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?

Favorite Reads of 2014

I can’t believe 2014 is already coming to a close. It’s been a year of much change and tumult, particularly in the word of racial justice organizing. I’m happy to have been a small part of what’s going on through attending protests, and I’m particularly thankful to all the people who have given so much more than I have to activism and advocating for change.

In the world of books I read through a lot. Since 2014 was also the year I started this blog, please forgive that not all the links to my favorite books go to one of my own blog posts. Regardless, here are some of the best books I read in 2014:

Half-2Bof-2Ba-2BYellow-2BSun

Half of a Yellow Sun (Literary Fiction)
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What don’t I love by this woman? If I were double counting authors I probably would have stuck Americanah on this list too. But this one edged out a little ahead for me because the history of the war over Biafra, which was formerly unknown to me, was so fascinating to read about. The characters are exquisite. Complex, human, and utterly intriguing.

Lovingkindness

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Spirituality/Self-Help)
by Sharon Salzberg

I never would have thought that a spirituality book would make my top list for 2014, but I have to say that Salzberg’s book is pretty transformative. There is a deeply powerful truth to intentionally cultivating wishes of well-being for both oneself and others that I’ve been contemplating and practicing all year since reading the book.

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Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Poetry)
by Patricia Smith

I found Patricia Smith when looking into the VONA workshop teachers, and I can’t believe she’s not more famous. The memoir poems that she put together for Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah are simply brilliant in their rhythm and word choice, and tell a powerful tale about race, class, and growing up. I will definitely be checking out more of her work in 2015.

Kindred

Kindred (Scifi/Historical fiction)
by Octavia Butler

This is the kind of book that socks you and keeps on socking you until you’ve put it down at the end. There is so much here about pain and oppression, but also love and resilience. Skillfully using time travel as a tool, Butler breaks down the notion that we would have really acted any different than our ancestors if alive during the times of slavery. Chilling.

Redefining-Realness

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (Memoir)
by Janet Mock

I know I’ve already raved about this memoir in a previous post or two, but if I’m going to be honest about what really moved me in the writing world this year, Mock’s book has to be on the list. I loved the way she wove together culture, geography, family, gender identity, and class. Plus she’s such a rising star right now, who wouldn’t want to read about her?

Warmth of Other Suns_

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Nonfiction)
by Isabel Wilkerson

Again, yes a book I’ve talked about before, and yes, still worth reading. It’s rare for me to read nonfiction these days, but Wilkerson’s book felt uncannily like fiction, given how smoothly it reads. I’m absolutely floored by the amount of research she must have done to pull this book together.

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.

Behind The Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman (Review)

Behind the Kitchen Door_We tend not to realize that diversity is not the same as equity — that simply seeing a lot of restaurant workers from different backgrounds doesn’t mean that restaurant workers have equal opportunities to advance to jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families.

-Saru Jayaraman

I had to read this book after attending the Facing Race conference this year, which featured several members of ROC United, the national union that Jayaraman co-founded for restaurant workers in the wake of 9/11. Jayaraman herself is a fantastic public speaker, and I couldn’t wait to get back home and read her book at the end of the conference.

Behind The Kitchen Door is a collection of stories really, powerful stories from restaurant workers that ROC has worked with throughout the years. ROC’s focus is on creating equal working conditions and career advancement opportunities for all restaurant workers, so many of the stories highlight the unfair treatment that people of color, and particularly women of color, face on the job everyday.

There are horrifying accounts of wage theft, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and chronic financial instability. Jayaraman points to the lack of leave that causes many restaurant workers to keep serving, even while sick. She also brings up many times the astoundingly low federal minimum wage for restaurant workers ($2.13!!!), since theoretically workers are making up the rest of the gap between that and the normal minimum wage through tips. Jayaraman shows pretty convincingly that this frequently does not happen, and that employers often do not compensate the difference as they are supposed to.

I really liked that the focus of Jayaraman’s book and life’s work is on such a universal job. While I personally have never worked in a restaurant, I know many friends that have. Many can relate to the stories she’s telling and the difference between those of us for whom restaurant work is a step along the road to a better career, versus those who rely on the industry for much of their lives.

One interesting bit of information that I learned from the Facing Race conference is that ROC United is piloting an app that diners can use when they go out to eat to report on the perceived race of the wait staff and kitchen staff. It’s built to work well with Yelp and Twitter, and seems like an interesting way to unobtrusively bring to light the colorism that the industry struggles with (whiter staff get to serve while darker staff are stuck in the kitchen, without regard to qualifications).

There’s a bit of repetition of certain facts throughout the book, but it’s a really worthwhile read for the stories alone. It’s a good practice in empathy to read about other people’s lives and think about how we can as consumers support restaurants that exemplify the fair hiring and labor practices that we want to see while boycotting or reprimanding those who don’t.

4Stars24/5 STARS

#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.