Art and Culture, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Never Too Much . . .

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I took our semi-regular road trip to visit an acupuncturist whose office is, as the young people say, in the cut–and worth the drive.  Because all road trips need a good podcast, I scrolled through the recent episodes of our favorite shows. The Moth? This American Life? Nah, not today. I wasn’t really in the mood for Ira Glass or coffee-shop story-telling. Racism was, as it usually is, heavy on my mind. We were living through the white supremacist uproar surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest against systemic racism and police violence targeting communities of color. And instead of attending to the unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico, the president was being the racist asshat that he is. In the midst of this bullshit, I naturally thought of Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton’s hilarious, thought-provoking and all around brilliant podcast Another Round. I found a recent episode featuring Senator Cory Booker, linked the Bluetooth and happily reclined my passenger seat.

The interview was certainly engrossing. Heben and Tracy peppered their back and forth with the relevant pop culture references, incisive questions and unmistakable shade that keep fans like me coming back for more. But as I listened to Booker, I alternated between curiosity, side-eye, sympathy and revulsion. The Senator is a masterful politician and accomplished manipulator, for sure. Despite my knowledge of his shady record, various corruption scandals and contentious relationship with progressives, I was nonetheless interested in hearing how Booker would interact with Heben and Tracey and what, if anything, he might say about racism.

Politicians are never more dangerous and toxic than when they mix just enough truth with their lies to sound authentic. Even with all of my critique and side-eye, Booker’s emotion-laden talk about his “hope for America” brought tears to my eyes. But even as I teared up, I realized the horror of what Booker had done. Weaving together what seemed to be compelling stories of black pain, Booker was able to emotionally manipulate me (and others) as he weaponized black suffering to portray himself as “woke”.

What unfolded over the course of the episode was a brilliantly jarring tight-rope performance. With aplomb, passion and humor, Senator Booker was able to both acknowledge what he called the “horrible system” upon which the US is based–and also minimize its crimes. Walking that white supremacist tight-rope, he granted just enough acknowledgement of the United States’ ongoing history of racial and class oppression to sound socially conscious to gullible ears while, in the same breath, insisting the US is still a “great country” despite the crimes it perpetuates against its own citizens. Not to mention — and indeed, Booker did not mention — the crimes perpetuated by the US against millions of human beings abroad.

After expressing his grave concern for mass incarceration, Booker unironically (!!!!) quoted Bill Clinton:

There’s nothing bad about America that can’t be solved by what’s good about America.

I get it. Cory Booker is a politician and politicians lie. They especially lie in ways that flatter themselves and keep them in office. But the lie at the heart of Booker’s formulation is that a fundamentally broken and oppressive system can always be redeemed, no matter how many centuries of crimes against humanity it commits. The fact that Booker borrowed a quote from one of the architects of mass incarceration–a policy which helps maintain white supremacy–after claiming to care about systemic racism tells you all you have to know about the convoluted lengths to which some politicians will go to distort social reality, cater to powerful white elites and simultaneously line their pockets.

And this is why that buttery falsetto came to mind: Never too much, never too much, never too much . . .

No matter how horrific the systemic crimes..

No matter how many millions slaughtered, discriminated, left without water..

No matter how many innocent people incarcerated by the state..

No matter how many colored and colonized people abandoned..

No matter how many children killed by police..

No matter how many miscarriages of justice..

No matter how many under-resourced schools..

No matter how many generations of environmental racism..

No matter how many capitalist-produced humanitarian crises..

No matter.
The suffering is never, never too much.

In effect, the function of a politician like Cory Booker is to swoop in, invoke Bill Clinton, and reassure the citizenry that we are a “great country”. The “original sin” is damnable, but never quite damning enough to curtail the possibility of absolution. The body count can never be too high, the death toll never too devastating. The evils of the “horrible system” can be washed away, again and again, with the redemptive baptism of Cory Booker’s Wall-Street-and-Big-Pharma-funded discourse.

The sad reality is that our politics are dominated by two contemptible forces: those who completely deny that the US commits any crimes at all and those who admit some of the crimes but perpetually excuse and minimize them with the language of “forgiveness”, “hope” and “love of country”. Both of these forces are two sides of the same coin: the propaganda needed to justify and prolong US exceptionalism and dominance.

I’m sorry to say that for these forces, there is no bottom. There is only a bottomless pit into which marginalized people can be shoveled, shuttered and shrugged off. Whole populations can be slaughteredleft to die or slowly disintegrate, without resources, without power, without fresh water, without adequate schools, deprived of basic dignity and human rights . . . and the patriotic propaganda continues, unperturbed.

No atrocity left behind.

All the moral and structural wrongs can be “solved” and “fixed” by what’s “good about us”. It’s the neoliberal mantra. The death march song.

There is something very telling and horrific about the political discourse coming even from those brave souls who, following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, decide to take a knee. You will notice how in almost every case, citizens feel compelled to justify their protest in patriotic terms. This is, of course, the compulsory performance of patriotic devotion (“No disrespect to the flag!” “I love this great country!”).

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Continue reading “Never Too Much . . .”

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Academic Musings, News, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

War Crimes We Can Believe In

Obama shades

This past week I’ve been trying to understand the political construction of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work in relation to neoliberalism and state violence. Coates is in the news as he makes the rounds to launch his new book We Were Eight Years In Power, a retrospective on the Obama era and the rise of Trump. While I congratulate the widely acclaimed author on the publication of his latest tome, I cannot personally recommend his fundamentally flawed and largely superficial thinking “about race”, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.

For now, I want to focus on what’s been keeping me up at night for the last several years: the complicity of the Democratic Party (and Obama’s coterie of willfully ignorant fans) in the maintenance of multiple forms of state violence. Because Coates writes so much about Obama–and because of his positioning as one of the most widely read black social critics at the apex of the corporate media and publishing worlds–any consideration of Obama’s presidency must take into account the portrait produced in Coates’ writing. His romantic portrayals of the first black president (and his descriptions of race and politics) play an influential role in shaping (and setting the boundaries of) the convoluted and largely useless national conversation “about race” . In trying to understand Coates’ structural position and appeal to powerful white liberals, it’s become increasingly clear to me that his views (at least, the views he has publicly expressed) are obviously related to the political agenda of at least one of his employers, namely The Atlantic.

I confess that until very recently (as in, the last few days), I knew nothing of the politics of The Atlantic. But a cursory review of the editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, makes a few things quite clear: the man at the helm of magazine is a prison-guard-turned-journalist strongly aligned with the Democratic Party who whitewashes Democrats’ war crimes accordingly, regularly uses his publishing platforms to rationalize state violencedefends the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land (while expressing the appropriate amount of liberal hand-wringing over the settlements), undermines and discredits critics of Zionism, and, predictably, hates Noam Chomsky.

It should come as no surprise that Goldberg is a big fan of Barack Obama and has played a leading role in producing a relatively rosy portrait of the 44th president. Goldberg and some of his colleagues at The Atlantic promote what they view as a “liberal” vision of “democracy” that somehow happily coexists with settler colonialism, massive state violence, white supremacy, systemic racism, poverty, hypercapitalist exploitation and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, including women and children, who stand in the way of the ruling elites’ determination to acquire absolute hegemony and strategically secure material resources no matter the cost. Of course, even publications that whitewash war crimes, like The Atlantic, have to at least gesture toward a functioning moral compass. And so we see articles like this one covering Obama’s drone strikes (and the lies he’s told about them) alongside popular puff pieces written by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, such “gotta see both sides” coverage functions to bolster The Atlantic’s false appearance of objectivity and fair-mindedness.

Continue reading “War Crimes We Can Believe In”

Life Musings, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

What Does It Mean to “Love White People”? On Common and the Absurdity of #HandInLove

It’s sort of beneath my dignity to have to say that I love and have loved quite a few white people, but let’s just put it out there:

Yes, some of my very best friends are white folks.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in predominately white suburbs of predominately white nations, predominately white schools and predominately white organic grocery stores.

By virtue of my minority status and choices, my life involves a lot of working, talking and loving across different types of racial lines. I’m a East-coast raised, Southern-born, multi-generational, multi-racial black woman of U.S. slave ancestry. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumor has it that there’s Irish on both sides of my family tree. My family (biological and chosen) includes a diverse array of beautiful people: loved ones from a variety of diasporas, a Haitian godmother, Jews whose families immigrated from Europe.

I have a lot to learn and much room for growth, but I live a relatively cosmopolitan life. I like the fact that my hapa girlfriend grew up between California and Tokyo, spent years in Africa and speaks French with a Senegalese accent. I’ve visited a dozen countries and spent a significant portion of my twenties living in Paris. In my personal life, I have made it my business to consciously learn and explore what interracial, anti-racist love looks like. My spirituality is deeply influenced by Eastern traditions and philosophies, including Buddhism and Hinduism (Advaita-Vedanta). As an anti-racist educator and a panentheistic non-dualist, I know that who we are, on an existential level, has absolutely nothing to do with the social fiction of race.

And yet, I’m also intimately familiar with the social reality of our collective fictions. While I teach my students that our ideas about race are socially constructed, I also equip them to recognize and understand the very real consequences of past and present racism.

What I know for sure is that much of what people say about matters of race and love in public contributes to white supremacy.

Continue reading “What Does It Mean to “Love White People”? On Common and the Absurdity of #HandInLove”

Politics, Spiritual Musings

Do Not Bomb Syria

I do not support President Obama’s drive to engage the U.S. in military action in Syria.

I call upon all of us interested in a more peaceful planet to focus our energies on compassion and stillness, while also taking steps to signal our opposition to engaging a possibile war in the Middle East.

Tomorrow, I will be participating in a Buddhist retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The steps we can take to build a more just and peaceful world will be at the center of my spiritual practice of mindfulness.

More soon.

Crystal

Academic Musings, Gender, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Spirituality, Rape Culture & the Denigration of Harriet Tubman

change.orgYou may have heard the recent story of Russell Simmons’ endorsement and marketing of a “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape”, an astoundingly awful attempt at satire which instantly drew the formidable ire of concerned citizens across social media.   The video is appalling for more reasons than I can summarize here — the contribution to rape culture, the denigration of Harriet Tubman’s monumental heroism, the disrespect of women broadly, African American women in particular and the enslaved ancestors of diasporic people everywhere. Truly, I could go on and on.  It was that horrific.

On August 14th 2013, the same night that the video was released on Youtube, I authored a Change.org petition which gathered over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, demanding that Simmons remove and apologize for the video. After pressure from many corners, including the NAACP, Simmons did in fact pull the video and issue a (highly problematic) apology. The petition was covered in more than 100 media & online outlets. You can read about the video and the campaign against it on MSNBC, Washington Post and, even the Daily Mail.

I also did an interview with emPower Magazine that you can read here.

While I alluded to compassion and spirituality in the interview, I didn’t delve into the relationship between my outrage and my spiritual practice.  In fact, my views on the importance of respecting our ancestors are inspired, in part, by Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on being a Buddhist and a person of color.  In his fabulous book “We are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection”, he reflects on the significance of embracing not only our cultural heritage, but also our ancestry.  This is also a theme he develops in this speech, given from Plum Village in 1997: “We Are the Continuation of Our Ancestors“.  He states, in part:

“I always feel that I am the continuation of my ancestors. Every day I practice touching my ancestors. In my country every home has an altar for ancestors, blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors. An altar is just a table, but it is very important. You place that table in the central part of your house and you focus your attention on the table as the point of contact between you and your ancestors. Usually every morning we come and offer some incense to our ancestors. Our ancestors do not need to smell incense, but we want to light a stick of incense to our ancestors because the practice of lighting incense focuses our attention on the presence of our ancestors. During the time you strike the match, you light the stick of incense, you offer the incense on the table, you have an opportunity to touch your ancestors within yourself. You realize that your ancestors are always alive in you because you are the continuation of your ancestors.”

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I do not have an altar for my ancestors in my home.. or anywhere else.  But consciously honoring and remembering my inherent connection to all those who came before me has become, over the years, an increasingly important part of how I recognize and celebrate the Divine.  As Thich Nhat Hanh states – the point is to focus attention on the presence of our ancestors.  To honor our ancestors is to also honor the Self.  Doing so requires our loving awareness.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to be a descendant of slaves to find offense in the video Russell Simmons’ media venture produced. There are many folks of diverse backgrounds – including white Americans – who shared my outrage and discontent.  Truthfully, all it takes is wisdom, insight and compassion to respect the dignity of other human beings, those who are living now, and those who have passed on.

The challenge, I think, for all of us — and the vital importance of humanistic principles and enlightened spirituality — is to overcome the limitations of our experience and the boundaries we erect between “us” and “them”.  In so doing, we consciously embrace our solidarity with the whole of humanity, past and present.  When we demean each other, it is because we have a broken and incomplete understanding of ourselves.  When we think we are defined by our ego – the limited idea of who we think we are – we are inexorably led to have a limited idea of the “others” we identify with.  As conscious, compassionate people dedicated to making this world a more loving place, we must commit to living beyond our ego and our conditioning.

What does this have to do with Russell Simmons and his video?  Well, first of all, I won’t even really touch the ridiculous contradictions inherent in the fact that he frames himself as a spokesperson for enlightenment, writing books on spirituality and tweeting about the Bhagavad Gita — while also calling the “comedic” portrayal of the rape of an enslaved American hero “the funniest thing” he’s ever seen.   The point I’m making here is that fundamentally, Simmons’ misstep revealed a lack of awareness – an inability, in that particular moment, to fully recognize and honor the humanity of women generally, Harriet Tubman in particular, his own enslaved ancestors and survivors of sexual assault and rape.  In one fell swoop, he denigrated a huge swath of humanity — and that kind of denigration can only happen when we allow ourselves to lapse into ignorance — ignorance about who we really are.  If Russell Simmons had truly been in touch with the fullness of his own humanity, the incredible power of his own divinity, the enlightened consciousness of his interconnection with all living Beings, past and present, he could not have acted from such a place of profound disrespect.

I say this not as someone who knows Russell Simmons personally, but rather as someone who knows human nature, beginning with my own.  I know that it is only possible for me to disrespect someone else when I am ignorant.  And I also know that it is possible to grow in awareness and love, for myself and others, if my heart’s intention is to do so.  For that reason, I sincerely hope that Russell Simmons – and indeed, all of us – use this moment to pause and reflect on how we can rise in consciousness.

In the updates to the petition, I included a number of resources for folks who want to learn more about the history of women, slavery, sexual trauma and violence against African-Americans.  This was not just for his benefit – but mine as well.  We all have a lot to learn about these issues.  But I must say . . . book knowledge can only go so far.  And lots of folks with less education, less life experience and less exposure to social and cultural capital than Russell Simmons knew that video was in incredibly poor taste.

Beyond building knowledge, I also encouraged Simmons to engage in face-to-face discussion and dialogue with women and men who have survived rape.  I know in my own experience, these kinds of conversations have been life changing.  Having people trust me enough to share their stories of surviving and overcoming sexual assault has been an incredible gift that pushed me to grow and become more compassionate and thoughtful about a social reality that affects nearly 1 in 3 women.  The fact is, I have loved women who have been raped.  And I have loved men who have experienced sexual trauma.  We are all connected to survivors of rape, whether in our immediate circles or in our family trees.  We must all do more to practice love and care in how we think about this issue.

In terms of moving forward, I include below a list of some of the suggested readings produced in consultation with black women scholars (especially Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori) and Dr. Christina Sharpe (@hystericalblkns).  These are just a few excellent sources we have in scholarship on women, race, slavery, sexual assault and post-slavery violence against blacks.

– Angela Davis (1972) “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”

-Crystal Feimster (2011): “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching”

-Saidiya Hartman (1996): “Seduction and the Ruses of Power”

-Koritha Mitchell (2012): “Living with Lynching:African American Lynching Plays, Performance and Citizenship”

-Dorothy Roberts (1997): “Killing the black body : Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

-Christina Sharpe (2010): “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects”

Additionally, you might consider reading Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets as well as “Six Women Slave Narratives”.

Finally, I should say that this is all a bit surreal for me, given that 1) I’ve never done a change.org petition before and 2) the actual subject of my scholarship is the way in which folks throughout the diaspora interpret the history and legacies of Atlantic slavery.  Right now I’m working on a book that takes stock of recent commemorative movements in France that have drawn greater attention to French involvement in the slave trade while also transforming the contemporary meanings of blackness in French politics and culture.  Some of my work also explores how African-Americans imagine the history of slavery.  You can read more about these projects here.

Interestingly, I didn’t begin this line of work with strong opinions about whether or how the history of slavery should be represented.  When I went to Paris years ago to interview activists, officials and ordinary people of African descent, I did so with a very open mind about the relative merits of various ways of relating (or not relating) to the past.  In fact, I still do make a practice of understanding – with some degree of detachment – the various frames people use for underscoring the relevance or irrelevance of slavery in our contemporary moment.  As a social scientist, my job is to unpack not only the different perspectives articulated by social actors, but also the conditions of possibility that shape those perspectives as well as the broader consequences of those views for the way folks see themselves in relationship to society.  In order to do a good job of that, I need to be attentive to how my own positionality shapes my scholarship — but I cannot be overly invested in a particular view.

When I began this work, I was not deeply spiritual, nor was I particularly interested in honoring my ancestors.  But I was deeply interested in exploring how other people in the diaspora grappled with the intersecting stigmas of contemporary anti-black racism and the historical legacies of chattel slavery.  As I had not yet come to fully embrace any particular stance, I wanted to use my fieldwork in France to not only generate scholarship about contemporary French politics and practices of blackness in Europe, but also to produce knowledge about the range of logics people draw upon when trying to make sense of history and its impact on the present.  In the process, I eventually came to define and embrace my own views on this question, even as I held firm to my desire to understand and respect the perspectives of the people I interviewed, even – and especially – when I disagree with their claims.

In any case, when I started my fieldwork in 2008 – as an observer in a foreign country with the pretense of detachment – I would never have predicted that I’d one day start a petition to protect the memory of an enslaved American heroine, or write blog posts about the spiritual importance of honoring our ancestors.  How interesting it is to come full circle in this way.

Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Dear America: It’s Not You. It’s Me.

Dear America,

We need to talk.

You see, tonight Trayvon Martin’s unremorseful killer was acquitted. Tonight, I fell silent with a dear friend when we heard the news. Our eyes closed. Our heads fell into our hands. There were no words.

Tonight, I heard my mother’s voice crack and tremble under the weight of her grief as she expressed her shock and sadness at seeing an unapologetic black-child-stalker-and-killer walk free.

And tonight I realized, more than ever, that as much as I love your potential, as much as I love the good that I know is in your heart, as much as I appreciate and see the beauty of your highest calling, the truth is that I feel like this relationship — our relationship — is becoming abusive and toxic on a level that nearly boggles the mind.

I’m a student of history, so I knew our relationship would be challenging. But for reasons that defy all logic, I always thought we could find a way. Yet tonight I find myself shell-shocked and worried that we’re simply incompatible. On paper, we have so many core values in common. In practice? Not so much. I know what you’re going to say — No, it’s not just the Zimmerman verdict. It’s the absurd Supreme Court ruling on the voter’s rights act. It’s the profound stupidity and prejudice exemplified in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s defense of stop and frisk in New York, an official policy of harassment and profiling primarily directed toward people of color. It’s the insanity occurring right now in Texas, where women are stopped and frisked for tampons as they enter the legislature to stand up for reproductive rights — even as guns are freely allowed. It’s the fact we do not have a federal ban on the death penalty, despite the fact that we know innocent people — American citizens — have been killed by our imperfect justice system. It’s the inability of this President to keep his campaign promise to close Guantanamo, despite the human rights abuses that continue to take place there. It’s the robust indifference so many of my fellow citizens have to poverty in this country, even the plight of poor whites. It’s the widening of the black/white wealth gap under a black President. It’s also having a black President who doesn’t talk about race. It’s the prison industrial complex and its marginalization of poor, working class people and people of color. It’s the Republican party’s war on women. It’s the crisis in Chicago. It’s the Democratic party’s complicity in establishing mass surveillance and the unconstitutionally invasive practices of the NSA’s PRISM program. It’s the drones. It’s the drones. It’s the drones. It’s the legal, corporate buyout of our political process. It’s the pathetic excuse for “progressive” television known as MSNBC. And — my God, that’s just a few of the distressing issues happening now. I haven’t even begun to talk about our history. The history of black women, men and children being murdered without consequence — a practice so old and institutionalized that it’s become an American tradition. I’ll stop talking about history now, though, because I see your eyes glazing over. Yes, I know, you’re always telling me to let it go, since you think we’ve magically solved those wily problems of the past.

You know you’re in a horrible relationship when you find yourself making those “pro’s” and “con’s” lists, trying to decide whether to stay or go. Maybe leaving has never really felt like an option — because, well, where would I go? Yes, I dated France for a few years and played the field in a few different countries, but I know there’s no paradise down here. Where would I go where there is no injustice? Where would I go where sexism and classism and racism and queer-phobia aren’t salient dimensions of social life? Where would I go where I would not be disgusted by daily forms of micro and macro aggression and oppression?

And then there’s another inconvenient truth.. the fact that I’m kind of in love with you. It’s that irrational kind of love that loves in the face of ugliness, pain and dysfunction. It is this irrational love that has made me hold out hope for so long. Love that made me listen, against my better judgment, when you sweet talked me with “change” I could believe in. Love that has made me – and continues to make me – want to see what is beautiful about you despite your flaws. Because God knows we are all flawed.

Our destinies are intertwined. I’m not saying that we can’t be together, but I am saying that I might need to see – and live among – other people. Other people who do not have a death penalty. Other people who have boldly legalized gay marriage. Other people who do not have a program of mass incarceration. Other people who do not promote a religion of gun ownership and cultural violence. Other people who protect women’s rights. Other people who have laws against hate speech.

Yes, I know no country is perfect and every society has its baggage. I’m not wearing rose colored glasses. But I am wearing tears – and not just my own. I’m wearing my mother’s tears. My community’s tears. My allies’ tears. And the worst thing of all is that there is nothing new about this. We’ve been crying these tears for many lifetimes, for many generations. Here, in my sadness and pain, it would be easy to blame you, to say that you are the problem. But that would also be a lie. I am part of the problem. And I am also part of the solution.

What I know for sure is that it is the ego that ails us. What I know for sure is that the only hope we have of building a more perfect union is spiritual healing. And I know for sure that transcending the bullshit, hypocrisy and violence of it all begins with me.

So, listen America. I’m not saying it’s over. And I have no idea where we go from here. But I now for sure that love is not supposed to feel like this.