to  make or be friends with black or other non-white people when their parents have admittedly failed to do this? Is it the responsibility of the society at large? Or maybe it is their primary or secondary teachers who must, according to Tanner Colby, have the ability to do something other or greater than their parents? I found it interesting and even compelling that it was the subject of friendship that gave him the initial motivation to write this book. Colby noted that it was his realization that he did not have any black friends that led to this book project (which was accepted by his publisher although initially he did not have an intended audience or an idea of “who would buy the book”). I think it’s pretty clear what Colby needs to do if he wants more black friends – as one person in the audience pointed out quite audibly – : to make friends with black people “you have to go where they are.”

Third, this whole idea of making friends with black people, as the basis for the book, is dripping in white guilt vis à vis white privilege. On the one hand, I do think that Colby has some important things to say to people – mostly white people – who have never thought about why they do not have many or any black friends, nor why they have little to no knowledge about the structural and spatial production and the racialization of space. However, when I did a little research on Tanner Colby he has openly asserted in at least one article that whites have all the power and that blacks are dependent upon whites for this power which leads to access. I found this sentiment particularly condescending and unfortunate. No doubt, this attitude [highlighted in the comment below] is standing in Mr. Colby’s way of making friends with black people. In a very poignant way it reflects what the late sociologist W.E.B. DuBois termed “the psychological wages of whiteness,” or the belief (philosophy) that whites in the U.S. are, by virtue of their skin privilege, entitled to material accumulation and social status.

…The result is that black people end up with integration fatigue. Many black writers responded to [a] Reuter’s poll with essays on why they didn’t want white friends, and didn’t need them. White friends weren’t worth the bother.

This is their prerogative, but ultimately, it’s to society’s disadvantage because white people control the access to, well, just about everything. If you don’t have white friends you might have a decent job and a comfortable life, but all the doors of opportunity in this country are not open to you.

Listening to his lecture, I got that feeling from Mr. Colby. Implicitly, he communicates a kind of superiority and apologetic posture for whites who have fled to the suburbs – and this notwithstanding that he is an Obamaphile. Being a fan of Obama will not solve his dilemma: his lack of or desire for black friends. Rather, what might help him gain more black friends and understand why so many other whites like him do not have many black friends (although I don’t know what number of friends he is trying to achieve) is that he drop the “possessive investment in whiteness,” which is a term enunciated by Black Studies scholar George Lipsitz in his book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. Black communities, neighborhoods, people are not waiting on white people to befriend or to save them. Nor are they waiting for Generation X’ers like Colby who see themselves as half-baked and ineffectual when it comes to the problem of race and racial integration but who think that miraculously, somehow, their children will be able to do what they have not done or modeled before them. In response to a rather abrupt question from someone in the audience about whether Colby now has any black friends – asked by a person who actually grew up on the east side of Troost – Colby defensively responded, “Dude, read my book!” And there it was. Colby’s knee-jerk response demonstrated an attitude that is not all that uncommon for journalist-types or writers who believe that because they have written a book, or because they have become “best-selling” authors that that is actually doing something or anything to change things for the better. And, here is the thing: if I go to hear and see an author in person and that author cannot or will not explain the subject of his book in a clear and concise way, or answer tough questions without kind of losing it, then why would I read or buy the book (and on such a hot-button subject for crying out loud)? Because he has written it? Because he is white? C’mon man, really?

And, if reading the book or buying Colby’s book is written by a man who 1) sees himself as half-baked when it comes to changing social and spatial inequities, and who 2) does not understand or articulate how it is that white people have profited from their identity as whites while also maintaining a possessive investment in whiteness and the psychological wages of whiteness that have dubbed them into thinking that black people need them to be valuable or worthy of being in possession of fair and decent housing, or education, or employment or much of anything else that is needed to survive in this terribly racist social and spatial reality that we live in, especially in urban places or cities like Kansas City, then what is the purpose of reading Colby’s book? What words of wisdom does he actually have to give? And why in the world is he invited to speak about diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication? What qualifications make him a go-to writer on the subject of race, diversity and inclusion in Kansas City? For crying out loud, just before writing this book Tanner Colby had NO BLACK FRIENDS!

What do I think about Tanner Colby and his book now that I have had the chance to see him talk about it in person? Here is what I think: Dude, if you want friendship with black people you’ve got to make friends with black people. And, unfortunately, history has shown us that when whites have committed to being in authentic friendship with black people (which is not about liking people on Facebook, nor is it simply a matter of being in close proximity to black because of work, church or working on a political campaign); when whites have decided to situate themselves as equal partners with blacks and non-whites they have often been labeled as race traitors and in some cases they have been killed by those who hate to see and know that blacks and whites have aligned and especially when that has been to break down the structural and spatial barriers that have been constructed and placed between them to make them believe falsehoods about themselves (usually upwards or downwards). Reading a book or even writing a book does nothing to change the fact that whites and blacks have been divided, and we will continue to be divided no matter how many Tanner Colbys are remarkably able to write and publish books because they have realized that they have no black friends.

To all the Tanner Colby types out there I will say this: if you want to be friends with black people, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself on the line with black people and to know and treat them with respect and dignity as your equals and you cannot see yourselves as their saviors. On the other hand, I regret to say that doing this, seeking friendship with black people and giving up a savior’s complex also means that you must let go of the the possessive investment in whiteness although doing that in a culture that is dominated by thinking that says that “white is right” will be seen as “treason” to whiteness, and thus if you challenge or offend the ideological power of whiteness you will probably also be targeted, lied on, demonized, hated and perhaps killed by those who have a vested interest in keeping black and white people and their communities separate and unequal. But, Dear Mr. Colby, if you are not willing to break your loyalty to whiteness then…Dude, it is probably best that you stick to writing books while the rest of us get down to the nitty-gritty of stopping racism in its tracks and transforming society and making neighborhoods and real-estate development more equitable and more diverse (like the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition in Kansas City was able to do many decades ago). In the end it will be because of these people and these efforts that your children will be able overcome the awful legacy of segregation that has led to the construction of so many horrible socio-spatial racial divides. And, unfortunately, they will not learn how to do this by reading your book!

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

P.S. I would like to send my sincere thanks to a very important but private person for helping me to develop my thinking for this blog. He knows who he is.

A Brief Word on Harriet Tubman, American Hypocrisy and Tokenism

Harriet Tubman on the tool that greedy humans use to manufacture their wealth while murdering and impoverishing millions on this land and on lands around the globe? What is there to applaud? Why should I rejoice?

I want those who made this decision and the United States government to use money to do justice, not to divide nations, destroy the Earth, and re-enslave people and their communities. This thing called “money” is used daily to rank and classify the quality of our lives. It is a small piece of paper that has become a very destructive yet powerful global mechanism of social and economic control. Try to exist without it. Try to matter without it.

How can I be happy or moved about the decision to put the face of Harriet Tubman, a courageous African and American woman who liberated herself and others from those greedy for profits and power on a $20 “bill” while a bounty was placed on her head, as if putting her image on money is an adequate way of honoring her life that was repeatedly threatened and endangered by white hate and contempt? And, does this mean that the American people and the U.S. government respect and honor black womens’ lives, especially poor black womens’ lives, just as they honor famous white men who are memorialized on U.S. currency? Of course, black women are noticed and appreciated by the powers that be if and when they are making money to the ultimate profit of a small white minority, and often to a single white man or family who is hidden behind a sheet, or in today’s terms, he is hidden behind a screen (which sounds a lot like a plantation economy to me). On the contrary, in many U.S. cities and towns, black women make less money than their black male counterparts, thus, though we may be very visible, economically and socially, we are not valued equally as black men, and certainly we are not as valued and thus not as compensated as white women. And, if recent events have demonstrated anything, we know today that in the eyes of the law black women (like Marissa Alexander and Sandra Bland), black mothers, black men, black lesbians, black gay men, black-trans, black children, and black lives in general DO NOT MATTER. If in fifty to one-hundred years from now the Department of the Treasury or the Federal Reserve puts their faces on paper money it will not make them matter. It will not erase or undo the past and the harm that has been done in the name of American economic and so-called globalized progress.

Harriet Tubman, one of the greatest Emancipator’s this nation has ever known, does not deserve to be made a monetary token to support the American economy that was built on the backs of African peoples and others this nation’s colonizers chose to exploit. To honor her is to dare to set the captives free and thus to live an emancipatory life! To respect the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, whose first name was Araminta Ross, we must live by her motto, “go free or die.” Because in the end, when we take our last breaths, it will not be money, the Department of the Treasury, or the Federal Reserve that made our lives what they were: it will be our humanity and the courage we had, in spite of our oppressors and oppressions, to face life and death, free.

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Black Lives Still Matter

We Africans have been declaring that

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Since captivity at the hands of the greedy Europeans of the past.

 

That the greedy Europeans of the present do not want to hear us or see us

Does not silence us

Black lives still matter.

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Why I Didn’t Get Married

First of all, this blog is long overdue. I have been meaning to write this blog for months, but I could never bring myself to do it with everything else that has been happening in my life for the last four to six months. But, from day one, when this idea came to me, I felt that it was a very important topic to write about. And, besides, it is one that never gets old, at least not for me.

Frequently, I am asked about marriage. The closer that I get to being fifty years old, I guess, for some, it seems an appropriate question for a woman. And, for some, I suppose that it seems strange that a woman has managed to stay unmarried with no children in her adult life. I’ve been close to marriage once. It has been more than twenty five years since I was engaged to be married, but it was an engagement that lasted all of two months. The deceptive actions of my ex-fiance made the idea of marriage – with him – simply unimaginable. Now, when I look back, I don’t regret backing out of that engagement for a moment, but when it happened, when it was clear that our relationship would not lead to marriage, I was devastated. But, that was to be understood; I was in my early twenties and marriage was an idea that I had been taught to embrace from my childhood. To be more exact I would say that I was indoctrinated into embracing and believing in the idea of marriage.

Today, marriage is not a priority for me. In fact, there are times when it is not really an idea that appeals to me; at least not with so many relationships and marriages in the U.S. falling to pieces. One book captures this concern. In Is Marriage for White People: How the African American Decline Affects Everyone, professor of law at Stanford, Ralph Richard Banks queries:

White adults, men and women alike, are more than twice as likely to be single now as in 1970. More American women in their early thirties are single today than ever in our nation’s history. African Americans lead the marriage decline; other groups follow…Still, marriage has diminished more among African Americans than among any other Americans, including whites with whom I typically contrast African Americans for ease of exposition. Black women are only half as likely as white women to be married (11), and more than two times as likely as white women never to marry (12). As others marry, black women often remain alone (13).

I came to terms, years ago, with the idea of being alone, as in being not married. At first I was not married due to a failed relationship – or so it seemed. Later, I was not not married by choice. Why? Well, by my early thirties I came to understand that being alone does not mean being without male companionship or intimacy. I do not have trouble finding men to date. Shucks, “some of my best friends are men,” and I often enjoy the presence of a man for fun and relaxation. However, rarely have I found that many of those men would make good or worthwhile lifetime partners. Yes, every now and then I meet a man who is quite intriguing, but marriage is the last thing on my mind. Most of the time, I’m just trying to ascertain what is possible with that man. Ultimately, I want to know can we get along! Do we have what it takes to last as a couple? If we can’t get through the first month or two, or six, without too much trouble, then, duh, there is no going forward. I am simply not into the idea of getting married just for marriage’s sake.

Today, my approach to marriage is similar to my approach to teaching and to my life as an academic in general. I expect college students to put their all into doing well in a course; and, likewise, I put my all into what I am teaching and writing. Furthermore, I believe that we are all students of life, and with that comes recognizing the lessons we learn about ourselves and love. I try to give my all when I feel love with a man, but, a man who shows me that he is not willing or capable of giving his all and of doing the emotional work of relationship is not, as some might say, “marriage material.” In fact, such a man is not really “relationship material.” I enjoy being in an intimate relationship with a man; it is where I do some of my best work, so to speak. I enjoy talking and working things out, but rarely do I meet men who enjoy talking and working things out. On the flipside, I find that many men enjoy the fun of being in relationships, but they often avoid the not-so-fun part of being in relationship. And there is at least one good reason for that: when you open up yourself to someone of interest, you are making your whole self visible and thus seen. All the good parts are visible, but so are all of the not-so-good parts. Being seen wholly like this makes us all vulnerable and thus open to pain or hurt. Patriarchy and the social construction of masculinity teaches many men (from childhood) to avoid being so seen with such vulnerability. One of my favorite authors, feminist bell hooks, has explained, that boys, especially black boys, are often only seen in part, not wholly. For some, going through life not being seen as vulnerable, often expressed as cold or hard, is a means to surviving traumatic and painful conditions. The downside is that refusing to be seen as vulnerable and making oneself invisible to avoid being seen as a way of life can also lead one down a very lonely and dark path. On the contrary, I have found that being vulnerable is the way to thrive in life and in love. Embracing our vulnerability (being willing to share our whole selves with another) is the lifeline to experiencing a good, healthy relationship. Of course, this kind of vulnerability, which leads to intimacy, doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually and with time and effort it has beautiful and rewarding consequences for those who are willing to make themselves visible to each other, scars and all, and in spite of the fact that they might get hurt: unfortunately, getting the possibility of hurt goes with the territory.

So, before I close this blog I will say openly that I am not against getting married, nor do I think that it is something that is only for white people. However, I will say that until people – men and women no matter what color or class – are willing to be seen as vulnerable then marriage is not something to be embraced or taken seriously. That said, I will also say that instead of constantly finding paradigms to fit ourselves into, such as marriage, we must endeavor to find the wherewithal to construct healthy social or relationship paradigms that work for us in the here and now. And, whatever paradigms we construct for ourselves, must be specific to who we and our own lived experiences.

In conclusion, if a person is not good at developing healthy relationships – ones that are based on respect, honesty, equity, and lovingkindness –  then how is marriage imaginable? No marriage will survive if there is disrespect, dishonesty, inequity or animosity for the other, unless, I suppose, there is some kind of covert arrangement or transaction at work. In addition, it is very important to recognize one’s own autonomy or worth and completeness apart from anybody else. Thus, what I have learned from life is that I, as a black woman, do not have to be married to be happy or fulfilled in life. Being happy or fulfilled is something that is up to me to cultivate and so far I do not require or need marriage or children to find fulfillment or happiness in life. Yes, it is always great to share myself with a man that I care about, and I have known some amazing men, but I can love a man wholly without being married and without bringing children into this world. The happiness that I feel and know for myself is something I know and create from within, for myself, and right now there is nothing more important than doing that at this point in my life.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

 

Playa Hate: Straight Complicating Everything

Recently I met a man, age 50, who is a self-avowed “playa.” That is to say that his goal in life, the one identity that he sought to articulate and cultivate was that of a playa (slang from the word “player”). As we talked, he shared that from his youthful days growing up in Kansas City, he endeavored to have as many women as possible, primarily for sexual purposes, and not necessarily as a married man or with any commitment to those women. So, of all the occupations or identities he could have had in the world, he desired, unabashedly, to be a playa.

Not surprisingly, he was and is into what one might call “gangsta” rap or hip-hop, which includes the music designed and produced by the hip-hop group, N.W.A. (also known as Niggaz ‘wit Attitude). He also proudly displays a playa attitude and profile: hard face (few smiles/inability to effectively emote or expressing his feelings without showing signs of significant discomfort or angst); gangsta swag and posture that often commands (indirectly) “look at me”; expensive and fancy-rimmed cars; money; and powerful street credibility with peers and acquaintances who do not question his expressions or actions. That said, to me he resembled the members of N.W.A.; though not exact, he was like them in rhythm and style, and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps for him N.W.A. and other gangsta rap artists were a kind of playa model or life metaphor.

This man’s affinity to gangsta hip-hop by way of groups like N.W.A. was in stark contrast to the music (and thus the environment) that I grew up listening to and appreciating. I am old enough to have embraced N.W.A. for myself when they came on the scene, but I was primarily raised on R & B/Funk, and thus listening to black music artists like Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF), MAZE, featuring Frankie Beverly, and LTD. The lyrics and music produced by this cadre of artists came out of a very different orientation to life, and most of their songs emphasized relationships, feelings (thus intimacy), and often they sung about the struggle of being in and out of love. If I must say so myself, the struggle to be in love or to be in relationship occupied a big part of my thinking as a youngster. Indeed, the music that I listened to encouraged me to seek out love and intimacy as a kind of model or metaphor for my life. From a very young age, unlike the man that I just described, I was influenced by the music that filled my ears to desire and cultivate a life of love and relationship.

The first time that I encountered N.W.A., critically, was with a man who was actually from South Central Los Angeles. I was quite impressed by his knowledge of the group and it was, in fact, one of the very first conversations that we had prior to becoming lovers for a brief time. He was a very able and brilliant thinker and I valued his take on N.W.A. Of course, he gave them the nod, but he did not glorify or legitimate their lifestyle; at least not that I remember. His knowledge and understanding of N.W.A. and gangsta rap in general was also as an academic; as a social scientist he too was on his way to being a college professor, though he was raised in “the hood” and often menaced by the LA police. However, he did not aspire to be gangsta or to be a playa.

Later, I learned more on my own about N.W.A. and gangsta rap. Ice Cube, one of the members of N.W.A. was highly visible at the time that I took it upon myself to explore the group’s messages and rhythms. And, in light of conversations and questions that feminist bell hooks was raising, I gained a much more nuanced understanding of gangsta rap overall. I especially liked the chapter interview that she published in Outlaw Culture. First published in 1994, then reprinted in 2008, this interview with Ice Cube was significant in that she explores a serious conversation with Ice Cube who, along with N.W.A., has openly produced music and lyrics that are considered by many to be hateful towards women or misogynistic. It was a very important and necessary dialogue, one that was called “outlaw feminism” by my former Claflin University colleague, Dr. Ronald B. Neal in a 2011 Feminist Wire article. Neal explained:

In her engagement with Ice Cube bell hooks enacted a practice that I call Outlaw Feminism. In the spirit of her wonderful book, Outlaw Culture, Outlaw Feminism challenges and breaks the codes of inherited masculinity and heirloom femininity. It goes against the rules of purity with respect to political and cultural engagement. It’s about getting your hands dirty, ruining your nails, breaking your heels and messing up your suit, tie and hair, all for the sake of truth, understanding, and most importantly, transformation. Outlaw Feminism is tantamount to Erykah Badu walking down the streets of downtown Dallas, Texas with no clothes on. Outlaw Feminism is the feminism of complexity.

Engaging gangsta rap artists – and playas, I might add – about the complexity of issues associated with gangsta rap and gender is still very necessary these days. After last week’s release of Straight Outta Compton, many public intellectuals and pop culture critics chimed in on the importance and impact of the film. I was particularly interested in what Bakari Kitwana had to say about the movie. My first encounter with Kitwana, who is an author and hip-hop activist, was at a lecture that he was giving at Mount Holyoke College in 2003 or 2004 (I think). I mention it here because I openly questioned him about the misogyny of hip-hop in general and how that could complicate or compromise hip-hop as an alleged social justice movement. Just the other day, I was eager to hear Kitwana discuss Straight Outta Compton in an NPR interview, and I was pleased that he gave voice to the complexity of problems that are emblematic of gangsta rap or hip-hop culture, wherein he included an acknowledgement of “all the things that are beautiful and all the things that are ugly with N.W.A.” 

As a womanist, I too am concerned about the complexities or “the beauty and the ugliness” of gangsta rap. I say that because I can absolutely get down with the resistance that gangsta rap and groups like N.W.A. have promulgated against the police and especially in terms of that coming out of the West Coast in the U.S. My first socio-political reference, as far as the development of a black, anti-police rhetoric is concerned, was the Black Panther Party (BPP), and it was most notably upon my meeting and eventually sit-down dinner with Elaine Brown of the BPP (when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana) that I grew even more fond of its mission and message. Of course one can read about the Black Panther Party, but when one has the opportunity to meet a member of the original Black Panther Party – in person – and enter into a dialogue about the actual internal workings of the BPP, one’s understanding is expanded beyond imagination. What I learned about the Black Panther Party from Elaine Brown, and subsequently from further reading, was much more than any book could have done for me; and, being in her presence, I heard, first-hand, of the role that women had in shaping a campaign in defense of black people in the United States with righteous indignation and defiance against police brutality that was being articulated in Oakland, California and beyond. Not to take anything away from N.W.A. and the role that their music had in standing up for black urban people against the racism and belligerence of the Los Angeles police, but, before there was N.W.A. there was the BPP, and parallel to the BPP there was Robert F. Williams (Negroes with Guns) in North Carolina, and in Louisiana there were the Deacons for Defense, etc. We, and black people in particular, have been using every medium possible to stand up to white supremacy and the hatred of black people in this country (and beyond). Just last night, a professional colleague living outside of the United States messaged me on Facebook to inquire about what he was seeing via his news sources about the U.S. and black encounters with the police. After a short exchange, and some awkward stops and starts, he finally said to me, “I couldn’t feel safe in your country.” In response to that I said, “It is not safe here.”

I think it is great that the former members of N.W.A. have offered American movie-goers something to think about in terms of their music and their legacy, but first and foremost they are not the only ones who have stared down the police and lived to tell about it. Secondly, if gangsta rap is going to continuously reinforce gangsta patriarchy or a professional playa-pimping mentality towards women, and black women in particular, and along with claims to black masculinity and sexuality that are framed obsessively and in hyper-sexual and unilateral terms, then Straight Outta Compton, as a framework for considering how black lives matter is straight complicating everything about hip-hop in a way that leaves me very disappointed and legitimately skeptical. I mean, how do I listen to gangsta rap, even now that N.W.A is no more, without feeling the playa hate? Where do I enter the dialogue with a gangsta rap artist or a professional playa who has made a living of primarily imaging and relating to black women and any other women he chooses to target predominantly as sexual objects or for transactional (economic) purposes? What makes that dynamic any different from that of the dynamic that is set up between a pimp, a prostitute and a trick? How do I consume gangsta rap or hip-hop without reinforcing the playa lifestyle and mentality which is rooted in the patriarchal contempt and hatred of women, and black women in particular. Put another way, and in the words of bell hooks, *where is the love between black women and gangsta hip-hop artists?

I must admit, that if gangsta rap is going to maintain its allegiance to gangsta and perhaps even a plantation kind of patriarchy, i.e., a woman-hating and thus emotionally violent way of life, then gangsta rap is probably a little too complicated for me. Being outlaw is one thing; being complex is another, but straight complicating something (like gangsta rap or even a relationship) to the point that women are treated like sh%t is not worth it, at least not for me. In other words, I need a music and thus movements that are rooted in love, intimacy, relationship, honesty, mutuality, partnership, etc. Thus, for me, any music that says that black lives matter must also attempt to say that black women matter and black families matter and black children matter. So, of all people, if a black musical artist or group is unabashedly and repeatedly filled and refilled with violent, hateful thinking and behavior, then I can’t really be down with it, and in some instances I might have to straight be done with it. Because when a fifty year old man tells me that his number one goal in life is to be a playa, and the primary idea behind that is to sleep with as many women as he can, and yet he says that he is allegedly committed to the progress and education of black people, then as far as I am concerned he must be straight outta his damn mind if he thinks that I would believe that kind of double-talk and take him seriously. And if that is what listening to N.W.A. and gangsta rap has meant and will ultimately mean for its previous and future consumers, then N.W.A. and its producers have effectively and straight complicated everything, which means that we, as a people, have even bigger problems on our hands when it comes to demonstrating and convincing others that black lives matter, and that more than we could ever, ever imagine.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Note that *where is the love is in reference to a chapter, “Where is the Love? Political Bonding Between Black and White Women,” in Killing Rage: Ending Racism, written by bell hooks and published in 1995 by Henry Holt Publishing.

Sandra Bland and the Power of Self-Defense: Because Some of Us Really Are “Still Brave”

Finally, I am able to put something significant down on paper about Sandra Bland. When the news of her death came to my attention, I was stunned, and I was speechless. Briefly, I was at a loss for words to describe my feelings about her death, which seemed so absolutely inexplicable. And, deep down, I knew that what happened to Sandra Bland could have happened to me. In addition, I knew that her death in police custody was not a new thing. Black women have been dying in police custody most apparently these days.

When one of my former students sent me the link of the dashcam video of Sandra’s arrest, I could barely bring myself to watch it. Eventually, I hit the button. And though it was through clenched teeth that I braced myself for what I would see, I was quite inspired by her engagement with the arresting officer. Of course, I could see a woman being traumatized by an officer who was clearly out-of-control and out-of-order, but I also saw a black woman who was, nevertheless, squarely, defending herself! So, when she said to the arresting officer, Officer Brian Encinia, “You must be feeling yourself right about now,” I couldn’t help but be empowered by her words.

What does it mean for black women to stand up and defend themselves these days? Whether a black woman stands up for herself to a law enforcement official, or whether it is to a lover or potential lover who is angry or out of control, it is quite probable that she will face down some unnecessary abuse or trauma. For example, several years ago, I had to call the police for property damage, but I did not like the way that the officer handled the situation, so I filed a complaint. Eventually, in response to my complaint, I was told by the local police chief that I could not see the standard operating procedures (SOPs) as a matter of fact or law. But, at the time, I was working for a state lawmaker, so I had everyday access to local and state lawmakers who handled these kinds of questions all the time; and, like any other city resident, I had the ability to go online to reference the city charter and the state and municipal laws as to what law enforcement officers could or could not do administratively. When I was informed that the SOPs were “off-limits” to city residents, I intuitively knew that the police chief was wrong, so, after doing a little research, I pressed the issue and wrote a letter asking for the chief to explain to me in person why I could not see the SOPs. Much to my surprise, when we met in person, the chief apologized to me and he handed me a photocopy of his department’s SOPs. On the one hand, I knew that the SOPs were public information, but I was quite surprised by the chief’s willingness to apologize for giving me inaccurate information. And, I knew that apologies like that don’t come very often.

Of course, what I went through was nothing in comparison to what Sandra Bland experienced July 10, 2015, and the days following. When I heard the news of her death I physically ached as I imagined what she must have endured by way of Officer Brian Encinia and in the custody of the Waller County Police Department. The outcome of my personal encounter with a police chief (who also happened to be an African-American male) had a surprisingly positive outcome, which was the exact opposite of what Sandra Bland incurred. We both spoke up for ourselves to a powerful male authority, but the consequences were devastatingly and diametrically different.

In the last few weeks, here is what I have learned as a result of contemplating Sandra Bland’s fatal encounter with the police: what one chooses to do in the presence of any patriarchal/traditional power is completely up to that person. If you choose to stand up for yourself to a law enforcement officer, especially one who happens to be male, you must be aware that the outcome could go any way. When we, women and men, talk about what to do in the presence of a powerful, male authority figure, people say all kinds of things to discourage us from speaking up like, “Yeah, but you must pick your battles,” which often means to submit to that authority…every damn time. But, when I watched the video of Sandra Bland, I didn’t see a woman trying to go to battle, I saw a woman who had legitimately and consciously decided to stand up for herself come what may. And, when I saw the defense that she asserted for herself I was very proud of her. I was proud that she was not willing to accept the officer’s twisted story of what was happening to her. It was good to see (because of use of smartphone and video technology) that she was not willing to go along with his outrageous version of what was actually going on. Did that defense cost her her life? Perhaps or perhaps not. We do not know the exact cause of Sandra Bland’s death, but we do know that she was exactly the kind of woman who would not let the irrational and belligerent presence of a male authority keep her unjustifiably silent and submissive.

This is what we as black people, and black women in particular, must continue to do: we must keep standing up and defending ourselves just as being “in defense of ourselves” and our truths is what over 1,600 black women did in 1991 in a New York Times piece behind the Anita Hill – Clarence Thomas sexual harassment case. Indeed, we must never forget nor allow anyone else to define our realitie(s) or to say that we do not live in a sexist, racist, classist, heterosexist society, and we must honor those who show us how to stand up and speak for ourselves when necessary and in spite of the consequences. Learning how to defend ourselves, and thus how to develop a conscious attitude of self-defense in this society is one of the most powerful things that women, especially young black girls, must come to know. For, in learning how to defend ourselves in the face of patriarchal trauma or terror we will, hopefully, embody integrity and courage even when it may cost us something, including our lives or our livelihoods. Have we learned nothing from the Civil Rights Movement, or from other revolutionary struggles for liberation from state-sponsored violence or oppression? Have we not heard the cries of the many women and children who have suffered and died from domestic and patriarchal violence? If we raise children to defend themselves against patriarchal trauma and terror (which can be carried out and reinforced by women, by the way), and if we do that more than we raise them to be submissive to deceitful and power-tripping patriarchal people and institutions, then the world might be a much better, and humane place to live.

When I finally took the time to watch how courageous Sandra Bland was in the face of Officer Encinia; when I saw what she did and said in spite of her pain, and in spite of her distress and increasing cries for justice, she helped me to see how to embrace my own freedom and liberate myself in a world that is filled with angry and hate-filled people who are feeling themselves more than they probably even know. And, most importantly, Sandra Bland helped me to know, without any question whatsoever, that some of us really are still brave!

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

P.S. Please note that the phrase “still brave” is a reference to the following text, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, which was published in 1982. I also recommend a newly revised and edited text, Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies, published in 2009.