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.

a-man-was-lynched-yesterday
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?

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Getting Into Formation with EXTRA Black Beyonce

formation

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

 

Janelle Monae and Her Wondaland Crew March Against Police Brutality in San Francisco

Janelle Monae, and her Wondaland crew have been touring the U.S., marching against police brutality. I’ve been following their endeavors on Instagram, and at the very last minute decided to join them when they went to San Francisco. When I found out they were marching in San Francisco, I wondered why San Francisco, and not Oakland? But once I walked out of the 24th and Mission BART station, and stood amongst the mixed crowd in the gentrifying Mission, it made sense. The Mission needed to be reclaimed.

Activists and families of victims of police brutality shared their truths. Alex Nieto’s family had a big presence. Alex Nieto, is a man who was gunned down in the Bernal Heights neighborhood by San Francisco police in 2014. Someone called and reported that he had a tazor gun. He was about to report to his job as a Security Guard, and was gunned down by police. His family is seeking justice.

Alex Nieto's family speak their truth.
Alex Nieto’s family speak their truth.

Oscar Grant’s family was also present. Oscar Grant was gunned down in 2009 at Fruitvale BART station in East Oakland in the early morning of New Years day. Someone reported there was a fight on BART. BART police pulled Oscar Grant off of the train, and though video recordings showed that he didn’t resist arrest, he was shot and killed. The officer claims he meant to taze him.

Oscar Grant's family speak for justice.
Oscar Grant’s family speak for justice.

The afternoon focused on the families of victims who have lost their lives to police brutality. People shared their truths, along with activists, speaking and rapping about their experiences. There was also much needed focus on the many trans women’s lives that have been taken, but not spoken about enough.

translives.matter

Later, Janelle Monae, Jidenna and the rest of the Wondaland Crew came on stage with the families of victims and sang a song, “Hell You Talmabout,” naming the many people who have died because of police brutality. They then led us on a march to the San Francisco Police Station where we continued to sing.

janelleand families

Police were prepared for a riot, with their head gear on, but Janelle Monae and her crew led us in song, and played the trombone, New Orleans style. People sang and danced. Jidenna, a singer from the Wondaland crew, said they didn’t want this to be a gathering of mourning, but a gathering of celebrating that we will move forward. That we will fight and survive.

janelle.monae

Many people are fighting this fight, and overall, the Black Lives Matter response to police brutality has been led by women. It was powerful to see a woman celebrity not only use her celebrity, but lead other artists in using their talents to support the fight against police brutality.  It was very Nina Simone of her to organize a tour that specifically is in support of people of color’s lives, and I hope other celebrities follow.

(Below is a link to a performance of the song Janelle Monae sang with families as we marched. The recording below is from another performance in Philadelphia)

What Do People See, When They See Us?: Justice for Sandra Bland

Each death impacts me differently. There aren’t hierarchies in the tragedies that have been placed on Black lives, but the slap of, yet, another death, stings with varying reverberations.

The foul play surrounding Sandra Bland’s death is taking on a different haunting. Maybe, because I can’t stop thinking, “that could’ve been me.” I see myself in her. In her selfies, in her choice of earrings, in her passionate accounts of why Black Lives Matter. Again, there are no hierarchies with the countless lives ending through hatred, but they do reverberate differently within each of us.

Each time I open the door to my car, I think of Sandra. And as I transition lanes, or make a turn—remembering to signal, because God forbid I get pulled over for the same “offense” that eventually ended her life—I think of her. It’s only been a week since her death, but the weight of yet another death is heavy.

As people try to justify her scary arrest ( “she was being unruly, after-all!!”), I can’t help but wonder… what is it that people see when they see people who look like me? What makes some people immediately think we’re trouble? Whether we’re being “difficult” or praying, laughing or resisting, swimming or simply being loud… why do so many people think the most logical response is to shut us down… hurt us….terrorize us… murder us?

Why?

When I try to make sense of the hatred that individuals are projecting onto people who look like me, I feel like I’m reverting to my ten year old students, who simply don’t get it when I try to explain racism. “But why, Ms Peters?” they always ask. And regardless of the amount of times I try to make sense of it all, Ms. Peters never has the answer, but only the same question.

But why?

Artwork by Oakland-based artist, Oree Original. Download this image, and other images of people of color who have been victims of violence, at justiceforourlives.com.

A Word of Silence: For the Continued Violence on Black Lives

With this being a blog about race, one may think that I’m late on responding to the perpetual violence that has been projected onto Black people most recently. I’ve been silent to the many lives that have been lost/ assaulted since Michael Brown. My silence isn’t due to lack of care, but the absolute opposite. While I can deal with anger or frustration through scathing phrases, sadness is a private emotion I can articulate only once I’ve processed it. Currently, it’s difficult to discuss whats been going on with loved ones, let alone a blog. We’re all hurting, but, again, words aren’t medicinal enough to carry our pain. My best mode for healing, so far, has been to read other people’s words. To read the words of people who experienced/ fought against/ survived more difficult, yet similar, situations.

“To be a Negro in this country is really– Ralph Ellison has said it very well– never to be looked at. What white people see when they look at you is not visible. What they do see when they do look at you is what they have invested you with. What they have invested you with is all the agony, and pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment– you know sin, death, and hell– of which everyone in this country is terrified.” — James Baldwin, from an interview by Stud Terkel in 1961

Baldwin’s words are heavy, but boldly relevant. His usage of “white people” simply equates to American society, for me. And the death that he says gets projected onto Black people… onto people of color… is sadly, too relevant 54 years later. We are only visible when we are seen as a threat. And then, there are deathly repercussions for our visibility.

I’ve attempted to provide words for the pain I’m feeling for young adults in Ferguson, for the suburban kids in Texas, for praying churchgoers in Charlotte, for the communities that are mourning… but sometimes we simply need silence…silence from the noise of recounting the violence, silence from nonsensical opinions of why things aren’t as bad as they seem, silence so that we can hear the voice within each of us that will tell us how to pick up the pieces.

Happy Mothers Day, To The Mother Who Started This Blog About Race

It’s Mothers Day, today, and I’m compelled to go off topic a bit from my usual discussion around race and simply post a picture of my Mommy.

But, maybe, it’s not so off topic to post a picture of my mother on a blog that centers race. Especially when considering that my ability and necessity to discuss race began with toddler discussions around identity with her.

It is my Mommy who taught me to counteract people’s curiously rude questions on my identity with answers of pride. It was my mother who demanded I love my curls, my skin tone, my features. Before I reached for my  auntcestors– Maya, Alice, and Toni–my Mommy put me on the game of racism, warning me of what was to come, defending me when she saw it coming. And when she didn’t know the answers, she brought me to people who could relate to me racially, and handed me books by James Baldwin.

I meet people who are still fearful to discuss race… particularly across races. But, it was my mother- who is read as white and is mostly white (she’s 1/4 East Indian) who continues to teach me how to discuss race across differences.

If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t even have this blog.

So, I guess posting a picture of her– one that celebrates  a journey she is conquering that knows no race– is quite fitting, and even kind of traditional considering my posts with the most tractions are the ones I wrote for her a few Mothers Days Ago….#HappyMothersDay

This time last year, we'd just learned that my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was devastated and scared I'd lose one of the 3 most important people in my life so soon after losing my Nana. But, in true Peters fashion, my Mommy has been fighting and winning this Cancer battle. The Cancer is leaving her body, her energy is at its pique (as this picture that was taken yesterday shows), and she is happy. She has shown bravery and dedication by choosing her own healing journey- one that does not include your traditional cancer fighting methods (so far, no chemo, no radiation, no surgery). She's been fighting and healing her Cancer with a raw/ Vegan diet, yoga, meditation, heating treatments, oxygen treatments, teas, optimism, friends, good energy, … You know, That hippie stuff she instilled in me as a child.It's been a scary journey , but regardless of what happens, she has made me so proud to be the person who came from her womb. #HappyMothersDay to my Superhero ❤️❤️❤️✊🏽✊🏾 #FuckCancer #Foodheals #hippiestuff #myOrigins

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“Equal Rights for Women!” : Hey Patricia! Am I included in this?

This post is in conversation with, Why We Need to Talk About Diversity Differently by Bad Feminist author, Roxane Gay. Using the lack of Diversity in this year’s /every year’s Oscars as her entry point, Gay addresses why race, gender, sexuality, class, disability… any oppression should not be fought in isolation. She also responds to the political nature of multiple speeches during the awards, including one given by Particia Arquette after winning Best Actress for her work in Boyhood. Though I refused to watch The Oscars, for the same reasons why I didn’t last year, I was privy to the content of Arquette’s political speech almost immediately after it was shared. Everyone’s favorite, Meryl Streep, was most enthused, and social media was roaring with praise for Arquette’s speech– particularly when she said:

“It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. Equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

Okaayyy, I thought. This is absolutely important. But, am I, as a woman of color, included? I know some of my friends, are thinking, Of course, you are!!!!!!!! But, no.really. Am I?

In my experience as a college feminist and a Master of Women and Gender Studies (yes, I went there), when some people discuss women’s rights, they’re not always discussing my rights as a woman of color. Race is one problem, while women’s rights is another. But this doesn’t work for me. When people look at me, when I experience, the world, I experience it as a Black woman — not one or the other. My blackness and my womanness, as well as my middle-classness and straightness, are always working together like one machine. Critical Race Theorists, Kimberle Crenshaw, calls this intersectionality. One’s multiple identities don’t get compartmentalized, but are always working for and against them simultaneously.  As Roxane Gay points out in her article:

“Women of color, for example, don’t go to work one day as women and the next day as people of color, leaving their gender at home in a cabinet. We carry all aspects of our identity with us at all times. When we talk about diversity and equality, we need to consider the whole of a person and how the whole of a person is affected by the inequalities of this world.”

When Arquette brought light to the important issues of wage equality and equal rights for women, was she doing this in solidarity with fellow Oscar winners, Common and John Legend, who’s speeches mentioned the many fights going on around the world, including the outrageous numbers of incarcerated Black men? Or, was she saying, “We’ve fought for your rights, but now it’s time for women?!”

After her acceptance speech, she did extrapolate on what she meant. She said, “The truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, there are huge issues that are at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all… the gay people and people of color that we’ve all fought for, to fight for us now.

One can interpret this in many ways, I guess, but what I hear/read is that white women have supported the efforts of gay people (there are women who are gay, no?) and people of color (ain’t I a woman?), and, now, it’s time to turn our attention to women (but, for reals, am I included?).

Maybe wage equality hasn’t currently been at the forefront of the fight for communities of color, because people of color are currently fighting for life. And maybe the LGBTQ community (which includes P.O.C’s) hasn’t put wage equality at the forefront, because many are also fighting for… well, life. Now, don’t get me wrong, my bank account and my student loans are screaming at the top of their lungs for wage equality (as well as respectful wages for educators), just as I’m fighting for the many rights and privileges my community still doesn’t have. The multiple rights I’m fighting for, for communities of color (i.e. fair education, safety, job opportunities, visibility justice etc…) just can’t be isolated, because they’re always working together. I can’t fight for women’s rights on Monday, the rights for people of color on Tuesday, and the rights for the LGBTQ community on the weekends. And quite frankly, they’re all one fight. I hope Patricia Arquette and other allies who are supporting our struggles can get down with that. Because, we know that when archaic oppressions like wage equality is settled (I can’t believe this still hasn’t been dealt with- where’s Hilary?), white women will be the first to benefit from it. #RealTalk #NoShade #HistorysaysSo #RememberAffirmativeAction?