The Blackest History Month

“People are comfortable with certain images of Black history…safe, static images that have no bearing on our lives or the present. Not this year. February 2016 will go down in history as the Blackest Black History Month on record.”

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It’s been quite a Black History month.

For most Americans, February is when everyone watches the “Free At Last” clip of MLK at the March on Washington or grainy B&W documentaries of cops attacking Black students with dogs and firehoses. There may be PSAs on tolerance with cursory mentions of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass on local news segments. People are comfortable with those images of Black history, because it’s history. Safe. Static images of things that happened before any of us were born and have no bearing on our lives or the present.

Not this year.

As far as popular culture goes, February 2016 will go down in history as the Blackest Black history month on record.

Conventional music industry wisdom says that Black artists who aspire to mainstream (white) superstardom have to make their ethnicity as ambiguous as possible. Beyonce destroyed that convention with “Formation”, a track with lyrics that explicitly declared her Blackness and Southern bonafides and a video with images right out of the protests that have erupted nationwide over the past two years. People who where confused and shocked by the song went into hysterics after her halftime show at the Super Bowl. Flanked by all Black female dancers dressed in a homage to the Black Panthers she used a world platform to call attention to Black womanhood and Black activism. The image of a Black woman celebrating her Blackness in the middle of America’s (White America’s) game, a game where one of the teams had a Black quarterback who has been attacked for being his authentic Black self, was a bombshell with reprecussions that are still being calculated.

A few days later, Kendrick Lamar gave a visceral, searing performance at the Grammys that condensed the oppression, hope, joy and anger of Black American life into six minutes. His set put images of Mass Incarceration, African dance, and social uprising on a global stage and reminded America that the Black music it loves to consume comes from a place of real struggle and creativity in the harshest economic and psychological conditions.

The week after that saw the premiere of the PBS documentary Vanguard of the Revolution, a history of the Black Panther Party that got great ratings and critical accolades. It’s sparked discussion about the how some of the conditions that created the party are still with us today, as well as the extrajudicial tactics the government pursued to destroy the party leadership, including fomenting internal division, false imprisonment and state sanctioned murder. Conservatives attacked the film, saying it praises a group that incited terrorism and violence against police, ironically the same lies used to discredit modern protestors.

Not even the Academy Awards provided white people any respite from the onslaught of angry Blackness. While the show itself was indeed the whitest awards telecast in years the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag brought attention to the lack of Black nominees and diversity in the Academy, despite it having a Black president and Chris Rock as a host.

One of the memes that circulated in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy set was of white audience members sitting with their lips tight, staring nervously at the uncompromising Black spectacle taking place in front of them. It’s a great metaphor for the different perceptions of Black culture in America and levels of comfort with the history that formed that culture. For many African-Americans, February’s celebrations of Blackness were seen as acknowledgement of strength in the face of adversity and hatred. For many whites, they were seen as angry, hostile actions by race baiting troublemakers.
Regardless of the responses, February 2016 reminded everyone that Black American History is a living, vital, ever evolving tapestry, one that still has the potential to make power structures nervous. What the people who are uncomfortable with that don’t understand is that none of this was about them. It was about Black people acknowledging our own heritage and greatness,  taking it out of textbooks and continuing to create it with present day actions.

Did You Miss Me?

Hello everyone, good to see you!

First of all, I owe my Sum City readers an apology.
I have not posted here in quite a while, but that’s because of a series of events that I became swept up in, all positive, but also demanding. It’s good to be back at my literary home base after a crazy four months. I guess the best way to start is to just jump in, so here I go.

Some of you may remember that back in March I became a featured blogger for Huffington Post Black Voices. It came at me totally unexpected. Almost overnight I became a writer for a website with a huge following and added my voice to others I respect there. I joined Huffington Post at a turbulent time in American History, starting with Ferguson, going on to New York and Baltimore, currently with Charleston. Most of my articles for HuffPo have focused on what’s happening and have generated support and controversy. Before I knew it, I had a following of my own, people who seek out my writing. At the moment it isn’t a huge audience, but it’s an influential one. One that is opening doors and opportunities that again, I never could have prepared for.

I can’t say much at the moment but there are media things in the works. I recently completed a series of photo shoots with a very talented photographer and took part in a Vice News series.
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Things are still developing. If you followed my earlier blogs here, a lot of my subject matter focuses on social justice. I will always be interested in that, but i want to expand. No one is one dimensional and I don’t want to be. I joke, I dance, I talk about trivia same as anyone and I will do that here.

I know that a great deal that’s happening can be linked back to me starting this blog. I put myself out here, people here responded. Then other people responded. I plan to share myself with Sum City again and I hope you will respond again.

Thank You.

Torraine Walker

When The Cameras Leave

wpid-20150311_183636.jpgThis past Tuesday I attended a protest rally in Decatur, GA for Anthony Hill, a young man shot and killed by DeKalb County Police while outside, naked, in the middle of a bipolar episode. He was an artist, a veteran. His Facebook and Twitter posts reveal him to be a sensitive, socially aware, idealistic man. He was buried yesterday. His is the latest hashtagged name in the long, sad litany of black males killed in confrontations with police. There were a few hundred people there, gathered to celebrate Anthony Hill’s life and the tragic way it was taken. There were impassioned speeches, followed by a march and some tension when protesters took over a busy intersection.

There were also cameras. Lots of cameras. Bloggers like myself, mobile news trucks, writers and reporters were filming, recording, and livestreaming every step of the march. It could be said that the proliferation of cameras and smartphones and social networks is why the movement against police brutality is ongoing, but I couldn’t help thinking, how many of us will stay, not just in Decatur, but everywhere across America where people are fighting this new civil rights battle, when the cameras are gone?

Last Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the town swelled with politicians, celebrities, and elders of the civil rights movement gathered to commemorate the fateful day at Edmund Pettus bridge that arguably sparked nationwide support of the civil rights movement. That support happened because the brutality of Jim Crow law enforcement was televised to a shocked outside world. But the work that ended Jim Crow was done by unsung, dedicated fighters who battled in courtrooms and city halls as well as in the streets when cameras weren’t always watching.

The mainstream media is a machine that feeds on novelty. It is never satisfied, and it never stops consuming. The attention it can garner for causes is invaluable, but it’s only loyalty is to it’s own appetite. That same attention will also attract huge numbers of people which can also be good for a cause. But it would be a mistake to believe everybody who shows up will stay to help do the heavy lifting and thankless work necessary to repair a community. Some will, of course. Tragedy and injustice are powerful motivators that always move people to fight them. The desire to be seen is just as powerful, if not more so, and there’s always a possibility that a social movement can be co-opted by those just wanting to be seen.

Eventually the names of Ferguson, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Anthony Hill will fade from the news cycle. The media will pack up their equipment and move on to the next story. A lot of people who claim to be down for the cause will move on too. All that will be left is the void caused by their deaths in the souls of those who knew and loved them. Their larger legacy will be in the laws enacted to prevent atrocities like the ones that ended their lives and by punishing those who took them. As far as who will keep the pressure on and work to see that happen away from the spotlights, only time will tell.

American Booty

A funny thing happened in the Atlanta suburbs last week.

Well, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word. A woman in the affluent Johns Creek area was arrested for running a prostitution ring. It gets worse. One of the girls she pimped out was her stepdaughter. Within an hour of the story breaking, local message boards were filling up with comments saying that the women involved weren’t hurting anybody and that the police were persecuting people for “victimless” crimes. I won’t get into the argument about whether prostitution should be legalized or not, but I was intrigued by how many people rushed to this woman’s defense. I also wondered how sympathetic some of these same people would be if this bust has taken place in Bankhead instead of Johns Creek.

For those of you outside the Atlanta area, Johns Creek is one of the wealthiest suburbs in Atlanta, with an average household income of over $135K. Bankhead is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta, which you already know if you’re a fan of ATL hip-hop. In the collective psyche of the Suburban Atlantan mind and local TV news, Bankhead conjures up images of dreadlocked, gold-front wearing corner dealers holding AK’s and shooting at each other like rival militias in Beirut.

It is fascinating to me how forgiving of crime suburbanites can be when the criminals look like them. A prostitution raid eerily similar to this one happened a few years ago and prompted some of the same calls for leniency. In fact, one of the residents said that this sort of behavioiur “doesn’t happen here,” implying that it’s expected to occur in other parts of the city.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on there. It overlaps with the double standard and perceptions of white and black crime that the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite and the recent release of the Ferguson Report make clear. There is a definite double standard to how laws are enforced. White people, especially wealthy white people, are given the benefit of the doubt by police and the general public.

Back in 1996, PBS filmed a documentary about an underworld of unprotected group sex, drug use, and binge drinking among teen and preteen kids in Rockdale County, another affluent Atlanta suburb. When the documentary aired, there was the same disbelief and cries of “not my little angel” that most parents everywhere say when their kids get caught up in mischief. The problem occurs when local media and residents in the neighborhoods agree with that mentality and turn a blind eye to the delinquents on their block to condemn delinquents across town that they never see.

Whenever something happens in poor communities, the entire communty falls under a cloud, not just the parties involved. The usual cultural and racial indictments begin, the kids affected don’t receive the same level of empathy, and definitely not the same calls for therapy and treatmen. The only “remedy” they receive is jail time.
People are going to do dumb shit. That is almost the human default. But some people get to have their mistakes, and their deliberate actions excused while other people’s mistakes follow them for life.

You can find decent people in the poorest communities. You can find low-lifes in the wealthiest ones. Being born well off isn’t a guarantee you will be well raised but it will afford you infinite chances to get away with not being so.

With Friends Like These…

There’s a lot of speculation among Daily Show fans about who should be the next host now that Jon Stewart has announced his departure. A lot of the positive chatter has centered on 25 year-old show correspondent Jessica Williams to fill the chair. While she is indeed funny and very good at what she does, she herself refused the nomination and took herself out of the running for the host spot with a Twitter post stating that, in her words, she feels she is “extremely under-qualified” for the job. In the wake of her decision, writer Ester Bloom responded in an article by saying that she was not going to accept Jessica’s explanation and placed the blame for it on “imposter syndrome”, the tendency some intelligent women have to downplay their intelligence and qualifications so as not to threaten male superiority. While I believe the writer’s heart was in the right place, to me it was indicative of a disturbing trend among white feminists to take it upon themselves to speak for women of color, as if Black women don’t have the mental capacity to speak for themselves and make their own decisions.

I’m a man and I will not presume to speak for any woman although I have been in situations that for me feel similar. I’ve been in professional meetings and had a suggestion I made be ignored only to have a white person in the same room make the same suggestion and have it taken up. I once had a white grad student say during an online debate that he was qualified to talk about how it feels to be a Black man because he took an African-American Studies class. I think for a lot of white people, even the most well-meaning, Black people are only seen as objects or victims to be rescued so they can feel good about themselves and satisfy their hero complex. We are still not seen as full human beings capable of critical thinking, but psychological children who are spoken about or spoken for, but never spoken to. It’s a condescending attitude that does nothing to address any individual issue.

63 years after Ralph Ellison’s landmark book and people of color are largely still invisible. In the movie Being There, Peter Sellers plays a possibly autistic gardner who stumbles into the world of the political elite but only speaks in snippets of dialog he picked up from watching tv. His wealthy new associates take his ramblings to be profound statements and create global policy from them. All too often the lives and the struggles of African-Americans get co-opted by sympathetic people and turned into the social media equivalent of a Che Guevara t-shirt. It shows that many progressive “allies” believe Women of Color have no active agency or intelligence beyond being rescued by White saviors.

Jessica Williams is a very talented woman who doesn’t need me or anyone else to speak for her. I think Ester Bloom’s article had valid points about patriarchy. I just wish she would have given Jessica enough credit for being intelligent enough to self criticize without patriarchy being the reason.

MLK: A Dream Discovered

Today is Martin Luther King Day.
In Atlanta there will be a march down Auburn Avenue to Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached. The media will be there, while social, civil and entertainment leaders will appear and give speeches. No mainstream politician can hope to gain support in the Black community without showing up at a Black church and invoking Dr. King’s name.

As a child, my image of Dr. King was the one most Americans have; the round determined face in black and white photos and films shown every February; the rich, resonant, unmistakable voice giving the “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington; the tragedy of his assassination. Since his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King has become an American saint, revered, paid homage to, universally recognized as an icon of the struggle of Americans forcing America to honor it’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

As a teen I became less of a fan of Dr. King’s nonviolent approach. I was deep into Malcolm X by way of Spike Lee’s film of his autobiography. I was listening to Public Enemy, NWA and the Geto Boys and the idea of allowing a mob of savage racist whites and redneck cops to beat you while you don’t fight back or defend yourself seemed like the definition of weakness to me. I was much more receptive to Malcolm’s Self Defense Self Determination philosophy. But at the time I wasn’t aware of the deeper meaning and objectives of the approach that Dr. King advocated.

On Christmas day I saw Selma. It was fascinating to see that film as a resident of Atlanta, a city where the power of MLK’s legacy is more physically tangible than anywhere else. Aside from being a mastetfully done film, it inspired me to reexamine my assumptions about MLK and his movement; what I found caused me to revise a lot of what I thought I knew.

The genius of the SCLC was in framing their concept of nonviolent resistance as a moral crusade against the ugliness of segregation and Dr. King’s genius was to gamble, rightly as it turned out, that Americans would be so shocked and disgusted by the sight of Jim Crow’s hateful true face that they would sympathize with and come to assist those fighting to destroy it.

I had forgotten, and history often overlooks, just how radical MLK was. He has been deified but the depth of his message has been obscured by that deification. People quote “Free at Last” and his “Mountaintop” speech without exploring the full range of issues he touched on like Vietnam, economic opportunity, and black power. He also made speeches about Black manhood and America’s systematic economic disenfranchisement of the Black working class that lined up with the teachings of Malcolm X and emerging nationalist groups like the Black Panthers.

Something the film touched on was King’s ability to get different groups to unite against a common enemy. It would be great if organizations dedicated to social justice could find common ground without surrendering their respective visions. I would love to see more cooperation between Black, Latin, LGBT and Women’s Rights groups amongst each other, and with any group that wants to see all people respected equally.

The struggle is still necessary. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice have made that very clear. In Ferguson, in Paris, in Nigeria, young people are still having to take to the streets to call out and expose evil.

For me, rediscovering MLK reminded me that a fight against an evil system doesn’t always have to be a physical one. I will always believe in self defense, but I realize that there are many ways to defend yourself. The pen and the voice are powerful too.

Invisible Women


One of the biggest stories to captivate entertainment headlines this year has been the emergence of Lupita Nyong’o. Her Oscar winning performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave catapulted her to the forefront of the public eye. Once there, she has developed almost a second career as the Queen of the Red Carpet, appearing at film festivals looking flawless in stunning gowns that designers are falling over themselves to dress her in. This summer she landed the cover of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful issue. Her Oscar acceptance speech about what defines beauty sparked a wave of affirmation from women around the world who fight daily to be seen as attractive and desirable within themselves when bombarded constantly with a narrow standard of beauty. Lupita is the most recent black female star to explode into pop culture but obviously she isn’t the only one. From Michele Obama to Olivia Pope, from top grossing movies like The Best Man franchise to About Last Night, Black women are everywhere, looking beautiful. Why then, with all the highly visible women of color in mainstream media, are so many people who work in the media so blind and tone-deaf when it comes to their beauty?

The past few months have been rife with cringe-inducing gaffes from writers who should know better. Patricia Garcia wrote an article for Vogue that attributed the acceptance of the big rear end to Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea. According to the article, a big butt was something to be ashamed of until these ladies made having one acceptable. The writer lives in Miami so I don’t know how she missed seeing all the confident, curvy Latin American and Caribbean women walking around. It was a fairly clueless premise but it did give the world the sadly hilarious twitter hash tag #voguearticles

On the heels of that faux pas, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times managed to stumble not once, but twice in an article about the huge success of Shonda Rhimes by suggesting that the title of any future autobiography Miss Rhimes chooses to write should be “How To Get Away With Being An Angry Black Woman”, and referred to the star of Shonda’s new show How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis, as “less classically beautiful.” Never mind that the article itself is full of praise for what Shonda Rhimes has accomplished, those phrases derail the article like a turntable needle scraping across a record.

Whether by design or carelessness, There is a definite lack of awareness of the origin of many cultural trends that become commodified by other cultures. Until very recently, when it comes to African Americans and the cultural and artistic statements they create America has always followed a definite pattern: Love the creation, ignore the creator. It’s a pattern Black people know all too well. Back in the 1950’s, as R&B evolved into Rock and Roll, Pat Boone became famous by releasing milquetoast covers of the raucous, powerhouse songs of Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ivory Joe Hunter. When Bo Derek made her bikini-clad run down the beach with her hair in microbraids in Blake Edwards’ “10”, Middle America magically became aware of and copied a hairstyle that Black women had been wearing in great numbers for decades. Whenever shows like Friends, Sex and the City and most recently Girls are heralded as true depictions of young people navigating city life they are always set in a New York City where people of color don’t exist except as a sassy sidekick of the type that Wanda Sykes has cornered the market on. People of color have been the ghost in the machine of American social and cultural life; a rich reservoir of creativity that could be sampled by mainstream media, as long as the source was kept out of sight.

What defines beauty? What’s interesting about this is that while the last two decades have seen women of color featured more prominently than ever in mainstream media,it’s no secret that the gatekeepers of American fashion and media are overwhelmingly white. When you are not used to seeing people from different cultural places and getting different ideas about what is beautiful, you end up recycling the same images of beauty to a market that is no longer satisfied with them. Part of what makes Shonda Rhimes’ characters so compelling is that she writes black women with all the flaws, depth of character, inner turmoil and sexuality as their white counterparts. The instances of black characters being written so well are rare and maybe that’s why there has been so much cultural cluenessness in mainstream media’s handling of their presence. It’s as if the idea that black women are physically beautiful, multifaceted real women never occurred to them.

Viola Davis responded to being called “less classically beautiful” by refrencing the comment during her People’s Choice Award win. The concept of what is beautiful is expanding. It would be in the best interests of the people who consider themselves the gatekeepers of beauty to catch up.