But the question is always this, at least when we talk about Black movements — relevant to whom? For what purpose? Where is the strategy other than demanding to stay alive, and then going into electoral politics as a moderate to progressive Democrat?
My mother is dying a painful death, and it has everything and nothing to do with Covid-19.
In a piece for The Atlantic detailing the ways in which the coronavirus seems to be hitting black people the hardest, Ibram X. Kendi wrote: “Sometimes racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.” My mother is a living example of what we already know about race, class and suffering.
She is not in an elder-care facility, nor a hospital. She has not been, and most likely will not be, tested for the virus or receive a diagnosis of having it.
Still, hers is the body of all the black people at the bottom of the pandemic. No insurance, though not for lack of trying. Medicaid applications denied for reasons we don’t understand. Inconsistent care at a local public clinic meant hard-to-come-by appointments and checkups only at moments deemed most critical. It wasn’t enough.
Now, she’s dying from end-stage liver disease and kidney failure, diagnosed too late to save her. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
My brother, who lives exactly six minutes and 24 seconds away from Mommy, risks seeing her because someone needs to make sure she’s still breathing. That check-in is thus essential. He scrubs himself clean after work with all manner of chemicals — he’s a waste management truck driver, an essential employee. This is an effort to protect her. He’s close to her. This is an effort to protect us. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
It’s officially power-of-attorney and health-proxy time. Getting my mother to the lawyer — a four-minute drive — is a thing. My brother and I spend hours strategizing transportation. The errand feels like it takes an eternity. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
Like so many, countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will most likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No low-country songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
When the pandemic is over, we still won’t know how to deal with this. We’re not ready for this kind of grief. Death is so utter, so absolute, yet so much right now is uncertain. My mother is dying a painful death, and it has everything and nothing to do with Covid-19.
LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant (@DoctorRMB) is associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College and the author of “Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory Among Gullah/Geechee Women.”
Civil rights legend Ruby Sales (OUR COMMON GROUND Voice) learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” because it’s a question that drives to the heart of the matter — and a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change. And even as she unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, she names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of today.
Ruby Nell Sales is a highly-trained, experienced, and deeply-committed social activist, scholar, administrator, manager, public theologian, and educator in the areas of Civil, Gender, and other Human Rights. She is an excellent public speaker, with a proven track record in conflict resolution and consensus building. Ms. Sales has preached around the country on race, class, gender, and reconciliation, and she has done ground-breaking work on community and nonviolence formation. Ms. Sales also serves as a national convener of the Every Church A Peace Church Movement.
Along with other SNCC workers, Sales joined young people from Fort Deposit, Alabama who organized a demonstration to protest the actions of the local White grocery-store owners who cheated their parents. The group was arrested and held in jail and then suddenly released. Jonathan Daniels, a White seminarian and freedom worker from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts was assassinated as he pulled Sales out of the line of fire when they attempted to enter Cash Grocery Store to buy sodas for other freedom workers who were released from jail. Tom Coleman also shot and deeply wounded Father Richard Morrisroe, a priest from Chicago. Despite threats of violence, Sales was determined to attend the trial of Daniels’ murderer, Tom Coleman, and to testify on behalf of her slain colleague.
As a social activist, Sales has served on many committees to further the work of reconciliation, education, and awareness. She has served on the Steering Committee for International Women’s Day, Washington, D.C.; the James Porter Colloquium Committee, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; the Coordinating Committee, People’s Coalition, Washington, D.C.; the President’s Committee On Race, University of Maryland; and the Coalition on Violence Against Women, Amnesty International, Washington, D.C. She was a founding member of Sage Magazine: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. Sales received a Certificate of Gratitude for her work on Eyes on the Prize. Additionally, she was featured in Broken Ground: A Film on Race Relations in the South, by Broken Ground Productions. From 1991-1994, Sales founded and directed the national nonprofit organization Women of All Colors, dedicated to improving the overall quality of life for women, their families, and the communities in which they live. Women of All Colors organized a week-long SisterSpeak that brought more than 80 Black women together to set a national agenda.
In 2000, Dan Rather spotlighted Sales on his “American Dream” Segment. In 1999, Selma, Alabama gave Sales the key to the city to honor her contributions there. In 2007, Sales moved to Columbus, Georgia, where she organized: a southern summit on racism; a national write-in campaign to save Albany State from being merged into a White college; a grassroots and media campaign to shed light on the death of seventeen year old, Billye Jo Johnson, who allegedly killed himself on a dark road in Lucedale, Mississippi when a deputy stopped him for speeding; Long Train Running Towards Justice, which celebrated the work of Black teachers during segregation and explored the ways that the Black school culture has been destroyed by White officials under the guise of desegregation; and a meeting with students at Savannah State to assist them in organizing and mobilizing a move by officials to merge Savannah State with a White college.
Lesson #1: “You black (and that’s a problem).”
Historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois also discovered his blackness — and its undesirability — at school. After a white girl refused to accept his greeting card during a class-wide exchange, “it dawned on me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others… shut out from their world by a vast veil.” There’s a beautiful, melancholy animation of this passage in CNN’s video “The First Time I Realized I Was Black,” a compilation of black people recalling how they discovered they were black, and what exactly that meant. The stories range from darkly comic — Baratunde Thurston swimming at a campsite and not realizing the white kid shouting, “There’s n — s in the water!” was referring to him and his friend — to heartbreaking, like news commentator Van Jones’ raw account of finding out that his white classmates, who he considered friends, had all spit into his Coke when he wasn’t looking. A common theme throughout these stories is the cavalcade of emotions that this new knowledge elicits: dawning realization, confusion, anger, sadness, discomfort.
White spaces can be defined as having an “overwhelming presence of white people and… absence of black people,” writes sociologist Elijah Anderson, though most are no longer explicitly anti-black. They are, however, fluid. Everything from desegregation and civil rights to upward social mobility and media portrayals of black people have recast the borders of white spaces and, in doing so, defined new ways that blackness is unacceptable within them.
That brings us to lesson two, in which we learn the myriad ways blackness can be undesirable. This is painful but essential to the Art of performing in white spaces. It took me considerably longer to learn than the first lesson, but hey — white folks are nothing if not patient when teaching this stuff.
I tell a white boy in church that I don’t want to sit by a boy; he counters with, “Well, I don’t want to sit by a black person,” and runs away. I confess to a friend that I have a crush on her brother and she explains that, in her family, they don’t date outside their race. A kid from youth group who has never seen anything remotely resembling an actual ghetto proclaims my suburban apartment complex “the ghetto,” presumably because black and Latinx people are present and single-family homes are not. I attend a party at some random guy’s house with a coworker, and the host explains race to me by quoting Chris Rock: “There’s black people, and there’s n — — s.” Twenty years later, I still panic and urgently want to flee when white people reference stand-up or start telling jokes.
Backhanded compliments, often about my hair, prove another effective teaching tool. I straighten my hair before work. “You look so professional today,” my boss says enthusiastically. “You finally found someone to do your hair,” a colleague at my seasonal side hustle says when I show up with braids.
But the really fucked-up “compliments” come from white people who love you. My dad and I have both had close friends tell us some version of, “You’re not like the other black people,” or, with laughing approval, “You may be black on the outside, but you’re as white as me on the inside.” Because whiteness is aspirational and we are the black exceptions that prove their racist rule.
In some ways, Dad and I are lucky. We generally talk the “right way.” We have advanced degrees. We like stuff white people like, such as NPR, Mad Men, and expensive sandwiches. This means we have fewer hoops to jump through before white people feel safe around us. And make no mistake: The primary purpose of the Art is to make white people feel safe. Because when white people feel unsafe, they are unsafe for black people to be around.
Black Americans have always had to perform this balancing act: staying true to their identity while prioritizing the comfort of white people. In 1896, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote of “the mask that grins and lies,” which black people don to conceal the pain of their lived experience from white people. Later, Du Bois spoke about the “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Anderson, in his 2015 article “The White Space,” refers to the “dance” and being “on” to describe assimilating to white expectations of appearance and conduct.
Being black in white spaces is a subtle and imprecise Art: performative, yet largely invisible to its intended audience. And code-switching is its bread-and-butter. Originally a linguistic term to describe how polyglots mix and match languages according to context, today, code-switching is more about changing appearance, behavior, and speech to accommodate the social norms of a specific setting. (Note: when white Americans do this, say, by living overseas or volunteering someplace poor, it’s an empathy-building, cross-cultural experience they can use to spice up college essays and wow in job interviews. Black and brown people spend a lifetime doing exactly the same thing and precisely no one is impressed, much less hiring us because of it. But I digress…)
Now I know that unless I switch up my code, keep my voice low and calm, I come off as the Angry Black Woman.
Black people code-switch to keep white people from associating us with negative stereotypes they absorbed from the news, pop culture, other white people, or their own imaginations. It’s how we avoid coming off “too black.” I first observed this with my dad. He talked differently when we visited Grandmommy’s house in D.C. than when he was with his graduate school colleagues. The way he talked at home was somewhere in between.
In addition to avoiding AAVE, black women are required to code-switch their tone and appearance, particularly in white workplaces. For years, I didn’t understand why white women in particular thought I was combative and argumentative, responding to me as though I were overreacting about everything. Now I know that unless I switch up my code, keep my voice low and calm, I come off as the Angry Black Woman.
Successful code-switching is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it affords access and opportunities to advance in white spaces, and white people are less likely to call the cops on you. The downsides: other black folks think you’re too white. Just ask Obama, Kamala, and Drake, whose “black enough” status is always under fire. More seriously, research associates constant code-switching with negative psychological effects, including performance anxiety, embarrassment when you get it wrong, and the stress of reconciling dual identities. This is especially problematic at work, because at work you have other shit to do besides fitting in.
I personally don’t find code-switching that draining. My personality is wired for variety, and I’m comfortable embodying different versions of myself. Also, apart from the odd in-person, part-time gig, I freelance, so I don’t feel the pressure to code-switch for acceptance or advancement. Ever since Trump got elected, the real emotional labor for me has come from maintaining non-professional relationships with white women, which any black woman will tell you is an Art in and of itself.
White people of the progressive persuasion seem to be talking about race more, and in different ways, than they did pre-Trump. Many are absolutely doing the hard work of examining their privilege and implicit bias. But there’s also this panicked, self-serving need to disassociate from the racism and bigotry displayed by the people running the country.
They’re terrified of being called racists, which results in virtue signaling — particularly on social media: hashtags like #notallwhitewomen and posts about cutting off racist friends and family abound. (Good thinking, white person! Cut them off and save yourself the discomfort of ever having to talk to them about race! I’m sure they’ll probably stop being racist on their own!)
I keep finding myself in conversations where white people denounce racists without actually embracing anti-racism. When I bring up elements of my lived experience or an opinion that diverges from theirs, I’m met with blank stares, dismissal, or defensiveness. If I share about a time I felt othered because of my skin color or hair, white women tell me about when they had “the same experience,” completely ignoring the fact that black bodies have been othered for centuries while their European features are nearly universally prized. Anti-racism requires white people to de-center their own thoughts and feelings — including their sadness and discomfort — and prioritize those of POC. Instead, POC are increasingly asked to be “racial confessors” and unpaid educators for well-meaning white folks trying to work through their own whiteness, unfair asks that force us to relive trauma for white people’s benefit.
Igrew up in white neighborhoods, went to white churches, worked in white offices and, later, joined the expat community, a rarified white space made up primarily of North Americans and Europeans who choose to live outside of their country of origin. My dad is the only consistent black presence in my life, and we’ve never really discussed race, identity, and privilege in terms of our lived experience. As a result, I’ve only recently developed a vocabulary to unpack what it’s like to be black in white spaces. Isolated incidents that “just didn’t sit right” — e.g. casual use of the word “lynching” in conversation, my dental hygienist touching my hair while cleaning my teeth — were actually microaggressions. I got an art history degree without studying a single black (or POC) artist not because there weren’t any, but because white supremacy keeps our images and stories from being considered universal. (That’s erasure!)
White people feel safe around me. But I never learned how to be safe around them.
I can finally honor the truth that I live with trauma inflicted upon me by white people because of my blackness — as do all black people in America. Some have experienced blatant and immediate trauma, old-school racism like police brutality or violent hate crimes. My privilege is that I’ve mostly encountered #21stCenturyRacism like implicit bias, microaggressions, and white fragility. Still, these everyday injustices have cumulative psychological and emotional effects, especially in combination with intergenerational trauma. Sometimes, I’m drawn in and repulsed by the exact same white person who, in a single conversation, will follow a random act of wokeness with the n-word (yep, even inside quotes, it’s still problematic) or their thoughts on black poverty. This creates a push-pull dynamic that makes me feel brittle and tired.
I aced the lessons about not being “too black” for white people and turning microaggressions into humorous-yet-teachable moments. White people feel safe around me. But I never learned how to be safe around them. So now I’m teaching myself. I’m giving myself permission to say “no,” without explanation, to people and activities that sap my emotional bandwidth. I’m seeking out other WOC to confide in and gobbling up content by black writers and artists to counteract over-exposure to whiteness, particularly the unacknowledged privilege wielded by so-called allies. I’m challenging myself to unabashedly tell my truth, because it is my truth. This is radical self-care, and I’m learning that it is the real Art of being black in white spaces.
Michelle Obama’s popularity is a remarkable political feat. Her ascent into the public spotlight, after all, began as a receptacle of rightwing misogynoir. From the suggestions that she was ill-tempered to the hideous portrayals of her as male or some kind of primatial hybrid, Obama endured scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the role of first lady. This was hardly surprising given that the pageantry and pomp of the office had become synonymous with white and wealthy “ladies.” Her opponents were quick to cast Obama—the dark skinned, Chicago native—as decidedly un-ladylike, characterizing her instead as an anti-American political militant.
Becoming is an exquisite lesson in creating political ideology—one that I find troubling.
Sensitive to these portrayals, Obama acquiesced when her staff asked her to soften her gestures and play down her political contributions to Barack’s first campaign run. In her new book, Becoming, Obama describes how campaign aids encouraged her to “play to my strengths and to remember the things I most enjoyed talking about, which was my love for my husband and kids, my connection with working mothers, and my proud Chicago roots.” Together, the Obamas became disciplined in responding to the racist attacks, in part due the desire not to confirm the stereotypes. As Obama has famously said, “when they go low, we go high.”
The strategy worked. A recent Gallup poll listed Obama as the most “admired” woman in the United States. Becoming sold a breathtaking 1.4 million copies in its first week, and its success is partly due to the perception that this is Obama’s response to the years of silence—her chance to finally break free from adherence to the public rituals of U.S. power. And, indeed, Obama’s book is her story in her own words—authentic and refreshingly un-ladylike. She endears herself to a broad audience as she freely recalls smoking marijuana with a boyfriend in her car, having pre-marital sex, living at home well into her thirties even after she was married, having troubles conceiving both of her children, yelling in arguments with Barack, and feeling bitter as she was expected to carry most of the burdens of her household after marriage. Free of the pretense often effused by those with wealth and power, Obama comes off as ordinary and relatable.
In Becoming, Obama describes the value of telling one’s story this way: “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” For Obama, a person’s story is an affirmation of their space in the world, the right to be and belong. “In sharing my story,” she says, “I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. . . . Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” The root of discrimination, Obama implies, including the ugly discrimination she faced as first lady, is misunderstanding. Sharing personal narratives, then, offers a way for people to fully see each other and to overcome our differences.
This message has resonated widely, but especially with black women, for whom Becoming has been a source of pride and celebration. Black women have paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to crowd into stadiums on her book tour, which speaks not only to the celebrity of Obama, but the depths of disrespect and invisibility that black women in the United States experience. Indeed, black women in this country are so debased and ignored that it often feels as if the success and public adoration of Obama can lift and make visible all black women—a process Obama herself encourages.
Her story is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other.
Yet despite all the optimism and goodwill that Obama embraces and inspires, I find Becoming troubling. Sticking to her strategy for success, Obama reassures her reader repeatedly that she is not a “political” person. Instead Obama describes herself as a “child of the mainstream” who “never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love for a good sitcom. . . . And to this day nothing pleases me more than the tidy triumph delivered by a home-makeover show.” But as someone who has been around politics since she was a child (her father was a precinct captain in the Democratic Party) and is now, domestically and internationally, one of the most well-known ambassadors of the United States, this denial is not modesty, it is misleading. Indeed, far from being apolitical, Obama is politically sophisticated, and any reader of her book should treat her that way.
Becoming, after all, is an exquisite lesson in creating ideology. As a political insider with broad pop culture appeal, Obama wields enormous influence in shaping discourse and opinion on critical issues concerning race, gender, public policy, and how we define progress in general. Lauren Mims, a former assistant director for the White House project “Educational Excellence for African Americans,” has even undertaken an initiative to create a curriculum for Becoming that she says will “disrupt the traditional practice of talking about black girls in pejorative ways and center them and their unique experiences to study how we can support them.”
Obama, then, is not just telling stories; she is shaping our understanding of the world we live in, which is why it is so critical that we, as a public, interrogate her ideology. When we do, we might see that her story is not in search of the collective experience but is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other. Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy. This is unfortunate because personal narratives—including Obama’s—do have power. When stitched together and told honestly, they can create a map of shared experience that raises the possibility of collective action as a way to transform the individual circumstance. This is certainly true of poor and working-class black women whose personal stories expose the racism, sexism, and general inequality of U.S. society. These stories relentlessly pierce the treacherous idea that the United States is free, democratic, and just, and they prove the axiom of black feminism that the personal is political.
Born in 1964, Obama has no recollection of the political strife—including multiple uprisings in response to police violence and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—that unfolded in Chicago neighborhoods during her childhood. Instead, her memories revolve around her family’s cramped apartment on the Southside of Chicago, and her narration of her working-class family’s history perfectly captures the systematic way that African Americans were excluded from the vast bounty created in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, as a child, Obama was palpably aware that her circumstances were vastly different from those of the adults around her. While their potential was truncated by rampant racial discrimination, Obama was able to attend a promising new magnet high school called Whitney Young. She then goes on to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School, and by the mid-1980s, Obama was earning a six-figure salary at one of the most highly regarded law firms in downtown Chicago. By any measure, she and her equally successful brother, Craig Robinson, overcame circumstances that many of their peers inevitably succumbed to.
Obama’s book reflects the diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans.
Racism does exist for Obama, but these two realities—the history of structural segregation that she and her brother emerged from and their subsequent black success—shape her perception of racism as less an institutional phenomenon and more an unfortunate residue from the past. This does not negate its realness, but she sees its manifestation largely as a “deep weariness . . . a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time.” She had seen it in both her grandfathers, “spawned by every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make.” It was why the neighbor had stopped mowing the lawn or even keeping track of where her kids went after school. And “it lived in every piece of trash tossed carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.”
One of Obama’s best friends growing up was Santita Jackson, one of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughters. In Becoming, Obama points to Reverend Jackson’s talking points in his 1984 presidential run as an inspiring message of racial uplift. She writes enthusiastically about how Jackson
toured the country, mesmerizing crowds with thundering calls for black people to shake off the undermining ghetto stereotypes and claim their long-denied political power. He preached a message of relentless, let’s-do-this self-empowerment. . . . He had school kids pledge to turn off the TV and devote two hours to their homework each night. He made parents promise to stay involved. He pushed against the feelings of failure that permeated so many African American communities, urging people to quit with the self-pity and take charge of their own destiny. “Nobody, but nobody,” he’d yell, “is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night.”
Conversely, Obama saw how other “extraordinary and accomplished people”—including black women such as herself—had managed the skepticism they were surrounded by:
All of them had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals. . . . I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. . . . My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had.
In Obama’s telling, then, racism is not the defining feature of black life, and her profound success is a testament to the ways that striving and self-motivation are the difference between those who succeed and those who do not.
The absence of materiality in Obama’s understanding of racism in contemporary life underlies her sharp rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Becoming. Known for his fiery sermons condemning the racism, militarism, sexism, and oppression in U.S. society, Reverend Wright became a thorn in the side of the Obamas during the 2008 campaign when it was “discovered” that the Obamas were members of his church. The mainstream media delved into his sermons and described some of Wright’s incisive comments as “hate speech,” which worked to fuel the presumed radicalism or militancy of the Obamas. The most widely circulated of these sermons showed Wright at his incendiary best:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.
In Becoming, Obama dismisses Wright’s experiences and viewpoints as him “careening through callous and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe.” She accuses him of viewing “race through a lens of cranky mistrust.” Wright and older African Americans, she says, became “cranky” because of legal strictures of segregation that gave rise to a “narrow mindedness” in matters regarding race. Obama goes on to conflate the bitterness of older African Americans with the racism of older white people, such as Barack Obama’s white grandmother who felt afraid of black men on the streets. That fear, she writes, “was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided—that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.”
It is a diplomatic reading—but ultimately a clumsy effort to reach across the profound racial division in the United States. Consider the political ramifications of such a reading. By treating them as two sides of the same coin, Obama is equating African American anger—which is rooted in material deprivation and human subjugation—with white fear, which is rooted in racial stereotypes. These two worldviews are not the product of the same generational experiences and reducing them to such forecloses the possibility that African Americans could ever find real redress to the inequality produced by centuries of slavery and legal discrimination.
Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy.
Moreover, Obama’s reading reinforces the perception that African Americans’ persistent demands against racism are not much more than “crankiness” or complaining. When combined with Obama’s own emphasis on striving as a way to overcome racial discrimination, this narrative reduces racial inequality to one of psychological impairment that can be overcome through sheer determination and a positive attitude. She fails to see how it was bitter struggle against real institutions that created the new world she was able to thrive in. Indeed, Whitney Young high school was built on an empty lot that had seen multiple uprisings over the course of the 1960s. Those uprisings eventually caused the political establishment to acquiesce and take concrete steps to create a black middle class. Elected officials invested in schools such as Whitney Young while also exerting enormous pressure on the private sector to end the racial enclosure of segregation that had slowly suffocated Obama’s parent’s social mobility. The crucible of the 1960s widely expanded access to homeownership, college education, white collar professions, and formal entry into electoral politics for African Americans.
Obama and a thin layer of others were beneficiaries of these transformations in the U.S. political economy. The short-lived reforms created by the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s lowered the rate of black poverty by expanding the federal bureaucracy and creating new job opportunities for black workers. But as the momentum from the political insurgency of the 1960s waned, political support for these programs evaporated. And as more time passed from the high point of the movement, the hardship experienced by most African Americans grew deeper. In 1964, the year Obama was born, black unemployment was 9.6 percent; by 1975, it had crept up to 15 percent; and while Obama was at Princeton University, in 1983, black unemployment inched up even further to a bewildering 20 percent—the highest ever recorded. Nevertheless, the successes of the few were held up as evidence that it was not the system that was broken; instead, black people simply weren’t taking advantage of all that the United States had to offer.
To make sense of the persistent low wages, housing instability, higher rates of poverty, and deepening social crisis that marred black communities, the political focus shifted violently to personal responsibility or a lack thereof. In doing so, the infrastructure of publicly funded institutions—including public housing and other forms of social welfare—that had been slowly chipping away at inequality and poverty were dismissed as unnecessary and financially gutted. The picture of success for some African Americans—whether they were lawyers or young elected officials—and continued hardship for others created a distorted picture of black America. Like a fun house mirror, it enlarged features such as personal persistence and responsibility while pushing others, such as the role of institutional racial discrimination, further to the margins.
The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.
Obama’s book reflects this diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans. With the public sector out of view, her conception of social progression is freighted with “public-private partnership” ventures and mentorship steered by “gifted” individuals. Social change is thus based on the goodwill and interests of well-endowed funders and well-meaning individuals while inequality is essentially accepted as something to navigate rather than dismantle.
If this reading seems unfair, consider Obama’s 2013 visit to the Chicago high school, William R. Harper, and her recollection of it in Becoming. As an institution, Harper stands at the intersection of racism, poverty, and violence. In 2012, twenty-one of its students were injured and eight killed from persistent gun violence. Obama chose to visit Harper in 2013 as she became increasingly focused on gun violence in Chicago. Just weeks before, a fifteen-year-old black girl who had just performed at Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade was shot and killed in a Southside neighborhood approximately one mile from the Obama family home.
On the day of her visit, Obama met with twenty-two students who had all been psychologically scarred by their constant exposure to gun violence. They relayed with frightening detail walking down the middle of the street to avoid stray gunfire and their routines of clearly identifying escape routes in case they needed to run. In the course of the meeting, one of the Harper students remarked to Obama, “It’s nice that you are here and all . . . but what are you actually going to do about all of this?”
In her telling, Obama did not have much to say to them: “Honestly, I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon. Most people in Washington aren’t even trying. A lot of them don’t even know you exist.” It was an honest statement—one we are expected to read as refreshingly honest and “real”—but one that betrayed the logical conclusions of seeing racism as a manifestation of psychology, bad intentions, or simple ignorance. When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.
In Becoming, Obama also recalls that Englewood (the neighborhood Harper is in) had been considered a “tough” area when she was growing up, but seeing the shuttered windows and dilapidated structures in 2013 showed how much more ingrained its problems had become. She blames white flight: “I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood, and how the word ‘ghetto’ got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it . . . caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. ‘Ghetto’ signaled that a place was both black and hopeless.”
When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.
But while white flight was certainly part of Englewood’s history of decline, white people abandoned Englewood more than a half century ago. Englewood’s problems of today are both historical and contemporary. The neighborhood has continued to suffer because successive city administrations have starved it and other poor and working-class black communities of desperately needed resources, opting instead to redirect those funds to whiter and wealthier sections of the city. In 2012, just months before Obama’s visit to Englewood, Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, shuttered fifty-two public schools in Chicago—the largest simultaneous school closure in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Chicago has dedicated 40 percent of its budget towards policing.
Almost half of black Chicagoans, men and women, between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are both unemployed and out of school. It is an economic situation that produces crime while arrests and imprisonment reinforce the tight circuit of oppression and brutality. There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism, but Obama’s telling treats them as sad but ultimately disconnected events that are the simple product of partisan politics, pessimism, bullying, even hate—nothing quite tangible enough to put one’s hands on and dismantle.
Obama, who avoids any analysis of the systemic or systematic feature of racial inequality, offered the children at Harper this lesson: “progress is slow . . . they couldn’t afford to simply sit and wait for change to come. Many Americans didn’t want their taxes raised, and Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, let alone rise above petty partisan bickering, so there weren’t going to be billion-dollar investments in education or magical turnarounds for their community.” In the end, she told them to “use school.”
There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism.
While the first lady of the United States does not hold a legislative position and thus is not able to secure funding for a school in need, Obama’s normalizing gaze at inequality, almost accepting it as a fact of nature, reinforces the status quo for her largely black audience—and that is a dangerous proposition. Obama shows the extent to which she has given up on the idea that demands can be made of the state. These children don’t have the luxury to “simply wait” for change, so their only option is to turn to their underfunded, lightly resourced school and work hard amid stray gunfire to get themselves out.
This lesson—that personal striving is an important remedy to racial inequality—is given a sunny, optimistic sheen when Obama tells us that local “business owners” later donated funds so that those same twenty-two Harper kids could visit the White House, meet Barack Obama, and visit Howard University. Obama tells us that her hope was for the Harper students to see themselves as college students and use that as motivation to change their lives. As she triumphantly declares at the chapter’s end, “I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and hastened its arrival.”
It is important to distinguish Obama’s retreat to personal striving as not just the same old “respectability politics”—the belief that if African Americans just presented themselves as competent and upstanding citizens then they would be seen as entitled to the benefits of U.S. society. Even within the distorted framework of respectability politics, there was still an understanding of the materiality of racism, and there was a notion of collective endeavor—a “linked fate” among black Americans. In place of these politics, Obama concocts a kind of hybrid of middle-class feminism—with its focus on self-actualization, empowerment, and personal fulfillment—with wisps of J. D. Vance–style bootstrap uplift, which centers on hard work, education, and personal responsibility. By eschewing all “policy solutions,” she sends a profoundly dangerous political message: that individuals alone can change their circumstance.
The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message.
Indeed, in Becoming, she details her endeavors to bring poor and working-class children into the White House so that she could personally encourage them. There are multiple examples of Obama using the power of her office to pluck up black and brown students here and there to, in her words, say, “You belong. You matter. I think very highly of you.” This is, without question, meaningful and valuable to the hundreds of young people who encountered Obama in person. Indeed, even the symbolic power of seeing a black president and first lady evokes the optimism that the Obamas often preach as antiseptic to the chaos of poverty. But, in reality, it also trivializes the enormity of the structural crisis and deprivation in communities such as Englewood. The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.
In the period of struggle that bequeathed Obama the possibility of her improbable rise to the White House, Ella Baker, a radical black feminist and organizer within the civil rights movement, encouraged ordinary people to connect the dots of their oppression to a broader, unjust social order. Making these connections demonstrated the potential for an alliance of similarly aggrieved citizens and residents who don’t benefit from our social order but suffer from its disorder. As she said in 1969:
In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.
The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message. Obama served as an inspiring role model—her personal story is extraordinary by any measure. But it is crucial for both her and us to acknowledge that it was made possible by the confluence of institutional changes and her own talents. For the children of Harper High and their parents who live with PTSD and other scars of urban and suburban life in the twenty-first century, we must reaffirm our commitment to the same kinds of institutional interventions—and beyond—that made her ascent possible.
Another world is possible, but it can only be built through a collective struggle that Obama no longer sees as necessary.
Forgiveness isn’t the problem. One-way forgiveness is. Who forgives black people?
Opinion BY LEONARD PITTS JR. OCTOBER 08, 2019
Brandt Jean hugs Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer who shot and killed his brother, at her sentencing hearing. APHere’s the thing about forgiveness.It’s not just something you extend to someone else. It’s also a gift you give yourself, permission to lay down the heavy burden of grudges and rage. And if you’re a Christian, it’s an obligation — albeit a hard one — of faith.One can believe all that, yet still be deeply conflicted by last week’s act of forgiveness in a Dallas courtroom: Brandt Jean, who is black, embraced and absolved Amber Guyger, the white former police officer who had just been sentenced to 10 years for killing his brother, Botham. Guyger had entered Botham’s apartment mistakenly believing it was hers.While some people considered these acts of grace, others, many of them African American, were furious.
Actress Yvette Nicole Brown retweeted a meme that said: “If somebody ever kills me, don’t you dare hug them. … Throw a chair, in my honor.” To which Brown added: “… and then dig me up and throw ME!” Others were angered that Guyger got “only” 10 years.The view from this pew is that none of us has the right to tell Brandt Jean how to grieve his brother or process the hell he’s living through.
As to Guyger’s sentence: It actually seems fair for a crime that was ultimately a tragic mistake, albeit one exacerbated by poor judgment.What makes it seem unfair is that we’ve too often seen black defendants receive far harsher sentences for far lesser crimes. Like Marissa Alexander who, in 2012, fired a warning shot as her reputedly abusive husband advanced on her. She got 20 years for shooting a ceiling.But if these issues are relatively clear cut, the larger one — forgiveness — is anything but. Especially since it sometimes seems that black people — not coincidentally the most religiously faithful group in America, according to a 2014 Pew survey — are forgiving to a fault.A white supremacist massacres nine people in their church. Family members forgive him. A white cop shoots a fleeing black man in the back. The victim’s mother forgives him.
In 1963, white terrorists killed Sarah Collins Rudolph’s sister Addie Mae Collins and three other girls in a bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Rudolph forgave them. And so it goes.Forgiveness, you understand, is not the problem. But one-way forgiveness is. Because who forgives black people? Forget forgiveness for wrongdoing. How about forgiveness for simply existing and trying to live unmolested lives? This is what Botham Jean was doing — eating ice cream in his own home — when he was killed by a white woman who blundered upon that prosaic scene and perceived a threat.In dying that way, Jean indicted cherished American myths about equality and unalienable rights. America — much of white America, at least — hates when you do that. One is reminded of what Hilde Walter, a Jewish journalist, was quoted as saying in 1968: “It seems the Germans will never forgive us Auschwitz.” Similarly, it sometimes seems much of white America will never forgive us slavery. Or Jim Crow.
LEONARD PITTS JR. II Miami Herald II @LeonardPittsJr1
Author, The Last Thing You Surrender
As a child, though I could never quite name the offenses of white people, I could sense the wounds they had left all over the Black people who surrounded me. The wounds were in the lilt of Black women’s voices, in the stiffened swagger of our men; it was there in the sometimes ragged ways my boy cousins would be disciplined. And I knew this work of forgiving had somehow left bruises on my aunts so deep it made their skin shine. In church, we prayed and forgave white people like our prayers were the only thing between them, heaven, and damnation.It’s left me wondering: Does forgiveness take advantage of my people?***
Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy. So what happens when the performance of Black forgiveness gets repeated through several generations until it becomes ritualized and transformed into tradition?How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?
If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’
Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it.I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding.
How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.***In 1990, I was standing in Aunt Sarah’s basement, her linoleum floor corners peeling beneath the damp, dim light, her basement a ghostly type of cold. Being in Aunt Sarah’s basement often felt like being in a bunker. It always smelled wet like old snow resisting thaw, the ceiling low enough to give a tall man a backache. Thin layers of dust glimmered beneath the Morse code of flickering fluorescent lights, gripping the wood lacquer of the entertainment console.Aunt Sarah’s basement was filled with board games and decks of cards that neighborhood children would often come by to play with. Monopoly? Too vast in its pieces. The tiny colored discs of Connect Four? Too loud in their dropping clinks. Being 6, I trusted myself enough to accurately consider risk, weigh all options. It was simple, though. These games were not for me. Aunt Sarah and I both knew it. The contract between Aunt Sarah and me consisted of only two agreements: I would remain silent and invisible in her house.I knew the danger of the wrong game.I don’t know how cruelty finds us, but cruelty I incited in my Aunt. It seemed that every little thing I did set her off. I the flint, she the firecracker. If I spoke, her eyes would beat me like a switch pulled from a backyard tree. If Aunt Sarah wanted to teach me anything in this world, it would be my place.Easter breaks, when we were released from our Catholic school uniforms into the ether of our lives for two weeks, my parents would load my sister and me in the car and drive to Dayton to drop us off at my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Rodge’s.
On those trips, I’d sit in the back, the synthetic velvet curtains of our Dodge Caravan windows splayed open as I considered escape routes, what it would take to disappear, anxiously rubbing my fingers against the curtain’s grain.Throughout our childhood, these drives from Akron to Dayton were a regular occurrence. My father’s mother and both his sisters lived there. Strife and the years my grandmother spent trying to get her children out of Alabama had banded the four of them together like cement. During my father’s and aunts’ youths, the extended family and community around them had been filled with men who found relief in the bruises they left on women, who . . .
Source: Theater of Forgiveness
Hafizah Geter | Longreads | November 2018
“The trending topics on Twitter over the last year are evidence enough that I’m not going to be able to manage this by poking holes in my own stream of consciousness. I can’t use mind games to reprogram myself when there’s a plethora of trauma porn in my Facebook feed for my brain to soak in and terrorize me with.The only thing that’s changed since last year when I first started to write about my PTSD is that I’ve realized that the problem isn’t how I engage whiteness in my capacity as an organizer or as an intentionally visible Black person. It’s whiteness period. The head-on collision between my PTSD and these intrusive thoughts is consistently triggered by white supremacy.How do you take a break from racialization?How do you divest from the imperial core that you’re living in?How do you put the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade on the back burner? You don’t.”
“Racism exists when ideas and assumptions about racial categories are used to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy and racially structured society that unjustly limits access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of race.
Racism also occurs when this kind of unjust social structure is produced by the failure to account for race and its historical and contemporary roles in society.Contrary to a dictionary definition, racism, as defined based on social science research and theory, is about much more than race-based prejudice—it exists when an imbalance in power and social status is generated by how we understand and act upon race.”
Blackness is being born under a mountain of racial debt.
“As Saidiya Hartman writes, “Debt ensured submission; it insinuated that servitude was not yet over and that the travails of freedom were the price to be paid by emancipation.” Hence enslaved black people were forced to “self-purchase” their own freedom, for they could not even claim a property right in themselves. Is it any wonder that, as Hartmann describes, the enslaved used “stealing away” to describe not only the act of running away, but also in reference to a wide range of everyday activities:
Stealing away involved unlicensed movement, collective assembly, and an abrogation of the terms of subjection in acts as simple as sneaking off to laugh and talk with friends or making nocturnal visits to visit loved ones . . . These nighttime visits to lovers and family were a way of redressing the natal alienation or enforced “kinlessness” of the enslaved.”