It has been just over a year since I have last written. What started as an unintentional hiatus (new job, diminished time, increased stress, et cetera et cetera) became an intentional one in August 2014 — when eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
The injustice and horrific abuse of power that followed has been documented by activists and protestors— (extra)ordinary individuals that demanded a larger, national conversation about contemporary race relations in America and the violence that has been heaped upon black bodies since before this nation was even a nation.
Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Michael Brown. Antonio Martin. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. Ledarius Williams. Tamir Rice. The list extends far before and after these black young men, killed by police.
Because of the relentless work of Deray McKesson and Netta Elzie (Ferguson organizers) and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi (creators of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter) and many, many more, this conversation on racism in America has been amplified during the past seven months.
For reasons that some historian will undoubtedly piece together, Brown’s death and the military-level response from police to protestors served as a lightning rod to this national conversation. Websites like http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/ and http://www.wetheprotesters.org/ have sprouted up. Media resources like This Is The Movement e-newsletter have been created and shared.
In the midst of such a movement, how could I possibly write about television and pop culture? Discussing the sophomore follies of Sleepy Hollow seemed frivolous and out-of-touch, by comparison.
So I shut up. And I read. I listened. I started following more activists, professors, bloggers and organizers on Twitter (the majority of whom are people of color).
A pivotal moment came when I read a series of tweets by @prisonculture, who stated that the history of modern police in America was rooted in the subjugation and policing of slaves. I had not known this. I felt ashamed and angry. Ashamed that I had not known this aspect of American history; angry that it was never included in my history textbooks or classroom discussions. What else do I not know? As someone who devoured Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I want to know more. I want to know the version of history that is not taught in eighth grade history books. Or, hell, upper-division college courses that spend too much time on FDR and MLK and not enough on Florynce Kennedy and Bayard Rustin, Cesar Chavez and Sarah Winnemucca.
Everything I’ve read this past year has not been comfortable. It has all been necessary.
I do not share this to pat myself on the back. I share my experience to relate two learnings in case anyone else finds them useful.
First: Listening is not that hard, and learning is lifelong. If you’re white, the next time race (or gender or class warfare or healthcare) comes up in a conversation, listen first. Don’t get defensive, don’t make excuses or call attention to how you’re an exception. Shut the hell up and listen. Learning about others’ experiences can be tough. It requires for preconceived notions, assumptions and myths to be ruthlessly examined and oftentimes thrown out. Confronting one’s own privilege, misunderstandings and lack of knowledge is hard. It is also a long process. In fact, it’s a neverending process: that of encountering and listening to lived experiences different from your own. It’s also an essential practice in creating a more just and healed world.
I’ve included a list of people whom I have found invaluable in my own educational journey at the end of this post. I encourage you to follow them on Twitter, Tumblr and/or Instagram.
Secondly: Popular culture (and the discussion thereof) is still important. While that seems like a no-brainer statement, it has taken me a year to recognize that writing and critiquing mainstream popular culture is just as important as it ever was — even in the midst of protests and upheaval. What’s more: by listening to and engaging with other narratives and experiences, the lenses through which I now view pop culture has been altered. My writing is more informed, reflexive and mindful than it was before.
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Yes, we need individuals like Deray McKesson and Netta Elzie on the ground, organizing, protesting, and spearheading the movement.
We need artists that directly address the systemic injustices in this country, such as Kendrick Lamar, Tef Poe, D’Angelo and Azalea Banks. We need creators, like Kelly Sue DeConnick, that write provocative comics like Bitch Planet, championing nonconformity and engaging scholastic voices at the end of each published issue: Danielle Henderson, Tasha Fierce and Mikki Kendall.
We need people like Alyssa Rosenberg and Libby Hill (and so many others too numerous to list) that write about, critique and dissect mainstream popular culture — and how issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability and age are portrayed, represented, or ignored in those mediums.
The power and influence of mainstream culture is indisputable. This past year’s Golden Globes winners Transparent and Gina Rodriguez (for Jane the Virgin) speak to that power. The enormous popularity of Empire points to a desire for additional narratives and experiences on our television screens. The fumbles and disasters need to be discussed, too. The whitewashing of the Oscar nominations/wins. The problematic and arguably gratuitous sexual violence in Game of Thrones. The racist, jingoist, puerile piece of rubbish also known as The Interview.
The same person who shuts out the evening news may watch Scandal. So it’s important to know what stories are being told in our most popular cultural forms. How those stories are told, and whose stories are not being told.
We all have roles to play in breaking down systemic injustices — some more obvious than others, some more influential than others. All are significant and carry the potential to create change.
Here’s a list of pretty incredible + insightful people…
photo credit: dorret via creative commons license