Friday, January 18, 2013

Born free and looking for justice: What “justice” means to me

 Won't you help to sing
This songs of freedom-
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Bob Marley

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish that I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I'd like to say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole round world to hear

Nina Simone

Here I am, born after the so-called modern Civil Rights Movement. Here I am, a part of a generation that is close (in time) to this movement for justice; but most of my living “in” the Movement is done via readings and watching documentaries. Here I am a so-called beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement. I stand in front of a college classroom, me a Black woman, an immigrant Black woman, a Black woman only a few generations past slavery and indentured servitude, as a college professor. Here I am the mother of a teen daughter who lives in a world that tells her that there is no racism. She is told this “lie” of post-racalism because for example, she does not see the possibility of herself in older Black women as there are no Black female teachers (or males for that matter) at her school. How then do I understand justice? How does my social identity and the context within which I reside shape my understandings of justice and freedom?

March on Washington

As a child, growing up in Barbados, I was fed a steady diet of Bob Marley. To this day, my mother owns every Bob Marley record. I can fondly remember me singing along to “Get up Stand up”, and “No woman, No Cry”. I am the point where I simply hear a few opening bars of a Marley song and I can start singing. I didn’t know that Marley’s music was about social justice. As a child, I didn’t know of or fully appreciate my mother’s commitment to justice. Marley’s music was simply something that was a part of our lives. Here commitment to social justice was simply a part of our lives. Then at the age of 16 I migrated to the US to attend college. At the age of 21, while in graduate school, I had an experience that reminded me of my so-called space in society. I was walking one morning and out ran a lady yelling “Nigger, Nigger.” She was clutching her robe and dressed in her house slippers. The anger I felt after this experience, coupled with the isolation I felt in higher education in general, left me wondering if there was ever a space for me in society. My experiences in higher education exposed me to racism and injustices in a way that I had not experienced before.

The injustices I experienced challenged my understanding of freedom. However, those songs my mother poured into me and that sense of self my parents cultivated served as the foundation for my response to the injustices I experienced. I didn’t always know how to name my experiences and how I wanted to respond to them. But the lyrics of Bob Marley, among others, and the teachings of my parents helped me to see my experiences as part of what I eventually learned was structural and institutional racism, sexism, and classism.

The words of my teachers and of random strangers caused anger; but they also prompted me to dig deeper into understanding intersectionality and justice.

The legacy of Black women, known and un-known to me, served as my “drinking gourd”. What is it that Black women sing about when they sing spirituals, the blues…? What is that yearning in their voice? It is a yearning to be free.

My digging led me to the likes of Nina Simone, to the works of Audre Lorde, Zora Neal Hurston, and Langston Hughes among others. I found the writings of Black women such as the Combahee River Collective, Dorothy Roberts, Nikol Alexander-Floyd and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. These women gave me a home for my raced-gendered-classed experiences. Through these various voices I have come to define a notion of justice.

Justice involves critically analyzing how the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality work to constrain access, life choices, and understandings of self. Justice is not only about critical assessment of these intersecting oppressive structures; it is also about defining “my” reality. Although I use the term “my” I recognize that “my” incorporates all members of my larger community—those who are not free.

My struggle for justice is an on-going process. At this stage of my life I am confronted with teaching my teen daughter about justice—social, economic, cultural and political. My challenge stems from, in part that unlike me she is being raised in a majority environment—one that espouses a notion of color-blindness. She is one of two Black girls in her class. The irony of this color-blind ideology is that racism and the racial order is often hidden in plain sight. Injustice remains unchallenged as a result of silence. There is no community available for me to ground my daughter in—a community that reaffirms her Blackness in the way that I had as a child growing up in Barbados. That is just a part of the problem. Culturally she’s inundated with notions of beauty that often render her invisible. My attempts to counter the dominant narratives she confronts is often met with silence, mis-understanding, or a type of sympathy but very little action to actually change the environment in a critically manner. 

Often I’m left singing the words of Nina Simone, “I wish I knew how to be free”. I wish that I knew how it is for my daughters, biological and non-biological, to be free. Until then there is no justice. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

113rd Congress: Should I get excited?

January 3, 2013 and the “freshman” class of the 113th Congress has been sworn in. A few days prior a dear friend of mine sent me the above picture with the statement “I'm sure you can do something with this imagery!” I looked at the picture, shrugged my shoulders and continued contemplating life (mine) in the New Year. Then I watched Dianne Sawyer’s interview (1/3/2013) with a number of these women and I became intrigued. I listened to how the women conceptualize themselves as law makers. One said that women are not filled with testosterone and that makes them different from their male counterparts. They talked about abortion and women’s rights and other issues one has come to expect such panels to deal with. I almost ignored the segment on ABC Nightly News as it started (at least the start for me) on how many children were shared between the women. My thought was please, not this again. Nevertheless, I set aside my bias and listened. But I came away with more thoughts than could be answered in the two-minute segment (or however long it was).  
I taught Women and Politics last semester—perfect timing. Leading up to the election and after the election my students and I discussed not only why women run for elective office, but also the barriers they face and how women of various social locations confront these barriers. We discussed how women confront the masculinist structure that is Congress. After the election we talked about whether or not the newly elected cohort will be able to change how Congress functions or will they be confined to working within the structure as is.
Many tout this as the most diverse Congress to date. This diversity covers a wide spectrum including:
1.      The House Democrat Caucus-it is projected that the majority now comprises of women and non-white individuals. The Republican counterpart remains heavily White and male.
2.      Religious & Racial Diversity—the House of Representatives now has its first Hindu member and the senate has its first Asian-American woman (the second woman of color to serve in the Senate). Twenty-eight Latinos are now serving in the House and three in the Senate.
3.      Sexuality—the Senate now has its first openly gay member.
4.      Gender-- The Senate now has 20 women (of 100 members) and there are 81 women in the House of Representatives (of 441 members of which 435 are voting members and 6 are non-voting members).
In the face of it all, this is indeed something to celebrate. But… I do wander what does this all mean for Black women? Between 1917 and 2012   
“A total of 31 African American or black women have served in Congress (1 in the Senate, 30 in the House), including the 15 serving in the 112th Congress. Eight Hispanic women have been elected to the House; seven serve in the 112th Congress. Six Asian American women have served in the House, including four in the 112th Congress.”
Of the 43 current African American Congresspersons (a drop from 44), a total of 17 are women (these includes two non-voting members). So, there are 17 (out of 435 members) Black women in the House of Representatives and zero (out of 100 members) in the Senate, but why should we care?
Symbolic vs. Substantive Representation: Why we should care
Who will represent Black women? This is a question of substantive versus symbolic representation. While both are valuable, I’m inclined to advocate for substantive representation which would result in policy changes—positive changes-- that would enhance the lived realities of Black women. There are so many issues that Black women need to pay attention to; depending on how Congress acts on these issues will show how and if Black women matter, in a substantive manner, to this most diverse Congress. Below I explore only a few of the issues that I think we ought to pay attention to.
1.      Violence Against Women Act (VAW). The 112th House, as it came to its end, failed to act on the VAW Act. The GOP leadership refused to introduce the Act for re-authorization. The bill passed in the Senate would have extended domestic violence protections to approximately 30 million LGBT individuals, First American women and undocumented immigrants. Black women need this legislation. Consider the following:  
Various groups experience domestic violence at disproportionate rates. The NVAWS found that African-American and Native American/Alaskan Indian women and men reported higher rates of domestic violence than did women and men from other communities of color(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000), while Asian/Pacific Islander women and men tended to report lower rates of intimate partner violence than did women and men from other minority backgrounds(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). It also found that 23.4% of Hispanic/Latina women had been domestic violence victims in their lifetime(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that African-American women experienced domestic violence at a rate 35% higher than Caucasian women(Rennison & Welchans, 2000).

An important consideration with respect to race and domestic violence is the impact of economic class. A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) publication suggests that "African-Americans and whites with the same economic characteristics have similar rates of intimate violence, but African-Americans have a higher overall rate of intimate violence due in part to higher levels of economic distress and location in disadvantaged neighborhoods"(Benson & Fox, 2004).”
2.      HIV/AIDS: Simply put we need a comprehensive, well-funded, national HIV/AIDS policy. Having said this, I recognize that this might not occur in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, there are a few policy issues that Black women need to press Congress on. For one, we need to pres them on funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. We also need to advocate for funding (increased) for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which provides care to low income people with the disease and Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA).
3.      The Economy. There are so many issues to discuss related to the economy including the high rates of unemployment among African Americans—regardless of gender and/or age. We also need to advocate, in the coming months, on how the “fiscal cliff” will be addressed. The fiscal-cliff might have been averted, but it is not over. The 2013 Congress must now address what is referred to as the sequestration requirements. Sequestration, implemented by the Budget Control Act of 2011, is approximately $1 trillion in automatic cuts to federal government spending over the next decade. This means that this Congress must now create a deficit reduction plan designed to identify $1.2 trillion in budgetary cuts over the next decade. We need to pay attention to a number of areas that might be affected by these cuts, including for example the Affordable Health Care Act in general and the Prevention and Public Health Fund specifically. Federal employees are not off the hook, yet. A substantial number of African Americans are employed by the federal government. How they handle this economic “crisis” has implication for education parity (Head Start among other programs), access to affordable health care, and adequate and safe housing. 

Congresswoman Maxine Waters
Finally, we need to pay attention to committee assignments as this is often used to mute and silenced those who might challenge the status quo. When Shirley Chisholm, first Black woman elected to Congress, was elected she was initially appointment to a minor subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee. She challenged this appointment and the power structure changed her appointment to the Veterans Affairs Committee. She bucked the system by challenging power structures, she made many uncomfortable with her presence and her words. Hers is but one method of radical representation for substantive change. We have to wait to see if this celebrated 113rd congress will in the words of Shirley Chisholm “breathe fire”. In the meantime, we cannot sit back and wait for our elected officials to act, we must also act. It is time for us, the voting public, to also “breathe fire” and demand substantive policy that positively affects the lived reality of Black women.