Empowerment through Language...

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why Arsenio Hall Owes Women an Apology

I never missed Arsenio Hall in the 1990s. The  historical perspective alone drove me to the show. Then, it was consistently funny, offered cutting edge musical guests, was socially conscious/sensitive, culturally relevant, the whole package. And in the words of Warren Zevon, his hair was perfect.

The night that LA rioted, his was the only live broadcast and it was stunning. I was a loyal fan, devastated and indignant when he got cancelled; therefore, when I heard he was coming back on the air, I had high expectations and was delighted.

I watched and found that I was underwhelmed, a certain disappointment, but I figured I would let him catch his stride. I would be a supportive fan and be patient.

On December 10, 2013, shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela, I tuned into the monologue. There were two significant news items that he was addressing: one situation in which some people were disturbed by other people who attended a function in Afrocentric  clothing and the removal of the mayor of San Diego for repeated and flagrant sexual harassment. In the first case, he spoke passionately about the absurdity of someone feeling threatened by people dressed in traditional attire, the ludicrous offense of the whole notion of fear of people of African descent. I shared his indignation and was pleased that he brought it to my attention, since I do my best to be aware of bigotry and injustice, much less sheer stupidity.

After speaking his peace on that issue, with a round of applause from the audience, he moved on to the ouster of the mayor. The bit was set up as if he was interviewing one of the many women who had come forth to expose this  abuse. The woman was young and attractive and Arsenio asked a series of of appropriate questions, although it was becoming evident that she was an actress. Then Arsenio asked how the mayor had acted inappropriately toward her.  The response floored me. She said something to the effect of, "Oh no, he never hit on me. And what's up with that?! I am attractive! Why didn't he approach me..." etc.

I was dumbstruck as the audience responded to the applause sign. Arsenio backed out of the bit with his chuckle. I caught my breath and became irate. I immediately turned to Twitter: "@arseniohall After tasteless bit on San Diego ex-mayor, I can't watch. Offenses toward women as insulting as racism. Not suited to bad jokes.."

I received no reply or comment from Arsenio's social media team or anyone who tweets. It has taken me 7 weeks to clear my head to address the offense and I have never watched him since. 

I am a woman who has experienced rape. I am among millions. I have also experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. I have witnessed the same of other women and supported those who were devastated by violation, sometimes still trying to find a way to heal decades later. Everyone knows someone who carries such a scar. The statistics bear the truth of violence and insult towards women. And it is no joking matter.

What it takes to bear the shame, much less come forward, requires great courage. Often the blame is placed on the victim. Often the claim is completely dismissed. Every woman who stood up to be counted as one of those violated by that  man who denied and discounted his egregious offenses exhibited great strength.  And still, it took a long time before the  community realized that there was a crucial problem and he was a liar as well as an abuser.

Arsenio: I am going to give you the  benefit of the doubt, as well as that for your writers, most of whom I assume are men, that you meant no harm. But you cannot express your righteous indignation for the racist foundation of the absurdity of the one situation, then turn around and try to make humor of the plight of abuse towards women. I am going to continue to feel embarrassed for the actress you hired for the bit. She probably needed the money for rent. But you insulted her by implicating her. You dismissed and insulted every woman who was hurt by that man and then chose to come forward, no matter what that would do to them in the public sphere, much less in their private lives.

And you insulted every woman. Your own family. Your friends. Your employees and colleagues. Your audience. More than 50% of the American citizenry who do not benefit from equal rights under the law. And women worldwide who are violated and abused every minute of every day.

When you have the strength of character to apologize to each and every one of us, I will try again. But you have to gather your strength and humility and "man up.."           

Friday, January 24, 2014

Just Keep Doing the Good Work...

Late fall, I received a phone call from the offices of Syracuse University's Hendricks Chapel that I had been selected to receive one of four awards of the Unsung Heroes honor bestowed to members of the Central NY community and campus at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration held at the Carrier Dome. This is the largest campus observation of Dr. King Day in the nation and, for 29 years, always starts the year in our region with inspiration and recognition of the tenets of Dr. King and how peace, diversity, acceptance, and perseverance better life for us all. It is also a reminder of both the victories since Dr. King walked among us and how far we still need to go.
This year's Unsung Heroes are honored during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at the Carrier Dome on Sunday, Jan. 19. They are, from left: Joseph, Deborah Person, Georgia Popoff and Dorothy Russell. 
My fellow honorees, Joseph Bryant, Deborah Person, and Dorothy Russell, are remarkable members of our community, each taking much of their time, energy, and likely income, to be of service to others. I am  in exalted company and humbled by their commitment.

As we were waiting to take the stage for our part of the evening's offerings, I was moved to tears to think that I was considered to be one of those carrying the torch of Dr. King's mission. I am one who says yes often and take entirely too many meetings to brainstorm, plan, strategize, coordinate with friends and colleagues with brilliant vision, in an effort to be supportive and create opportunities for those who live in this community. I have dedicated my life to being of service in ways that are not always obvious, or so I thought. But as news got out that I was to be so honored, I have received hundreds of messages in my inbox, text messages, and on social media from people in my region and throughout the nation that this award is well deserved. I am so flattered and to be seen as valuable, as a change agent, as a mentor, a contributor is a blessing. But I am also just one poet moving through the world doing my best to honor others and amplify their abilities to be true to themselves, to speak, to have voice. I have signed petitions, I have been in some marches in my time, I have been bold and outspoken. But my sacrifice is small compared to so many others.

I thank my beloved friend, Jill Ouikahilo, for thinking so highly of me that she would submit my name in nomination. I am grateful to the committee that looked at my efforts in such a way that they believed I was worthy. I will cherish this award, this touching recognition as a treasure always, and will do my best to remember that there is so much more to do.

As a society, we are mired in confusion and distrust as a nation, as a globe, as humanity. Bigotry is rampant, poverty cripples us. I believe many are tired and feeling hopeless. We have a broken system in both houses of our Congress and the class war is at appalling proportions. The media fuel the differences, and fan the fires of fear, more than serve to inform and educate. 

We must all be strong. We are all capable of making change. Perhaps not in huge ways, but we have the ability to object to statements of bigotry, sexism, hatred, disdain every day. We have the ability to look other humans straight in the eye with a smile and say, "Have a good day." We can send a note of encouragement to those who do good work or who are struggling. We can make small contributions that add up. We can each be an example of what it takes to be a human being in good stead. We can be bold in gentle ways. It is up to each of us to take a stand. In so doing, we build our numbers and we are not alone. We are all heroes, if just for one day, according to Bowie.

Proceed and be bold.

And as I have been advised on countless occasions by my dear friend, Sue Stonecash, just keep doing the good work. Don't be concerned with drawing attention to it. It will happen of its own accord. Darn, were right. Of course you were right. Now to keep doing what I do. Onward...

Sunday, January 05, 2014

How Cora Thomas Keeps Me Grounded for My Week Ahead

I start my Sundays with Ms. Cora Thomas' gospel show on WAER 88.3. It is my ritual to wait for her weekly closing before putting my feet on the floor. Every week, Cora offers, "If  you put everything in the Lord's hands, eventually you will see the Lord's hands in everything." Then she plays the great Hezekiah Walker's "I Need You to Survive" and I listen, often singing along:

       I need you
          You need me
          We're all a part of God's body
          Stand with me
          Agree with me
          We're all a part of God's body
          It is his will that every need be supplied
          You are important to me
          I need you to survive

          I pray for you
          You pray for me
          I love you
          I need you to survive
          I won't harm you
          With words from my mouth
          I love you
          I need you to survive

          It is his will that every need be supplied
          You are important to me
          I need you to survive

Now, some of my friends will be concerned that I have become fundamentalist, others will stop reading just because I said "God" and "pray" publicly. But I have been concerned about the discourses of late, in the media, on Facebook, the general tone of attack, of snarkiness, as if that is an admirable quality. The fact is, fear pervades everything.

Over the holidays, Ernesto Mercer, wonderful poet and conscious being living in DC, posted a stunning and simple reminder of the grave issues none of us who has the privilege to pull out their smartphones and check notifications and like each other's statuses has to face any given day. Yes, I used the hot button word "privilege." There is a lot of vitriol being spilled over the notion of privilege.

I listened to the news once Cora's show ended, "...I need you to survive..." still my echo. Then I listened to NPR Sunday Edition. There are bombings all over the Mideast. There was an interview with a man who has willingly gone deep into the atrocity of the war in the Congo to make the rest of the world possibly pay attention

I thought of the Sudanese children who I teach on Thursdays as I heard an update on the painful atrocities occurring right now in South Sudan. I thought of my Jordanian poet, now an 8th grader and member of the Young Authors Academy, who traveled home in early summer to visit family and spent the week cooking for Syrian refugees alongside her cousins, aunts, and other family members. 

I have been tracking Fukujima and the flow of radiation throughout our global water and air, and we haven't seen the worst of it. I have been considering that human trafficking is still a daily experience worldwide, that slavery is still alive in so many parts of the world. The polarity of the earth is shifting as the ice cap melts. There are monster storms and record-breaking sub-zero blasts over the top half of the nation. There are wildfires. There are rapes and murders. There is so much to be concerned about.

And I reflect on all of this from the relative safety of the beautiful home in which I live. I struggle to pay the mortgage but I am warm this moment and I will find a way to make everything work. I am living in relative comfort and faced with opportunity, even when I most fear that all is lost.

I am privileged...and not necessarily because the level of melanin in my skin is so low. That does mean that there are elements of advantage that I enjoy, yes. But from my underemployed, under-educated, 60-year old woman's perspective, having been self-supporting since I was 17, with no health care since I was laid off 5 years ago, and of a certain age that is not necessarily attractive to employers, etc., that privilege may be a tad bit limited. Here, I am opening myself to vitriol by saying any of this but we have to remember that women in America still do not have equal rights by law, so inherently our privilege is restrained. Seniors are not respected, in general. I am a woman at the door of "senior" and standing on very shaky ground. And Lord knows I don't have tenure.

I have been posting quotes from Nelson Mandela because I have been listening to the conversations around Ani DiFranco's extremely unfortunate, unthinking error. But I have to say that, although I do understand the need for us, all of us, to be hyper-vigilant in addressing injustice and racism, at what point are we going to agree to meet in the middle and heal the deep wounds? The scars of the Middle Passage and slavery in America will always be there. But do we need to keep standing still in the effort of developing trust enough to move forward in peace? We need each other to survive. As long as we maintain a stance of distrust, fear, veiled hatred and suspicion, we will not survive.

As a white woman, I am aware that I am always held suspect as probably clueless, a likely racist, maybe well-intentioned but can't possibly understand, at best. When am I going to "turn white?" At the Split This Rock poetry conference a couple of years ago, during a panel on white writers writing on race, there was a clarion call regarding the panelists' fear of "not getting it right." One of the writers was overtly challenged when she released a book based on a famous lynching, told that she did not have the right to write about that because she was white. Ironically, there was also a white man hanged in that event. 

Why would it be that we, as humans, cannot examine atrocity and racism if we do not have the "right" skin tone? Don't we need to share the truth? Is it not possible to have compassion and empathy, if not direct knowledge, of the wounding? And don't we move toward the goals of the great Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., if we are able to put our fears on hold and presume, for just a moment, that maybe there are similarities, or at least opportunities to educate and understand, together? Do we remember the Freedom Riders?

The myth of a post-racial America is just that. We are mired ever deeper in the dangers that fear and racism create. We are falling further and further into both. I see tweets and FB posts that are disparaging of others, often couched as humor. This has gotten some media folks in some deep shit, because snarky overstepped both propriety and respect. And Ani, not withstanding her obvious lack of consciousness in allowing her producer to confirm a booking for her retreat at a plantation site, has been deemed "a racist oppressor." The feminist icon has fallen from her perch in one seriously flawed business move because she failed to be hyper-vigilant in recognizing how deep the wound is. It seems a no-brainer to me that the venue was not a viable consideration but does she need to be publicly stoned? Perhaps she had fallen victim to believing the post-racial America myth herself. I wonder how Sekou Sundiata would respond, were he still walking among us? Would he yank his work from Righteous Babe? Would he say, "Oh Ani, you know you messed up, right?..." Would he accept her apology?

There are many other incidents and comments around this general theme that I have been mulling over for a long time, way beyond this week, but I have probably gotten myself into enough trouble just for saying this much. So I close with a few more thoughts:

"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." Nelson Mandela (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)

"Great anger and violence can never build a nation. We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.” Nelson Mandela (Speech to European Parliament, 1990)

And: "I won't harm you with words from my mouth...I love you...I need you to survive."  Thank you, Ms. Cora, for another Sunday start.