Jan 30 2014

Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color and Oppression

Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color and Oppression
By @Prisonculture and Andrea Smith

Before writing this piece, we thought about whether we should bother. Was this a discussion worth engaging? Ultimately, we decided that we had some thoughts to share and that it was worth it to add our voices to the ongoing discussion about the nature of online dialogue within feminism. As women of color who identify as feminist and who engage online, we are implicated in this conversation. We hope that the following words, written quickly, will resonate with some. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Once upon a time, not long ago, there existed a place online where everything was civil and nice. In that place, people were able to engage in enlightened and evolved dialogue and they felt happy and safe. All of this changed when unruly and fearful invaders entered that place in significant numbers. The civil and nice space in Cyberland called “Twitter” became mean and unproductive. Soon the ‘pioneers’ of Cyberland vociferously expressed their disapproval and most importantly their fears of the invaders. They used their loud speakers to broadcast their displeasure and to castigate the new arrivals for making Twitter toxic.

This is obviously an oversimplified description of what’s currently being called the “Feminist Twitter Wars.” However, what’s been happening online on various platforms is really a raucous and contentious discussion about who owns feminism. The traditional story that’s told in the U.S. is that there have been 3 (sometimes 4) historical “waves” of feminism. Usually, women of color appear in significant numbers in the third wave seemingly out of nowhere to join the struggle. When they join however, they bring disruptions through their demands for inclusion and their insistence about addressing previously overlooked issues. These disruptions are portrayed almost always as particularly jarring to the white women ‘founders’ of U.S. feminism. This incomplete and selective telling of a feminist history has been contested by many women of color over the years. Yet the idea that women of color (particularly black women) are interlopers and disruptive presences within the feminist movement has persisted.

In an ideal world, women of color’s critiques of a feminist future would be welcomed as gifts. Because the truth is that in order to build a mass movement that will uproot oppression, we are going to need everyone. Because we know that organizing means failing more often than not, new voices and ideas would be embraced as helping to end global oppression. After all, how much better is it to have a platform for sharing and discussing ideas that can encompass thousands rather than just a dozen of your friends? This should be seen as a boon and yet it is not. We need to ask why…

Over the past 10 to 15 years in particular, feminist spaces have been concerned with and consumed by an Ahab like quest for building and enforcing “safe space.” As women of color, who live under white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, capitalism and more, we know that such a place doesn’t actually exist. More importantly, what we have seen over the years is that “safe spaces” usually mean excluding us. They sometimes mean using “safety” as a substitute for “never uncomfortable spaces.” In this conceptualization, safety is often used as a cudgel to silence and to further marginalize.

Christina Hanhardt’s important new book Safe Space, addresses some of these concerns:

“I, too, am not convinced that safety or safe space in their most popular usages can or even should exist. Safety is commonly imaged as a condition of no challenge or stakes, a state of being that might be best described as protectionist (or, perhaps, isolationist)…The quest for safety that is collective rather than individualized requires an analysis of who or what constitutes a threat and why, and a recognition that those forces maintain their might by being in flux. And among the most transformative visions are those driven less by a fixed goal of safety than by… freedom.” (p. 30)

Read more »

Jan 28 2014

Poem of the Day: Clandestine Kisses

Clandestine Kisses
by Marilyn Buck

for Linda and her lover

blooming on lips
which have already spoken
and now await
stolen clandestine kisses

A prisoner kisses
she is defiant
she breaks the rules
she traffics in contraband women’s kisses.

A crime wave of kisses
Bitter sweet sensuality
flouting women-hating satraps
in their prison fiefdoms
that love
cannot be arrested.

1990, Washington, D.C. Jail

Jan 26 2014

Happy 70th Birthday Dr. Angela Davis!

I write a lot about Angela Davis on this blog with good reason. I admire and am greatly influenced by her work.

Last year, a highlight of my life was to participate on a panel after she spoke about gun violence. The video of that speech and event is below.

If you are on Twitter, I’ll be tweeting various speeches, images, and more in honor of Dr. Davis’s birthday.

Update: Here’s a STORIFY OF TWEETS about Dr. Davis.

Jan 25 2014

Darius, Mo, and Me…

I first wrote about a young man named Darius in a post titled “The Orphans of the Mass Incarceration Epidemic” in April 2011. Here’s how I introduced him:

I received an e-mail from a young man who was a stranger to me about a month ago. I haven’t written about it until today because I have been trying to address some issues that arose from the communication.

The young man is 14 years old and he came across this blog by doing a Google search about boys with incarcerated fathers. He wrote to tell me his story. I have his permission to share some of it with you. I promised that I wouldn’t quote directly from the first e-mail that I received from him. I want to honor the trust that he has bestowed. I will call him Darius.

So Darius found me through the internet using a computer at his public library. When he reached out to me, he was a freshman in high school and he was struggling. Since his first email, in March 2011, we’ve become good friends. Last weekend, Darius called to tell me that his father will be released from prison in February.

In my first post, I explained Darius’s reason(s) for writing to me:

Darius reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he feels alone even though his grandmother is doing her best by him. He wanted me to know that he never talks to any of his friends about his father. He doesn’t talk to anyone about his father. He is unable to visit his father regularly because he is incarcerated over 100 miles from where Darius lives. His grandmother has no means of transportation. Even if she did, she works as a nurse’s aide and has very inflexible hours. Darius confided in me that he is struggling a great deal right now. He wrote that he feels like he might “explode.” He doesn’t understand why he feels so angry all of the time. He said that he doesn’t want to cause any “trouble” for his grandmother. I can understand that.

I have a friend, Maurice, who lives in the same city as Darius. Mo stepped up to become a friend and mentor to him. Over the years, I’ve provided a couple of updates about Darius like when he was accepted into a technology apprenticeship program in 2011 or when he graduated from 10th grade (with honors) in 2012.

Darius is a senior in high school now. He has applied (with help from Mo) to several colleges. He is going to be an engineer. As I type the words, I am bursting with pride, gratitude and most especially with love. It’s been nearly 3 years since Darius first reached out to me, a stranger. We have yet to meet in person. Our communication has been online and by phone. But as I watch from a distance, I am in awe of the man that Darius is becoming. I hope that he knows this.

When we spoke last weekend, I heard a mix of anticipation and apprehension in Darius’s voice as he shared the news about his father’s release. He feels guilty for his conflicted emotions. “Shouldn’t I be 100% happy, MK?” he asked. My response was no. I fully understand his apprehension after all he was 10 years old when his father was locked up and he will be 18 in June. His father’s drug addiction was the driving force of his young life. Why wouldn’t he be worried about what might happen when his dad returns to the same troubled neighborhood?

And Darius is not the same person that he was at 10 years old. I imagine that his father has changed too in almost 8 years behind bars. It’s hard to know how they will get along. Darius also worries about leaving his grandmother behind when he goes to college. How will she adapt to her son’s return from prison? he wonders. These questions are unresolved and it creates uncertainty which breeds anxiety. This is the messiness of incarceration that plays out mostly out of view.

I’ve been thinking about chance and fate. That a 14 year old would use the internet to reach out for support and find it, feels miraculous to me. I am so thankful that the stars aligned so that Mo could step into his role as Darius’s friend, mentor, cheerleader and surrogate father. Last Father’s Day, Darius gave Mo a card. I don’t know what it said but Mo was overwhelmed. We need each other so much. I am reminded of this truth daily.

This is a love letter of sorts. A long time ago, I fell in love with a man who has stayed dear to me even though we are no longer in love. And to see this man, who has no biological children, father a stranger’s child brings tears. This is a love letter for the black men who step up and who are brave enough to be vulnerable in a society that punishes this. This is a love letter to a young man who is determined to earn enough money to move his grandmother out of their neighborhood and who stepped into the void to reach out for help when he was only just a boy. This is my love letter to Darius and to Mo. Thank you both for letting me hold on to the dream of happy endings.

Jan 24 2014

Image of the Day: Chain Gang by William H. Johnson

Chain Gang by William H. Johnson (1939)

Chain Gang by William H. Johnson (1939)

Jan 23 2014

Malcolm X & Police Brutality: A Letter to the NYPD

Regular readers know that I write a lot about oppressive policing. It is with good reason. Yesterday, a grand jury declined to indict a police officer who shot Jonathan Ferrell 10 times. After the results of the autopsy, Ferrell’s family suggested that they would file a wrongful death suit. Police violence against black people is of course not new and is mundanely common. History is replete with examples of police brutality against African Americans.

I’ve shared the story of Malcolm X’s rise to national prominence through his involvement in the Johnson X Hinton incident in 1957. I even created a zine about historical moments of policing, violence, & resistance in Harlem based in part on this story.

Today, I thought that I would share a letter that Malcolm X wrote to the NYPD Commissioner following the Johnson X Hinton episode. You will find it very relevant to our current historical moment, I think.

New York NY November 2
Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy, Police Department of New York City
Report delivery 240 Centre St NYK
Commissioner S.P. Kennedy:

Members of Muhammad’s Temple of Islam here in Harlem are greatly disturbed. Our religion is Islam, the religion of peace. Our spiritual leader and teacher, Messenger Elijah Muhammad, teaches us to respect and obey all laws and law enforcement officers.

Our record shows that all of us who have accepted his divine guidance immediately become better citizens. He makes us conservative, clean-living, peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Through his spiritual guidance we have learned how to abstain from smoking, using drugs and alcohol, adultery, stealing, and all acts of aggression.

We do not try to force ourselves upon or among people who are not our own kind; whose record and history is sufficient proof that they don’t want our kind around them. We are taught not only to avoid trouble, but to avoid even the people whose presence creates trouble.

On April 26, 1957 one of our most peaceful members, [redacted] was the victim of one of the most savage beatings ever inflicted upon an innocent human being since the days of slavery. The bone structure of his skull was shattered by the blows of two white sadistic policemen of the 28th precinct.

On April 29, 1957 in the office of Mr. James L. Hicks, editor of the New York Amsterdam News, in the presence of attorneys T.A. Chance, and Charles Beavers, we met with representatives from your office: Commissioner Walter Arm, Robert Mangum, and Police Captain Eldrige.

Speaking for your office and in your name, they promised us that an immediate and complete investigation would take place and that justice would be done in the form of disciplinary action against the open and unwarranted acts of criminal brutality by these demented white members of the police department.

Investigation to date discloses that the brutal assaults by these prejudiced white officers of the 28th precinct, inflicted against this helpless black man were willful, atrociously inhuman, beast-like, and showed utter disregard and contempt for the black citizens of Harlem.

Also, these biased white police officers, by beating their helpless victim in the mouth with their nightsticks while he was praying to allah, showed contempt not only for his dark skin but also for his god and the religion of islam. This outrageously inhuman act incenses not only our fellow citizens of the Harlem area, but also ignites great concern in the hearts of 600 million sons and daughters of Allah throughout the Moslem World, which stretches from the China Seas to the shores of West Africa.

To justify and hide their own criminal acts, these same guilty officers charged mr. [redacted] with resisting arrest, and with felonious assault against them.

On October 27, 1957 after hearing all witnesses involved, including a number of police officers, the grand jury refused to indict [redacted] on the false accusations of the guilty police officers, clearing him of all their charges and setting him completely free.

Since the grand jury has established [redacted] innocence, and this innocent man has had his skull crushed by these police officers, you must realize that their heartless acts were without just cause, and criminally wrong.

Therefore we respectfully trust that the confidence imposed on the promise of your representatives will not be shaken by your allowing these prejudiced white men, disguised as police officers, who are responsible for this inhuman act of brutal savagery, to remain on active duty.

Harlem is already a potential powder keg. If these ignorant white officers are allowed to remain in the Harlem area, their presence is not only a menace to society, but to world peace.

Pending all further investigation, their immediate suspension and removal from the police force is advised, requested, urged, and demanded.

Minister Malcolm X
Muhammad’s Temple of Islam
No. 7

Jan 22 2014

Image of the Day: Scottsboro Mothers, 1934

I’ve written a few times about the Scottsboro Boys case. Just this past November, they were granted posthumous pardons. Below is a photograph of some of the mothers of the accused boys.

“A version of this photograph was printed in the national edition of the Afro American on May 19, 1934 with the caption, “Four of the Alabama mothers who were greeted by Mrs. Julia West Hamilton (center) chairman of the board of directors of the Phyllis Wheatley Y.W.C.A., as they arrived at the D.C. Y where they stayed until arrangements were made to see Marvin H. McIntyre, secretary to President Roosevelt. Left to right, Ruby Bates, white, Mrs. Mayme Williams, Mrs. Viola Montgomery, Mrs. Julia W. Hamilton, Mrs. Janie Patterson and Mrs. Ida Norris. The mothers are seeking the aid of President Roosevelt in an effort to save their sons lives.” The image was taken May 13, 1934 at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 901 Rhode Island Ave. N.W/, Washington. Bates was an accuser of the “Scottsboro Boys” who recanted, Williams, Montgomery, Patterson and Norris were mothers to five of the accused.”

Scottsboro Mothers [photoprints from 1934 negative], photographer: Scurlock, Addison N. 1883-1964

Scottsboro Mothers [photoprints from 1934 negative]

Jan 20 2014

Those Left Behind: Fighting to Save Troy Davis…

I just finished the book “I Am Troy Davis” by Jean Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia. It’s a well-written and poignant account of the years-long struggle to save Troy Davis‘s life. More than that, the book underscores the fact that it’s the entire family who does time when one person is locked up. Everyone connected to a prisoner is impacted by incarceration. This is especially the case when the prisoner is sentenced to death like Troy Davis. Unfortunately, the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis on September 21, 2011.

I was privileged to participate in an event celebrating the book’s release in December. I read an excerpt about Martina Davis-Correia’s valiant struggle to save her brother’s life while also trying to save her own. I wanted to share that passage and also to encourage everyone to read the book.

It was another bad night of vomiting, retching, and diarrhea. Martina stayed curled up in bed in the morning, listening to the sounds of Mama getting De’Jaun ready and then everyone leaving the house. In another few weeks, her son would be seven years old. In another few months, her brother would have spent ten years on death row. Martina scratched her head, coming away with a clump of hair. She stared at the fistful of hair for a long moment before pushing back the blanket, slowly sitting up in bed, and pushing her feet into her slippers. She had a child to raise and a brother to get off of death row.

It was time to get up.

Martina opened the front door. She took one shuffling step and then another, making it as far as the mailbox, against which she leaned for support, feeling the warm Georgia sun beat down on her face.

“Tina, you all right?” It was her neighbor from across the street.

“I’m all right.”
She let the sun warm her for a few more minutes. She might be dying, but she wasn’t dying today.
 She made her way back into the house and, without fully realizing what she was doing, found herself in the bathroom rubbing a generous amount of Nair onto her head.

When De’Jaun came home that afternoon, Martina was waiting for him on the couch, wearing her favorite dress and her head fully wrapped in a colorful scarf with an African motif. As he approached to give her a hug, she pulled off the scarf, unveiling a shiny, bald head.

De’Jaun jumped back for a moment. Then he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed tightly. “It doesn’t look bad, Mom. You look really pretty today!”

She got up the next day and walked a few steps further. “Come on, let’s walk down the street,” her neighbor suggested the day after that. Martina took her hand and they slowly made their way to the corner and back. When Trevor picked her up to take her to chemo, Martina was fully made up, wearing jewelry and loud Caribbean colors.

“I might have cancer,” she told him when he looked at her quizzically. “But cancer doesn’t have me.”

Martina’s strength slowly returned, and as her renewed strength lasted, she decided that not only was she not dying today, she also wasn’t dying tomorrow. She likely wasn’t dying next week, or even next month. She could take a deep breath, relax, and live her life, without worrying that every moment might be her last. Perhaps her illness was her Creator’s way of telling her: I need your attention. There’s more that you need to do and I need you to do it more abundantly.

If she wasn’t dying today, then she was going to live today.

Jan 18 2014

Musical Interlude: “I’m an Alien” by Rebel Diaz

I really like this song by Rebel Diaz…

Jan 16 2014

Taking Care of Our Own: Stand With the Broadway Youth Center

I wish that I had time to write something thoughtful that would make you understand how much the Broadway Youth Center (BYC) means to me and to so many of us in Chicago. But unfortunately time is short. Luckily someone more eloquent has shared poignant words about the importance of BYC. My friend Lara was the director of BYC for years. She posted some words on Facebook and I will share them with you.

If you can, I am begging you to come show your support tomorrow morning at a hearing to renew BYC’s zoning permit. The Center faces stiff opposition.

If you cannot appear at tomorrow morning’s hearing, you can submit a letter of support. Please do one or both of these things.

Below are Lara’s words:

When I was Director of the Broadway Youth Center, I wrote something for a fundraiser in May 2013—right before we moved to Wellington Ave UCC. I thought I would share a few passages before tomorrow’s special use permit hearing, especially for those of you less familiar with the Broadway Youth Center’s impact.

“The work we do is truly incredible and life-changing—it’s youth-centered and authentic and real. What I love most is that it’s constantly evolving and refining itself as we learn more from our communities about what works.

What these numbers [annual quantitative outcomes] don’t tell you is that we have the honor and privilege of focusing our efforts on meeting, in a profoundly holistic way, the needs of youth who are street-based or experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ youth, youth who are pregnant and parenting, low-income youth, and youth who have survived tremendous trauma. For us, this means the Broadway Youth Center holds some of the highest concentrations of resilience in the entire country. The Broadway Youth Center literally RADIATES determination, guts, and ingenuity—which is why our work continues to be ground-breaking and powerful and relevant.

The numbers are impressive. But they don’t tell the story of how we’ve created a stable space for young people to build with one another for, in some cases, more than eight years. That’s the kind of long-termness that builds chosen families.

The Broadway Youth Center is a place where youth workers have built multi-year-long relationships with youth participants. And it’s through that type of long-termness—in combination with youth who have a deep relationship with our space and use that trust to build with new staff and volunteers—that we truly get to do the deepest work around healing. And community building. And HIV prevention.

What these numbers don’t tell you is that access to gender affirming, youth-centered, and sex-positive health care is rare in our communities. It’s precious. And we must protect it because we know it works.

What these numbers don’t tell you is that the BYC holds incredible pain and injustice. But also so much that is sacred.

I rarely share stories—mostly because I worry that our communities will take hold of one story about a homeless young person and think that that’s everyone’s story. But I’m going to tell you a story about a moment in the life of the BYC.

It’s the story of our weekly community meetings. A place where youth and youth workers gather to discuss resources and issues impacting the community. Picture chips and cookies being passed around. The room getting hot and stuffy because there are 40 bodies all crammed in together. Some young people are sitting with the entirety of their belongings in one bag—next to them. Many youth in the room do not yet know where they are going to sleep tonight.

And then we get to Youth Spotlight—this is the part of the agenda where youth can share a song or a talent.

Two things happened next.

First, a young person takes off her backpack. Removes a one piece, couture unitard with hand sewn bead work (that she has done herself), and puts it on—over her clothes—in less than 30 seconds. This unitard is stunning and sets the tone of wonder for what is about to happen next when a young person stands up to sing.


The performer literally has a soft glow about them—their gender is glowing and dynamic and fluid. And just gorgeous.

And this person starts to sing. I can’t even remember the song. But I remember looking around at the other youth and youth workers.

You could hear a pin drop. It was complete reverence and respect for this young queer deaf transgender singer-artist-diva. And even if this young person couldn’t hear or experience the song the same way many of us were hearing it, this person could look into our eyes and hearts and know in that moment that what was coming from their lips was gorgeous. And powerful.

And I remember the clapping and foot stomping that followed. And the way everything seemed to float off the ground.

That kind of vulnerability and trust in a community just blows me away. For me, this is the kind of healing work that symbolizes the BYC. The kind that just fills up your chest and vibrates out-bursting through doors like a powerful wind. It just can’t NOT touch you.”

Please join us tomorrow if you can!