Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Black, Lightening: Why Black People Can't Be Racist, part 1

According to the new commercial agent, my dreadlocks were the problem. The week before, sometime late in 2006, she had advised me to cut them, and, even though I wasn’t signed with her, I gave it the serious consideration I felt it was due. A frail white woman in her 60s with greying blonde hair, she had struck me from the beginning as competent, experienced, like she knew the industry well enough that she was pretty jaded by it. And she had told me that my only headshots, rocking medium-thick dreadlocks that were short enough that they were still standing up, were only going to get me auditions for the roles like those I had been getting callbacks for: Jamaican drug dealer on a cop show, Nigerian warlord on a castaway suspense thriller, and Jafar in a Disney stage musical version of Aladdin. I had landed the Jamaican drug dealer role, but, honestly, none of these were particularly well-written, challenging, or deep characters (although at least with Jafar I would have been singing). They were roles that could accommodate big dark-skinned Black men like me as long as we played up the archetypes of Blackness and evil, Blackness AS evil that a racist society thrives on.

Figuring that such racist tropes in Hollywood are unavoidable for Black actors, especially ones who are just starting, I did my best to indicate to the agent that I was a “team player.” I told her that I could live with a little bit of playing those kinds of roles for a little while, but I didn’t want to get stuck in them. My agent agreed, said she thought I was better than the roles I was getting called to audition for. And so she handed me someone’s business card and told me to get a new look and get her some new headshots. I told her I didn’t have any money really. She took back that card and gave me a different card.

I must have trusted her, because I cut my locks. I cut my locks. So now, shorn of my first year-and-a-half-long attempt at growing dreadlocks, I zipped through the streets of Hollywood to the apartment where the photographer, a slender, powdery pale, blonde white woman from Belarus, had met me last week for a photo session that I had thought had good energy. She had sent me a link to all of the shots. I had selected two of them and told her to do what she needed to do to make them look good. She had promised to "clean them up" within the week. I had a lot riding on these headshots. So, as soon as she told me the prints were ready, and I got off from my job at the coffee shop, I jumped in the car for the long drive up from Long Beach, to grab the new shots ASAP and drop them at the photo reproduction shop. From there, I had to get on the 105 and head to Watts and Carson where I had a couple of tutoring appointments very soon.

Now, as I was approaching the door of the apartment, I felt myself calmly lowering my expectations. I was prepared to give the benefit of the doubt because I knew, and my agent knew, that the only photographers I could afford at this point were a half-step above amateur. But I told myself that the shots didn't even have to be that great, just decent enough that I could leverage them into some TV or film credits that would give me the money to get a better set of headshots. And then maybe I could pick up a better agent and take better classes and land better auditions and more complex and well-written roles, all of which would enable me to move from Long Beach up to a room or apartment closer to the studios in Los Angeles where I could start seriously auditioning and eventually quit a few of the five jobs I worked while trying to become a working actor, while trying to help save a marriage that was falling apart. 

The photographer invited me in, but, because I was in a rush to get to work, I told her I just wanted to see the prints. She grabbed the manila envelope with the prints I had chosen and a DVD of all the shots, and handed it to me. I opened it at the door and took a glance at the two looks she had "cleaned up."

“Wait. What the fuck is this?" I heard myself say from this really Black ache in my chest.

Believe me when I tell you they were so bad I threw them away and can now only try to tell you how bad they were. My face in the photos had patches two or three shades lighter than my actual skin tone. My rich, dark brown pecan-colored skin had been clouded by an airbrushed shadow of pale, digital ashiness around my cheeks, nose, and forehead. The shadows had artificially crisp edges, and screamed "Photoshop Amateur Was Here" louder than a cat in heat. It looked like an act of violence had been done to my face. My face looked dead.

"What do you not like about it?," interjected the photographer. “The touch-ups came out really good!” she said, trying to Jedi mind trick me into embracing her imposition of vitaligo on my skin. 

Motherfucker, I thought, don’t you dare call this a “touch-up.” This is a fuck up. We’re way past “touching.”

Probably sensing my facial expressions, she added reassuringly and condescendingly, “And I thought this was what you wanted."

No, this was not what I wanted. This was facial terrorism. This reminded me of a nightmare I'd had as a child in which the ku klux klan had shaved the skin from Black people's faces and lined them up as expressionless skin masks on the very very white sands of a very sunny island beach. This set of headshots obscured the features of my face, the very things that I was selling on the Hollywood auction block, the very things that (I thought) made it possible to empathize with me, under a ghostly shadow. And here was this photographer, acting like she had done me a favor by smoothing my face into this emotionless ghoulish mask.

"I'm shocked," I said, uncharacteristically holding eye contact with her and speaking for the first time since I saw the prints, "that this is what you meant by 'clean it up,’ that this is how you thought I wanted you to ‘make them look good.’”

After all these years, I still remember what she said next as an indignant look festered from her eyes and I turned to walk back to my car: "Well, this is what my African American clients always want me to do. They say they get more work if I make them lighter."

Foreigners can often articulate the racist dynamic that amerikkka has— that amerikkka is— more clearly than most u.s.-born folks are willing to do. In 1991, storeowner and Korean immigrant Soon Ja Du articulated that dynamic—the proper name of which is “Murder”— into the back of the head of a 15-year-old Black child named Latasha Harlins. That was only 15 years prior to this moment, and not far from where we stood—just down the way in South Central Los Angeles. And, from this photographer’s brutal honesty— as well as from her apparent outrage at how ungrateful I must have seemed— I felt a strange and sudden desire to articulate that dynamic right back at her, my own little LA Rebellion. At the very least, I considered demanding that she return my $125. But, $125 is cheap— a pittance really— for even quasi-professional two-look headshots. And that wasn't even the point. And so, before the issue of murder arose, I figured it was pointless to take it up further with her, and I walked back to my car.

In my brief professional acting career up to that time, I had seen enough about what Black actors go through in Hollywood to know that, in a certain sense, the photographer articulated a truth, or, rather, that the Black people she had worked with had spoken their truths to her that were based on lived experience for many of us dark-skinned actors in Hollywood. I had seen the headshots of many of my Black colleagues in the acting world, and the ways they presented some version of "themselves" to the world, a version that was considerably lighter than I encountered them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not making excuses for the photographer in my mind. What she did was unprofessional as fuck. There was nothing subtle about the Photoshop Tammy Fay she made of my face. She might as well have had a first grader draw a Crayola picture of me. 

Still, I found myself thinking about the fact that, as all my Black colleagues (and some white colleagues) admitted, most of Hollywood doesn’t know how to light or do make-up on Black skin or to deal with Black hair. What this photographer had been so extreme and blatant about was also apparent in a more subtle way in the headshots of many, if not all, of my fellow Black actors. The lightening of their headshots, unlike mine, wasn’t drastic, but it was significant and noticeable to those who knew them. My sub-amateurish photographer had done it all with Photoshop, but my colleagues’ more professionally done lightening was an effect of several factors besides just Photoshop airbrushing. It was a function of the lighting in the environment where they took the headshots. It was a function of the makeup and clothing they wore. It was a function of the photographer’s camera settings. And only after all of that, yes, did the post-shoot touch-ups come into play. All of these things combined, in the hands of a professional photographer— that is, one who was knowledgeable about certain techniques used by working actors in Hollywood— to give them a look they believed, and often had been coached to believe, would get them in the door where they could give their best auditions. 

Their headshots weren’t my business, but I could not help observing something that had a bigger impact than just their personal preferences or mine. The lightened look was not an appreciation of the full range of Black beauty Langston Hughes explored in poetry. Whether it shifted their skin tone from pecan to walnut, dark chocolate to milk chocolate, high-yellow to off-white— it was pretty much going in only one direction. There was almost always a chalkiness, a lightening, a reduction of the rich spectrum of color that resided in our Blackness. And it seemed that, until Hollywood figured out how to light and make-up Black skin, we Black actors were just required to be okay with this and to continue using pasty representations of ourselves just to get in the door. And on the few occasions when the headshot wasn't significantly lightened, it was often done this way to show that an actor was capable of playing the flat, often poorly written bad guy and other mysterious types of characters. This meant that Black actors, those who are supposedly models for ideals of attractiveness and charm and fitness and power and charisma among Black people, were expected to become models for other Black people by, in a sense, distancing ourselves, even by a few shades, from our Blackness.

I had been professionally trained as an actor to see it as an art, to believe that acting was not a ruse, faking a self that I wasn’t, but a real art, allowing my actual self to emerge, albeit within imaginary circumstances different from my day-to-day life. We had even studied things that artists don’t usually have to study— anatomy from medical textbooks to help us understand our vocal production, and implicit cognition research to help us understand how quickly the first impressions we gave would affect a casting director during an audition. Somehow, we never studied Black makeup, though. I recalled the make-up kits we were told to use in my professional stage acting production classes that had more than 15 different palettes for white people’s skin and only two— “Light Dark” and “Black Dark”—for Black people’s skin, even though, by definition, there is a greater range of hues in darker skin than there is in lighter skin. And now I was being told outright from several angles to sell a version of myself that had to be lighter and less Black. 

Being immature and buying into the stupid “color-blind” politics that were in their death throes at the time, I naively believed that my acting should be enough, that my voice and physicality and emotional commitment and intelligent artistic choices would overpower the stereotypes. What, I wondered, was this look that we, as Black actors, were required to sell? We know we’re Black. They know we’re Black. Why do we have to shear off our dreadlocks and present ourselves as shades lighter than our actual selves or else we won’t be seen? And who said that if I didn't do these things, I would not be given the chance to show what I could do? Was it the agent, basically implying that she wouldn’t sign me if I didn’t do what she, in all her wisdom and experience, knew that cutting my dreadlocks was the best move? Was it the photographer, advising me that artificially lightened skin sells better than natural dark skin? I didn’t understand that each of these people was a gatekeeper in a set of networks that bound together a Hollywood industry that was so powerful they could deny even Denzel Washington the leading Actor Oscar he deserved for Malcolm X or The Hurricane and only handed it to him after he played the fall guy for the racist corruption of the Los Angeles police in Training Day.

Well, retorted the side of myself I called “Pragmatic,” didn’t Shakespeare’s Hamlet say that the purpose of theater (and, by extension, film) is “to hold… the mirror up to nature”? By “nature,” of course, he didn’t mean rainbows or shooting stars, trees or “goats and monkeys,” but, rather humans. So, if “humanity” prefers to see lighter skin and only sees dreadlocked dark-skinned Black men as drug dealers and Nigerian warlords, didn’t I have to work around that stereotype, even if it also means playing roles like those? Wouldn’t that be enough to change these images, even if little by little?

But my mind kept going back to Latasha Harlins. 

I remembered that she had been the same age as me in 1991, although we grew up on opposite sides of the amerikkkan slave ship. I remembered that she had entered a convenience store, grabbed a bottle of juice and placed it in the top of her bag, and, money in hand, headed toward the checkout counter. Storeowner Soon Ja Du said something, accusing her of shoplifting. During the ensuing argument, Du grabbed at Harlins’ bag. Harlins responded by punching Du in the face, placing the bottle of juice on the counter, and walking toward the door. She never made it out. Du shot her in the back of the head. The child was dead before she hit the floor, and the money for the drink was in her hand.

What constructed the image that Du saw that made her articulate the language of murder when she saw a 15-year-old girl? I couldn’t give less of a fuck whether Harlins was shoplifting the juice, but what if she had? Would that justify murder? What about her appearance made her look like someone who ought to be killed? Had Harlins been airbrushed or made up to seem less Black, would she be alive today? And what constructed the image of this child that Judge Joyce Karlin overruled the jury’s recommended 16-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and instead punished Du so minimally that a man who abused a dog received a harsher punishment? Had Harlins dyed her hair blonde or bleached her skin, would the measure of her entire life been so crudely swept beneath the value of a dog’s injuries? Would Black and brown people have had to burn LA to the ground just to mourn her senseless killing if Harlins had looked less like them, less like us? What makes people see Blackness and see someone—or some thing— they ought to be harassing, intimidating, denying, assaulting, arresting, murdering?

A few years after the shooting, and the Rebellion, Black literature professor Sylvia Wynter published an essay on the Los Angeles police use of the incident code NHI— “no humans involved”— for incidents involving Black people. The essay shows that a society-wide sense of Black people as inhuman governs what people see when they see Black bodies. And this helps clarify how Harlins received, at every turn, so little empathy, so little inclusion in the “sanctified universe of obligation”-- in the fold of the most basic human empathy that acknowledges in deeply meaningful ways that one's life matters.

Discourses— circulating clusters of ideas about something, like the idea that Black people are not human— are widely expressed and given staying power by both civil society (in this case, the storeowner, and, during the Rebellion, property owners and the media) and the state (in this case, the police and the courts) as part of the “ruling episteme” of an antiblack society that dates back to the very founding of the modern world, right around the genocidal event of Columbus’ invasion of the americas. A “ruling episteme” is the “common sense” of a society, the shared assumptions that dominant forces in a given society teach and circulate in order to keep their power structure going. Later research in implicit cognition psychology— which triggers people’s racialized impulses in making snap judgments in order to understand unconscious thoughts and feelings—would confirm that Black people are indeed widely seen as nonhuman— as ape-like— and that seeing us as ape-like is linked to people endorsing and justifying violence against us. It also lessens empathy for our pain. Even the most popular of Black people— Black professional athletes— are given less time to recover from injuries than their white teammates who have the same injuries. There is even a significant statistical correlation between how light-skinned a Black person is remembered to be and how educated (hence, intelligent) that Black person is thought to be. In other words, there is research that backs up what I was seeing among several people who played a major part in how I entered the acting profession: The further away from Blackness one is, the more human one is considered. And even those who speak very little English and are unfamiliar with u.s. culture take hold of this discourse, this ruling episteme, even before they are aware, because it is infused into everything they see and do in amerikkka. When they turn on u.s. television, they see dark-skinned Jamaican drug dealers and Nigerian warlords as the objects of greatest fear, things that need to be chained, caged, or killed.

And so something else had stuck in my mind from a few months earlier before I had graduated from my professional actor training. My professor, a white man and a kind of gatekeeper into the world of professional acting, had encouraged me in writing a script for our acting showcase, a script that I had named "Negro, Please.” On at least two occasions, the professor slipped up and referred to the script as "Monkey, Please," mixing it up with a classmate's script about a couple who get a pet monkey. Mind you, the word “monkey” wasn’t anywhere in the title of my classmate’s script, so it wasn’t like the professor just switched the words in two titles that were constructed with a similar syntax. Somehow, this liberal white professor’s mind connected "monkey" and "negro" in some unconscious way, if not a conscious way. Without knowing it, he spoke the truth of the ruling episteme that he and his institutions were crucial to constructing and maintaining, institutions I would be allowed to serve within but never allowed to fundamentally challenge and dismantle.

The irony of being so widely considered a brute by those who enslaved Africans and decimated Native Americans was never lost on me. And, as I pondered what reading material to use in my tutoring session, I thought of a piece I had seen in which certain species of apes make a point of mangling the faces of their opponents within the tribe or in other tribes. Mangling the face in the culture of these apes was essentially destroying those individuals as social beings. This would not only be a useful teaching tool to my students, adolescent boys who dug anything about violence, but it would also resonate deeply with me as I considered what this white Hollywood headshot photographer had done to visually obscure my Black face,  as I thought to myself about who was truly The Brute  versus who was required to play The Brute. Not that these facts would make the dominant culture give a damn what I thought. 

If theater and film acting function as “mirrors” on humanity, but Black people are widely considered to be outside of humanity, then attempting to enter the mirror was setting up a kind of massive misrecognition, as painful and horrific to behold as the headshots that sat on the seat next to me as I sped toward my tutoring job in Watts. 

Right now, Black models and Black actors are speaking out on social media, reviving conversations about Black representation— how we show up on screen, stage, and runway. Black actors go into every performance hoping to “be ourselves,” hoping to help Black audience members “see themselves,” and finding ourselves hindered at every turn by the technologies—specifically makeup and hairstyling, but also film and television more generally—that the Hollywood machine is prepared to allow us to have. It is great to see this discussion. And what I hope to offer to an already highly informed and well-theorized conversation is some contextualized perspective from my limited time as a Hollywood actor, a Black cis-hetero-identified man in the slave ship amerikkka, and a student of Black thought. The nature of the mirror that we call acting, theater, film, television, new media, makeup, hair, and even speech are all part of what I think of as modes of self-representation, and our conversations about them need to more fully engage with the antiblack structure of which those modes are inextricably part. The genesis of these modes in a genocidal and slaveholding empire more than 500 years old still to this day renders invisible the Blackness of both the actor and the audience, even when Black actors and Black audiences are present. 

To paraphrase Beyonce's "Sorry," we’re only wanted when we’re not there. Black people are positioned as more desirable—even to ourselves— the less Black we are, the less our proximity to Blackness is. And, to this effect, our bodies are shaped and conditioned through modes of visual self-representation— like acting, film/photography, and cosmetology—to be signifiers of our own otherness within the ruling episteme of this racist-ass society. This does not mean that if we are in these fields, we should quit, because there simply is no place where we can be free. But if we are honest with ourselves about these things, that may be the first step toward Black people forming deep bonds of the kinds of revolutionary love that will help us bring this motherfucker down so that something freer and more ethical can be built in its place.

The next day, I took the images I wanted off the DVD  and worked on them myself using an old version of Photoshop I had (bootlegged from a previous job), and in the hopes that the headshots would land me something until I got a better paying job or something. I had to make the best of what I had. But I knew that I could no longer avoid the questions. They weren't merely in my face; they had disfigured my face.

Even with this substandard headshot, I received quite a few callbacks. I scored my first national commercial (nonunion) with my less touched-up version of the shot—although, ironically, they required me to get my hair twisted up again. I was very lucky. The night before the shoot, through one of my Black classmates, I narrowly got a late-night appointment at an apartment in Inglewood with a profoundly talented Black hair stylist who now does Issa Rae’s hair on HBO’s series Insecure. From that commercial, I landed five more nonunion voiceover jobs. 

My last Hollywood audition was in 2007 for Countrywide Financial, which, at that time, was the leader in subprime mortgages. Their CEO, Angelo Mozilo, would be exposed mere months later for buying influence among high-level Democrat and Republican government officials and pumping toxic subprime mortgages into Black and brown communities. Even though, by the time of my audition in early 2007, somebody at the top of Countrywide surely knew the jig was just about up, this commercial audition suggests that they were willing to play it out to the bitter end— to keep selling the destructive financial products that decimated the Black bourgeoisie's intergenerational wealth beneath our very feet--right up until a few months later when Countrywide was dissolved and bought by Bank of America.

Maybe I, too, knew that the jig was up for me and Hollywood. 

I gave a shitty audition for the Countrywide commercial in the same room where, just a few months earlier, I had landed a solo starring role in a national commercial. The photographer hadn't succeeded in discouraging me from a career in acting (I worked as an actor for another two years.) But I knew that the track I was on would not lead me to help answer, or even pose, the questions that haunted me. Something in me couldn’t care less anymore about “making it” in that world. Something in me wanted to know who I was, who we were, what forces had created us, what forces precluded us from seeing and knowing ourselves. I wanted to know, because I needed to understand why even my successes felt like failures— my masterpieces like mistakes-- felt like they shored up an institution—and a nation-empire— that had no ethical right to even exist. And so I think when I walked away from that photographer's door, I walked away too from a lot more. From my agent. From Hollywood. I walked away most of all from my own sanity— but also toward it, because there was no way to be sane and Black in an antiblack world— in a world that invested so much emotion and finance into institutions like Hollywood that were “mirrors” on humanity that had no place for your skin or your hair, and so you must work to understand the world so you might stand a chance of destroying it before it destroyed you and everyone you loved.

And also, as I walked away, I doubted that my energy with this blonde white photographer had actually been as good as I had remembered it. You can tell the energy you have with the headshot photographer because the headshots pop. You look like you were having a real conversation that engaged you in ways you can't fake. But the contorted facial expressions and stiff body language I had in the best of these headshots was fake as fuck, like I was pretending to be interested in a conversation someone wanted to have about the "Beer Barrel Polka" song or like I was only doing these because my agent told me to cut my locks. "Stupid ass," I chided myself, for I knew I had succumbed to the same antiblack pressure to remember any association I'd had with a skinny blonde white woman as positive. When I was growing up, whiteboys would comment upon seeing me anywhere within two feet of any blonde whitegirl-- "Oooh, why don't you hit that!" and  "You know she's totally into you, right?" It happened so often that I became conscious of blonde hair because if the whiteboys were then I had to be too because they might try to fight me, even though blonde hair honestly always reminded me more of horse mane than of Marilyn Monroe, and I still don't understand why it's the most popular, most expensive hair dye color. I felt duped-- not by the photographer, since she was really just shitty with Photoshop and Black skin and I don't have any reason to believe that she was consciously manipulating her proximity to the blonde Hollywood ideal to con me. No, I was duped by cultural conditioning that I had not, at that time, subjected to rigorous critical examination-- making an accounting to myself of why I felt and thought as I did. I had let that little electric charge I had gotten from her blondeness move me to basically waste $125 that had resulted in a set of photos that insulted me and everyone as dark as I am.

Part of what I did realize in that same moment, however, was that I needed to understand more--about me, about the world, and the world in me-- before I could do the kinds of good work I wanted to do. I needed to address the very painful questions these incidents brought me face-to-face with, questions I had choked back for years in the name of "just doing the work," of making my family proud, of building a career that could sustain a family with the woman who at that time was my wife, a white woman. And, of course, all of these questions opened up still more aching questions about my relationship with my wife, even though my wife was not a slender blonde con artist but a full-figured dark-haired scientist. This scientist, despite having taken many classes and labs in genetics, had, for instance, worried aloud to me about having kids with such a dark-skinned, broad featured Black man as me because, as she put it, "Those kids will be Black, not 'mixed.' I'm clear about that. But that means they won't look like me." I used to think maybe I just didn't understand the genetics of dominant and recessive traits as well as she did. But it took me a few more years to admit to myself that, despite her professed belief in science, she deep down honestly feared that my African ancestry would obliterate the children's resemblance to her. Anyone who had seen mixed-race Black kids knows that the kids generally resemble both parents—just like kids whose parents are of the same race. I thought she shared that fact-based narrative, and I had hoped not to have to explain to her that it was kind of racist to say that the kids wouldn't "look like" her just because they would also be Black. The visual culture of an antiblack society conditions us to see anyone Black as fundamentally dissimilar to anyone white, probably because that visual culture was initiated by slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson who needed to not see themselves in the faces of the children they had sired people whom they tortured and killed. That visual culture--not my African DNA--was what obliterated familial resemblances. And I had hoped this person in whom I had invested so much and who had invested so much in me understood that at the basic level of the heart. But what I hoped to be true about her thoughts and feelings was not what I was seeing evidence of. And I’ve since come to understand that the genetic dominance of phenotypic traits associated with Blackness is commonly associated with something overpowering and brutish, like apes or even some malevolent, violent force beyond the spectrum of humanity or animality. This ruling episteme was at work even with my (now, ex-) wife, a person I still love deeply as a friend, a person whose structural relationship to me is, as it always was, fundamentally one of murder, a person to whom I very painfully realized I could not have a marriage, a person to whom I owe a thousand apologies, a person who hurt me very deeply, a person who is good. But that is perhaps a story for a different time.

I'm only beginning to realize how central all of these concerns were to everything I see more clearly now. I'm beginning to understand how deep down the rabbit hole I would have to go to understand and begin to address these concerns. I'm beginning to understand how fucked up it was that I would have to get a Ph.D. seven years later to find people willing to take the questions I had seriously, to have the time and breathing space to rigorously learn how to study those questions, and to ultimately recognize that the academy, like Hollywood, was precisely the wrong place to address these questions in effective ways. I'm only beginning to understand how no place was the right place to address these questions, because new spaces needed to be cultivated or else we Black folks were all going to follow the glossy Hollywood images of "ourselves" right into the gas chambers and slave coffles. 

As it happened, a case in point would soon enough present itself in the person of Barack Obama, a light-skinned version of our Black selves, who would argue that people like Mozilo had not broken the law, just as he would argue that the water in Flint, Michigan, USA was safe to drink, even though it's poisoning people to this very day. And we were mesmerized by the performance of this lighter version of our Black selves so much that we actually wished for our kids to see him as a "role model," as prospective versions of their future selves, when, in fact, he was perhaps more like a Blackened version of Mozilo, when, in fact, perhaps he was as toxic to us as Mozilo's subprime mortgages were to the wealth we wanted our grandchildren to have and as the lead that leached from corroded pipes into our children's minds and bodies. But that was all still in the future— except, of course, for the signs of it that were, even then, staring us all dead in the face.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Dear Kanye (and the Silenced Black Women of Kanye’s Life): A Brief Commentary

Editor’s Note: A Black feminist, activist, and longtime fan of Kanye West saw West’s full 30-minute interview with TMZ (above) about free thinking, slavery, and West’s recent activity supporting and promoting white supremacist u.s. imperial president Donald Trump. Here is what she had to say in response.

By Kala Anthony-Lacy

Oh, I see.

You’re not ””crazy.”” You found out your daughter is still Black. This is why I said, “Black suffering is complicated.” I could feel it. I could feel you tryna make sense of it. Because Black is synonymous with shame and pain and slave and alienation and who wants that? AntiBlack violence is literally what makes the world go round. The capital you’ve gained is green cotton drenched in Black blood and its easier to believe in some “free thought” “one race” bullshit than to realize you got all this money, white wife with a fat ass, mixed kids, and fame and even if you in a benz, rolls royce, or lambo you still a nigga in a coup.

You're not the first nigga to say this shit to me. To try and convince me “love conquers all.” To try and argue we can out think, out live, be outside of the matrix. Like if you just believe hard enough. Scream hard enough. It’ll stop hurting. It doesn't. I see you. I know this story. I know it's all constructed. But those bodies in the street are real.
Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, was killed by police during execution of a no-knock  warrant.

You keep sayin you're not into politics but you are the political soil this world is built from. You're a Black body, Ye. Idgaf what they tryna tell you in calabasas. You will never just be an artist, you will never just be a person. You will never not be Black, kanye. And I get it. There are moments sometimes you just wanna be a person. An actual person. To be seen just as how you come. To not have an entire history enter with you in the room.

But there’s still a history, Ye. And i know ya mama taught you. And I thought of her even before you called her into the space. You “accidentally” called on your mom AND your daddy, tryna reach your wife and your baby and you called them “the same.” Don’t disrespect ya mama, bruh. And while you tryna convince your brother you love him, you completely silenced the Black woman who was tryna talk. Black like your mama. Black.

white supremacists murdered four Black girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama, 16th Street Baptist Church. Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Prosecution of the murderers did not begin until 14 years later, even though the murderers were known to the Federal Bureau of Investigations as early as 1965.
Black like the kids at home you can't keep from dying. AND IT'S SO EASY to say it's our fault. IT'S SO EASY to align with the violator because MAYBE just MAYBE then you won't have to be violated. Black on black crime is some muthafuckin bullshit and you sound ignorant. Call it crabs in a barrel, but is the barrel a crabs natural habitat? That shit was created from violence. You kill who’s next door. Like how white people kill each other all the goddamn time. But they get to be people.

They get to “just be” “artists.”

This interview brought me closure. Niggas kept askin me what's up with you (like i would know lmao), and i really was bothered i couldn’t say more than.... ????
Abolitionist Isaac Cruikshank's image of the murder of a "female negro slave" by captain James Kimber of the slave ship Recovery in 1791.

But i get it now. You became a dad and realized you can't protect your baby. Because if she Black, you right, it doesn’t matter she’s kanyes daughter. Right place, any time, she could be killed. Black woman dead. Like ya mama. Like me. Like you.
* * *
About Me
My name is Kala Lacy. I am a community healer, wellness warrior, activist, student, raging water sign, and teacher of holistic health who works within underserved communities across the nation to provide education of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness... I consider it my responsibility to provide, fight for, and challenge conceptualizations of care in oppressive spaces. I continue to spread awareness of the importance and complexities of healing at every opportunity, every day. My passion and love for my community pushes me forward and with force. My mission is to help the disenfranchised heal.
To find out more about me and my work, visit

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why I Am (Not) an Afropessimist [VIDEO]

by Danae Martinez

ok so let me first say a little about me so you know where i am coming from. 

i don't consider myself an Afropessimist really, but i think the analysis helps explain a lot of what i have seen throughout my life and speaks back to some of the harmful things i see within social justice circles. i am, however, marrying an afropessimist, and Frank Wilderson, along with other Afropessimists who i know personally, has been instrumental in my level of development as of late. 

having said that, i was raised in the bay area and have travelled to several black/African countries, including living for somewhat long periods of time in Jamaica and South Africa and visiting briefly to Cuba. I have been in this movement in various ways throughout my life since i was 13. I trained and learned with black marxists, Afrocentrists, pan africanists, black feminists/womanists, and revolutionary nationalists in the US, South Africa and Jamaica.

let me be clear: i went back to college to learn how to do a revolution, not to be a professor or even to get a job. yes, very naive, but it has helped me to center even my research on what i believe is important for the struggle for freedom for all. but my concentration is more focused on people of African descent all over the world. i believe i came to the earth to be as much help as i can to absolutely destroying this destructive system. 

my masters thesis was supposed to be how socialism, african spiritual systems, and violence/nonviolence can come together to defeat the capitalist white supremacist patriarchal system worldwide. I was trying to find that out through interviewing Black/African people from the US, Jamaica, and South Africa who had actually been involved in “violent” struggles to gain black power and take down the system. Needless to say, when starting to write it, it didn't quite work out to cover all that i wanted it to. I narrowed it down to the legitimate use of violence in black power movements. Frank was one of the people i interviewed for the thesis, along with about 15 other people.

there are several things i think need to be taken into account when considering afropessimism and its place in emancipatory struggle. Frank, who is the first self-proclaimed afropessimist, came out of studying as a youth in the panthers' afterschool programs, watching the panthers and loving them, being around for the black power movement, then moving to south africa during the anti-apartheid movement. there, he was an above-ground peace activist while secretly running guns and being actively involved in the umkhonto we sizwe underground movement under Chris Hani’s direction and leadership. (he was raised by liberal black parents who, like many, just wanted an equal chance at the american dream and thought he was crazy for being involved in the way he was.)

because of umkhonto we sizwe's willingness to violently resist the violent structure of apartheid, the movement in South Africa progressed and became increasingly socialist and increasingly able to actually defeat the white supremacist capitalist system (or give a huge blow to it in Africa). but at that point, Mandela and other ANC folks came in and disarmed the movement. the ANC traded black access to electoral politics for a capitalist economy controlled by the same antiblack white supremacist capitalists. and not only that, they actually ended up torturing some of the folks that Frank was down with and kicked Frank out of south africa for being too radical. 

even the socialists (especially the white ones) went along with this shit at the expense of black people. FRANK WAS THERE. HE SAW ALL THAT! i'm sure he had to do some work inside himself to explain what the hell he was seeing in both the civil rights/black power movements and in the anti-apartheid movement. he saw things not just in marxist terms (cuz he was a marxist at some points), and not just in terms of white supremacy, but also in the ways in which antiblackness grounds conceptions of what it means to be human, that white psychic wellness is dependent upon the constant suffering of Black people, the constant policing of us to keep us from ever reaching a state of being or humanness, our constant public death, in other words our social death.

and this policing is most prevalent when we attempt to defend ourselves and try to get free. it damn near isn't even allowed to be spoken. i mean how is black lives matter considered "anti-white" unless whiteness is dependent upon our death and destruction? this means that our war is not JUST against capitalism (even though capitalism is essentially antiblack and anti human so to be an afropessimist one really must be anti-capitalist) and not JUST against patriarchy (though afropessimism is against patriarchy) because even the concept of being gendered means you are considered a person-- someone who can be raped or molested-- a someone.

and it's not JUST against racism of all different colors (though racism is antiblack and antihuman, and it must be destroyed). if one were to get rid of racist policies, or racist outbursts of so-called hate, and even if whites are to have love for black people, if their humanity in fact rests on the ability to kill black people in order for everyone else to have personhood, then even after those are rooted out, we would still be in the firing line and the target of that anticapitalist, antiracist group of people. we would still be targets even if people couldn't gain materially from our death or even what they gain from their racism. how do you explain secret sites in chicago with the purpose of torturing black people, totally off the grid? for monetary gain? I don't think so.

though they are called Afropessimists, people mistake that meaning, thinking it means that they have given up on freedom altogether. that IS NOT WHAT IT IS ABOUT!

afropessimists are pessimistic about ever gaining real freedom within the modern world (which is the only world we really conceive of right now), a world that is based on the constant suspended death sentence and genocide of black people and indigenous people. it maintains that, in the long run, we can't just stop at anti-capitalism, anti-patriarchy, or anti-racism, but we must in fact create a very powerful movement with tactics that can be used to destroy this world as we know it. this means it also must destroy our conceptions of who has being-- and what it means to be human-- in this world. and this ain't really that new, though it is being articulated differently.

the ethnic studies movement was started and headed by African/Black people, yet other groups who are against white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are consistently turning against African/Black Studies departments and even attempting to weaken and destroy them. even the civil rights and Black Power movements benefited others more than they benefited us, even though it happened for the most part on our backs and as a result of our deaths. it's the same with the apartheid movement. In fact, looking at the numbers in South Africa, things have gotten worse for Black people there since the end of apartheid. I think afropessimist analysis helps to explain what is going on at the psychic level to make that shit happen all over the world and time after time.

now, why is that analysis emancipatory? Let me start by saying that in my research, ALL of the people I interviewed said in one way or another they didn’t really realize how long and how much force it was going to take to win. they didn’t fully understand how long the struggle was going to be, and therefore their plans for action were short-sighted. they also did not recognize the extent to which the systems of oppression would go to suppress Black Freedom. they did not recognize the level of sustained force needed because it was not JUST the changing of material reality needed to win. it went much deeper than that! there was still the psychic level of antiblackness in black people and the psychic level of antiblackness in nonblack people that needed to be contended with. Frank helped me to understand the limits of multiculturalism and liberalism because it attempts to keep this shit going constantly trying to make the system better instead of trying to destroy it. this system tends to not see Black people as a group of lesser humans but as a group of NONHUMANS with no rights to safety, no humanity.

in other words, we black people actually don’t matter in this world,tand our not mattering helps to make everyone else matter at least somewhat. They matter because they not us! It is emancipatory in allowing us to know that in this system there is no real safety for black children. it’s not just the practices of bad policing or even racist policies that is the ultimate problem. our death lies in the everyday mundane practices of a system that sees us as things who are fungible-- absent-- not people who are beings, who are alive and have the right to exist.


that’s not to say don’t work towards communism/socialism and don’t work towards destroying patriarchy. it's to say those are huge needed steps in getting to our freedom but they in themselves will not stop black non-humanness. they will give temporary relief to what black non-humanness feels like. and it helps us to understand why, when others get what they want, they tend to abandon and even turn on the black people who invited them to join the struggle in the first place. should we just be caught off guard by that or know it going in?

now, i think what people tend to do is forget that when we look at Frantz Fanon, we see him after his death. if we were to be alive when Fanon was producing, we may have critiqued him and said "how does an analysis get us free?" what if we stopped at Black Skin, White Masks and wrote him off? and, taking it outside the personal, what do we get if we stop at just where an anticolonial analysis is by one person at one time period instead of taking things in the breadth of where the work goes beyond one person’s life into the work of all those who come after? afropessimism is super fucking young and all of the people working on it have to still exist in an antiblack racist capitalist world where they only have so much space to even think and act (not to mention the health difficulties such as cancer of those writing afropessimist work today). There are some awesome thinkers in this group (both academic and non academic) who doing real shit and i can’t wait to see how this will go-- jared sexton, patrice douglass, john murrillo, art mcgee, and yes, my love omar ricks.

it is interesting to me how people seem to have such a strong reaction to afropessimism. i have never seen it as against the ideologies that i hold dear-- including pan-Africanism, anti-capitalism, anti-homophobia, anti-patriarchy, etc.-- that ground me in the work i do for Black liberation. it only feeds it and gives me more tools to help my students, my kids, myself, and others to understand what we are seeing when we see it.

and, honestly, it ain't all that new! lots of the creative artists are making this same argument with their images. (See Mick Jenkins "Drowning," October London "It's Hard to Be a Black Man in America," Kamau "GRā (feat. Nkō Khélí)," Jidenna "Knickers"-- hell, even Underground, the new Roots, Get Out, and Lemonade!) all my revolutionary elders say stuff like "I gotta go to my plantation tomorrow" (when talking about work and their treatment by not just bosses but the racism and antiblackness they face). in fact, it fits quite nicely into an analysis of the paradigms of the above-mentioned systems.

afropessimism is, however, at this point, not prescriptive. yes, i struggle with this still. it does not give us step-by-step instruction for getting out of this shit. what it does give us is an in-depth analysis so that we know the level of force needed to get free. i look to others for the how. Black First/Land First and Fees Must Fall in South Africa, the examples of Thomas Sankara and Maurice Bishop, Cooperation Jackson in the USA, etc.
lastly, on a very personal note, it helps me to understand how, no matter what i say to my white family, they can’t hear me. 

yes, they love me! 

and yet my freedom just can’t be heard! 

My better treatment, yes, but my freedom, my ability as a Black person to not be targeted by police and the education system, to be healthy, to have food, TO EXIST, etc., just for some reason can’t even really be considered. 

When my white family members are deeply hurting my black children because of their blackness, my white family members think everyone had a great time. And when i tell them different, they are angry at US especially at me for being the one to voice our issues. 

How dare i protect those Black children!

It explains why when i do well, my mom is not just negative against me, she is resentful and sees my success as a symptom of WHY SHE CAN’T MAKE IT and the downfall of white people (even though she can’t articulate that). It helps me to understand how instead of being proud of me-- that despite her not helping me, despite my growing up in a home where i was sexually abused at the hands of her husband, my stepfather-- i raised three (sometimes four and more) children while on welfare, while having to be in domestic violence shelters, while my children's fathers were in the prison-industrial complex, while getting my graduate degree and becoming a professor, while consistently being an activist/organizer and getting better at understanding systems of power-- despite my doing all that, according to her, i still don’t know what i'm talking about, and my demands for acceptance, outside of what she needs from me, still can't be heard.

It helps me understand why that same white family actually blamed me for the molestation and said i caused it, or why, in a letter to my mom about the molest, never once mentioned the damage it did to me. 

No concern for me. 

My name did not even show up in the letter once! 

ONLY their concern that my white grandfather would be upset to not be able to still be friends with my stepfather. 

The one that molested me! 

Their concern that my grandfather could not be ok in the world unless my dehumanization as a 10-year-old could be erased. It was not even at the level of justifying it-- it HAD to be erased. 

I didn’t exist, not in that letter, not in that WORLD. 

And why didn't he feel betrayed by his friend? that never entered the conversation. 

Was that feeling even there?

My grandfather was a retired cop. 
if what we do at work affects the way we do things at home-- as Michel Foucault might have said-- shouldn't the need to protect a child-- HIS child-- have kicked in (even by habit)?

it took us a long time to even tell him because i thought he would try and kill my stepfather. but he and my family wanted to stay friends with the man who molested me.

Let that sink in. my family wanted to stay friends with the man who molested me.

Maybe patriarchy could explain that behavior?

Yet, when my white cousin was raped, the family rallied around her. 

so why did the patriarchy not protect me?

I never even got an "are you ok?" 
Not even a call. 
Not even my name in a letter concerning what happened to me.

And yes they love me.... Like the dog that they pet lovingly...for their comfort.

Some people might see my story and think that i am a survivor-- and i am-- that i must be strong-- and i am. but they might see in my story that there is hope within this system or say that there is no antiblack structure. but i have the scars to prove otherwise. 

Yes, i'm strong and i survived, but i survived at a very dear cost to me and to my kids. 

I love my family, but what they did is literally killing me to this very day. When i see the statistics about the cumulative impacts racism has on black women's health-- regardless of whether they are rich, middle-class, working-class, or jobless-- i know that that is #MeToo.

afropessimism DOES NOT cancel out my African-centeredness. i know in my self that i'm not a slave, that i'm not a thing. African-centeredness grounds me and allows me to heal, to make decisions that help me save me inside myself. i know i come from a great, great people. 

Harriet Tubman, Queen Nzingha, and King Hatshepsut give me FYAH!

AND i can yell "i'm an african!" to my family a million times (in fact i think i did when Run DMC's "i'm proud to be Black ya'll" came out), and it wouldn't/didn't change my family's reaction. 

AND it doesn't change the way i have to move in the world because nobody cares what i consider myself, except maybe other black people who the world also thinks are "nobody." my knowledge of my Africanness doesn't overpower my family's NEED to NOT recognize me. they're silent about that, silent in the way of "let me neglect that in order to avoid it because it makes me uncomfortable." and they succeed in neglecting it because that's what white people get to do-- cause Black suffering, my suffering, because they can, and ignore it because they can. 

AND that "can" equals violence to me--in me--on me--
AND my children

Having some understanding of afropessimism has helped me to understand what i am seeing. i understand that actions taken for my freedom, and the freedom of all Black people, cannot be legible as love in this antiblack world. instead, my very success and happiness and existence is perceived by white people-- even my own flesh and blood-- as in some way threatening to their very being and they will fight me and us, neglect me and us, avoid me and us viciously to keep all the power and privilege they have.