#HimToo: Why I’m Not Shocked At All

Content warning: Sexual harassment and abuse, rampant rape culture

I keep watching as powerful man after powerful man is accused of some degree of sexual violence—be it harassment, sexual assault, or serially preying on young people. Some of these allegations of sexual predation are more disappointing or more disturbing than others, but none of them are remotely surprising. They don’t surprise me, because I have memorized the litany of enabling excuses we make for men my whole life.

When they’re 5, and boys harass girls, we’re told, “Honey, he just likes you.”

When they’re 12, they tell us, “Boys will be boys.”

When they’re 16, we’re often reminded that “Girls mature faster than boys” so we can’t expect them to treat us with dignity.

When they’re 20-year-olds in college, their violence is shrugged off. “One youthful indiscretion shouldn’t ruin this boy’s life.”

When they’re 35 and don’t know how to interact professionally with women at work, we are told “Don’t make a fuss if you wanna move up the ladder” or “You don’t wanna get a reputation.” That’s right. Our reputations are at stake if we name the harassment we face.

When they’re middle aged, we must “Consider all the GOOD he’s done.”

When they’re old, we can’t expect better because “He’s from a different era.”

When they’re entertainers or athletes, we are shamed. “You’re just trying to get money/rich/famous.”

At all stages of life, we are blamed. “What did you do/what were you wearing/how much did you drink/but weren’t you flirting?”

I live in a world where men’s unwanted sexual advances are always to be understood or withstood. Continue reading “#HimToo: Why I’m Not Shocked At All”

He was somebody’s baby and he didn’t deserve to die

Old southern black women are poets. The way they turn a phrase might make you cringe, groan, or laugh—but you never forget. Phrases like “knee-high to a grasshopper” or “high as giraffe coochie” just stick with you forever and you laugh and can’t wait for when you are old enough to get away with saying anything. Old southern black women have that power to be  unflinching in their observations and words.

I hope to be old some day, but I rarely imagine the end of my life being like my great-aunt’s: 96 years old, lying in bed, surrounded by family, love, and prayer. A peaceful transition. Instead, I have often imagined my life coming to an abrupt and violent end.

Maybe it’s at a traffic stop, which is why my body goes tense and rigid whenever I see a squad car traveling near me. Maybe it’s at an action, which is why I have about four different ways of keeping in touch with loved ones when I’m at a protest. Maybe I’m walking down the street minding my own business but stop to observe cops questioning young men and they turn their ire toward me.

Or maybe I live to be 100. Who knows? But the fact that in every encounter with police I start calculating the likelihood of my death points to a truth that I, and black people, have known forever: We are living under a terrorist regime.

I was 11 years old when Los Angeles police brutally beat Rodney King. I was 11 when I saw this man, terrified and cowering on the ground, be struck again and again. There were four of them, the boys in blue, and one of him, the man wrapped in black. Though he was powerless to resist, they kept on pounding him and it looked like a lot of fun for them.

My memory of it is horrifying, but I honestly don’t remember being horrified when I was 11. I was already desensitized to the terror, no longer shocked that something like this would happen, only that someone had filmed the whole thing. This time the bastards would get theirs.

We all thought so. Continue reading “He was somebody’s baby and he didn’t deserve to die”

Resurrection and Resistance: An organizer’s journey of faith

A little over a decade ago, I wrote an Easter play that got me into trouble with my church leadership. My project got canned because my church and I fundamentally disagreed about who Jesus was on Earth. My Jesus was a thought leader, a defier of corrupt authority, and a teacher who inspired students to love learning and experience liberation through education.

My pastor told me that my Jesus reeked of rebellion and she wouldn’t allow this play to be produced because it would inspire our young people to disrespect their parents and teachers.

The problem started weeks earlier when I was asked to write the Easter play and decided it should be a collaborative project between the youth ministry and me. I was co-leading our youth group until the church found a new youth pastor. I proposed a process to the youth: Let’s reimagine the series of events leading to Christ’s crucifixion as conflicts in a high school.

The woman caught in the act of adultery became a girl who’d betrayed a friend by sleeping with her boyfriend. Little attention was paid to the boy’s actions, but the girl was bullied and shamed, alienated from her entire high school community because she’d been a hoe. Just as she was about to be physically assaulted, another student grabs the new teacher Jesus and asks him to intervene. He asks the students who among them is so perfect that they didn’t need to offer grace to this young woman. Who had never done anything wrong at school or at home? Who had never betrayed a friend’s trust?

We created this scene together. Then we read the Gospel accounts of Holy Week and looked for other stories we could reset in high school. We talked about the characters in these biblical accounts — what their motivations were, what conflicts they faced, what the role of Jesus was in all of it. They’d never been so excited to study the Bible. Everyone, including the pastors, was happy.

Until we started making a storyline for the Pharisees. In traditional Bible study, the Pharisees are easily cast as villains. They are the religious leadership who sold out to the Romans for comfort and positions within the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, a land given to them by God. They are the religious vipers whose rigidity to the letter of the law was a tool of manipulation — it’s how they always tried to turn Jesus’ ministry into heresy and blasphemy. They were supposed to care for the spiritual well-being of of the Jews, but instead colluded with Rome.

When it was time to decide who the Pharisees of a high school saga would be, we decided that if Jesus was The Teacher, then Pharisees would have to be The Administration. And that’s when our project got the axe. Continue reading “Resurrection and Resistance: An organizer’s journey of faith”

Standing Rock: The World Stopped Turning

I don’t talk much about the short time I spent in Standing Rock. Sometimes even the most justice-minded of us engage in performative solidarity, so I limit conversations to what feels useful—preparing organizers who want to shore up the front lines, sharing what I learned about how best to show up and what supplies to bring, that kind of thing.

We non-Natives also tend to talk about Native American folks as noble creatures and not people fighting for the same rights to life as the rest of us. So I hesitate to talk much about how it felt to immediately recognize the camp grounds as holy grounds, or about the main circle at camp where ceremony of some kind is ongoing, and where the beat of drums is constant. I do talk about the only time the drums went silent.

I was settling in for the night. The sky was clear and starry, and the river was relatively calm. The camp was starting to get quiet, with the small fires on the grounds going out one by one, so it was hard to find my way back to my tent. I walked tentatively toward the camp’s entrance, where my large group had set up. I ran into a friend, the kind who’s always extra prepared with stuff like extra flashlights and we walked together.

After dinner and fellowship around our own fire, everyone started retiring to their tents. As I snuggled into my sleeping bag, I could hear voices around me calling a name.* “Angelaaaaa. Angela!” The calls grew closer and louder, more people having joined in. A little girl had gone missing and people were out with flashlights trying to find her.

I didn’t panic. I heard so many voices and saw so many lights, I felt confident that Angela would be found quickly. Sometimes kids wander off.  And to be more honest than I’m comfortable with, I was very tired and needed to be up in a few hours, so I assumed that the thousands of people at the camp had it under control, and that I—one more person—wouldn’t make a huge difference. I would sleep and make sure I was well rested in the morning.

After a while of listening to people call for Angela I started to worry. If she had just wandered a little further away from her family than usual they would have found her by now. But then the drums from the main circle got loud and triumphant and I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. It appeared Angela had safely rejoined her family. I closed my eyes and drifted away into sleep.

Somewhere in that space between alertness and slumber, I heard Angela’s name being called again. I thought for several moments I might be dreaming. I thought they’d found her already. I don’t know where the breakdown in communication happened, but the report that she’d been found was wrong. The camp was still looking for a lost six-year-old girl.

Camp leaders fanned out and were waking up everyone on site. If you are physically able, everybody needs to head to the main road now! There’s a missing little girl. Get up and head to the main road now. Continue reading “Standing Rock: The World Stopped Turning”

Staring my homophobia in the mirror

We were so alike then, almost mirror reflections of each other, two dark-skinned curvy girls with wide, bright smiles. Thick coarse hair crowned our heads, each mane lightly bleached and damaged from misapplied chemical relaxers. We both had the kind of luscious full lips that everyone wants now, but only black folks unabashedly loved then. We’d grown up having our thick frames praised and sought after, so it hadn’t occurred to either of us to fear crop tops.

Shalea** and I both had names that commanded attention. The kind of names that made folks stop and wonder if they heard you correctly. We both had personalities that commanded attention. She was certainly an alpha, a young woman who’d been the charismatic leader of her circle of friends back in Oakland and who was determined to claim that position in our newly formed group—whether or not she was actually appointed. I’d never been seen as the leader of any group. Instead I had flitted from clique to clique at my Catholic school in New Orleans, often taking center stage—whether or not I was actually encouraged.

We linked up with two other young women during our first weeks at Hampton University. There was Tiana from Texas and Linda, who I’d not seen since middle school, after which her family moved to the Midwest. They were initially quieter and more introverted. They were balance. But the glue that held us all together, at least in the beginning, was a shared commitment to Jesus. Each of us were, for the first time, navigating the world without our families. We were the answers to our mothers’ prayers: “Lord, let my baby find some saved friends, so she can stay on the path of righteousness.”

For a long time, our measure for righteousness was sexual purity.

Continue reading “Staring my homophobia in the mirror”

There’s no such thing as a safe space: Grieving after Orlando

I needed an updo. I have dreadlocks, thick heavy tresses now long enough to fall over my shoulders. I was going to be a bridesmaid in an outdoor wedding in New Orleans. In the summer. The thought of my locks touching my face and my neck and my shoulders and back while I stood smiling in steamy humidity was too much to bear. I needed an updo.

At the recommendation of several of my dreadhead sistren, I found a stylist in the 7th Ward, drove to her through pouring rain, and waited more than an hour to be seen. I walked into the shop and saw locs and afros and braids being done. I heard the familiar Creole cadence of speech I’d grown up with. I was called darlin’ as soon as I walked in the door. There are no spaces like this in my current city, Minneapolis. This new place immediately felt like home.

When homophobia slaps you in the face at home the pain is sharper, the disruption that much more jarring. When you take your black woman, nappy-headed, country-thick body into a space that welcomes you like family, and you sink a little deeper into the seat, and you breathe a little more easily, you forget that they might still hate you if they knew you were queer.

The stylists worked hard on thickly coiled manes and casually talked about one of these punks in the city. I realized they were talking about a locally famous transgender woman. They misgendered her, called her a man in makeup, and lamented how much the media is glorifying “that mess.” They all agreed we must be in the end days with all these gay people everywhere and men wanting to be women.

My heart ached, but my mouth clamped shut. I didn’t have the energy to address it. I no longer knew who I was with. I had no idea how safe it would be for me to speak up. I didn’t know whether to out myself and challenge their bigotry head on, or to accept that, as a person living in several marginalized identities, no place would be safe for them all. I couldn’t figure out whether it was worth it to leave, my own hair unfinished, and show up at my best friend’s wedding the next day with the best hairstyle I could muster on my own.

So I seethed inwardly, pulled out my smartphone, and told my social media what was happening around me.

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Their casual homophobia went on and on. And I swallowed the lump in my throat. Continue reading “There’s no such thing as a safe space: Grieving after Orlando”

No #Justice4Jamar: Cops once again answer to no one

There will be no justice for Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black Minneapolis man shot dead by police on November 15, 2015. Clark joins a seemingly endless parade of young black people murdered at the hands of police officers who face no consequences for their reckless use of lethal force.

Wednesday morning, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze would not be indicted to stand trial.

We knew this was coming.

For 18 days, thousands of protesters gathered to mourn and demand justice for Jamar. For 18 days, we sang, held each other close, offered encouragement and food to anyone who stopped by while providing hats, gloves, and jackets to those who joined. Homeless families came to find temporary shelter in our tents and respite from the cold winter by the fires we built to warm our bodies and reignite our commitment to justice. Together, we had a huge family-style Thanksgiving dinner.

One week before the county attorney’s announcement, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau started making the case that black people, and not wild, undisciplined cops, terrorize our communities. In a short video, she threatened that her police will not tolerate violence against anyone, including officers, following the decision.The video conveniently omits MPD officers’ bullying taunts and brutal physical provocations that led to tense moments. Police use of excessive force has led to the opening of a federal investigation. Harteau’s claims are so egregious—painting precinct protests as violent and lawless—that activists and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges decried them as a false depiction of events. Continue reading “No #Justice4Jamar: Cops once again answer to no one”