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.


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.







Black Women, Motherhood and the Resolve to Live Anyhow: a random thought on freedom now

I am in a bakery finishing my coffee and a young black woman who works here ends her shift. She leaves and returns momentarily carrying her beautiful baby in a car seat to show off her infant child to her co-workers (and to curious customers like me who want to have a look). We all oooh and aahh over her child and her pride as a mother. Then, as I think to myself, just 40 or 50 years ago this probably would not have happened or been possible here in the #ATL in a local bakery and in a part of the city that is predominantly white and affluent.

Just that fast, it dawned on me that black mothers in the U.S. have not experienced this kind of social affirmation and personal freedom for very long at all, for once they were not permitted to show this kind of love and motherly identity so freely in public spaces. When black people like me consider the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers in a world controlled and defined by white cultural practices and values, we have much to be thankful for. And upon that consideration, all of us, regardless of color, can be aware of what it took for non-white mothers to live anyhow in the face of those controlled and diminished by the hate and disregard of black mothers in particular. Finally, we must then remember, in light of the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, that the next generation of women won’t be able to live so freely in the future unless we do our part to secure their freedoms now.

© 2014 annalise fonza, PhD

All Clear: Black Women, Mammograms and Meetings

Today I went to the hospital for a mammogram. I was due for a yearly, but I scheduled this one after feeling a lump in my left breast, which always brings a little anxiety. Okay, so it brings a lot of anxiety. Since 1987, I’ve technically had four breast biopsies. A biopsy is a surgical procedure and a removal or cells or tissues for purposes of testing. I encountered my first lump when I was a freshman in college and a student at what is now Clark Atlanta University. At the time, it was my boyfriend who found the lump in my right breast, which was about the size of a quarter. Of course, I was quite stunned and went immediately into “what am I going to do” mode. In spite of being pretty freaked out, I called my mother and managed to set an appointment back home with an oncologist, who was a professional and trusted friend of my mother’s (my mother is a retired nursing professional). At the time he was considered one of the best oncologists in the area. As suggested, I underwent surgery to remove the lump and have it tested for cancer. Afterwards, the doctor reassured me that the lump was benign. It was fibroadenoma, which is a condition that is experienced quite often by African-American women. Thankfully I was cancer free and all clear.

Three biopsies later and recently I found a very small lump in my left breast; it is about a fifth the size of a nickel, which is barely noticeable, but tender to the touch and especially when ovulating or right before my menstrual cycle. After several scary situations involving my breasts, I now know that I have dense breast tissue (though my breasts are not really that big), and cystic breasts as well. Despite that understanding, I was concerned when I found this lump. And, I was even more concerned, because right now I don’t have health insurance. Yep, that’s what I said. Anyhow, I managed to find a local program for women over 40 to address breast and reproductive health, and I decided to take advantage of it. Here in the Atlanta area, there are many free programs or programs that are at a minimal cost that are in place to address women’s health and wellness. Actually, it’s probably easier to take advantage of these programs if you don’t have insurance than if you do. But, as usual, one has to know how to find them.

So today I went for my mammogram. When I arrived I checked in on a kiosk, which was something that I had never done before, and I waited. Really waited. In fact, I waited for at least one hour before I was called to officially register with someone from the hospital who verified payment or the persons responsible for the payment. I was glad to learn that everything had been forwarded properly and electronically (thanks to the awesome nurse practitioner who had seen me a week or so earlier). From that moment on, I found myself in many conversations with black women about everything from my breast health to my personal choices overall. The ease at which these women felt free to ask me about my hair, my reproductive choices, and my approach to healthy living was very interesting to me. By the time I moved to the waiting room, I was totally engaged in many conversations: about babies, reproductive health, previous operations, and enemas. Gathered around a television, there was a group about six of us who talked about everything, even the popularity of The Steve Harvey Show, which was on the television as we waited for our results. At one point in the conversation, I was acutely aware of the open dialogue that was taking place. It was as if we were old friends sitting at the kitchen table.

A couple of the women who were there sat quietly, without saying much at all. Often they were checking their phones and opting for silence amongst the rest of us who were talking carefree about our various issues with our breasts, and, of course, with our uteruses. One woman whispered (mouthed) to me from across the room that many years ago she had an abortion and a hysterectomy. I similarly let her know that I had previously had a myomectomy to remove uterine fibroids. Most of us sitting there were waiting for the radiologist to get a second or third look at breast tissue, including me. Finally, I got the news that, on the one hand, my mammogram was “all clear,” but the radiologist asked that I be seen as well for an ultrasound to get a closer look at the area where I felt the lump. I actually appreciated that recommendation, which suggested that I would, at least, get a thorough examination.

As I waited, as we waited, there was one woman right next to me who gained my attention. She was an older Caribbean woman from the Virgin Islands. Under her hat, her hair was salt and pepper braided back and down in cornrolls. We talked about many homeopathic remedies. She shared some of her secrets of natural foods and remedies that are cancer-fighting, and I talked about some of the things that I do for my health, like use tea tree oil on my face and in my bath water (especially to open my sinuses). By the time I was called for the ultrasound, the Caribbean woman and I were exchanging phone numbers and planning to speak again. There was something about her that I really liked, though I realized that we were worlds apart on at least one level – the god-thing. Nevertheless, I respected her journey through life (and I did not feel like getting into a conversation about atheism, which is generally how it goes with believers). When she told me that she had survived spine cancer, I was really blown away. I remembered seeing her when I first walked in and that I had initially admired her strength as she walked across the room pushing a mobile walker.

As the afternoon progressed, all of us, well all but one of us, cheered as we each emerged from the consultation room and were given the news that all was clear. Once I had been cleared by the doctor, and informed that there was nothing to worry about, I went back to the meeting or waiting area where we were and prepared to say goodbye to the one woman remaining. We chatted briefly, and then the radiologist came to her to say that she was free to go. Turning to her I asked, “All clear?” With a wide grin she said, “All clear.” The woman from the Virgin Islands was no longer in the room; she had been called in for a second mammogram after she had given me her telephone number.

Upon leaving the hospital, I reflected on how important it is for women to talk with each other healthy living and healthy eating. Only one woman in the room remained silent the entire time. A younger white woman who was there looked quite uninterested in being in conversation with us, but after awhile even she chimed in, and especially upon leaving when she declared, “All Clear.” Contemplating these dynamics I thought, what good does it do us not to share our health secrets and experiences? I could sense that most of the women who were there were nervous, and that includes me. With my history, I have been one of the ones in the room who could not say “All Clear.” I have taken the walk out of offices following mammogram screenings feeling very scared and shaken. Had I gone in to that ultrasound today and there was another reason to come back, or if I had been sent to see a specialist or a surgeon, I don’t know what my reaction would have been, in fact. Maybe I would have resented even hearing or saying the words “All Clear,” or, maybe because of the conversations that I had with those black women and in the waiting room, maybe my heart would have been a little stronger because we took the opportunity to share our common experience and frailty as human beings. As I made my way to the MARTA bus stop, I found myself looking forward to tomorrow so that I could call my new acquaintance from the Virgin Islands. Of course, when she answers, I hope to hear the words, “All Clear” but if not, it will still be my honor to talk with her because I can always respect the power of compassion, community and a genuine experience or at least the undeniable sense of sisterhood.

© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D.