Now What ?!?

An interesting reaction to one of my posts about rape and police inaction solicited a comment on stumbleupon complaining “once again nowhere to donate.” The comment made me think of my students who often look extremely depressed midway through my social justice courses. When I ask them why they are pouting, they always say “well, this class is great but the world sucks and what are we supposed to do about it?!?” It’s about that time I give them my “soft drink” talk. I ask them to look at what they are drinking, knowing that most are drinking a particular product because it pays pov u a lot of money to feature its products on campus (shhhhh!!!!). Then I tell them about all of the violence against women, children, poor people, and people of color that the particular company is implicated in around the world (shhhhh!!!!). As they stare at their drinks horrified and dumbfounded as to how this information could possibly help their depression, I tell them where all the alternative drink machines are on campus and tell them just by buying a different product they make a statement to the company about their practices. I draw a connection between those choices and anti-apartheid movements on college campuses started by students that ultimately caused the universities with the most to lose to divest from Apartheid driven South Africa. Then I remind them that school is about learning to ask questions you might not otherwise ask or even know to ask. It is about learning to be critical thinkers and taking responsibility for what thinking critical reveals about our world. Everyone has choices and everyone can make a difference regardless of their politics. It is also at this point in the class, that I challenge them to do what other students have already been modeling, get involved in our communities and bring in opportunities to be involved locally and globally to class. In other words, I reframe that old comic book saying about great power and responsibility to remind them that they can and do have power to change the world. Think of it as the With Great Knowledge, Comes Great Responsibility, model.

Why am I telling you all of this?

It seems to me that the internet is both a reflection of the hopelessness under the weight of oppression that so many struggle with and an amplification of it. On the one hand, everyone has felt confused about where to start or how to start or even if doing anything would help when dealing with inequality. On the other hand, the internet spoon feeds information to users. You don’t have to look up material anymore because we link to everything. You don’t have to sit with any information you read because we have distilled everything into 144 words. And now you don’t even have to think about how to get involved because we link that too. And so people, in general, have become extremely lazy about owning the power they have to become informed, get involved, and work toward change.

Example One:

Remember when I put up a post on intersectional reading material with the full citations a year or more ago? I did not link the articles because most of them were not available online and I knew that linking to incomplete sources would have led people to read the few pages available and move on. People spent months demanding I link to the material, literally calling me lazy and stupid for not doing “basic things” like linking to articles; the irony of their own laziness in refusing to look up the material with a simple google search or trip to the library and their own ignorance in demanding links to full material that was not available on the internet was lost on them. Then someone actually wrote a post claiming I had intentionally withheld the links to force people to think resulting in a bunch of people coming to the blog to go off about how “condescending it was” for me to withhold information and how it “completely undermine[d] [my] efforts” because “no one was going to look up the information”, so I “might as well have not written [the] post”. Again, they did not bother to read my post or any of the comments reiterating it’s point about some sources not being digitized, they just demanded to be fed information as if was their right to sit back and depend on someone else.

Like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, everyone commenting was capable of doing their own work or at the very least finding a way to get it. Unlike the plant in Little Shop, they were unwilling to work, to advocate for themselves, or even to consider how offensive it might be to demand that a woman of color provide every ounce of information on diversity readings to a mostly white, middle class, audience with more access to libraries, bookstores, good schools, and income needed to track down and/or buy the materials. In the midst of so many women of color and allies saying thank you for the resources, these readers collective opened their wide mouths and demanded “feed me” expecting blood if nothing else.

Example Two

While many of my posts do include links to organizations where you can volunteer, donate, or learn more information, my post on Antione Dodson did not. That post was about people’s reactions and inaction to issues of rape and sexual violence in poor communities, especially of color. It was not an activism post.

According to the 2007 National Crime Victim Survey, 500 people (.05% of them men or boys) were raped every day in the United States. That is roughly 20 people an hour. According to the US Department of Justice Bureau 2009 Justice Stats on Rape and Stalking, women between the ages of 19-24 make up the largest group of survivors. While my readers cross multiple identities, the largest group of people linking to my post based on an informal survey of links is female between 16 and 25; ie, they are roughly the same age group as the largest targeted population in the U.S. for rape.  1 in 3 women is a victim of domestic or sexual violence in their life time, since this post garnered 10,000s of hits per day for several weeks, that means that on average both the people linking or reading the post have some known relationship to rape survivors as friends, colleagues, or survivors themselves. Given this information, it seems to me that it isn’t too much to ask that people reading would be aware of rape, domestic and sexual violence, and either know the names of some of the organizations working on these issues in their area or how to look this information up with a simple google search. “Rape survivors + [city I live in]” yielded 5 helpful agencies, with addresses and phone numbers, and a law firm specializing in victim’s rights in the first 6 links on Google. “Women’s Crisis + [state I live in]” yielded a list of shelters, hospitals, and advocates in the top links. And so on. When you do the same thing using Dodson’s hometown, you find survivor support groups, AIDs hotlines, hospital advocates, and lawyers. It really is that simple.

The specific criticism of this post was that there was no “Donation” button or link to “do something about the issue.” Again, the ease with which we pass information on the internet seems to have stunted both people’s willingness to take charge of their own power to know and act, but also to engage in critical thinking about knowing and acting. Many people, especially in the radical woc, feminist, and dis/ability blogosphere have been deconstructing the idea of “donation culture” as social justice. In other words, we have been working within and expanding on existing critiques of who writes checks, who can write checks, whether check writing shifts thinking and commitment after the ink dries, and whether writing checks is a solution or a band aid. While I think most, if not all, of us understand that philanthropy is a critical part of keeping movements funded and operational, the idea is to do more than write a check through options ranging from educating yourself on the issues to organizing a group of people to get personally involved for the long term in the work of changing the system or aiding people. It is also about listening to communities and what they want, if they ask for money then money is the primary way to honor community need, if they ask for publicity and consciousness raising, then writing blog posts, writing editorials to your local paper, sending in emails to the national news about the issue, and talking about it with everyone you meet is the primary way to honor the community need, and so on. And no, honoring what the community says it needs does not preclude you from doing other things as well, it just makes their voices foremost and centered in your activism.

Getting back to the Dodson post, I specifically linked to a woc blogger who had listed all of the major players in the incident who had not acted on information about a serial rapist. She had phone numbers, websites, and action ideas in her post. Since my post was about perception, reception, and the failure of people who actually self-define as activist communities to act, linking to this information seemed more in keeping with the point of the post. So once again, no one bothered to follow through with the links I did provide because it wasn’t spelled out for them that they should click on the links. Have you noticed how we have gone from a digital culture that links to items to one that spells out explicitly why you should follow links with annotated bibliography type blurbs before or after the link? FEED ME SEYMORE.

(This is not a critique of the individual who said this but all of the people who thought it right a long with her and all of the ways that the internet encourages such thoughts.)


The way power works, is to convince you that power over people and things is normal and natural AND that you can do nothing about it. The people in power want you to believe that you are “just one person” and to constantly be asking “what could I possibly do to change things” so that you will give up. The practices of internet writing and activism are embedded in this system and potentially making it worse by making people passive consumers of information. According to recent research on brain development, the 144 word tweet culture is actually remapping pathways in the brain away from empathy and reflixivity. I want to encourage you to begin the decolonization of your mind by refusing to accept these easy constructions and expanding your information sources to a level that keeps your ability to connect and empathize with others intact. One person can and does change the world. One person can and has challenged the system:

Tiananmen Square/unattributed

You can start by being an active reader. When you see stats or other material cited or referred to, look it up. Ask who the source is, what is their theoretical and methodological training or usage, has the author of the post that linked to them accurately portrayed their content, etc. When you cannot find it online, go to the library or search around the topic, for instance in the Dodson case, look at information on the area, HUD and police stats vs. community reports, etc.  Once you’ve done that, consider how you can become involved in changing social inequality in your own communities as well as support those in other communities referenced in the article that got you fired up in the first place. Again, in the Dodson case that means looking up rape survivor advocacy programs and getting involved or making a donation (clothes, money, gas vouchers for volunteers to get to the hospital, etc.) in your own area and/or giving money to rape and domestic and sexual violence agencies in Dodson’s area, sending a letter to the police or HUD about your concerns over their seeming inaction about a serial rapist, or starting an online petition that would flood them with faxes or signatures saying we are all watching. And if you really can’t think of anything else to do but be depressed and hit the resend button (which is a start in and of itself) then talk to your peers, families, and educators about what they think you could do. Worst case, come back to the blog owner and ask, but if you ask me, I am going to suggest you do your own research first.

To end on cliche that just happens to be soooo true: Knowledge is power. What you do with that power is up to you.

(By the way, I have chosen these related articles for the ways that the critique, expand, or agree with the opinions I have expressed in this post rather than their take on the same specific topic.)

On Feminism, Liberals, Black Folks and Antione Dodson

For those who do not know, Antione Dodson is the brother of a potential rape victim. He, his sister [whose name I will not use in this post], her daughter, and his mother lived in low income housing, Lincoln Park,  in Huntsville Alabama until recently. According to Dodson a rapist was targeting Lincoln Park because no one was doing anything about it. He said several young women and girls had been raped, and had either received no assistance or not asked for help because they knew the police were not going to do anything. Dodson also says the same thing happened to his family.

In late July, a rapist broke into their small home through a window and attempted to rape his sister. Dodson managed to scare the assailant and force him out of the apartment. He then called several of his friends in the area to look for the person because, like everyone else, he did not believe the police were going to do anything about an assault in low income housing. Later Dodson called both the Housing Authority Office that runs Lincoln Park and the Police. Hours went by before the police arrived and according to Dodson and others no major search was mounted by them. Also according to Dodson and others, the Housing Authority issued a statement but has made no improvements to security or safety in Lincoln Park to help protect them from being targeted. In fact, an attempted rape following a similar m.o. (rapist came through bedroom window, advanced on girl inside) occurred the following evening.

This story of systematic rape of young black women and girls left to fend for themselves because they are poor and the failure of the police or tax-payed for housing programs to protect them has been totally eclipsed by the spectacle made of Dodson. Dodson’s interview outlining the attempted rape of his sister and the sexual violence and rape other women and girls endured was put on youtube, not to highlight the problem but rather to highlight how “ghetto” and “effiminate” Dodson was. While youtubers across the racial spectrum showed up to laugh, police failed to capture a serial rapist. A white hipster-nerd comedy troupe known as the Gregory Brothers, made up of 3 white men and 1 white woman, recut Dodson’s interview to make “the Bed Intruder Song” which was played on black and alternative radio stations and sold on itunes. The song appeared on Billboard’s hot 100 list and made a considerable amount of money for the Gregory Brothers. As far as I know, none of their proceeds were used to help track down the Lincoln Park rapist. None of the attention the song garnered sparked national outcry about rape, the unchecked rape of low income women, or national feminist rallying around changes in policing and housing options for poor women of color. Nor did many make connections between these erasures and the latent homophobia and gender policing embedded in many of the comments.

In fact, many people have counted the Dodsons as lucky. The attention allowed Dodson to become an internet star and make enough money on interviews and fought for profits from the autotune song to get his family out of low income housing. His sister will not be targeted by the Lincoln Park rapist again. But what about everybody else’s sister? And does moving out of low income housing on an unstable economic source negate the fear and trauma related to the attempted rape of Dodson’s sister that both she and her mother, who witnessed the attack, are now experiencing? To me it seems kind of like the politicians who say “in a way Katrina was a good thing” because of all the services and new construction people received. The idea is predicated on the assumption that black people’s, especially poor black people’s, lives are so worthless that if several of them are tortured, murdered, sexually assaulted, or traumatized, so that 1 or 2 of them can live better lives that is acceptable because those 1 or 2 were never meant to live better lives anyway. Only people who imagine they will never be abandoned by their government to die in a un/natural disaster or be raped or have their children raped in a government funded housing project would imagine that these things are trumped by a few months-1 year of free housing (much of which was contaminated) or a few short months of internet fame.

In the midst of this institutional racism are the actions of three groups that cannot be ignored:

  1. the viewers and listeners who openly mocked Dodson, completely ignoring the rape survivor narrative embedded in his story
  2. the white middle class hipster-nerd comedy troupe that made money off of the rape and attempted rape of poor black women and girls and the one man willing to stand up for them
  3. the mainstream feminist blogs and feminist communities who have remained largely silent on Dodson’s sister despite the core issue of rape

The multi-racial viewers and listeners spent their time laughing at Dodson and mocking him and his sister in print in the youtube comments for days. The video received some of the largest hits of the week when it first went up. The auto-tune version played black radio stations and a black marching band even did their own rendition, laughing at the “ghetto” in ways that I personally cannot excuse as “black humor as survival”. Instead, I would argue for many it represented black humor as classism, homophobia, and internalized hate though some of it was certainly mixed with the understanding of our “throwaway lives” in the United States. Amongst the 100,000s of people commenting on Dodson or the autotune song, very few talked about the heinous act of rape, the existence of a serial rapist in the area that had gone unchecked for an unspecified amount of time, or the engineered tragedy of the state’s willingness to abandon poor women and girls to predators. In other words, the chance to mock an uneducated black man was more enticing than the fact of violence against women and girls. The very thing that allowed systemic racism, classism, and sexism to do nothing about a serial rapist in state owned low income housing was manifesting in individual viewers of Dodson’s story.

Once again, liberal, middle class, white hipster-nerds also failed to act on the tenets they claim to be central to their very beings, ie social justice, in the face of the opportunity to be “clever.” Thus three white men, and one white woman, cut and remixed Dodson’s interview in order to point and laugh at the uneducated black man in crisis. His crisis at not being able to get help for his sister, his sister’s attempted rape, and the targeting of poor black women and girls were either edited out or remixed in order to highlight the “hilarity” of blackness and poverty and for some, gender transgression. Dodson and his sister’s story were pimped out by white liberals for a few bucks a pop on itunes precisely because they fit all of the stereotypes of blackness that liberals are quick to criticize in the mouths of conservatives but embrace as “clever” in their own. (It should be noted that Dodson did eventually receive 50% of the profit after advocating for himself and saying in a radio interview that his words and experience were being used to profit everyone else and it was “time he got paid”. Without this advocacy Dodson, like the Katrina victims whose words were taken without permission to by poet/adjunct Professor Raymond McDaniels for his book Saltwater Empire, would have simply been a cash cow for white male “poets” and “artists”.) Once again, like the systemic racism, classism, and sexism allowing the state to do nothing about a serial rapist, these white liberal hipster-nerds, who no doubt think racism and sexism are wrong and probably volunteer in low income neighborhoods or women’s crisis lines, let the reinforcing image of poor blakness whip them up into such a frenzy of hilarity that it never occurred to them that rape is not funny, that serial rapists targeting black women and girls because the police are doing nothing should not be the subject of comedy but rather social action, and that the real clever thing to do would have been to cut a song that actually highlighted oppression and gave the proceeds back to the impacted community.

Finally, the mainstream feminist blogosphere and national level activists also remained largely silent on the plight of women and girls in Lincoln Park. A quick search of the top feminist blogs and magazines, with blogs, showed that at most, they linked to black women bloggers talking about the situation. At the least, they said nothing or openly laughed at the Dodson video themselves, commenting solely on his patriarchal attempt to recenter himself and his boys protecting his sister rather than her story of rape. And while this critique is important, ie that male rage about rape taking center stage to women’s attacks is a function of patriarchy, I do not think that was the point of Dodson’s larger story. Nor does that critique have the same meaning in the face of complete and total lack of action on the part of the people charged with preventing rape and tracking down/stopping rapists. They did however, contribute some of the most salient critique about gender policing and homophobia when they weighed in. When the critique of masculinity and patriarchy supersede any discussion of state inaction to catch a serial rapist then it seems all the more suspect. Once again, the failure to recognize the humanity of black women and poor women, and especially poor black women, allowed mainstream feminists to miss another opportunity to call attention to violence against women and demand action to make women’s lives safe(r) in this nation by rejecting a culture of violence, oppression, and inequality based on gender. That failure not only colludes with the white male establishment that runs and fails to address rape in low income housing but also looks the other way when middle and upper class white women are beaten, raped, or otherwise abused or treated unfairly or unequally in their workplace, home, or lives.

So what is the lesson of Antione Dodson and his sister. For many people, it will always be that poor “black people are funny”, “white people are clever”, ” ‘girlie men’ are funny”, and the spectacle of blackness is really a benefit in disguise because after all the Dodsons are out of the projects.  Some will even use Antione’s comment that he was happy with the song because the proceeds he received actually helped move his family out of the projects to justify not discussing the intersecting oppressions that puts women and girls in Lincoln Park in danger. Not only does this stance ignore rape and the realities still enduring it but it shows little regard for how earlier interviews underscore Dodson’s hurt and anger about people not taking the situation seriously and making money off of him or the reaction the song itself elicited outlined in this post. (ie people laughing at a story of attempted rape, and a serial rapist that the police and housing authority have made seemingly little effort to track down and stop, is ok because Antione ultimately decided he liked the song for getting him out of low income housing). This narrative will always mask how sexism, racism, and classism allows women, especially poor women of color, to be targets of unchecked violence by both individuals and the state. It will always excuse away liberals who not only do nothing but laugh along with everyone else because “its funny” or “clever” but also helps perpetuate the myth that liberals can’t be racist or sexists or classist. Except, these moments prove that they can be and often are as racist and classist as neo-conservatives. And it will stand as a shining example about how intersecting oppressions and the ongoing failure of the feminist movement(s) to fully and radically address them makes all women’s lives less safe.

And yes, for each of the groups I have singled out here, from black radio to white mainstream feminists, there are people who did stand up against rape, did talk about the intersections of poverty, gender, and state level or state sanctioned violence. My point is not that everyone is evil but that collectively, these particular groups failed to discuss violence against women in favor of laughing at the spectacle of poor blackness that reinforces existing stereotypes and allows state level, systemic, inaction and violence. Nor does the existence of black people behaving in sexist and classist ways negate the existence of white people behaving in racist, sexist, and classist ways.

Here are some links to people discussing what we should all have been discussing these past few months, ie violence against women and the intersections that mask it:

Haiti Still Rebuilding

I promised to write a post on the first of every month about Haiti until the crisis was over. I missed last month because I was just generally MIA the entire month anyway. That does not mean that rebuilding in Haiti is not still going on or that people in the U.S. have largely moved on to the next thing. In the face of the Gulf Crisis in particular, including flooding in the surrounding areas, it’s hard not to see why compassion fatigue has set in. But, as is my way, I would not doubt that fatigue would wipe Haiti off the immediacy map anyway.

So what is going on in Haiti?

1. Wycleff Jean for President …

First Wycleff Jean has made it known he is considering running for President. When Fernandez originally took office in the Dominican Republic there was some complaint that he was from New York not RD. His focus on transnational issues, “Americanized” sense of blackness and identity, and his progressive ideas were all things that his opponents attacked in his original campaign and to a lesser extent in his subsequent campaign that ousted Mejia. Some people have pointed to Fernandez’s success in uniting factions in RD and changing racial and socio-political discussions for the better, particular in terms of his ability to advocate for a more respectful place at the table of U.S. foreign affairs, as a reason why transmigrants might make more globally successful presidents for the Caribbean. Given that Haiti shares the island, comparisons between Jean’s potential bid and Fernandez’s presidency seem to make some sense as well. However, Jean is first and foremost an entertainer not someone deeply involved in politics and governance like Fernandez. His charity has come under scrutiny more than once over financial issues that range from general lack of knowledge about establishing proper status for the organization and pay structures for its employees to the more disconcerting accusations about the use of funds. His own involvement has been critiqued from multiple sides and should be evaluated in the context of his newly stated political aspirations. Regardless of whether you see him being politicized by his needed philanthropic work in Haiti or his charity work as a stepping stone to a political career, I think questions have to be asked about Yele in light of this announcement. And I don’t think asking those questions distracts from the work Yele or Jean himself did in Haiti during the earthquake crisis; work this blog helped to highlight. More than that, if you do interpret the bulk of questions surrounding Yele as lack of knowledge, then how does that reflect on Jean’s ability to run the much larger budget of a nation-state?

2. Women Rebuild

Women were amongst the hardest hit by the earthquake. Not only did they make up 50% of the heads of households in Haiti but they were early reports of sexual assault and child trafficking that spoke to the targeting of women in the aftermath by relief workers and opportunists alike. Women and children also outnumbered men in the relief camps but footage coming out of Haiti pointed to several young men bullying them out of food lines and food, water, medicine and sanitation shortages leading to the death of newborns, pregnant women, and small children, leaving surviving mothers with classic PTS and depression. These conditions have been documented around the world in refugee camps that do not provide enough security or gender related supported to women. However, both women and men involved in the relief effort in Haiti have pointed out basic ways that women can and should be supported:

The Merlet International Feminist Solidarity Camp, named after a famous Haitian feminist killed in the earthquake, also worked to combat some of these issues. It was organized by women’s groups in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the LACs region, and the Global Fund for Women with the goal of ultimately being run exclusively by Haitian women. The camp helped coordinate women’s centered relief efforts coming through the Dominican at a time when relief was still sitting untouched at the Haitian airport. It also provided a holistic health center for women to deal with both physical and emotional issues related to the earthquake.

Both International women’s organizations and NGOs within Haiti and the Dominican Republic began helping women in Haiti from the beginning of the Earthquake. I mentioned these organizations in prior posts including links to their donation lines but here is a video of the work that was being done in February.

MUDHA’s work is particularly important because it is a well-established women’s organization focusing on women’s rights and equality in both RD and Haiti. Their work in the Dominican Republic in particular has been critical to ensuring both Haitian women and Haitian descended women receive services, funding, education, and health care that have largely been denied them in the Dominican Republic. Their partnership in the relief efforts with Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees also helped bring a needed transnational element to their work, including support of Haitian women fleeing the earthquake, Haitian transmigrants in the U.S. and RD, and women’s organizing in general. You can read more about the efforts women are engaging in on the border of the Dominican and Haiti from the perspective of the Director of the Women and Health Collective here (Spanish only). As you can see from the interview, the majority of the displaced are women and they face major antihaitianismo hurtles despite the relief efforts.

According to Dir. Galvan, 6 months later, Haitian women also continue to face problems with lighting and security in camps in Haiti despite the promise of money to fix these issues. They also do not have enough access to jobs, food, or milk for their children. Their complaints about sexual assault have not been taken seriously enough nor have changes to protect against further assault. Nor has enough money been spent on women’s specific mental health needs in the aftermath. Worse there is limited to no access to birth control or post-birth or post-abortion services in the camps. Yet women are banding together to demand representation, services, and inclusion in the rebuild including 7 demands presented specifically to the government and the relief workers in Haiti.

Revista Amauta/Roberto Guerra

While women centered NGOs and women’s organizations are small but strong in Haiti, many of them do not represent queer women, and women make up a very small percentage of the government itself. Since the government is re-establishing its ability to make decisions about funding and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath, female representation in the government is critical. Haitian women have begun to advocate for themselves in light of this situation, along with pre-existing women’s political organizations, Vital Voices has emerged as an organization by and for Haitian women that is helping fund the campaigns of over 70 women for office. They are also working on educating women about political participation and its import and getting women registered to vote. Vital Voices receives training and money from international sources but also provides training and leadership from within Haiti; meaning, that they are in charge of the organization and work on an exchange of skills model rather than allow international funders to dictate what happens.

The Centre National des Equipments, which is in charge of government sponsored infrastructure rebuilding, has also centered women in the rebuild efforts. The majority of their workers are women and in the aftermath of the earthquake leadership has extended job and training offers to women in the capital. According to the Seattle Times, 85 trainees/65 women were on site clearing rubble within hours of the earthquake. Their work, and CNE’s in general, is helping to challenge gender stereotypes about women’s work, leadership, and strength. With so many displaced women, it is also providing an opportunity to regain self-sufficiency and develop new and needed skills. CNE’s salaries also represent middle class incomes for women who may not have other entry points into similar economic status. Though it comes with the potential for engendered conflict between men and women, and even domestic violence, it also represents economic freedom and the chance to make new lives for women and their children at a time when those lives seem nearly impossible.

In the day to day existence of Haitian post-earthquake, women have also taken on many of the roles ensuring the nation’s survival. These women have provided food, education, and care in communities that were the last to receive international aid as well as those still depending on displaced camps. According to Bell, they are

Street vendors, factory workers, farmers, professionals, and unemployed, they compose a national force which has sustained hungry, wounded, and abandoned survivors. Though they may be on the razor-thin edge of survival themselves, though they may already be caring for many, women have been finding and cooking food for strangers, taking in children left orphaned and others left homeless, and seeking out medical assistance and health care or improvising their own. Some have taken it upon themselves to organize education or recreation sessions for children, who have little to do since Port-au-Prince’s schools have closed. ‘It’s just our social obligation,’ said one woman.

These women, and all of the women involved in organizing in Haiti, represent individual and collective efforts that speak to the power and resilience of Haitian women in the face of tragedy.

Here are the donation links I posted in the past for women’s organizations working in Haiti.

BHM: Rutina Wesley and Her “True Blood”

I recently included Rutina Wesley on a list of potential up and comers in “young Hollywood” in response to the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition that includes no women of color. Wesley was born in a working class area of Las Vegas to a Vegas Show Girl mom and a tap dancer father; thus, dance was her first love. While Rutina’s most famous character to date is an under-educated young black woman whose bitterness defines most of her life and relationships,  Rutina herself is a classically trained actress/dancer with a degree from Julliard and a summer study at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London. Anyone who has spent time in Las Vegas schools knows that both official and unofficial tracking occurs for youth of color, particularly young women of color, so Rutina’s success was no doubt guided by the myriad of Las Vegas teachers bucking a system, dedicated parents, and her own amazing intelligence and will.

Wesley  no doubt channeled her early educational experience into her role as Reyanne, the strong female lead in the 2007 film How She Move. Her character was an aspiring medical student who had lost one of her siblings and was forced to return to the neglected public school of her youth after her family fell on hard economic times. The story centered on her sense of duty to herself, her family, and increasingly the community she left behind in the hopes of a better life. And as she defends herself and her dreams, she also helps others discover their own potential and re-discovers her own. The film centered a black female experience that recognized the humanity, intelligence, and struggle of black women abandoned by districting/red lining. By including not only Reyanne’s story but that of her female friends who were left behind, and the hopes and dreams they struggled with supposedly in her shadow, How She move moved beyond a narrative of exceptionalism to a subtle critique of gendered life in low income urban centers that work to pit women and young girls against one another and reduce them to exploitable objects. Wesley also pointed out that the character has a strong mother who is constantly encouraging her dreams . Unlike other films about young black girls that often show emotional absent or drug addicted black mothers, How She Move made sure not to vilify black motherhood while keeping the realities of working class/subsistence level existence fully centered.

How She Move also attempted to update the urban dance film genre that had largely left black women behind for stories about black male dancers and/or interracial relationships between black men and white women or between Latin@s and Anglos. Unfortunately, the market for the dance movie had already reached its saturation point and so Wesley’s work failed to reach a wide audience. However, the film was a unique addition to black herstory precisely because it centered an African American woman dancing in a male dominated competition who struggled with the dual oppressions of gender within the scene and racialized class issues within society at large. The story was not just a dance vehicle that showed off Wesley’s considerable dancing talent and played off of some half true half-imagined version of the hood, but rather a critical look at the complex negotiations of talented young black girls trying to thrive in a world that is riddled with racism, sexism, and classism from within the community and outside of it. Wesley’s performance in particular helped elevate the low production value of the film out of the realm of typical MTV exploitation film.

Where Wesley’s proud African American girl character failed to resonate with audiences, her problematic turn as Tara Thornton in True Blood has captivated them. Like the women reviewed in the previous post on The Vampire Diaries, Rutina Wesley’s role on True Blood is important partially because it integrates a genre that is increasingly devoid of racial diversity. Unlike the women on the Vampire Diaries however, Tara and her family are much more stereotype than counter-stereotype. Despite this fact, however, it is interesting to note that Tara has far more sexual agency and overall power vis-a-vis the supernatural men she encounters than the far less stereotypical Bennett women.

The Story (Note I am told that the tv show varies widely from the books which many black readers have called openly racist, & so we are focusing on the story as told by the show)

The Thorntons and the Stackhouses are neighbors in Bon Temps, a small, somewhat backwood, Louisiana town. The young girls in both families are drawn together because they are both poor and outcasts. People in Bon Temps think Sookie Stackhouse is slow because they don’t know that when she gets that glazed look in her eyes it is because she can hear their thoughts not because her own have stopped working. Tara, on the other hand, is stigmatized by her quick temper and her alcoholic mother who make the townspeople both suck their teeth and avoid her. In a desperate attempt to find friendship and safety the two girls bond and are best friends. This friendship is meant to tie the Stackhouses and the Thorntons together throughout the show, but as we shall see, it seldom resonates after the first season.

During season one of True Blood, we are introduced to Tara through an internal dialogue in which she is raging at the ignorance of the people she has to serve in her working class job and the town itself. As her raging grows louder, she has an altercation with a white customer who asks her for help finding a rake. Instead of helping, Tara launches into a verbal tirade followed by her accusing the woman and her supervisor, who fires her over the incident, of being racist. This scene solidifies the point of view of the show, which is decidedly eurocentric. Not only is Tara the stereotypical angry black woman, her rage has no explanation in this scene. She’s just angry because she is angry. Worse, when she gets caught raging and refusing to do her job, she cries racism. Thus the scene follows a narrative of the white imaginary in which racism is a figure of the black imagination; we are in a perpetual inexplicable rage that causes conflict and confusion amongst the poor white people just trying to go about their day, and if we don’t get what we want we just pull out our huge deck of race cards. Not is this ridiculous but even its profound disservice to both the character and black people in general, the scene’s ultimate conclusion with Tara losing her job proves how very useless such a card would be if in fact we had them.

As if this is not bad enough, soon after Tara is fired from her job we are introduced to her mother, a stone cold, fall down, drunk who quotes the Bible at her daughter while beating her. Like Tara, Lettie Mae Thornton is a stereotype born straight out of the Moynihan report, which referred to the female headed households of black families as a “tangle of pathology” and “fundamental source of weakness” (Moynihan: 218-19). Where Sookie Stackhouse was raised with a doting grandmother who teaches her morality and kindness, Lettie Mae is a violent and angry woman who barely swims up from the bottle long enough to tear her own child down. And we are told that part of what binds Sookie to Tara is the desire of the Stackhouses to protect her from drunken beatings in the night.

This vision of black female pathology is mediated only once in the first season, when Lettie Mae is seen to ask Adele Stackhouse to care for Tara because she cannot. In these scenes we are introduced to a mother who actually does care about her child’s emotional well-being but recognizes that her own disappointments turned to addiction prevent her from meeting those needs. It is a story, when divorced from racism, with which we can empathize. On the one hand. Lettie Mae is an addict who recognizes that in her addiction she cannot parent but her child still needs love and care. On the other, Lettie Mae is one of two main characters who is black and female and one of two who is completely dysfunctional in stereotypically racist ways. For most viewers, the brief scene that allows us to see the former is forever eclipsed by the hegemonic nature of the latter coupled with the writers utter failure to provide any back story for Lettie Mae’s behavior or any counter narrative of black female normalcy in the show. Worse, the writers have Tara Thornton telling Sookie how much she wished she was a Stackhouse and lived with them. The Blue-eyed doll of Morrison has been replaced with the blue-eyed live action figure of True Blood.

Tara is also enthralled with white men in season one; and while interracial dating is normal, unless your John Mayer, Tara’s obsession seems more about the character’s racialized self-hate brimming just below the surface than her desires. Thus she has a long time crush on Jason Stackhouse, the town slut, that is intimately mixed up with her feelings about her mother and the Stackhouses as refuge. Unfortunately for Tara, while Jason will sleep with anything that moves in Bon Temps, he apparently is another one of those guys with a “David Duke penis”, because no matter how much Tara throws herself at him, he does not even notice she is alive. While this could easily play out as an issue of desire in which Jason thinks of her as an official sibling, Jason’s entire character hinges on the fact that he doesn’t care who he sleeps with as long as he does not go to bed alone. This should make Tara easy pickings and yet it does not.

When Tara is given the opportunity to build real love near the end of the first season, it is with one Sookie’s cast offs, Sam Merlotte. In the early days of their relationship, Sam makes it very clear that his true desires lie with Sookie and Tara’s self-esteem is so low she is willing to be the Jezebel in waiting. But Sam is not a bad man, and soon he actually develops real feelings for her that her anger management issues promptly punish and try to destroy. The message, Tara is unlovable. Like the myth of the angry black woman who works men to death with her constant criticism and mood swings, Tara oscillates between rage and judgment with Sam, refusing to let him in. Their interactions are scripted to highlight her dysfunction vis-a-vis his attempts at understanding rather than give us a complex portrait of a young woman broken by abuse re-learning to love. Again the racial overtones of this relationship never allow it the depth it deserves in which come to understand the particularly brokenness both Tara and Sam seem to share.

As if to reinforce the idea of black female pathology in True Blood, the season also includes a backwoods swindler, also played by a black woman, who tells both Tara and her mother that they have demons inside them. It isn’t racism and classism in a small southern town that is making them angry and broken, it is the evil inside them. Worse, in season two, that evil will be externalized in such a way that the entire town is at risk. And part of what makes Tara and her mother at risk for both being swindled and actually possessed by a real demon, is their ignorance. That ignorance is  seemingly embodied by their belief in syncretic African inspired religion in these scenes which the show about supernatural beings depicts as sham.

Lest we miss the non-verbal cues that black people are ignorant, Tara is also a school drop out. Early in the show, Tara actually explains:

School is just for white people looking for other white people to read to them. I figure I’ll save my money and read to myself.

I don’t think there is any black person in the world who thinks this way about education. In fact, since slavery black people in the United States have struggled to get equal access to education, first risking their lives to teach each other to read and write on plantations and then risking them again to start or attend freedom schools, forcibly integrated schools, and panther schools. North American history is littered with broken, bruised, bombed, and even lynched bodies of black educators and their white allies. However, Tara’s belief that education was for white folks resonates with victim-blaming school of thought that argues black people are responsible for their own lower test scores and educational attainment because they do not put enough stock in the importance of education.

Season Two

The hope that the Thortons might get better in season two is quickly dashed by the slavery-reminiscent opening scenes with Tara’s cousin Lafayette which set the tone for the entire season.The backwoods scam, aka the mock African syncretic religious service,  Tara and her mother participated in leads to the rise of an ancient evil creature that feeds on people’s excess. Maryann Forrester, aka the Maenad, introduces violence and sexual abandon that threatens to tear the town apart.

While the whole town is under Maryanne’s spell, Tara and her mother bear the brunt of her abuse and like everything else it is tinged with racialization. Though Lettie Mae has found Jesus and subsequently sobered, she begins the season by telling Tara that she is unlovable and must move out. Like the audience, Tara is incredulous at her mother’s lack of maternal care and unrelenting judgment in the face of all the care Tara has given her in life. And though Lettie Mae tries to make up for it, even being the first to notice that Tara needs help and to seek it out for her, Maryann is there as a constant reminder that Lettie Mae is a failed mother. Several episodes are filled with Maryann, played by white actress Michelle Forbes, viciously tearing into Lettie Mae for being a bad mother, a pathological abuser, and a failed human being. The vehemence with which these scenes are written and acted was hard to watch as they dripped with unchecked racialized self-righteousness that we as the audience are supposed to overlook precisely because of how bad a mother Lettie Mae has actually been. Yet, these scenes do not mirror those of a woman defending an abused young women but rather smack of race hatred in which Maryann’s innocence and authority are assumed for no visible or explained reason. Her anger and constant derrogation far exceed her knowledge of the events or her actual support of Tara. Nor does her behavior enable Tara to find her own voice, define her own abuse, and confront it. Instead it silence and entraps her. Yet Tara drools on at her surrogate mother in the same way she once did with the elder Stackhouse. Again, the opportunity to actually explore abuse survivor narratives and resolution or conflict within abusive natal families is lost to uphold the overarching narrative of black pathology. Sadly, this is only slightly tempered by the fact Maryann is completely pathological herself since this is revealed long after she tears into Lettie Mae unchecked.

On the postive side, Tara’s sexual agency is a critical part of the show. In True Blood, in general, much of the story lines and the characters identities are tied up in who they have sex with, when, where, and how. Tara’s character is no different. That very fact is somewhat revolutionary since black women are often depicted asexual in movies and television in which they are not the main characters, and some times when they are the main characters. While the show has been extremely timid in its depiction of black gay male sexual relationships on the show, Tara’s character ensures that there is some equity in the depiction of heterosexual relationships on the show. (I discuss the good and the bad of homosexual relationships on the show in a different post.)

Until Maryann begins messing with her, Tara’s sexual agency shows real progress from her first introduction in Season One as the only unrequited Jason Stackhouse groupie to an adult relationship with series newcomer Eggs. Tara chooses who she likes and with whom she sleeps. And once she gets over Jason, she also ensures that her sexual needs are met even as she tries to figure out her emotional ones. Where she is played as purely unlovable in her relationship with Sam, she develops the ability to discuss her feelings and her needs and work on needed compromises in her relationship with Eggs. Eggs willingness to do the same, makes the relationship between them one of the most mature of the entire season and the show in general. It also a pleasant counter narrative to the stereotypical depiction of black couples as non-existent or violent, but only for a while.

Unfortunately, Tara’s relationship with Eggs is also marred by Maryann’s racialized interference. While she manipulates all of the townspeople into having sex against their will and in perverse ways (someone actually has sex with a tree at one point), she takes perverse pleasure out of making the black characters in town mix their sex with violence. Thus the same woman who dares to position herself above Tara’s mother because Lettie Mae beat her, has Eggs beat Tara while she watches. Worse, she uses magic to make Tara laps it up and beg for more. They are the only couple to whom Maryann makes this happen. In other words, the director and writers subject the audience to drawn out domestic and sexual violence scenes between Eggs and Tara in which Tara plays objectification loving black female to Eggs violent black male. Also, while all of the couples engage in sex acts forced upon them by Maryann’s presence, no other couple is depicted in increasingly bestial rape scenes in which the female partner has expressly said no before hand.

Maryann also uses this same magic to have Eggs kill people for her. Despite being able to manipulate anyone she wants and having the entire police department at her disposal, as well as being superhuman herself, Eggs is the only person she manipulates into committing murder. The number Eggs has killed under her sway is never revealed but several scenes imply there are many victims. When he discovers this, he goes to confess and is murdered by Jason Stackhouse who, of course, thinks he is a violent criminal. Like the underlining narrative of the show itself that perpetually connects black characters with violence, Jason’s white normativity makes him assume that Eggs is violent and so he shoots him. The tragedy actualized far too many times in real life in North America is played out in close up for True Blood viewers’ entertainment, just like Tara’s rape and brutal beatings.


And where is Tara’s best friend when all of this is unfolding? In season One, Sookie Stackhouse actually steals Tara’s boyfriend, not because she wants him but because of a sense of entitlement. Even though Sookie is dating Bill and has no desires for Sam, when she finds out about Tara and Sam she has the nerve to ask him if the relationship is real. For some unexplained reason, she just can’t wrap her mind around why Same would date Tara instead of pine for her. And though she has never actually dated Sam, and does not think the relationship he has with Tara means anything, she actually gives Tara permission to continue dating him. Again, some how she seems to have the right to decide what is real and what isn’t and who her black best friend can and cannot date, even though she was already doing it at the time.

Why does Sookie have the right to judge their relationship, let alone give permission for it? And if she has given permission than why does she ultimately take Sam back like a pair of borrowed socks she sees on the floor of Tara’s room? Asking these questions requires a racialized lens that subverts the centrality of the main female character of the show in order to see how identification with her excuses both patriarchy-serving gendered competition between heterosexual women and gendered racism that erases black women’s desires in order to not only privilege white women’s desires.

When Bill leaves town, Sam not only comes a runnin’ but Sookie takes Sam back first as an interested friend and then as a lover without ever asking about the impact on Tara. Like the friendship that Stefan Salvatore has with Bonnie Bennett, black women’s agency only matters to these sympathetic main characters in as much as it does not get in the way of what they want or feel they are entitled to. And like so many other shows where black people simply fade into the background when included at all, Tara disappears for several episodes while Sam and Sookie hook up. When she re-enters, there are no recriminations for Sookie’s behavior nor judgment for Sam. Tara simply agrees with Sam that they had nothing going on anyway. Tara’s decision serves two purposes, to reinforce the idea of her character as unlovable, which is underpinned by her low self-esteem and subsequent inability to fight for her relationship, and to re-establish racial hierarchies that permeate the narrative of the first season. (It should be noted that this narrative is not only present between black and white people in Bon Temps but also in the subtle differences in which white and Creole characters are developed, so that racial hierarchies in the show follow distinctly colonial gradations that place upperclass European whiteness at the top even as the narrative centers a working class white female character.)

Now ask yourself, why does Sookie think she has the right to give Tara permission to date Sam but no one thinks Sookie should ask Tara before she sleeps with her boyfriend?

Sookie is also absent in Season Two when Tara is seduced by Maryann. While this is due largely to her trip out of town with Bill and a completely separate story line that unfolds as a result, Sookie is in town when Maryann arrives and Tara is Sookie’s roommate when she leaves town. Before Sookie leaves town she registers several red flags about Maryann and does attempt to get Tara away from her influence. However, just like how Elena’s obsession with Stefan causes her to put him first at a critical moment for the Bennet women in Vampire Diaries, Sookie’s obsession with Bill ensures she does not follow up with Tara before it is too late.  She does not ask Tara what is going on and does not call to check on Tara prior to when Sookie gets kidnapped and has her own showdown to deal with. At least Elena Gilbert actually does look out for Bonnie Bennett most of the time. Even when her self-absorption costs Bonnie’s grandmother her life, Elena eventually goes over to check on Bonnie and will likely lend her comfort when the season returns. Sookie shows no similar compassion for Tara until it is far too late. And if the promos for the third season are any indication, her lack of compassion based on the centering of her own desires and the negation of Tara’s only deepens as the series continues.

When Sookie finally does return to Bon Temps and is alerted, by Tara’s relatives, to the Tara’s demise, Sookie is positioned as the Angel on high vis-a-vis Tara’s demon possession. Like a bad Beneton ad, Sookie pours out the light while Tara growls black eyed. Sookie manages to save Tara through some untapped magical goodness inside only to stand in judgment of Tara’s commitment to save Eggs. She seems horrified that Tara wants to go back for Eggs as if the life of her black boyfriend is some how less relevant than the life of either Bill, who Sookie has risked her life for on more than one occasion, or Sam, who Sookie will risk her life for before the end of the season.

Ask yourself how many times Sookie has put her life on the line for Bill or Eric, neither of whom were under the spell of a woman forcing them to beat, rape, and kill people. Why is Eggs life less important?

Like Maryann, Sookie also has harsh words for Tara’s mother, who, in recognizing the equal humanity of black characters to white ones, is swayed by tara’s argument that somebody must save Eggs. She judges Lettie Mae’s need to bond with Tara after so much abuse with complete disregard for both the underlining repositioning of black subjecthood, ie black lives matter, and the reality that while Sookie was off making sure Bill’s friends were helped, Lettie Mae was the only one who was trying to save Tara from Maryann. The irony is lost on her and is written in such a way as to ensure it is also lost on the audience. Just in case, they also have Lafayette tear into Lettie Mae with complete disregard for Eggs’ life or Tara’s love.

It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance to watch these scenes and imagine Sookie as Tara’s savior both in terms of the action of the season and in contrast to Tara’s caretaking of Sookie when her grandmother dies in the previous season. Like Bonnie in the Vampire Diaries, Tara takes the friendship to heart in ways that Sookie fails to do. While some of this is about the intoxication of new love Sookie feels, much of it is inexplicable when you add up the amount of abuse and abandonment Tara has been left to deal with in the wake of limited to no support from her best friend.


The depictions of black womanhood on this show are offensive at best and at worse they underscore much of the negative stereotypes about black women in N. American society. If you couple the depiction of black women with the stereotypical images of both black straight and gay men in this show, it isn’t hard to understand why the producers chose to include historical footage of a Klan rally in the opening credits despite no characters in the Klan on True Blood. The juxtaposition of depraved and abusive black women with magical white women caretakers whose sexual agency is always to their benefit, plays out like a bad John Mayer interview. Gone from the adult world of vampires is a real commitment to sisterhood in action, though still present in word. And while the black family in True Blood has survived two seasons while the black family in Vampire Diaries is hanging on a thread, it is clear that to truly enjoy True Blood one has to divorce it from any critical race and racialized gender analysis.

At the same time, Rutina Wesley and Adina Porter, who plays Lettie Mae, turn in powerful performances as mother and daughter. Both infuse the characters with as much critical gaze and irony as they can. In less capable hands, both of these characters would be even more offensive. Instead Wesley and Porter constantly raise the bar and attempt to re-center the gaze while working with material which I would argue is decidedly anti-black female personhood. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not, but I do know that Rutina Wesley has consistently shown the acting chops to do much better things in the future and the popularity of True Blood can only help to make that happen.



  • How She Move/MTV/ 2007
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • Fan Pic/hyrulebranch
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2009