Category Archives: Media

“Endgame AIDS In Black America”: A Exercise in Drama And No Politics

This is an almost stream of conscious blog I was writing while watching the PBS premier of the Frontline Documentary “Endgame: AIDS In Black America.”

Remember the PBS hard hitting political documentary series Frontline? You know, the show you can often count on to give you the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that explains, in great painstaking detail, everything from Wall Street’s role in foreclosure crisis, the lies that were told to get us into the War in Iraq, how the health insurance industry bought Congress to get the Affordable Care Act?

So imagine that the story of the War in Iraq was told through the stories of the Iraqis, who are describing the day the bombs fell, but the documentary hardly mentions George Bush (Jr or Sr), oil, or 9-11 as the excuse for US invasion? You’re left with a story that seems to be about the inexplicable and yet seemingly inevitable mass death and destruction, but is absent of history, political and policy contexts. You’d begin to wonder, why didn’t people just move out of the way when the bombs were raining out of the sky?

That’s what tonight’s Frontline episode, Endgame: AIDS in Black America was like. The documentary was very unlike most Frontline documentaries, which use the personal narratives of people living through a particular issue as a window into the larger political story, where you’re left with both a micro and macro understanding of what’s going on. Instead, the way the documentary is constructed, heavy on the personal narrative, and with some good analysis by leading AIDS researchers and advocates, lacks any interview or in depth policy, political, or epidemiological analysis with a government official (with ONAP’s Greg Millet as the only exception, but he was not a govt official at the onset of the epidemic), from the 1980s, 1990s or now, that asks any tough questions about what the fuck they were doing about Black people with HIV/AIDS.

The kind of activism focuses on the work the women of ACT-UP did for women with AIDS, but doesn’t name any of the Black women who were living with the virus who were brave enough to organize and be present in that now famous action on the CDC. And Black trans women for whom the epidemic is particularly high aren’t even present AT ALL. And despite the issue of housing and homelessness as a major predictor of HIV infection…it is completely disappeared, especially in the context of the massive rise in homelessness in the 1980s.

It frames Magic Johnson’s announcement as the “wake up call” for Black people, but only brackets the deaths of Max Robinson, Sylvester, Jermaine Stewart, Alvin Ailey and not even mention Eazy E or Rev James Cleveland as other important moments for Black folks in the HIV/AIDS crisis. It also does not talk about Tongues Untied, and the Black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ film deals with HIV/AIDS and was a particular political lightening rod that was national news. It doesn’t talk about the work shows like A Different World did, or even artists like Salt-N-Pepa, Prince, or TLC who were talking about safe sex and HIV in their music before the government did anything. Contrary to Frontline’s usual style, they did not include an interview from C. Everett Koop or anybody from the CDC during Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, or Bush Jr.’s administrations. No political figures are held accountable for lack of funding, focus, or for instituting regressive policies that caused the HIV epidemic to rise in the Black community.

In fact, political leaders are treated as heroes. George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program is celebrated (with a sidenote from the narrator that it had controversial elements) without the many critiques that exist. Instead, we’re treated to scenes of the “backwards” South where people still will not eat behind people who have HIV. OK, but the question should be, why in 2012 are people not aware what we know about how AIDS is spread, or better yet, why don’t they believe it? The education system in the south being horrible (Alabama is where they focus the southern portion of the film), the disenfranchisement of Black people continually from all most aspects of political life is not raised. The continued federal funding for abstinence only sex education that is heavy on religious tropes and empty on sexual health information is depicted, but no policy makers are interrogated. And yet, homophobia in Black churches is discussed at length.

The narration, slow and intent on evoking too much “emotion” sounds more like a Lifetime movie of the week than what you normally have with the Frontline brand.

The best part of the film was the opening, dispelling the myth that the first gay men who presented as HIV positive when that MMWR was written in June of 1981, were white. Several were Black. The question the film should have been asking, “If white gay men weren’t the ‘original’ community the virus was discovered in the the US, why was it portrayed that way? Who’s decision was it to racialize the epidemic as such, and why was Black death always given a perfunctory nod, and not anything to be alarmed about to even mount the national hysteria, though not entirely helpful, at least took place? And making the political actors over the last 30 years account for that.

Or, a better framing could have been to open with the segment of analysis given by Dr. Bob Fullilove, Greg Millet, Phill Wilson and Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick at the very end of the film about Washington, DC, and then diving deeper into why DC’s epidemic is one of the worst in the world (if it were a country) and then pulling your happy ass up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and start asking some fucking questions.

Instead, we’re treated to a lot of personal narratives that continue to individualize the epidemic, straight black men with HIV are demonized (if for no other reason that they are almost entirely absent as narrators, but instead only show up as the infectors of Black women), and you walk away from this not understanding a single solitary issue about why the epidemic is so bad in Black communities despite no differences in sexual behaviors or drug use among Blacks.

Bette Davis says as Margo Channing in All About Eve, “I detest cheap sentiment.” She was talking at the time about music. I could say the same about this film. But in this case, cheap sentiment has really unfortunate political consequences.

Occupy Wall Street’s Race Problem: My Piece for American Prospect

“The economic crisis has disproportionately affected people of color, in particular African Americans. Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it’s not about the diversity of the protests. It’s about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda.” Go to AMERICAN PROSPECT to read the rest.

Desiree Marshall: F*ck Facebook

You know one of the things that I am beginning to admit to myself: I am finding a lot of activist and organizing happening in the US pretty boring and uninteresting. Most of what is really inspiring me is art–and I usually hate those kind of people. You know the people who want to circumvent any kind of political implications of their work by declaring it art. Or the artist who declare that art is going to save the world, and that a revolution can happen without some kind of challenge, indirect dismantling, or radical transformation of state power–and the art that is produced in a society is a direct outgrowth of it.

That said, I am finding myself more interested in the manner in which people are using creative forms to express ideas for audiences. As a result, I am entertaining ideas of getting back on stage in some way, shape or form, or exploring other kinds of writing–more long form, narrative, nonfiction or even fiction, as a method of creativity, political protest, and artistic endeavor.

I’ve posted some of that work here–Yolo Akili’s video work, Brontez Purnell’s growing from punk kid to full fledged performance artist, Awkward Black Girl, and now, another friend, Desiree Marshall (Awkward Black Girl isn’t a friend. But the others are.)

I’ve known Des for many years as our work as organizers and trainers in activist spaces. I was always impressed by her intellect, and the charisma she brought to political work. I’ve known she was also a spoken word artist, and always liked her work, but seeing her here, delivering this poem, “F*ck Facebook” made me see the incredible power she brings to her work as a performer, and her ability to command the audience’s attention. In addition, the piece itself, took me to some internal places about my own uses and experiences of facebook, of failed relationships, and I guess she commanded me, cynical me, away from my critical eye, even my eye as a friend of Des’ into the world of the piece itself. She had me. I loveit when an artist/ performer makes me want to perform again, and inspires me to step my own game up.

I think Des should write a whole show and take it on the road. There’s a space for her in the world, and the gift she has.

Watch and see.

Kenyon on 50 Cent’s New Pocketbook Values: Anti-Gay Won’t Pay, Even for Hip Hop

Just published a new piece on about the Mister Cee from Hot 97 sex scandal:

The arrest last week of Hot 97 DJ and hip-hop legend Mister Cee for allegedly having commercial sex with a 20-year-old transgender woman has sparked another hip-hop “war,” this time between Cee’s Hot 97 colleague Funkmaster Flex and rival DJ Charlamagne tha God. Since Cee’s arrest, Flex and Charlamange, a former Wendy Williams sidekick, have been going at one another over the role of queer people within hip-hop, spurring a debate that’s sprawled from Twitter to the blogosphere and that’s been filled with a good bit of the expected homophobia and transphobia.

But a surprising voice has stepped into the forefront to defend Mister Cee: 50 Cent, one hip-hop’s favorite homophobes (and a friend to Mister Cee). Fifty could care less about queer folks, of course. But he does care about the Benjamins, and to him hip-hop’s pro-gay era needs to begin for one simple reason: Homophobia isn’t good for business anymore. Continued…


Video: Are We the Kind of Boys We Want?

I think I am gonna save Fridays for my favorite videos of the week. In this case, the clear winner is my good-Judy, Yolo Akili’s newest video offering, “Are We the Kind of Boy’s We Want?” The video is part performance of the poem of the same title, and part series of interviews with Black gay men about masculinity and who we desire.  It’s just great. Watch.

Notes on A Confession of A (so-called) Black Gentrifier

When I was preparing to write the piece “Blacks Being Ethnically Cleansed from NYC?” I knew I was going to get 2 questions (which, quite predictably, I got):

1. What are white people supposed to do? (A question, I think best answered as Tamara K. Nopper responded to a thread on Facebook noting, “What if leftist and non-Black folks put as much thought into the question, where can Black people go where they are not subject to displacement/state and public violence as they do in the questions where should white people go and what should they do in the world? Why is so much intellectual, political, and emotional energy spent trying to figure out white people’s place in a progressive world?”)

2. What about Black gentrifiers?

Well as luck would have it, The Washington City Paper in DC published an article, Confessions of a Black Gentrifier, also on Friday March 18th–the same day as Charles M. Blow’s op-ed in the NYT my Ethnic Cleansing piece was inspired by. The story is mostly a narrative on the conundrum of being Black and middle-class, moving to a poor Black or working class neighborhood you’re not originally from, and all the angst and hand-wringing worthy of a 1930’s tragic mulatto pulp fiction novel (It’s a wonder this even got published so few facts exist in this article to support its bony reasoning—but perhaps I expect too much from journalism. But I digress.). Shani O. Hilton writes:

“The story of the black gentrifier, at least from this black gentrifier’s perspective, is often a story about being simultaneously invisible and self-conscious. The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.”

This is not to say that Black people with higher incomes should not be critically engaged with the ways in which they play a role often in perpetuating classism that may exacerbate the isolation of poor and working class Blacks in neighborhoods under the onslaught of gentrification. So yes, middle and upper-class Black folks can open and/or patronize bourgie stores that don’t cater to tastes of the neighborhood, or are out of price range for most poor black residents. They can sometimes plead to police departments for increased policing of poor black people they feel uncomfortable around, whether or not any real “crime” or violence is taking place.

But I disagree with the definition of gentrification put forward by this article, and the premise that Blacks can be gentrifiers, per se. Hilton, on the other hand concludes that a

“’Gentrifier’ can’t be equated with ‘white person.’ After all, most poor people in this country are white (though it’s definitely a numbers game; whites are still less likely to be poor than blacks and Latinos—there are just more of them). The gentrifier is a person of privilege, and even if she doesn’t have much money, she’s got an education and a network of friends who are striving like she is, and she has the resources to at least try to get what she wants.”

According to Hilton, gentrification begins and ends with a discussion of privilege—a political definition that has destroyed any real critique of racial wealth and capital and their connection to anti-black state violence. I blame this definition’s ubiquitous use on the white anti-racist movement as well as “people of color” defined projects, that try to evade notions of racial and economic justice in favor of equating class or skin color privilege with the way in which white and non-Black bodies can not only exercise “privilege” but often also draw capital, wealth and resources to kick-start the seemingly never-ending process of Black people being physically displaced and dispossessed of wealth—which is not a phenomenon of the last 20 years.

So for me, gentrification is not just, or even mostly about, class to the exclusion of race. The problem with this article and most progressive analysis of gentrification is that they discuss it in very limited and ahistorical terms. I would argue (and forgive me if someone else has already said this) continual physical displacement is a condition of anti-Black racism since the beginning of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, and includes massive Black imprisonment, the adoption/foster care system, lynchings done to usurp land owned by Blacks, the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in 1921, the Great Migration, urban “renewal” projects of the 1940’s-1970’s and the recent foreclosure crisis, which disproportionately affected black women homeowners. I do believe that this question of “Black gentrification” is at best a shallow understanding of what’s happening when Black middle and upper income people move to communities that have been poor and working class Black. At worst, it’s a strategic attempt to draw attention (and culpability) away from the larger forces of white gentrification and capital that much more severely impacts the ability of poor and working class blacks to remain in their communities.

So if the “gentrifier” can’t be racialized as white but boils down to economics, how come the Black middle-class, despite their income drive property values DOWN when they move into white neighborhoods, even if they make similar or equal amounts of money as the whites in that community? Why is the Black middle-class not as able to live among people of similar economic status who are not Black (in large numbers) even if they so desire to? And if many Black middle-class people choose to live in mixed-income Black communities, what does that say about their experiences with racism even if they have the income and credit to live elsewhere? This has everything to do with race and less to do with income or education.

If we understand dispossession and displacement as a particular condition of Black experience, history and current events would show us that the Black middle class is barely holding on to its position. A 2010 study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University showed:

  • From 1984-2007, the racial wealth gap among Whites and Blacks increased by $75,000 — from $20,000 to $95,000. Financial assets, excluding home equity, among white families grew from a median value of $22,000 to $100,000 during that period while African Americans saw very little increase in assets in real dollars and had a median wealth of $5,000 in 2007.
  • By 2007, the average middle-income white household had accumulated $74,000 in wealth, an increase of $55,000 over the 23-year period, while the average high-income African-American family owned $18,000, a drop of $7,000. That resulted in a wealth gap of $56,000 for an African-American family that earned more than $50,000 in 1984 compared to a white family earning about $30,000 that same year.

So how did this mythical Black middle class come to dominate the discourse on gentrification over the last couple years? Clearly, the Black middle has lost wealth, and therefore in no real position to cause the massive upheaval in Black lower-income neighborhoods over the same period. So many of those people who may have moved to buy homes or businesses were much more likely to face foreclosure (loss of wealth), and may not have been able to keep their homes of businesses due to rising property taxes when white gentrifiers moved in.

Why are Black middle-class people never talked about in terms of neighborhood “revitalization?” I am not advocating it, as it would still have very elitist connotations, but the point is, we hear the terms revitalization, renewal, progress, and development when white people (hipsters, activists, artists, yuppies, white gays and queers, etc), immigrants, and “students” move into Black neighborhoods. Why are Black neighborhoods by default spoken of as “dead?”

The article takes place in DC, which is somewhat of an outlier because state & federal public service jobs are one of the few sectors in the economy that African-Americans have any kind of foothold, and those jobs do tend to be more stable (See 2011 State of the Dream Report by United for a Fair Economy). But with a Republican takeover of Congress and calls for fiscal prudence (which means cutting jobs where many Blacks are likely to work, in the social service federal agencies and the US Postal Service), DC middle-class may not be as immune as they have been (and they haven’t been immune as the article states. The Congress controls the budget for the city, and its own infrastructure has been horribly underfunded for decades, which is why many Black residents refer to the city as a colony). Even if Black middle-class people have returned to some urban and poorer Black communities, will they be able to retain their wealth over time? History would suggest not.

The article hints at but does not analyze what one of the Black middle class residents names—his “protection and participation” as a part of the middle class depends on how he’s dressed. If he is dressed in sweats or in things that don’t socially mark him as middle class, he is subjected to similar kinds of hostility from white residents as well as from law enforcement. So white residents are made safe from law enforcement by virtue of race—for Blacks, wearing the wrong clothes quickly changes one’s position. But I know from personal experience having lived in gentrifying neighborhoods that white people still act in terror no matter how I’m dressed, and have also been assaulted by police officers, clothing style no matter.

Despite the anxiety many upper-class or educated Blacks may feel about their position in helping to displace poorer Blacks, we have to really look critically at whether “Black gentrification” is really even possible, or whether it is a tool to use the anxiety of the Black middle class to distract attention from white and/or non-Black culpability in Black displacement and dispossession.

Suggested reading:

Black on The Block: The Politics of Race and Class in The City. Mary Pattillo.

Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class. Mary Pattillo.

Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It . Mindy Thompson Fullilove.

How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society (South End Press Classics Series). Manning Marable

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Saidiya V. Hartman

Blacks Being Ethnically Cleansed from NYC?

On Friday, Charles M. Blow, Black op-ed columnist at the New York Times wrote about the census data from 2010, which is showing that NYC, which has been a city with very large Black population (only 4 states have more Black people than New York), is seeing a major decrease in Black folks since the 2000 Census count. According to the op-ed,the 2010 Census data

“…will show the first drop in the black population of New York City on a census since at least 1880, according to Professor Andy Beveridge, a sociologist at the City University of New York. (The white, Asian and Hispanic populations are all expected to grow.)”

This is not surprising altogether. I have lived here since 1999 (and spent a college semester here in 1996) and I sometimes stand in NYC and wonder (often aloud) where did all these white people come from?

What’s interesting is that the NY Times itself has reported on Black migration out of NYC in the last several years, but their analysis has mostly come to people talking about better job opportunities in the South, moving closer to familial connections, cost of living and better quality of life. I think all these things are true.

However Blow’s op-ed is the first I’ve seen to point to a more sinister reason Black folks are fleeing New York: Police violence and harassment. Blow opines:

“But to the soup of reasons and recriminations I would like to add one more possible factor that must be considered if not studied: the hyper-aggressive police tactics that have resulted in a concerted and directed campaign of harassment against the black citizens of this city.

According to a report in The Times last year, there were a record 580,000 stop-and-frisks in the city in 2009. Most of those stopped (55 percent) were black (a large portion were also Hispanic), most were young and almost all were male. For reference, according to the Census Bureau, there were about only 300,000 black men between the ages of 13 and 34 living in the city that year. A mere 6 percent of the stops resulted in arrests...The Times article revealed that in one eight-block area of an overwhelmingly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, the police made 52,000 stops in just four years, an average of nearly one stop for each resident each year…If this is even part of the reason blacks are fleeing from, or simply not coming to, our great metropolis, then the city, knowingly or not, is engaged in its own subtle form of ethnic cleansing — a sort of eradication by intimidation.”

This is a really great point that needs to be explored. Similarly, police violence targeting Blacks in Oakland, California made headline news a few years ago with the murder of Oscar Grant. News has also circulated from the 2010 Census that Oakland, California’s Black population has dropped 25% over the last decade. Though more Blacks in Oakland are moving to surrounding areas like Richmond and Sacramento more than they are to the Southern states (although that is also occurring), could police violence still be a major factor?

Things to consider:

1. Does the white young urbanite migration to back to urban areas increase police violence (yes, that even means you, white activists who consider your selves, progressives or radicals) against Blacks–that, combined with rising property values force Blacks out? More bluntly, do white bodies (regardless of one’s stated politics) draw bullets to Blacks?

2. Does this migration of Black people back South mirror the Great Migration out of the South–migration caused both by the promise of better economic and living conditions as well as a fleeing a way from white violence (in one case by some police but often by white citizen mob violence, and in another by official and organized police forces.) whether staffed by people of color police or not, but that represent white interests–including those of the gentrifiers?

3. Do white gentrifiers see that they collude with the state violence against blacks? That is to say, the state speaks for you through the police, and what they perceive to be your wishes, or at least your value and purchasing power. So whether or not you feel bad about your place in a neighborhood you’re gentrifying, and try to combat that by being nice to your Black neighbors, or by doing activism at a nonprofit in the city in which you live, which you may see as a way to offset the conundrum of gentrification, none of that is the point. Black people become expendable in order to increase property values and bring luxury goods (indy and corporate coffee houses, bars, boutiques, bourgie restaurants including “ethnic” themed establishments.) to a new market–the white 20-40something urbanite. So to the state (government and the police) and to the market (capitalist forces including landlords), white gentrification (whether by bourgie yuppies like in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope or by radical punks, artist, and white antiracist devotees –who usually become bourgie yuppies–in Bed Stuy, Bushwick, and Crown Heights) represents an opportunity to make money, regardless of how you see yourself on the political spectrum. It’s not an easy question nor solution, I just wish some people would begin to engage it.