By Gayle Wald: Speculation is a risky but inevitably necessary business for biographers. When I was working on Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I made a decision not to stray too far from what I could verify from historical and contemporary sources (even while acknowledging that these, too, are imperfect). So when confronting the question of what motivated Tharpe, a musician embedded in the sonic culture of black Pentecostalism, to record secular songs and perform on secular stages beginning in her early twenties, I chose to tread carefully.
By Jeanne Theoharis: The air was hot and sticky. Surrounded by clergy, Rev. William Barber lambasted the voter suppression that had compromised the 2016 presidential election. “Long before Russia hacked our election, our government was hacked by racism.” Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the Supreme Court’s 2013 stripping of the Voting Rights Act, Barber explained, twenty-two states had passed new laws making it harder for people, particularly people of color, to vote.
By Rashod Ollison: When I first read James Baldwin at about age sixteen, I didn’t quite understand everything in Notes of a Native Son. But I knew the powerful prose was important and that I would return to it. Baldwin at that point had been dead for close to a decade. I’d come across a dog-eared paperback of Notes of a Native Son in the public library, where I worked after school. I imagined Baldwin a robust man whose presence was as commanding as his work. When I saw pictures of him as I began to explore more of his writing in college, his pronounced features—his intense globular eyes, his ingratiating gap-toothed grin—clarified something about his work for me. He always saw well beyond the surface unlike any other writer of his generation or any other writer since.
With the anticipation of a mouth-watering feast and time away from the office to lounge with family and friends, Americans come together for Thanksgiving. It’s the holiday where conversations about our national origins abound. But much of the US’s widely accepted origin story is skewed by the lens of settler colonialism and has silenced the voices of Native Americans. With Native American Heritage Month, observed every November since 1990, we can reflect on the history and contributions of Indigenous peoples. “Writing US History from Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual narrative,” historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz tells us in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. “That narrative is wrong—not in facts, dates and details—but rather in essence.”
By Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page: In June 2015 a surprising number of Americans stopped to gawk at a thirty-seven-year-old “African American” woman named Rachel Dolezal who, after an almost decade-long act, was outed by her parents as a white woman who chose to pass as black. The national response, culminating in a Today show appearance, was extreme. Some were outraged by her deception, while others drew parallels between her right to live her “truth” the same way Caitlyn Jenner embodies hers. Rachel—or “#BlackRachel” as she trended online—never once “broke character.”
By Sasha Pimentel: I didn’t know that my poetry collection For Want of Water had been selected as winner for the National Poetry Series for a good week or two after Gregory Pardlo had chosen it, but that was my fault. I’d spent the summer with my family in Sonora and had turned my phone off. When we returned to the United States, I was walking through the airport when the caller ID from “Princeton, NJ” flashed on my phone, and I answered it because I was curious what sort of telemarketing came from Princeton. It was Beth Dial from the National Poetry Series. I remember plugging my unphoned ear with my finger to hear her through the terminal’s noise. I couldn’t believe it.
By Molly Velazquez-Brown: Fall has always been my favorite season. I love the feeling of a cozy sweater and a cup of warmed mulled cider mixed with ghost stories and the crunch of changing leaves. I am comfortable living my truth of autumn everything. But here’s what I don’t love about the season. The offensive Halloween costumes that come disguised as “spooky” fun. I’m not talking gory bloody “it’s-hard-for-me-to-look-at-how-grotesque-your-costume-is” offensive. I mean the mocking of a culture. The belittling of a race—or more often, several. The reduction of peoples to single stereotypes. Growing up Mexican-American, this is a problem I have encountered my entire life.
Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” speech to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia. In it, he lays out three important steps to follow in order for the students to reach their full potential, no matter their status life, and calls on them to actively commit to the struggle for freedom and justice. King’s words are inspirational for students of any age, of any era. Especially now during our troubled times. In honor of the speech’s anniversary, we’re looking at the ways the empowering message of his speech resonates and guides us still today.
By Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Since the days of the #NoDapl encampment, now nine months in the past, dozens of films have been released documenting the event. One of the latest is an offering from award-winning documentarian Brian Malone, titled Beyond Standing Rock. Malone has been touring the film and I recently had the chance to view it in Los Angeles, at the Autry Museum of the American West. What follows is my review of the film.
By Andrea Ritchie: According to a 2015 investigation by the Buffalo News, based on over 700 cases documented over a ten year period, on average a police officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct every five days. And those are just the ones who are caught, representing, by all accounts, just the tip of the iceberg of this pervasive yet invisible form of police violence.
By Joseph Rosenbloom: As a graduate student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about the social ill of poverty and vowed to do something about it. He put the resolve on hold. For his first decade as a civil rights leader, he dedicated himself to ending racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans, not poverty. By the mid-1960s, however, the idea to grapple with the issue of poverty had seized him with a fierce urgency. “What does it profit a man,” he often quipped, “to be able to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
By José Orduña: When I was ten my dad gave me my first wallet—it was green, with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the outside. Then he handed me my identification card, my first green card, which was actually pink. He said we’d gotten it when we’d gone to Juárez but that he didn’t think I was ready to carry it then. I remembered we’d gone very suddenly and that I missed my thirdgrade class trip to an amusement park, that a man I’d never seen showed up at our door in Chicago, and that my dad let him into our house. The next day we were on a Greyhound bus that took three days to get to El Paso, Texas, and then we immediately took a cab across a bridge into Juárez.
The events in Charlottesville, Virginia are a frightening and disheartening reminder of how hate and intolerance in the US resurface when bigots feel empowered to act on their prejudice. Cornel West described the rally that took place on August 12 as “the biggest gathering of a hate-driven right wing in the history of this country in the last thirty to thirty-five years.” Watching the violence unfold left us feeling sorrowful and horrified.
By Martin Luther King, Jr. This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don’t solve, answers that don’t answer, and explanations that don’t explain.
By Caroline Light Against the moral absolutism of police violence and DIY-security citizenship, the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements have emerged to call out the deadly consequences of racist, classist, and (hetero) sexist violence. Beyond critiquing police violence, these movements challenge the larger structures that serve white supremacist, patriarchal power. Black Lives Matter, a network founded by three queer-identified women of color, “affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” This “intersectional” approach to systemic violence considers the simultaneity of identity threat for vulnerable populations, and it is profoundly threatening to the DIY-security citizenship ideal. Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName challenge the epistemic roots of inequality, as well as its maliciously antidemocratic effects.
By Andrea RitchieAs Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color wends its way into the world after living in my computer, countless boxes in my apartment, and in my heart and mind in various forms for the past decade, I find myself in Detroit for the annual Soros Justice Fellows conference. It feels like I am in the best possible place for this moment. We are here, in part, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, which has me reflecting on the role police violence against Black women—often invisible in the retelling—played in sparking the uprising, and ongoing resistance to police violence in the Motor City.
By Kay WhitlockHere’s a thought I keep coming back to during this tradition month of Pride celebrations (and protests by some LGBTQ folks against the growing corporate influence and welcoming of strong police presence in Pride celebrations.) It’s not my thought alone. Any number of people—activists, organizers, scholars—have, over many years, voiced something similar. Let’s center criminalized transgender, gender nonconforming, and queer folks in the moral, cultural, and political imaginations and agendas of movements for LGBTQ liberation. Especially criminalized queer communities of color.
By Christian ColemanReveling in science fiction/fantasy for an openness she saw lacking in other genres, Octavia E. Butler gave us gene-trading extraterrestrials, psionically powered mutants, a genetically engineered vampire, a reluctant time traveler forced to visit the brutal past of American slavery. There was no subject matter she wouldn’t tackle, no story she wouldn’t write during her three-decades-long career—except for one. The ghost story. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Raised as a born-again Baptist, Butler stopped believing in the afterlife and a celestial caretaker by age twelve. “Somehow you’re supposed to believe and have faith but not worry about having any evidence to support that belief and faith,” she said in a 1988 interview. “That just doesn’t work for me, and I never went back.”1 Coincidentally, at age twelve she began trying her hand at science fiction.
This month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? turns fifty. King’s acute analysis of American race relations couldn’t be more prophetic. Written in 1967, in isolation in a rented house in Jamaica, King’s final book lays out his plans and dreams for America’s future: the need for better jobs; higher wages; decent housing; quality education; and above all, the end to global suffering. King’s dreams are very much our own today.
By Perpetua CharlesThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the court decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the United States. Thanks to this ruling, people across races could legally declare their love for each other through marriage. Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Loving: Interracial Relationships and the Threat to White Supremacy, offers a history of interracial relationships in the United States and looks at how present interracial relationships will shape the future of the country. As I read Loving, I was struck by a short section near the end of the book. Cashin writes that one doesn’t have to marry, date, or adopt a person of another race to experience transformational love or to acquire what she calls cultural dexterity—an enhanced capacity for intimate connections with people outside one’s own tribe. An intimate friendship works just as well. Cashin doesn’t use the word friend lightly, and neither do I.