Black, woman, victim: Who shall I be today?

IsRapeWarFrontI was going to write a different post today, but then President Obama essentially called Bill Cosby a rapist. I’ll write that other post later.

I’m Black (just in case that wasn’t clear). I’m a woman. And I’m a rape victim. It might seem I would applaud automatically any man who spoke out against a rapist, right? But check that hierarchy:



Rape victim.

In terms of where my sensitivities rest, I’m Black first. Call it my personal Scoville subjugation scale.

As a Black person, I know all too well how the myth of the Black rapist has led to the death of thousands of Black men. How it is so endemic to the White collective consciousness that, even though lynching is now frowned upon, White cops and civilian kooks routinely kill Black men just for breathing. White women clutch their purses and cry rape because the myth of a Black rapist makes a great cover. And  it’s not like it doesn’t still happen, as a recent case in Brooklyn shows. So, when Black men are accused of rape — especially by White women — I’m skeptical. Sometimes it’s complicated.

This ain’t one of those times.

The fact that President Obama spoke out against Cosby makes me love him even more. Cosby was an icon in Black culture. President Obama is an iconoclast. Cosby is a man in a world dominated by men. President Obama defected. Goddess bless him.

I believed Cosby was a rapist. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly why I believed that. In all fairness, I’d heard the rumors for years. I knew the woman he settled out of court with all those years ago was Black. Common sense told me the likelihood of a Crush-the-Cosby conspiracy was slim from a bunch of women with lots to lose and little to gain, even if they are White and he is Black. And when Beverly Johnson, a Black woman, came out — reluctantly and with complete understanding of what her statements would mean for a Black man — well, I was as sure as one could be without having taken the red pill myself.

I think this where my other definitions came into play. As a woman, I want to believe women when they cry rape. But as a Black woman who loves and protects Black men, when a White woman cries rape about a Black man, my brain immediately starts calculating probabilities. Automatically. The factors, the people, the situation — these factors are thrown into a belief formula developed over centuries of historical racism, perfected and adapted to decades of modern racism. The answer always falls at some point on a 1 – 10 scale of probability — Carolyn Bryant, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price? One. Barbara Bowman? Eight. And when the next two or three accusations started rolling in – 10. I wish I could have believed the first victim. But that’s another really ugly symptom of racism — I don’t have the privilege to be a woman first.

But I really think it was my third definition — victim — that sealed my opinion. As a want-to-be expert on racism and a sorry-to-be expert on rape, here’s what I know: Racism isn’t about prejudice and rape isn’t about sex. They’re both about POWER.

When comedian Hannibal Burris lit the fuse on the Cosby conflagration, he characterized Cosby as having the “smuggest old black man persona” and a sense that he could talk down to Black people because he “had a successful sitcom” in the ’80s. I had said the same, in slightly different words, for years.

To me, Cosby was always about power. About having power and making a choice about how he used it. For a while there, when he was proclaiming how f’d up young Black men are from every soapbox he could, Cosby was the darling of the right-wing, a poster child for bigots. Cosby didn’t give a damn about fueling modern racist beliefs with simplistic, blame-the-people-ignore-the-history explanations. And yet, how many of us were and still are defending him? Even if you don’t believe he’s guilty, please do what he didn’t: Keep it to yourself. Don’t dismiss women’s voices the way he dismissed Black folks’ voices.

Because of his power, Cosby voted himself Black folks’ moral judge and jury a long time ago. So, when women started saying he was a rapist, for me, it wasn’t such a huge leap of faith to believe it. Now, I’m sure that some folks will read that and accuse me of saying all powerful men are rapists. I’m not.

Hear me on this: Power doesn’t make all men rapists. But all men who rape want — and exert — power. We know the saying – power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. White slaveowners had it. Bill Cosby and Clarence Thomas had it. They all used their power for evil. Barack Obama has more power than any of them. He used his power for good.

Strange Fruit: 8 things you might not know about lynching

nooseImagine what would happen if all the people in five small Southern towns just disappeared? Slowly, over the course of 70 – 80 years. I think someone would notice the trend. Someone would conduct a study. The NYT would write about that study when it came out. If you didn’t know it was happening as it happened, you’d be asking some follow-up questions. If you did know, you might ask why, even advocate to stop whatever was ‘disappearing’ them. Evntually, someone would give the phenomenon a name and it would find its way into history books.

Guess what? Something like that did happen. From the late 1800s to the late 1960s, thousands of people disappeared as the result of one thing. More than the entire populations of Enterprise, MS; Ideal, GA; Adler, TX; Dodson, LA; and Carolina, AL. People knew it was happening because newspapers wrote about it. There were postcards with pictures. Some people advocated against it, but, since it could be contagious, only a hardy few risked those follow-up questions. Studies have been done, the NYT has written about it, and it wasn’t actually outlawed until 2005. But you won’t find it in most history books and only a few know much about it. Why is that? Because the people who disappeared overwhelmingly are Black, and Black lives don’t matter. What was it? Lynching.

Estimates of the number of Black people lynched vary.  3,446 between 1882 and 1968. 3,959 between 1877 and 1950, according to a study released earlier this year, which includes 700 people not named in previous studies, some conducted while lynching was still a thing.Map
Mind you, the number assuredly is higher than that. The recent study used the the NAACP’s definition, thereby accounting only for those events where three or more people did the lynching and somebody wrote about it. Trust and believe, the newspapers didn’t get all of them. Granted, there were picnics, photo ops and postcards at many of the lynchings, which were actually quite the social event in places and among people who didn’t know the difference between a pig pickin’ and a “coon cooking“.

FullSizeRender[1]If you’ve ever seen my library oFullSizeRenderr my bulletin board, you know
lynching is a study of mine. I just can’t fathom that so many people could die in such gruesome ways for so long with thousands of witnesses at the “hands of persons unknown”. Imagine if they had been White. And before anyone says it, I know White people were lynched, many for coming to the aid of a Black victim or speaking out against the practice. But in SC, of the 160 recorded lynchings, 156 were of Black people. Let’s be real about where the real issue rests.

So, here are a few things you might not know about lynching:

  1. Lynchings were festive occasions — for racists. People came from miles around for a lynching. Lynchings were announced and photographed for postcards. Sometimes thousands of adults and children attended.
  2. For lynching victims, the noose usually was the best part. Lynching of Black people — especially men — was not like what you see in movies. More often than not, Black men were castrated, dismembered, set afire and shot before they were hung. Women often were raped. Why? Because a core tenet of racism is a belief in the moral inferiority — immorality — of Black people. Black men are brutal beasts intent on raping White women, whose purity must be protected at all times, by any means. Black women are oversexed, doing their best to tempt White men anyway, so it isn’t really rape. And these perceptions exist. They’ve morphed into the myth of the scary, Black man who makes cops feel their lives are in danger and incites racist vigilantes to stand their ground — even if the only ‘weapon’ a Black man has is tea and Skittles, a toy gun or loud music. Or even if he’s still a child. Black women are exotic reductions of T&A — lots of A — appropriated by White girls like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lily Allen and Taylor Swift.
  3. Lynching — as an idea — is great creative fodder. SAEs Need a frat ditty? Lynching works. San Francisco cops need to bond over email? Nothing says brotherhood like lynching. Looking for an interesting way to invite your friends to hang out? Use a noose! Or, do something creative with one on a presidential poster. Even Black people use lynching as creative inspiration. Just not the same way. Ask Billie Holliday.
  4. At least three men share the dubious honor of being the source of the term ‘lynching’: First, there was  Charles Lynch, a planter, politician, and American revolutionary from Virginia who led a kangaroo court where “Lynch’s Law” — organized but unauthorized punishment of criminals — was used on British Loyalists.  Next, came William Lynch (not to be confused with Willie Lynch), who actually laid claim to the term, “Lynch’s Law”, saying it came from a 1780 agreement he signed with his Pittsylvania County, VA neighbors, to handle things outside of the law. Finally, there was Willie Lynch, who gave a speech in 1712 about his special methods for “The Making of a Slave“. My money is on Charles.
  5. Lynching has been a legal issue since…two weeks ago. Earlier this month, in an ironic legal twist, at least two Black activists in Los Angeles were charged with felony lynching during Black Lives Matter protests. Gov. Brown had to fix that mess. But hey, just 10 years ago, you might actually get away with lynch murder. Not until 2005 did the U.S. Senate apologize for not passing anti-lynching laws long before, admitting it had failed — repeatedly — to make lynching a federal offense.
  6. There are still folks around who know about lynching – firsthand. The last mass lynching in America happened on July 25, 1946 when two young Black couples – George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom — were murdered in Walton County, Ga. People still living know what happened, saw what happened and the case has been reopened. But nobody’s been convicted. Laura Wexler wrote a great book about it, Fire in a Canebrake. Filmaker Jacqueline Olive, is working on a documentary, Always in Season, which introduces you to relatives of both the perpetrators and victims of lynchings in four communities. You can see clips on indiegogo, where she’s crowdsourcing funding for it; I was happy to help.
  7. Lynching monuments are rare. Some spots local folks know all about, like the Chickasawhay River bridge, where at least six Black people — two brothers, Major and Andrew Clark and two pregnant sisters, Maggie and Alma Howze in 1918; 14 year old Ernest Green and 15 year old Charlie Lang in 1942 — were lynched. The locals refer to it as “the hanging bridge”. As for finding monuments to the victims? Good luck with that. Bryan Stevens, head of the Equal Justice Alliance, is working to get memorials erected, but many people in most towns would rather just not talk about it.
  8. Women were lynched, too. Maybe this was a surprise only to me. But when I saw this picture of Laura Nelson, Laura-Nelsonlynched with her son, JD Nelson, on March 25, 1911, I had to be quiet in myself for a long time.

Hers is the picture that hangs on my bulletin board. Hers is the picture that started me on a journey to write the story of Marie Scott, another woman lynched, then forgotten. One day, I’ll actually get it written. But, according to records, at least 150 women were lynched between 1886 and 1957. I’ve decided to do a pilgrimage, and visit every known site where a Black woman was lynched. I’ll write about it when I do.



When, in an interview on the June 16 edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, the would-be-funny-except-he-might-president Donald Trump said,”… if you are an African-American youth right now, you’re in worse shape than you practically ever were in the history of this country,” I was offended but not totally sure why. Of course, Trump offends me by breathing. And I kind of forgot about the comment considering what happened the day after in Charleston.

But then came the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and the dissents, the most remarkable from Justice Thomas: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”

Clarence Thomas has lost his damn mind.

Since his side lost, I would be inclined to ignore the statement, to write it off as ‘Oh, you mad?’ But as the Confederate flag arguments are teaching us, you can lose the war and still win some battles. Clarence Thomas, Donald Trump and their ilk are doing just that. The battle they’re winning? Convincing a whole lot of people – primarily White, but some Black – that slavery wasn’t all that bad.

Thomas just came out and said it. I’m with Larry Wilmore: “Do you even know what slavery is? Slavery is the complete stripping of humanity and dignity! That’s the point of slavery!” 

Trump, on the other hand, did a down low downplay.  I think it’s safe to say — bullseye on their backs, educational inequity and systemized racism notwithstanding — African American youth caught a hell of a lot more hell in slavery than they’re catching now.

Acknowledging this does not preclude the need to fix today’s problems. Indeed, acknowledging the extent of the damage done by slavery is the first step in trying to fix those problems.

And then there’s Karen Cooper, a Black woman from Virginia who loves the Confederate flag and says slavery was a choice. Death was the alternative. Yes, she really did say that.

I understand the temptation to pretend slavery wasn’t that bad. Well, I understand the attraction of that delusion for many White people. It assuages guilt, relieves responsibility and palliates privilege. It’s all about self-preservation.

I have a harder time understanding Black poster children for racism like Thomas and Cooper. While they’re living with just a different flavor of delusion, for them it’s all about self-hatred. Sadly, we have slavery to blame for that. It’s one big, disturbing psychological circle.

Contrary to all-too-popular belief, slavery was not the good old days. There were no happy go-lucky spiritual-singing darkies. Mammy did not find fulfillment in birthing and then nursing missus’ babies while her own children were ragged and hungry  — if she knew where her own children were. Want to know the truth about slavery? Listen to what the people who lived it have to say in the WPA slave narratives. Read one of the many books written by slaves and by historians who have studied the ‘peculiar institution.’ Check out chapters I and II of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself to understand how, even during slavery, there existed the mythical slave happily whistling while he or she chopped cotton or Julia-child happily prepared meals in the kitchen. And see how he slaps that myth in the face with first-hand accounts of the real pain, humiliation, and brutality of slavery. Because despite narratives from former slaves who liked things the way they were (racist bedtime stories), there’s a lot more evidence to the contrary.

Do the research. Then stop rolling your eyes, sighing and wishing we’d just get over it already. Some things you can’t get over – especially when you’re still feeling the effects. So, Black people can’t just shut up about slavery. White and Black people shouldn’t try to pretend it didn’t happen or at least not the way it did. It’s all about insisting on inconvenient truth, about really understanding our history. If we don’t, while we may not actually repeat it, we are proving that we can perpetuate it.


Feelin’ like 1852…and 1985 (or why I am the way I am)

Left-Quotation-markAt a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.Right-Quotation-mark

Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

Am I like the ultimate buzzkill or what? I get on my own nerves sometimes. I appreciate those of you read and listen to what must seem like a never-ending fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.” I probably sound like a lunatic to some, a bigot to others, a pain in the ass to most. That’s ok. I can be all those things on any given day.

But this issue of race? It’s real to me. I wake up thinking about it. And even if I didn’t, I couldn’t get a foot on the floor without somehow being reminded of it. Those who have known me since my Davidson College days are not surprised that I’m like this. Well, maybe surprised that I’m still like this. Those who have known me even longer, since Rocky Mount Senior High, Fannie Gorham or even O.R. Pope Elementary, are perhaps surprised that I ever got this way.

But let me say this: I didn’t become the way I am until I really understood why I am the way I am. Many things shape us. How, where, when and by whom you’re raised are key determinants of whom you become. So is race. Indeed, race is an even bigger determinant because you don’t control that.

Black or White, you can overcome your upbringing; you can’t ‘overcome’ your race. If you’re Black, you are burdened with collectively conscious stereotypes and assigned assumptions. If you’re White, you’re burdened by privilege (and yeah, if you care about what’s right, privilege can be a burden). You’re born with these things, you live with them, you die with — and sometimes because of — them. Race shapes us all in ways we cannot control but can choose to understand.

Remember what Morpheus said in The Matrix? “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” 

At Davidson, I took the red pill. I’ve been navigating the rabbit hole ever since.

3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets and the 4th of July


The kids were small, the neighbors had amazing (and highly illegal) fireworks displays and I loved to entertain. So, I had parties and settled for subtle resistance. Invitations and invocations were for 4th of July, not Independence Day. Red, black and green were my colors instead of red, white and blue. But I was never quite comfortable with the celebration. Now that the kids are doing their own things, I can be completely honest: I don’t celebrate the 4th of July.

As we all know, July 4, 1776, was the day the thirteen New World colonies that would become the United States of America claimed independence from England. It’s known as Independence Day. But for whom? Frederick Douglass asked the question even more eloquently in his speech, What to the Slave is 4th of July?”

Granted, 1776 was a good year for slaves in some places. In Philadelphia, the Quakers forbid members from holding them. Delaware stopped their importation from Africa. Indeed, an antislavery clause almost made it into the Declaration of Independence:

“…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”


It was edited out by request of the delegates from South Carolina (surprise) and Georgia. Supposedly, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the declaration, was pissed about that edit until he died. Funny, since he was a slaveholder himself. But I digress…

My point is, the 4th of July is no more about me and mine than Cinco de Mayo is about a bunch of drunk Americans. I’ve thought it might be more appropriate to fire up the grill on June 19th, or Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston got the memo — two years late — that the Emancipation Proclamation said they were free. But this year, that would have been only two days after nine Black people were gunned down by a racist in a Charleston church.

Or maybe I could decorate a special tree and throw a party on December 6, the day slavery officially ended in the U.S. with ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But given the rate at which Black people are being shot down by police and stand-your-groundlings, it might be a rather depressing affair.

So this year, I didn’t accept any invitations to cookouts. Instead, I went to the screening of 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a 17-year old Black teenager shot by a White man who felt threatened when Jordan and his friends didn’t turn down their music at a gas station. The film is opening in limited release in several cities, and will run on HBO later this year. Go see it. It’s amazing in all aspects.

What made today’s screening important for me was the Q&A with Jordan’s mother, Lucy. I realized about 15 minutes into the film that she was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me in the theater. I saw her wipe her eyes a couple of times and I wonder at the strength it must take to see those images of herself and her son, fullscreen. I told her as much. I hugged her, too.

Celebration is not the right word, but that movie and the conversation afterwards? Well, it was, for me, the first truly authentic commemoration of this day.

Because the reality is this: July 4th celebrates the day White people declared freedom for White people, all the while enslaving Black people. It wasn’t my ancestors’ holiday, but rather just another day in the cotton fields. And it isn’t mine, because it’s just another day in the killing fields for Black people. A day where JWB, WWB, DWB or just plain BWB (jamming, walking, driving, breathing while Black) is enough of a perceived threat to get me or my children shot with immunity by cops or civilians.

So,  I appreciate all the invitations. I believe in the goodness of family and friends, together.  I know how good the ribs, chicken, fish, potato salad and fireworks were. But, I just can’t. Not yet. Maybe one day.