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

And Now For An Important Announcement:

I have always been fascinated by words. From looking through dictionaries and encyclopedias as a child, to rapping as a teenager, and writing fiction as an adult, I’ve always been intrigued by the emotion and shades of expression the written and spoken word can convey. I wanted to be heard and understood and blogging has been a great way to realize that ideal. I now have an opportunity to take that further; as of yesterday, I am officially a contributing blogger for the Huffington Post.

I have been a fan of what they do for a while and it’s a beautiful thing to contribute to. My debut article is about the apology Levi Pettit gave for the racist chant he and his SAE fratbrothers led.

Without WordPress & SUM City to voice my opinions, I would feel stifled. Without the back and forth dialog my opinions spark, I would feel disappointed. I will continue blogging weekly here of course, and I hope everyone who has read my stuff so far will keep reading! See you next week!

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.

The Big Black Wolf

By now, most of the country has seen the video of a young woman being catcalled and followed by men on the streets of NYC┬áproduced by an organization called Hollaback! to draw attention to the sexual objectification women are subjected to when out alone in city streets. It’s a worthy cause; I have heard far too many stories from different women over the years about dealing with creepy or disrespectful men to doubt the necessity of calling attention to the issue of street harassment. My only problem with the video, and its creators, is their use of Black and Brown Boogeymen to literally scare up attention.

Whether by accident or by design, the makers of the video, Rob Bliss Creative, edited out all the white male catcallers. The end result is footage of a girl menaced by men who are all Black and Hispanic. The images play on the stereotypes of men of color being hyperagressive sexual beasts that Birth of A Nation made overtly and King Kong alluded to with slightly more subtlety. It’s a stereotype that, historically, countless numbers of black men paid for with their freedom and their lives.

According to the director there was 10 hours of footage shot and edited down to make the video that went out. During the editing process, no one, not the producers, or the organization for which it was made, had a problem with the white guys, of which there were many, being deleted from the final reel. When called out on the disparity, Rob Bliss gave an explanation that might have been plausible, if editing software that you can download to your smartphone for free wasn’t available to a professional filmmaker in far better quality. Needless to say, misogynists and racists have flocked to leave hateful comments on sites hosting the clip.

There’s a case to be made for the honesty of the video creators when they say the removal of white catcallers was unintentional. In America there has always been a tendency to overlook, excuse, or explain away the social transgressions of white males. It’s a tendency so ingrained in American society that people do it subconsciously. Even people dedicated to raising awareness of male privilege can be blind to how they inadvertently reinforce white male privilege.

Ensuring the freedom of women to go about their business in public spaces without being made to feel in danger of their safety is absolutely an issue that needs to be addressed. No sane person would deny that. But so is the demonizing of men of color. It’s a shame is that a very necessary national conversation about the objectification and reduction to body parts that millions of women deal with has been sidetracked because of it. And it’s sad that Hollaback! and Rob Bliss chose to combat sexism by reinforcing racism.

Ill Communication

I once dated a woman who’s sole form of communicating with me was by text message. Except for the day we met, everything we couldn’t do in the same room was done by text. Exchanging personal information…scheduling dates…planning encounters…everything. We had 1 telephone conversation over the 2 months we saw each other and when it ended, that was one of my main reasons for doing so. I know some men reading this probably think I’m crazy for finding a woman who doesn’t want to talk on the phone all the time and not feeling that. While it’s true that I’m not a fan of talking on the phone for hours at a time, I do crave human interaction that doesn’t require a computer or a smartphone.

We live in the most socially connected age in human history but people are connecting less on a personal level. Consider this: out of all your friends on social media, how many do you actually know? Out of those you know personally, when was the last time you actually saw them and when you saw them, did you really talk, or did you sit around looking at your phones? I’ve been to far too many social events where people either talk nonstop about themselves or are almost monosyllabic in verbal exchanges.

Remember the movie Clueless? There’s a scene where Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash’s characters are talking to each other on cellphones even though they’re right next to each other. It seemed absurd at the time but now that’s normal. I think it’s important to look at a person when you talk to them. The inflection in their voice, their facial expressions, and tone of voice inform a conversation more than what you say to each other and can avoid the misunderstandings that often occur with electronic communication.

When you limit the means of expressing thought, you limit thought, which might be why  so many people can only speak in half-sentences and type lyk dis. Factor in short attention spans, and the belief that every moment of life must be documented and you have a recipe for self-absorption that ignores everything except the ego.

The danger of social networking is it gives the illusion of having a personal relationship without actually having one or making any effort to sustain one. For any truly intimate relationship to work you have to be present, physically and mentally. You have to go out in public and meet people. And not stare at your phone when you do.

People are busy. Being a busy person myself, I totally get that. But it’s also true that people make time for the things and the people they want to make time for. The internet is a wonderful tool for connecting people but it can’t be the only one. Social media is here to stay; I just wish it was more social. If anybody has any ideas how to make that happen, give me a call; I’d love to discuss it over coffee somewhere.

Or you can text me.

On second thought… shoot me an email, and I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.

Or by the end of the week.

Next Monday at the latest, I promise.