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 /

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 / (Photo Credit 2: Queerty)

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

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: / 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)

The incarceration of a Black woman is ….”fun?”


Kemba Smith

We should listen to formerly incarcerated women when it comes to prison issues. After all, women, particularly Black women, are the fastest growing prison population in America.

For example, the recently held 2012 UCLA Law Symposium, entitled “Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization,” brought together renowned and influential thinkers and lawyers, as well as activists from non-profit organizations. All the panelists focused on incarceration, and many advocated for the creation of a “feminist, anti-racist, prison abolition coalition.”

On the first day, only two Black female panelists identified themselves as formerly incarcerated. One was Kemba Smith. She eloquently told her story. While in college, she began dating a drug dealer. Despite never having used, handled or sold crack/cocaine, Smith was sentenced to nearly 25 years in prison.

I did not catch the name of the other woman, who was filling in for the director of the non-profit where she worked. She did not tell her story, except to say that she had served time in prison. Instead, she shared the goals of her organization, and compelled conference attendees to help break the cycle of incarceration, with more urgency and less flair than Smith.

At the end of the night, I overheard a symposium attendee tell the second woman, “Your talk was really fun!” Weeks later, I’m still curious what about incarceration is “fun.”

I wish I had asked the attendee what she meant by her comment. I would guess that she was well-intentioned. Nevertheless, I wondered what it meant to call a presentation at an academic symposium “fun.” Did it serve as a compliment? Or, as it seemed to me, did it strip this woman’s narrative of legitimacy? Such a comment was not directed at Kemba Smith, the lighter-skinned Black woman who had straightened hair, and wore a suit. No, this comment was for the darker-skinned, “poorly-dressed” woman with thick braids.

How do our own perceptions of people inform our understanding of what they are qualified to say, and why we should (or shouldn’t) listen?

This conference repeatedly referenced Michel Foucault’s notions of power and surveillance, highlighted the historical legacy of slavery, reminded us of color politics and “the paper bag test,” and challenged the stereotypes that have shaped American laws and social policy. Still, we needed to revisit the basics of feminist standpoint theory and “relations between the production of knowledge and practices of power.” Standpoint theory emerged as a “way of empowering oppressed groups,” and “valuing their experiences”, but the second speaker’s experience and voice were not honored. By suggesting that this panelist’s talk was “fun,” one conference attendee discredited the panelist’s voice, merely reproducing the structures that confine and silence certain women.

Everywhere, we should welcome the voices of all women. When working towards a feminist, anti-racist, prison abolition coalition, we should especially try to include all formerly incarcerated Black women. Unfortunately, we don’t.

(Photo Credit: LA Progressive)

Education cannot be stolen, handcuffed, or imprisoned

Tanya McDowell addresses reporters

Forty some years ago Paulo Freire argued against what he called the banking model of teaching and learning. That was then. Today, the bank  is gone, and a prison stands in its place.

Ask Tanya McDowell or Mireya Gaytan.

Tanya McDowell is a Black woman, a single mother, living with her 6-year-old son. She lives, officially, in Bridgeport. `Officially’ because in fact McDowell is homeless. Or she was last April when she was arrested, in Norwalk, for stealing education. Stealing education is a first-degree larceny offense.

McDowell registered her son in Norwalk, using the address of her babysitter. When this was `discovered’, McDowell was charged with theft. Two weeks ago, she pled out, and was sentenced to five years in jail and five years probation. That’s almost a year for each year of her son’s life.

The public story is `complicated’ by McDowell’s arrests and convictions for selling drugs. Thus, the trial in Norwalk, despite her attorney’s protest, was for both the sale of narcotics and the first-degree larceny, because, somehow, these have to be taken together. That way, it can be demonstrated that Tanya McDowell is not a woman trying to get a decent education for her child. No. She’s a bad mother. She must be. She sells drugs. And she’s not only a bad mother and a drug dealer. She’s Black, homeless, unemployed, underemployed.

The story hearkens to that of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Black woman in Ohio who was found guilty of stealing education. The story is complicated by the ongoing narratives of the national and regional campaigns to criminalize Black women, and women of color, more generally.

And to criminalize their daughters as well.

Yajira Quezada is eleven years old. She lives, and goes to school, in Colorado. Earlier this week, she got into some trouble with the administration in her schooling, mouthing off or not showing proper respect or deference. So … they called in a counselor. That didn’t work. So … they called in “the school resource officer.” He handcuffed the eleven-year-old girl, took her into his squad car, and delivered her to the juvenile holding facility. As explained by the local sheriff, this is standard operating procedure for `transport’ of juveniles.

This public story is `complicated’ as well.  Children across the United States are subjected to such treatment regularly. School `resource officers’ routinely handcuff children; routinely take them off to juvenile `facilities.’ Children across the country are routinely dumped into `seclusion rooms’. Solitary confinement.  In Georgia, in Wisconsin, children have met their deaths in school-based solitary confinement.

Yajira’s mother, Mireya Gaytan, is outraged. She doesn’t want her daughter to be allowed to misbehave or show disrespect … to anyone. But she also doesn’t want her daughter to be treated as a criminal. In short, she wants her daughter to receive an education.

Tanya McDowell, Mireya Gaytan, two women in America who want their children to receive an education. Not a prison sentence. Not a death sentence. Not a criminal record. Not a trace memory on the wrists. Not a sense of overwhelming vulnerability. Not an indictment based on the color of skin, not a conviction based on where you live … or don’t.

An education.

Education is not merchandise. Those who seek education are not `clients’ or `customers’. They are human beings who know that education is always shared, always social. They are women and girls, and especially women and girls of color, who know that education cannot be stolen, handcuffed, or imprisoned.  Education is a human right, a civil right, a women’s right. Period.


(Photo Credit: Kathleen O’Rourke / Stamford Advocate)

Inside her soul: echoes II

Inside her soul: echoes II

unmade beds,
dirty clothes,
the stench of yesterday’s garbage
in my nose
and my man wonders why
i don’t love him
no more
well, he should read this poem
she’ll speak of my grief
of how I
toss and turn
toss and turn
wondering why
HE took me
from the afric’s shore
i died that day
you shackled me with your shame
my ancestral rite
of chastity
only to label me
i need purity
so I rise every morn
before the SON
to make the beds
to wash the clothes
to try and remove
the stench of garbage from my nose
noon time comes
all to soon
back broken
flesh weary
babies sold for a small sum of gold
at night
i conversate with the moon
hoping he will
give me direction
and I pray for
the resurrection
of me
pray for the day
your love no longer enslaves me
pray for the day when echoes of the past no longer haunt me…


The peculiar women

Women are the peculiar of the contemporary world. Two recent articles, published on the same day, suggest as much. Here are five aspects of the women-peculiar.

The peculiar trend

Girls’ sports events bring more cash and more carriers than do boys’: “As the popularity of youth tournaments has intensified over the past decade, a peculiar trend has emerged: girls’ sporting events tend to attract more relatives and generate more revenue for tourism than similar events for boys. And that is drawing increased attention from economic development officials. `There are far more people who will travel with 12-year-old girls than even 12-year-old boys,” said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, a trade group that advises communities on attracting sporting events. “And vastly more people will travel with 12-year-old girls than 18-year-old boys.’”

Whether this reported trend is bogus or not, what would make it peculiar?

The peculiar sensation

On the same day, Saaret E. Yoseph reported on watching a KGB commercial that featured an all Black female cast, and wondered, “Why can’t ads get Black women right?” Good question. Here are the first two paragraphs of her reflection:

“`It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’

—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

I wonder if the peculiar sensation W.E.B. Du Bois had in mind when writing The Souls of Black Folk is the same one I get when watching KGB’s latest ad. The directory assistance turned question-and-answer text service has me experiencing the 21st century version of double-consciousness—an American Negro woman, a consumer—two warring identities and one bad commercial break.”

When Du Bois wrote about peculiar sensation, he placed that between being-a-problem and becoming-a-coworker. “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.” For Du Bois, the peculiar sensation begins there, with the real question that elicits seldom a response, that is, the question of the Black Real.

The goal of the Black Real project is simple: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self….This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius”.

For Du Bois, the question of the Black Real was the question of the Black Man: “For Du Bois, the African American male was the paradigmatic Black intellectual”. The Black Woman? The “American Negro woman”? She did not attain the status of problem. She was peculiar.

As she is today: “For black American women, our two-ness is never more evident than when people are trying to sell us something. As advertisers vie for our attention, the incongruity of our two identities—who we are and who we are perceived to be—could not be more clear than in those 32 seconds.”

The peculiar paradox

Jayathi Ghosh has a new book out, Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India. I hope to read it soon. A recent review quoted Ghosh as having written: “We have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work….[These] indicate the reduced economic and social bargaining power of women as workers”.

Women’s peculiar paradox, in the neoliberal political economy, is that the more they work, the fewer jobs they have, the less wealth they have, the greater debts they incur, all the while suffering a reduction in economic and social bargaining power, as workers, as women workers, as women, at home, in the streets, in the so-called work sites.

The peculiar institution

In United States history, peculiar is a key word. Plantation owners, and for generations after them historians, referred to slavery as the peculiar institution. Kenneth Stampp, who died earlier this month, wrote The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, published in 1956. That book “juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.”

The slaves never referred to slavery as `peculiar’. Slaves never referred to those who claim to be their owners as `peculiar’. Slaves never refer to their situation today as `peculiar’.  The `peculiar’ of the `peculiar institution’, slavery, was not the peculiar of odd or strange. It was the peculiar of the slave woman and of the women in patriarchy, although neither figured prominently in Stampp’s account.

The peculiar

The peculiar trend, the peculiar sensation, the peculiar paradox: these are terms of art for the categories of woman and of women. Peculiar means particular, of one’s own, odd or eccentric. Peculiar, from peculiare, a sixth century word meaning private property … sort of. Peculiare derives from peculium, which meant “money or property managed by a person incapable of legal ownership.” Under Roman law, it was the “property which a paterfamilias allowed a member of his family, or a master allowed his slave, to hold and administer, and, within limits, to alienate, as though it were his or her own.” Paterfamilias to family, which actually here means wife, master to slave, they’re  the same.

So, when I read that New York City has decided to help the homeless by buying them one-way tickets `back home’, or that England has decided to help asylum seekers, especially women and children, by eliminating services, I think, “How peculiar.” How peculiar indeed.

(Photo Credit: K. M. Dayashankar / Frontline)