Monthly Archives: February 2006

Injustice, Intolerance and Intersectional Identity: Panel at Princeton University Raises Questions

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Larry D. Lyons and Mervyn Marcano, founders of the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund.

This past Wednesday I was at Princeton University for “Injustice, Intolerance and Intersectional Identity,” a panel that focused on the roles that the police, the media, and the public play in normalizing violence against marginalized peoples. The speakers included Kim Pearson, journalist and professor at the College of New Jersey, Clarence Patton, Executive Director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York City, Rashad Robinson, Regional Media Director for Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher and Princeton professor. The panel was created by my beloved Larry one of the founders of the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund, to address, amongst other things, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Rashawn Brazell. The panel was sponsored by Princeton’s Black Graduate Caucus, LGBT Center, African American Studies Program, Queer Graduate Office, Graduate School Office, Black Student Union, and the Black History Month Planning Committee.

Many great points were made during the course of the evening, however the ones that made an indelible mark on my consciousness concerned media bias in reporting murders based on the perceived marketability of a story. Consider the media coverage for Natalie Holloway vs. Rashawn Brazell. Professor Pearson said that in journalism there are “good murders” and “small murders.” For example, if a black man kills a white woman, this is considered a good murder in the media’s eyes, a story that can be milked for months, perhaps years, ala OJ Simpson. Think of Charles Stuart, a white man who killed his pregnant wife and then blamed a black man. Or Susan Smith, a white woman who killed her two kids and claimed that she was carjacked by a black man. If I were killed by anybody, black white, whatever, however, the media would consider it a “small murder.” I am black, male and homo. Someone, perhaps many people, upon reading the story of my murder, would believe that I deserved it somehow because I am a black male, or a homo, or a black male homo. It felt comforting to hear experts confirm what I knew that the largely-run and operated media had been trying to convince me of all of my life: a social insignificance.

Robinson and Patton both shared information about how LGBT political and social gains are often proportionate to crimes against LGBT people. So programs like “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” often lure people into thinking that LGBT life is more acceptable, but realistically, they do not. A rise in visibility is comparable to a rise in hate crimes against LGBT people. Makes me think about the Civil Rights Movement and increased visibility among black people meant water hoses, beatings and sometimes death. Political and social gains for people of African descent in this country came with a heavy price, ones that we are living with today. It also brings to mind the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This was one of the fastest bills ever to be signed into law for several reasons. For one, more enslaved Africans were running than ever before. In the early 19th Century more states were leaning towards, or simply abolishing, slavery altogether. The Underground Railroad was in full swing. The Fugitive Slave Act was so fierce that anybody with brown skin, free or not, could be snatched up and returned to the South. This was an institution that would not die without a fight. Dozens of freedom seeking Africans, nameless to most of us, died for it. Mailed themselves in crates headed for the North for it. Buried themselves in soil in the woods, and lived in trees for it. Swam rivers, went hungry, and cut the throats of whoever got in their way for it. Many went crazy for freedom. The papers reported it. Eventually, slavery was abolished. There were gains but the sacrifices were too numerous to name. Again, the price was heavy.

Nor did I consider how groups like GLAAD work to educate local media on how to report stories, and how they often strive to work with families of victims to garner more media attention and public sympathy. Appiah offered that organizing at the intersections of identity can be problematic for a number of reasons; for example, all black, female, lesbians, of a particular class may not share the same political or social vision, and that the intersections of identity actually make one a “new” thing, one that cannot be stereotyped or assumed. I agreed. He was also worried that people tend to disassociate themselves from which they believe they are not. Why, for example, Appiah postulated, weren’t there more people, despite their race, color, or class, horrified and activated by the murder of Rashawn Brazell? Surely it was one of (if not the most) heinous murders in the last decade. This is where the caveat comes in: if it weren’t for individuals who whose identities met at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and/or class, who organize around the very principles that Appiah questioned as valid, then who the fuck would?

Panels like this always leave me wanting more, which I suppose is a good thing. I always want to know how I could be a more effective activist without working myself into an early grave. In defense of my own wanting to live and not expire at the expense of others, or even myself, I am currently drafting an essay that focuses on activism and the toll it takes on the body and soul of certain African American activists. Taking my cue from The The Salt Eaters, the best damn book in the whole goddamned world by the late great Toni Cade Bambara, I think of the first line in that complicated and amazing book. Before she gets to down to business, Minnie, a healer, asks Velma, a black woman activist who has come to this famed healer broken down and slumped over a stool in a hospital gown, the only thing anybody had to anybody in this world: “Are you sure, baby, that you want to be well?”

Yes, I do.

Little Buddha

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Statue of Steven, a.k.a. fatty fat boy.

I wake up in the morning and I do twenty-five pushups. Then I wait for five minutes and knock out twenty-five more. I am determined to get back into shape and lose the love tummy and the handles with which I hold it up. In May I’ll performing with my band, Yay, quite possibly the best band in the fucking whole wide world. I pity you if you’re not there to see us light up the place. We’ll be making our debut appearance at art in harlem: star struck, 21 May 06 at the space. Be there or, well, miss it.

This is all Larry’s fault. Before him I was concerned about my appearance. I was quite comfortable being a high yellow hypocrite who explained his love of working out as a way to improve and maintain health. Early in the morning you could find me on a burning up a treadmill or swinging free weights. I had goals, ambitions, and muscles. At one point my body fat was only 4%. I was a 4%-er. But that was long ago when my pants fit and my t-shirts didn’t roll up in the back when sit down. Now I look down and I see a pot belly smiling back up at me, and it’s all my husband’s fault! It is!

It is. Don’t believe me? Why, of course you don’t because you know I am Steven G. Fullashit. See, Larry loves me just the way I am and told me so, even if he can’t get his arms completely around me. Larry is so not responsible for my love of cake and pie and laying about. We all know that I am.

“Do you realize how fat I am,” I asked Pookie. “I just found out.”
“You are not fat,” he chuckles.
“I went to H&M, tried on a pair of 30/32s and my fat ass laughed and said, Steven, now, come on. Go get yourself a 31/32.”
“You are the perfect size for a man of your age and height.”
“And, you know, Larry won’t indulge my insanity. He likes me just the way I am. The yelly jelly belly boy I am,” I say.
“I can’t stand you. So fat is now a 31 waist?”
“Ok, I feel like I am being lured into a dangerous place…”

Like I said, I went to H&M to buy a pair of jeans, 30/32. That didn’t happen. And apparently they were out of pig boy jeans, which are the only ones I can squeeze my fat ass into these days, so I left with my head in my hands and went straight over to Daffys, a store whose name says it all. Plenty of pig boy jeans in stock there.

Most of my life my measurements came in at a cool 29/32. And then came the 90s with an inch. Now at 40 I am spilling over in a 31/32. Pretty soon I’ll be as wide as I am tall.

Now, I know these revelations maybe insulting to people who are considerably more overweight than I’ll ever be. Still.

“Yes, yes it is! 31 is fat for me. I’m only being silly because you can’t snatch me because you’re in Dallas.”
“Now that you’re fat I can snatch you. WELCOME TO THE DARK SIDE OF THE BON BON!!!”
“Hdsgfjebf9ewfkenf.”
“Typing in tongue won’t help.”
“Yes, yes it will. But first, more cake, please. Butter, buttery rice!
“Peas pass the porridge. Okay enough of your gravitationally challenged ass.”
“Okay. I am so a…I got nothing.”
“You got kadunkadunk!!!
“And I will shake it with pride!
“You will never be broke cuz you sitting on a million!”
“Okay, enough cake talk! By the way, do you have any cake?
“I have to go see Gem of the Ocean. But when I return I will make you a pair of “LOOSEY” jeans.”
“Yes!”
“Like juicy jeans but for the full figured writer. Say nothing else!”
“Go ahead and leave the yelly jelly belly boy, simmering in his own juices!”
“My friend so fat he bleed gravy.”
“Oh no!”
“That’s all I got. I’m really gone.”
“Okay, but I plan to put some of this in a blog entry. So be warned.”
“Nope.”
“Yeppers.”
“Change my name to protect my innocence.”
“Ok, you are now Pom Pom.”
“I’d rather be Richard Wrong.”
“Richard Wrong?”
“Dick Wrong?”
“And on that note: we’ll be headlining at the Palace all week folks. GOODNIGHT!”

I would have completed this article but I had to get something to eat.

Hack Blistory Month

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Let’s see there are only a few more days until 11 months of Anti-Black History start. Photo by Larry D. Lyons, II.

(First published February 2002 at Africana.com)

“I can’t take it any more! I can’t stand February! If I see another institution or corporation celebrating Black History Month, I’m going to throw up!”

So began the rant I heard a few nights ago, after a ringing phone stopped me dead in the middle of reading a really good book. It was my friend and business partner Heru, an activist and writer who doesn’t bite his tongue and speaks his mind very colorfully. So colorfully, in fact, that I had to change a few words in this essay in order for it to be publishable.

“It’s sick, I tell you,” said Heru, flipping through channels on his TV and finding new ammunition for his rant. “What in the hell does McDonald’s have to do with black history? Tell me.”
“Well, they do have a lot of black customers,” I said, wishing he hadn’t called because now I was getting pissed off too. “We seem to enjoy them Big Macs.”

While I no longer share his rage, I do feel his annoyance. Black History Month frustrates me. I find myself praying that those 28 or 29 days will rush by with a quickness, because there is both far too much and, ironically, far too little going on during this month that actually pertains to black history.

It’s not that I don’t understand the power and importance of learning
one’s history. I do. And I wish this could be done in a respectful, decent way. But hey, we live in a capitalist society where nearly everything, including our bodies and minds, are for sale. So why wouldn’t McDonald’s manufacture and market a black history booklet? It makes perfect sense.

What troubles me is that we black folks are often willfully ignorant about our not-too-distant past, for a variety of good reasons. Some of us are still in some denial, because admitting that we were an enslaved people implies so much vulnerability it is terrifying. The only way to really know what happened is to research history, and to look at slavery and not flinch. While writing her Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved, Toni Morrison once said that if those people, meaning those enslaved Africans, could live through the horrors of slavery, then she could write about it. That takes a lot of courage, but it is vital to understanding one’s legacy.

Meanwhile, Heru continued his rant: “It’s so demeaning. Corporations who take and take from black folks daily have these stupid commercials with Martin Luther King Jr., reciting part of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I hate it, I hate it, oh God, I hate it,” he said, his breath coming fast.

As he continued his harangue, I thought about my early experiences learning about black history. As a kid in the 1970s I loved reading about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Carter G. Woodson and Martin Luther King. But as the years wore on, I wondered why these were the only black people I learned about, and why the treatment was so shallow. We seemed to study these people every year, without any real context. We learned very little about slavery, except that Abraham Lincoln was nice enough to emancipate us. Many of the most important figures in African American history were left out of my education, their accomplishments too complex or subtle. Now they are simply burnished idols, reduced to names of dozens of housing projects, schools or streets that run through the ghetto.

“Oh, great, now here’s Bush reading a book about Martin Luther King Jr., to some inner-city children,” Heru groaned. “Will it ever end?”

In a word, no. This is how I figured it out.

A few years ago, I worked as a children’s librarian in Ohio. Much of February was spent getting information about the aforementioned five notable men and women (plus Malcolm X, now that he’s dead and harmless), for teachers and parents.

The remainder of my time was spent compiling exhaustive lists of lesser known scientists, inventors, musicians, doctors, athletes, writers and other men and women in order to introduce these people to a seemingly hungry, yet selective public. Frustrated kids and overbearing parents demanding books crowded me daily. By January 31st, I was frantically pulling books off shelves and placing them on moveable carts with big signs reading, “BLACK HISTORY BOOKS HERE.”
It was my only chance, I figured, to introduce lesser-known figures in the history of America. I was doing my job, but I was also engaged in the subversive act of diversifying the often static pantheon of black historical figures.

“I mean, why is Coors celebrating Black History Month? It makes no sense to me,” Heru continued.

Selling black history has never been any easier or more profitable. The recent Kwanzaa phenomenon is a good example. A decade ago there were only small pockets of people around the nation who even knew about the seven-day holiday, much less celebrated it. This past December, though, my ears were assaulted with a frequently aired radio commercial for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and their special Kwanzaa cookbook. It just so happens that I am a conscious observer of Kwanzaa. So conscious in fact, that right now I’m celebrating Ujamaa, one of the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Ujamaa means cooperative economics, and urges us to focus on building and maintaining our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together. So Kraft can suck my macaroni and cheese.
“That’s it. I need to turn off the television. Peace,” said Heru, who sensed my sleepiness.

And so it goes. Black history is for sale, but no one should be mad about it. If anything, we black folk should capitalize on it more. Just look at dozens of our so-called leaders, thinkers, authors, celebrities and other people of note who rake in gobs of cash, people who will make numerous appearances this month to talk about black history in some respect. Wish it were me.

Wait a minute, it is me! I was paid for this essay! Whew.

Okay, for the rest of you, I say find a way to celebrate this history of our folk on your own terms. Ways that bring you closer to the events and experiences of those men, women and children who helped create the mosaic that is black history. Here are a few tips: Leave the comfort of your home for a month and sleep outside in the dead of winter to experience the life of an American slave. Rob a store and run barefoot through the park while the police chase after you, like a slave running to freedom. Okay, here’s one even better: Build up a thriving business district in the heart of the black community and then burn it down and replace it with substandard public housing. Oh, the possibilities are endless.

Jokes aside, when you think about it, after all black people have been through, you’d think we’d be tired of having our history hijacked. But there’s an antidote to that. It’s got to start at home with parents who show that they love their children enough to try to understand their own personal histories. This is the way to show reverence to those millions stolen from Africa, who either died on the Middle Passage or survived long to enough make it to these blood-drenched shores only to live under the lash to build the economic wealth of this capitalistic land.

Last year, a friend of mine sent me an email about Budweiser. It appeared that the beer company was threatening to stop producing their “African Kings and Queens” calendars if we (meaning black folks) don’t order them immediately. One per household. Has anyone asked themselves why a beer company is producing an “African Kings and Queens” calendar in the first place? Hey Budweiser, this middle finger is for you!

Maybe black folks will just have to read a book, watch a film, or learn their own history by sitting at the knee of an elder. And just maybe after a few years of learning our history, researching our genealogies, eating healthy, building up our community’s wealth, looking out for one another, and showing each other some much needed love and compassion, there won’t be a need to have a Black History Month. We will know and love ourselves enough to keep our histories alive, and for more than 28 or 29 days out of the year.