On April 27, Janelle Monáe released her latest project, Dirty Computer. Through it, the femdroid allows the listener to enter into a new realm of immovable and robust queerness, autonomy, and joy. With trans-inclusive songs about the triumph of love like Pynk; sexy and provocative songs like Make Me Feel; songs which demand space for Black women’s agency and independence like Django Jane; and songs which detail the complexities of her humanity like I Like That, Monáe finds a way to encapsulate the fullness of her blackness without ever trivializing or commodifying Black Death.
The same cannot be said for Donald Glover.
On May 6, Donald Glover—also known as Childish Gambino—released a song and visual titled This is America, where he raps about what it looks like to exist as a Black American in this current political climate.
As Gambino dances through the warehouse, in a chair sits a Black man playing the guitar. In one moment, you can see his face; in the next, his head is covered and, without warning, Gambino takes a gun and shoots him in the back of the head. The artist continues to dance through this empty warehouse, accompanied by young Black kids, as chaos ensues around him. After he finishes one of his dance takes, the camera pans to the inside of what is supposed to represent a Black church, specifically Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—the historic church in Charleston, SC which also serves as the site for the murder of nine members at the hands of Dylann Roof. Gambino dances into the church as the choir sings. Then, for the second time, without warning, he opens fire on the entire choir. After both of these shootings, Gambino places the firearms neatly in a red cloth. I surmise that the red represents the blood of Black people and the care with which he handles the guns is intended to provide a visual for how little Black lives matter in America and how much guns matter to America.
It has been argued that This is America was intended to be a critique to/of Black people; as a way to say that we have long ignored, or turned away from, the chaos around us, using pop culture as an escape. It has also been argued that This is America was a message to white people as an attempt to engage their “moral consciousness”; to draw attention to the plight of Black American people. I am positing that, irrespective of who the intended audience was, Gambino’s commodification of Black Death was irresponsible and not impactful.
Since our very existence in America, Black people have resisted. We resisted the Transatlantic Slave Trade and enslavement through jumping ship, revolting, and building pathways which would lead to the freedom of tens of thousands of enslaved people; we resisted Jim Crow by demanding and carving out space which we were told could never be ours. We’ve resisted through the art and music of the Harlem Renaissance; we’ve resisted through Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA); we’ve resisted through the Montgomery Bus Boycott; through the sit-in era and the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); through the March on Selma; through the rise of the Black Panther Party and other armed-resistance movements; and today we continue in the tradition of radical Black resistance through anti-mass incarceration and police movements. And through each of these eras—through each moment of resistance—Black people have found ways to laugh, to love, to heal, to carry on in the face of adversity; not as a form of distraction, but as a form of self-preservation.
This remains true even if his intended audience is white. However, whiteness has no moral consciousness because whiteness is always already immoral. The very existence of whiteness is what makes room for anti-Black violences, for gun violence, for America to look the way that Gambino depicted it in his video. And since much of Gambino’s audience is white, and we exist under anti-Black capitalism, I’d argue that there is no way to produce content on his level without it being consumed by white people. Due to this, serving up Black Pain and Black Death on a silver platter as to appeal to the nonexisting consciousness of whiteness is counterproductive and only trivializes our trauma.
In 2014, after the months-long resistance in Ferguson that sparked a new wave of community organizing, organizers across the country did what we called die-ins as direct action. That soon transitioned out of our liberation toolkit, however, because it was more harmful than it was helpful. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was rarely ever a moment where one couldn’t turn on the news and see a slain Black body. Because of this, at least in Atlanta organizing spaces, we realized that the circulation of more still, motionless Black bodies did not/could not/would not disrupt the moral unconsciousness of whiteness. Instead, it forced Black people to continue to visualize ourselves as lifeless. So, too, is this true for This is America.
In an interview discussing her compilation album, Protest Anthology, Nina Simone—an artist best known for using her love for music as a medium for her activism during the Civil Rights Movement—stated that an artist’s duty was to reflect the times. I believe that she was correct. Art, especially Black Art, has a particular and significant responsibility to insight and to amplify. Through This is America, I believe that Gambino was making an attempt to do just that. However, I do not believe that art requires us to reproduce imagery that is already inescapable. Art does not demand that we subject ourselves (and others) to the already-inescapable trauma of existing as Black in America. In the visual for Beyoncé’s Formation, she makes a similar critique of America through the drowning of a police car in the New Orleans water and having a little Black child dance in the face of New Orleans police. While there is room to critique her display of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what that might trigger for Katrina survivors, she never once trivialized Black Death by placing the literal murders of Black people on display in the way that Gambino does.The ability to uplift Black women while postulating the death of the state—and not of Black people—is what's genius. It is because of this that I believe that Janelle Monáe deserves to be celebrated and uplifted as Black Genius. Click To Tweet
Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Drake, Kanye West, and Donald Glover are just a few of the names of Black cisgender, heterosexual men who rap that have been labeled as “genius.” Men whose misogyny and sexism, heterosexism and cissexism, and blatant anti-blackness have been excused and justified to preserve their status as genius while women like Janelle and Beyoncé are either overlooked or deemed overrated. This begs the question: who is Black Genius reserved for and, with Gambino’s recent video, when will space be created to broaden that definition?
We do not have to plaster our blood on walls or lay our bodies on cold ground to discuss our blackness in America. To me, the ability to create a comprehensive album which struggles through the joys of being Black and queer while also discussing the ills of existing with those same identities in America, while never having to showcase murdered Black bodies, is what’s genius. The ability to uplift Black women while postulating the death of the state—and not of Black people—is what’s genius. It is because of this that I believe that Janelle Monáe deserves to be celebrated and uplifted as Black Genius. That this fresh project she released, which brings the intersection at which blackness and queerness meet to mainstream conversation, makes her Black Genius. Her ability to dream up entire worlds, conjuring the Black Arts Movement with her own particular twist, makes her Black Genius. There is something subversive with naming her work (and, thusly, herself) as “dirty” as a queer Black woman—three identities which have long been viewed as impure and unclean—and making it mean something that is complex and stern, yet joyous and hopeful.
I do not believe that we should pull our politic from celebrities. I believe that for as long as “Celebrity” exists, it is their job to pull from and amplify those of us whose voices are not as clearly heard. I do not believe that any true uprising will be led by The Celebrity. Said again, any real revolution must be led by poor and working-class people. The role of Celebrity—until it, too, is abolished—is to make space for those of us who are doing liberation work on the ground. However, seeing as how the term “pansexual” was the top searched word on Merriam-Webster post-release of Dirty Computer, I believe that Janelle has proven that Black Art is not reserved for cisgender, heterosexual Black men. It is for this reason that she, to me, represents Black Genius.
What mainstream or underground black women artists do you support?
Central Park Five Prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer Resigns from Columbia Law School
The D.A. that prosecuted the now Exonerated Five has resigned from her position as a professor at Columbia Law School. The release of When They See Us sparked calls for disciplinary action and societal ramifications to be taken against Linda Fairstein, who capitalized on the injustice against 5 Black and Latino teens. Now, the backlash has spread to Elizabeth Lederer, another prosecutor involved in the Central Park Five’s legal proceedings.
Columbia Law students were notified via email that Elizabeth Lederer would not be returning to the university. Stating, “it is best for me not to renew my teaching application,” Lederer’s statement was attached to the announcement from dean of the school, Gillian Lester. Acknowledging the conversation around the Netflix limited series, Lester wrote that the painful discussion of race, identity, and criminal justice was necessary.
While Lederer’s statement did not contain a formal apology to the Exonerated Five, she did credit the “publicity” around series for her departure. However, calls for her removal from the staff began long before the release of When They See Us. Elizabeth worked for Columbia Law School as a part-time lecturer much to the dismay of several Black students. On June 11th, The Black Law Students Association of Columbia University published a letter calling for the termination of Elizabeth Lederer’s employment. Pointing to her questionable conduct, the students recalled a petition that circulated in 2013 which demanded her removal. Amid the release of the series, the BLSA circulated another petition, once again demanding the same.
Circulated by “our brothers, sisters, and non-binary friends at Columbia University,” the BLSA says they’ve gained thousands of signatures. But the termination of Lederer’s employment is the start of their demands. The association is also calling for “professionally-led, mandatory, anti-racist trainings” for all educators at the law school, the re-evaluation of hiring curriculum, and prioritization of culturally competent applicants. The letter, addressed to the Law School Community, highlighted the very employment of Lederer as an act of racism and endorsement of a “carceral state that devalues the lives of Black and Brown people.”
Elizabeth Lederer has issued no further comment on the matter. Are you pleased that Lederer has resigned from her position? Would you like to see action taken against other parties involved in the injustice?
The High Cost of Higher Education
Many Presidential candidates are selling their plans to lift the burden of student loan debt to potential voters. But for millions of the Americans affected by the multigenerational crisis, the only resolution is complete financial absolution.
The threat of another recession is constantly looming above the dreams of a generation that has been robbed of the bare minimum. When matched with employment in a “grind ‘til you die” society, millennials face the terror of less than mediocre wages. And when the time comes, their eyes will find a Grim Reaper wielding a scythe of six-figure debts with insurmountable interest rates and steep penalties. For marginalized students, their collegiate aspirations and academic achievements come with the harsh reality that their debt will never stop following them. And that bitter pill is chased by another when you’re female, another if you’re disabled, another if you’re queer, and another when you’re Black.
If you don’t know better, you can’t do better
Financial literacy is not something that the average student leaves high school with. Yet we are all met with the expectation to attend and obtain a costly postsecondary education. Even before that exhilarating march across the stage comes to an end, diploma in hand, a hefty loan for the future has been secured. For first generation attendees, the high stress of non-negotiable success rests on their shoulders. The same can be said for those from any environment where failure is not an option. In that moment, what was once perceived to be just a contract with numbers and percentages, quickly finds life as an expensive burden carrying the weight of the sacrifices and aspirations of not just individuals, but families.
For those who finish the race of academia, they gain the potential advantage of additional resources to help them conquer their debt. But those who succumb to their circumstances toil like Sisyphus, pushing the boulders of their debt up mountains named Navient and Sallie Mae. As they inch ever closer to the summit of repayment, the unpredictable nuisance of a costly emergency rears its ugly head, forcing the boulder back down the mountain with accumulated interest. And thus, the struggle continues.
Stats Paint A Horrific Picture
When examining the statistics of student loan borrowers, balances span every demographic. By race, gender, and even political views, we are united yet divided by our attachment to a $1.56 trillion debt. But the way in which that debt has been accrued by nearly 45 million Americans in a wavering economy where employment and fair wages are not promised is startling. By examining the rates of student loans and tuition hikes over several decades and reviewing how debt was accrued by race and gender, you learn the true cost of a college education. Those hoping to achieve the unattainable American dream will find that citizens in the margins pay the highest price.
In 2004, the student loan crisis was still an issue. Coming in at $345 billion, the balance almost seems manageable compared to what Americans are facing today. But then and now, the borrowers were majorly comprised of those under the age of 30. Making the decision to collectively borrow billions to finance educations and build their futures, millennials hold almost 65% of all student loan debt. While they do not carry the burden alone, as citizens well into their 60s still hold loans, the compounded stress of facing financial, social, and environmental issues has left a generation in distress.
Black People Impacted Most
Over just 15 years, the burden of student loan debt grew 302%, setting an average debt of $32,731 for each borrower. But just looking at the average does not give one a picture of how skewed the track is for those in the race. The factors of race, sexual orientation, economic status, disability, and gender can all prove to be advantages or setbacks. For instance, Black female borrowers face the hardest truth when it comes to how much of their earnings student loan repayment will consume.
Within the first year of post-graduation income, Black women graduates lose 111% of their paycheck to student loan repayment. For Black men, 89% of their initial earnings are absorbed for student loan debt. These statistics are what made Robert F. Smith’s contribution to the class of 2019 Morehouse graduates so grand. The prospect of stepping into the world of the working professional with financial absolution is not afforded to many in this life. During a time when Black and Brown people are hit the hardest with financial setbacks, such a gesture speaks volumes.
Degreed LGBTQ+ People Struggle For Proper Pay
In addition to the racial barriers that borrowing and repayment can raise, those within the queer community find hurdles of their own to jump. According to a study conducted by Student Loan Hero, the majority of LGBTQ+ student loan borrowers regret taking on debt. Queer borrowers are less likely to be paid appropriately for their work, are frequently denied financial help, and don’t find their student loan debt manageable. When the added costs of being ostracized by one’s family are considered along with the other forms of discrimination queer persons face, the deck is further stacked against them. For many people, this can create a disappointing ultimatum – finishing school and accruing more debt to do so or dropping out to avoid costs becoming too great.
The socioeconomic barriers that prohibit marginalized people from advancing in life are inherently built on White supremacy. The system of student loans and private lending for education are no different in that regard.
This is part one of a two part discussion on the cost of higher education for marginalized groups in America.
‘When They See Us’ Sparks Calls for Action Against Linda Fairstein
May 31st, Netflix released Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us to critical acclaim. But malaise followed once those outraged by the story of ‘The Central Park Five’ realized lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein is not at all remorseful for her part in mishandling the 1989 case.
Viewers of the Netflix limited series worked quickly to locate the social media presence of prosecutor-turned-writer Linda Fairstein. Targeting her Twitter account, the public demanded a statement and apology for her poor decisions and the discriminatory practices which led to the wrongful arrests of five teens. Yet, those expecting a contrite attorney would only be disappointed to find a boastful best-selling author standing proudly in her bigotry.
Following the unlawful incarceration and vilification of The Central Park Five, Linda began a career as a mystery writer. Capitalizing on her so-called legal expertise, Fairstein has penned 24 works which draw on her experience as an attorney. While much of her writing is fiction, her only nonfiction work is about her war against sexual violence. However, Linda Fairstein helped Harvey Weinstein evade assault charges in the hopes of securing a movie deal for her novels. Along with setting her personal convictions aside for gain, Linda has passed on other opportunities to prosecute white rapists/killers. She has also advised fellow prosecutors in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French diplomat that sexually assaulted his African maid. Her advice eventually led to charges against Strauss-Kahn being dropped.
Since learning of the depths of Linda Fairstein’s treachery, the public has called for publishers to refuse to release any existing or pending works in progress. They are also calling for her novels to be pulled from Amazon. Stating, “Fairstein achieved her fame & fortune through her wild imagination & at the expense of five INNOCENT children’s pain” nearly 43K people have rallied to cancel the former prosecutor. But viewers of When They See Us aren’t the only ones on board. Central Park Five Exoneree Raymond Santana has spoken out in support of the movement to boycott Linda Fairstein and all of her works.
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