Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Soldiers Reunion in Newton, NC is a celebration of the confederacy

Some call it Southern pride. Others call it racism. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle, making it difficult to understand the difference.

I began my day in search of the truth. I should have known it would be a bad day.

It started with a cup of coffee at H&W Drug Company, a locally owned business with an old school lunch counter. I paid one dollar for the cup and left the same for the tip. The people lined up next to me updated each other on life in Newton, NC. It was part yes ma’am and a bunch of Southern hospitality that made Newton the perfect place for the people at the counter to live.

My cell phone buzzed, alerting me of a text message.

“Aretha just died.”

We knew it was coming, but it still hurt. I looked at the people at the counter to share the news.

“Aretha just died,” they looked at me in dismay. I repeated. No change.

“Queen of Soul,” I said. They looked at me in a way that said “what?”

They don’t Know Aretha Franklin.

Maybe they don’t listen to black music, I thought as I prepared to leave. I was reminded of my first day in Newton. I ordered breakfast at Callahan’s, a diner on the other side of the town square. I was surrounded by pictures of John Wayne, the godfather of American Western movies.

Wayne’s quote, in the May 1971 issue of Playboy, was stuck in my head in a way that felt like a scene from the movie “Get Out”. 

“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks,” Wayne said. “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

The pictures felt like a public service announcement - black folks, stay in your proper place, or we’ll meet you on the other side of the O.K Corral when the sun goes down.

It was shortly before 11:00 a.m., and the crowd was gathering for the Solider Reunion parade. That’s what the people in Catawba County, NC call this brand of intimidation. The book “Looking Back, Marching Forward: One Hundred Years of Solider Reunion, published by the Catawba County Historical Association, dates the event to 1889. That’s when Julian S Carr published a resolution in the News and Observer to form the Confederate Veterans’ Association of North Carolina.

In addition to forming the state organization, groups were asked to send delegates to the National United Confederate Veterans convention to be held in 1890. By 1903, the planning of reunions came under the auspices of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Newton’s version of Southern pride is deeply entrenched in the culture of the Soldiers Reunion. Children walked around the square holding their parent’s hands with Confederate flag stickers on their garments. Trucks with Confederate flags in the back lined up for the parade.

The time before the parade evoked the type of symbols that bruise the souls of black people. I walked through the crowd suspicious that two men wanted to have a conversation regarding why I was there, and it being better for me to go back to where I came from.

The tension was deeper than the pretension that normalized the moment.

“Black Confederate Soliders Salute Thomas Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest,” are the words on a banner at a booth promoting black love for the Confederacy. “It has been estimated that over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate army ranks. Over 13,000 of these ‘saw the elephant’ also known as engaging the enemy in combat.”

I couldn’t help but think “did slaves have a choice?” I few men, wearing leather jackets with Confederate flags emblems on the back, seemed to dare me to refute the message on the banner. I kept walking knowing the fake news wins, and black lives don’t matter when the crowd is swayed in support of this version of Southern pride.

I stood in the shadow of the 26-foot Confederate monument erected to remind people the war continues.  Everything about the statue felt like a middle finger to the demands of the Union army. In the South, the Confederacy didn’t end with the Civil War. Statues were dedicated commemorating the ongoing quest for white supremacy.

The statute in Newton, NC was dedicated during the 1907 Solider Reunion festivities. The widow of Stonewall Jackson declined an invitation to attend the event, citing poor health. Jack and Warren Christian, the great-great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson, wrote a letter, published in Slate Magazine on August 17, 2017, requesting the removal of Confederate monuments because they consider them racist.

“We have learned about his (Stonewall Jackson) reluctance to fight and his teaching of Sunday School to enslaved peoples in Lexington, Virginia, a potentially criminal activity at the time,” the great-great grandsons wrote. “But we cannot ignore his decision to own slaves, his decision to go to war for the Confederacy, and, ultimately, the fact that he was a white man fighting on the side of white supremacy.”

That’s not how Southerners felt when they dedicated the monument in Newton. Between 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the unveiling of the monument. No one showed up to protest the monument based on how it made black citizens feel. There was a group who protested due to the removal of a tree. The tree mattered more than how black people felt.

Julian S. Carr played an instrumental role in bestowing white supremacy and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, in North Carolina. He called the murder of 60 blacks during the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 a “grand and glorious event.” Carr celebrated violence and the lynchings of blacks. His popularity in North Carolina was enough to land him a nomination to become vice President of the United States at the 1900 Democratic National Convention.

The Confederate soldiers “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” Carr said during the dedication of Silent Sam, the Civil War Monument on the campus of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, in 1913. “The purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States.”

Carr ended his speech with a story about how "the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States," after which he ended his speech with a personal story about how he "horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds" after the war in the presence of 100 Union soldiers.  

When protestors toppled Silent Sam on August 20, it was perceived, by some, as an attack on Southern pride and heritage. Like the 26-foot high monument in Newton, NC, Silent Sam is a symbol of intimidation. It is a reminder that the attack on black people didn’t end with the Civil War. The Confederacy never died. The Soldiers Reunion reclaims the goals of the men and women who fought to assert the claims of white supremacy.

The signs of Southern heritage and white supremacy merged to form a new collective identity. Absent was the suppression of images that are often assumed to promote racism. They were in full display. It felt like racism has come out from hiding. It felt like hate unencumbered by how it makes black people feel. They didn’t care that I was watching. They seemed to gloat in their ability to wave Confederate flags. It felt like an entire community was spitting in my face.

The parade started at 4:30 p.m.

Confederate soldiers packed the streets. Six men pointed their rifles upward and fired shots in the air. Women dressed like Southern Bells walk ahead of a truck loaded with Confederate flags. The long line of jeeps, trucks and cars hoisting the “Blood Stained Banner”, the national flag of the Confederacy, was more than any black person can take.

The last of the cluster of flags passed where I was standing. I took note of the line of people on both sides of the street. Men, women and children flapped Confederate flags to conjure the spirit of the moment – white power, white supremacy and white solidarity. My disappointment in the celebration paled in comparison in what was missing.

Where is Black Lives Matter? Where are the chants of “no justice, no peace?” Where is the crowd of progressive white people to fight the assumption of hate? Where are local black citizens to protest the mob displaying the symbol of white rage?

“Excuse me sir,” I middle-aged white woman said as she approached. “May I ask you a question. How did that make you feel?”

I hesitated.

‘I don’t know,” I answered. “I have many thoughts.”

“I’m from Newton. I’ve been coming to this event since I was a kid. It has never been this bad. It was too much. It’s too much for me. I just wonder how it made you feel.”

I paused to acknowledge the brewing of tears.

“I’m finding it hard not to cry. I. I…”

“I know,” she touched my shoulder. “I know. Me too.”

There was something about the look on her face. It was too much for her to take. We both fought back the tears. My attempt didn’t last long. It was the thoughts about my ancestors. A part of their fear was captured in that moment. The flags. The cheering crowd and 26-foot statute to celebrate the Confederacy – it was too much to hold without the flooding of tears.

I nodded my head to denote my appreciation. She did the same.

I watched as the parade continued. One by one, face by face, thought by thought, it was too much to limit to a few words. The history was not enough to explain that moment. The pictures of John Wayne on the wall at Callahan’s told part of the story. None of it is enough to explain the rest.

They didn’t know Aretha Franklin. I took a few deep breaths before leaving.

James Baldwin said it long ago. “Nobody knows my name.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

When being black is not enough to be black

[This is written in celebration of all bi-racial children and like-skinned black people who are told they aren't black enough. This is in celebration for all the people who were told they act white and talk white. ]

How much black is too much?

How much black is not enough?

These are the type of questions that validate the truth of white privilege. White people don’t have to think about being too white, or not being white enough. White is simply white, and there’s not much to add to, or nullify whiteness.

Being black is different. 

Maneuvering between those fine lines can be complicated for black folks in pursuit of excellence; while maintaining street credibility. 

Being labeled not black enough brings a level of shame that is challenging to overcome. There are lines a person should never cross. Like a black man dating a white woman, a black person claiming allegiance to the Republican Party or worshiping on Sunday with a predominately white congregation.

Being too black brings another set of concerns – like being too black to get a real job. Or, another among the list of stereotypes that causes white women to call the police when a black person goes to a pool, attends a barbeque or gets caught for walking, talking and being black. In these cases, being too black is a function of simply being black.

That is all true, but this is about the outlandish pressure placed on black people to prove they have enough blackness to qualify as an acceptable black person. This is about what black people tend to do to each other to eradicate the abundance of “Uncle Tom’s” and “Aunt Sally’s” positioned to pull those crabs back to the bottom of the barrel.

Everywhere you look, black people are there to remind boys and girls about proper dress, proper communication and to punish deviate behavior. As my grandparents would say, how to act proper while in the presence of white people. Those chastisements often left me wondering if being black meant being more like white people.

Overcoming being too black comes with the high cost of not being black enough.

“If you’re black and middle-class…every day you’re [going to get] a lot of crap. You’re going to get angry,” wrote Ellis Cose in “The Rage of the Privileged Class.

The anger comes from the space in the middle – being black in hope of overcoming the obstacles created to hinder black people, juxtaposed against the pain associated with overly rejecting blackness.

This is not a new burden. Frantz Fanon wrote about it in his book “Black Skin, White Mask”. This classic, written in 1952, examines the psychological burden of being black.

“[Educated blacks] Society refuses to consider them genuine Negroes. The Negro is a savage, whereas the student is civilized. "You're us," and if anyone thinks you are a Negro he is mistaken, because you merely look like one.” 

Placed within contemporary context, we uncover multiple layers of labeling related to what it means to be too black or not black enough.

From a black Christian not being black enough due to the embrace of the slave master’s Jesus, to those boys wearing baggy pants never amounting to much due to their inability to adapt to the norms of society – finding a place in the middle is a lifelong quest for success in the face of the need of inclusion.

These are the type of discussion normally held in the context of defining cultural variables. For black people, it’s more about defining what it means to be black. Being too black can potentially influence the path a person takes, and not being black enough has bearing on how a person operates as a representative of blackness among other black people.

A person can’t hide being black. It follows you wherever you go, and it is used in constructing an evaluation of character. Is she too black to fit, or is he not black enough?

The pride that comes with being black should not come with so many restrictions. The hope and prayer of being true to yourself is often entangled in the perceptions of others – both black and white. Freedom comes in owning what it means to imagine new definitions of blackness.

For some, that a place in the middle.

For me, it’s a place with unlimited possibilities.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Black men need love too

[I took this picture three weeks after the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. It's used  here to remember the life and witness of men and women who have died, and the women who lead movements that seek justice. I celebrate these women, and advocate for inclusion of women in spaces controlled by black, male leadership]

This is no pity party.

This is not a deflection.

This is not an attempt to negate the amazing work of black women.

But, can the brothers get some love?

There’s an uncomfortable feeling oozing in my belly. For months, it’s been easy for me to dismiss the angst in my gut to things stirred by my own messy ways. I’m certain part of it is because of wounds I opened from words and actions that facilitated the movement of hands on hips, wagging fingers and talk about “no you didn’t!”

I own my own complicity in making it complicated and unsettling for some to hug it out. Anyone with a tidbit of common sense knows there’s tremendous pain rooted in a long history of silence and indifference, but something unsettling is happening that forces new talk about black men.

My conclusion comes after spending months talking to black men about how they feel. The consensus among many is, well, it’s different now. The evidence of change is not proof that the stuff in the gut is a bad thing. Feeling isolated and attacked is often the consequence of the need for an old school butt whipping to help you get your act together.

Maybe this is what we need.

This is that collective ruthless confrontation that will forever be known for shifting power dynamics. Nope. Women ain’t playing anymore, and anyone who doesn’t know that better ask somebody.
It is true that black men have selfishly clutched power from black women with the type of neglect that battles what white people have done to subjugate black people. Be it in the leadership of the church, other institutions or the abuse and manipulation in relationships – black men deserve this whipping.

This is not about asking black women to back off. This is not a repudiation of the legitimacy of the need for justice and inclusion.

The brothers need some love too.

The truth is, black women have always fought for their men. Their fight for incarcerated men, and brothers unjustly stopped by police, goes back to days long before the end of slavery. They fight on behalf of their sons, and other black boys in the neighborhood, grappling to find a way. This is not a criticism. This is not a plea demanding more.

It’s a reminder. Brothers need love too. Don’t forget us. Please, don’t give up on us.

Because we need you. We know the burden on your backs. We are aware that we placed some of it there. We failed to listen. We used religion to control your movement. We followed the teachings of the white man’s Jesus to demand your submission. We rejected the teachings of our ancestors and made ourselves into gods with the power to rule without questions.

Still, brothers need love too.

Part of that involves the need for forgiveness. In many cases we don’t deserve your forgiveness. We deserve your rejection. The stiff unwavering hand in our face is a tribute to your strength. Like Celie clutching that knife against Mister’s neck, “everything you think about is gonna crumble.”
We feel the crumbling. We hear it in each word aimed at exposing our coldness. We merit your reproof. You are not wrong.

Black men are hurting.

We can’t fix the mistakes made by our fathers and grandfathers. We’ve read the words of Alice Walker and other great thinkers who are “sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Knowing the truth does not stop the pain. Some of it belongs to us. Some of it is stuff we didn’t create.

They did it, but our male privilege makes us guilty of their mistakes.

Black women, can you see the tears of black men? Has your rage enthused an apathy that we will never overcome? If so, we understand, but know we need you still. We always have, we always will.
Without you, the emptiness remains. Our heart beats slower as our will to survive wanes without you. Our mental health degrades as we seek ways to overcome. Our dreams move beyond deferment into no more than a thought from yesteryears. Our feet move slower and all we see are days fading into an inescapable midnight.

There is no joy without you.

Brothers need love too.

We have no night to request anything from you. The bond in our blood may not be enough to dismiss your fury. The innumerable recollections of venomous words and insulting deeds may be too much to defeat. It may be too late for you to note the poring of our tears. We deserve the loneliness generated by your rejection. We are living in a space wearied by feet planted in confusion. Your incapacity to trust or words leaves us motionless with no hope of conquering what we created.

Still, back men need love too.

There is no love without you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Gentrification: It's complicated

[Delvecchio Faison is the artist who  painted "The Only Constant is Change". The painting depicts the impact of gentrification in Durham, NC. To see more of Faison's work, go to Faison's instagram page here]

  • Gentrification is complicated.

For some, it’s the celebration of communities that rise from the ashes after decades of decay. For others, it’s the displacement of black and brown people to make space for white people fixated on life closer to the action.

There are stories that relate both the good and the bad regarding gentrification. Some talk about the reduction of crime and fine dining and coffee shops in those buildings that were eyesores before the growth. Others talk about skyrocketing housing cost and the changing demographics. Where did the black folks go?

As municipalities grapple with ways to place their arms around how to discuss what it all means - it’s too much to hug when our arms are too short.

Capturing the essence of gentrification requires more than an analysis of current public policy statements. I mean, it’s easy to blame the boom of inner city growth on corporate entities fueled by greed and an obsession to dismantle communities. Getting at if that’s fact or fiction complicates the conversation. Hindsight is 20/20, but can we assume a plot that imagined all of this?

That too is up for debate.

There are a few givens. Maybe, just maybe, it’s best to start the conversation with what we know to be true. Again, some will dispute the truth of my suppositions.

Like some say in their relationship status, it’s complicated. 

A reflection of white privilege

Here we go.

There’s always danger when a person uses those two words in the same sentence – white and privilege. It’s one among the many phrases (systemic racism being another) used to indicate the advantages that come with being white. It’s perceived as an attack, but these statements are meant to move things forward in ways that make for a happy union.

Who remembers those good ole days?

White people hate it when black people explain things related to race (is blacksplaing a thing). Yes, this is a heated discussion accompanied with “what you mean I got privilege when I was born poor down in rural Mississippi?” In other words, “I got mine, and don’t blame me”.

But, that’s not the point. What is the point when I assert gentrification reflects what it means to function with white privilege? It conveys the power of naming worth and marketability.

A community labeled as blight becomes a gold mine when given the sanction of white people. Their approval of worth radically shifts the value of property. These communities are no longer quantified as havens of massive poverty, prostitution and drug related problems. Once named as diamonds in the rough, they become hotspots for hipsters willing to transform these communities into those shinny diamonds.

The power of their privilege is in making their dreams come true. Their very presence is enough to convince others to make the journey into the land oozing with potential. The power of white privilege is in their numbers. Being there is enough to attract others.

“If Becky and Harvey say it’s safe, it must be safe. Right?”

But, there’s more.

A reminder of systemic racism

Getting to the what requires considerable reflection on the how. In other words, how did we get here in the first place?

Let’s begin with my owning the “here we go again”.

Systemic racism is another one of those terms that budges the rage of some white people. How dare you blame it all on a system, when you blacks have failed to do your part.

This is where I insert rolling eyes and comments about your great-granddaddy. But, let’s press forward.

As much as we hate pondering the implications of history, how we got here is critical in fully understanding why and how gentrification is a burden rooted in historical and systemic racism. It is part of an ongoing practice of public policies that hinder the advances of black families. It echoes the manufacturing of policies aimed at maneuvering the placement of black bodies to extend profit for white people.

Be it government policies that denied black soldiers GI Bills after serving in the military, public policies that redlined areas acceptable for blacks to live, the construction of black ghettos to cage black folks into manageable areas for law enforcement to sustain a system of systemic poverty, urban renewal projects that eradicated black business districts across the nation or the exodus that drew masses of white people to suburban communities after the integration of public schools – housing in America has been used, both historically and today, to foster systems used to maintain systemic racism and economic disparity.

Gentrification continues the American legacy of moving black bodes to benefit space utilized to profit white business interest. Regardless of the intent and motivation, understanding gentrification necessitates an evaluation that reflects the history and context of housing trends in manifesting the power of white privilege and systemic racism.

Undoing the stigma of ghetto

Now comes the tough part. Like I said, this is tough work that requires more than a causal glare.
As much as this is about white privilege and systemic racism, it is also about how we name space. Historically, black space is demonized in ways that signify unwelcoming environments to be avoided. The perception of space to escape is displayed as part of the lore of black America.

The ghetto is the escape of “moving on up” for the “Jefferson’s” and the dream of the characters in “Good Times”. The movement away from black space, into the world of white America, is the evidence of making it. The movement out is proof of success beyond the restrictive play of ghetto life.

The “ghetto” is a place of confinement under strict regulations and restrictions. These are quarters of overcrowded housing and extreme poverty. These are places where the justice system has a different set of rules to limit movement among those grappling to find ways to break free.

Notwithstanding the terms used to define these communities, the virtues related to living in “the hood” outweigh the categorization of those who call it home. The naming of the public persona of the boys and girls who live in the hood is a matter that deserves critical critique beyond the negative nuances that shape how people think.

But, this is a discussion about gentrification. Getting to the now involves how the power of white privilege is used to undo the stigma regarding life in the perceived “ghetto”. This is about the renaming of black space. This is about undoing the shame of life in space carved out and redlined to advance an agenda aimed at protecting the interest of white people. This is about changing the rhetoric involving black space as part of a public policy agenda.

Thus, this is, in some ways, about the construction of terms to undermine black space to foster policies to police and incarcerate black men and women. This is about demonizing areas, and the people who live there, to regulate their movement.

What you trying to say?

I’m glad you asked.

The questions and solutions related to gentrification go much deeper than many assume. Like most of what fractures America, it all comes back to America’s unwillingness to concede how race and racism shows up in practices and public policies that support systemic racism.

There he goes again, blaming it all on racism.

Sorry, but a casual study of American history brings us back to the core of all our problems.

The devil didn’t do it. Racism got us here.

Well, that is the devil, isn’t it?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Satana Deberry: Reflections on the election of a "Woke" District Attorney

I had the privilege of seeing Satana Deberry, our recently elected District Attorney, at Whole Foods earlier this week. It was great witnessing the responses of people in offering congratulations for her win. It stirred a few thoughts that led to me to writing about the history of law enforcement in America.

Go fetch them runaway niggers. My apologizes to those who hate that word, but it's necessary in this context. You feel me?

Oh, my thoughts on chasing slaves and crooked police stirred more thoughts regarding this historical moment. For those who dismiss the historical significance, I suggest you read a few books.

My thoughts:

1. How serious are we about criminal justice reform? I raise this question due to conversations I've had with people who didn't support Satana. If you teach and preach reform as part of your socio-political-economic agenda, help me understand why and how you failed to honor, respect and support the agenda Satana addresses?

2. Some people may need to check their gender bias. I glare with extreme crossed eyeballs to anyone who questioned the integrity of Satana's credentials. I'm forced o question whether this is a construction of some form of gender bias (you know, a woman can't do this) or more a variable of people being too lazy to read her CV.

3. This is much bigger than Durham. Some people wanted to make the DA race about something other, but, make no mistakes, this must be placed within the larger context of how the law is enforced on a national level. If you seriously believe stuff is broken, then act like you know.

4. This is not about dismissing the integrity of Roger Echols and the work he has achieved. Please, let's not go there. Echols served Durham well. He's a black man who deserves all due respect. I appreciate his service, and understand why many supported his continued role as DA.

5. But, there is work to do. It is critical that we note the history and injustices of law enforcement. It's time to think about how laws are used to dismantle black families by incarcerating black men and women at alarming disparate rates.

6. Some may decide to blame that disparity on blacks performing more crimes, but don't we deserve to have a different conversation?

7. We got to move past decisions being minimized by the type of political talk that reduces all of this to white "progressive" folks fighting against black "traditionalist". Can we talk about what's best for black people without getting stuck by who owns the terms of the conversation? In other words, can we place the bullshit to the side to change things for real?

8. Finally, and this is the biggy, I'm proud of Durham. I mean, I'm really, really proud of Durham. We're serious about reform, and when people not impacted, directly, by the stuff were talking about show up and vote for change, you know it's real. Like, really real. You feel me.

9. Oh, finally, finally, I love Satana and Clarence Birkhead is my dude. I'm smiling like it's my birthday and the gift I got....that's my business.

Carry on.