Much Ado About Nothing: Richard Sherman’s Post-Game Interview

Image courtesy of arkorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of arkorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I watched last week’s NFC Championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. At the end of the 4th quarter, with his team down by 6 points, 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick drove his team down the field. But the 49ers’ comeback was thwarted when a pass thrown to wide receiver Michael Crabtree was tipped by Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman to linebacker Malcolm Smith. Interception. At that point, as far as I was concerned, the game was over. “My” team was going to lose (23-17), so I changed the channel.

Later, when I was on Twitter, I began to see references to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview. (I remember the announcers discussing Sherman’s path from Compton-to Stanford University-to the NFL during a game earlier in the season, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know him from Adam.) Some were attacking his so-called “classless” behavior, calling him a “thug,” an “ape,” and even a “nigger.” Others were being supportive of him. And I wondered, What on earth did he say? I imagined all manner of socially unacceptable language and behavior, but I decided not to investigate. I just wasn’t in the mood to be angry.

On Monday morning this story still had legs, so I reluctantly read an on-line article that was critical of Sherman’s in game antics–which included giving the 49ers’ quarterback the “choke” sign–and his post-game interview. I braced myself for something outrageous, but what I saw almost humorous. Perhaps I had only seen a clip of what had to be a longer interview. I couldn’t find any reason why people would be upset. Sherman was excited after the game, and he engaged in some very mild trash-talking. Come now, calling someone “sorry”? Well, I’ve heard worse trash-talk than that during a game of Spades. This was clearly “much ado about nothing.”

Yes, it was “much ado about nothing,” but this situation exposes the schizophrenic nature of how football is framed and the ugliness of racism. The NFL cultivates this “hard knocks” image of tough guys who hit hard. Players are sometimes referred to as soldiers, warriors, or gladiators, invoking the image of being engaged in a life-or-death struggle. They put their well-being on the line in a physical, brutal game where serious game-ending/season-ending/career-ending injuries can happen every week. At the same time, however, the league also attempts to cultivate a “family-friendly” image, especially when nearing “the big game,” the Super Bowl. (Janet Jackson, anyone?) Less “hard knocks” more Disneyland. So, Sherman was fined by the NFL and pilloried by others.

It’s clear to me that the league wants those raw, adrenaline-filled reactions in the post-game interviews. Otherwise, why not allow players to go to the locker room, shower, and field questions in the post-game press conference only?

“Much ado about nothing” except that in what is often described as a level playing field (sports), some people that earn their livelihood covering football (media) called Sherman a thug, even though he did nothing criminal. Sherman was boisterous; he may have even been annoying, but his behavior was certainly not outside the limits of “normal” football behavior. Yet, some fans, who consume the game for their entertainment, felt justified in using racial epithets to describe him.

If you ask me, we shouldn’t be debating Sherman’s words or actions, even if our attempt is to explain them or defend him. We should be discussing why people who consume the NFL for profit or entertainment saw fit to trot out tired tropes and negative stereotypes about blackness, to use vile racial epithets, or to use code words like thug, “as a substitute for the n-word,” to describe Sherman. That is what is classless.

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Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.

Do the Right Thing: The Central Park Five

balanceOn January 1, 2014, Bill de Blasio was sworn in as  the 109th mayor of New York City, the first liberal to hold that office in twenty years. The selection of the leader of the nation’s largest city always garners national attention, and November’s election was no different. Aside from the focus on his proposed policies, de Blasio’s multiracial family (his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray, and their children Chiara and Dante) was fodder for pop culture.

However, it was not de Blasio’s personal life that interested me, but his ideas of reform and righting wrongs. He has pledged to end the stop-and-frisk policy and to “settle the Central Park Five case because a huge injustice has been done.” Although in this case, justice delayed is justice denied, I am hopeful that de Blasio will “do the right thing” and end the city’s legal battle over this case.

In 1989, New York mayor Ed Koch called the sensational, racially charged Central Park Jogger case “the crime of the century.” On the night of  April 19, a 28-year-old, white investment banker–later identified as Trish Meili– was brutally beaten and raped while jogging through Central Park. The police quickly set their sights on a large group of African-American and Latino teens who were in Central Park, some of them harassing and even beating others in the park.

From the larger group of young men in the park that night, the police focused on Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise. The young men, who were between 14 and 16 years old, became known as “The Central Park Five.” Although they all denied their participation in a rape at first, after being interrogated by police for hours on end (between 14 and 30 without attorneys or parents present) and being deprived of sleep, food, and drink, the frightened young men began to turn on each other.

The 2012 Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park Five,” tells the story of these young men. They contend that their confessions were obtained under duress, that they only parroted stories fed to them by the police, falsely believing that their “confessions” would allow them to return home to their families. However, the confessions–although recanted–sealed their fates. The Five were charged with a number of felonies including rape, attempted murder, sodomy, sexual abuse, and robbery.

Kevin Richardson was convinced that “the truth is gonna come out.” There was no DNA evidence that linked the five teenagers to the crime. In addition, their confessions told conflicting stories about where the crime took place and even the manner in which it was committed. Nevertheless, in two separate trials in 1990, the young men were convicted and sentenced to serve between 5 and 15 years in prison.

McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana were all released having served nearly

The Central Park Five (2012), a film by Ken and Sarah Burns.

The Central Park Five (2012), a film by Ken and Sarah Burns.

seven years in prison, leaving only Kharey Wise in prison. In 2001, Wise crossed paths with Matias Reyes. Years earlier the two had an altercation at Rikers Island Correctional Institution while they were being held there. Matias, a serial rapist, had confessed to a series of rapes and a murder when he was apprehended in August 1989. After talking to Wise, Matias, who had “found religion” during his incarceration, realized that Wise had been convicted of a crime he committed. He decided to “do the right thing” and confess to his involvement in the Central Park Rape. In addition, the DNA evidence matched Reyes to the rape.

In 2001, the defense requested that the guilty verdicts of the Central Park Five be overturned. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, and in 2003, the “Central Park Five” filed suit against the prosecutors and the police department for $250 million. At this point, the case remains unresolved, with the next hearing scheduled for January 21. No amount of money can give these men back the youth they missed in prison. So, it’s not exactly justice, but it’s a start. Let’s hope that Mayor de Blasio will “do the right thing.”

Related Articles and Posts:

Teaching and the Power to Disrupt

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.

Nelson Mandela: July 18, 1918-December 5, 2013

“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.” Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela2 Dope Sistahs honor
the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

May his soul rest in power.

Black Children: The Faces of the Civil Rights Movement

The Little Rock Nine

The Little Rock Nine

Emmett Till; 16th Street Baptist Church Victims: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson; Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas,Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Kalmark, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo Beals; Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis . . .

2013 marks the 50th year since the historic March on Washington, and as I reflect on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I cannot help but be disillusioned by current events in this nation surrounding the rights of black people.

In August, I was dismayed by the Supreme Court’s decisions surrounding Affirmative Action and Voting Rights. Their response to both cases reflect a nation postured to reverse the slow gains that the Civil Rights Movement had already achieved. As disillusioned as I was about those cases, nothing seemed more demonstrative of the reversal of this country’s progress toward treating black people as human, than the violence that black children have experienced in recent years.

Black children are no strangers to being victims of racial violence. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), for example, were but children when they were brutally beaten by slave masters, raped by them, and/or witnessed some heinous act of violence committed toward someone they loved. They represent the many children enslaved who were victims of violence and/or painfully watched someone they loved become victims of violence.

Once emancipated, black children continued to be witnesses to and victims of violence throughout much of the twentieth century. Malcolm X, for example, often recounted the death of his father. Earl Little was brutally beaten and placed on railroad tracks to be run over by a trolley car when Malcolm X was only six years old. Earl Little, an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey, was vocal about racial oppression and was targeted by white supremacists and attacked by them for audaciously speaking out against racial violence. Prior to his assassination, he and his family barely escaped their burning home set afire by white supremacists. Earl Little’s murder, coupled with the fact that the insurance company refused to pay his family the life insurance that he purchased for himself, created a situation in which Malcolm X’s family spiraled into poverty. These are the circumstances–a violent racist America–that gave birth to a child who became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Also known as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, and Malcolm X).

Emmett Till was brutally beaten and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman

Emmett Till was brutally beaten and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman

Malcolm X, though not around to see what happened to his father, was affected by the violence nonetheless. This violence made a significant impact on a young boy’s life, especially after his father’s death created such a degree of anxiety for his mother that she was eventually committed to a mental hospital. Whether they were victimized directly or whether they witnessed racial violence, this is the violent America that was a reality for black children.

My mother often tells a story in which she was a young girl in the 1940s, riding in the car with her parents and her mother’s cousin. They were travelling on Rt. 301 in Upper Marlboro, MD and they noticed two black sailors being brutally beaten on the side of the road by a couple of white men. My grandfather got out of the car and began to fight the white men off of the black sailors. My grandmother and her cousin helped by pelting the white men with rocks. All the while, my mother sat in the back seat of the car in fear of what would happen should other white people–particularly police officers–arrive on the scene. Had other whites arrived, what followed could have been catastrophic, and my mother was well aware of the consequences.

From L-R: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

From L-R: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

Black children were not only victims of white violence against black people as witnesses, but they also directly received the wrath of white supremacy by being the target of their violence. From Emmett Till, who was killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman to the four little girls who died as a result of the 16th Street Baptist Church, black children were the casualties of a war against black people. They were brave and they were s/heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, who deserve to stand equally as prominent for their valor as other players of black liberation movements.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin

What became quite evident very recently, as we watched the court case on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin unfold in the media, is that despite a history that makes clear that blacks have been victims of white violence, the American judicial system refuses to see us as such. (See post on Trayvon Martin, “From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race and Victimization”). What disturbs me most is that we cannot even identify children as being victims of violence, and they are generally the group that is afforded the protection of any civilized society. America wept, and rightfully so, for Newtown, but could not weep for Trayvon Martin because the state of Florida successfully vilified him. Many accepted the notion of Martin as a perpetrator of a crime and not a victim.

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis was murdered in FL for playing his music too loud. The shooter claimed he saw a gun (which did not exist) and he stood his ground by shooting.

As we commemorate milestones in black history and struggle through our present day injustices, we must consider the children who have died and continue to die for Civil and Human Rights. In fact, we must honor their memory.

May we continue to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin. May we continue to honor the memory of Jordan Davis. May we continue to honor the memory of countless others who die each day because America refuses to imagine them as victims of crime. They are the most recent children who are victims of white supremacist ideologies that refuse to acknowledge us as human.

Gridiron Soap Opera: Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito

Image courtesy of arkorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of arkorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

I first heard about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito story a few weeks ago on a local sports radio station. As I recall, it was presented in this way: On October 28, a Miami Dolphins player (Martin) had quit the team because he could no longer take the razzing from his teammates, who referred to him as a “weirdo.” I snickered and shook my head. That seemed innocuous enough. A grown man should be able to take that. In fact, my immediate thought was, He needs to suck it up.

As this story continued to unfold, my thoughts on the matter evolved as well. Now there seems to be much more to it than name calling and locker room hijinks. When Jonathan Martin left the team, he sought treatment at a hospital for emotional distress due to the sustained harassment. Coach Joe Philbin visited Martin during his brief stay in the hospital, but he did not “name names” or make specific charges. Later, however, Martin’s agent released text and voice mail messages from Richie Incognito that included racial epithets and violent threats toward Martin’s family. After initially brushing off the incidents that led Martin to leave the team, the Dolphins organization responded by suspending Incognito indefinitely.

On October 28, according to Incognito, he and fellow offensive linesmen decided to pull a prank on Martin. When Martin came to join them during lunch, they all got up and left, leaving Martin alone at the table. As a result of this juvenile act, Martin threw his tray to the floor and left. In an interview by Fox’s Jay Glazer that aired on November 10, Incognito insists that he his “actions were coming from a place of love.” When asked about the effect the endless ribbing was having on Martin, Incognito–model citizen that he is–feigned ignorance. He insisted that no one knew Martin was having a problem. And if they had known that Martin was being hurt by all of the schoolboy antics, they would have stopped. Despite his use of offensive language toward a black teammate–e.g., calling Jonathan Martin a nigger–he viewed Martin as a “close friend” and a “brother.” And he denied being a racist.

Incognito’s interview echoed the responses given by teammates last week. They described the well-known troublemaker, who was released from his college team (Nebraska) and his first professional team (St. Louis Rams) for issues relating to his documented anger management problems, as a good guy; a leader in the locker room; best of friends and like a big brother to Martin; and, incredulously, an honorary black man.

Jonathan Martin’s attorney released a statement (prior to Incognito’s Fox interview) charging that “Jonathan endured harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing.” He even “endured a malicious physical attack” from a teammate.

Certainly, those of us who are outside the locker room can never really know what goes on inside the locker room, but I smell a cover-up. People are readily coming to Richie Incognito’s aid and casting him as the “good guy” in this gridiron soap opera. Jonathan Martin may not exactly be the “bad guy,” but he is at least being cast as the “soft” guy or perhaps the mentally unstable guy.

Instead of questioning the culture of the NFL, many people are questioning Martin’s football and mental “toughness,” using his background as evidence of his unsuitability for professional football. Three generations of his family had attended Harvard. He attended an elite prep school. He attended Stanford University, which is not a typical football factory, on a football scholarship and studied the classics. He has discussed his desire to attend Harvard Law School. So, maybe he was not meant for the hard knocks life of the NFL.  But Martin’s lawyer contends that “toughness is not an issue.”

The NFL is currently investigating the circumstances that led Martin to leave his team which will, perhaps, bring clarity to this situation. To me it doesn’t matter whether Martin left because of sustained childish pranks or more sinister harassment. He has that right to say enough is enough. To paraphrase the late Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor: These are men being paid a king’s ransom to play a kid’s game. So far, Martin seems to be one of the few adults in this matter.

Related Links

A Head Start: Early Childhood Education Takes Another Hit (An Update)

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men [and women].”–Frederick Douglass

Despite the fact that we acknowledge the importance of early childhood education, poor

Standing in my grandmother's living room in front of her perfectly-preserved, plastic-covered couch, I am wearing my cap and gown from my Head-Start graduation.

Standing in my grandmother’s living room in front of her perfectly-preserved, plastic-covered couch, I am wearing my cap and gown from my Head-Start graduation.

children seem to be one of the first casualties of budget cuts. A few weeks ago I saw a news story that broke my heart. A Head Start program was having a lottery to see which children would be able to remain and which children would be sent home, no longer able to attend. Head Start is a federal pre-school program that serves children from low-income families, “enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.” Initiated by Pres. Lyndon Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty” in 1965, it has served more than 30 million children.

The budget cuts (also known as the Sequester) affecting Head Start were set in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, requiring a five percent reduction in the budget in 2013. In addition to holding lotteries for students, Head Start programs across the country have addressed their reduced funding by laying off teachers, curtailing the length of the school year, and completely eliminating some centers.

Education is one of the things that I am extremely passionate about. Being a Head Start alumna, I began to think about Head Start and what it meant to me. Compulsory education for children in my state, Mississippi, began at age six. But because of Head Start, I had the opportunity to go to school at age five.

I can’t remember everything about that school year, but Head Start was important  because it is where I learned to love school.  I eagerly awaited the white passenger van that picked me up every morning. One morning I fell and cut my hand on a piece of broken glass before the bus came, and my only concern was whether I’d be able to attend school that day.

I remember reading, math, art, recess, and singing songs like “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”  I remember nap time, after which we had a snack of graham crackers and Hawaiian Punch. (I never went to sleep because I hated naps.) I learned how to get along with other children, which was really important for me because I spent a lot of time alone. I made friendships in Head Start that lasted through high school.

Perhaps my most vivid memory is going to the dentist. We all went–the whole class. I think it was my first time and probably some of the other kids’ first times too. I, unfortunately, had a mouth full of cavities. My love of candy had betrayed me, but it was a lesson learned: To avoid the dentist’s drill, I had to give up the candy and take better care of my teeth.

While there are some studies that question the effectiveness of Head Start, I have no doubt that it was beneficial to me. My classmates and I were ready for first grade the next year. It is unfortunate that the Sequester is hurting some of our most vulnerable citizens. All children deserve the opportunity to learn.

Update: The Impact of the Government Shutdown

Because Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the federal government by September 30, 2013, the United States is currently in the midst of a government shutdown. Almost immediately, we began to see its disproportionate impact on women and children. The Head Start Program had already been forced to cut $405 million from its budget (5 percent), which resulted in 57,000 pre-school aged children being removed.

By the end of the first week of the shutdown, Head Start programs in six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) were closed, which affected more than 7,000 children. Fortunately, a $10 million donation to the National Head Start Association from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has provided emergency funding through the end of the October. If the shutdown persists, however, Head Start closures will impact an additional 86,000 low-income children.

The Name Game

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Image courtesy of antpkr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of antpkr/
FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, Nikisia Drayton shared her fears about saddling her unborn son with a “black name” on the Motherlode blog in the New York Times. Her friends worried that the name “Keion” would be “too ethnic” or “too ghetto.” (Analyzing the use of the term “ghetto” as if it is synonymous with blackness will have to wait for another blog.) She found that when googling the name, the images that were associated with it were African American men in mug shots. Would this name, suggested by her son’s father, limit his opportunities, or worse, doom her child to appear in one of the aforementioned mug shots?

When I googled “Keion” I found no mug shots, yet I can understand Drayton’s anxiety. Everything African Americans do in this country is scrutinized, including the way we talk; the way we eat; the way we look; and, yes, the way we name children. As the owner of a name, whose non-traditional spelling has caused me a whole host of problems in my time on this earth, I feel you. Why, oh why, couldn’t my mother have spelled “Yolanda” the traditional way? Certainly, I too, have wondered whether my name is some sort of tip-off.

Being a descendant of slaves and a historian, I know that the power to name is extremely important. Our enslaved ancestors could have their names changed as often as their masters. As Olaudah Equiano writes in his slave narrative, he was assigned three different names by different masters–Jacob, Michael, and Gustavas Vassa. After achieving their freedom, former slaves often celebrated and illustrated their new status by choosing new names, different from the ones that they had as slaves. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was known as Isabella when she was a slave.

As this “name game,” is being discussed on social media, I find myself thinking of The Souls of Black Folks (again). Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Some parents are indeed looking at how a child’s name will be viewed through “white eyes,” as if being less ethnically identifiable (on paper) will decrease the amount of discrimination one faces in life. In doing this, we normalize both whiteness and racism. So, instead of seeing discriminatory acts or racism as the problem, we are the problem. We are engaging in internalized “otherness.”

I hate–no despise–no loathe the insidious nature of racism. It can actually cause its victims to contemplate what they can do to neutralize the racists’ behavior. But we can not become so hypercritical of ourselves that we lose ourselves in the balance.

Related Articles

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Black Children: The Faces of the Civil Rights Movement

The Little Rock Nine

The Little Rock Nine

Emmett Till; 16th Street Baptist Church Victims: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson; Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas,Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Kalmark, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo Beals; Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis . . .

2013 marks the 50th year since the historic March on Washington, and as I reflect on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I cannot help but be disillusioned by current events in this nation surrounding the rights of black people.

In August, I was dismayed by the Supreme Court’s decisions surrounding Affirmative Action and Voting Rights. Their response to both cases reflect a nation postured to reverse the slow gains that the Civil Rights Movement had already achieved. As disillusioned as I was about those cases, nothing seemed more demonstrative of the reversal of this country’s progress toward treating black people as human, than the violence that black children have experienced in recent years.

Black children are no strangers to being victims of racial violence. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), for example, were but children when they were brutally beaten by slave masters, raped by them, and/or witnessed some heinous act of violence committed toward someone they loved. They represent the many children enslaved who were victims of violence and/or painfully watched someone they loved become victims of violence.

Once emancipated, black children continued to be witnesses to and victims of violence throughout much of the twentieth century. Malcolm X, for example, often recounted the death of his father. Earl Little was brutally beaten and placed on railroad tracks to be run over by a trolley car when Malcolm X was only six years old. Earl Little, an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey, was vocal about racial oppression and was targeted by white supremacists and attacked by them for audaciously speaking out against racial violence. Prior to his assassination, he and his family barely escaped their burning home set afire by white supremacists. Earl Little’s murder, coupled with the fact that the insurance company refused to pay his family the life insurance that he purchased for himself, created a situation in which Malcolm X’s family spiraled into poverty. These are the circumstances–a violent racist America–that gave birth to a child who became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Also known as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, and Malcolm X).

Emmett Till was brutally beaten and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman

Emmett Till was brutally beaten and tortured for allegedly flirting with a white woman

Malcolm X, though not around to see what happened to his father, was affected by the violence nonetheless. This violence made a significant impact on a young boy’s life, especially after his father’s death created such a degree of anxiety for his mother that she was eventually committed to a mental hospital. Whether they were victimized directly or whether they witnessed racial violence, this is the violent America that was a reality for black children.

My mother often tells a story in which she was a young girl in the 1940s, riding in the car with her parents and her mother’s cousin. They were travelling on Rt. 301 in Upper Marlboro, MD and they noticed two black sailors being brutally beaten on the side of the road by a couple of white men. My grandfather got out of the car and began to fight the white men off of the black sailors. My grandmother and her cousin helped by pelting the white men with rocks. All the while, my mother sat in the back seat of the car in fear of what would happen should other white people–particularly police officers–arrive on the scene. Had other whites arrived, what followed could have been catastrophic, and my mother was well aware of the consequences.

From L-R: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

From L-R: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

Black children were not only victims of white violence against black people as witnesses, but they also directly received the wrath of white supremacy by being the target of their violence. From Emmett Till, who was killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman to the four little girls who died as a result of the 16th Street Baptist Church, black children were the casualties of a war against black people. They were brave and they were s/heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, who deserve to stand equally as prominent for their valor as other players of black liberation movements.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin

What became quite evident very recently, as we watched the court case on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin unfold in the media, is that despite a history that makes clear that blacks have been victims of white violence, the American judicial system refuses to see us as such. (See post on Trayvon Martin, “From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race and Victimization”). What disturbs me most is that we cannot even identify children as being victims of violence, and they are generally the group that is afforded the protection of any civilized society. America wept, and rightfully so, for Newtown, but could not weep for Trayvon Martin because the state of Florida successfully vilified him. Many accepted the notion of Martin as a perpetrator of a crime and not a victim.

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis was murdered in FL for playing his music too loud. The shooter claimed he saw a gun (which did not exist) and he stood his ground by shooting.

As we commemorate milestones in black history and struggle through our present day injustices, we must consider the children who have died and continue to die for Civil and Human Rights. In fact, we must honor their memory.

May we continue to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin. May we continue to honor the memory of Jordan Davis. May we continue to honor the memory of countless others who die each day because America refuses to imagine them as victims of crime. They are the most recent children who are victims of white supremacist ideologies that refuse to acknowledge us as human.