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Orange is NOT the NEW Black!

Remember when serving prison time was new, sexy, edgy, and trendy?…Humph neither do I. But the recent Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which is on the lips and blogs of wannabe pop culture hipsters, suggests we begin looking at federal American prison life in such ways. At the suggestion of a really credible … Continue reading

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  • I’ve been waiting from the start of this judicial stage play for someone else to bluntly say it, but alas I have not heard it. Thus I will be bold to place it in black and white. The George Zimmerman injustice fiasco is as much about race as it is about gender and not in the obviously simplistic ways that both he and Martin are males and black males are targets of our criminal injustice system. But in the psychic cultural displaced rationalizing held up in court that elicits “if Zimmerman was…” So, let me go with it, if Zimmerman were a woman and a jury of five black men and possibly a Hispanic man (maybe even transsexual male) were impaneled to decide this case, it would have never seen the light of day until a new jury was assembled. Protests, riots, and threats of disbarment would have spurred the mass populace to mandate that the DOJ intervene in such a mockery. But such things do not happen in the United States were white womanhood is manipulated like pieces of a worn out chessboard. With this said, I re-invoke my anti-racism, anti-sexism colleague David J. Leonard and assert: white folks, especially white women who feed into the games of oppression Olympics, need Black Feminist Thought. Actually, we know my sentiments are ever American needs intersectional studies on the systems of privilege and oppression that our institutional and intrapersonal realities in this society. But in light of this case, had the all female, predominantly white jury been keen on the strategies of white masculinity at the forefront of this trial, neither they nor America at large would have allowed themselves to be played in such a way for white women to walk away the “hero-victims” yet again. Juror B37 has already contracted to write a book on her just and civic duty rendered to society regarding “a boy of color.” So I ask, where are my Ms. Feminists, Feminist Wire Feminists, Crunk Feminists, Hiphop Feminists, hell anybody, angered by the mockery that has been made of women throughout this farce? Early on the Martin family’s legal team was well aware of the looming biases of this jury, but we collectively refused to engage their reservations that became more evident as Trayvon came to be more on trial. After the jury was selected, attorneys representing the Martin family released a statement saying with the makeup of the panel, "the question of whether every American can get equal justice regardless of who serves on their jury panel will be answered." And answered it was, though we collectively will sweep it under the rug. Warranted, outrage was evident over the social and mass media’s dehumanizing of Rachel Jeantel; also, black feminists have adequately commented on the efficacy of Sybrina Fulton’s graceful “strong black womaness.” However, very few women and men, feminist included, have raised their hands in formal court or the court of public opinion to ask why we allowed this array of all white male litigators to assemble a jury in such a way? What are the aims of white masculinity that have been achieved by allowing us to empanel without question a jury symbolic of those in Puddn’head Wilson, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Lesson Before Dying. Yes, I am literally well aware that each of the juries in these novels found the defendants guilty as opposed to not guilty as with Zimmerman; the point is, however, each of these juries upheld the agendas of white masculinity without critically desiring to question their relationship to the dominant culture. The lack of critical engagement with dominant race and gender practices in the United States serve intersectionally as crucial elements for the failure of justice within our criminal injustice system. To ignore the intersectional systems of being and constructions is to halfheartedly address the matrices of oppression at the core of U.S. culture and society. As a critical race and gender theorist, I perceive that these jurors never saw Trayvon Martin as their son, brother, or life partner; nor did they get past seeing the litigators and throngs of key defense witnesses as their trusted husbands, children, and friends. But even more telling, I would guarantee that they never saw Trayvon as themselves. This is the difference that black feminists have pointed out for decades regarding feminists thought in the United States. It is not that we consistently defend black manhood as endangered, but in the lived experiences of black men, we also identify the oppression that we too embody. My tears at the rendering of this verdict were not just for black sons, nephews, uncles and life partners who are hunted and killed at random, but were for myself who like June Jordan wants at any given moment to be able to take a walk and not be the wrong color, the wrong sex, the wrong age, the wrong socio-economic status, just wrong. The jurors’ inability to see themselves as Trayvon hinges on a number of white masculine strategies played out in that Sanford courtroom. Firstly, the win on the defense team that allowed Zimmerman’s domestic violence past to be excluded from evidence marred him from being viewed as a sex/gendered violent predator. Thus, his penchant for stalking was not constructed as a deranged man, but simply as a concerned neighbor, where sex and gender is cancelled out of the equation as this incident involved two males. Zimmerman’s violent character rooted in his construct of masculinity never entered into the courtroom—an epic fail on the prosecution. Second, his defense of self-defense was not only constructed through racially coded rhetoric, but patriarchal rhetoric as the defender of the home and ultimately white womanhood. While a guest on MSNBC, Mychal Denzel Smith pointedly argued, though it was glossed over, “They [the defense team] had no respect for Trayvon Martin to begin with,” Smith began. “The thing that disgusted me, the jury was made up of six women, five white women. The defense literally invoked the same justification for the killing of Trayvon Martin that you would during lynching. “They showed a picture of George Zimmerman’s white woman neighbor,” he continued, referencing defense witness Olivia Bertalan, “and showed her as the picture of fear and said, ‘This is what the neighborhood was up against, and put a picture of Trayvon Martin with his shirt off, looking like the most thugged-out version of Trayvon Martin you could get, and basically said George Zimmerman was protecting, not just himself, but white womanhood from this vicious, black thug.” In wake of this fiasco a friend of mine suggested I watch the Netfllx original series Orange is the New Black. It chronicles the life of a self-surrendering white woman serving 15 months in federal prison for internationally trafficking drug money during her post-undergraduate white youth phase of finding herself. Immediately, I am disgusted by it and I admit I’ve only watched one episode. To begin, it is a damn comedy-drama that makes light of the prison industry evidenced by its pop culture title’s play on a fashion idiom. For those of us who have experienced prison and/or have family members currently or previously incarcerated, the experience is far from comical. Prison orange jumpsuits are not and never will be in vogue. Nonetheless, as a based on “real life memoir,” it does reveal, the cluelessness white women of epitomized privilege tend to have regarding the criminal justice system in the United Sates until it knocks squarely on their front door. During the first episode, that provides the backdrop for Piper Chapman’s imprisonment she whines about how prison was not supposed to be her life though she knowingly was involved with a drug trafficker. She cries to her fiancé, “I was in love. And it was all crazy. And then it got scary. And I ran away. And I became the nice blond lady I was supposed to be.” Thus, she reveals to critically conscious viewers the cognitive dissonance of the privileged—yes I know I was consciously engaged in criminal activity, but I was not supposed to get caught and punished by the system. I’m not a criminal; I am an educated white woman. And the populous of privileged white women like June Thomas agree, writing: “[Piper Chapman] She’s an NPR-listening, Mad Men-watching, big-city-dwelling, wise-cracking intellectual. She’s just like “us,” in other words. And none of “us” would ever expect to go to prison.” But Piper Chapman is not “us” who are racialized, gendered and classed as not the norm. She is not Marissa Alexander, Jacksonville, FL mother for whom the “stand your ground” defense did not protect against her historically abusive husband. She is not my myriad of colleagues who know that with all of our degrees, community activism, social statuses that we are one mistaken identity, one misread behavior at a routine traffic stop, or one publicly ratchet response away from coming personally face to face with the criminal injustice system regardless of our justification to the certifiable idiots who may try us. She is not the multitude of thinkers and activists who know that a jury of all women who are predominantly white is not the manifestation of that which should be fair and just in our society.
  • You know black folks don't live in Colorado, right?  Well, not technically.  We occupy a whopping 4% of the state's population according to U.S. census data.  Hence, as a native Illinoisan where the state's African-American population totals 14%, exceeding the national average's percentage, part of me understands where my friends and family are coming from when they ask, "So, how long are you going to live out there?"  For them, my being here in Colorado is an "experiment" of sorts, or a dues paying moment in time where I can bid my fare and then finally rejoin civilization where African-Americans actually live.  Yes, the year is 2012 and people (black, white, creole, mixed race, whatever) still perceive there are places/spaces where black people fit and belong. Such was the immediate idea that came to mind for me as the highly anticipated, twenty-three years in the making, film Red Tails began. Over the last few weeks, much discussion has percolated surrounding the film that highlights the heroics of the all-black World War II airmen squadron trained through the Tuskegee Airmen program.  Of course it has been; with this being an election year and President Obama hosting a private screening for the film's producers, director, and 15 of the surviving airmen, it was bound to receive attention.  Notwithstanding George Lucas' own buzz related attention, with him hitting up almost every media outlet in his iphone or blackberry (I don't know if anyone really still has those) to explain his personal financing of the film since Hollywood could care less about funding and green-lighting films centrally focused on and casted with African-Americans.  So, naturally the film's release has people talking. But about what? The story about racism told in Red Tails is not a new one, nor is it nuanced in a tremendously fresh way.  We walk into the film knowing who the heroes are.  We know how things are going to end from the moment of the opening screenshot quote.  We know it's going to contain complicated sequences and high budget theatrics.  While there will be some attention to historical accuracy (it is "inspired by true events"), we know the 1995 The Tuskegee Airmen film starring Laurence Fishburne does a much better job at encapsulating so much of the history surrounding what began as an experiment, but grew to become an essential lifeline of U.S. World War II military operations.  So what motivates the grand discussion about this particular film? Why am I up at 4:30 in the morning compelled to blog about having seen it? I raise these questions to you cybersphere in hopes that we can collectively engage the larger issues.  Many black actors, actresses, celebrities and yes, the First Family not only endorses the film, but are actively creating ways for people to go out and see it.  Seriously, churches, fraternities, sororities, and veterans groups are saying "get on the bus" like we're heading to a new march on Washington--no sir, we are going to the cineplex!  For what, so we (the 12% African-American population) can prove to Hollywood that are stories are worth telling, our talent is worth endorsing, and that we are grateful to our benefactors by spending enough money to give Lucas back every dollar plus some for making the film?  If this is what the intent of our interests are, then clearly we need to drive around the block a little while longer until we arrive at a better destination. The film in and of itself is not the gem of the moment.  The ability to assess ourselves as a nation still holding on to notions of intolerance and oppression, however is the gem placed in the palm of our hands.  As I watched the film, I was more impressed by the Tuskegee Airmen who sat in the theatre with us.  They not only continue to tell their stories of endurance and overcoming, but they call to mind how great the journey ahead is.  As small as the black population is here in Colorado, sixty Hubert "Hooks" Jones Tuskegee Airmen chapter members (with eight documented original members) work year in and year out to encourage and convince minority youth that aviation is a space/place where they belong despite dominant perceptions. The film's presence allows us to uncover what invisible lines we continue not to traverse because of social conditioning.  In a town with five military installations: The U. S. Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force base, Fort Carson, Schriever Air Force base, and NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force station, the minority population across the board should be exploding, or at least in line with national averages if we have grown as a nation in regards to issues of inclusion with our military operations.  But, as mentioned before, there is a dearth; hence the need for the work being done by veterans and civilians of the local Tuskegee Airmen chapter.  Do something for real and fund that Mr. Lucas! Additionally, the hoopla around the release of the film raises questions that I hope to discuss with my students as well as with you.  If we are "post-race" (which I totally know that we are not), why do we keep consciously feeding power to racism? One of my favorite scenes in the film is of Colonel A. J. Bullard (Terrance Howard).  Col. Bullard's white superior officer has just reiterated that it does not matter how successful Bullards's men are in their missions, it does not change the officer's racialized opinion of them.  In a wonderful moment, that's probably more dramatized than accurate, Col. Bullard simply replies, "We don't care."   This is the space "post-black/racialist" dream to exist in, where it genuinely does not matter what is personally thought about groups of people so long as we can all carry on doing what we came to do without infringement.  Sadly, if when we step outside the theatre after this opening weekend and say to ourselves, "Take that Hollywood!", we will have to admit to ourselves that we are not there yet. Often the resistance to oppression is merely reactionary.  In being so, we don't actually resist the oppression, but empower it by conceding to valuing it in the first place.  When we tell one another to go out and watch a film otherwise white people will no longer honor our stories and recognize our talent, we give power to the dominating establishment saying what they think about our worth is indeed something for us to contemplate.  Who gives a flying (you fill in the blank) if Hollywood refuses to green-light our stories and projects?!  For as much as people may have issues with Tyler Perry as a writer, as a producer and entrepreneur he has proven that Hollywood does not get to say "yea or nea" to our dreams and realities.   When we not only believe, but behave as "the captain(s) of our fate, the master(s) of our souls" then we will have moved into a space beyond racialized existences. Thus, when I'm asked by friends and families about my being in Colorado, I'm assured that I will remain as long as has been divinely purposed for me.  Because I know that there is no place on this planet where black people don't belong.

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