I live a life of privilege. As a tenured professor at an elite institution of higher education, I have access to resources that most Blacks don’t have. If we’re being honest, I have access to resources that most White Americans don’t have. Now, don’t get it twisted—it hasn’t always been this way. To quote Langston Hughes, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” I’ve spent the better part of my life trudging an uphill climb to find the safety and security that my newfound privilege now affords. Still, as a child of the post-Civil Rights Era, Jim Crow is a history lesson and not a reality once lived. I’m able to take for granted the things so hard-fought by my ancestors, like the ability to exercise my rights and freedoms under the Constitution with little-to-no opposition. And that is a privilege.
But that privilege is being challenged in Trump’s America.
Let me begin by stating that this is not the post-election blog I envisioned writing when I woke up on the morning of November 8, 2016. Like so many others who followed this seemingly endless election, I truly believed that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be elected the 45th President of the United States of America. And so I began that Tuesday morning with a conversation with my daughter. Thanks to a wonderful book, entitled Grace for President, she already understood the importance of electing a female president. Incidentally, this book offers an easily understandable explanation of the Electoral College, but I digress. Most mornings, my daughter picks out her own outfits (and I refuse to take any credit for the way she dresses herself). On that morning, however, I chose her clothes. On that Tuesday morning in November, I dressed my daughter in white—Suffragette White. I explained to her that there were people in the world that believed that girls shouldn’t be allowed to do certain things, including vote. I told her that, on that day, she would be wearing white in honor of all the girls who were ever told that they couldn’t do something. Although she’s only 7 years old, my daughter is a radical Black feminist, so she was happy to shed her usually colorful attire for a more monochromatic ensemble. But despite our hope, optimism, and wardrobe choices, my daughter didn’t get to see the election of the nation’s first female president in 2016.
Now, I’ve been voting for over 20 years. For some, this might not seem like a long time. But it’s enough time to learn that sometimes the candidate you prefer wins and sometimes the candidate you prefer loses. The beauty of our Democracy is that there will always be another election. Another chance. But this election felt different. There came a sense of finality with Donald Trump being declared the victor of the 2016 presidential election—as if life, as we knew it, was about to change.
Throughout history, there have been leaders that have inspired the very best in us and motivated us to be our better selves. And then there is Donald Trump. Undoubtedly a purposeful tactical decision, Trump’s “divide and conquer” campaign strategy was a far cry from Pres. Obama’s message of hope and change. Taking a page right out of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” playbook, Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” signaled that he would return the U.S. back to the days when minorities and women knew their place. Over the course of his campaign, misogyny, racism, and hate became normalized and fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Neo Nazis became acceptable parts of mainstream American politics.
Arguably most troubling, however, has been the army of Trump supporters—both before and after the Election—who have assisted in the mission to “Make America Great Again” by attempting to put African Americans back in their place. As if the state-sanctioned restrictions on Black life—by way of an ever increasing oppressive policing of the Black community and the disenfranchisement of Black voters—wasn’t bad enough, a self-deputized band of vigilantes empowered by Trump’s rhetoric have taken it upon themselves to regulate public spaces, including grocery stores and schools.
Thus, it seems that, in the dawn of the Trump presidency, we are ushering in a new era of Jim Crow. The privileges that the post-Civil Rights Era generations could once take for granted are no longer promised. I learned this the hard way two weeks before the Election. As had been my routine, I was working out at the Northwest Austin YMCA at 8:30 am like I did every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I had considered the YMCA a safe space—a place to go to let my guard down and escape the weight of my other responsibilities. I have had other gym memberships before but one of the things that drew me to the YMCA was the diversity in its membership in terms of age, race, body size, fitness level, socioeconomic background, etc. In other words, there appeared to be room there for everyone. On that morning, however, a group of men decided that there was no longer room for everyone. Dressed in coordinating t-shirts that read, “Proud Member of the Basket of Deplorables,” this group of about 8 men perched themselves in the lobby of the YMCA as if they were guardians of this space. And anyone entering or exiting could clearly see them. I saw them and I was angry. Not just angry…mad! I was blood-curdling mad that these men had perverted what I had previously considered a safe space. I was told by the supervisor that I spoke with that these men and their t-shirts were harmless. I was even encouraged to go speak with them myself to see that they were reasonable men who meant no harm. And so I did. It turns out that these not-so-harmless men indeed wore those shirts to insult and intimidate and when I questioned them I was berated, insulted, and harassed. All while the staff of the Northwest Austin YMCA watched and did nothing. I left the YMCA that day feeling as if I could not return. Ever. I discontinued my membership there. This was no longer a safe space.
Since this incident, I no longer take for granted my ability to occupy certain places because, in Trump’s America, safe spaces cannot be assumed. And yet, safe spaces can be had. We must never forget that the ability to claim space for ourselves in this country is our right. Constitutionally, we are granted the ability to speak up and speak out against ANY tyrannical power that seeks to diminish our capacity to fully function in America’s experiment in Democracy. Beyond this, resistance is our duty; it is our birthright. It is the reason why each generation has been able to occupy a safer space than the previous one.
Now, I don’t know what the next 4 years will bring. Perhaps it won’t be as bad as I’m anticipating; maybe it will be worse. Either way, I understand that the road that I will travel is not uncharted. I’m privileged to stand on the shoulders of giants who paved the way for me to battle the current obstacles in the Black Freedom Struggle. I’ve committed myself to claiming space in Trump’s America and am inspired by the immortal words of the Urban Prophet Stevland Hardaway Morris:
I’m so glad that He let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on Earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’
‘til I reach my highest ground
I consider myself to be a movie aficionado and, before my daughter was born, would go to the movies at least once a week. I am particularly fond of independent films but will watch pretty much anything (except Westerns—I’m not big into Westerns). I teach a course on Race, Media, and Politics and am keenly aware of the historical racist institutional practices that have led to the scarcity of Black images in cinema. Consequently, I go out of my way to support Black filmmakers and/or films with predominantly Black casts. I have my limits; there are but so many Madea movies one woman can take. But by and large, I try to add to the box-office sales of Black movies, especially during opening weekend, in order to signal to Hollywood that such movies are in demand and warrant a place on the big screen.
But A Birth of a Nation wasn’t just another Black movie. This was going to be a Black filmmaker telling the story of a Black slave who conspired to lead more than 70 Black rebels in an insurrection against slavery. This definitely would not be a Madea movie!
Besides, we’re big Nat Turner fans in our home. When we first found out I was pregnant, my husband and I created a list of prospective baby names, not unlike most expectant parents. The list was fairly short. If the baby was a girl, she would be named after my maternal grandmother. If the baby was a boy, my husband decided his name should either be Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner. We had a girl. Natalie. We sometimes call her Nat, though. And although she’s not technically named after Nat Turner, she often channels the spirit of a Black revolutionary empowered by the divine to defy the existing social order—particularly around bedtime.
It seemed like an eternity between when the film was initially announced and when it was set to be released. And my anticipation for the movie only grew with as its release date grew near. In the months leading up to its October 2016 opening date, however, the movie became mired by controversy as the 1999 rape trial of the movie’s writers—Nate Parker and Jean Celestin—was made public.
Now, I have a personal rule—I don’t support rapists or child molesters. Of any race/ethnicity. Period. So a rape allegation was enough to halt my enthusiasm for Birth of a Nation immediately. I’d be lying, though, if I told you I wasn’t torn. Every time the trailer for the movie aired, I wanted so desperately for Nate Parker to give me a reason to reconsider. I started rationalizing in my head what he could do or say to make it okay for me to break my personal rule. But every time he spoke of the incident, Nate Parker’s toxic misogyny reinforced my decision to abstain from seeing this film.
For instance, in a recent interview with Robin Roberts, Nate Parker said he absolutely would not apologize for any of the incidents surrounding his rape case because he “was falsely accused” and “proven innocent.” Well…not quite. He was found not guilty, which is not the same thing as being found innocent. The not guilty verdict was based partly on testimony that Nate Parker and the victim had had prior sexual contact. In other words, an archaic notion of consent that perpetually entitles men to women’s bodies after an initial sexual encounter was the dividing line between a guilty and a not guilty verdict. This is a far cry from being “innocent.”
I get it. Nate Parker was acquitted and, in the end, only three people know the absolute truth about what went on during the early morning hours on August 21, 1999—Nate Parker, Jean Celestin, and the victim. What is known is that, shortly after the incident, the victim dropped out of college and attempted to commit suicide as a result of the alleged rape and subsequent verbal harassment from Parker and Celestin. I read in an article where the victim’s brother stated that, after the trial, she was never the same. She was detached and depressed. In 2012, she ended up in rehab, where she took her own life.
So we know a woman is dead. Yet, Nate Parker bears no responsibility and shows no remorse for any part he may have played in her demise. This is why I can’t. I. Just. Can’t.
You see, this one is personal. Now in my thirteenth year as a professor, there are very few things that students say or do that catch me off guard. But I was completely unprepared for the day that one of my students broke down in tears and confessed in the middle of a class discussion on sexual violence in the Black community that she had been sexually assaulted on campus by someone she knew. To protect her privacy and conceal her identity, I will not disclose any details related to her ordeal. I will tell you that time stood still as she recounted the incident. There was an uncomfortable silence among her classmates. In that moment, however, it didn’t matter that there were 29 other students in the room. In fact, I wanted them all to disappear. In that moment, it also didn’t matter that I was a professor that was facilitating a college-level course and there were 30 more minutes of class left to get through. I wanted class to end immediately. I only knew in that moment that I was one woman looking at another woman who had been deeply wounded by the actions of another human being and I felt responsible. How could this happen? On my campus? With each word that detailed her pain, my emotions evolved from sadness, to rage, to utter helplessness. Somewhere out there, there was a set of parents who trusted my colleagues and me to educate and protect their child and we failed them—and her.
I think about that young lady when I am tempted to go see A Birth of a Nation. I especially think about how I tried to comfort her by holding her like she was my daughter because, one day, she might very well be my daughter. I also think about all the other young ladies across college campuses who have been or will be victims of sexual assault.
I know that I won’t make or break A Birth of a Nation by not going to see it. And I know that this movie’s success or failure won’t define my ability to protect my daughter or my students from the evils of the world. But how can I tell my daughter, students, mentees, or anyone else who may be taking cues from my actions that their bodies mean less to me than a fictional movie? Yes, a fictional movie. While this movie is inspired by true events, it is nevertheless a Hollywood version of Nat Turner’s rebellion that exercises “creative license” with respect to certain details. Had Nate Parker’s account been the only avenue for learning about Nat Turner, perhaps a stronger case could be made for overlooking his otherwise problematic past. But Nate Parker is not the gatekeeper of Black history or any other history for that matter. So I’m sitting this one out.
p.s. This entry isn’t meant to persuade anyone from seeing A Birth of a Nation. And I won’t judge you if you do (well, maybe I will a little bit). I only write to explain why this is a movie I will not be going to see.
Ten feet. Ten feet of space was all that separated me from a man who chose to ornament his body with symbols of hate…
I was volunteering at a back-to-school event in early August of 2016, where hundreds upon hundreds of families crowded into a local high school to receive free backpacks, school supplies, haircuts, bicycle helmets, and an assortment of other goodies. Outside, a band played while children bounced from inflatable house to inflatable house. Dozens of community organizations showed up to help facilitate the event and the local police intermingled throughout the crowd, fostering good will with all who attended. There’s a feeling you get when you know you’re doing something good. That day, as I watched the smiling faces of the children eagerly going from table to table collecting their event swag, I knew I was a part of something good.
I have to admit though, after about an hour at the event, all of the faces started to blur together. I’m not much of a people person and my threshold for smiling and being nice to people is fairly low. My mind began drifting towards the endless back-to-school to-do list I had created for myself and the herculean effort it would take to complete it before school actually began.
But something brought me back to the faces in the crowd. Not something, but someone. A pretty little someone. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the prettiest little girl across the hallway from me. She couldn’t have been more than 2 years old but she was picture perfect in her little romper. She had blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks and her face could easily have graced the cover of the latest baby fashion magazine. She stood alone as her mother perused the information at a nearby table. She had that look, though. Moms, you know that look. It’s the calm-before-the-storm look toddlers get when you know they’re up to something but you just don’t know what yet. I imagine it to be the same look a cobra gets just before it strikes its prey. And just like that, she was off. In a blink of an eye, she had run over to an encasement on the wall that housed a fire extinguisher and was reaching up with all her might to try to pry it open. Part of me wanted her to succeed in her mission so that I could be amused by the chaos and folly that would undoubtedly follow. The mother in me, however, instinctively began to lunge in her direction to prevent her from causing herself or anyone else any harm.
Her mission was aborted by a man I assumed to be her father. Since my focus was on the toddler, who by estimation was about two and half feet tall, the first part of the man I saw was his calves. I immediately noticed that the entirety of his left calf was tattooed. I live in a city whose motto is “Keep Austin Weird” so it’s not unusual to see someone tattooed from head to toe (sometimes literally from head to toe). It was what he had tattooed on his leg that made the blood rush from my face. The tattoo was that of a cross I had recognized from videos and articles about the Ku Klux Klan. I thought to myself, surely this had to be a mistake. How could such a pretty little girl belong to a man who would tattoo a Ku Klux Klan insignia on his body? Perhaps this was just a regular cross—a sign of Christianity—that I have misidentified. My eyes zoomed out so that I could see more than this man’s disembodied calves. He had more tattoos. These were on his neck. One was of the Nazi SS; the other was the number 13.
Nope, I had not been mistaken. This man, who was only ten feet away from me, had permanently affixed to his body symbols of America’s oldest, largest, and most violent domestic terrorist organization as well as the symbols of a genocide that resulted in the murdering of 11 million people. I didn’t know what to do. My head was spinning and I began to panic. In a moment of clarity, I did what any self-respecting citizen does in these types of situations…I took out my smartphone and I tried to snap a picture. Unfortunately, my nervousness coupled with my general technological ineptitude prevented me from getting the picture before the man disappeared into the crowd. For the remainder of my time at the event, I stood in fear, scanning the tattoos of the passersby for symbols of hate. I saw none, only Disney characters, names of loved ones, tribal bands (I don’t know why people still get those), and a random assortment of other ink art.
But what if I had seen another man or woman with a Nazi SS or KKK blood cross? Realistically, that person could not or would not hurt me in this venue. Not physically. But make no mistake, I had been hurt that day. No matter how much I’ve read about it or watched videos about it or taught classes on it, nothing…and I mean NOTHING…could’ve prepared me to see hate up close and personal. You see, I’m from the North, where racism is *usually* more subtle and nuanced. I managed to live 40+ years without ever encountering a Klan member or Neo Nazi or whatever he was (at least not to my knowledge) before that day. I’ve heard many southern Black folks muse that they rather live in the South where the racism is more overt and you can tell who’s who. In my ignorance, I’m sure I’ve agreed with this statement on more than one occasion. And I thought I was prepared to stare hate directly in the face. After all, I’ve spent the last 13 years teaching on a campus adorned with Confederate symbolism.
But this was different. Confederate symbolism is one thing but there’s no hiding behind the romantic Gone with the Wind fantasy once you tattoo a swastika on your neck. It means you support the inhalation of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. That given the chance, you would harm me. Or worse, you would harm my child. Our children. Seeing that man…having that man in my personal space…shook me to my very core.
On that day in August 2016, I learned that the boogeyman is real and now I look for him in every tattooed person in the crowd.