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As I announced a few months ago, I accepted an invitation to appear at the Pima Summer Writers Conference in Tucson, Arizona. However, I am cancelling that engagement in protest of SB1070, the anti-immigrant bill recently signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. Below is the text of the letter I sent to the organizers of the Pima Conference explaining my decision to join the economic boycott of Arizona.
Dear Meg Files,
I regret to inform you that I will not be able to participate in the 2010 Pima Sumemr Writers Conference. Due to the passage of the Senate Bill 1070 which sanctions racial profiling and police harassment against brown people, I cannot return to the state of Arizona. Yesterday, I spoke with a dear friend who is an American citizen of Mexican descent who said that he would not feel safe in Arizona, although he (like me) used to call the state home.
Almost a decade ago, I supported the economic boycott of South Carolina in protest of the Confederate flag flown on the statehouse grounds. This offense, which spoke to one the darkest chapters in the history of our nation, was serious, but symbolic. The issues raised by SB1070, on the other hand, are not merely rhetorical or psychological. The newly-granted powers will allow the police to detain and harass anyone who looks like he could be an undocumented immigrant. Although some lawmakers suggest that a person’s shoes will be a more significant indicator than that person’s race, I find this difficult to believe.
That people should be legally required to show proof of citizenship is similar to the antebellum mandate that black people produce “free papers” proving themselves not to be slaves. It recalls the pass system under South Africa’s Apartheid. Sadly, visiting Arizona for a conference or a vacation without fear has become an ostentatious display of privilege.
As much as I was looking forward to participating in the Pima Writers Conference, travelling to Arizona would be tantamount to endorsing these draconian policies.
There are those who would argue that this is just a “Mexican thing.” Even if this were the case, I would still stand with the protesters. A “Mexican thing,” is a human thing. Moreover, it would be naive to think that this gross exaggeration of police power would be aimed at only a single group. My sentiment is captured in James Baldwin’s famous letter to Angela Davis: “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
I hope that you will understand and support my decision on this important matter. When the time comes that Arizona is a safe place for all who live and work within its borders, I hope that you will consider extending another invitation to participate in the Pima Writers Conference.
This is a piece I wrote a few years ago about visiting the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot on this day in 1968.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, right downtown, just off Peachtree Street. You can’t get more Atlanta than that.
As you can imagine, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King is everywhere in my home town. After all, he grew up there. He’s buried there.
There’s another city in this country that cannot forget Dr. King: Memphis. Although we claim him as a native son of Atlanta, Memphis is where he died on April 4, 1968.
I had never thought much about the burden of Memphis until I was on my first book tour in 2002. I was headquartered in the legendary Peabody Hotel for an entire week. The Peabody is known for its lavish appointments and the ducks that swim in its opulent fountain. My ten days in the Peabody were uncomfortable. For one thing I was homesick and longed for the stripped-down accommodations of my little apartment and also, I was the only black person in the hotel that wasn’t working there. I felt under intense scrutiny each day– I imagine I was something of a oddity to the white people staying there the black people were counting on me to represent.
I was raised in a “movement” household, so you know I wouldn’t have been in the Peabody with my nose in the air, treating the black employees like servants. Instead, I called everyone “ma’am” and “sir” and tried to need as little help as possible. I eventually got to know everyone on staff and soon people wanted to know where I was from. When I said, “Atlanta,” everyone wanted to talk about Dr. King.
Up on the roof, where the famous Peabody ducks live in their “penthouse”, I was sitting at a little table. The view wasn’t spectacular or anything, I just wanted to be in a space where I could be myself, where I didn’t have to sit up straight, cross my legs and the ankle, and be a good talented-tenther and make everyone proud. I was tired, lonely, and depressed over a crappy review in People Magazine. (The caption under my photo read: “Jones: a partial success.”)
While I was sitting there wondering why I signed up for this life in the first place, the “duckmaster” lead the pampered birds up to their cages. After they were all squared away, he sat himself down at my table. He was wearing a red jacket with gold braid, but close up I could see that underneath was a regular janitor’s uniform.
“Quackers,” he said. “I’ve had about enough.”
“I hear you,” I said.
“You the one from Atlanta?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“I sure hate that Dr. King was killed in Memphis. I hate that it happened on our watch. He never should have come here. They set him up.”
“Who?” I asked.
“THEM,” he said and gestured at all we could see from the rooftop. “I sure hate it.”
“Oh,” I said, with that weird feeling you get when you understand what someone is saying, but not quite.
“You been to the Lorraine motel yet? I pass it on my way to work everyday. It’s just up the street. It’s a museum now. You should go on over there.”
I was pretty tired and didn’t feel like going anywhere. Sensing my hesitation, he added, “It’s free.”
Being an Atlanta girl, I have visited all the King memorial sites in my hometown. I visited the boyhood home with this small signs telling you that these were not “ML’s” actual toys but toys like the ones he would have played with. When relatives came to town, they always wanted to visit the white marble crypt on Auburn Ave. I’ve seen all those things a million times, but I can’t say that I FELT anything.
The museum at the Lorraine hotel wasn’t free, but I paid the entry fee. At first it was like any only civil rights museum. If it had a brand name it would be “struggle-lite”. There were no really disturbing images, just the segregated water fountain signs, etc. I was bored. Why had the duckmaster sent me here?
At the very end of the exhibit was rooms 306-307, where Dr. King had stayed in on the last day of his life. The curators took care to recreate the atmosphere. There was a coffee cup half-full, an unmade bed and other personal touches that made it seem like Dr. King, Andy Young, Jessee Jackson, et al had just been in here making plans. When I crossed the threshold of the room, I tripped a switch that caused Mahalia Jackson to sing “Amazing Grace.” I felt it all over my body. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a careful breath before looking out onto the balcony.
We have all seen the famous photo of Dr. King’s compatriots pointing in the direction from which the fatal shots rang out. At the Lorraine motel, saw the view as they must have seen it. I saw with my eyes what Dr. King must have seen in the last moment of his life. There was nothing so memorable in that view.
The parking lot has been recreated: three fin tail cars are parked at an angle, just like in the picture. I stared out until my vision blurred with tears maybe and fatigue. Behind me, I the voice of Mahalia Jackson poured out of invisible speakers. This was hallowed ground. I took a cautious step out onto the balcony.
I cannot remember leaving the museum or the walk back to the Peabody. Back at the hotel, I ran into the duckmaster; this time he was wearing the janitor’s uniform.
“Did you go?” he said.
“It got to you?”
“Course it did,” he said. “You from Atlanta. Just think how it feels for those of us who live here.”
This weekend,the poet Ai passed away. She is remembered here by another poet whose life she changed forever.
A Remembrance by Rigoberto González
I have a votive candle next to my bed. The only time I take a match to the wick is when I feel a particularly devastating poet loss. Just a few weeks ago, it held a flame in honor of Lucille Clifton. Just a few days ago, a flame for Ai.
It feels selfish to claim the poet Ai, but I have much to be grateful for: she was the one who selected my first book for the National Poetry Series back in 1998. This prize is a luck of the draw. A poet sends his manuscript to the contest hoping that it lands on the desk of the one of four judges who might be more sympathetic to his work. I was fortunate that Ai, who was also one of my inspirations, was drawn to the pages of a manuscript that opens with a piece titled “The Slaughterhouse.”
Not long after I was informed that I had won, I moved to NYC. And shortly after, I met a woman who worked at Norton, who gave me a picture of Ai sitting on a suitcase, a Native American blanket behind her. She’s embracing a pair of cow-skinned boots and holding up a pair of slippers with her other hand. As the Norton gal handed me the photo, she said, “Here’s your champion.”
When I posted the video of Lucille Clifton reading, I had no idea that she had been ill. I am so sorry to tell you that she passed away last night. She was only 73. I was so devastated to hear the news that I left the restaurant where I was having dinner.
Last night, on twitter, there was more love that you thought you could pack into 140 characters. Everybody read her poetry and posted favorite lines.
Today, I ask that you honor Lucille Clifton by doing your own writing. Let her know that she can take her rest, and that we will keep it going.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-Ins, in whch twenty-seven black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at a segregated lunch counter and ordered a meal.While it is true that this famous act of courage sparked much of the civil disobedience which changed the history of this country, it was not the first action of its kind. I would like to bring your attention to another sit-in, two years earlier, taking place in Oklahoma City.
In 1958, teenagers in OKC sat down at Green’s Lunch Counter and ordered a meal. Among these brave young people was my mother, Barbara Ann Posey Jones.
As Howard Zinn showed us, there is a whole people’s history of the United States that we won’t know about. Here is the voice of Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat on a Mongomery Bus, a year before Rosa Parks. Resistance is always happening. It’s just not always on the news.
Dr. Vincent Harding remembers Dr. King.:
Perhaps if we follow King carefully enough, we will realize that the official statement of the March on Washington in 1963 said, “This is a march for jobs and freedom.” Not for little children to hold each other’s hands, wonderful though that may be, but for their mothers and fathers to be able to work. If we keep going with King, we can more adequately take on the issues of our coming century.
For instance, we may understand how King went out from the sunlight of the Mall to retrace his steps back to Birmingham, Alabama. There, just three weeks later, he was forced to deal with the fact that white terrorist bombers had destroyed a church and the lives of four children.
If we keep going with King, we go into some very tough places. But anybody who is not ready for tough places, isn’t ready for the twenty-first century in America. So I was want to wonder out loud: what was on his mind when he went back to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and knew that that church had not been chosen accidentally; it has been bombed because it was the headquarters of the campaign that he and Shuttleworth had led in Birmingham, and those children were his responsibility. How do you deal with that?
I would like us to move with King in such a way that we take on the difficult questions that a woman or man has to deal with when trying to give leadership in transforming a society that usually does not want to be transformed.
–Dr. Vincent Harding, former King speechwriter and confidant.
A couple of days ago, I posted the link to the txt message donation account for Yele, a charity associated with Wyclef Jean. I have since read a number of disturbing accounts that are casting doubt on the organization. Yele has not yet responded to the news reports, although it has been two days. I feel that I should post the reports here because I suggested that you give through the organization.
Looking back, I wondered why I felt such confidence. Probably because Wyclef Jean is a well known personality and is from Haiti. (His group, The Fugees, took it’s name from refugees.) It was an emotional descision and the cell phone giving was so easy. Also, I must admit to being sucked in by our celebrity-worshiping culture.
This is not to condemn Yele. Rather, the reasons that I endorsed them had really nothing to do with anything I knew of Yele as a charity, which now seems silly.
Haiti still needs lots of help. I made a more traditional donation through Doctors Without Borders. Democracy Now!, a news source I trust, broadcast a very moving and impressive segment featuring representatives from that organization. On DN the representative from Doctors Without Borders indicated that they already have a major presence in Haiti, so the funds given can get to work immediately. Also, Doctors Without Borders is a international, multi-racial, and progressive organization.
UPDATED: Wyclef Jean responds. His heart seems to be in the right place, but he didn’t really address the specifics of the charges against him. I am still putting my money with Doctors Without Borders. The issue is not whether “Wyclef is the truth or not” or whether he is “chosen.” I think Doctors Without Borders has proven themselves to be reliable, progressive, and effective with over twenty years in Haiti.
On Thursday Sarah Schulman– friend of the blog!– will be giving the 2009 Kessler Lecture. The title of the lecture, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences– is also the tile of her new book which will drop tomorrow.
The Kessler Award is given every year to a scholar/thinker/artist who has made a significant contribution to LGBTQ studies. Past winners have incuded Barbara Smith, Adrienne Rich, Samuel Delaney and other trailblazing minds.
If you are in NYC, I urge you to come out and hear the lecture. Homophobia within families may be the most destructive and personal manifestation of inequality. While I applaud activists for all their hard work influencing public policy, we must also keep in mind that change starts at home.
City University of New York
365 Fifth Avenue
Proshansky Auditorium 6:30 – 8:30 PM
I’m not a Tyler Perry fan, but Shalema McGhee is. Shalema, who blogs at Truself, did some more digging on the For Colored Girls situation and found some interesting facts. Here’s what she discovered:
I am not exactly sure of the significance of these details, but they are really interesting. I am glad to know that Nzingah Stewart hasn’t been totally hijacked. What I would really love is for someone who knows the ins and outs of film making to tell us exactly what is going on! (What I would really really love is an inside scoop from somebody working on this particular project…. know anybody?)
And if Shalema’s name sounds familiar, it may be because she did a guest post on this blog a couple years ago. Check her out.
Everyone is going crazy because Tyler Perry is going to write and direct the film adaptation of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.” I’ll admit to clutching my pearls along with everyone else. I’m late putting this post up because I really don’t know what to say. I don’t like Perry’s work. I find Madea offensive. I also feel that his gender politics are a disaster. And he’s corny.
“For Colored Girls…” is sacred ground for me. I remember that I was about ten years old and my mother went to see it. My mom wasn’t a person to go out much; this is probably why I remember it. She said it was “powerful.” I snuck and read the book but I didn’t get it, but I remembered that it moved my un-moveable mother.
Later, as a student at Spelman College, I read the text and I got it, or I thought I got it. (I mean at 18, what did I know about “Someone Almost Walked Off Wid Alla My Stuff.”? Still, Toussaint Jones stole my heart, only for Beau Willie Brown to stomp it at the end.) At 38, I more than understand the lives that Ntozage Shange was bad enough to commit to writing. (And let me tell you, alla my stuff has almost gotten away from me, more than once.)
As a writer, I understand, too, what Ntozake Shange went through to tell those truths. If you thought that backlash against The Color Purple was bad, imagine that times 50. Ntozake Shange was called all kinds of man-hater and accused of being a pawn of the white man in a diabolical plot to destroy the black race. As you can see from her beautiful novels, Ntozake Shange is a community-loving woman. To be accused of being its enemy was a crushing blow. (And when you think of the black women writers who have been accused of high treason– Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Michelle Wallace– where are they now?)
While I was looking for more information on this Tyler Perry story, I found this interview with Nzingah Stewart, a young sister filmmaker. In 2007, she did a Q&A with Clutch:
Clutch: What projects are you currently working on?
Nzingha: Finishing up a video for Jill Scott and preparing to shoot my first feature film an adaptation of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide: When The Rainbow Is Enuf, starring Angela Bassett, Alicia Keys and Sanaa Lathan.
It seems that Hollywood is walking off wid alla our stuff.
(Photos: Orginal Broadway poster, Ntozake Shange, Tyler Perry, Nzingah Stewart, “Madea”)