Saturday, August 16, 2014

Citizens Under Siege in the Country of Our Birth

When the story of Michael Brown’s death first broke, I’m not going to lie; I tried my best not to read it. It came too close behind the death of Eric Garner and the verdict in the Renisha McBride case. I wasn’t ready to put my heart through that meat grinder of hurt again. Because of where we live or the color of our skin can, many of us think we can afford to look away. We can go on living our lives because Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride and a long list of other victims don’t really matter to us. And because we don’t really understand or have chosen to forget what it means to live a life under siege, we can blame the victims. I wish I had that luxury, but I don’t. 

 I am a citizen under siege, and I try and navigate what that means. It’s not just about the police, it’s the daily micro aggressions that strip away our human dignity and leave us vulnerable. I don’t hate the police. I have friends and family who are police officers. I dated a police officer. It is not individuals who make me leery, but the systemic racist policies carried out by the men and women in police uniforms who make my heart beat a little faster every time I’m pulled over by them. I am a Black, middle-aged woman, and I have been stopped by the police quite a few times in my adult life. Sometimes justifiably so—talking on my cell phone, expired sticker, and not justifiably so—being in the wrong skin at the wrong time. See scenarios below:

I have been stopped by White, Black and Latino officers. So, it’s not about race; it’s about racism. I’ve been alone and in the company of others. Once there were four of us (two men and two women) leaving a party and looking for something to eat. It was about 12:30 am. We had been out steppin’. One of the guys said, “Be careful. You don’t want to go above the speed limit around here because these racist cops will definitely pull you over.” Just as my friend was reducing her speed from 35 mph to 30 mph in a 30 mph zone, the cops pulled us over and asked us where we were coming form. What raised the cops’ antenna? Driving 5 miles above the speed limit while Black after dark in a predominantly White suburb.

 Another time I was in an SUV with four female friends all past the age of 30, in downstate Illinois.  One of my friends was seven months pregnant and had to use the bathroom. We were on a long stretch of road headed back to Chicago when we saw a motel sign. The driver switched lanes before the white line ended and pulled into the motel’s parking lot. A police car pulled in behind us, and the officers walked up to the SUV, one on each side, shined the light in our faces, and asked, “Where you ladies coming from, a hip-hop party?” Another time an officer asked me what was I doing walking through the neighborhood, and I told him I worked around there. I had just bought my car—a Black Honda Accord S.E. and I had temporary plates when I was pulled over and asked for my license and insurance, but not told why I was stopped as I made a right turn on a green light. The officer said my plates didn’t come up, and I needed to talk to the dealer where I bought my car. I didn’t get a ticket. And I was never told why I was stopped. 

A few weeks ago I was driving home from Walgreens about a mile from my house. I had the radio on and I was singing along when I happened to see blue lights in my rear view window. I pulled to the right so they could pass. They stopped, and four police officers emerged from the car. I remember thinking, Four, really? Two cops approached my car, and the other two stayed back. I rolled down the window and placed my hands on the steering wheel. 

Me: Did I do something wrong?
Cop: You blew that stop sign back there.
Me: I didn’t know that I ran a stop sign.
Cop: Where are you coming from?
Me: Picking up a prescription for my mother from Walgreens
Cop: Do you have a driver’s license and insurance?
Me: Yes, I do.

I handed him my documents, and waited. I was in the car thinking to myself that I just might get a ticket. Then the officer came back to the car, and handed me my stuff and told me to drive carefully. I thanked him and went on my way. I wear my hair short, and I wonder if it’s the short hair that made all four of them get out of the car only to realize that I was a She and not a He. I wonder if my being articulate, polite and cooperative turned the tables in my favor. I know that acts of kindness are not common in my neighborhood. I witnessed police disregard and disrespect people in the areas they patrol.

In the summer, flashing lights, sirens sounding, and “suspicious” routine stops are par for the course. I watch young Black men endure the eagle-spread-pat-down-rite of passage regularly. Sometimes I slow my car down to watch, and other times my immunity from the commonality of it kicks in and I keep driving. Once while driving in a nearby suburb, I saw a White guy spread eagle across a police car, and I nearly crashed my car trying to see. It was so surreal to me. And that contrast is pretty sad.

There are Black men in my family. I love them to life, and I want them to live to be old men. To say that I am afraid for them is an understatement. I’m not a church-going woman, but I pray consistently for their safety because I know the world does not love them like I do. My 41 year-old nephew is a grown man with a son of his own. He lives across the street from me in a neighborhood associated with frequent acts of violence. My nephew knows everyone in the neighborhood and when things pop off on the block, he tries to calm things down. Sometimes he just sits on the porch laughing and talking. So, I’m always ears perked for voices—his voice—for the wrong kind of noise. I stay posted on the porch or in the window. He’s grown, and I’m always telling him to go in the house. He laughs at me, but goes inside anyway. His work as advocate puts him in the streets, so he knows. 

My nephew’s 17 year-old son, my great nephew is fairly na├»ve. In an effort to keep him safe, we have sheltered him. And that worries me. So, while he understands to some degree the dangers he possibly faces as a young Black man in America, he doesn’t fully get it. He believes that if he doesn’t bother anyone, then no one will bother him. I want to believe that, too. But I can’t afford that luxury.

There is a tightly coiled tension between Black people and law enforcement, and it’s becoming undone. We can’t live without police presence, but there are some areas where it difficult to live with them. This is not an attack on individual officers who show up to work every day to serve and protect under some of the most horrific circumstances, but this is an attack on a system of institutionalized racist policies that are being carried out by our men and women in police uniforms. There is no getting around the fact that there is little justice for the Black and Brown bodies who find themselves interacting with the U.S. criminal justice system.

I teach young people.  And I have been watching this rage in them and lack of respect for law enforcement grow at a rapid rate. I remember thinking that blood would spill in the streets before we recognize the severity of the situation that we’re facing. Ferguson, Missouri is just the beginning. People with nothing to live for don’t care about dying. Some of them will kill each other. Some of them will be shot down for nothing other than the erroneous assumptions associated with the color of their skin. And others will commit suicide by constantly putting themselves in harm’s way forcing someone else to take them out of their misery.

So, I went back and forced myself to recognize what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. And when I read that the residents of Ferguson were holding a candlelight vigil on their front porches, I went out and bought some candles, created a poster with Mike Brown’s picture on it and some quotes about struggle and oppression and I sat on my porch with my 17 year-old nephew listening to protest songs like Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—and other songs from back in the day that are still socially relevant today.   

It was chilly outside, but I didn’t care. I needed to be one with the people in Ferguson because like it or not, we are all in this world together, and the sooner the rest of us realize that, the sooner things will begin to change. Our skin color maybe be different, but our blood is red. The blood that’s shed will not continue to flow from Black and Brown bodies only. We have been warned. We can no longer afford to ignore what’s unfolding before our eyes.

Solidarity with communities like Ferguson is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Complicated Life of James Brown

bio pic n. a biographical movie.
 James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is an essential part of my life. It was in constant rotation on the soundtrack of my childhood growing up on the Westside of Chicago. Not fully understanding the message, I liked the sound of it blasting from the windows of cars driving through the neighborhood as people of African descent dressed in dashikis and platform shoes with gigantic afros. 
   I remember being in second grade and my drawings began to reflect the beauty of Black people around me as I traded peach and yellow crayons for brown and black ones. The women in my drawings who once had hair cascading down their backs were replaced with women who had huge naturals. So, when I saw previews of the James Brown bio pic, Get On Up, I knew that I would be in the audience watching the life of the Godfather of Soul and “the hardest working man in show business” come to life.
 And while it was an interesting look into the life of a complex man, I was hoping for more. It grazed
 the surface of the life that was James Brown, but there was no depth to the movie. James Brown was a
 complicated man. He was generous and selfish. He straddled the political fence. He was an activist
 rolling both the philosophies of King and the Black Panthers. He wrote the anthem of Black pride,
 Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud as well as America is my Home.
Though he never went to school beyond 7th grade, he had good business sense, but he also squandered
 away money. He was ahead of his time, but also a product of his time when it came to issues of race.
In the movie, singer Frankie Avalon makes the mistake of calling him James and Brown corrects 
Mr. Avalon by reminding him that his name is Mr. Brown.
The movie has definitely created a resurgence in the life of James Brown. My Facebook news feed is full 
of clips and songs. The movie has been positively received, but not without criticism. In an article,  
The Whitewashing of James Brown on the Huffington Post, writer Gregory Allen Howard does not mince
 words in his critique of Get On Up. He claims that James Brown and more than fifty other Black iconic
 figures and black-themed films in development are being whitewashed by Hollywood because there are
 no Black producers, directors or writers associated with these projects. Howard says that this only 
happens with material about African-Americans; the story of Gloria Steinem would never be written
 without women’s input.
The focus of Get On Up is singing and dancing, Howard laments. He believes the film does not look at
 James Brown the activist because the emphasis is on James Brown the entertainer.  “Put James 
in the pantheon of the most impactful Black men of the 20th century and he would not be out of place. 
How can I make such an assertion? One song. I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Howard goes on to say that,
 that song changed the way we looked at ourselves. “One day our heads were down, the next day, 
our heads were held high, proud of who we were.”
Making movies based on the lives of real people are tricky. There is only so much information that can
 be condensed into a movie. I get that. And Black people are especially sensitive as to how our icon
s are portrayed. Because of our history, we like to focus on the things that make the person great, the
 things that make us proud. But failing to show us the human side of an icon creates a false narrative.
 For some, a singing and dancing James Brown with enough background information thrown in to give
 us a peek into his life is enough. For others like me, and Howard, the movie fell short, but for vastly
 different reasons. He thought the movie should have focused more on his activism, and I thought it 
should have given us a more accurate picture of his abusive nature. 
The movie did show how his lack of trust, and control issues, but it completely glossed over how he
 mistreated women because of his childhood circumstances being abandoned by his mother and
 growing up in a whore house. The Ray Charles story showed us the genius as well as the humanity
 that was Ray Charles, and it did not take away from who he was. James Brown had multiple wives
 and eight or nine children from his wives and other relationships. The movie focuses on his second wife
 Dee Dee, played by Jill Scott,  and alluded to some abuse when he slapped her wife because another 
man was looking down into her clothes, and another time when he snatched the phone off the wall
 because she didn’t answer it when he called. These scenes are mild in comparison to the real life abuse
 that James Brown inflicted on the women he dated and married. One such woman was Tammi Terrell,
 half of the dynamic singing duo that was Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. 
Brown hired a 17 year old Tammi as a background singer, and wooed her into a relationship when he
 was 30 years old—a relationship that was often times violent. He was arrested numerous times for
 domestic altercations. The acting was excellent, and the actor, Chadwick Boseman, who played
 James Brown, deserves at least an Oscar nod. But the storyline was watered down. The fact that
 James Brown was able to survive extreme poverty, abuse and abandonment, and jail time is a 
testament to the resilience of his spirit. But he did not emerge from his childhood unscathed. 
He had major trust issues, was a control freak issues and did not respect women. 
 Do, I need a movie that recreates a scene where James Brown viciously beats a woman with an
 umbrella? No. But if a bio pic is a movie about someone’s life, we have to take the good with the
 bad. Yes, James Brown was a helluva entertainer. Yes, he was an activist. But he was also a 
womanizer and an abuser. We can show stories that reveal demons of those we admire without 
demonizing them. I am a fan of James Brown the entertainer. Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is,
 and always be an important song to me. And now I know that it was written and performed by
 a talented yet troubled man. . James Brown was fabulous and flawed which makes him human like
 the rest of us.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Sidepiece Agreement: 10 Rules for the Cheating Man

Zondra Hughes piece, The Sidepiece Agreement: 10 Rules for the Other Woman published on the Huffington Post on June 30, is creating quite a buzz on social media. Every other day it’s in my news feed. In the article, a married friend of Hughes shares what a man in a relationship expects from the woman on the side when he steps outside of his relationship.  

According to the “reformed” cheater in the article, a woman who willingly enters into what he describes as a situationship, should abide by the rules of an unspoken agreement that allows her to share another woman’s man—without the other woman’s knowledge of course. Should she decide to break any of the rules, that half of a man (or a third or a fourth depending on how many side chicks he has) can quickly become the invisible man. So, to avoid the possibility of not having even a piece of a man, the article offers 10 rules for side chicks who want to remain relevant.

I wonder what would happen if side chicks had rules, too? And since it takes two to cheat, and a contract is an abiding agreement between at least two parties, why doesn’t a cheating mean have to hold up his end of the deal?

 A cheating man has more to lose than a side chick, so maybe he should consider following 10 Rules for the Cheating Man. They are based largely in part on the rules for the side piece. So, cheating men, listen up!

1.       I am the other woman, and you are not the only man. You can’t have your cake, your ice cream, eat it all and expect me to just lick the leftovers from the bowl. Really? A girl’s gotta eat, too.

2.       I agree that we should focus on the stolen moments that we spend together.  I am the other woman. I know that. So why do you concern yourself with me when we’re not together? Just because you suddenly have free time, doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly available. I have a life outside of you. That’s what you wanted right? So, don’t be mad.

3.       Do not mention your wife or main chick to me. We are in a sitationship as you call it.  So, please do not talk to me about what she does or doesn’t do, what I do better, how she nags blah, blah, blah. My time with you is limited, so let’s just focus on the time we have together, OK?

4.       Nothing is etched in stone. You want me to be flexible, and I am. Know that because our plans change frequently due to the nature of our situation, I have a plan B and a Plan C when Plan A changes. Oftentimes those alternative plans don’t include you. Don’t blow up my phone because you have another stolen moment. I have other things to do, and I’ll get with you when I can.

5.       I understand the importance of maintaining a positive vibe while we are in each others' company. It is vital to the success of our situationship which is why the positive vibe has to go both ways. Please stop complaining to me about your relationship. You’re blowing my positive vibe. Please see point no. 3 for further clarification.

6.       Part-timers don’t get full time benefits. We are as Stevie Wonder sings, part-time lovers; don’t ask me to do anything that is expected of a wife or  girlfriend. No, I don’t cook; I don’t do laundry; I don’t loan money. And no, I’m not your therapist.

7.       Nothing lasts forever; when it’s over, it’s over.  I know what I got myself into, and I reserve the right to get out. Nobody runs a race for second place. Things happen and we find ourselves in the number two spot. When I get tired of living in the shadow of someone else, I’m moving on. So, let’s enjoy us while we can.

8.       No glove; no love.  I need to protect myself so, it’s imperative that we use condoms. Since you’ve admitted that you may have jump-offs all over the place, I don’t want to have to make any unscheduled trips to see my gyne.

9.       Be prepared for the unexpected. Condoms break, birth control fails, biological clocks tick.  If I am stupid enough to have unprotected sex with you, you need to be okay with the outcome. If I happen to get pregnant, you don’t have any say-so.  My decision to abort or carry a pregnancy to term is totally up to me.

10.   There are no guarantees. You said keep our feelings out of this. So, don’t play head games with me. Stop trying to make me think that I can be anything or than a side piece. Stop with the sad stories and/or the fairy tales of happily ever after. If and when your situation changes and I’m still around, let’s just see what happens then. But I also know that if you do it with me, you’ll do it to me.

Lastly, when two people spend quality time together, stolen or otherwise, emotional involvement is unavoidable. That is the nature of a relationship even if it happens to be a situationship. So, if you’re not willing to take that risk with me, please find yourself a prostitute.