Watching Strange Fruit: An American Tradition

When Billie Holiday performed  “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s she’d only sing it to a completely quiet audience. Drinks weren’t allowed to be served, people weren’t allowed to speak. The audience- which was oftentimes predominately white- was made to respect Billie Holiday, as well as the Black struggle, when Billie Holiday was on stage. This was significant for multiple reasons. First, for a Black woman to demand anything was (is) an act of protest against the expectation that we are to accept the status quo. Second, calling out the atrocities of white violence and demanding white folks to listen quietly was not only bold, but it was a shift to some of the traditional responses to lynching. The hanging of Black bodies was sport for some white Americans. White folks would announce the lynching of Black people as an event. When the killing took place, people would gather with their picnics and watch as Black bodies swung from trees. Photos of these human killing events were captured and even turned into postcards for people to collect and send to loved ones. Watching Black bodies die is an American tradition that has only advanced in how it’s shared.

We fast forward to our present, and death by rope has been replaced with the bullet from a police gun. With the most recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, people across the globe have been encouraged to practice in this American tradition of watching Black people die. Traditions once thought of as reserved for the backwoods of the South can now be seen on television screens, laptops, and phones with frightening ease.

Without warning, we can go from looking at a picture of a puppy on Instagram to watching the death of someone’s son, someone’s daddy, someone’s partner. I’ve tried to avoid watching any of the deaths that have been caught on tape. Knowing that another Black person has been killed by police is pain that I greatly internalize. I, personally, don’t need to watch it happen to comprehend its tragedy. Trying to avoid these killings has been difficult and has taken much strategic work on my part. This is both concerning and violating.

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Last week, this image, was posted and reposted on social image, reminding us that American traditions don’t dissolve with time.

Don’t misunderstand my concern. Our ability to record police in action is pivotal. It’s our weapon in battle, and we’re still hoping it will bring us justice. When I see police interacting with people of color, I know it’s my obligation to watch what happens, with my phone at my fingertips, just in case. The camera on our phones have granted us the gift of proving our injustice. All these years of others accusing us of storytelling and exaggerating our experiences of police violence is now captured on film.

Yet, still, we have yet to find justice for our murdered brothers and sisters.

There are still people who don’t recognize our deaths as tragic, and there are people who watch these killings over and over and over, trying to figure out some sick way to justify the murders. Even some well-intentioned people have watched the killings, and without realizing it, are becoming numb to seeing a Black person take their last breath.

Meanwhile, children who are savvier with technology than many of the adults in their homes, are learning to watch the murder of people who look  like them and their family members. They are having to make sense of what that means for them and their personhood. I have to lead these children and figure out how to support them when summer ends. How does one explain America’s tradition of watching Black murders to an elementary child?

Black Women… Beyonce’s Lemonade

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I just watched Lemonade, and before I can get into my first reactions to this musical film, I need to get one thing off my chest:

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Fuck Jay Z & fuck forgiveness.

Okay… now I can begin.

“Formation” marked a turn to Beyonce’s image and career. As she fearlessly proclaimed and reclaimed her Blackness, and stood up for the dignity of Black women and Black lives, she carved a new place for herself as an artist.

Two months later, she brings us Lemonade. A film. A musical. An album. An invitation into Beyonce’s most vulnerable self, and a love letter to Black women’s past, present and future, it’s both heartbreaking and beautiful. Visually, it’s breathtaking, lyrically it poetically justifies Beyonce as an artist who’s untouchable and constantly redefining herself. Lemonade transitions Beyonce from a sexy pop icon, to a deeply refined artist.

Before yesterday, we didn’t know what Lemonade was going to be. I don’t think any of us were prepared to have Jay Z’s infidelity confirmed and detailed in this visual album. Lemonade reveals the darker side to the Carter’s marriage. A marriage that has always been posed as sexy and powerful has been uncovered as deeply flawed, and, quite frankly, trope-ish . Even Beyonce, with all of her beauty and significance, hasn’t been able to escape the tradition of men stepping out on their wives over and over     again. Beyonce’s response to her pain is raw, complicated, and whether or not I approve of her “final warning,” it’s honest.

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But is this solely an album about Beyonce and Jay Z’s less than perfect marriage? It’s easy to get lost in the devastating details Beyonce lays out for us. Comparing  J to her daddy, recalling the various women she’s seen in her hallways, along with the sleepless nights waiting for him to come home or return her phone calls, we feel sad for Beyonce. Not because her vulnerabilities have exposed her weaknesses, but because they reveal something we’ve never truly seen from her: human pain.

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In the song, “Anger,”  we hear Malcolm X summing up the reality of Black women:

The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the black woman.

While these powerful words most certainly can be directed to Jay Z’s treatment of Beyonce, it doesn’t stop there. Later in the album/film, we also see the Black mothers who have been disrespected by our judicial system. In “Resurrection,” women hold photos of Black men who have died. Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, Gwenn Carr, mother of Eric Garner, and Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, are shown holding photographs of their murdered sons.  Their presence in the film is significant, because it brings to light the Black women who have often been forgotten and silenced in the midst of the Black Lives Matter Movement: the Black mothers.

In the forefront of infidelity, shameless behavior and the systemic mistreatment of Black women, we see the other women. Not the women J’s been creeping with, and not only the women who’ve been mistreated, but the women standing next to, behind, and before Beyonce. Black women– in all of our pretty shades of brown and beige– stand, sit, dance together.They hold hands with each other. They look out for each other. They hold each other. These women are from our past, these women are from our now, these women are our future. I find these women to be the lemonade made from the lemons of our realities.

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Favorite Quotes from Danticat’s Create Dangerously

 

First book of 2016 📖✊🏾… #CreateDangerously #edwidgedanticat #womenwriters #bookstagram #caribbeanwriters

A photo posted by ShesGotTheMic (@shesgotthemic) on

 

Edwidge Danticat’s collection of essays, Create Dangerously, was gifted to me a few years ago, but I wasn’t ready for  it yet. There’s always a time and place for certain books, and my time for Create Dangerously was the beginning of 2016. It’s been a month and a half since I read this powerful book, and I continue to go back to particular passages. Below are some of those passages that I found most striking.

On Why There are No Writers in Her Family

“Perhaps there are no writers in my family because they were not allowed to or could barely afford to attend a decrepit village school as children. Perhaps there are no artists in my family because they were silenced by the brutal directives of one dictatorship, or one natural disaster after another. Perhaps, just as Alice Walker writes of her own forebears in her essay ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,’ my blood ancestors—unlike my literary ancestors—were so weather-beaten, terror-stricken, and maimed that they were stifled. As a result, those who somehow managed to create became, in my view, martyrs and saints” (14).

On Offending Others

In response to being accused of exploiting her culture for money, Danticat writes, “Anguished by my own sense of guilt, I often reply feebly that in writing what I do, I exploit no one more than myself. Besides, what is the alternative for me or anyone else who might not dare to offend? Self-censorship? Silence?” (33)

On Memory and Forgetting

“There are many ways that our mind protects us from present and past horrors. One way is by allowing us to forget. Forgetting is a constant fear in any writer’s life. For the immigrant writer, far from home, memory becomes an even deeper abyss. It is as if we had been forced to step under the notorious forgetting trees, the sabliyes, that our slave ancestors were told would remove their past from their heads and dull their desire to return home. We know we must pass under the tree, but we hold our breath and cross our fingers and toes and hope that the forgetting will not penetrate too deeply into our brains.

But what happens when we cannot tell our own stories, when our memories have temporarily abandoned us? What is left is longing for something we are not even sure we ever had but are certain we will never experience again” (65).

On the Duality of the Immigrant Experience

“One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there. So too with catastrophes and disasters, which inevitably force you to rethink facile allegiances” (112).

Quoting Jean Michel Basquiat on Cultural Memory

“‘I’ve never been to Africa. I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it, it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. That doesn’t mean that I have to live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live.’” (132).

On Creating Dangerously

“I am even more certain that to create dangerously is also to create fearlessly, boldly embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are chasing or being chased by ghosts” (148).

 

Getting Into Formation with EXTRA Black Beyonce

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I’m not part of the Beyhive. I’ve followed Beyonce since the “No, No, No”era, but haven’t praised every move she’s made. During this 19 year distant relationship, I’ve freely critiqued artistic choices she’s made along the way, while dancing my ass off to many of her songs (I used to clear the dance floor for “Crazy In Love.”) There have been moments (i.e. when she culturally appropriated herself into Coldplay’s music video) when I’ve wished she’d use her talent and her fame differently. And when I say differently, I mostly mean that I wish she’d called us to get into Formation a long time ago. But, I won’t sulk about how long it took her to get here. In fact, I think her timing of being unapologetically EXTRA Black (hot sauce bag, swag) and EXTRA proud (you mix that Negro with that Creole makes a Texas bama) is appropriate. We needed this.

Whatever the reason is behind her shying away from race politics in the past, I’m glad she showed up. My students look up to her, and so do many people of all ages. And whether it’s right or not, celebrities have the platform when it comes to naming what matters. They are the ones archiving our voices and concerns. In this video, Beyonce puts her stamp on many important things that matter, but have been ignored or mocked:

  • Hurricane Katrina
  • Black Lives
  • Police Brutality
  • Baby hairs & Afros
  • Long braids, colored wigs, and many other creative Black hairstyles
  • Cornbread(s) & collars greens

And, now, at the club, tons of Black women who’ve been hiding behind their Negroness- because that’s what we’ve been taught to do- will be proudly be shouting, “I like my Negro nose/ with Jackson Five nostrils,” and that’s fly. #BlackPower

 

Ted Talk: The Consciousness Gap In Education

Yesterday, I wrote about my current experience addressing race and equity with teachers. Today, after watching this Ted Talk, I was reminded why I do this important work.

When you do work that is resisted by others, it’s easy to wonder what’s the point. I’m always grateful for those who have done this work longer than me, and who are around the corner affirming those of us following their trail.

“The Consciousness Gap in Education – An Equity Imperative: Dorinda Carter Andrews at TEDxLansingED”