“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
In A Time Of Climate Anxiety, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Is Paving A Hopeful Path Forward
With disasters like metal-melting, marine life-boiling heat waves across the Pacific Northwest, flash floods turning streets into rivers and subway stations into toxic lakes, wildfires in Oregon so intense they filled the New York skyline with a smoky haze. Then there's the ocean surface burning due to oil spills while companies are still trying to force oil pipelines through Indigenous lands. It's been especially difficult these days to feel hope for the future.
In a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association, researchers used the term "eco-anxiety" to describe the mental health impacts of climate change and its social and ecological consequences. Think: fatalism, chronic stress, fear, exhaustion, anger, depressive episodes, even violence. Honestly, how can you not feel that way when you doom-scroll through social media and watch the 24-hour news cycle of climate emergencies happening around the world?
Greta Thunberg, one of the youth movement's biggest voices, has talked about struggling with depression in the early years of her activism. This was brought on by her frustrations with the continued inaction of adults in positions of power. It's no surprise that the doomsday prep and emergency management industry is expected to grow by billions of dollars by 2025.
As much as we'd like to disconnect or look away, climate change and its many intersecting consequences — and the planet-damaging systems that got us into this situation — aren't going away any time soon. How, then, can we move through this collective anxiety we share about the future? How can we come together locally and globally to lessen the blows of environmental change, especially for our most vulnerable communities?
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson's tireless work as a marine biologist and climate policy advocate should be an example to us all of how to build a path forward together through education and collective action. Maybe you've heard of her, or at least heard of her work: She's written about racism as one of the biggest obstacles to stopping climate change, coastal and ocean conservation efforts across New York City (she's also a board member of the Billion Oyster Project), and how environmental justice is essential to the Black Lives Matter movement.
A co-founder of the coastal cities policy think tank Urban Ocean Lab, Dr. Johnson co-authored the Blue New Deal. This plan was released during Senator Elizabeth Warren's 2020 presidential campaign and would prioritize restoring America's ocean habitats and rebuilding coastal economies and communities impacted by warming oceans, pollution, and overfishing. Dr. Johnson's even discussed being a climate justice advocate with Billie Eilish.
But it's her current role as the co-host of Gimlet Media's podcast How To Save A Planet where Ayana's passion for climate change education and collective empowerment really shines. Episode subjects range from agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions to the history of wildfires and land management. Listeners' questions often take center stage. Think: Is the carbon footprint a helpful tool for measuring our individual action against climate change? Are electric cars really that much better for the environment? Does recycling actually make a difference? No environmental justice-shaped stone is left unturned.
Dr. Johnson, with the help of great guests including farmers, activists, and researchers, reframes these ongoing debates in a way that's refreshingly accessible. Listeners not only learn about topics left out of their science textbooks, but they gain a better understanding of how climate science terms and theories manifest in our day-to-day lives. She also covers what we may experience at our local level to big-picture changes in our regional and global ecologies as well as our economic and political systems.
Through Dr. Johnson's solutions-focused approach, the scary unknowns that tend to paralyze our discussions around climate change—and make us feel like none of our actions even matter—feel a little less scary. Dr. Johnson's intention, throughout this show and through all of her work, really, is not to shame people for not doing enough or fear-monger without offering a course of action. Instead, she engages with everyone, regardless of how much they know and their proximity to the climate movement, to build a better foundation of our environmental understanding, to challenge misinformation, and to inspire us to make change together.
The stories collected in the anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions For The Climate Crisis, which Dr. Johnson co-edited alongside Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, are urgent reading. Especially in this perpetual era of environmental calamity wherever we look. Poems about the Anthropocene share pages with stories of climate migration, Indigenous resistance, stories of communities of color fighting against systems of environmental racism, and motherhood during the climate crisis.
The collection uplifts just as much as it educates. Flip through each chapter and you'll find terms defined, statistics and insights marked for your attention, offering accessible entry points into looming threats and ongoing struggles that oftentimes feel beyond our comprehension.
In her chapter on mental health and the climate crisis, climate adaptation researcher Susanne C. Moser notes how "climate grief" has sprung up in many of us. Scholars define this as an attempt to process the traumatic effects of living on a changing planet marred by overwhelming impacts of natural disasters, and forced migration and displacement. But both Moser and Johnson call for resilience as opposed to giving into the fear. As Moser writes, "Burnt-out people are less effective people. Burnt-out people can become sick people...Burnt-out people aren't equipped to serve a burning planet."
We cannot predict the future. Already, climate change has defied our modeling and our expectations, impacting communities across the world in disproportionate ways. It's understandable to avoid thinking about it until the climate crisis ends up at your front door.
Those in power who strive to continually get away with the damage we've done want us to focus on everything that's gone wrong and want us to give up. But now, more than ever, we must educate ourselves, unite, build political power, help enact community-based change, close the gaps and mend the harmful systems that have impacted frontline communities for so long.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson's ongoing climate advocacy is a reminder that all hope is not lost. Her work suggests that taking care of our bodies and minds is critical now more than ever.
So take a step back and breathe. Remember to celebrate victories and good news and treat yourself and each other with compassion. Listen to the marginalized communities who have been and continue to be most victimized by this climate emergency. Look to them for guidance and support their fight with the resources and tools you already have. As Dr. Johnson writes, together with Dr. Katherine Wilkinson: "Roll up your sleeves. Everyone has a role to play."
Eleonor Botoman is a critic and poet based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Artforum, Sunlight Press, Interiors Journal, BUST Magazine,The Mantle, and Dream Pop Journal. A former sketchbook librarian, she now studies in NYU's Experimental Humanities program. When she's not reading science fiction or visiting museums, she's working on her newsletter, Screenshot Reliquary.
We need more Black films that aren't about pain
Sometime in the middle of June, seemingly overnight, bookmarks and highlights with titles like "Sharing Black stories" and "Celebrating Black Voices" emerged on streaming platforms.
While such branding efforts are usually reserved for Black History Month, these categories appeared as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests, which rippled through the industry in demands for more representation and recognition of Black people.
Streaming platforms responded by acquiring more Black content to feature prominently on their homepages, emphasizing their commitment to sharing and amplifying what they categorize as "Black Voices."
This seems like a good thing, a sign of progress. However, scrolling through the Black categories revealed more about Hollywood's gaze than about Black people — most of the showcased films could be separated into two categories: movies about slavery and movies about Civil Rights.
From Harriet and 12 Years a Slave to Selma or any other Martin Luther King biopic, most of the critically acclaimed films about "Blackness" seem to sensationalize Black suffering in order to offer a false sense of resolution and closure — as if racism began in slavery and ended with the March on Washington.
This false representation of Blackness in Hollywood perpetuates the idea that racism is a Black issue for Black people to deal with. It shows the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow eras as experiences of Black suffering, rather than white violence and complicity — all while cementing them in the past, where they can be ignored rather than confronted.
All this is at odds with the recent pushes for Americans to acknowledge how they are implicated in the country's deep-seated racist history.
Though film has the potential to excavate deep emotional truths about the current lives of Black folks, or imagine multiplicitous and dynamic futures, Hollywood is too obsessed with cataloguing Black trauma to realize that potential.
For film to truly be a resource for antiracism and an artform where everyone is represented, the powers that be in the academy need to reach beyond historical narratives and stereotypical caricatures and instead give their money and energy to new stories.
Voyeurism of Black Trauma
Sometimes I think there shouldn't have been any film about slavery after Roots.
The six-part, nine-hour mini series, based on Alex Haley's giant novel of the same name, premiered in 1977 and catalogued the cruelty endured by one slave, Kunta-Kinte, who refused to give up his name.
Though the story is iconic and a canonized part of the lexicon (often referenced in Black art and popular culture like multiple Kendrick Lamar songs), what is most famous about the movie adaptation are the scenes of violence — the whipping, the blood, the lacerations left on the skin.
In most film representations of enslaved people, there is a focus on the violence and cruelty experienced — from physical to sexual assault. While it is important to remember the intensity of the cruelty suffered under slavery, the Hollywood gaze often sensationalizes this violence, using it as plot or character development or to establish tropes. This creates a voyeuristic dynamic which is more objectifying than empowering.
Too often, this violence serves as a catalyst for some self-determined act of escape. Capitalizing on their anger, the enslaved person finally finds the strength to run away and free themselves. Not only is this narrative incredibly reductive of the psychological horrors of captivity (insinuating a kind of Kanye West-like philosophy), but it draws on actual pain and trauma in service of a contrived redemption story.
There is no worse offender than Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained — a film which I firmly believe Tarantino wrote and directed just to cast himself vicariously saying the N-word even more times than he did in Pulp Fiction. A classic Tarantino revenge fantasy, the fact of slavery becomes the background and backstory to Tarantino's spectacle of blood, gore, and farce.
But there is no healing in this, no real redemption found in the execution of single characters without the confrontation of the institution. And yet, it's categorized as a "Black story" … not likely.
The Reign of Black Caricature
Most of the movies which fall outside of the slavery and civil rights categories still leave much to be desired: from biopics on famous athletes and musicians to outrageous slapstick comedies (like, White Chicks … really?), the leading roles Black people can play rest in pretty defined tropes.
For a while, in the late '80s to early-2000s, there was a high demand for Black, male comedians — largely attributed to the success of Eddie Murphy on SNL from 1980-1984, which paved the way for Chris Rock, the Wayans Brothers, and Keenan and Kel, amongst others.
However, while white male comedians could exist in a range of styles and did not all follow the same formula, the same was not true for Black comedians. When it comes to Black actors, often what works once is all that networks will invest in — so everybody had to be Eddie Murphy.
What ensued was a generation of comedy movies built on over-the-top caricatures of Blackness which now find themselves in these "Black Voices" categories; meanwhile, the creative vision behind the reductive characters are likely the work of white Hollywood executives, pumping out repetitive content they knew would sell.
The New Age: Prison Movies
The recent attention to the atrocity of the prison industrial complex, especially after the success of the book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th, has spawned a new genre of Black trauma film: wrongful incarceration films.
In the last few years alone, there have been multiple adaptations of true-story accounts of Black men who were wrongfully imprisoned, then fought to prove their innocence.
From Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the prominent lawyer and prison activist at the Equal Justice Initiative, to Brian Banks about the story of the former football player who was freed by the Innocence Project, these accounts are powerful, but they feel reiterative of the same tropes: Black man who finds his freedom through self-determination.
They also hinge too heavily on carceral tropes of guilty-versus-innocent instead of interrogating the project of prisons at large. Hollywood, in this way, likes to claim the label of righteousness and activism, while not really moving towards radical change.
Academy Award winner, Moonlight, ushered in a new era in avant garde Black cinema
A Black Renaissance
The past few years, however, have been a sort of renaissance of Black storytelling in Hollywood.
The rise of Black-run production agencies like Lena Waithe's Hillman Grad Productions and Issa Rae's Hoorae Production Company has shown what a difference it makes when Black creatives are empowered both in front of and behind the camera.
With more Black people behind the camera, Black artists with unique viewpoints and more nuanced stories are now more likely to work with executives who understand them, and know how to support them.
In the past few years, the fruits of this renaissance have made big moves in the box office and at award shows. Films like Barry Jenkins's Moonlight and Jordan Peele's Get Out have become cultural staples, and major blockbusters like Black Panther have shown the buying power of Black audiences.
No more do Black stories have to fall into restrictive categories. No more are Denzel Washington and Will Smith the only ones who get cast in challenging, complex roles. New Black movies are more exploratory and expansive than ever — whether it's Beyonce's afrofuturist take on the Lion King in Black Is King or the upcoming intimacy of Malcom & Marie.
For true representation, Black movies cannot depend on the same canned narratives any longer, and Black people can't be the only ones watching them. Hollywood just needs to put faith in different narratives and trust that our stories are worth hearing.
The Nobel Prize committee has the chance to signal a better future for a prize with a fraught past.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice — Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. "Letter From Birmingham Jail" 1963
Nominations have been announced for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Among notable nominees are Ivanka Trump's husband Jared Kushner, politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Depending on your political biases, you likely find at least one of those nominations offensive, though it should be noted that the list of nominees is long, and anyone can be nominated.
In this case, Black Lives Matter was nominated by Petter Eide, a member of Norway's parliament. As for Jared Kushner, he was nominated along with former Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz — the famed Harvard law professor, Trump sycophant, and defense attorney for O.J. Simpson and Jeffrey Epstein. Kushner and Berkowitz played central roles in brokering the Abraham Accords declaring, "Peace, Cooperation, and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations" between the US, Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE.
The Abraham Accords: The PR of the 'peace deals' | The Listening Postwww.youtube.com
At face value many Americans would no doubt see the negotiation of a peace deal as more legitimate grounds for nomination than a protest movement that sparked violent confrontation with police and counter protesters around the country in 2020. And, if we look at the history of the Peace Prize, there is a sense in which they would be right — the prize has often been awarded for superficial diplomatic theater rather than the real and often messy work of addressing injustice.
The Fraught History of the Nobel Peace Prize
In 1928, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg received the prize for getting all the world's major powers to officially, meaninglessly renounce war...shortly before Hitler took power in Germany. Another Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was selected by the Nobel Committee for negotiating a cease fire with Vietnam in 1973 — the same year it was revealed that he had masterminded a secret carpet bombing campaign in Cambodia, which is credited with giving rise to the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
More recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was given the Peace Prize just for being elected president — in a move Obama acknowledged as premature. And in 2020, Donald Trump's son-in-law and his buddy Avi were nominated for the award for arranging "peace" between nations that were never at war — with a substantial arms deal thrown in for good measure.
To put it bluntly, it would make nearly as much sense for Jared Kushner to win the Nobel Peace Prize as it did for a number of other recipients with dubious claims to peace work. By contrast, in 1948 the Nobel committee chose not to award anyone — rather than acknowledge Mohandas Gandhi's work in pushing for Indian independence from Britain.
Historically the committee has often erred on the side of the powerful — rewarding hollow and hypocritical displays of diplomacy over the controversy that tends to arise around grassroots struggles. So while it may be unlikely that Kushner and Berkowitz will receive the peace prize, neither would it really be surprising.
But with Black History Month kicking off, it's worth articulating not just why their diplomacy is underwhelming, but why the Black Lives Matter movement deserves recognition for advancing the global fight against injustice.
No Justice, No Peace
While extensive efforts have been made to paint the Black Lives Matter movement as violent, anti-White, and at the political fringes, in reality it is the largest and most racially diverse protest movement in American history. And considering the thousands of demonstrations that have taken place, involving many millions of individuals, the relative lack of violence from the protesters is much more worthy of note than a handful of dramatic scenes.
Compared to the January 6th Trump rally, where a crowd of around 30,000 spawned a violent insurrection — which was handled with kid gloves by the police and led to five deaths — the 15 million plus who participated in BLM marches in 2020 were remarkably peaceful. The same cannot be said for far too many of police who patrolled those marches and gave proof to the brutality that inspired them.
A compilation of videos that captures how police officers incite violence. How are they responding to protests ag… https://t.co/7rBOh3OHMP— Simran Jeet Singh (@Simran Jeet Singh) 1590893613
And though regrettable incidents of arson and violence have undeniably taken place in connection with BLM demonstrations, the alternative was not "peace."
What is often overlooked in discussions of peace is the reality of social and political injustice as among the most prevalent forms of violence on Earth. When millions of people, targeted through no fault of their own, are systemically dehumanized — their lives and their contributions devalued and their opportunities for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness both deliberately and incidentally truncated for centuries — that is violence that destroys lives on another scale altogether.
For Black Americans that obviously means slavery and its aftermath, as well as segregation and the continued legacies of practices like redlining. But it also means a so-called "war on drugs" that treats addiction as a crime rather than an illness and disproportionately targets and locks up Black Americans, depriving too many children of their parents.
It means racist police procedures like Stop and Frisk, as well as the implicit (and often explicit) racial biases of the officers themselves. It means making it nearly impossible for people convicted of felonies within this unjust, racist system to live within the bounds of the law, depriving them — as well as millions of Black Americans who haven't been convicted of anything — of the right to participate in democracy and change the system that treats them so cruelly.
And none of this even covers the immense wealth inequality that makes life harder for almost all Americans — though, again, the harm is leveled disproportionately against Black Americans. All of these ordinary and unacceptable aspects of American life are violence — "the negative peace which is the absence of tension."
They destabilize communities, families, and individual lives. And that violence came to a head in June, following the horrific killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill.
While far from the only evidence of systemic racism in America, the murder of unarmed Black men, women, and children by police and by racist vigilantes who — more often than not — are allowed to walk free, is perhaps its most blatant and disgusting expression.
And the names of the slain — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, too many more to mention — have become rallying cries.
With all the domestic resistance the protests met from people who insist on spitting "all lives matter!" (as if fighting for the value of Black lives implied otherwise) and "blue lives matter!" (as if the safety of police officers depends on their ability to shoot unarmed Black men, women, and children without consequence), it would be easy to lose sight of how much support the movement has received overseas. While the movement was started in America, the impact has been global.
"Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere"
The reality of living as a dehumanized minority in a bigoted society is sadly all too common in the world. And while not everywhere is as bad in this respect as America, the recognition sparked protests of solidarity and of common cause around the world.
Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has continued the fight for America to live up to its promise. Because right now "the land of the free" is home to a carceral state where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else on Earth, and citizens are killed by police at a higher rate than in any comparable nation.
Because the systems that were deliberately set up to keep newly freed Black citizens oppressed following the Civil War were never truly purged — have been covertly bolstered and supplemented ever since.
That is not peace. Only a stable form of violence.
A cartoon from the 1960s My father wasn’t beloved by America. In ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ he responded to 8… https://t.co/ygwaqnWoO9— Be A King (@Be A King) 1611017549
In 1964 the Nobel committee opted not to side with power. It was the same year the FBI sent a harassing letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to commit suicide.
He was considered by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — and many others in positions of power within the American government — to be an enemy of the state. There is even reason to believe that these forces were directly involved in his 1968 assassination.
His protest movement was disruptive to the normal order of American life that most white Americans were content to maintain. Many balked at the idea that it could be called peaceful. But the Nobel committee selected him for the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a serious signal that the world was watching how America handled peaceful dissent.
Did that make a difference in passing the voting rights act of 1965? Who can say? But the Nobel committee has a similar opportunity this year.
What Black Lives Matter has been fighting for in recent months is the "positive peace" King spoke of as "the presence of justice." With that in mind — and with some uncertainty remaining as to how a decentralized, leaderless movement of millions can receive an award — the Nobel committee should take seriously the option of selecting Black Lives Matter.
Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speechwww.youtube.com
There are no doubt many nominees whom the committee could select for the Peace Prize — including Jared Kushner. And some who would even be worthy — including Stacey Abrams.
But the significance of acknowledging a grassroots fight for justice that was centuries in the making (in a nation which — for all its flaws — continues to shape culture around the world) is too powerful to deny.
In February we celebrate Black History Month in America.
For the entire month, we commemorate the vast contributions from Black people who have impacted society here and abroad. After all, we are responsible for countless inventions and innovations in art, science, athletics, business, and activism, contributions that often get overlooked because of our country's pervasive legacy of racism.
Black History Month may also be the only annual instance that this country comes close to acknowledging its racist heritage. The brilliance that Blackness has provided modern-day society is, unfortunately, also rooted in hatred and exclusion.
Recognizing the creations shaped by the hands of Black people means examining the oppressive infrastructures that sparked their genius. One of those infrastructures is slavery.
The mention of slavery prompts various reactions amongst white people. Some declare it to be our country's greatest shame, while others act as if it never happened. If the latter admits to its existence, it's to admonish others for "living in the past."
The celebration of Black History Month and the acknowledgment of slavery go hand in hand. Although a vast majority of Black History itself isn't a direct result of slavery, its ramifications are certainly a factor.
For instance, Martin Luther King Jr'.s vaunted legacy hinges upon his fight against racism and segregation. His peaceful marches and resounding speeches became the introduction to Black History and the Civil Rights Movement for most children in elementary schools across the country.
King is a lauded American hero for his fortitude. But his battle with a racist system is often romanticized. His reimagining sees him as a man standing up for his beliefs instead of a victim of a hateful construct who was forced to rise up against his oppressors.
The irony resides in Black people being labeled as world-changers and trailblazers in the eyes of history but only being allowed to access a small portion of it in order to apply their craft.
Similarly, Black people becoming a dominant force in sports and entertainment hasn't been without their share of obstacles. Unlike today where they have access to a worldwide audience to entertain, Black musicians and athletes' sole audiences used to be people who looked like them.
Sports pioneer Jackie Robinson made history as the first Black man to play professional baseball. His breaking of the color barrier instituted a new day in American sports, but the country's prejudicial temperament remained the same. Robison received death threats from angry white fans, players, and even owners.
Robinson Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses at Ebbets Field in the Brooklyn borough of New York. John Rooney/AP/Shutterstock
Furthermore, musicians like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, who are pioneers of Rock and Roll, are credited with inspiring The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But during the '50s, their sound was classified as "race music." Conversely, that same "race music" was acceptable when taken and repurposed by white artists.
They and others like them persevered in the face of adversity to open doors for Black people today. Their struggles are reminders of the resiliency of Black people that changed the world and the unnecessary roadblocks they had to overcome to do so.
The observance of Black History Month in today's racial climate in America feels insincere. When entities are dedicated to oppression the other 11 months of the year, it's hard to believe their calls for racial unity in February
We voice our grievances about the government and law enforcement's wanton negligence daily, only to hear how stuck in the past we are as a race. Yet, that same past is responsible for the evolution of civilization as we know it today. Without Black people, America would not be the culturally rich place it is today.
Still, many feel sentiments like "Black Lives Matter" are radical movements, when in actuality they are an ever-present reminder of the conditions Black people had to navigate to pull off these incredible feats.
America cannot sincerely immerse itself in the celebration of Black History Month until it confronts its history. Racism is the beating heart beneath the floorboards of privilege. But as the beating grows louder, our country continues to disregard its pulse.
So much of Angela Davis's work is still relevant and urgent now
When you think of the Black Panther Party or Black women revolutionaries, one of the images that likely comes to mind is of Angela Davis and her giant, unapologetic afro, fist raised to the sky.
One of the foremost activists and revolutionaries of the time, Angela Davis is a blueprint for race theory and radical politics. Long before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality," Angela Davis was living it.
An activist during the concurrent Civil Rights Movement and the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and '70s, Davis made no compromises in her rhetoric for gender or racial equality. Her ideologies were also informed by Marxist analysis and fervent belief in the interlinked oppression of race, gender, and class as a product of capitalism.
Almost 60 years later, the same fight remains and Davis is still at the forefront. Her work, from her speeches to her books, are similarly potent sources of theory and inspiration. It's safe to say that Angela Davis should be required reading — not just as a resource for anti racism work, but just as a model of how to live.
Since so much of her work is still relevant and urgent now, here are some of the most resonant quotes for our current age and why they still matter today.
Erasing the reality of our troubled history — and our divided present — is not true unity.
Back in early September of 2020, when fewer than 200,000 Americans had yet died as a result of COVID-19, reality TV "businessman" Donald Trump was somehow the president of an entire country.
And he wanted everyone to "love" that country as much — and as selectively — as he did. So when Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project with The New York Times began winning awards and being taught in classrooms, he knew he had to act.
It was bad enough with people protesting in the streets against racialized violence today, but trying to place that injustice in a context of an ongoing pattern of racialized oppression was too much. Establishing an advisory committee to promote "patriotic education," Donald Trump tasked his 1776 commission with combatting the 1619 Project's unflattering focus on chattel slavery and its continued legacy.
The 1619 Project details the legacy of slavery in Americawww.youtube.com
Four months later, 200,000 more Americans have died of COVID-19, and Joe Biden has been elected to replace Donald Trump. An attempted coup failed to overturn the election, and many of the same political figures who stirred up the sentiments of insurrection — and still refuse to acknowledge Biden's legitimate victory — have been calling for "unity."
Those calls were echoed in Joe Biden's inauguration speech, but there has remained a question of what kind of unity they mean. And in that context, the 1776 Commission — which Biden has pledged to disband — released a report in the lead-up to inauguration day, clarifying what kind of "unity" they mean.
It's a unity not of solidarity, empathy, and shared struggle, but of erasure, appropriation, and myth. The report's primary contention seems to be that a more critical perspective on America's history is necessarily both skewed and harmful. That perspectives like Hannah-Jones' are actively and deliberately destructive of our "united" American spirit, and lead us, somehow — inexplicably — toward tyranny.
The Founding Fathers: Context and Contradictions
The report argues that — given the context of their horrifying and disturbing time period — we should be in awe of the fact that the Founding Fathers could recognize and articulate a concept of universal rights, even if they didn't quite live by their stated principles. And that America eventually achieved a society where universal rights were properly enshrined and should have stopped trying to fix apparent injustices decades ago.
It's clear that the report is referring to the 1619 Project — and similar work centering the experiences of oppressed and ignored groups in America's history — when it talks of "deliberately destructive scholarship." According to the report, this kind of scholarship, "shatters the civic bonds that unite all Americans."
It's better to focus on stories like George Washington's virtuous decision to finally, posthumously free the dozens of human beings he kept enslaved for so many years. Like the parable of the cherry tree, it almost doesn't matter that Washington's decision to grant them their freedom was never truly carried out... almost.
It's taken for granted that looking seriously at the crimes of our nation's past — and noting the continued legacy of those crimes — is divisive. That the only way to unite is to focus narrowly on what inspires "reverence and love" for our history and to refer to that narrow focus as "viewing our history clearly and wholly." To do otherwise "silences the discourse essential to a free society by breeding division, distrust, and hatred among citizens."
It's certainly true that a close look at the enslavement of millions of Black men, women, and children in what may be history's most extensive and systematic project of dehumanization does not tend to inspire the kind of reverence Donald Trump wanted Americans to feel for their country — and for him.
Unearthing Sally Hemings' legacy at Monticellowww.youtube.com
The 1776 commission doesn't want you to ask why Washington didn't grant those people their "unalienable" freedom while he was alive. Or why other founding fathers — like Thomas Jefferson, who enslaved hundreds — didn't make even this lukewarm gesture toward emancipation.
Being offered now as a corrective to more serious scholarship, it repeatedly insists that our nation's founders — who drank more beer than water, wore powdered wigs rather than bathing, and enslaved their own children of rape — should be viewed with "reverence" and as "heroes."
According to the report, it is at once necessary to understand them in the context of a time period in which enslaved people were a foundational part of America's economic system — a system which served those founders well — and to ignore what that foundation might say about a country asserting natural rights as the reason for its very existence. Note the context. Ignore the contradictions.
Myths, Fallacies, and Hypocrites
As for its take on that historical context, the report continually perpetuates myths and fallacies that cast a positive light on America's early history. King George III, for instance, is held up as the Declaration of Independence's caricature of "a despotic king who violated the people's rights and overthrew the colonists' longstanding tradition of self-government."
In reality, England had long since adopted a constitutional monarchy in which the bulk of decisions were made by the parliament. Framing those decisions as — in the report's words — "the capricious whims of a tyrant," made for a better story.
In reality, the American colonists — particularly the wealthy merchants and plantation owners among them — resented being governed and taxed by distant politicians elected without their consent. It's a reasonable objection, though it's painful to note that the same objections can now be made by the residents of Puerto Rico and other American territories.
Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. Will it happen?www.youtube.com
If those American citizens — subject to taxation without representation — framed that relationship as tyranny, would the 1776 commission treat calls for liberty or statehood with the same reverence? Based on the report, it seems more likely that the commission would dismiss them as telling a story "of oppression and victimhood."
While it's no doubt true that America's founders were hugely influential in the history of political thought — and that the documents they wrote formed a foundation for the advancement of civil rights both at home and abroad — it would be foolish to treat their ideas and their motivations as pure. They applied their high-minded principles primarily when it served their interests to do so.
Another way to put that would be to say that they were hypocrites. But when the report talks about the blatant contradictions, words apparently speak louder than actions: "What is momentous is that a people that included slaveholders founded their nation on the proposition that 'all men are created equal.'"
We are to take it for granted that this sentiment was simply on a delay when applied to women and particularly to the people who were bought, sold, branded, bred, and worked like livestock.
An understanding of how that same dehumanization was carried forward not just in sharecropping and Jim Crow, but in Confederate memorials, the war on drugs, and predatory loans — in "welfare queens," "superpredators," and "all lives matter" — would be far less flattering.
"Equality of Opportunity" and "Shared Heritage"
Instead, the commission's report consistently conflates efforts at restorative justice with the evils they are intended to address. On the topic of affirmative action and identity politics, the report says, "This new creed creates new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South, making a mockery of equality with an ever-changing scale of special privileges on the basis of racial and sexual identities."
Better to ignore the ways in which historic injustices persist — the fact, for instance, that white families have nearly eight times the wealth of Black families. Whitewash those details and sell a story of meritocracy and "equality of opportunity," ignoring outcomes that fundamentally imply that Black Americans have less merit.
Better to talk about a "shared heritage." Better to ignore how the progeny of the enslaved have yet to share in the advantages left to the progeny of the wise and noble white thinkers who enslaved them.
Even when addressing the injustices of sharecropping in the reconstruction era, the report avoids the idea that vulnerable people were horribly exploited — as that sort of reasoning could likewise be applied to the dynamics of wage labor today. Instead, the report indicates that the system "enmeshed freedmen in relationships of extreme dependency," echoing conservative attacks on social programs that serve our nation's most disadvantaged.
Co-Opting MLK's Dream
Worse still, for a report released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is the way the commission abuses the message of the civil rights era — and King in particular.
When discussing the concept of identity politics — that oppressed groups must work together to advocate for their interests — the 1776 commission claims that this ethos"values people by characteristics like race, sex, and sexual orientation" and is thus "the opposite of King's hope that his children would 'live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'"
Of course this is patently absurd. King and other civil rights leaders of his era plainly believed in the importance of people united by a shared struggle fighting for equality. And just as concepts like poll taxes and literacy tests were once used to disenfranchise Black voters — without explicitly mentioning race — there are aspects of our society that selectively disadvantage certain groups without expressly stating that aim.
That means over-policing of Black and Latinx neighborhoods, women receiving less pay for equal work, or school funding being inexplicably tied to property values. There is nothing about the affected groups organizing for their interests that is in conflict with King's values, nor with the principles of America's founding.
Martin Luther King Jr.: 'The Economic Problem Is the Most Serious Problem'www.youtube.com
On the contrary, that struggle is inherent in the "unalienable right" to the pursuit of happiness and enshrined in the first amendment. And pretending that oppressed groups are past the need for this kind of action or the protection it can win only sets us back. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, it brought us right back to the era of poll taxes, with a surge of voter suppression that doesn't mention race, yet manages to target Black voters "with almost surgical precision."
As is so often the case, the report ignores the true history of Martin Luther King's unpopularity among white Americans of his time. They treat him in death as uncontroversially loved, appropriating his message to evoke a false contrast between the current protest movement — which is portrayed as disruptive and divisive — and the movement of the 1960s.
If you were to believe the report, the latter "presented itself, and was understood by the American people, as consistent with the principles of the founding." In reality — the movement's relationship to the principles of the founding aside — Martin Luther King was never particularly popular in America. And in the years before his assassination, one Gallup poll showed that 63% of Americans held an unfavorable view of King, compared to just 33% with a favorable view.
This was due in part to protests which rankled the same type of person offended by Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter — white moderates whom king described as preferring "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." But it was also in response to King's harsh criticism of American activity in the Vietnam war and to his advocacy for a multiracial "Poor People's Campaign" uniting working class Americans to correct the injustices of capitalism.
King and Guthrie — This Report Erases Socialists
But of course the 1776 commission would be unlikely to acknowledge that King once described himself as "much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic." They had to erase that aspect of his life in order to appropriate him for their skewed, elitist version of individual liberty.
After all, according to the report, socialism "leads down the same dangerous path of allowing the state to seize private property and redistribute wealth as the governing elite see fit." As opposed to wealth being distributed only as the billionaires see fit…
As foolish as this mischaracterization of King is, it is hardly the commission's most absurd omission. That distinction goes to the report's invocation of Woody Guthrie's classic song "This Land is Your Land," as a song for patriotic Americans to enjoy on the fourth of July.
In reality, that song was first penned as a Marxist critique of the notion of private property — in direct opposition to the narrow notion of freedom the 1776 report venerates. Woodie Guthrie — of "This machine kills fascists" fame — would not only have vehemently opposed the sort of "patriotic education" advocated by the commission, he vocally opposed Donald Trump's father for racist housing discrimination practices in a song he penned called "Old Man Trump."
This Land is Your Landwww.youtube.com
It seems there is no Left-wing activity the 1776 commission won't co-opt for their reactionary purposes. Take for example their list of "great reforms" which places "anti-Communism," and "the Pro-Life Movement" alongside abolition, women's suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Never mind the fact that anti-abortion advocacy treats a pregnant person's sovereignty as secondary to that of a fetus that doesn't even have a central nervous system. What "reforms" have ever been associated with "anti-Communism?" McCarthyism? The erosion of social safety nets?
Throwing Obstacles in the Way of a Complete Education
But of course this report is propaganda. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that a commission established by a billionaire president — who wanted to ban muslims, labelled protestors terrorists, and called undocumented immigrants rapists — is deeply biased against calls for racial and economic justice.
It makes even more sense when you learn that the chair of the commission, Larry Arnn — president of conservative Hillsdale College — once complained that state officials had come looking for "dark ones" after his school was charged with violating the Michigan DOE's standards for diversity. His co-chair, Carol Swain, once compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan.
This is what "patriotism" and "unity" mean to people like Trump, Arnn, and Swain. They mean stop criticizing. Stop finding fault and stop standing up for yourself — just be grateful for the status quo.
It's the kind of "unity" that divides the poor white workers against poor black workers to prevent a working class movement, and it's not remotely surprising that these people would share such a remarkably skewed, incomplete, and ahistorical perspective. That they accuse every social justice movement past the 1960s of seeking special favor and imposing anti-majoritarian bigotry — e.g. affirmative action is the real racism — is likewise to be expected.
What is nonetheless shocking is how fervently they project that fault onto the other side while co-opting and mischaracterizing Left-wing figures and movements. There is, for instance, a bitter irony in the moment when the report cites early feminist icon Elizabeth Cady Stanton as saying "to throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes."
This pays off when the report goes on to attack universities for offering anything more than the most simplistic, rose-tinted view of the founders. As with the attack on the Capitol, they want to achieve unity not by embracing a shared understanding of our complex and often deeply painful history, but by agreeing as one to deny it. By moving on.
Nation as System and Myth
They believe that a nation is a myth of pure ideals — a myth of a people unified by principles — more than it is a system that should serve its citizen's sustainable happiness. And that patriotism — rather than pushing the system to improve — means worshipping the myth as dogma.
There is a huge difference between defending and working to improve a flawed system that broadly benefits you and the people you love — in ways that you may take for granted or not even notice — and devoting yourself to a mythic sense of noble community. The latter will always have such a huge advantage in terms of the picture it paints and the passion it invites — it almost doesn't matter that it's make-believe.
But the fact that it isn't real makes it far too malleable. The most gripping myths and stories have villains, and if patriotism is built on a myth of belonging, then our national myth can easily be molded to unite patriots against the "villains" outside our borders.
This form of unity and of patriotism is undoubtedly more exciting — more fun — than the version that focuses on highlighting problems, legislating policy to fix those problems and slowly improving our bureaucracy. But we should all see by now how these myths drift too easily into the dark side of nationalism — into xenophobia, warmongering, and fascist violence.
Even as President Biden signals the end of the 1776 commission, this report will live on. Its sentiments will remain in our national conversation,, and its deception will likely be read in classrooms across the country.
With that in mind, we should come away from this text with one clear message: "Unity" with people who favor myths and lies over difficult truths is not worth pursuing.
The attempted coup that took place at the Capitol building on Wednesday was equal parts terrifying and hilarious.
In times of crisis and chaos, it's important to keep a clear head and stay on top of the facts.
It's important to acknowledge that this was an unprecedented breach of security that could easily have been avoided and that it resulted in the deaths of at least four people.
But once you've processed the horror that entails, it's equally important to allow yourself a break from the tension and anxiety. Now and then it's essential to look at things from a different angle and just laugh at the absurdity.
Wednesday's attack on Capitol Hill was a great reminder of that lesson. Amid images of fascists and white supremacists taking over the Capitol building to disrupt the functioning of the federal government, chase legislators into hiding, and delay the confirmation of Joe Biden's clear victory over Donald Trump — waving the confederate flag, smashing things, stealing things, and generally getting away with it — there was also an abundance of clownish, hilarious behavior.
Some of the absurdity involved people being intentionally funny, while some of it displayed a raw, natural talent for being obliviously laughable. But all of it provided potent relief from the sense of American democracy falling to a movement of delusional bigots led by a petty conman (though that's still a disturbing possibility).
So as we move forward and focus on action to ameliorate the risk of further violence — anti-coup protests, impeachment, the 25th amendment — it's worth looking back at some of the highlights of absurdity that sprouted from Wednesday's waking nightmare.
At any rate, with all this absurdity, you have to laugh...or cry...or both, simultaneously while huddled in your closet.
"President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon...Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad." -Malcolm X.
The attack on Capitol Hill was another example of how President Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacy. His term in office has given racism and fascism a bigger platform and an official advocate. He proved that, at his command, MAGA fanatics will assemble to do his bidding.
As the world watched the descent of democracy, many were appalled at the visual. This was an attempted coup two weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. News outlets and politicians questioned how we, as a country, got to this point. But for Black Americans, this has always been our country.
The violence witnessed on Capitol Hill was a scene all too familiar for Black people. The difference was that we weren't the direct targets. Trump's base has antagonized and threatened violence against Black people while law enforcement abuses its power when interacting with us. The confrontation between the two entities responsible for our oppression was unexpected, but not surprising.
Many Trump supporters and members of law enforcement are cut from the same cloth. In fact, many members of law enforcement voted for him. Their belief in excessive force under the guise of law and order gives them what they feel is the right to harm anyone who goes against their authority. They are loyal to a flawed system and a man that keeps them in power and not to the country and its citizens seeking progress and peace.
Throughout this presidency, both sides have pledged their allegiance to each other. MAGA supporters have backed the Blue Lives Matter movement. Police officers have demonstrated leniency when dealing with unruly Trump disciples at rallies and protests. Both believe they are the good guys trying to make things great again.
Black people have had to do battle with both. We've had to listen to the various lies spewed about the Black Lives Matter movement from supporters of the president while fighting police brutality daily. The assault on Blackness was a cause that unified them. Black people have warned the world of the dangers these factions were capable of for years. Those claims fell on deaf ears, until yesterday when they turned on one another.
For many Black Americans, yesterday was the manifestation of this country's inability to address domestic terrorism. Peaceful protests and resistance against police brutality are viewed in the same light as the insurrection. The anarchy and mayhem that GOP pundits accuse BLM of inciting was a direct order from their leader.
Their ignorance and arrogance gave them the courage to lay siege to a government building. But if angry Black protesters attempted the same actions, many lives would've been lost.
The same reason why the police routinely kill Black people is the same reason why the police are routinely unprepar… https://t.co/Rc3yWRZ2PA— Ibram X. Kendi (@Ibram X. Kendi) 1609964271
Suddenly, Trump supporters view themselves as oppressed. Their reign over the country is coming to a not so graceful end. Rather than humbly accepting defeat, they want to dismantle the establishment. The same establishment that helped empower them over the last four years.
Somehow this attack was yet another revelation for white Americans. Before Trump's election, the idea of police officers displaying a lack of regard for the lives of Black people was inconceivable to white Americans. The thought of parts of our government upholding systemic racism was unfathomable.
Last night, after a year of reckoning with the racism built into America's system, white Americans were forced to once again look at the enormous part white privilege plays in policing. But for Black people, it was simply a clear visual of America's decision on November 8, 2016, coming home to roost.
For too long we've been told that "Black" politics would scare away moderates
First thing's first: I need white people to stop treating Stacey Abrams like their savior.
Deification, a form of dehumanization, strips a person of their humanity and turns them into a symbol. By overhyping Stacey Abrams, white people assert their goodness on the back of a Black woman, trying to be woke by association.
While Abrams deserves much praise, we cannot continue to place superhuman expectations upon her. We also cannot act like she was solely responsible for discovering a secret to turning Georgia blue. The reality is that Stacey Abrams worked tirelessly alongside other dedicated organizers to address the voter suppression Black people have been fighting in Georgia for decades.
So why haven't democratic politicians done this before? Obama did, campaigning at a grass roots level and counting on disenfranchised voters. But he was Obama, people might say, of course Black people will vote for him. The "Black vote" in political discourse is treated as an ineffable mystery and often discarded as impossible to count on. Black people just don't vote, politicians say, then focus their attention elsewhere.
So when the Black vote (alongside other BIPOC demographics such as the historic voter turnout of Indigenous populations in Arizona) undoubtedly delivered the 2020 election to the Democrats, then did the same for the House in the Georgia run-offs, everyone was talking about Stacey Abrams in a way a little too reminiscent of how the dad talked in Get Out.
But the election results revealed that Black voters are in fact the key to the Democratic Party's success. When is the Party going to start acting like it?
All through the election year, Democrats were convinced that playing it safe was the key to defeating Trump.
By electing Biden as the nominee instead of more "radical" Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the DNC were adamant that the game plan was to appeal to white moderates — which meant not scaring them away.
So while Biden picked Harris, a biracial Black and Indian woman, as his Vice President, their campaign strategy was to hover around the center and appeal to white voters who somehow just weren't sure who to vote for yet.
Meanwhile, the country was going through a period of major racial protest. Black Lives Matter protesters spent the summer appealing for an end to police brutality, for legislative protection, for defunding the police and reexamining the carceral system in light of its racist roots.
And though there were some tweets and statements from major Democratic politicians in response to the murder of George Floyd, as well as that super embarrassing thing with the Kinte cloths, the sentiment remained that actually addressing the demands of protestors would be too risky and scare away the nice white voters.
Well, the nice white voters went for Trump.
Exit polls showed that 58% of white voters voted for Trump — an increase from the 2016 election. And while Trump made percentage gains with Black men, Black people overwhelmingly voted for Biden. And in key cities in key states, Black voters having the agency to vote in the presidential election and in the Georgia Senate races was instrumental in the Democratic wins.
The numbers speak for themselves. In his election speech, Biden even thanked Black voters for being instrumental to his victory. But Biden's main message was one of healing — not for marginalized groups who suffered most under the Trump presidency, but for … "the soul of America"?
Biden's speech seemed to focus on restoring party communication, going back to his comfortable place in the center and telling us (while invoking Langston Hughes in his references to "dreams deferred") to join him.
For many Black voters, moving to the center looks like regression. Again, the Democratic rhetoric was one that appealed to white moderates, to appease their concerns and placate their nerves after a year of proverbially "difficult" conversations and "reckoning."
But for Black Americans, the most difficult thing is being constantly gaslit — being told by a party which claims to care about us that fighting for our concerns (read: our lives) is too much, too difficult, too frightening.
In response to the calls to defund the police, many major Democrats were quick to dismiss the movement. Biden himself said that he did not want to defund the police. "I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness," he said instead, again appealing to vague notions of morality rather than actionable policy.
Even Black politicians took up this rhetoric. South Carolina Representative and major Civil Rights activist James Clyburn said that "nobody is going to defund the police," and that "police have a role to play." His plea was against "sloganeering," claiming that pleas like "Defund the Police'' would undermine the movement and lose the election.
Barack Obama said something similar (thanks, Obama): "If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it's not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like Defund the Police, but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it."
These sentiments are the work of years of conditioning that expects Black people to acquiesce to white audiences, to settle for banal "reform" and "slow, steady change" instead of radical action. They are examples of respectability politics and tone policing that reinforce the idea that Black folks are a liability, harming our own progress by scaring away potential allies.
But we're tired of it.
In the wake of the dismissal of BLM slogans, many major progressives also spoke out. Representative Ilhan Omar responded to Obama's comment in a tweet, saying: "We lose people in the hands of police. It's not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety."
We lose people in the hands of police. It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitabl… https://t.co/fh8ftnTR7t— Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan Omar) 1606872699
Her response points out the danger in the quick dismissal by these politicians: too focused on how the slogan sounds, they fail to address the policy changes it calls to action and continue to support a system of policing which currently exists in a fundamentally oppressive structure. Reform is not enough, complete restructuring and radical change is the only answer.
Most Black Americans do not have the privilege of not understanding this. And, after delivering the election to Biden and the Senate, we want recognition.
We want to no longer be the big scary thing that Democrats are afraid of. We want to be taken seriously, and we want our demands to be met, our communities to be prioritized, and our people to stop dying at the hands of the state.
Black voters do not appear magically to deliver democracy if white people click their heels, repost an infographic, and say, "Stacey Abrams" in the mirror three times. The Black Vote is a collection of diverse, real people who are tired of being treated like a liability, a threat to the party they have always been loyal to.
It's time the party returned the favor — pointing out the obvious transgressions of the (soon) past administration will not be enough. With a blue senate, Biden has the opportunity to be bold, to enact real change for the communities who showed up for him, despite his own flaws and a year spent turning his back to us for the sake of white voters who did not.
Christoph Carr talks art, music, and protest.
Scholar, activist, musician, event organizer, author—Christoph Carr is the personification of a visionary. As the co-founder of Brooklyn Wildlife and Black Land Ownership, Carr has long been working to break down boundaries and to create space where art and life can thrive without outside imposition.
More recently, he's been leading unique NYC-based Black Lives Matter protests that attempt to engage directly with the police. His many projects address current, pressing needs—but they also envision a world that could be, a world of connection, deep roots, and human empathy. Here, we spoke about the stories behind his groundbreaking organizations, and the grief and strange possibility buried in the depths of 2020.
How did Brooklyn Wildlife come to be? What space did you want it to fill?
I moved to New York in 2008 for a relationship, and by summer 2009 that relationship was falling apart. I was on the cusp of going back to DC or staying in New York, and I decided to stay.
A homie I knew had just gotten back to town and he was doing music, and we started recording a project together. By 2010 we finished the project and we were trying to do shows, but we ran into a huge issue while trying to book shows as a rap group without an agent or a booking company. The clubs didn't want to answer emails—they'd say talk to the booker, and the booker would say talk to the promoter. [A lot of these places] were only doing two hip hop shows a month at that time, or they wouldn't even book hip hop.
So me and my friend were like, we gotta just throw the shows ourselves. We know other musicians; let's just throw the party.
Chris Carr performing
When we first started sending out emails, we realized that a lot of the bookers and promoters didn't want to deal with artists, and we had to come up with a name or some way to be able to book the shows separately from us as performers. So we were like, let's start Brooklyn Wildlife. Let's make the events that we want to go to.
I was really inspired by the events going on when I moved to New York, but there was this partitioning and almost like segregation, where if I went to the warehouse electronic music parties, there was no hip hop. If I went to the hip hop shows, there was no folk.
And I like all of it. I like burlesque, I like comedy and music and visual art shows and filmmaking, and there wasn't really something that I saw that brought all these different elements together in a way that was authentic and aware and respectful of the traditions of those types of art forms.
I really obsess over hip hop and enjoy the cultural elements of hip hop and it being the quintessential postmodernist music form in its use of bricolage and sampling and expression, but I also really dug my friends who were DJing grime or dubstep or international music—what people might see as world music, or Afro-Soul and house music. All these things were of interest, and we weren't finding that.
So we started working with people we knew as Brooklyn Wildlife to throw as many shows as possible. Over the past few years we've done literally thousands of events, but it started out as wanting to have something for ourselves, and wanting to go to shows that we would enjoy ourselves.
Were you always involved in art and music?
I can't say always, but to a certain extent yes—my mom put me in violin lessons when I was five, and I was bad. In high school, I got into hip hop, but I was also playing sports, and hip hop wasn't an organized, structured activity at the time. When I got to college I started taking hip hop more seriously, MCing and writing and going out with my friends who wrote graffiti—and realized I wasn't good at that. Dancing, I wasn't good at that. DJing, not so much. I always like the types of music that other people didn't really "like" like—I like the B-sides, the secret album cut, the songs that are kind of reflective or might not be the party starters, by artists who may be more fringe or outside the status quo.
MCing was this great platform for me to learn about myself, society, and other people. When I was 18 or 19, in 1996-7, you could meet rappers and end up knowing people that worked on music video sets, just by being around the college environment I was in in Atlanta. You could run into Cee Lo Green outside the tabernacle.
At that point, I reattached to music in a serious way. [In Atlanta, there was this] level of professionalism and seriousness about what could be done with hip hop. I was still in school, and then I went to grad school at Columbia, but music was always a side thing—and it kept pulling at me. It wasn't until I left grad school and went back to DC that I was like, I need to make music. What would happen if I put all this time and effort and energy into making music on a full-time level?
I decided to invest whatever money I had into making my own studio and started making my own beats and throwing shows in DC. We were trying to throw more shows than everybody.
Since then, I don't really get writers' block or caught up in not being inspired. Since then it's been consistent: make a living from art.
A lot of your work seems to be about bringing people together in a way that's separate from corporate ownership. You started Brooklyn Wildlife because you wanted to have your own performance space that others didn't have to approve—and with Black Land Ownership, you're working to make space for people to own land outside of corporations. What's the connection between them?
One's an extension of the other. Some of the ideas from Black Land Ownership directly extend from what we learned doing Brooklyn Wildlife. The main thing is: If you don't own the land, you will not be able to dictate what happens on that land.
When I moved to my apartment, at the time, people were throwing mad shows at McKibben. As the building changes, the landlords start bringing in tenants and our neighbors move, and now it's people that have to wake up and go to work in the morning, and they start complaining to the landlords, and the landlords might lose money, so they tell me I have to stop making music.
We decided we'd rent DIY spaces. Still, if your neighbors don't like it, they call the cops. If the businesses nearby don't like it, they'll call the cops. Your landlord can shut you down. There's always someone that can make it difficult.
Whereas if you own a space, it's a lot harder for people to cause you problems. In New York it's too expensive to just buy a building. But when I went out to Colorado and Texas and parts of the country that are really wide open, I started thinking: There's so much space. If we had land, we could throw an outdoor festival with 100 people and no one could complain about anything. If people didn't like the noise, they wouldn't have to deal with it.
Still, you're going to have to lease farmland or county fair kinds of land. But when you do that, the owners can ask what types of events you're doing, and they can say that they only want certain things. And we can't really have that. We make sure we book artists that aren't using hate speech or being misogynistic or racist or phobic towards any marginalized groups, but people should be able to express their political ideologies, their emotional feelings and their spiritual feelings. And we shouldn't have to worry about some person who runs the fairgrounds saying: You all are anti-capitalist, that's anti-American, we don't want to have this.
So it comes to—well, you have to own the land. The only way that's possible for a group of artists is in more rural areas where the land is less expensive.
In Colorado, I was able to stay for free by working on a farm, and as I was pulling roots out of the ground—it gave me a lot of time to think. I did some shows while I was traveling, and when I came back I was like, why isn't that opportunity made more [available] for Black folks?
Denver is the most diverse city in Colorado, and it's still very homogenous in a certain way. In Grand Junction you're back towards the more conservative side, and you can tell people are like—"We don't have any Black people here, where'd you come from?"
It was shocking. [I started to ask], how come all the Black folks are crammed into cities on the East and West Coast, being pushed out, dealing with gentrification, being erased geographically—or we're in areas of the South and midwest that are economically depressed, dealing with racism and violence and stratification? There's all this space where there's plenty of land to grow food. Part of [the problem] is we only own 2% of the rural land in the country. So how are we going to get healthy food? We don't own the means of production.
In my mind, Marxism isn't a political system—it's an assessment of how capitalism works—and in the Marxist understanding, you have to own the means of production. If you want to have a place to grow your food, you need to own the land, or they'll push you out and find that it's more lucrative for Walmart to buy it.
[During] the Civil Rights movement, it was less difficult to find a common thread amongst different Black people. The idea of basic human rights could transcend layers of partitioning. Now there are certainly different opinions—on reproductive rights, on gender—but the one thing I could find that didn't cause people to have conflict is Black land ownership. It's not politicized, but no one talks about it. You have discussions about fair housing or affordable housing, but there are Black people with money who can't move where they want to due to institutional racism around land ownership, or groups of non-Black people pushing them out when they do make purchases.
Providing spaces for artists is important, but artists need an opportunity not to be stuck in the city paying $1,000 or $1,500 in rent every month. We need to get out and lay in a field, and play songs and run around, and have space in nature and grass under our feet, and be able to draw inspiration from something other than concrete and metal buildings.
How are you doing with COVID and everything?
It's been quite a year. Last spring, back in March, my partner had her appendix removed. She gets a call back, and she has to get a biopsy. And then [sic] she tests positive for appendix cancer, and they say they have to take out part of her colon. She has surgery in May and is recovering in June. She gets cleared. A week and a half to two weeks after that, I get diagnosed with melanoma in my toe and I have to get my pinky toe amputated.
I can't walk for however long. So I figure out how to pull off my summer festival and start throwing small shows, then wintertime hits. I go to California and tour, then in March I'm scheduled to go to SXSW. I had booked over 40 performers at the house we were renting down there, but COVID pops up the week we're supposed to go, and they cancel. That weekend of the 15th, lockdown started. In a weird way, I had already been on lockdown. Both [my partner and I] had been in our house a lot, working on our personal projects. I stopped drinking, so we stopped going to bars and clubs. COVID didn't change a whole lot for me.
I really miss not being able to meet new folks and engage with people and learn about their musical journeys. I've made a lot of stuff while we were trapped inside—a whole bunch of new songs, a project with my friend Annie Are You Okay—and a bunch of songs I've recorded with other people. And there are new secret projects I've been working on, and I finally put out one of my books—Thoughts of an Angry Black Man.
You've also led a few Black Lives Matter protests recently. Can you tell me about how that started?
I do a lot of Facebook Lives, and I was doing one about hip hop, recording in front of my building. I have my phone resting up on the fence. Since the camera is facing the street, I see the police pulling up. Then they walk up to me, and they're like, are you so and so, and I'm like nope, can't help you. And I'm like, by the way, I'm recording on Facebook Live. And they're like, we're concerned for you, are you on any medication? And I was like, no, what's this about—and they're like, we got a call that there's a man out here talking to himself and kicking at people.
And I was like, I've been recording this whole thing. Instead of them being like sorry, whatever, they're like, we're concerned—are you on medication? I was like, I don't have to answer any of your questions, but what do we have to do to make this the least conflictual as possible? Finally I just told them I live across the street, I volunteer at the school down the street, I run a store around the corner. They're finally like, we just had to check, someone called. And I'm like, what do you mean, someone called? Did you check if they're on medication?
When they pull off, I go upstairs. I look out the window and another cop car pulls up, so I [decide] I'm going to ask them how to file a report. Those police were like, you didn't have to answer the questions; you could've walked away. And I was like, really? You can't walk away from a police officer.
And then [I realize] the car I was leaning on—it's an undercover car. And an ambulance had been called. Two regular cop cars, an undercover car, and an ambulance came.
This is after Floyd stuff had happened, and I'm like, this could have gone so badly if I had a different demeanor. When I came back in I was really frustrated, and I started asking myself: what can I do to remove the standard approach to this? Who can I talk to about this?
So I walk over to the precinct, and see three cops there. And they're like: Who do you want to talk to? One cop says, "You gotta understand, people get called on emotionally disturbed people…" And finally they get the community liaison.
The liaison basically makes sure that protocol wasn't broken, and she asks if I want to file a report. One of the cops was a Black woman, and the other was a Latinx man, I think...I didn't want to get the cops in trouble. It's a policy that someone else created, that made it so they couldn't leave me alone.
After that, I was even more frustrated. When I left the precinct I was like, I gotta think of something to do that's not the same old me going back and yelling at the cops or not doing anything.
So I was like, what if I take flowers to the precinct, and talk to the guys standing in front of it and tell them about how I'd been stopped for no reason, and use the flowers as metaphors for other people who have been detailed without cause, or assaulted or brutalized by the police, or in horrible circumstances, lost their lives at the hands of the police?
[I wanted to] get the issue past politics, past the idea of Democrat/Republican or authority or anti-authority, or any of these names of organized groups. I'm a person, and the only person that ever pulled a gun on me in my life was a police officer. My friend down in Atlanta got killed by the police; my other friend in DC got shot by the police when he was unarmed. [I wanted to] root it in their humanity. Before they put on their guns and badges, they're humans, and I'm a human. Let's engage with the reality of how policing has had a negative effect on my community.
I went to the vigil at McCarren Park, and told some people about the flower thing. We ended up organizing a march from McCarren over to the 94th Precinct in Greenpoint. We took the flowers and had a line of people marching. It was wild to see that solidarity—to see how many people's lives had been touched by police brutality. It wasn't 20 people—it was over a hundred people who knew someone who had been hurt. There was no social media, no organized nonprofit entity. It was just people who had friends and heard the stories and wanted to show unity. And [they showed that] if the police harm one person in the community, 100 people might show up to support.
We organized another one that went from House of Yes over to the precinct on Knickerbocker. It's something that will continue, keeping in mind that it's about peace and love. The police aren't used to people showing up with flowers, saying, my friend got hurt by the police, and we want you to know this is personal.
This is about us as people. When we're walking on the streets, we're citizens, not criminals. You don't look at someone like me and automatically assume I'm the target of your predatory predisposition.
It's been a trip. I think it's cathartic for certain folks. They had never had the chance to present the emotions they had towards the police to the police. They may have told friends and family members, but to be able to tell the police officer in this manner that is somewhat controlled and purposeful—it kind of allowed for a valve to release pressure.
After the first march [sic], we were walking back from the precinct in Bushwick. There was a fire hydrant that was popped, and so a bunch of us danced in the fire hydrant—[it was a] cleansing experience. It was important for me, to see that solidarity, to see how all these other people have a common experience.
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