Monday, January 17, 2011

Our Heroes and Their Shadows

Today would have been the 81st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been the same age as my own mother, and I attempt to imagine him less as a formidable civil rights leader in a powerful yet troubled nation and more as an ordinary man with a family of his own. I specifically envision him as grandfather who might be spoiling his children’s children much to their parents’ dismay. Perhaps I am more focused on the man than the icon because I’ve been reflecting greatly on the shadows of our heroes.

These reflections began this summer when inspired by Black August, I began using Tumblr to share quotes, photos, videos and other media of social justice figures and events of historical significance on a given day. It became as much a process of discovery and education for myself as anyone who might have read it because I certainly did not know about all the people and events. Soon into the effort my research would lead me to some troubling facts about people who are often icons to certain progressive movements, some of which I knew, some of which I did not.

For example, on what would have been Malcolm X’s 80th birthday, Peter Tatchell wrote a piece for The Guardian that argued the evidence of the slain radical’s homosexuality. Some time before that there had been controversy over the release of letters written by Malcolm to Elijah Muhammad which reference his sexual and marital troubles. I personally have no issues whatsoever with the possibility that one of my own social justice icons might have been gay or bisexual. He simply would join a long list of LGBTQ heroes to whom I feel indebted for much of the personal and political freedoms I presently enjoy. Still I am not naïve to the fact that people with radically different ideas about sexuality might characterize this aspect Malcolm’s humanity as a weakness, and therefore, its exposure as an attack on Malcolm’s credibility as a leader in particular and Black social justice movements as a whole, thanks to the persistence of narrow and oppressive notions of masculinity.

At one point, I hesitated to post something about Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and enduring heroine of the reproductive rights and other feminist movements because of allegations of racism. At best, she was a proponent of negative eugenics. At worst, a white supremacist impulse may have been a driving force in Sanger’s crusade for contraception. Again, this troubling aspect of Sanger's character has been seized by the foes of reproductive choice to energize and expand their base, including recruiting people of color of conservative faith into a political agenda including Dr. King's own niece.

And by now it is public knowledge that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was unfaithful to wife Coretta Scott King. Actually, he has been labeled a womanizer, and it is undeniable that those eager to facilitate the erosion of the civil rights for which King was martyred readily use his infidelity to discredit him as a leader. Thus, the urge of those who lionize King and wish to sanitize his public image is quite sympathetic. This news devastated me when I was younger, and I wanted to pretend it was not true and refused to engage the possibility that a man that I had admire so much was imperfect.

As I grow older and admittedly more comfortable with my own shadow, however, I increasingly find this impulse towards sanitization unfortunate. What do we really have to gain by ignoring the truth that extraordinary men and women of history were human beings with all the same flaws and vices that challenge the rest of us? The adversaries of justice may use these imperfections to slander them, but since their own leadership is rife with human contradictions (and in some instances, outright hypocrisies), is our desire to obliterate the personal-(is)-political history of our heroes and to disassociate them from their shadow behaviors truly driven by strategic expediency?

I am beginning to wonder if what truly scares us about letting the ugly truths about our beautiful icons be known is the challenge that it makes to us everyday people. We do not fear that by exposing the shadows of our heroes we diminish their extraordinary accomplishments. Quite the contrary, their human failings are a call for us to stop using our ordinariness as an excuse to not step up our contributions toward justice, peace and equality. We want to believe that Dr. King and others like him had such profound impact because they were preternaturally gifted beings. Demigods and saints. Angels on earth. Something other than human. Something far greater than you or I.

They were not. They were ordinary people who made extraordinary contributions despite their weaknesses and vices. Just like us they grappled with their own insecurities and ignorance. They, too, battled everyday with pride, fear, lust and all the other emotions and appetites that we confront each day of our lives. King, Sanger and X and all our other social justice heroes had their shadows. The only thing that separates them from us is that they did not use their imperfections as excuses to ignore demands for justice. We all hear the call, and their decision to respond to it with their unique gifts at the ready – at once simple and difficult – is the only thing that makes any of them special. It is a decision that each of us can choose to make at any time just like the thousands who marched, boycotted and otherwise joined King. Thousands whose names we will never know but without whom a leader like him is impossible.

If we accept this about our heroes, if we embrace the shadows that lurk behind their heroism, we can no longer say about any of them, “She made such a big difference because she was extraordinary, and I am an average person.” We lose our ordinariness as an excuse to not take the responsibility we bare to give whatever it is we can to improve this world. Erasing their humanity and taking for granted their struggles – personal as well as political – hardly seems like a fitting way to demonstrate gratitude for their contributions.

We all know that King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Surely, he would not have desired that their inevitable shortcomings carry greater weight in said judgment than their good deeds. Nor would King have wanted for their occasional struggles with virtue to exempt them from stepping into the arena and wrestling with inequality.

So rather than honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by sanitizing his public image, we should remember the whole man – ordinary and legendary – and resolve to follow his example by incorporating social justice into our own personal legends and taking concrete action toward fulfilling his vision.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Seshat Writing Intensive February 2011

Are you a woman who has resolved to finish a manuscript in 2011? Then this is the workshop for you. As an author who has published five novels and over a dozen novellas and short stories with practically every major house in the industry, I want to help women find their voices and tell their stories. On this all-day event, I will lead you through exercises where you will:

1. Set realistic goals for moving forward your project.
2. Identify potential blocks and strategies to overcome them.
3. Create a specialized action plan for the rest of the year.

Most of all, we will WRITE. This intensive is open to all genres and crafts e.g. memoir, fiction, screenplays, poetry, etc. At this time, it is only open to women and that includes our trans sisters.

The workshop takes place on Saturday, February 19, 2011 from 10 AM - 6 PM. Because I want to be able to devote time to each participant, space is limited to only TEN women and slots are filling quickly. The registration fee is $250.00 which must be paid in full by February 11th. Installment plans are available so do inquire. Those who are registered will receive a coaching questionnaire, the address of our meeting place and other details. Because of the intensive and personalized nature of this workshop, there will be no drop-in or on-site registration available. In order to serve you best, I require time to assess your needs and design a program that speaks to them.

Please share this invitation with others who may find it of interest. More details to follow. If you have any other questions, do not hesitate to email me at therealblackartemis_at_yahoodotcom.

Oh, and who is in that gorgeous photo? That is Seshat after whom I named this event. She is the Egyptian goddess of writing. After this intensive, you, too, will be on your way to being one, too.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Night Catches Us: A Meditation on Activism, Family and Healing

The best movies provoke thought long after one has left the theater, and the film that did that for me in 2010 was Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us. I saw it when it opened in theaters in December, and it continues to inspire reflection. Some considerations, however, are quite uncomfortable, but those tend to be the ones that have the most to teach.

For those of us actively engaged in social justice movements, Night Catches Us challenges us to examine the personal impact of our political actions. To what extent such actions and their consequences are the inevitable sacrifice we make in the fight against oppression? Is it possible that some of the actions we justify as political resistance are actually rooted in personal wounds, some of which cannot be attributed neatly or wholly to social injustice? And because it may not be possible (if even desirable) to disentangle or reconcile these possibilities, how do we discern the right thing to do? Part of the brilliance of Hamilton’s debut feature is its complex, and therefore, unresolved reflection on this issue.

Set in Philadelphia in 1976, the Night Catches Us opens with the return home of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Power movement who left four years earlier under questionable circumstances. On the surface, the story is a character-driven mystery: did or did not Marcus inform on a fellow revolutionary and ignite the events that resulted in his assassination in a hail of police fire? But at its essence, the film is about love. Romantic love. Parental love. Revolutionary love. It is an examination of the way those different kinds of love intersect and collide, how they can and cannot be reconciled in ways we can neither control nor predict, and why despite all this messiness, we still feel compelled to get our hands and hearts dirty.

After seeing the film, I was immediately reminded of my 1997 trip to Cuba where I had to opportunity to hear Assata Shakur speak. One sentiment that she shared was that she regretted how little time she and fellow activists spent with their children. Shakur stated that while their children might have been present while they were engaged in political action, they were not involved. Furthermore, she also clarified that she was not speaking merely of politicizing children but rather the larger and more important objective of raising them in community, drawing them emotionally close and otherwise rejecting the expectation that their needs be sacrificed to promote social justice.

Clearly, some activists of the 60s and 70s who gave so much to their people did so at the expense of their own children. And to be sure, some of us are repeating that mistake, inheriting psychic wounds as readily as we do eye color or body type. With all compassion and fairness, I can imagine that the sociopolitical climate in which our elders lived was such that they could not even see never mind manage the contradiction of advocating so vigilantly for other families to the point that they neglected their own.

Yet ironically the sacrifices they made and the gains they achieved actually make it easier for my generation to do just that. Whether we are red diaper babies or political black sheep, as we start our own families and build relationships with the youth in our lives, we seem to be making a more conscientious effort to balance engaging in activism toward creating a better world “out there” and practicing liberation within our own homes. Thus, in many ways, even the errors of the previous generation result in the privileges of ours. So I don’t say this to judge those elders or reify my peers. I only wish to name an unsaid – or more accurately bring whispered conversations to the public discourse – with the intention of promoting communal healing and political effectiveness. My hope is that more of us will watch Night Catches Us and show up courageously to a multigenerational conversation about the questions it raises.

Not that it is a film that should only be seen by people who consider themselves activists. Watching it reminded me of lesson I learned early and painfully in 2010: all any of us needs to do to have a life that matters is heal our family’s history. Depending on what we value, we harbor fantasies of being the next Oprah Winfrey or Malcolm X. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is not necessary to have a positive and pervasive impact in the world. If all you did was identify the wound that has been passed down in your family from one generation to the next and said, “This stops with me,” you will have paid your rent on this planet. For some of us the family wound is violence. For others it is substance abuse. In my own family it is abandonment, real and perceived. Anything you might do after healing your family history is above and beyond the call of duty, and, hence, there is no need to sacrifice your children.

Life coach Rhonda Britten writes that love is messy. So is movement. It’s that messiness that makes both necessary and worthwhile.