Reading Up on the Panthers

For the Cause

In Oakland, moving in and out of social justice communities, it’s tough not to hear references on a regular basis to the Black Panther Party which had its roots here. A few weekends ago I was found myself watching a film at the International Black Women’s Film Festival called For the Cause, a fictional story about two ex-panthers and their daughter, Mirai.

Mirai’s father is in prison, convicted of murdering a police officer back in the heyday of the Panthers. Mirai has a strained relationship with him, and her mother won’t even talk about him at all. Throughout the film you start to get a fuller, complex picture of the parents’ history and what it felt like to be active back in the movement. There is also a great love story being told about Mirai in her partner, that gets tied up with the unfolding of the parents’ past.

I really enjoyed the history-mixed-with-story feeling of the film, and the spectacular acting from the full cast. I’m not sure where else the For the Cause film will be showing, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in activism history in the U.S.

About a year ago I read a book by two scholars at UC Berkeley called Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. The work gave a fairly comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party’s rise and fall, as well as an intriguing analysis about why it became so popular at the time that it did and why it didn’t survive. But, without giving away to much of the story from the film,  I’ll say that watching the movie made me interested in picking up another book — Elaine Brown’s memoir on the Panthers, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, where she discusses her experience with sexism as a high-ranking member of the Panthers. While the Black Against Empire book touches on gender power imbalances, it doesn’t quite delve into them enough to feel satisfying, and Brown’s memoir might serve to shed some light on that aspect of the history.

Any other great social movement books I should add to my reading list?

What Shall We Call Us?

Crowd at Millions March Oakland
Crowd at Millions March Oakland

I am one to throw the term “people of color” or “POC” (for short) around fairly liberally. I use it when talking about the books I read, or the types of advocacy I’m involved with. In general, I like to think and talk about the ways that having dark skin or features that aren’t associated with whiteness creates a certain sense of solidarity. But it would be false to say that I’ve never questioned my own use of the word. In particular, I’ve always wondered whether Asian and Pacific Islander communities always identify with that term. This past week, through a friend, I found a great article on Black Girl Dangerous discussing the term “POC” and all the baggage tied up in lumping people together all the time.

In the article, “What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Person of Color'”, author Janani encourages solidarity across race/ethnicity groups, while making the important point that each individual minority community has a distinct history of oppression. Sometimes one group plays a role in oppressing another to try and get closer to acceptance, or a group may have internal oppression issues that are not the same as the internal challenges that other race/ethnicity groups have.

One particularly eloquent quote that I loved toward the end of the article summed up the overall argument quite well:

Black-Asian solidarity in the US, for instance, is hard to find and it will continue to be difficult to build if we continue to use the uncritical ‘POC’ label.  Rather, we can use ‘POC’ as a way of reflecting on our different racial histories and building coalitions in our struggles and their difference.  POC is a term for building solidarity between movements, not a movement in itself.  That distinction is important.

 

Lots of food for thought in a time of beautiful multi-cultural organizing around #BlackLivesMatter.

#BlackLivesMatter, Now and Always

Art by Hank Willis Thomas
Art by Hank Willis Thomas

I wasn’t expecting so soon after writing about Ferguson that we’d be hearing back on the conclusion of the Eric Garner case.

If I had been thinking about the Garner case much beforehand, I might have been predicting that the indictment would be affirmative. That finally this situation and this cop would go to trial. Because it was on video. Because the police used an illegal chokehold. Because the coroner called it a homicide. But of course if that’s what I’d believed I would have been disappointed.

I’ve been reading a lot of reactions and seeing a lot of memes and spoken word links floating around Twitter and Facebook as black communities and advocacy communities try to make sense of the decision. There have been some heartfelt expression pieces giving voice to those experiencing trauma and tragedy. There was a lot of talk about the uncanny way that the verdict coincided with Obama’s push to get more police to wear body cameras. It was uncanny in the sense that the Garner case immediately disproved the validity of this “solution” and instead forced us to focus again on the heart of the matter — implicit bias and the inherent harm of having a militarized police force.

I’m troubled by so many aspects of these deaths. I’m frustrated, saddened, and angered by the fact that it keeps happening, over and over again. But I what I actually find most frustrating and disempowering is the lack of understanding and the apathy that I see from a lot of non-black, non-advocate communities. I hear people focusing on the legal facts or the doubt surrounding the events of deaths or speculating about what facts were presented to the Grand Jury. I hear people hanging on the the uncertainties and giving the benefit of the doubt to the white police officers or to mostly-white juries. All of this is very hard to hear, and hard to fight.

For me, it keeps coming back to Eric Garner’s last words, where he expresses the pain he experiences at constantly being a target of harassment and suspicion:

Everytime you see me, you want to harass me. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

 

To know that the man who said these words is no longer with us is deeply sad. It’s a constant struggle for me to articulate to others why his words matter so much. They point exactly to the heart of the profiling and the psychological toll of that profiling on an entire class of people.

It matters.

We matter.

#BlackLivesMatter.

November Book Finds (Except, Really Ferguson)

Ferguson NewsWell folks, I’m going to be honest with you, because of NaNoWriMo, I did not in fact identify any new books this month that I want to pick up to read. But the good news is, I’m still plugging away on my novel draft. (Very slowly, and somewhat surely).

What I have been thinking a lot about lately, instead of books and outside of NaNoWriMo, is Ferguson — both the grand jury and the greater epidemic of black youth being killed by cops in the U.S. I watched the coverage of the press conference of the county prosecuting attorney, McCulloch, and could tell almost as soon as he started speaking that the decision of the grand jury was not to indict.

What really happened that day with Michael Brown and Darren Wilson I may never know, but I’m truly at a loss of what to do with my emotions of frustration and sadness at the reality itself that these deaths keep happening. I’m angry at the focus on the fact that Brown stole cigarillos from a store before he died. It’s not about whether he was a perfect person — none of us are — it’s about the fact that he didn’t get the same chance to even stay alive as a white kid has in the U.S. To even continue breathing on this earth. Everyone deserves that chance.

It’s going to take me more time to process all the events. I do feel glad to have been able to march for a little while with Oakland protesters early in the evening to express some solidarity with others similarly digesting their emotions. I was happy to see several familiar faces in the crowd. And I know there are people out there doing good work to change policing practices and criminalization laws. It just feels like the need is so immediate and progress is so slow. How many other black boys and men do we have to lose before then?

If there is to be a connection back to books in this post, it’s that I’m finding myself wanting to read more of the foundational writers on black identity because of racial rifts we’re seeing today — James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, etc. So much of what I read is contemporary, but I want to go back too and remember the roots of black literature and nonfiction. I also want to find more of their female contemporaries to read. They might not have been writing about Ferguson, but they sure would have understood how to talk about it if they were still around.

Why I Can Only Read So Many Slavery Narratives

slave shackles
National Museum of American History via Flickr

I read Kindred a few months ago and had a hard time functioning normally for a couple of days afterward. The book followed Dana, a black woman from the late 1900s who is involuntarily drawn back to time travel onto an American slave plantation. On the plantation she experiences or witnesses all manner of indignities and injustice – she must contort her spirit to a back-breaking system to stay alive.

I had a similarly strong reaction reading An Untamed State, which, while not about slavery in the 1800s sense, was about modern day sex slavery of a woman kidnapped in Haiti.

Many people have recommend to me A Known World by Edward P. Jones, which does look like a fantastic book and I happen to own it now, but at the same time I’m finding myself reluctant to actually pick it up and read it. Why? Because, the setting of the novel is slavery, and sometimes I just don’t feel up to the emotional toll of reading another book about slaves.

When I was a kid, I lived in a city of very few black people. Most folks were white, some were Asian or Latino, and just a couple were black. I remember in class when we’d talk about slavery and all of the kids would turn to look at me, to see… I don’t even know what they wanted to see, maybe how I was handling it or to try and imagine what it would have been like if I were a slave. The word “slave” was thrown around on the playground as a joke to any other kid, regardless of color. I’m going to make you my slave! The point is, as a young person it was pretty traumatizing to talk about slavery, which meant that I didn’t really decide to think about it or process my thoughts about slavery until I was much older.

As I grew up I came to think about slavery in the Ta-Nehisi Coates sense, of how this one period of intense oppression, of physical and mental hurt has lead to systemic poverty and perpetual criminalization and marginalization of black bodies. Books and movies like Kindred reminded me of the intense servility and subservience that slavery forced upon African Americans. While we’ve now had decades of black pride and racial justice movements to try and recoup some of what we lost, during the time of slavery’s peak and Jim Crow you didn’t have a choice – you had to be obedient and obsequious to whites. Living in Oakland, with the strong history of the Black Panthers grounding my feet, this past is sometimes hard to reconcile with. Quite simply, sometimes, I just don’t want to visualize that subservience.

It’s not that I want to ignore my history or that I don’t think slavery narratives should exist. To the contrary, they are ABSOLUTELY important and I firmly believe in studying the history of oppressed communities. White people in particular need to understand slavery and the legacies it wrought. But for myself as a black woman, there is a point where I’m not sure what more I get out of slavery media. Do I need to see a man getting whipped naked in front of his children one more time? To read about another black woman being raped by her white master? When these scenes and moments are literally a part of my family tree, at what point do I get to look away for a moment to catch my breath? There are times when I just need a little space before I’m ready to go through the trauma of re-visualizing my ancestry. Never ever to forget, only to keep moving.