Je Suis Charlie Ain’t For Me But Nigeria Is

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Last night I was about to go to bed when I noticed the image above posted on a friend’s Facebook page. I had just finished watching the Golden Globes for three hours and heard more white people evoke the clarion call of the moment “Je suis Charlie” than I heard them even so much as imply that “Black Lives Matter.” The latter is the prevailing topic of our days and “Je suis Charlie” just came into our consciousness about a week ago. It seemed to me that this would have been a key moment for this group to show their solidarity but instead they showed that they are more concerned about ensuring the right to free speech even when it borders on being racist and offensive to their fellow brothers and sisters than they are in protecting the lives of those same brothers and sisters. So last night the fight for freedom of speech and expression won over making true the allegedly self-evident truth, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I’ve yet to post “Je suis Charlie” anywhere for a variety of reasons not limited to being unsure that the campaign is one I need to get behind before I pump my fist more powerfully in the direction of fighting for the rights of my own who are slaughtered daily. I don’t feel compelled to say, “Je suis Charlie” because it feels like the call of those who’ve always known the privilege of freedom, such as the freedom to draw potentially racist and offensive pictures and call it entertainment. I don’t know that freedom. I know more about what it means to be the satirical cartoonist’s subject than I do to be the cartoonist. I am not free to draw. It is for that reason that I cannot, with any sense of confidence, say “Je suis Charlie.” I cannot say “Je suis Charlie” in the midst of the injustices taking place in my own backyard that are based on the harsh, unjust lived experience of being black in America. And surely I can’t part my lips to say “Je suis Charlie” when just this weekend Nigeria experienced its deadliest massacre at the hands of Boko Haram. 2,000 innocent children, women, and elderly people were allegedly massacred and now there is news of children being used as suicide bombers by the organization. Nigeria, where over 200 girls were kidnapped last year and we still don’t have them all back. How can I get behind #jesuischarlie when #bringbackourgirls and #blacklivesmatter are still at large? My brothers and sisters cannot decide not be black one day but the cartoonist and the writer can decide to use their gift differently. This is why “Je suis Charlie” ain’t for me.

My responsibility is to my people. This is not to dismiss of the importance of the lives lost in Paris or those putting themselves on the front lines to protest for a freedom–not freedom but one kind of freedom, but I acknowledge that the fight for fundamental freedom in my own backyard weighs more heavily upon me. Boiled down this is about the pen versus personhood, and even though I’m a writer my blackness compels me to the fight that I see as more essential to ensure more of my people live to see another day.

I am more Naija than I am Charlie.

I am more captive than I am free.

I am more subject of derision than I am master.

I am not Charlie.

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

As for me and my house, I will be praying for Nigeria. 

#prayforNigeria

Rape Culture, Rape, and the Privileged Voices, Pt. 2

In part one I used Total Sorority Move’s article entitled, “Is It Possible that There is Something Between Consensual Sex and Rape” to discuss what I have observed as something of a trend in rape culture discourse. I explained how race may color one’s interpretation of sexual assault and alluded to the privileged voices that have dominated in the discussion. In this, part two, I will discuss the alluded to privileged voices and the problem with said voices, highlight work being done to give marginalized voices some capital in the discussion, and share my suggestion for another way.

Lena Dunham is Not That Kind of GirlThe second article that was the impetus for this discourse is actually several articles all about Lena Dunham’s account of a sexual assault in college which appears in her memoir “Not that Kind of Girl.” In her retelling Dunham arrives at a party drunk and high and meets a “creepy guy” whom she manages to give her address. She leaves the party and runs into a friend in the parking lot who attempts to dissuade her from going home with the guy but she refuses. According to Dunham, when she gets home she tries to convince herself that she is willingly having sex with the guy and starts to have sex with him until she realizes that the condom that was supposed to be on his penis was instead hanging from a decorative tree. At the sight of this she flees to her couch, tells him to go and that was the end of it. The next morning, when she tells her roommate about the situation, her roommate lets her know that she was raped. Dunham laughs it off but then it settles in for her, changing everything she thought she knew about rape and now it is contributing to the discourse about college campus sexual assault. This account from her memoir has been making its rounds:

“Why It Matters that Lena Dunham Wrote About Being Raped in College”

“Lena Dunham’s Story of Rape is a Must-Read”

“Why Every Feminist Needs to Read Lena Dunham’s Description of Her Rape”

“Lena Dunham: Not All Rapists Are Straight-Forward Villains”

“Lena Dunham: I Was Raped By a Republican”

“Lena Dunham Discovers Ambiguity”

And the list goes on.

I saw Dunham’s story within minutes of reading Total Sorority Move article mentioned in part one, so this may have influenced my reading. But here I was again reading about a young white women caught in a precarious situation with a man, trying to convince herself that she was either comfortable or willingly having sex with him. Unlike the Total Sorority Move story Dunham took action and told the man to get off her as soon as she realized that he wasn’t wearing a condom. Dunham also stated that the man was sexually aggressive toward her–although I will be honest that I’m not sure how you can discern that when you are both drunk and high. I’ve been drunk a few times and high once and I can say, under either circumstance, I wasn’t always sure what was going on around me. Being drunk impairs physical and mental faculties and being high alters your state of consciousness, so being drunk AND high and still discerning someone’s intention/actions toward you seems questionable. Nevertheless there are some facts in Dunham’s story that could render it true and a case of rape as we have come to know it in campus sexual assault incidents, but there are also some facts that make me question the story’s veracity. I wonder why–if she could sense that this guy was creepy and sexually aggressive and a Republican–she denied the help of a friend who tried to stop her? Was that not her ram in the bush? And had she not seen the condom hanging from the tree would she have continued in the encounter? Again I’m confused by the details of the story, what exactly makes it rape, and further what makes narrative accounts of this kind stand out in the public consciousness. Indeed we must be made aware of the sexual violence against women, but it seems that there is a privileging of narratives and those narratives that we lift up also happen to be from, primarily, from white women.

White women’s voices have long been privileged and the catalyst for change as well as, unfortunately, great hostility and violence. History proves this with the case of Emmet Till who, on a family visit to Mississippi, spoke to a white woman, was accused of flirting with her, and then was beaten and shot by her husband and his half-brother. The story of the Rosewood massacre has Fannie Taylor who had a domestic violence altercation with her husband that was heard by the neighborhood but she accused a black man of raping her. The cinematic portrayal of the Rosewood massacre, “Rosewood,” had Fannie run out of her house screaming, “It was a nigger!” This set the town against their black neighbors and caused tensions to flare to violent, destructive levels. Even Tyler Perry has illustrated the power of white women’s voices when, in his 2007 film “Daddy’s Little Girls,” Monty (played by Idris Elba) a single father is haunted and socially stymied by a rape accusation made against him in high school by a white girl whom he was having consensual sex with. I bring these examples up not to accuse white women of lying about their accounts of sexual assault but to illustrate the power their voices have had and have for a long time. Their word is bond before it is ever wrong. We know a white woman claimed to have started the #bringbackourgirls campaign and was believed without question when it was actually a global campaign that originated in Abuja, Nigeria. But far from highlighting negative accounts, there are also the positive accounts of white women coming to the defense of black people being discriminated against in public places–there’s an Upworthy video for that. White women’s voices have power for both good and evil, and while I respect the power wielded for good, I also want the world to recognize, hear, and acknowledge the voices that have been marginalized. Room must be made for a multitude of voices as we continue these discussions about rape culture and non/consensual sex. In this, black voices must be heard because black female bodies and the narratives of their sexual assault matter just as much as that black male bodies being taken nearly every day by force.

black_women_and_violenceIn almost any context sexual violence is hard to talk about, but it is black women who bear a particular burden with the issue because of the manifold ways in which our bodies have been exploited, objectified, and subjugated. In a 2012 article on Forbes.com entitled, “Black Women, Sexual Assault, and the Art of Resistance,” a statistic from the Department of Justice was shared that stated for every white woman who reports her rape, 5 don’t but for every African-American woman who reports her rape, 15 don’t. There are manifold reasons for this silence, many of which are connected to long-held, unhealthy cultural traditions. For example, some of us live under the “it’s family business” regime and therefore we keep our stories to ourselves lest we throw family members, friends, and others under the symbolic bus. Or there are the manifold cases of young women abused by family members who confess to their mothers, grandmothers, aunts or other female guardian only to be told they were lying, “fast-tailed” and then are summarily shipped away. But it is important for us to reveal and tell our stories not just for our freedom but to add color to a largely monochromatic discourse. There is (at least) one group doing just that.

In August, writer, performer, storyteller and teaching artist Michelle Denise Jackson knows a lot of black women whose lives revolve around some account of sexual assault in their childhood or during young adulthood and how black women’s sexual assault narratives are profuse but it is not a part of the larger discussions we have regarding sexual assault. Last Tuesday on ForHarriet.com, Jackson returned to the subject of Black women’s experience with sexual assault to promote the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization established by the black feminist organization Black Women’s Blueprint, to focus on rape/sexual assault and its effects specifically on women of African descent. The BWTRC is aiming to collect 1,000 stories from black women about how sexual assault has impacted their lives on every level and the impetus for this new initiative is precisely because the many dialogues about sexual assault fail to account for the specific ways in which the crime affects black women. And this is not the only group that is providing space for black women to share their stories of sexual assault and survival nor is it the first time a black woman’s group is stepping up to the anti-rape debate. Black women have been at the forefront of anti-rape activism and can count amongst their leaders, Rosa Parks, who did work to lead African-American women’s public protests that galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. We need to get back to the place where black women’s voices on this matter have as much strength and credibility as their white female peers.

My desire is that discourse regarding sexual violence, from rape to nonconsensual sex and the areas in between, would be an inclusive dialogue. That every time we come to the table to talk about sexual assault, a multitude of voices would be present that represent the diversity of women’s experience with this crime. The Lena Dunhams, white sorority girls, and white women of the world can’t be dominant in sexual assault narratives, and the narratives of black women can’t be relegated to the margins. The establishment of the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is surely a start in the right direction, but we also need to work on forming multicultural alliances that facilitate a more in-depth understanding of how sexual violence affects women in the broader sense so that policies created touch those women and not just answer the cries of the privileged. We can no longer work with the assumption that all sexual violence is experienced the same (which, I understand may also bank on me acknowledging that the accounts from Dunham and the white sorority girl are valid because those are particular experiences of sexual assault that took something away from those women.) There are cultural differences that influence understandings of sexual assault and those differences need to be brought to the forefront for everyone to acknowledge and understand. We need an alliance that explicitly calls for the integration of women’s stories of sexual assault that will both reveal and allow for cross-cultural understandings of the many faces and experiences of sexual assault. It’s time for us to make clear space for women of all races and ethnicities to come together and share their stories in ways that refuse to privilege any one story. Because if any decision is going to be made about women’s bodies all women must be taken into account.

For more information on organizations that focus on rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, incest, and other sex-related crimes visit:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

The Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Page

 

Why I’m Not That Into the 4th of July

Today I have no “Happy 4th of July/Independence Day” in me. For the past few days I’ve felt I have no lot in this day and I’m not the least bit compelled to sing “I’m proud to be an American,” because I’m not sure that I am. I was raised in a Jamaican family that wasn’t the least bit interested in waving an American flag, so I feel more Caribbean than I do American. Aside from that, as I reflect on this day, I see no merit in it from both a historical and current perspective.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence changed nothing of the Negro’s status–I’m channeling a little Frederick Douglass here. It secured the independence of white men and women by way of allowing them to live and move in an independent nation but black people were still enslaved. It would take nearly a century for black persons to taste freedom and even then that freedom was limited and subpar. The self-evident truth of equality and the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness didn’t apply to people of color, and, as a friend pointed out, still doesn’t. We may be equal–and that’s arguable–but we lack the equity necessary to secure success for the greater community. We still suffer from disparities in access to employment, education, economic resources and daily struggle for independence in a society that runs on the power of the patriarchy and privilege–white or otherwise. I see nothing to celebrate. As I’ve said on numerous occasion, “If one is not free, none are free.”

I’m not the most militant person but on this day I feel this way because I don’t think there is a reason for me to wave any flag aside from a Jamaican one or Somalian, Eritrean, Ethiopian one–I’ll explain the latter three in another post. This will probably be the way I feel for an indefinite amount of time until I believe AND see equity–not equality–and the true extension of the unalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people.

Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” captures precisely why I have no spirit for this day. His words are not just about history but our current moment in time. They are full of the frustration I and many like me feel, but he also has hope for the future. A hope not yet realized but hope required nonetheless. Below is an excerpt from his speech that resonated with me:

 

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

On Basic Needs: A Brooklyn-Based Reflection

This past Friday evening I was walking with a friend in Brooklyn and our walk took us deep into a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg. It was about 10PM and the Jewish men were taking their post- Shabbat dinner walk around the neighborhood. The men walked in pairs and triplets talking amongst themselves and paying no attention to the two black women walking in their midst. My friend and I observed them, the occasional women and children, and the general peacefulness of the neighborhood. There were no cars whizzing by, no police officers on the street, and of all of the closed stores and shops we saw within a 15+ block stretch they were filled with necessities. It was a community seemingly focused on basic needs and each other.

Before long we crossed over a block and landed in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black area that was once known as the largest ghetto in the US. No more peace, parked cars, closed stores, and simply clothed families. Instead we were met my police, whizzing car and sirens, extraneous stores, complicated clothing, the works. It was like day and night and the startling contrast hit me and my friend like a ton of bricks. We began to talk about the differences between the community we exited and the one we entered, not to generalize it or set up a binary, but to grasp the profundity of the shift we experienced in the span of a few blocks. My friend pointed out that nothing was sold in that Jewish community that wasn’t needed, I noticed that too. There were no random clothing stores, no junk and processed-food laden bodegas, nothing in that neighborhood that wasn’t of necessity to the people. Capitalism wasn’t king in that swatch of Williamsburg, community and G-d were. It’s a self-sustaining community that usually doesn’t permit the interference of external businesses. It is a community that thrives on basic needs. This got me thinking about the work a friend of mine is currently doing to raise the basic need averages of 1 billion people–a lofty but a worthy goal to strive toward. When he or anyone else talks about wanting to raise the basic need averages of people in under-served communities do the people even understand what basic needs are? This is a serious question.

When a community is flush with extraneous businesses pushing wants as needs are the people truly aware of what the needs are? Or are they thinking that basic needs are actually the extraneous? This question is driven by the move of capitalism that exists even in the poorest of communities. Consumer goods are sold to people in these communities under the guise of need when in reality they are wants or a subpar quality of needs at best. Given the proliferation of this system, people in the community build up an appetite for consumption based on everything they don’t need. Thus my concern is that when we talk about increasing basic need averages we have to gain understanding of what inhabitants of under-served communities believe those basic needs are through on-the-ground observations and direct engagement with inhabitants of said communities. Then we must educate them about what basic needs are and how & what they should be fighting for not only for themselves but for future generations.

I don’t say any of this to imply that black communities need to be more like Jewish communities–although I do think they can learn some things about their structure. I say this because I believe there is a disparity that exists in knowledge of what basic needs are that is endemic to under-served communities such as those inhabited by black people. This is all based on observation of not only the communities I walked through on Friday night but communities I’ve seen over the years. And the bit of community development knowledge I have tells me that working toward the increase of basic needs averages is important but so is education that increases communal awareness about what those basic needs are in the first place.

Nevertheless, I am willing to be corrected on this matter and certainly would love to discuss this further with interested parties.