Despite Restrictions and Voter Suppression, African Americans Carry Alabama Forward

There was a morbid thought during the special election on December 12th, that Alabama would elect an accused pedophile, anti-gay and anti-abortion as Senator to replace Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions. As election results trickled in, it seemed that Alabamians would do just that; but in a surprise upset, Doug Jones won a senate seat that has not been occupied by a Democrat since 1992, and that was all thanks to Black women and Black men.

To say that African Americans faced an uphill battle getting to the polls is an understatement. As the election wore on, reports of voter suppression came in droves. By 3:24 pm, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law voter hotline had received 235 calls. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund began collecting reports about people being put on inactive status, and either prevented from voting or given provisional ballots to cast their vote. To deter people from voting, police began showing up at polling stations, most notably in Montgomery, where in previous elections police checked voters for outstanding warrants.

Those were just the obstacles on election day. In 2011, Alabama passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Voters must have at least one of several specific kinds of photo ID to cast their ballot, including;

  • Driver’s License;
  • Non-Driver ID;
  • US Passport;
  • Student or employee ID at a college or university in Alabama; or
  • Military or Tribal ID

Under the guise of stopping voter election fraud, which rarely occurs, these laws disproportionately impact Black voters, who are often likely to have the means to obtain a voter ID. Since 25% of Alabama’s electorate is Black and Black residents tend to vote Democrat, having proper IDs was going to be crucial in this race. In a close election, the turnout that is impacted by voter ID laws, reducing it by a percentage point or two, could have swung the race.

Despite restrictions and reports of voter suppression, African Americans went to the polls, and gave Jones the votes he needed to eke out a victory over Moore. Over 98% of Black women and 93% of Black men voted for Jones, It was Black women and Black men who handed Jones his victory. Despite his anti-gay, sexist, racist, and homophobic rhetoric, despite multiple women accusing him of molesting them when they were teenagers, Moore was still able to capture a very sizeable portion of the white women vote.

White women, at this point we need to decide, right now, whether we want to join Black women and men and fight back against racism and sexism in politics, and everywhere, or continuously fight to maintain our white privilege in the face of rising gender inequality. We should not be fighting to put a child predator in the Senate; there shouldn’t have been a chance that would have happened. The fact that some women had to struggle, internally, to vote against Moore is egregious. And yet, here we are.

To the Democratic Party, there needs to be some serious discussion on how to give full representative voices to African Americans and minorities other than praying that they pull through during elections and save us from falling further away from common decency. We only give our thanks and strength to minorities when it benefits us politically; we are no closer to passing a clean DREAM Act, despite the fact that Democrats overwhelming voted to fund the government while undocumented minorities face the threat of deportation. Black communities are still reeling from mandatory minimums and three strike laws that were a part of Democratic President Bill Clinton’s “Tough on Crime” agenda, ballooning the already rising prison population and moving us into being one of the largest jailers in the world, and those incarcerated are disproportionately African American women and men. If you want to thank a Black woman or Black man for their part in the defeat of a child molester (especially since white men and women weren’t motivated to do so), start by addressing the damage that has been done to Black communities, and work to give back to them.

Today, we should be feel victorious. Tomorrow we need to work harder.

Lisa McNair, sister of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing, hears the news

 

(Image Credit: The Washington Post) (Photo Credit: The Root / Mickey Welsh)

The shaming of Black Women’s bodies cannot continue to be a casual matter

Pretoria Girls High. A disgraceful bastion of White privilege and ongoing violence against the Black psyche. It joins University of Free State, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch, Wits and so many other historically White institutions that remind us and now our children that we are visitors to our own country and extras in the imperial imagination. As a mother of two dreadlocked/braided teen girls, I salute these girls aged 12 to 18 who are rejecting the body shaming that insists that afros, dreadlocks and braids are ”dirty and messy” and the cultural genocide that does not want African pupils to speak African languages to each other at school, the criminalising of their movements that surveys Black girls when they are in groups of more than 2.

I recall being body shamed all through High School because of my baby fat and beautiful African bum. It was brutal. The shaming of Black Women’s bodies cannot continue to be a casual matter. It is violent. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Racist South Africa where White minority imagination is resisting the liberation project and where the revolution IS being televised. Just like 1976, language and Black being are sites of contestation. This Women’s Month is far more meaningful and has done far more to honour the spirit of the 1956 Women’s March than the pointless, vacuous , de-radicalised , ”soft and fluffy” celebrations of the past 15 years. Thank you Khwezi 4, thank you Marikana widows, thank you Caster Semenya and thank you Pretoria Girls High.

Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters. In case I haven’t told you today – you are valuable, loved, precious and powerful. Speak even if your voice shakes and fight even while you are scared. I LOVE you Black Child, Black Girl, and I stand with you. You give me such hope and courage. #Racism and imperialism ARE falling #Afros and Dreadlocks are Rising.

What happened to Sarah Reed? The routine torture of Black women in prison

Sarah Reed

On January 11, Sarah Reed, 32 years old, Black, living with mental health issues and drug addiction, the victim of a famous police brutality case, was “found dead” in her cell at Holloway Prison, north of London. Her death went relatively unreported for almost a month, until the family managed to contact Black activist, Lee Jasper, and so now the reports of “failings” begin. There was no failure. The State got what it wanted: Sarah Reed is dead.

In 2012, Sarah Reed was viciously attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer. The attack was caught on camera, and, in 2014, the officer was dismissed from the force.

In October 2014, Sarah Reed was in a mental health hospital when she allegedly attacked someone. Her family says she wrote to them saying she had acted in self-defense. On January 4, Sarah Reed was shipped over to Holloway Prison, to await trial. While there, according to her family, she received no mental health treatment.

Prison authorities have claimed that Sarah Reed “strangled herself” while in her bed. Her family doubts that narrative. Further, they say they were called to the prison to identify Sarah Reed and then were prevented from seeing her body and were treated “in a hostile and aggressive manner.”

None of this is new, and none of it is surprising. Holloway Prison, the largest women’s prison in western Europe, is slated to be closed, precisely because it is unfit for human habitation. As outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, noted, “Holloway has a fearsome reputation.” When Holloway’s imminent closure was announced, some hoped that the closure would begin a “prison revolution”, but they had forgotten that Holloway had already undergone its revolution. From 1971 to 1985, it had been “completely rebuilt”, and yet it remained a fearsome, loathsome place.

That’s where the State sent Sarah Reed. There was no failure. The State wanted Sarah Reed dead, and Sarah Reed is dead. What happened to Sarah Reed happened to Sandra Bland happened to Natasha McKenna happened to Kindra Chapman happens. Rebuilding the prison never ends, or even diminishes, State torture of Black women. Shut it down.

 

(Photo Credit: Lee Jasper / Vice)

Shonda Walter, a 36-year-old Black woman on Pennsylvania’s death row

Shonda Walter, 2005

Shonda Walter is one of two women who currently sits on Pennsylvania’s death row. Pennsylvania has two women’s prisons, Muncy and Cambridge Springs. Muncy is both maximum security and the intake prison for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania. Muncy also houses Pennsylvania’s death row for women. Every woman prisoner in Pennsylvania first comes to Muncy, where her `security level’ is assigned, based on an assessment of criminal record, medical, mental health, and substance abuse. Lower security prisoners are sent to Cambridge Springs; the rest stay at Muncy. The question of how Shonda Walter’s ended up on death row may be the final nail in the coffin of the death penalty in the United States. Shonda Walter’s story hinges on the State-allotted destiny for young, low and no-income, Black women.

Shonda Walter was tried and convicted for murder. At the time of the murder, Shonda Walter was in her early 20s. At her first trial, Shonda Walter’s lawyers were a hot mess. They freely conceded her guilt to the jury, and they never presented her, or the jury, with any options or explanations. In her appeal, the judge described her attorney as “unintelligible.” The Pennsylvania appeals court found that Shonda Walter had indeed had terrible representation, and then went on to uphold the conviction and sentence.

Shonda Walter is a 36-year-old Black woman, and that is where the Constitution ends.

Shonda Walter has new attorneys who have filed a brief with the Supreme Court. Her attorneys argue that the ordinariness, the typicality, of Shonda Walter’s case, or pre-ordained fate, means the death penalty is unconstitutional. The adjudication of death sentences is capricious, arbitrary, and bears more than a `taint of racism.’

In an amicus brief, a group of social scientists zeroed in on Pennsylvania’s racist patterns: “Social science researchers have … turned their attention to Pennsylvania. One study on the role of race in capital charging and sentencing found that African Americans in Philadelphia receive the death penalty at a substantially higher rate than defendants of other races prosecuted for similar murders.”

Further, across the country. African Americans are systematically removed from capital offense juries. In Pennsylvania, “prosecutors struck on average 51% of the black jurors they had the opportunity to strike, compared to only 26% of comparable non-black jurors.”

As Shonda Walter’s attorneys’ conclusion suggests, none of this is new: “There is a palpable inevitability to the demise of the death penalty in this country. Whether it be now or in the future, the cast of its last libretto will be a familiar one: an innocent victim senselessly murdered, a psychologically damaged defendant, a lawyer with at least one foot on the disfavored side of Strickland’s Maginot line. And, as here, the case will have progressed through a system overshadowed by interminable delays, arbitrary and discriminatory application, and the now inescapable conclusion that too often we err in a way no court can mitigate.”

Too often we err in a way no court can mitigate. Another world must be possible.

 

(Photo Credit: The Marshall Project / Bill Crowell / The Express / AP)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women living with mental illness

Pennsylvania has a special treatment for those living with severe mental illness: torture. If someone who’s been arrested cannot assist in his or her own defense, the judge orders competency restoration treatment. If the defendant’s competency is restored, the case goes forward. If it is not restored, the case is dismissed and the person either is released or “civilly committed.” That’s what is supposed to happen. In Pennsylvania, there’s a third way, a purgatory of uncivil commitments. In Pennsylvania, people sit in county jails, more often than not in solitary, for months and years, waiting for a bed. In recent years, at least two people have died while waiting. They may have been the lucky ones.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed suit on behalf of eleven plaintiffs, whom they describe as part of “hundreds of people with severe mental illness who have been languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails.” The lead plaintiff, J.H., is a homeless African-American man in his late 50s from Philadelphia who suffers from schizophrenia. J.H. was arrested for having stolen three Peppermint Pattie candies. For that crime, he has been sitting in the Philadelphia Detention Center for over 340 days, waiting for treatment. What becomes a dream deferred? “J.H.’s mental state has visibly deteriorated over the past eleven months in jail. Prior to his most recent detention, J.H. never displayed hostility, was relatively engaged during conversations, and was willing and able to answer simple questions. Now, he is visibly agitated, hostile, and unable or unwilling to engage in conversation.” The rest is silence.

Federal courts have decided that any delay longer than seven days between a court’s commitment order and hospitalization for treatment is unconstitutional. In Philadelphia, the average wait is 397 days. From January to September 2015, 23 individuals arrested in Philadelphia entered into restoration treatment. Of that group, three waited more than 500 days, one of whom waited 589 days. What do you think happens to someone living with severe mental illness who “awaits transfer” for 400 and more days?

Of the eleven plaintiffs, seven are African American. Two are women, both of whom are African American.

L.C. is a Black woman in her mid-20s “who suffers a mental impairment.” She’s been in and out of the criminal justice system. On November 13, 2014, L.C. was found incompetent to stand trial. After not becoming competent at the Philadelphia Detention Center, the court committed L.C. to competency restoration treatment on February 12, 2015. “L.C. has been detained for more than eight months (over 250 days) in the Philadelphia Detention Center since the order, awaiting an opening for treatment.”

What is like to await an opening? “L.C.’s mental state has deteriorated substantially during her stay at the Philadelphia Detention Center. In November 2014, L.C. was not competent but she was conversant with her public defender. In December, L.C. was screaming answers to questions, seemingly trying to talk over whatever she was hearing. By February 2015, L.C. had declined severely. She still screamed answers to her lawyer’s questions, but now the answers did not make sense. She also could not remain seated. In early June, she refused to see her lawyer at all. By late June, she sat through an interview sucking her thumb, refusing to make eye contact, and staring blankly. In late August, L.C. would not respond to any questions from her lawyer.”

On June 26, 2014, Jane Doe, in her early 40s, was found incompetent to stand trial. 480 days later, nearly 16 months, Jane Doe is still awaiting transfer: “Jane Doe’s mental and physical health has deteriorated in the nearly 16 months she has been waiting. She has lost noticeable weight. Prior to her most recent confinement at the Philadelphia Detention Center, Jane Doe would have discussions with her lawyer about her case. For the past year or more, she has refused to discuss the case and instead talks about having aliens and space ships in her body, and about being married to Jesus Christ. She has become much more delusional.”

According to ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walcak, “Our clients in this case are the forgotten among the forgotten. Most of these people have no family, friends or champions in their lives, and no one listens or understands them; they truly are voiceless and defenseless, unable to challenge their unjust and blatantly illegal imprisonment.”

Jane Doe, L.C., J.H. and all the others are now voiceless and defenseless. They weren’t when they were arrested. They were all at varying levels of discursive competence. Each could talk with his or her attorney. They simply needed help, treatment, and the embrace of the human. Instead, they were cast to the Commonwealth rung of hell, a factory that crushes bones, souls and minds in order to produce anguish, delusion, silence, after which all is blank.

 

(Photo Credit: Stephanie Aaronson / Philly.com)

Black Lives Matter, ACT UP, and let the naysayers be damned

All movements for justice that have participated in direct actions have been maligned. Actions have been called misguided and worse by non-participants. There’s a place and time for righteous criticism but it’s not outside the doors of a movement. It’s inside, with the strategists and actors and real-world risk takers.

The last two days I have been thinking about when ACT UP burst onto the scene. I was young, a teenager, and a huge number of my friends then were gay and artists and musicians and most of them are dead. They died fast and ugly and with lesions and mostly alone. I remember how even hugging my friends in hospitals seemed like an act of resistance. That’s how deep the lies were, the fears.

And I didn’t know how to process so much loss before I was 21, but I do know how nasty the comments were when ACT UP disrupted Wall St trading for the first time in history, when they interrupted the nightly news, when activists got Body Positive naked in Manhattan. And I do know after there at least began to be a public discussion about how to save lives, a conversation that had previously been viciously squashed by the Reagan administration and stigmatized by the wider society. And then public and private funding increased for research. And more people lived. And we stopped having to whisper that someone we loved had AIDS. And there is so much more to do about HIV/AIDS especially for Black people, people living in the Global South and people living in poverty but there was also a beginning and it ACTed the fuck UP and every person in reach of this post who cares about Black lives should too and let the naysayers be damned.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Naomi Ishisaka / http://ijoarts.com) (Photo Credit 2: http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com)

Productively and Respectably Drowning: Black Women’s Fight for Collective Freedom

We are all drowning. We are all drowning while upholding a repressive system that can never provide freedom and justice for all women, a system in which a cycle of violence, suffering, and mass incarceration seems inevitable. We are Black women, arguably the most dehumanized and undervalued identity group. To be Black and also a woman places one in a position of endless performance and scrutiny. It’s tiring and so many cannot meet the standards that are set. Even when some of these benchmarks are met, expectations shift. We’re hunted and no matter what steps we take we are failures. So whom should we blame? Is it the lazy women who simply don’t have the capabilities to succeed, or the system that views them as unworthy, dehumanizes them, and resorts to violence to rid them of any thought of freedom?

The entire system is guilty. Capitalism is committed to the racism and sexism that demeans and imprisons Black women. Despite its violence, the system finds the most creative ways to justify its contradictions and injustices. Imagining a world where everyone recognizes this and strives to make amends is a real challenge. At this moment I feel deeply that there are generations of Black women who have never envisioned freedom. I know deeply that we have invested in a system that continues to fail us.

Since Trayvon Martin was murdered, there has been a slow awakening, or revitalization, of a younger generation that forgot the history of racial oppression that has always existed in this country. Their eyes opened, articles were shared, collective actions were planned, coalitions called for justice. But who is deserving of this justice? The #BlackLivesMatter movement was created by Black women and has progressed due to the efforts and outright fear and anger of Black women around the world. Yet, these women, Black women, are continuously erased from the narrative of state brutality. People of color become synonymous with men of color and the strength of the collective is weakened.

There can only be surface level reform if civil rights activists and everyday citizens feel compelled to protest and cry when Black men like Eric Gardner are brutally murdered by the state, but remain silent as women like Rekia Boyd and Natasha McKenna are tossed away. Why is it easier to mourn the loss of Black men than Black women? Are we convinced that when a woman experiences violence she brought it on herself or have Black women been so dehumanized that they are considered undeserving of justice, of freedom?

Last week, I attended an event in DuPont Circle, Washington, DC, entitled “Vigil for Rekia Boyd, Black Women, Trans Women, and Girls,” and then later in the evening attended a Justice for Freddie Gray march. The vigil in DuPont was amazing because it highlighted the plight of incarcerated and marginalized Black women within the civil rights narrative. There exists a narrative that asks Black women to choose their Blackness and align with Black men on every issue or choose their womanhood and go against Black men. That narrative is beyond trite. Black women are always both: Black and woman. Those identities cannot be separated and does not excuse a submission to patriarchal tendencies of Black male leaders. Together, in a space with women of color, everyone flourished. Voices that had been squashed spoke their truths and the need for continual spaces of mutual understand was highlighted.

So, we fight. Once we collect one golden moment and can begin to picture what collective freedom involves, we want more. The fight is not easy. Black women are hunted, disregarded, and divided. Does a single mother working a minimum wage job have the same time to envision freedom as a full-time student whose only real job is to consume knowledge? These are extremes but they must be considered when we speak about the collective and teaching empowerment. Some people live in fear that they have more to lose than others.

It’s all so heavy. What a burden, to be targeted, devalued, yet expected to perform to standards that are always shifting. So we drown, we come up for air momentarily, and then we sink again. Collective freedom will not come instantaneously. It’s a process that will take generations and generations but the goal is to break away from chains that have held us down for centuries. We deserve more than survival. We deserve freedom from capitalism, a system that divides us and perpetuates racism, sexism, and patriarchy. Regardless of status or educational level, Black women have been expelled from the dominant political economy and we must find new spaces of hope. We have been controlled by a violent empire and denied tenderness and understanding.

If more spaces for Black women open up in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Black women may be able to create their own space and discover tenderness as freedom. Tenderness as currency. Tenderness as motivation to collaborate. Tenderness to bring about change. Tenderness that is hard and critical; tenderness that allows all us to inhale and find comfort in each other.

 

(Image Credit: Black Left Unity Blog blunblog.org)

The UK built a special hell for African women: Yarl’s Wood

Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is as it has always been: notoriously rotten to the core. It’s a terrible idea horribly implemented in an architecture of abuse and atrocity. This has been more or less public knowledge for quite some time. Periodically, individual stories of pain, suffering, death emerged, and Yarl’s Wood would once again receive its fifteen minutes of infamy, and then recede into the cozy comforts of willed unconsciousness. Revelations this past week might change that tempo a bit. This week, we saw the fiber of Yarl’s Wood, and it’s designed to strangle African women.

On Monday, England’s Channel 4 broadcast Crying to Get Out, an undercover investigative report, one of the rare visual documents of life, and death, inside “secretive” Yarl’s Wood. While the report does have the first pictures from inside Yarl’s Wood, the aural record is far more telling. Listen to what the guards say in open conversation.

A manager explains `the situation’, “They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. They’re caged animals. Right? Take a stick in with you and beat them up.” A guard generalizes, ”They’re all b*****ds. I don’t like any of them.” Another reflects on the rising incidence of self-harm, “They are all slashing their wrists apparently. Let them slash their wrists.” When a third hears that a woman attacked a guard, he replies, “Should’ve f**king headbutted the b****. Headbutt the b****. I’d beat her up.”

And who are “they”? And who is “she”? On the one hand, they’re women, women asylum seekers, pregnant women, and, now, women prisoners, for the crime of having sought haven. The film mentions a Chinese woman, a Sri Lankan woman, but “they” for whom the most severe violence is reserved are African women.

A guard describes the scene when women resist forced removal, “They take their clothes off, right [to resist forced removal]. Not normally Jamaicans. But it’s a very common thing with African ladies. They’re never slim and petite and pretty.”

Another guard explains, “Some of those women in there are horrible. They are really, really horrible. They’re evil. There’s a lot of them that are really nice. But some of them, these Black women, they’re f***king horrible,”

Something is indeed f***king horrible in the state of the United Kingdom: Yarl’s Wood, and the entire `immigrant detention enterprise.’ Serco has fired a couple guards and the Home Office has proposed using body cameras. That intentionally misses the point. Guards spoke their disgust and hatred openly because disgust and hatred of Black women aka African women are corporate and State policy.

Since Monday’s broadcast, Parliament received a damning cross party report on the use of immigrant detention in the United Kingdom; former prisoners of Yarl’s Wood have spoken out of the institutional reign of terror and atrocity; current prisoners are engaged in peaceful protest and perhaps a hunger strike; and Nigerian lesbian asylum seekers Aderonke Apata’s hearing began, during which she has been subjected to one racist homophobic Home Office claim after another. This is the State of Yarl’s Wood, and over its entrance there should be a sign that reads: “But some of them, these Black women, they’re f***king horrible.” Yarl’s Wood is meant to be a special hell for African women. Don’t fix it. Shut it down.

 

(Photo and video credit: Channel4.com / YouTube)

Virginia `pays’ for decades of forced sterilization of women

 

On Thursday, February 26, the Virginia legislature agreed to pay $25,000 in compensation to those who had suffered forced sterilization during the Commonwealth’s decades long adventure in eugenics. From 1924 to 1979, over 8000 people were involuntarily sterilized under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. It’s believed that 65,000 people nationwide were forcibly sterilized, and so, at over 12% of the total, Virginia holds pride of place. But there’s more. Virginia was the model for many states across the United States and for the German Nazi eugenics program. The line from Richmond to the Third Reich is direct.

More than a fifth of those sterilized in Virginia were African American, and more than two-thirds were women. Virginia’s longstanding war on Black women took many shapes, and the argument was always security and the well being of something called society. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s sterilization program. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” By enough, he meant too much.

Virginia’s sterilization program sat comfortably at the intersection of gender, race, class, disability, and confinement. The overwhelming majority of those sterilized were “patients” of state institutions. They weren’t patients; they were prisoners.

In 1985, Virginia finally agreed to inform survivors of their sterilization and to provide them with counseling services. In 2002, then Governor Mark Warner formally apologized for Virginia’s shameful part in eugenics. In 2014, Delegate Patrick Hope, from Arlington County, began pushing for compensation, and that’s what was established yesterday. Yesterday, Del. Hope explained, “I think it’s a recognition when we do something wrong we need to fix it as a government. Now we can close this final chapter and healing can begin.”

Does healing begin this way? The compensation is a step in the right direction. At the same time, the survivors number only eleven. More to the point, what of the system of law, medicine, education, and State that supported the forced sterilization of over 5000 women, all in the name of preserving the health and well being of something called society? That healing has not begun, not while so many of their sisters, nieces, grand nieces, and the list goes on, languish in prisons and jails across the Commonwealth, and across the nation, today. The kind of healing of which Delegate Hope speaks and for which he yearns cannot be purchased. It is not for sale. It must emerge from sustained recognition of responsibility combined with recognition of the subjects of this history. Women. Black women. Black women living with disabilities. Poor Black women living with disabilities. That healing has yet to begin.

 

(Photo Credit: The Institute for Southern Studies)

From “Mammy” to Stay-at-Home Mom

Eugene and Helene Allen with their son, Charles, in 1948

Eugene and Helene Allen with their son, Charles, in 1948

What caught my attention in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” was not the character Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, but rather his wife, Gloria, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey. In addition to the representation of a White House butler, the film depicts an African American wife and mother whose husband’s gainful employment allows her to remain home and rear the couple’s two sons: an anomaly in the portrayal of black women in the history of Hollywood movies. Many persons with whom I discussed the film overlook this fact. At the same time, this depiction of a black woman conjures up a salient and often contested aspect of black women’s history in the U.S. That is, there was, and continues to be, a cadre of stay-at-home black wives and mothers rearing their children, taking care of their husbands and partners, and being active in their communities and churches.

So while the film unveiled the life of the character Cecil Gaines, I was more intrigued by the development of his wife, Gloria, because too many Hollywood films continue to portray African American women as caricatures, mammies, and jezebels or some semblance of all three. I watched the Gloria character intently despite my ongoing disappointment with the inability of Oprah to produce a film that allows me a glimpse into the black life that rings true to my experience and my reservations about her acting (Am I the only person not enthralled by Oprah’s acting?).

As a former maid, Gloria recognizes how coveted the position is that her husband has landed at the White House. She reminds her neighbors “the White House called him” stressing the level at which Cecil has mastered the skill of being in a room without being noticed, anticipating a person’s needs, and speaking only when being spoken to: the criteria for being an excellent butler. Gloria’s elation soon gives way to anger and loneliness, which she attempts to mitigate with drinking and possibly an affair with a neighbor, as she loses her husband to his job.

Despite the film’s pat domestic ending, allowing viewers to depart the theater with the delusion that some progress has been made in race relations in the United States and in the representation of African Americans in Hollywood films, the film nonetheless stirs up complicated questions about wage disparity versus job security, generational alliances versus intergenerational conflicts, and the sacrifice of self and family for inclusion within the status quo and an opportunity to sit at the table.  But what is more important to me is that Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” shatters a poignant stereotype of the black woman as mammy only to re-inscribe the black man as stepin fetchit, holding Cecil Gaines fast within a frame that keeps him passive, self-sacrificing, and more in love with the first families and their children than he is with his own son.

Despite the lecture about the potential subversiveness of the black domestic given by Dr. King in the film to a group of Freedom Riders, one of whom is Cecil Gaines’ son, I still await the day when filmmakers, other than Spike Lee, will produce a film with characters who resemble some of the black people whom I have known in my life, those persons who have truly been subversive and paid the price for their resistance.

 

(Photo Credit: History vs. Hollywood)