Before yesterday, I’d never heard of Lily Allen. But then my Twitter feed exploded with criticisms of her new video for a song called “Hard Out Here.” So last night (while battling insomnia), I watched it and it was boringly predictable. It wasn’t shocking or provocative. Dating back to slavery, black women’s bodies and sexuality have been expropriated for white profit and pleasure. This isn’t new.
When I was in high school, I picked up a book called “We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century” at my local library. It was the first time (but not the last) that I would come across a daguerrotype of an enslaved girl named Delia.
This photograph, which is thought to perhaps be the earliest made of an adolescent enslaved black girl, has been seared in my mind since I saw it when I was a teenager. Delia was compelled to sit naked for the purpose of having her body examined and documented. The photographs were commissioned by scientist & Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was studying the bodies of blacks to prove that we were a separate and inferior species. Delia’s body was not her own but public property.
I used to be fascinated with Delia’s photograph. I made a copy of it and pasted it in my journal. I think that I was 15 or 16 years old at the time. Her eyes reminded me of my cousin’s. I focused on her eyes. I was embarrassed by her nakedness. I didn’t know why. I didn’t have the words to convey the horrors of slavery. As I grew older, I realized that no one in this country does either. Therefore, it is difficult to represent or understand that which is unspeakable.
you not a noplace
– Lucille Clifton
Watching Allen’s video reminded me that black women’s bodies have always been sites of both domination and resistance. The entire script of American chattel slavery was written on black women’s bodies. Control of our bodies was key to both the economic prosperity of slaveowners and to the subjugation of the entire black race. Adrienne Davis (2009) suggests that: “Enslaved black women gave birth to white wealth (p.229)” White people have been fighting to maintain their mastery over our bodies ever since. Black women have continued to resist this and to write our own body stories. And it’s been and is a mighty struggle (see the consistent policing of black girl dancing, for example).
To Lily Allen, consciously or subconsciously, black women are Delias. We are meant to be put on display, to be used as props for others’ pleasure & profit. We are just flesh & property. In the tradition of Agassiz, our anatomy is meant to be examined and prodded. The verdict is out as to whether we should still be considered an inferior species.
am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
indestructible — Mari Evans
Yesterday, another black woman was on display, this time in front of a white judge in Florida. Her name is Marissa Alexander & she was in court to hear whether she would be granted bond and released until her re-trial. The judge made no decision on bond and set another status hearing for January 15. Marissa will likely spend another Christmas in jail. Sitting in the courtroom, Marissa’s body is inscribed with inherent criminality; already presumed guilty. Her blackness makes her both invisible and hyper-visible. I wondered what Lily Allen would have to say to and about Marissa. Then I thought better of it, what could anyone have to say to a chair? For Allen and her ilk, black women are chairs (inanimate objects) to sit on, to decorate their homes, and to eventually discard for a newer/shinier model. To Lily Allen, black women are Delia.
I’ve been listening to this non-stop since yesterday. The brilliant and committed Jasiri-X has written and produced an amazing song that addresses the Trayvon Martin case. Blessed to have been in community with Jasiri and I have found him as kind as he is talented. That’s saying a lot. Listen and share with others.
“I should write something to mark the beginning of the George Zimmerman trial” is the thought rattling through my mind incessantly over the past couple of days. But I fear that I have run out of words… I’ve written about both Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin many times on this blog. No more words are forthcoming. I’ve been doing my best to ignore Sybrina Fulton’s daily tweets about her son this week. Today, she wrote: “You don’t have to know me to know my pain, use my pain & my lost to stand up for something.” It pushed me over the edge and I felt compelled to call forth Trayvon’s spirit.
“the mysterious connection
between whom we murder
and whom we mourn… – Audre Lorde (Dear Joe)”
I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts about his soul but also our country’s collective one. Does Trayvon’s soul rest easy? Or is it caught in the space “between whom we murder and whom we mourn” like thousands of other black people who have been tragically killed over the years in this country? Audre Lorde has written that: “Our dead line our dreams…” Unfortunately, too often black children are more likely to embody this country’s fears and nightmares.
Across time and space, my mind travels to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in December 1912. Simon Cadors, a black man, is convicted of killing a rich white planter. He’s sentenced to hang. As he awaits his appeal, he is kidnapped from his jail cell by a white mob and lynched. His body is found hanging from a telegraph pole on Christmas eve. Around his neck is a placard that reads: “The inevitable penalty.” It’s a warning to every black person in Louisiana; it’s southern ‘justice.’
A hundred years later, in my mind’s eye I see Trayvon. He’s lying on the cold concrete. As I get closer, I notice a placard hanging from his neck that reads: “The inevitable penalty.” It’s a warning to every black person in Florida; it’s southern ‘justice.’
There is a continuity between Simon Cadors and Trayvon Martin. Both exist in the space “between whom we murder and whom we mourn.” Despair and hope are once again at war within me. Audre whispers in my ear: “Despair is a tool for your enemies.” I decide to search for signs of hope. I find it once again in the voice of our youth:
I tell ‘em listen
I don’t fit your description
I don’t think that I embody this picture that you all are depicting
Lamar Jorden is a Chicago poet, writer and rapper. He has been part of the Louder than a Bomb (LTAB) poetry festival and appears on this year’s LTAB Mixtape. His song “Listen” is an exhortation for his peers to define themselves and to reject the negative stereotypes that society imposes on them. Jorden has taken on Sybrina’s Fulton’s call to use our pain and to stand up for something. He is also concerned with questions that Audre asked in 1977 (many years before he was born): “In what way can we cease to contribute to our own oppression? What hidden assumptions of the enemy have we eaten and made our own?” These are questions worth wrestling with as we work to build the world that we want to live in; a world free of oppression where true justice is possible.
On Sunday, I awoke to the news that some parents of Walter Payton Prep High School students refused to allow their children to play a night game on the campus of Gwendolyn Brooks Prep High.
You have to live in Chicago to fully appreciate this drama. Payton and Brooks are both selective enrollment public high schools in the city. Both are considered “good” schools. Payton is on the Northside of Chicago while Brooks is located on the Southside. Rich white parents use their clout to get their children admitted to Payton but not to Brooks. In case you didn’t know, Chicago is still the most segregated city in the United States. This also extends to our schools, of course.
One can hardly blame the parents of Payton students who were afraid that their children might succumb to violence on the dreaded “Southside.” Over the past three to four years, media accounts have portrayed Chicago as the wild, wild, West. Scarcely a day goes by that there isn’t another account of rampant “senseless” violence in the city.
It’s gotten so bad that the former police superintendent, Jody Weis, felt the need to proclaim during a news conference in 2010: “We are not Chi-raq. We are Chicago.”
This brings me to the main issue that I wanted to address today.
John Legend talks about his new music video that dramatizes the drug war:
I never knew this but it seems that Ella Fitzgerald spent a year of her life as a teen at a girls’ reformatory in New York. She never spoke about this period of her life. I stumbled upon this information as part of my ongoing research about Billie Holiday.
An article by Nina Bernstein appeared in the New York Times in 1996 which unearths this unknown period of Fitzgerald’s life:
The unwritten story survives in the recollections of former employees of the New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y., and in the records of a government investigation undertaken there in 1936, about two years after Miss Fitzgerald left. State investigators reported that black girls, then 88 of 460 residents, were segregated in the two most crowded and dilapidated of the reformatory’s 17 “cottages,” and were routinely beaten by male staff.
At a time of renewed calls for institutions to rescue children from failed families, this lost chapter in the life of an American icon illuminates the gap between a recurrent ideal and the harsh realities of the child welfare system.
Like Miss Fitzgerald, most of the 12- to 16-year-old girls sent to the reform school by the family courts were guilty of nothing more serious than truancy or running away. Like today’s foster children, they were typically victims of poverty, abuse and family disruption; indeed, many had been discarded by private foster care charities upon reaching a troublesome puberty.
When Thomas Tunney, the institution’s last superintendent, arrived in 1965 and tried to bring back former residents to talk to the girls of his own day, he learned that Miss Fitzgerald had already rebuffed invitations to return as an honored guest.
“She hated the place,” Mr. Tunney said from his home in Saratoga Springs, where he retired some years after the institution closed in 1976. “She had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured. She was damned if she was going to come back.”
I love this song. Stay tuned for information about an upcoming project that I am working on about the Young Lords.
“Nothing good ever came out a prison.” — Johnny Cash
This is the first of a series of meditations about Johnny Cash. Cash became somewhat of an obsession since I first heard ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ when I was 15 years old. I came upon the record quite by accident. I was at a friend’s apartment. Her father was an avid country music fan. He was playing the album while I happened to be visiting. It would be several years before I became an anti-prison activist. So at the time, it was the music rather than the song content or lyrics that piqued my interest.
Later when I was much older, I began to appreciate the album for its social significance. It is a statement about the marginalized in our society and fits perfectly into the protest music of its era.
According to Michael Streissguth (2004), Cash learned about Folsom Prison in 1953 by watching a film titled “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” The non-critically acclaimed film inspired him to write the song “Folsom Prison Blues” with the memorable line “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” This line and most of the song have been criticized as being plagiarized from various sources. Regardless, Cash recorded the song in 1955 and it became one of his biggest hits.