The Kerner Report at 50: Dame Magazine

I haven’t been blogging that regularly since the holidays because I’ve been working on some longer form essays and works in progress, along with working on work work and doing other things. But I wanted to take a bit of time to reflect on the 50th anniversary of The Kerner Report and its meaning for Dame Magazine.

The Kerner Report marked the first time in modern U.S. history that government officials acknowledged media bias that favored white narratives and disadvantaged blacks to the detriment of all of American society by underscoring how lazy, biased journalists in unrepresentative newsrooms took the word of “beleaguered” officials in American cities to publish inaccurate figures that gave distorted impressions about the impact of riots on cities, leading to more damage.

There are, unfortunately, too many examples in modern media to provide a comprehensive account of the ways that we have devolved since the Kerner Report. One example is the failure of media to accurately contextualize the rise in domestic extremist terrorism at the hands of white supremacist mass shooters like Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, as a serious threat to national security on the same scale as an external threat posed by foreign nationals, Black or Brown people. In a January 2018 report, the Anti-Defamation League reported that between 2008 and 2017, white supremacists were responsible for 71 percent of all domestic terrorism-linked deaths.

Another example of this lack of progress is the way that Black victims of police-involved shootings are often criminalized in death. Immediately after Michael Brown’s death, the New York Times inserted a line in a story about him high in the story saying that “he was no angel,” as if that would explain why police left the boy’s body uncovered in the street after he’d been shot to traumatize the city of Ferguson, Missouri, even further.

The secondary finding of the Kerner Report was more far-reaching and resonant, and is the finding that all media still have not appropriately dealt with.

By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.

This rings true today in what stories make front page news and what stories are completely ignored or never break through.

You can read the whole piece here.

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Roses for the Living

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Roses for the living.

I was thinking of this saying when I first heard that Erica Garner had a heart attack and we were all hopeful for recovery. I was surrounded by my family, and my sweet nephew led us in prayer for her, and my thoughts were consumed with her and her family, what they had been through and the burden black women are asked to constantly carry.

When I was first starting my newspaper career, I wrote for a time almost exclusively about black death and black pain, whether it was killing in Oakland or incarcerated mothers with families trying to sort through how to live without their needed matriarchs. I didn’t fully appreciate then, because no one had ever told me to, the notion of taking care of myself. I did not think that I was sensitive in any particular way to the harrowing and depressing work of being a witness, of being an advocate and especially of straddling the worlds between corporate journalism, where I had to translate the working class and middle class black experience, and the worlds of black folk.

I’m sure it was someone during this time who first used this phrase, to remind me and to remind others that we should give roses and praises to the ones that we love, the ones that are doing the work, while they are still here.

I was also thinking of another ProPublica piece, this one about black-serving hospitals where black mothers have been dying because of substandard care, a reality that could easily be corrected by improving care for them and making it equal to that which white women receive.

My answer to grief and fear and rage, to emotions I can’t name and want to understand or run away from at the same time, is always the same: I pray. I meditate. I read. Then, I try to write.

I looked to Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body and The Gloria Anzaldua Reader and Evelyn C. White’s The Black Women’s Health Book and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and even bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. I wanted to lean on the words of someone wiser than myself, someone who has lived this harrowing closeness to death and daily destruction, who understands the weariness of spirit that emerges when you just feel like you don’t know how else to ask the world to stop being willfully reckless with black women’s lives and hearts.

I found some passages that were connected. Some statistics, though we are more than numbers and metrics. Maybe I didn’t find the right words because I am supposed to write them, because they were stuck in my throat.

The only housewarming gift I gave to myself in 2017 was a Molly Crabapple print which is a painting of Audre Lorde with a quote, “Your silence will not protect you.” I put it up in a prominent place in my apartment so that I always have to consider it, so that I never forget. What I most respect and love and admire about women who step forward to fight the battles of their lives as Erica Garner did is that they understand this in a visceral, frontline way. It is not theoretical.

It is easy to feel that if we say nothing, that we are protected. That the suffering of the world, the tyrannies that obstruct justice will forget us. But reading from the full lecture that the quote is derived from, delivered a little more than exactly 40 years ago from a paper published as “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” helped me to remember why it is important to remember to continue to resist the temptation to clam up:

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.”

I had forgotten that this quote talked about how breaking silence gave Audre community, how it gives me, gives us, gave Erica, community even if community is not always enough to save us. Audre wrote this, too:

In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women’s movement, we have had to fight, and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our Blackness. For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you to dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”

That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also the source of our greatest strength. 

This resonates, and feels true, but also we know from the death of Kalief Browder’s mother, Venida, and now Erica, that the vulnerabilities that come with being visible while fighting the good fight often don’t make us feel strong at all. People praise us with their mouths, but outside of public view is where the real war is – with keeping a life together, with staying healthy, remembering to rest, remembering to grieve, remembering that if there are no roses given to you that you can seek your own — but that too comes at a cost.

As Erica’s mother, Esaw Snipes said, “The only thing I can say is that she was a warrior. She fought the good fight. This is just the first fight in 27 years she lost.”

I tried to not write this at all. I had some down time. I was doing other work and I made myself stop being productive to take care of myself, so that I wasn’t spending an entire day during the last hours of the longest year in modern memory thinking of how many broken hearted black women have died while a complicit nation apologized and watched and then proceeded to kill another one.

I took a friend’s beautiful book of poetry with me to the great continent of Brooklyn for a birthday party, had a couple of drinks, met some great folks, had a good meal and came home, haunted, exhausted, near tears in the wee hours of the last day of 2017. I will not be defeated, not while I’m living, not by racism, not by sexism, not by silences or complicity. Or, at least, I can say I will keep trying not to be.

I do not know how to give myself the luxury of looking away when the world is too much, though, and it is often too much. Zora said there are years that ask questions and years that answer. I hope that 2018 has answers for us.

She’s Gotta Have It

In 2004, when She Hate Me came out, I was assigned to write a story about Spike Lee for the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was a young features reporter at the time. The movie’s tagline was: “One heterosexual male. 18 lesbians. His fee…$10,000 each.”

Like a lot of Spike Lee’s work, I thought the concept was interesting, but I was worried about the execution. I missed one screening of the film, possibly two, and felt like my spirit was subconsciously trying to protect me from seeing the thing all the way through. (Roger Ebert, bless his soul, was probably the only person who wrote anything nice about the movie, which included animated sperm. )

The best thing about the movie was that it provided an opportunity for me to interview Spike Lee in person. His Malcolm X biopic is one of my favorite movies of all time. I wouldn’t see them until later, but When the Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls are two of the most important and beautiful documentaries ever made about black people in our country.

I respect Spike Lee because he has fought for and maintained against all odds complete and utter control of his artistic vision. He is not afraid to take risks, which makes me love him loyally and even more, because there is perhaps no bigger challenge for black artists in America than to take risks.

In the realm of creativity and imagination, black art is always cast as political, created in response to or because of oppression. Black art, like black genius, that is beautiful on its own merit, absent of political sensibilities, is not a concept that is understood, which is why most critiques of black cultural products that are not composed by people of color miss the mark. They cannot conceive of a blackness that is not self-conscious, reactive and that exists for its own sake or to encourage more of the same.

Anyway, even though I was intimidated by Spike, it was still an honor to speak to him and a very young Kerry Washington (also a Bronx girl). I rambled and he was patient but I had two burning questions:

  • Would he one day find the discipline to end a movie properly? (I was thinking of the basketball launch from prison out into the world at the end of He Got Game; the montage at the end of X; Bamboozled, Clockers…I mean, there are 30 years of movies here to assess at this point, so you get the point. But it doesn’t matter because I never got the courage to actually ask this.)
  • What did he think about criticisms that he only wrote one-dimensional female characters? (I did ask this: “Some people say that one of your flaws as a director is writing realistic female characters.” It could have been my imagination, but I remember him rolling his eyes at the first part of that question.)

There are likely some exceptions in Spike Lee’s work — of mothers, or sisters or women who are based on real-life characters — but by and large, women in Spike Lee’s films are rendered as caricatures instead of complex characters like male protagonists. It is always the men who have full and complete narrative arcs in his films, motivations that make sense, pragmatic drive and passion. Maybe because he is closer to them, he understands what motivates them, what they desire.

The women, though, tend to be caricatures. Troubled beauties. Whiny plot devices with a good line or two, amazing bone structure. This is them as love objects, as wives and lovers. As with all cultural products that are not meant to be humorous, maternal respect protects black motherhood from the same kind of flat rendering. But all other women are mysterious and odd.

When I asked Spike Lee about critiques of one-dimensional female characters in his films, he said that his wife and some time collaborator Tonya Lewis Lee helped him flesh out the women in his films. He didn’t say it but the look behind his thick framed glasses after suggested his answer should quell any critiques.

I thought about that again when I watched the She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series this weekend, for whom Tonya Lewis Lee is the show runner and for which there was reportedly a robust women’s writers room. This is the part you shouldn’t read if you haven’t watched it yet. SPOILERS BELOW.

  • The best thing about She’s Gotta Have It on the small screen is that it is beautiful to see. The actors are lovely. The soundtrack is amazing. The art is also lovely. (I loved so much of the influence of Art Consultant and Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh). The homage to black musicians and artists and blackness in Brooklyn is incredible.
  • The second best thing about this is that Spike Lee is brilliant on the small screen. I think this has something to do with giving his ideas a container in which to work. Sometimes the best writing is short because it requires economy and discipline; I think television and documentary work help him refine his vision and rein it in in a way that is only positive in the end.
  • In the span of 10 episodes, it’s clear that we are in a Brooklyn that is very different from the Brooklyn that Spike Lee has loved and grew up in his whole life. That informs the backdrop of the series in a way that isn’t distracting so much as it reminds you, regularly, that even though this a remix, it is very much a Spike Lee Joint. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Is this about Nola Darling or is it about the male experience of Nola Darling?
  • To that point about who this Nola Darling/series is for, maybe I should have expected there to be a moment about Trump and the 2016 Election, but 1. I didn’t and 2. I wasn’t sure why it was wedged in here. It felt like Spike couldn’t wait for his next project to get it out — much like his feelings on gentrification in Brooklyn — so he amplified them here.
  • DeWanda Wise is wonderful as Nola Darling. She is beautiful and perfect and has great chemistry, especially with Anthony Ramos, who plays Mars, but really with each of her lovers. I appreciated the update for her as someone with a fluid sexuality. This is something that could have been a little more fleshed out.
  • There is an odd heavy-handed series of comments on her black dress that needed to be condensed, and a scene in front of her art with Me’Shell N’degeochello playing while she’s spinning around that goes on for too long.
  • Much has already been made and will be made about how delightful She’s Gotta Have It is for representation of black women and the complexity of it. I would argue that it is a good start (and even that is debatable because…it has been 30 years! Can you call yourself woke if you got up late?) but there are some pretty wacky missteps. The whole Shamekka/butt injection side plot and scenario leads to a narrative arc for that character that is obvious and literally messy on all kinds of levels. The whole time it was happening, it felt like a flashback, like a montage from another movie.
  • At some point Nola makes the point, paraphrasing another woman, that she’s found the man of her dreams and it is her. It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for someone who is essentially queer — is this the language she would use, then, to declare her freedom? Besides, in the end, it doesn’t seem that it’s even true — but maybe that’s just a set up for the next season.

In the end, I enjoyed She’s Gotta Have It more than I expected, and I’m curious to see where it will go from here. If you’ve seen it, what did you think?

Book Update and DC Author Festival, October 24th

DC Author Festival GraphicSince How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color was published at the end of August, life has been a bit hectic, but in the best way. After three years of working, moving, working, writing and researching the book, working, moving again, editing the book, I was too tired to plan a book party.

If this seems convenient, well, it was sort of. I decided to do something I haven’t done in 12 years. I took a vacation. It was glorious.

Thankfully, my colleagues with the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) group in DC was kind enough to let me talk about the book and what I discovered while writing it at the National Press Club a few weeks ago. It was an honor to meet such an esteemed and lovely group of women and to match names with faces.

That said, while responses to my book have been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few folks who 1. Question the premise of the title despite overwhelming evidence of the fact that media diversity has not been a priority and has led to a significant decline in relevant audiences caring about traditional news or paying for news consumption and 2. Are not hesitant about disagreeing with the sentiment, research or facts behind my argument. The defensiveness surprises me, given what we know about the sexism and racism that unfolds throughout our social media networks on a regular basis. But the fact that there is still resistance is all the more reason to continue to have discussions about how women and people of color can leverage social media to their advantage and how the few media conglomerates that are doing a better job with diverse coverage (The New York Times, for example) can set a good example for the digital and legacy outlets that still think it’s OK to remain predominantly white and male.

I was overjoyed that for a little while my book was one of the top new releases on Amazon within the first month that it was published. I’m sure my friends and family did that. I’ll be selling copies on Saturday, October 24th at the DC Author Festival at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 901 G Street NW from 10 until 5. There’s a great lineup of speakers and workshops – you can download the program booklet here.  Please come by, buy a copy and I’ll sign it for you. Or if you have a copy and you’d like me to sign it for you, that’ll work too.

My book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color

BooksThis is a stack of my contributor copies for my new book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and and People of Color. It’s scheduled to be published August 31.

I owe so much of the existence of this book to my mentors and colleagues in journalism, especially Dori Maynard, who I wish was alive to see the publication of a work that is built on the foundation of work that she and her father pioneered regarding media diversity.

Beyond that, I started writing this book in earnest the same year that my mother died. I needed to pour my heart into something that I cared passionately about, and in spite of myself, journalism and the journalism industry, with all of its potential and flaws, became part of that.

So now it is in physical form, after I have carried it around in my head and heart all this time, which I can’t imagine ever getting old for a writer, especially someone who has loved books and wanted to publish one for most of my life. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

It’s at Amazon and ABC-CLIO.

Self-care in a time of racial terror

A friend and I were discussing the heroics of Bree Newsome this weekend when I ran out of things to say. Driving in the rain, attending to the life chores that are demanded of us, I was at a loss for how to describe the light that filled me when I saw the video of her climbing that flag pole, descending with Scripture on her lips, calmly informing the irritated men on the ground that she was prepared to be arrested.

The image of her holding on to that flag like a New Age Lady Liberty gave me chills. But it was something else. It felt like permission to breathe after a series of stories in the news that have left me breathless. It was not unlike President Obama’s eulogy for Rep. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, which was not only one of the most beautiful speeches I’ve ever heard, but also a pointed affirmation of the power of black love to restore back to us our humanity.

In a world where black women are too often invisible, Bree Newsome was and is a symbol of renewal. She gave me life with her act of rebellion, a symbol of how the resilience of black womanhood sometimes eclipses detrimental symbols of hatred. The echo, was “She did it herself.” #WeHelpOurselves, indeed.

Has it been a year, or several months, or an eternity that these headlines have been assaulting us? In the aftermath of Charleston, Dylann Roof, Rachel Dolezal, McKinney, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Marissa Alexander, Rekia Boyd, and the other names of the dead, dying, racially infused, racially polarized or racially symbolic, I have found myself more weary from the news than ever.

There was a time when I felt adrenaline coursing through my veins logging on to social media, to see what news the day or night had brought. Now, I feel a sense of dread and mourning on first glance and it only takes a few minutes for me to feel like I should crawl right back into bed and forget the day.

I have, for all of my adult life, been tethered to the news as a journalist and a writer. Newsrooms were my first sense of community, after the context of classrooms and schools. Even before I became a journalist officially fifteen years ago, I inhaled newspapers and sometimes local TV news in the Bronx. When I was just a consumer, I had the leisure of controlling my consumption. I could put down the paper or magazine; I could turn the TV off. I could create some distance.

I still have that choice but the game has changed. Writing is not just who I am and what I do but it is how I survive in the world. To be a writer, now, is to also be considered a journalist, especially if you are a black writer. These are not problems in and of themselves, but they present special challenges.

When I was researching my new book, I read a line from a journalist of color who said that she was expected to be both a witness to the struggles in her community and an interpreter for her white editors. Though I no longer work in a newsroom, I experience this same conundrum, along racial and political lines. Reaction is considered reporting.

My friend told me what she had read about the Confederate flag, about Dylann Roof, too, and she started to share. I appreciated getting the filtered version from her, I said, but I told her that I had stopped reading the glut of information that came in. Because it was painful. It was too much. I needed time to process and to feel and to see my own emotions, to grieve. To regain some sense of power. To breathe.

Research affirms that black women react differently to witnessing traumatic events than other groups and that includes experiencing the news. There is something about our double jeopardy, our doubly oppressed status that triggers a response in us that is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We lose our appetites. Our sleep is disrupted. We feel anger, fear, despair.

I thought about this again when I watched What Happened, Miss Simone? which chronicles the life and demise of Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul who was not only undone by manic depression but also her political expressions of rage against racism and racial terrorism. In the film, you can see how systemic racism squelched not only her voice but her spirit.

What black women know, what we feel, at all times, is that there are multiple prices to pay for acknowledging our truth and speaking it. We have seen it over the decades. Strange fruit, swinging from the trees. Literally, figuratively.

As a black woman writer, I pay two tolls when news of racial terrorism breaks: the first is the impact it has on my body and spirit; the second is the weight of expectation that I perform my reaction, that at the very least, I publicly process the act of witness, making that more of a priority than reconciling a deluge of images, commentary and reporting over my internal, personal processing.

To be black in America is to know that few people care about your health or safety or well-being.

It is to live daily with the reality of a horrific, skyrocketing suicide rate among little black children who do not have the luxury of believing we care about a future that affirms their lives.

It is to be told outright or by silence that even when you have nothing to say, even when you are too tired to react or respond, you stand in the gap. But for grace, you might be dead now, so speak, in spite of weariness or fear or dread.

There is truth in that. It is also true that self-care is a political act. An assertion of worth. An assertion of the belief that you deserve silence and time. You deserve your love and attention as much as anything or anyone else.

Sometimes, when I am silent, it is not because of apathy, but an abundance of feeling. An acknowledgment that I need to step back before lashing out. To rediscover joy. To heal. To witness. To hold symbols of hate in my hands and work to dismantle them while praying the consequences that unfold will not destroy my life.