Today I have guest post from my eldest child, Khembara. For longtime followers of CircuitouslyCute.com, you should already know, one reason for this blog is because of my kids. So, Dear Reader, without any further ado, I will spare you from yet more of my gushing. Enjoy!
I am a 23 year old black male. When I lived in Savannah, Georgia I lived in fear because overseer’s, the term for officer’s during slavery, would routinely stop me and harass me when I walked in the streets due to lack of government funding for sidewalks. They would say each time “there have been a lot of car break-ins in this area…” This also happened to me in Clemson, South Carolina where I was even more terrified. They would then proceed to frisk me and check for warrants, all while shining bright flashlights into my eyes. This happened on almost a weekly basis. An NPR broadcast stated that one of police officers’ favorite weapons to use is the flashlight. Their first choice, of unfortunately, is the gun.
If there were sidewalks in Savannah, there were no street lights for me to see them, so I had to walk in the road. This caused me to always live in fear of bodily harm from police, cars, or street-level predators. There have been hundreds of thousands of police killings in America since slavery. I feel, as a young black man, this targeting of black people by institutional racist gangs of cops should be stopped. From my perspective, it’s the cops who act like domestic terrorists. Many cops are mentally unstable and need better evaluation to be held accountable for their careless actions. Too many police are a poison to the black community.
It happened around 1988, not long after Harvey Gantt became America’s first New South “post-race” mayor. My mother, resolving to escape the ramp-up to the impending crack wars, moved us away from the borough of Queens, New York and into the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when I overheard a white boy call me halfbreed in my twelfth grade Spanish class.
It was a boy that I’d never had problems with before and it caught me off guard. I overheard him talking to another of the good ol’ boys when he referred to me in third person as “that halfbreed gal.” Those were his words, to be exact. I was confused and next hurt. I excelled in languages and the social sciences even back then, which is why his old-fashioned verbiage sounded strange and hostile to me.
My ears perked. “Breed?” I thought, “that’s what they do to animals!”
The categorization implied by his drawl cut to the quick. His enunciation resonated in a place that I was unable to locate. Finally, I was outraged. In my adolescent mind it would have been better had he simply called me “nigger.”
His drawling pronunciation of girl struck me as peculiar and the words that formed a compound had really hit me hard. The one-two of his white maleness bespoke a harsh admonishment. Combined into a single swipe, he cut me down in the most personal terms by figuratively connecting the stuff between my legs to what happens between my ears.
His offending blow reached beyond his Whiteness to strike at the deepest core of my Blackness. It was the cavalier, offhandedness. Not only was he white, but he was male; not only was I black, but also a girl.
After dismissal from Spanish, I found myself trailing behind him to his next class period, loudly demanding he explain himself. I was determined not to be ignored and, once outside, in utter frustration and within full view of teachers and everybody in third period lunch, I got his attention. Hurling an empty can of Welch’s grape soda, I yelled, with the utmost attitude,
“Excuse you, but I’m black on both sides!”
Aluminum pinging off his head forced him to acknowledge me.
He laughed nervously.
Realizing he was at the center of an ugly scene, he took back his words and apologized before scurrying off to class with his buddies. He decided, wiselythat a public altercation with the weird black girl from New York, wouldn’t be earning him any cool points, plus he probably thought I was about to whup his ass.
I don’t quite remember what else I said that day. I’m sure it was a lot. Whatever I said must’ve been articulated well enough to escape suspension and avoid my mom getting called into the principal’s office over my foolishness on a workday. That would’ve be a definite no-go! Thankfully, I checked my behavior in the immediate aftermath and quickly remindes myself to keep my hands—and projectile objects—to myself.
I made peace. A year later, in fact, the same boy who made the offending remark was assigned as my lab partner in Biology class. We managed to get along okay and were even somewhat friendly, but I never forgot what he said. Apparently, neither did he. My reaction made a memorable enough impression to have taught him to behave himself in my presence from then on… at least not if I was in earshot.
Looking back, I can guess this young man was probably a bit jealous of me. My academic abilities earned high marks with comparatively little effort. I must have seemed annoyingly anomalous according to his more familiar context. Perhaps it was his only way to express the disjunction he perceived about my book smarts. As a working-class white having only attended North Carolina public schools his whole life, how could he have known any better? How else was he to interpret the obvious cultural advantage I leveraged? As a Southerner and a white male, he’d more than likely internalized a belief in prevailing assumptions about racist presuppositions alleging the inferiority of black intelligence.
I was lucky. Northern school bussing afforded me the opportunity to enjoy certain regional advantages relative to my native Southern classmates, both black and white. The edge created by New York City politics enabled my mother to enroll my twin sister and me in a couple of Little Neck-Douglaston’s best elementary and junior high schools. As a top district for education, the schools I attended were well renowned for producing the highest scores in the city on state regents exams. The good fortune of our social circumstances allowed me to squeeze my way into excellent schools and make the most out of an unfair situation. My primary and early secondary schooling was flanked by the best teachers, many of whom were first, second, and third-generation Jewish residents of adjacent Long Island communities in Nassau County. No doubt due in part to their own experiences with the Holocaust, many of my teachers nurtured a strong commitment to liberal principles by enacting critical democracy in public education on every level. It was a mission they took seriously.
Our classroom lessons were enhanced by weekly outings to the world’s finest cultural institutions. Visits to the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Stock Exchange, and the like were par for the course. Additionally, my teachers had the flexibility to let us have 30 to 40-minute stretches of free time. They understood the soothing effect it had on their more rambunctious students. A break from the rigmarole of everyday class work allowed us to daydream by the window or bookcase and afforded me the freedom to slowly leaf through encyclopedias and unabridged dictionaries at leisure. For kids like me, it created just enough space to calm down before the stress of a 2-hour commute back home to my Southside neighborhood and granted teachers the luxury to focus proper attention on the creation and design of lesson plans so students might receive real practice in the art of learning.
I was often perplexed upon thinking back to how I reacted that day almost 30 years ago. I mean, really? I don’t even like “purple drink” for cryin out loud! For the life of me, I couldn’t fully grasp exactly why his words stung to elicit such rage. In addition to the discomfort of having some boy talkin’ up under my clothes like that, I can now understand my response better. The enormity of my outrage had as much to do with the personal and institutional attitudes that conspired to expose and set loose my innermost insecurities. Acceptance from my black peer group was something I desperately sought and it was exactly this kind of event that highlighted the problem. Not only was I afraid the black kids would think I was “acting white” because of my grades, I was equally uncomfortable with being viewed as what I was: the green-eyed, light-skinned chick with a funny-sounding accent.
Meanwhile, educational tracking policies were finding new adherents among its constituency of frustrated white parents. While the buildings on school campuses were integrated, the college preparatory courses I took were invariably segregated. A noticeable absence of color, save one or two others, was the order of the day. I was proud to be considered “smart,” but I resented the wedge it created between me and my darker-skinned cohorts. Although I was on the debate team, belonged to Future Business Leaders of America, participated in the History & Political Science club, and received a scholarship to take part in a weeklong program sponsored by the Close-Up Foundation in Washington, DC to study the inner workings of the federal government, I was only tangentially aware of the NAACP’s efforts to stop the Supreme Court’s eventual decision to overturn school bussing by way of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education only a few years later. Few of us could know at that time about theories concerning a “racial bell curve” suggesting the inherent intellectual inferiority of blacks. Charles Murray and his ilk were only beginning to wreak their trajectory of havoc as white supremacist notions of education were making a comeback and once again enjoying political currency across the country. Fortunately for me too, my violent reply to the sexually charged slur occurred a decade preceding the current spate of racially discriminatory “zero tolerance” policies in American public schools.
The implicit assertion of his racial remark was about how I potentially look in the eyes of many whites. Embedded in his put-down was innuendo about my humanity and the social value placed on me due to my skin, based largely on the unconscious view that if not for some strain of European heritage I too would be deemed uneducable—as though being bright is naturally derived from being light. White perceptions about the visuality and intelligence of race wield tremendous damage on countless lives. More painful, is the way words such as “halfbreed” speak to another sad truth: the inescapable fact that I’ve been at times the unwitting beneficiary of this destructive form of racial bias. Crystallized in that moment is the agonizing reality I’m forced to accept. I am the recipient of unwanted light-skinned privilege at least so far as the white masculinist gaze is concerned. I work to balance the scales without appearing to overcompensate. I’d like to think I’m over it, but I know I’m not. I still feel some kind of way about the racial logic that posits Blackness and intelligence as mutually exclusive. The impact of events like these on my personal and professional journey over the decades cannot be underestimated, nor should they be.
Our histrionics are our history. The fallout surrounding colorism, racial discrimination, and Whiteness has become the prevailing subject of my life’s work. They inspire within me the need to heal myself and others from the wounds of racism and help frame smarter, more constructive conversations. Rhetorical race studies chose my body as a discourse, and not the other way around. It’s an all too necessary vocation. I wish this was not the case, but so it is.
I’ve always thought it strange how Breast Cancer Awareness takes place during the same month as Domestic Violence Awareness — both in October, signified by pink and purple ribbons, respectively. Aside from the feminized color palette (pink and purple = “girly” colors), it’s also unfortunate because this timing seems to pit one vitally important women’s health issues against the other. Make no mistake about domestic violence being as much a health issue as breast cancer; up until the Affordable Care Act was passed, both were considered pre-existing conditions for which women were routinely denied health insurance!
Indeed, the concurrent timing of these awareness campaigns almost seems to suggest that no more than one month can be devoted to women’s health at a time. The manner in which we talk about cancer and abuse differ considerably. Breast cancer’s impact on the women and loved ones of those afflicted by the disease tends to be viewed far more sympathetically than matters affecting women dealing with physical and emotional violence at the hands of their romantic partners. Women who’ve overcome cancer are rightfully called “survivors,” whereas women who have triumphed over the tolls of physical and emotional battery are more often than not referred to as mere “victims,” at best. Worse yet, society often holds domestic abuse survivors in disdain and personally blames them for their situations. In terms of which of these two awareness campaigns receives the most media attention and fundraising dollars, unfortunately, it’s pretty clear: boobies trump bruises every time.
These are among just a few of the reasons why I decided to take up the cause of domestic violence by spearheading and organizing the English Matters Colloquium (EMC) Town Square this evening. Finally, after months of planning, the EMC Town Square culminates our months-long cell phone donation drive in partnership with the Fayetteville alumni and Fayetteville State University’s undergraduate chapters of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity in hosting a forum with local area activists and experts in the area of domestic violence.
I’m especially delighted because this is the largest community outreach event the FSU Department of English has ever sponsored. For me, it’s important that humanities departments assume a leadership role in shaping conversations of this magnitude and scope. I think it’s crucial that cultural studies help society rethink the discourses of domestic abuse in terms of the way the media singles out communities of color. It’s valuable work for English departments to help in removing the shame and stigma associated with domestic violence.
Because of the particular circumstances faced by our campus community, topics we’ll be discussing include:
* issues in HBCU and African American contexts
* military families and wartime environments
* cyberstalking and computer safety
* gender stereotypes (e.g., same/opposite sex couples)
* support and understanding for victims (not judgment)
* local advocacy programs and intervention opportunities
And, since it’s homecoming week, we’re looking forward to a major turnout tonight too.
Last week we lost another great one: Maya Angelou. Or, rather, Dr. Angelou, as she preferred to be called. When it came to addressing her by her honorific/title, nobody got a pass — not even Oprah.
Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University where she was Professor Emeritus and resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from her latter years up until her final passing. As a longtime North Carolinian, it seemed I was never more than one degree of separation from the artist-activist and attended several of her lectures and guest appearances over the years.As a public figure, Angelou was a towering presence — a descriptor that goes far beyond her once elegant frame. In her role as private citizen, apart form her public persona, I had a few occasions to partake of her charm and wit, though I also gleaned how Angelou could pose a rather intimidating — and at times downright disagreeable — presence.
It didn’t take much to note that Dr. Angelou would have no truck with any type of behavior she viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate. She had no problem whatsoever with instructing those around her in the correct manner by which they should conduct themselves in her company if they ever found themselves in the unfavorable position of not living up to her exceedingly high standards. Like all of us, she was a work in progress and maintained her strong ideals as something she expected herself and those around her to be continuously striving toward. Angelou was perfectly transparent regarding her own struggles to become a good Christian and decent human being.
The rhetorician in me is the part that will miss her most. As a scholar interested in the power of public address, it is her voice and the historical moment it represents that fascinates. Hearing the sonorous tones in her speech will always recall for me memories of the elderly church mothers I grew up listening to and imitating. The first row of churchgoing women took a special liking to me because of my ability to emulate their speaking when it was my turn to read the Sunday School card-class lessons, making me the happy recipient of whatever butterscotch or peppermint hard candies their patent-leather clutch handbags held. The way these white-gloved church mothers pronounced their words with such precision sharply contrasted with the staccato short-hand of my hip-hop contemporaries. Their earnestly delivered announcements of the weekly “sick and shut-in” list and hyper-proper recitations of Sunday scripture were uttered as if each syllable was deserving of its own special pew.
Maya Angelou’s high African American rhetoric, I believe, held audiences with rapt attention in a similar way. The expressivity of Angelou’s speech embodied sonic vestiges of late-Victorian epistolary inflections no longer found in most African American communities. The radical eloquence demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s speaking style effectively operated to appropriate the “master’s language” and audibly articulate black agency in order to subvert de jure segregation and race-based educational discrimination. Her manner of speaking was meant to celebrate the tenacity of African Americans’ collective will not to merely survive, but indeed thrive — and with a flair for the erudite, to boot. With Maya Angelou’s passing this covertly political style of black speech will be missed in mainstream American media. Regretfully, for many, a pithy soundbite and a Hallmark card aphorism is all that is left.
Though in my mind — as an African American mother, and a scholar of writing and rhetoric — Maya Angelou posed much too significant a figure for the occasion of her death to be marked with nothing more than a social media hashtag or image file of her glamorous, youthful heyday, accompanied by little else beyond one of her many well-turned phrases. Whereas she was most popularly known for her short poems, I don’t think a cut-paste of “Phenomenal Woman” will do her justice. As Angelou herself often noted, she was clever with words. The subject of her attention to craft was at times a topic of great debate among other African American poets. Whether this is fair to Angelou’s literary contributions, I cannot say. Although I have studied and thought about poetry slightly more than the average American reader, I don’t fancy myself an expert on what constitutes “serious poetry,” nor do I necessarily assume expertise about assessing one poem as “good” and another as “bad.”
As a casual reader of memoirs, however, I most value Angelou’s talent as a writer of the autobiographical form. Of course, her first autobiography is also her most celebrated work. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings powerfully conveys Angelou’s gift for personal narrative. Her socio-historical account of individual capacity for greatness and resilience in spite of childhood trauma is rightfully recognized as a well-crafted memoir. It is through this genre of her writing that Angelou’s prose emerges with a special resonance. She shows herself to be a foremost chronicler of the latter part of the Jim Crow era in her story of growing up in Arkansas. Her rich anecdotes beautifully capture the turbulent times that led toward her fulfilling her unique cultural niche, and prepared her for the space she would eventually find herself occupying in the singular role of vernacular dance performer, civil rights activist, political fundraiser, and occasional agent provacatuer.
Perhaps because of my own experience as an expat and having once been a young, single mother living in Accra, Ghana, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is by far my favorite of all her autobiographical works. In this book, she describes how she took on the role of personal host and special consort to the likes of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, among many other literary, political, and diplomatic luminaries of the Black Power and African Independence movements — all too numerous to name in this short reflection. Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angleou’s writing helped me better contextualize what I was encountering in the social and political turmoil I personally experienced while toggling between West African airports, local guesthouses, and gated estate communities. Fed up with stateside jingoism and hawkishness, reading Angelou’s prose provided me with meaning and gave context to the social and historical forces I saw in play. Her writing gave me the much needed explanatory power I sought for a better understanding of the cultural dynamics that I was seeing and experiencing first-hand: the coup d’etat in Ivory Coast, Liberian living conditions at UN refugee camps, and Ghana’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, to name just a few of these life-changing events. Reading All God’s Children offers the perfect vantage point for understanding the ground that was laid by her generation of black woman cultural workers and gave me the strength to return home to North Carolina and assume my local share of the work required for bringing about a more expansive vision of global ethics as a black woman and as an American. Yes. This is what Angelou’s gift was to me, and to us all. She showed us how to strive to become better, more responsive Americans and citizens of the world.
Much has been made about the president publicly shedding tears in response to the latest spate of horrific gun violence, especially since many of the victims were such small children. Because my scholarship deals with the centrality of cuteness in the shaping of public and institutional policies concerning race, I make a critique about visual culture operating at the very nexus of American public race policy. As a critical race theory, the rhetorics of cute have the power to galvanize the public. I believe the persuasive effects of cuteness are deployed for the political contexts of commerce and energize Derrick Bell’s notion of “racial interest convergence.” Whether framing public debates about Civil Rights legislation through the outrage generated by the church bombing of four little girls, the heinous lynching of Emmett Till, and underlying the logos of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Ruby Bridges in “The Problem We All Live,” cute shapes public policy.
Cute is a longstanding strategy for winning over the dominant interests in public debates and motivates white economic investments to push for substantive political changes. Interestingly enough, the decades-apart public anger precipitated by the killings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was not necessarily amplified by the visuality of cuteness, but was more about the gestures of cuteness as a performative act reflecting childish (and legal) innocence. Till and Martin, after all, were both going about the normal business of adolescence and visiting the candy store. The sheer cuteness of behaving as any child is expected to, at least in the cases of Till and Martin, provides a posthumous racial pass of sorts. Dominant perceptions of African American masculinity in the white public sphere are not so readily second-guessed, especially by the ordinary television media.
Or consider the groundswell of public sentiment in support of stricter gun control laws (as in the case of the Trayvon Martin killing). And, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the heartbreak surrounding the tiny victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school is sobering. The media tributes honoring the mostly white classroom of innocent first-graders and educators in the small Connecticut town has been relentless. All this is to say, that I’m just as moved by this recent gun massacre as anyone else and wish that color were not a part of this discussion. Though unfortunately, the rhetorical power wielded by the ongoing tributes to this group of slain youngsters does speak to dominant sentiments and racial perceptions regarding cuteness.
I’ve even heard some people personally criticize Obama for supposedly not demonstrating enough grief over the epidemic of gun violence prematurely snatching the lives of hundreds of Chicago’s mostly brown and black children. But how would we even know this to be true? It could be that Obama has publicly demonstrated pain over the deaths of this particular group of kids, but it simply eludes coverage. And what about in his private moments with Michelle and his daughters? From all accounts, the loved ones of many of these children were personally known to the first family. Some of the more extreme online memes claim that Obama actually delights in the drone attacks by Afghan children have been killed as opposed to American kids tragically cut down by gunfire. This latter idea is utterly ridiculous as it commits the logical fallacy of moral equivalency in a most reprehensible fashion. On the other hand, the issue of Chicago gun violence is valid. Not because of Obama’s supposed lack of personal grief, but for how it calls attention to the lopsided racial narratives of commercial “news” coverage.
This racial rhetoric of cuteness continues to operate in surprising ways and draws focus to matters of racial discrimination and privilege. This is why I believe the materiality of cuteness is racially determinative of people’s life chances and helps us better understand the technological and ethical interplay of aesthetic judgements of human worth.
For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.
By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.
Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.
A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.
Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens. Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.
There are loads of empirical studies on how quickly and inequitably many public school districts are willing to label black children as delinquent or pathologize them as sexually deviant. This is especially true when it comes to black boys. Here’s just one example that has recently made headlines. The following story is by Dedrick Russell:
GASTONIA, NC (WBTV) – Gaston County School district investigated an allegation of sexual harassment and declares the principal got it wrong.
It was reported a fourth grader at Brookside Elementary in Gastonia allegedly called his teacher “cute”, but the school principal reported the student used another word to describe the teacher. The principal thought that was inappropriate and said it was sexual harassment.
The principal suspended the student for two days. Parents say the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
“Any teacher that would take that seriously,” Brookside Elementary School grandparent Irene Irvin said. “I think she should have just shrugged it off and taken it as a compliment.”
The mother complained to the district about the suspension and that’s when the district launched an investigation. It found no sexual harassment happened. Now the district is regretting this happened.
“We will be sending an official letter of apology to the parents,” Gaston County Schools Spokesperson Bonnie Reidy said. “Also the suspension will not count against the child and the child will receive additional instructional assistance to make up for the time out of the classroom.”
The incident has prompted the principal to retire. Parents are saddened he is leaving under these conditions.
“I’ve always agreed with the decisions he’s made,” PTA Leader Mandy Ballentine said. Reporter asked “Even with this case? “I would say yes,” Ballentine answered. “It’s behind closed doors, don’t know the whole case, but I do know his integrity.”
No word when the principal’s retirement will go into effect.