On Suicide, “Selfishness” and Ending Stigma

It’s not right to call someone “selfish” whose died as a result of suicide. The person who is dead was in a lot of pain, maybe not physically, but mentally it was painful and that mental pain made it seem like that was a viable, and only option. Yes, it’s hard to get that if you’ve never struggled with depression, anxiety or some other form of mental illness. BUT some of y’all just need to try and do better about understanding mental illness. How? Pick up a book, find an advocacy org, or talk with folks who face battle every morning they wake up. You’ll be a part of making it easier for folks to seek help.

On the other hand, some (not all) of the folks I have heard scream about the “selfishness of suicide” I have found are close to the subject. They’ve lost someone in their life. And another suicide, triggers memories, rage, depression, and pure grief all over again. That’s real. Some people have responded by telling those folks to go to hell and leave it at that.

I literally think nothing on the subject of mental illness and reducing suicide is going to change if we don’t get some understanding and education going. You hear someone call a person whose died from suicide “selfish”, and you have the strength to engage, say something. Maybe they lost someone and they are triggered, maybe they are badly informed, maybe they are really just a jerk without an empathy bone. Either way letting that attitude thrive unchecked makes it worse. I try to do that sometimes when I can and will be mindful about it going forward because as always victim blaming, and letting it thrive, is a matter of life and death

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The #MeToo and school shooting era: protecting women and girls from toxic masculinity

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Depressed outsider student torturing from racist school bullying
image via bigstockphoto.com

One day on the playground when I was ten, an older boy, who was a noted for having issues, tried to boss me around and then called me a “whore” when I refused to play along.  My mom had recently explained the concept to me and told me how men use the word to diminish women, and so the comment pushed me into a full-on rage fit.  As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m not a particularly quiet person—especially when faced with injustice—so we both ended up in the Principal’s office for “fighting.”  This boy clearly knew he was caught, so he tried apologizing in that insincere way people do when they’re just trying to get out of punishment.  This only enraged me further, but in hindsight, it was the Principal’s behavior that should really have made me mad.

I flashback to this moment often in the #MeToo era, especially as of late. The recent premiere of 13 Reasons Why Season 2 on Netflix, a show that tackles the life of teens in American high school, specifically confronts bullying, sexual assault and harassment and reflects the challenges of young people navigating these issues without the emotional tools or support to deal with these issues productively. As the events leading up to the school shooting over a week ago at Santa Fe High School in Texas continue to unfold, a familiar story emerges that the teenage attacker’s first victim was a girl who had rejected his advances.  It was not dissimilar from Nicholas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter, who was known to be a troublemaker at school and in the neighborhood. His troubling behavior with violent inclinations  was left tolerated for a long time before he was finally expelled as noted by one fellow girl classmate who was the subject of his abuse.

These of course are some the worst of the escalations of those whose behavioral issues are not addressed aggressively. Some teenaged boys make to it to manhood before those behavioral issues manifest outwardly  like Omar Matten, the Pulse Nightclub shooter was a man who was abusive to his wife had as those who knew him remembered many moments that displayed aggressive behavior with inclination toward violence

But not every boy who learns in school to be verbally or physically abusive to women ends up being a mass murderer—the vast majority end up taking their bad behavior with them into the workplace.  Many professions where men are still over represented in leadership suffers from this syndrome that psychologists have called “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity upholds narrow ideas about masculinity such as that it’s good to be sexually aggressive, a competitor, and solve problems through physical or verbal violence.  If a boy avoids conflicts, doesn’t aggressively seek sexual conquests, then he is not seen as a “real” man.

When this boy now a man in the workplace’s formative experiences teach him that this overly aggressive behavior works, then he tends to reward that behavior in others, or even to believe that it’s a key to being successful.  If someone (male or female) complains about the bad behavior, they find themselves labeled a “troublemaker” or “not a good fit,” and they can get forced out.

When these men make inappropriate sexual comments or physical contact, they try to pass it off as “just a joke” or “just being sarcastic.”  The woman who are usually the victims of such lewd behavior are often told they should not “overreact” or they avoid saying anything in order to protect their careers.  Such is the case of many men taken down in the #MeToo era, like Hollywood Producer Harvey Weinstein or TV host and journalist Charlie Rose or political tech staffer Clay Johnson, whose careers ended over accusations of sexual harassment and assault.  Though sexual harassment or assault may have been the offense that ultimately brought them down, many such men were also accused—often for years—of verbal harassment and creating a hostile work environment.

It’s important to note, masculinity in and of itself is not bad, but when taken to the extreme it can be toxic. It can be learned at home from parents who think it’s normal (or desirable) for a boy to behave this way or from media images that extol this false vision of “manliness,” and it can even be learned in school from teachers and coaches who this it’s desirable behavior.

Or it can be learned from a misguided elementary school principal.

Which brings us back to that boy on the playground and his abusive behavior. We were sat down by the vice principal, a woman, and while he was told that calling names was not appropriate I was told that I needed to be big enough to accept his apology. I was forced to shake his hand and make friends and leave that to the end of it. It never sat well with me, but I was only 10, so I went along with it to get out of that office. And only now, years later, can I really express why that vice principal was wrong.

What does my thirty-something self wish that my 10-year-old self had been able to say?  What should a young women in a similar situation do at school today?  They should look that adult right in the eye and say, “No. He’s not my problem. He’s your problem.  He’s his family’s problem. And you need to address how he acts out and treats girls before it gets worse.  Help him fix this before it’s too late.  And don’t ever—EVER—ask me again to apologize for standing up for myself.”

It should not only be incumbent on us women and girls to say no and stand up for ourselves, it should be enough, but it’s not always. It’s also incumbent on our schools, workplaces and community to be accountable to creating an environment were this type of behavior is proactively stopped in its tracks and happy and healthy girls and boys can thrive and grow up to be productive adults capable of healthy interactions and relationships.

Not Just Another Fairy Tale: Britain, Race & A Royal Wedding

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Harry & Meghan, Christmas Day 2017. CC by 2.0

With the pending nuptials of Prince Harry and bi-racial American actress Meghan Markle, the royal wedding fever is reaching a high pitch in a new unusual community: the African diaspora in the US and across the globe.  I confess that as a thirty-something, American-born daughter of African immigrants who were once subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, I find myself less interested in the romance and the “fairy tale” nature of the event than the history and significance of the moment.

Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, reigns over the Commonwealth of Nations—formerly the British Empire—the majority of which is filled with people who look more like Meghan than Harry.  On her mother’s side, she is the descendant of slaves and of a slave trade, which massively increased Great Britain’s wealth and that of the royal family. As of Saturday, she will be a new member of this same royal family.

That is no small thing.

Even when I was very young, my parents exposed me to their memories of what British rule was like in East Africa. My mother remembers the excitement when the Queen visited Uganda during one of her Commonwealth tours, but also the segregated transportation she had to ride whenever she and other black Africans came to the city.

In my parents’ nation, the British were perhaps less physically violent in the colonial government they set up (other nations weren’t so lucky) but no less forceful in its assertion that their way to live was superior. In school my parents did not learn of their own history and geography but rather of everything British—hardly useful in rural east Africa. My father told me the story of the Scottish headmaster at his school who tried to enforce a rule that all the African boys must wear kilts and use Anglo names rather than their own.

My parents’ British education focused on British authors and history to an extent most modern Americans schools do not.  In fact, my parents were so dismayed at the lack of depth in my elementary school reading assignments that they brought me Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and many other English luminaries to read. Additionally, my mother encouraged me to watch these stories come to life in film. It was through them I was introduced to Britain not just in the cursory American teaching of Britain playing the role of colonizer that the Founders threw off through Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

Britain was brought to life for me in many positive ways through its contributions in the arts and literature. I was also a girl who read fairy tales and therefore intrigued by real life royalty. However, it was also from my parents and school I learned of Britain’s dark racist history. In college, I learned that the Brits were major players of the massive Transatlantic slave trade. It is estimated 3.4 million Africans were carried on British ships to territories the British had violently seized from the indigenous people who already lived there.

It was also in school where I formally learned how my own family’s life came to be under the Crown. It was Prince Harry’s great-great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, who presided over British participation in the so-called Scramble for Africa in the late 19th Century, which took my parent’s homeland under British ‘protection’ in 1894 to guarantee British commercial investments in the region.

Her representatives on the Continent cared little for the interests of the Africans they colonized and focused on extracting maximum financial gain.  They were ruthless in their efforts to keep control of the millions of Africans who surrounded them—turning tribe against tribe; importing troops and foremen from India and elsewhere; asserting white rule oftentimes violently and suppressing many black Africans’ attempt to rule themselves; forcing an Anglo-focused education onto young black Africans;  and taking lands without the permission of the Africans that had long lived there.

The result: many ethnic conflicts on the continent trace their origins to explicit policies of the colonizers and caused issues of political and infrastructure development that linger to this day.

Throughout history, black Africans and people of color generally were pawns for Britain and its royal family whenever it was convenient. Historically, they have been greatest arbiters of the theory that black Africans were inferior and “less-than.”

The recent season of the Netflix series, “The Crown” touches on this in portraying Elizabeth’s visit to Ghana to meet with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s President and a fierce critic of colonialism.  Nkrumah stage-managed the event to emphasize that he saw no need to appear subservient to the European monarch, and certain parts of the British press are portrayed as being scandalized that she was willing to dance with an African leader after dinner.

Reverberations of this sort of prejudice are still felt in another former British colony, the American colonies, to this day. The American Revolution only truly won independence for white colonizers in British North America; the surviving American Indians and the millions of Africans who had been brought to Britain’s colonies in chains were not so fortunate.

Growing up in the American South in the 1980 and 1990s, I did not have to look far to see the legacy of this racist worldview.

White royalists still do try to say the racism of the past is no longer a problem in British society, citing the queen’s recent hiring of a black equerry to bolster their case. Even so, Harry felt compelled to have his personal office send out a statement denouncing the racist and sexist commentary online and in the media against Meghan when they started dating.  When Harry’s mother , Prince Diana was newly divorced, she dated Hasnat Khan, a British South Asian doctor and later Dodi Fayed, a British Egyptian, the media coverage was noted for having racist undertones.

Why? Because royal families, especially in Europe, especially in Britain, came to power and held it by asserting specific bloodlines (of class and later race) that gave them the ‘right’ to rule.  It’s an assertion British society has in turn bought and upheld over the centuries, and this has kept the Windsors around and from suffering the fate of other monarchies.

This assertion was dramatized in last year’s film “Victoria & Abdul” about Queen Victoria’s friendship with her adviser from India, Abdul Karim, and her family’s contemptuous view of the friendship in part because of his South Asian heritage.  This assertion is turned on its head with the mother of the future King, Princess Diana dating outside of her race or Harry’s marriage to Meghan.

Knowing all of this, I find it fascinating the wedding is forcing some interesting conversations in Britain during the current day struggles with Brexit, rising nativism and Windrush Generation politics for the government. As someone whose family has been affected by this history, it’s become important—almost a radical act– to assert our own heritage and humanity proudly.

And it’s fascinating to watch that play out in this royal wedding.

Meghan (also a feminist!) is proud of her mother’s and her own heritage, and has said so. As weddings are a reflection of the couple, especially the bride, Meghan’s picks for the wedding day are strategically highlighting this. The couple have selected the leader of theUS Episcopal Church, Michael Bruce, the first African American to hold that position, to address wedding attendees, and Meghan personally called Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first young black musician to win BBC’s prestigious young musician of the year award, to play at her wedding.

This royal wedding will be the most diverse in British Royal wedding history, and that’s good. It’s high time the Windsors start to look a bit more like the more than 2 billion people of color who are citizens of Commonwealth countries.

Why Black Panther’s Box Office Success is Important to the African Diaspora

Black Panther, based on the character of the same name from the Marvel Comic Universe has made $1 billion dollars in the global box office and is now the third highest grossing film of all time. This is FANTASTIC for a film anchored by a predominantly black cast set on the continent of Africa.  As Jimmy Kimmel said at the 2018 Academy Awards earlier this year: ““I remember a time when major studios didn’t think a woman or minority could open a superhero movie,” Kimmel said. “I remember that time because it was last March.”

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Image via Marvel Cinematic Universe

There have been a million (or it seems like) think pieces on the Black Panther and what it means specifically to the black community. In the era of Donald Trump, which to many in the black community has been a repudiation of all that the first black President of the United States Barack Obama represented not just in policy but in skin color, Black Panther has been wonderful albeit temporary salve on that would.

I’m an American born and raised African. Both my parents are immigrants from Africa and so while I was excited about Black Panther as  1) a Marvel Fan  and 2) a black person who loves film. I was also excited as a daughter of the continent.

Recently, I read a tweet from someone who reveled in Ryan Coogler standing up and saying after one of the first showings of Black Panther “you never have to be ashamed about being African”. Out of all the statements about the film:  the importance of seeing black people anchoring a major film; the importance of seeing dark skinned black women in diverse roles as sought after and in charge. The statement that I no longer have to be ashamed about being an African resonated with me the most.

As a kid growing up in a part of the American South, in the 1980s and 90s with black African immigrants  parents, I used to try and hide my African-ness as it was. It wasn’t like it wasn’t apparent. While my accent was purely American with even a slight southern drawl. My African-ness was noticeable in  my dark complexion and the uniqueness of my features that held just enough foreign distinctness from my fellow American black people. And if you still missed all the hints from my appearance it was super apparent in my name first and last.

There was the name calling “African booty scratcher”,  and “porch monkey”. There was the side eye about the food you ate on the days you brought food from home to school. And don’t get me started on the on purposeful different pronunciations of my name I heard.

My dad got me an outfit once from Ghana, when he came back from a business trip. It was a beautiful dress and my face was like “hard pass, dad you trying to get my butt kicked even harder in school?!” I was isolated by white and black kids for being something other than the American they knew and understood.

When you’re a kid you really want to fit in, like really, unless you’re super cool with being on your own, you want to fit in or really just not be bothered for being different. There is much to be said about living in the Trump era where there is this constant feeling amongst some about how people don’t like immigrants or anyone that was questionably not white, native English speaking (since white has been what has denoted “American” for the longest).  But growing up in the 1980s and 90s, in the American South were the ethnic and cultural diversity of America hadn’t grown to the level of what it is now, was rough in many aspects.

Now, despite or maybe in spite of what’s happening in the world politically, there is an increase in appreciation of all things American that are notably ethnically and culturally different from what has been traditionally appreciated.

There was movements to dress in African inspired or imported clothing to attend the Black Panther premiere. There has been an increase in support of American born and raised African writers and filmmakers. The love for African actors and actresses (Lupita, David Oyelowo or Chiwetel) and there opportunities for to showcase their talent has increased tenfold. Times have changed. Those who were born in the minority are becoming part of an increasing majority and with more of us comes acceptance.

Either way, I envy those who experience that celebration of the diversity of blackness and the continent of Africa in a way not any black people  I think has really experienced in a generation since the brief “black is beautiful” in the 1970s. These kids today will grow up with the proud sense of self many of us have pieced back together into adulthood.

This is why Black Panther crossing the line of the most popular superhero film of all time and third highest grossing film of all time is important. Not only because of the many more films with majority black casts that will get funded for future audiences but because of the perception of self it will give to a new generation of black kids across the diaspora.

Back To Writing Again…..

2017 was a busy year and a bit rough in making time for writing.

LOTS has happened in politics, film, and culture. Some of it great. Some of it bad.

Some of it I wrote about for other places like about African immigration for Salon; about reproductive rights being very important  and central to economic justice in politics for Rewire or how shocking the events of Charlottesville in the Summer of 2017 were for me as someone who spent formative years there for Mic

However I have may thoughts that I don’t have time to pitch to magazines, newspapers and online platforms that I will post here. I’ll post more diligently than I have in the past because the voices of women in these times, especially women of color, is very important.

Keep an eye out I’ll be back with more thoughts starting next week

 

When You’re Shut Out of Power: Organize

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Pictured:Anti-Immigration Ban Rally in St. Louis Feb. 2017  Credit: Paul Sableman

Today Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was confirmed by the US Senate Republican majority to be Attorney General of the United States. Sessions whose appointment to a federal judgeship had been opposed by Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King Jr’s widow) in 1986 due to anti-Civil Rights activities in Alabama.

The day before Betsy DeVos, a woman with no formal training in education policy, work as a school teacher, or even attendee of of an American public school, became the Secretary of Education.

Both of these cabinet appointees of President Donald Trump were vociferously opposed by Democrats particularly the base of the Democratic Party. DeVos moreso than Sessions even.

But they were confirmed.

A colleague wondered what one should do since no matter what the Senate Democrats do, they will never get the votes to take down a Cabinet nominee, unless they break the Senate Republican lock. A Republican is in the White House. And the House of Representatives like the US Senate is Republican dominated.

To me it’s simple: organize.

Like President Obama said in his final address to the nation: “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” the President implored. “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”

What did African Americans do when they were shut out of political power in the late 19th century until the mid 20th century? Organize.

Black people in most parts of the South, had no right to vote and because of that could not serve in juries and run for public office. They were virtually non existent in the political landscape bur through marches, rallies, and strategic political organizing and combined with media saavy, they created a movement that eventually brought a nation to realize it was time for legal equality of the races.

Women in the US in the 1st and Second wave movements of the women’s rights movement, fought for the women’s vote, a women’s right to choose an abortion legally,  to attend more Universities and colleges, to have equal participation in school sports, a woman’s right to have their own credit without a husband co-signing even.

How  did they do it? They organized.

LGBTQ Americans lived in the shadows until the 1970s and 1980s. They first fought for the right to be out and proud, won the right to marry who they love, and continue the fight to ensure housing and job discrimination is a thing of the past. How did they win their victories while in the minority? They organized.

It’s going to take everything we got. This isn’t a wait until election year type of time to get active. And there are plenty of ways to get active.

Donate to organization’s whose causes you support.

Host a fundraiser.

Get to now your Congressperson. Call their office about your concerns. Got to a townhall for your Member of Congress.

Attend a rally or a march on an issue you support. Plan a rally or a march on an issue you support.

Write Letters to the Editor or Op-Eds. Getting the message out is important.

And when the time comes vote. Register people to vote and get ten of your friends to vote.

Yes we’re going to lose some battles, but if we’re strategic we can win the war

Remembering Foremothers in Black History Month

I was excited on November 8, 2016 after I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton.

I realized the significance of the moment and unlike many women (mainly white) I knew who wanted to or were headed to place a “I Voted” Sticker on the grave of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the promise white suffragists, I had gotten hold of an idea with my fellow women of color activists and politicos that we should find the graves of women of color who fought for suffrage and bring our “I Voted” Sticker to them.

Voting for a woman for President was significant, but we knew our rights to do that were there specifically because women of color had put their lives on the line for civil rights.

The initial thought was to organize a little group after Hillary on on Election Day and go.

Well that didn’t happen….. But the work of some of my (and the nation’s ) black foremothers should not be forgotten especially now as we look for inspiration.

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Ida B Wells
There was Ida B Wells was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, and early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She chronicled early lynching of blacks in the South and that it was used for controlling African Americans as opposed to punished as claimed by white Southerners at the time. She also developed and raised money for an anti-lynching campaign to criminalize lynching and became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She was also a major leader in suffragist causes.

 

 

 

 

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Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell, became one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage. She founded the National Association of Colored Women which focused heavily on black women’s equality particularly suffrage she was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

 

 

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Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth,born into slavery, Truth became an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son, in 1828 she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. She went on to speak to be a leader in the abolitionist movement and at the Ohio Women’s Convenion in 1851 delivered her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, discussing equality for all women, including black women

 

These aforementioned women are just a few who started the fight for freedom, equality, dignity, and a vote for black women. There are many more, some whose names are lost to history.

And then there are those who carried that struggle into the 20th century and payed the way in politics for other black women.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights activist at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, shewas instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for the Student fannie_lou_hamer_1964-08-22Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1964 that aimed to register as many black Southerners to vote as possible. (It was the same campaign which three civil rights workers disappeared and were killed by the Klan.)Hamer later became the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in 1964, which was organized by fellow African Americans and whites from Mississippi to challenge the legitimacy of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party, which allowed participation only by whites, when African Americans made up 40% of the state population. Her speech before the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention demanding more black people be seated was televised around the country.

 

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Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm,  In 1968, she became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress and  In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barbara Jordan she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States

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Barbara Jordan
House of Representatives. She was the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention.

As a black woman who has been active in politics these women I consider my foremothers. Without them, there courage, and willingness to shake up the status quo and literally put their lives on the line, there would not be a paved the way for black women and women of color at large in politics.

 

I remembered this when I was elected the first black President of the Young Democrats of America, the nation largest partisan youth organization, in its 83 year history (and a youth arm of the Democratic Party).

I remember it now in these rough political times more than ever. What would they have done? How would they have done it?

For fellow black activists, let Black History Month serve as a refocusing and energizing point for the work ahead in the era of Trump.