Tag Archives: race

The time I met Jericho Brown but didn’t know he was Jericho Brown

It was a warm day in March earlier this year. I was in Miami at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), the largest literary gathering in North America. Writers were everywhere. I remember taking a break in the conference hall, curled up in a nook and charging my phone. My eyes widened as I saw Ross Gay 20 feet from me, just catching up with Danez Smith, Fatima Asghar, and Franny Choi. Getting to listen to, interact with, or just stare at Tyehimba Jess, Bich Minh Nguyen, Patricia Smith, Don Mee Choi, and so on and so on.

So I should have expected to meet writers everywhere.

On the first day of the conference, at 8AM I was at an acai truck, because healthy foods help me feel better and more grounded when I travel. I leaned my uncorrected proof copy of francine j. harris’s poetry collection play dead against the metal siding of the truck as I put away my wallet. A tall, athletic man with dreadlocks, who had just pulled up in a sporty car with a woman, leaned in to look at the book. Squinting at it, he asked, “Is this yours?” I said no and explained how I ended up with the proof copy of the book. He asked to look at it and if I liked it. I started to talk about how harris came out of Cave Canem and Cave Canem writers have a reputation of being top-notch. He nodded and said he’ll look into the book. I got my acai bowl and left for my first-ever AWP session.

Fast forward two days. It’s Friday night and I’m at the Lambda Literary X Copper Canyon reading to support friends and for the hot writing. Poet Jericho Brown is last to read, and I’m happily surprised by his short poems and direct, tender lines, a style I feel contemporary poetry is moving away from. (Also, in all fairness, it was reassuring to hear poetry that resembled my poetry a little.) I also loved how casually he sat on the stool, reading and bobbing along with his lines, sometimes almost falling off.

When the event ended, Jericho quickly left to make it to another reading. I turned to him to say thank you and to tell him I appreciated his poetry. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Have we met?”

I was very certain we hadn’t and onto our separate nights we went.

Months later though, this moment still bothered me. I’m usually the person who recognizes familiar faces before they recognize me. I might not remember names or how we’ve met, but I always always remember faces. So, how come Jericho Brown thought we met, when I couldn’t recall him?

Obviously, I put it together that Jericho Brown was probably Mr. Acai from that first morning. But again why didn’t I remember his face?

I have to admit to myself that I did not remember him later, because I read him as a stereotype instead of looking at him fully when we first interacted. I wrote him off because of the sporty car, his Nikes, the joggers, and just how fit and attractive he is (y’all, Jericho Brown is the hottest). I also want to believe that race wasn’t a part of this. It would be easy to say that I don’t think of writers as athletic, attractive men. It is more difficult and important to say that I don’t think of writers as black, athletic, and attractive men. Was it the combination of these qualities or explicitly race itself that activated my implicit bias? I’m not sure, but I remember this initial moment with Jericho Brown and remind myself of all the races and colors of writers, all of our complexities– the shy awkward parts, the extroverts, the capitalist-in-us, the spiritualist, the revolutionary, even the athletic parts, and the shades of in-between that make living possible. I remember to hold myself responsible. I remember to reflect and confront my unconscious stereotypes and internalized racism.

You can read more of Jericho Brown’s work here and here.

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Filed under culture, essays, non-fiction, race, writing/writers

For Racial Justice– towards an honest, internal look

What a week. I am listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade album all the way through for the umpteenth time, feeling in-love, excited, melancholic, and nostalgic. And that’s just on a personal level, not even considering our current, painful political climate. Of course I have been thinking and feeling, as most if us have about the murders of Black people and people of color in our country. These concerns have been intensified by international attacks in France to Turkey to Baghdad and the ongoingU.S. violence abroad. It has been a rough two weeks to be an empathetic human being in general, and even more so if one is black, queer/trans, woman, working-class, migrant, and other oppressed identities. As I hurl into my future and think about my various roles, I think of my parents’ adage– look at yourself first. Look internally, they would say. To diagnose the problem and think of solutions, we need to look internally. Even on the national level, we do not have to go too far to consider what we need to do for healing and justice. At least a part of what this means is to look at ourselves honestly as a country. Will the people (particularly officials) be upfront about the racist policies we have created, carried out, and continue enabling?

A few days ago, I returned to Michelle Alexander’s amazing book The New Jim Crow, after needing an emotional and intellectual break from it. Her research and the narrative she weaves is horrifying, illuminating, and so necessary. And I ask again, are we all ready to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge it? Only then can we dismantle these systems of injustice and create something different.

Will we acknowledge that the War on Drugs was stimulated to attack communities of color? Alexander writes, many studies have found that during the War on Drugs, law enforcement and media used a “predictable ‘us against them’ frame[…], with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a few corrupted whites” (Alexander, 105).

Will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized implicit bias? In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, clear and well-researched evidence of discriminatory sentencing  in Georgia was not enough for the Supreme Court to consider the state’s practices unlawful. Alexander explains, “The court accepted the statistical evidence as valid but insisted that evidence of conscious, racial bias in McCleskey’s individual case was necessary to prove unlawful discrimination” (110). In other words, even if the prosecutors applied the death penalties in clearly racist patterns, it cannot be used as evidence of racism unless someone explicitly used race as part of the reasoning. And in today’s U.S. society, who is going to sentence someone and– for example– include a racial slur? What’s more, the McCleskey case evidence was so strong, it questioned the validity of the entire criminal justice system, to the point that the Supreme Court wrote, “Taken to its logical conclusion, [Warren McCleskey’s claim] throws into serious question the principles that underlie our criminal justice system… [I]f we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty” (Alexander, 111). The Court openly worries about claims of bias would weaken the criminal justice system. Their ruling that implicit bias could not be used as evidence of racism then could be read as an example of the corrupted system trying to save itself.

Finally, will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized the use of race-based discrimination? The “Supreme Court has indicated that in policing, race can be used as a factor in discretionary decision making. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Court concluded it was permissible under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for the police to use race as a factor in making decisions about which motorists to stop and search” (Alexander, 131).

These disgusting facts keep coming in The New Jim Crow, and I deeply hope these points are brought up more often in the national conversation. While recent events are about the murders of individual men, it is well-researched that racist policies enable and exacerbate these interpersonal encounters with police. Sometimes in our hashtags and comments, we do not raise just exactly how deeply rotten is our criminal justice system (and government). When the President invites people for meetings about police brutality, are government officials able to admit to this level of wrong-doing? I believe we need these conversations, and I hope some emotional vulnerability and rigorous analysis is happening from all parties.

That said, we are emotional beings and need to bring our honest and vulnerable selves  to see and to be seen by others. We need support to to do so, in personal ways and in systemic ways. I believe we must engage as a country in a truth and reconciliation process to begin to heal wounds and have space to continue systemic changes. National discussions would lead to a washing of deep wounds and hopefully bring us to some shared understandings. Without heart and historical clarity, any progress made in one generation will be maimed and contorted by the following. I hope we can move towards this as part of the work to end police brutality and the larger efforts for true justice.

There is a deep need to look at ourselves. We need cold, hard objective facts. We need warm, tender, difficult feelings. We need to look at ourselves honestly to create a healthy and just society and planet for ourselves and our loved ones. Finally, because we need uplifting and spirit and the intangible, I want to end by sharing this an amazing video from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater doing their thing with Beyonce and Kendrick as a soundtrack: Alvin Ailey “Freedom” Chereography.

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Filed under blacks, essays, race, violence

Parking Regulations? Or Racist, Classist Policing?

On a sunny day this Spring Break, I decided to drive to a BART station to make my way to San Francisco and catch up with a friend. A rare opportunity, especially since—as people who don’t live in the area struggle to understand—the gulf between the City and the Town is much larger than just a bay.

I made my way to West Oakland BART, anticipating spending time on parking either in the parking lot or in the surrounding neighborhood. I thought about how my new resolution in the middle of this year should be to make no more financial contributions to the City of Oakland Parking Citation “Assistance” Center. I recently paid one of the most aggravating tickets because the tail of my car was in red paint. I told myself I would pay those $2/hour parking fees to save what amounted to probably two hundred dollars that I’ve spent most years on tickets.

(On a side-note about my adventure, while I snaked through 6th Street next to the 880 highway, I noticed a bright blue sign about the length of an entire building, which was meant to be read from the freeway as folks commuted. It read something along the lines of “Oakland Police is hiring” and boasted of the great salary and benefits. (And of course this is readable from the freeway, begging the question of why so many of Oakland’s cops are from out of the city.))

When I did finally arrive to the BART station, there were no parking spaces and I was forced to drive in circles through the neighborhood. I noticed the newly renovated Victorians, and I could tell if the occupants were gentrifiers based on the number of succulent plants growing in those beautiful bay windows. Then I noticed more maddening things like how every street had a 2-hour limit sign. If I didn’t move my car in two hours, I would be ticketed. I became hyperaware when I turned onto a street with two police cars flashing lights. I drove between them and a connection formed in my mind: for every car in this neighborhood that plans on parking here like normal people do for more than 2 hours at a time, people must apply for a parking permit with the city. Let me say that again: city parking permits and policing. It makes total sense for a city bent on controlling its “colorful” elements and protecting wealthier, whiter newcomers.

In case you missed these recent and not-so-recent developments, West Oakland is a historically Black neighborhood, and let’s be frank—Oakland is a historically Black town. There are reasons linked to the U.S. military industrial complex and racism that led to this, which I won’t get into now. In the last few years the neighborhood, as well as the city of Oakland overall, has become home increasingly to white renters and homeowners. Check out reports like the great work done by Causa Justa, linking economics, race, and public health. (A nice summary of points can be read here.)

And now, by limiting and ticketing neighbors for parking without permits, the city has another way to track and criminalize people, making it harder to live in West Oakland. (You can find more information about the process here.) Essentially, this means that the city has your residential information, car registration, and driver’s license. Another database for your searchable, personal facts. Another way to pull a dragnet across the areas closest to the BART station, areas that not-so-coincidentally are in the middle- to late-stages of gentrification and displacement of current residents.

Now, some folks might argue that forcing people to register with the city means being able to limit violence with access to information. However, this process makes me wonder about the increased difficulties with attaining such permits so that one’s life can be safe and comfortable. Since getting a permit requires a utility bill or current rental agreement, what challenges are presented to people of color who share living spaces with family and friends? These informal living arrangements provide important communal support in tough, racist and economic times and help people survive. And what happens when struggling families receive parking tickets upwards of $70? If this parking regulation suggests safety, what does it mean for the rest of the city that does not get the supposed benefits of this policy?

What is further frustrating is that the 2-hour limit parking signs labeled streets in the area as far as a 3- to 4- block radius out from the BART station and out from the 8th street strip of stores. It is a rare and rushed trip for any BART user to commute anywhere and be back in 2 hours. The limit does not serve commuters nor the nearby businesses. If anything, these hourly parking limits discourage BART riders from using the station and thus, it limits their shopping at neighborhood stores while passing by. For a city that is so concerned with economic growth, letting people use this station as a commuter-hub may bring more shoppers than stringent rules about parking.

Beyond West Oakland, parking regulation and enforcement in Oakland exhibit an even more racist and classist bent. I recently moved to a middle-to-upper class area by Lake Merritt and was surprised when my landlord mentioned there were no street-sweeping times posted. This is different from my former neighborhood in the Fruitvale where I had to move my car almost everyday. In other words, my current, wealthier neighborhood does not limit parking and so risks of receiving a parking ticket are lower here than in poorer neighborhoods. The lack of parking regulation itself is not a problem, but the obviously inequitable enforcement and unjust impact of parking regulations cannot be excused. (Not to mention how street lights are brighter in this wealthier area and neighbors jump at any sign of mugging or robbery statistics. As if this city wasn’t already bending to their every whim.)

Anyways, you may think I am overly-anxious writer ranting about parking, but that’s not the point. The point is how these subtle regulations contribute to a larger and more nuanced system that makes living as a free and liberated person much more difficult for poor and working-class people of color. These policies that embed themselves into accepted ways of performing our lives in this city have real and lasting impacts. An example of what I mean is, as I walked in San Francisco later that day, I thought about the parallel struggle of the I-Hotel and the burgeoning of the Asian-American movement. Although it was and has been a movement about many intersecting issues, the original campaign was about valuing the poor and elderly Asian members of the community inhabiting the hotel and the rich and white business interests of the proposed parking center for what eventually became the Financial District of San Francisco. Business interests, including parking, changed SF Manilatown–and today threaten to change Chinatown– into the business district of the city. Parking might seem mundane, but therein lays its power to be used to support a wealthy class, to push people out of neighborhoods, and furthermore, to perpetuate racist capitalism.

So what do we do? First there is a big mayoral race in Oakland and we must enter that with open eyes and tough questions about gentrification and development in our Town. Second, the thing no one likes to hear: keep up the long-term struggle to study, act, and reflect. Whether you are a contractor, a bus-rider, a schoolteacher, or a paid organizer, working to gain consciousness and to challenge these structures is lifelong, collective work. All this leads to number three: you tell me. There is surely more involved in the growth and development of Oakland than what I am aware of or can mention in an essay.

What has been your experience with parking and ticketing in Oakland? In your city? Have your noticed any funky, racist discrepancies with parking regulation and enforcement? You tell me.

 

Map of Gentrification Stages from Causa Justa’s report

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Filed under essays, news, race, violence

Letter to black boy

Dear Mr. Jackson,

You will never receive this letter.  You are 13 years-old.  Your mother has cancer.  Your 19 year-old sister has two babies.  The teachers tell me you used to flip desks when you got upset.

But you know this already.

You play basketball and I crack up on the inside because you are adorable in your over-shrunken jersey.  The kids laugh too when they see you’ve outgrown your jeans.  The hem flops just above your worn white sneakers.  You love wrestling.  Even with your stick-thin legs and ashy knees.

On days after I send you out of class, you walk back in at lunch to ask about work.  You smile and joke like nothing has happened.  Sincerity seeps from between your cracked lips.  I joke with you because there is nothing else to do.  You have the whitest teeth that play in concert with your firework eyes.  I am distracted by the light show on your face, and I realize this is your apology.  When you leave, I am in tears.

You cannot say what you mean, so you act it.  You never asked me to teach you anything.  You wandered in my class, when I first started, on a rare day you did not have detention, proceeded to tell me how you did not even know the lady who taught you for two weeks in September.  You told me you love to write stories.  You write in your journal everyday, told me how thick they got with words.  You never asked for anything.  The next month I signed papers to teach full-time at your school.

I assigned you Black Boy for extra credit.  (Shit, you needed it.)  I want you to find– like Richard– a purpose, a world of words- a home there, your self-worth.  And like you, I don’t say what I mean nor do I ask for anything.

Except, Mr. Jackson, you need to return my copy of Black Boy.  It’s been years now.

***

i usually don’t share much with my white colleagues about my feelings for our students.  words like “cute,” “sweetheart,” even “brilliant” do not go far enough to describe them nor to express my love for them…  instead i write ish like this when i should be grading their papers and doing other soul-numbing work.

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Filed under education, gender, love, prose, race