I am hereby declaring war on insomnia.
Pharmaceuticals, take me away.
I’ve been thinking a lot about electoral politics for obvious reasons. It’s not just the presidential campaign that captured most of us all year, or the backlash against black folks since Prop 8 passed.
This year began with my signing up, unwittingly, to be the press secretary for a doomed congressional campaign. With little sense of what that would require, and finding myself the default campaign manager, and canvasser, and strategist, I quickly realized how much work goes into such a campaign–and that one person cannot do it. During this time, I was also participating in my first electoral field work with Just Cause Oakland, walking precincts encouraging people to vote in the primary and conducting a survey about their concerns. This work wasn’t tied to any particular campaign; there were no ballot measures to vote on, the organization’s tax status forbids backing any candidate, and JCO’s understandably cynical when it comes to candidates anyway. The point was to do outreach to our base, let them know about the organization, and gauge their willingness to participate in the electoral process at all.
One thing that was striking to me back in January and February was that I had a far easier time getting infrequent black and Latino voters in West Oakland to talk to me for ten minutes about their city council rep than getting the mostly-white voters I approached in the Sunset District to sign a petition to get a congressional candidate on the ballot. I quickly chocked this up to election fatigue, which points to a couple of things. First, the presidential campaign, even by January, had been going on for so long that folks were sick of hearing about it. Second, the people I spoke to in San Francisco were fatigued because they’d been approached so often by so many campaigns. Not true of the voters in Oakland I talked to; no one bothers to ask them who they’re voting for, much less what issues they care about. This isn’t surprising. Why should anyone care about talking to poor and working-class people of color living in blighted neighborhoods, and especially the ones who rarely vote?
Fast-forward to April, when I joined the Just Cause staff full-time as a volunteer organizer and campaign spokesperson for the campaign to defeat Prop 98, the ballot initiative that aimed to end rent control in the state of California. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to would-be volunteers, trying to get them to care enough to give us a few hours of their time or, at the very least, to write a check. I spoke to hundreds of people and wrangled well over a hundred to commit to phone-banking after work or coming out early on a Saturday morning to knock doors in the precincts. We were effective. We moved people to vote in a June election, which usually gets 30% turnout and much of that from conservative whites.
One of the things I’d realized way back in January while working on the JLJ campaign was that winning a campaign has little do with the righteousness of one’s position. It has to do with the effectiveness of one’s message and with the dissemination of that message. People need to feel that something is at stake for them, or their families, or their community for them to vote the way you want them to. Or at all. If they don’t have a personal stake in the outcome of an election, they may not even bother showing up.
Lost in the noise about Barack Obama and Prop 8 were other measures on the November ballot here in California. Though I didn’t participate nearly as much this time around, the bulk of my time went to Just Cause’s efforts to defeat Propositions 6 and 9, two ballot measures that sought to further expand police forces across the state and the prison industrial complex. Prop 6 was particularly heinous, calling for minors aged 14 to be charged and incarcerated as adults, extending sentences for “gang-related” crimes like car theft, requiring police and sheriff departments to report the arrests of undocumented folks to ICE, and subjecting public and subsidized housing residents and their families to stringent criminal background checks. Prop 9, supposedly a “victims’ rights” bill that would have done nothing to expand victims’ rights, was written by the same folks who wrote 6, and would have lengthened sentences and made it harder for inmates to get parole hearings.
It wasn’t hard to know that lots of people would be voting in this election; eight years of Bush had nearly the entire state crying out for change. Way back in January and February, people automatically assumed I was knocking on their doors to talk about Obama even though I wasn’t. But I’d be lying if I said that folks doing electoral work in those neighborhoods weren’t capitalizing on the excitement about him while educating people on other issues that would affect them and their families more immediately than anything that may happen when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama on January 20, 2009. Any campaign that didn’t use his popularity to its best advantage to attempt to sway voters made a huge tactical, or perhaps, strategic error. In the case of Prop 8, a lot of us who chose to throw our efforts towards campaigns that, in comparison, got very little attention instead now suffer for the hubris and naivete of No on 8’s leadership, which decided to avoid talking to our folks. Which intentionally left the children of LGBTQ folks–and hell, LGBTQ folks themselves–out of their campaign materials and television ads. Which assumed that it–we–would win just because we were right.
What they just didn’t seem to understand is that when it comes to political campaigns, it’s not about being right. It’s about convincing other people, people with no personal stake in your issue, that you’re right. But, mostly, when it comes to political campaigns, it’s about winning.
Monday, I used my new-to-me car Sputnik to drive to East Oakland and pick up a woman named Joyce from her housing project. We then went to the Oakland Housing Authority’s headquarters downtown for a press conference before the meeting of OHA’s Board of Commissioners wherein they would be discussing their disposition plan–a plan to dispose of 1,615 public housing units in the city, half of all such units.
The plan involves turning over each of the crumbling properties to an as-yet unnamed “affiliate” for one shiny dollar.
Because the OHA, like housing authorities all over the country, doesn’t have enough money to keep the properties open and maintained.
Because HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) doesn’t have enough money to distribute to them.
Because three-plus decades of the neoliberalist push for privatization of every federal program under the sun, including all the safety nets F.D.R. put in place while trying to save the country’s citizens from the economic free-fall of the 1930s, has defunded public housing to the point where cities have no choice anymore.
So, when I’m told that we don’t have money for public housing, for federal welfare programs, for universal healthcare, for Head Start programs, for increased financial aid for secondary education, for aid to those homeowners and tenants caught up in the foreclosure crisis, I would sincerely like to know WHY THE FUCK $700,000,000,000–$2,500 of my money, and yours–is being demanded to help out Wall Street.
And so would Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio:
Jay Smooth on Economics and Annoying Smart Guys, Or “How America Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Nerds”:
She says she’s tired.
That’s the first thing she says
when we arrive and she’s lying
in a hospital bed hooked up
to the dialysis machine.
Her hands, gnarled from years
of cleaning and cooking,
hands that held me when I was small,
smaller than she is now,
reach out for something invisible.
Her eyes are closed,
and she’s tired.
That’s the only thing lucid
she says in the time we sit with her,
after they’ve brought her back
to her own bed in her own room,
after three hours on the machine that works
for kidneys too tired to clean
her blood anymore.
She asks if Harry is still out there,
Harry, her younger brother who lives
in Chicago. She won’t eat her food, claims she’s
had dinner already, but that’s not true.
She’s upset by the number of times
they take her temperature, won’t stop
talking, complaining, the thin plastic
thermometer bobbing under her tongue.
She’s convinced the pills they give her
are giving her these crazy dreams,
making her mind go too fast.
My mother asks the nurse what they are.
“Tylenol.” “Tylenol with codeine?”
“No, just Tylenol.”
Tylenol, and vitamins, and other pills
to bring down her blood pressure,
which is still too high. “But it’s lower now,”
she says. “I don’t want anymore pills.”
She wants to go home. Blindly dials numbers
on the hospital phone that doesn’t call out.
“Who are you calling?” my mother asks,
and she snaps at her—“I’m 96 years old.
Do I ask you who you call?” She says she’s calling
Bill, her cousin, dead for decades.
He’ll come and get her. He’ll take her home.
“I’m tired,” she says.
And I know this is true.
She mouths more words to people
who aren’t there and falls asleep.
The bulk of Trinity-goers are among the thousands living on Chicago’s South Side, a sprawl of cracked sidewalks and boarded buildings that inspires fear among the city’s middle classes, and even its wizened cabbies. “You won’t find a ride back,” the taxi driver told this reporter upon arriving at the church. For South Side residents, the best jobs are two hours away via public transport: a bus, an el transfer, and then another bus brings you to Hyde Park, the area’s lone upscale community. The few city-planning efforts to assist South Siders only worsened the situation. The most notorious were the Robert Taylor Homes, prison-like warrens with barred windows, circling police and neglected facilities that often left residents without electricity, heat and plumbing housed thousands until they finally came down in February 2007. The majority of those who died during the 1994 heat wave that killed more than 700 people were South Side residents. Before Katrina, it was the deadliest natural catastrophe in the U.S. since the 19th century. The morgues ran out of room. Bodies were piled in milk trucks.
And that right there is what happens when reporters stroll write about the Chicago of their imaginations instead of the Chicago that exists, the Chicago that is the third largest city in the country behind New York and Los Angeles and one of the most segregated. While it is true that you can drive for an hour and not see a white face on the South Side, the many black neighborhoods it comprises are hardly all crumbling slums, the Robert Taylor Homes were about 50 city blocks north of that church, and Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago) is definitely not the only upscale neighborhood on it. It seems beyond comprehension for many that black folks might actually live well in segregated neighborhoods.
Trinity stands about 3 ½ miles from the last house I lived in before leaving Chicago at age 10 to live with my mother in Oakland, California. The area in which I grew up, Chatham, was a solid working- and middle-class community. My street was mostly single-family frame houses, bungalows, and a few brownstone apartment buildings, my neighbors a mix of young professionals with families and older, retired folks who yelled at us to get off their finely-manicured lawns when we played kickball in the street.
Inspired by the Time article and my imminent visit to Illinois (Springfield, not Chicago) to get my 96-year-old grandmother and bring her back to California with me, I decided to look up my old house on Google Maps, and thanks to streetview, I was able to actually see it. It’s been sold and remodeled since my grandmother moved out a few years after I left, but I still remember sitting on that porch while one of the girls from down the block gave me cornrows for the first time. I remember chasing fireflies down that very-much-not crumbling sidewalk, putting out nuts for the fat brown squirrels that lived in that big tree out front, playing double-dutch with my cousins Debbie and Luanna, being hit in the shoulder with a lawn dart one summer, eating apple pies made from the fruit of the tree in our backyard until it was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination—my grandmother retired from her civil service job shortly after I was born to help take care of me and was on a fixed income, and my mother sent her AFDC checks to Nana every month—but I don’t remember wanting for much then.
(Living with my mother was a completely different story, but ironically it was in integrated neighborhoods in the East Bay and Miami Beach where I encountered real poverty while in her care.)
A simple search on Google today led me to a real estate website that describes my old neighborhood thusly:
A strong history of prestigious African American-owned businesses established a solid base for a prosperous and successful Chicago neighborhood that is still present in Chatham and spills over into beautiful residential blocks and a viable commercial and dining district.
And Chatham is hardly the only such black neighborhood on the South Side.
Thinking more about the trip I’m about to take to Illinois, I’m stuck with a lot of frustration. I’m angry at my great-aunt, with whom my grandmother has been living for the last eight years and who is now, in effect, kicking her out, and at my mother, who is too much of a nervous wreck to do anything in preparation for her mother’s arrival. I can’t help but wonder if this is what it was like for her, over two decades ago, when I moved here to live with her for the first time in my memory. She was a year older than I am now before she had to be responsible for her only child, and I know that she didn’t have the easiest time making the adjustment. Her behavior now—indulging in the worst kind of avoidance and self-pity, drinking every night after work—makes me wonder if this is what she was like before Nana and I stepped off that plane at Oakland International Airport in 1986.
I wouldn’t be surprised.
Last June, after leaving my last job in the video game industry, I decided to spend the summer doing volunteer work. One organization with which I became involved is Just Cause Oakland, a community-based organization dedicated to protecting affordable housing for people of color and working folks. JCO came into being in 2000, and its first campaign was to pass Measure EE, a citywide ordinance that prevents tenant eviction without cause–a huge issue at that time thanks to the dot-com boom happening on the other side of the bay.
Since then, JCO has fought gentrification in Oakland, pushing for inclusionary zoning policies that require real estate developers to create affordable housing alongside the $600,000 condos and McLofts being built in East, West, and downtown Oakland. Just Cause is also involved in the fight to protect existing public housing, much of which is being demolished all over the country to make way for private development, and has uncovered some of the less-noticeable side effects of the subprime mortgage crisis–namely, renters being forced out of foreclosed properties when banks refuse to pay for water service or trash collection.
Of course, there is never an end to the tribulations we Bay Area renters face. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the property owners who got Proposition 13 passed in 1978, thereby slashing property taxes statewide and virtually bankrupting California schools, is at it again.
Proposition 98 will be presented to voters on the June 3rd ballot, disguised as protection against eminent domain seizure. What the proposition really calls for, however, is the end of rent control across California. Its passage would also prohibit inclusionary zoning practices and do away with various environmental protections.
Just Cause Oakland and other organizations have taken up the fight. I spoke at a rally yesterday in protest of this dangerous piece of legislation and was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune.
I’ve been told that my post yesterday (which also appeared on my Livejournal) quoting from writings and speeches by Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was “a cheap shot” and “ineffectual.” Apparently there are no connections to be made between the political stances of the leaders of the suffrage movement in the mid-19th century and their ideological great-grand daughters now. I dressed down the LiveJournal commenter for his rudeness, primarily, but also his lack of critical analysis, which, despite the cop-out he offered in apology, has nothing to do with his race (white) or his gender (male). What it does have to do with is the lack of attention anyone is paying to the history of American feminism, and how that history is influencing the ways this presidential race is being framed by white women, Clinton’s most strident supporters on almost every blog and message board I’ve seen.
The guy who commented and I are cool now, but I thought it might be worthwhile to expound a bit–connect the dots, as it were–for anyone else who’s missing my point.
There’s nothing cheap at all about quoting one of the leaders of the proto-feminist movement who, when it looked like black men might vote before white women, in the midst of the terrorism against black people that followed the Civil War, decided to draw a line in the sand–despite the fact that Douglass was her co-vice-president of the Equal Rights Association and continued to support [white] women’s suffrage. (The voting rights of black women were, of course, not even on the table. Just ask Sojourner Truth. Ain’t she a woman?)
Stanton and the MAJORITY of the suffrage movement opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment on the same grounds that underlie the various editorials and statements that have come from no less than Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Erica Jong, Roseanne Barr, and most recently Geraldine Ferraro: a fundamental sense of entitlement on the part of white women to walk through that “celestial gate” into the White House before “Sambo.”
To drive home this point, I will quote from “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and former professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College:
Several years ago, one young White woman wrote the following sentence…: “I am in favor of affirmative action except when it comes to my jobs.” I wrote in response, “Which jobs have your name on them?”
The sense of entitlement conveyed in the statement was striking. Of course, she wanted to get the jobs she applied for, … yet she seemed to assume that because she wanted them, they belonged to her. She assumed that she would, of course, be qualified for the job, and would therefore be entitled to it. What was she thinking about the candidates of color? She did not seem to take into account the possibility that one of them might be as qualified, or more qualified, than she was. The idea that she as a White woman might herself be the recipient of affirmative action was apparently not part of her thinking. While she expressed a desire for equity and justice, she also wanted to maintain her own advantage.
And so, this is what we’re reading and hearing in the media–the same assumptions are being made about how much Senator Clinton “deserves” the presidency (why, exactly?); the same argument abounds that the success of black men has somehow exceeded that of white women in government and corporations (patently false); the same claims of Senator Obama being unqualified and his successful candidacy the result of “affirmative action” (a charge that could easily be lobbed at Senator Clinton as well); the same erasure of black women from the discourse, except for when we’re being insulted or our experiences exploited. (In Jong’s effusive memorializing of mistreated female leaders, she notably leaves out Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run in 1972. Steinem and Morgan both talk about imaginary black female candidates as though we haven’t had them before–and don’t have one now in Cynthia McKinney, running for the Green nomination.)
One would think that after 150 years, white women might have gotten over such divisive politics. But while white feminists have surely made strides, recognizing their own racial privilege is not one of them.
All quotes below pulled from Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis….
Frederick Douglass, in an article titled “The Rights of Women” published in his abolitionist newspaper North Star, July 1848:
In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for men. We go further, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for men to exercise, it is equally so for woman. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman, and if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the law of the land.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionist and suffragist, in a letter to the editor of the New York Standard, December 1865:
Although this may remain a question for politicians to wrangle over for five or ten years, the black man is still, in a political point of view, far above the educated white women of the country. The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the negro; and as long as he was lowest in the scale of being, we were willing to press for his claims; but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first. As self-preservation is the first law of nature, would it not be wiser to keep our lamps trimmed and burning, and when the constitutional door is open, avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the black soldier to walk in by his side, and thus make the gap so wide that no privileged class could ever gain close it against the humblest citizen of the republic?
Elizabeth Cady Stanton speaking at the first annual meeting of the Equal Rights Association, May 1867:
With the black man, we have no new element in government, but with the education and elevation of women, we have a power that is to develop the Saxon race into a higher and nobler life and thus, by the law of attraction, to lift all races to a more even platform than can ever be reached in the political isolation of the sexes.
Frederick Douglass speaking at the Equal Rights Association convention in 1869:
When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have [the same] urgency to obtain the ballot.
There’s a lot I have to say about what came up in yesterday’s post. Those who asked for a longer essay might get it, when I have more time, which may be when I’m dead. But I think I should at least clarify a few things in the meantime:
— I was, in fact, not thinking only of or even primarily about burlesque.
— Burlesque is one of the tropes I’m thinking of, but again, not the only one.
— Women get objectified. Period. Whether we’re dancing on a box at Pop Roxx or are on a stage at Hubba Hubba Revue. The difference? How we use that space, how we subvert that objectification. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that burlesque is just about naked girls.
— I was thinking also of some of the reasons I didn’t go to the Femme Conference a couple years ago–I don’t feel particularly reflected in that identity as I’ve seen it defined, discussed, or presented.
— I remember going to the Great Dickens Fair with whittles and being disappointed during The French Postcards that the whole theme was about imperialism and exploitation of the “exotics” of the East. I mean, yes, in Victorian London, that would have made sense, but honestly–at this point, can’t people come up with something smarter, wittier, more subversive, especially in a national climate where people from the Middle East and South Asia are already being exoticized and dehumanized?
— One of the problems with things retro is that shit used to be a lot more blatantly racist and sexist. So, if you can’t find a way around that, you might want to leave the past in the past.
— I’m thinking of conversations I’ve had with trans women about other trans women who they didn’t think “worked hard enough” to pass–by not doing things I don’t do, not because I don’t “have” to or haven’t been told to but because that’s not how I choose to construct my identity as a woman, especially when it means denying my identity as a black woman.
— I participated in the Big Bad Blond Wig Bar Crawl… in the Marina a few months ago. It was fun, and as much as I thought I’d feel like a punchline wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig, I didn’t. I rocked that shit.
— And while I respect Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker for what they accomplished when they accomplished it, I also am aware of the sacrifices they made. I don’t want to straighten my hair, lighten my skin, or wear a skirt of bananas. And in 2008, I shouldn’t have to.
— I really, really, really wish Harlem Shake Burlesque were still an active troupe. I do look forward to seeing how Alotta Boutte interprets the 80s theme at the next HHR.
— I have an idea for a Diana Ross act.
Being in a social scene that is as given to performance and costuming and general, unadulterated dumb as mine sometimes provides reminders of just how limiting being black and female can be when it comes to performance. When certain mainstream or classical tropes are revisited, even within subcultural performance and even as parody, they’re often still reaffirmed as an immovable standard against which all else is cast. I think of the return of the blonde bombshell as the ultimate feminine ideal and how the Vargas girls have been experiencing a renaissance in everything from tattoos to fashion spreads in the last few years. In some ways, I will always feel estranged from and barred access to this iconography. And unless it’s done delicately, the irony of my attempting to subvert these tropes ends up looking less like parody than farce. And I don’t want to be a punchline.
As for what’s inspiring this train of thought (which is a lot less frustrated than it may seem–my brain is doing that teasing-out thing that it does quite often when I get a little whiff of something interesting and abstract and contradictory within my world) is an opening act that I’m participating in next Friday at Hubba Hubba Revue. Now, this is an act that I may have simultaneously thought up alongside those who put it in motion, but for me to participate will require… effort. What effort? Slicking back my hair.
This should be interesting.
Erica Jong concludes that “we’re” stealing Jewish men because they’ve been circumcised:
Ever wonder why Jewish boys are so fucked up about sex? Ever wonder why they fall for mile-high models from Slovenia who wear those big cold crosses? Ever wonder why they like Chinese girls, Chinese-American girls, Blonde shiksa cheerleaders from Kansas? Or those cool black models who dance like Beyonce?
… The mothers usually run in the other room crying. But they get blamed for it anyway. And Jewish women bear the brunt ever after. Either they marry you and run around with Diana Ross or Beyonce or Naomi Campbell — or they marry Sandra Oh or Lucy Liu or Yoko Ono and she converts.
Let’s forget for a minute that the vast majority of American males are circumcised, only a small percentage of whom are Jewish. Let’s forget also that an eight-day-old Jewish boy child is far less likely to remember his “mother, father, grandfathers and grandmothers looking on, teary eyed” during the bris than the majority of girls who undergo female circumcision between the ages of 4 and 10 years. But that’s not so big a deal, according to Jong, because “at least women have other things to think about than their pussies — like children, like politics, like writing.”
And apparently I’m not supposed to notice Jong’s racist implication that black women are only good enough for extra-marital affairs while Asian women may be lucky enough to actually marry these cultural traitors. I guess I also shouldn’t mention the fact that black AND Asian women can actually be Jewish. (In fact, I’m clearly hallucinating my own ancestry, that of several other black Jewish women I know, and the huge number of Ethiopian Jews–perhaps I bumped my head last night and am having an episode.)
Oh, I could go on, but I don’t have the time. Maybe when I’m done working and phone-banking for Just Cause and looking for a new home for my dog, I’ll spare a moment to fuck with Jewish women by screwing their men. Hey, it’s their fault for getting their sons circumcised in the first place. Karma is a bitch, and so am I.