Black Press, Queer Lives

Stemming from the incidents of violence like Gemmel Moore, Jussie Smollett, countless Black trans women, and other LGBTQ+ individuals, recent online discourse has sparked conversation concerning the coverage, or lack thereof, of LGBTQ+ related events. Particularly, in the Black press. Many Black LGBTQ+ individuals are discontented with how Black media outlets are choosing to cover stories concerning Black queer lives. Murdered Black boys, such as Gemmel Moore and Giovanni Melton, received little to no coverage from the Black press. And in Gemmel’s case, when it was covered, it seemed to more about him being a sex worker (why there is nothing wrong with, #SupportSexWorkers) instead of the circumstances of his death (#ArrestEdBuck). In Jussie’s case, the reporting on it was polarizing. Because of his fame and visibility, It was widely reported, but the Black publications refused to acknowledge the homophobia of the attack and gay publications refused to acknowledge the racism of the attack. On both ends, each undermined his identity to fit whatever narrative they were attempting to disseminate. The overall lack of coverage concerning the violence against Black trans women, the silence is deafening and disheartening. It seems that only Black LGBTQ+ folks (and publications) care about Black LGBTQ+ issues, and that is reflective in the coverage of Black media outlets.

But, this is not a new phenomenon. There is a compelling (and ongoing) history of the Black press in relation to Black queer lives and stories. Particularly, Ebony and Jet were the two most popular and accessible magazines for Black folks as early as the 1950s. As a result, both publications played a significant role in constructing communal concern. For all intents and purposes, Ebony and Jet for the voices of the Black community – the “for us, by us” model that is so prevalent in contemporary culture.

Following The Second World War, the nation experienced a queer sexual awakening. This is not to say that non-heterosexual identities and behaviors did not exist before the war, but a significant number of men and women were forced (drafted or enlisted) outside of their strict heterosexual, patriarchal expectations of living. Put in single-sex, close quarters living arrangements, they were able, many for the first time, to discover new sexualities that they had not previously thought about or experienced, or gave them the opportunity to explore and/or pursue desires they have always had (although this is very white-middle class-centric narrative because many scholars and historians have reported that many working-class Black communities were open to non-heteronormative behaviors and relationships, but that’s another topic for another time). As John D. Emilio delineates, the war “created a new erotic situation conducive to homosexual expression (Capitalism and Gay Identity, 52).” Nevertheless, the war queered the American landscape and there was no turning back. Ebony and Jet were at the forefront of covering postwar LGBTQ+ happenings, while white publications refused to acknowledge or report on or about the community.

Ebony and Jet would publish stories, in a rather positive and celebratory fashion, about drag balls, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming identities, and other Black queer happenings of the time. Kevin J. Mumford reports that the publications “pushed the boundaries of respectability” in the 50s with their queer reporting (as well as their reporting on miscegenation, racial passing and sex scandals). Ebony reported on Georgia Black, “a man who had passed for a woman for 30 years (Mumford 43).” Similarly, Jet frequently ran stories of drag queens (mainly cis men impersonating cis women such as Josephine Baker, Mae West, and Lena Horne) and transgender folks, following their journey of gender reassignment surgery. Among the queer reporting was also Gladys Bentley, a popular “bull dagger” performer. Although there was debate of the Black press’ intentions, whether they were fulfilling their audience’s desire for queer scandal and sentimentalism or if they were genuinely concerned with queer lives and news, Black publications such as Ebony and Jet “rebell[ed] against the constraints of both white repression and Black respectability (44).”

Moving into mid-1960s, a shift from gender and sexual inclusive reporting to respectable appeasement occurred in the Black press. A combination of the Civil Right Movements (and its adherence to respectability politics – no shade, just facts), the struggle of Black masculinity, and the popularity of the (homophobic ass) Moynihan Report, discouraged (some) Black press away from queer causes, identities, and events. Mumford writes, “by the mid-1960s, Jet ran noticeably fewer stories dealing with queer themes, such as female impersonation and sexology, than it had in its first years (56).” He adds that reports on gays declined as well,

“Perhaps the most important reason for the fewer stories publicizing the queer mix of miscegenation, scandal, and homosexuality had to do with history itself. By the 1960s, black politics was a pervasive concern, civil rights demonstrations dominated the news, and stories on progress and setbacks in race relations took up more and more space (56).”

It became apparent the “voices of the Black community” grew less concerned with Black queer happenings and more with Black civil rights concerns – as if they were not one in the same. It was apparent that there was a hierarchy of concern and Black queer lives were at the bottom.

It’s reflective of “Black first” politics of today, which is reflective of “Black citizenship” politics of the 20th century. Both subvert the importance, authenticity, and validity of Black queer lives for the primary advancement of Black cishet, male lives. Which is not about racial liberation, but about proximity to whiteness through the cis-patriarchal oppression of Black queer folks, women, and children.

I know that Black History Month is a joyous time to celebrate our Blackness, but I also think it’s important to tell full histories. Especially ones that are important to the current cultural climate. Additionally, this is not a sad story. Where other Black press dropped the ball, Black queer press picked it up and scored. A publications like BLK and Black/Out provided critical and much needed approach to Black queer happenings of the 80s and 90s. And today, we have publications like (the newly reconstructed) Out Magazine, Them, Black Youth Project, Slay TV, EFNIKS and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting (charge it to my head not my heart), that are giving us quality news on Black queer lives, issues, happenings, and events that should be appreciated and supported.

I say all of this to say, the relationship between the Black press and Black queer lives is complicated and layered. When we write and report on Black queer lives halfheartedly, ambiguously, or neglectfully, we cheapen and erase history and that is unacceptable. We, Black queer folk, deserve the respect of full and accurate histories.

We can worry about more than one thing at time: Surviving R. Kelly & Government Shutdown

The Surviving R. Kelly documentary on Lifetime, a six-part docuseries that outlines in grave detail the mental, physical, and sexual abuse and trauma that R. Kelly has inflicted on countless Black women and girls, aired six installments over the course of three-nights during the first weekend of 2019. Kelly, given his legendary status as a musician, especially among Black folks, R. Kelly’s infractions have been widely discussed on the internet over the course of the weekend. In response to the ubiquitous discourse surrounding R. Kelly and the docuseries, I have seen posts across social media that claim the docuseries is a ‘distraction’ from other issues such as the government shutdown the country is currently experiencing. Some of these post read along the lines of, “Don’t let this R. Kelly shit distract ya’ll. The government has been shut down for days.” I just want to briefly delineate why this argument is foolish and built on feeble foundation.

First and foremost, people are capable of caring about more than one issue at a time. Just because one issue is currently being discussed doesn’t mean it’s a distraction or that other issues are being forgotten. Following this logic, everyone only has the mental capacity to care about one issue at a time and we all must be concerned with the same issue. That’s foolishness. It’s further foolish that one can dictate what others are allowed to be concerned with or discuss. It’s gonna be a strong no for me. We are allowed and capable of caring about, discussing, advocating for more than one issue at a time.

Another reason why I believe that this argument of distraction is popular is because folks are focusing solely on R. Kelly and his (very egregious, reprehensible) infractions. While R. Kelly is the focal point of the docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly is telling an important narrative of the systemic disenfranchisement of Black girls and women and the history of predatory behavior in the music industry. It really is a intricate study of race, class, gender, and geography and how Black girls and women are left vulnerable to sexual, physical, and mental trauma. According to the Women of Color Network, 40% of Black women report experience coercive sexual contact before they turn 18.

It is a study of rape culture and how men use their patriarchal power to build coalitions to prey on and abuse young girls and women and/or turn a blind eye to the abuse. Racism and sexism work in tandem to disenfranchise Black women and thus leaving them defenseless in rape culture. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that “more than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes – a higher share than among women overall.

So while the docuseries is about R. Kelly, a serial rapist and abuser who preys on young, vulnerable, Black girls and women, it is not only about R. Kelly. It a story of a much larger narrative that delineates how frequently Black girls and women are abused and how American society continues to fail them. By claiming that Surviving R. Kelly is a distraction further fails Black girls and women by diminishing their survival stories as a distraction – as if their lives and stories are of lesser value than other issues.

Yes the government shutdown is a problem, a major problem. Thousands of government employees are without pay, and the shutdown may affect student refunds and tax returns. And me, as a struggling graduate student, get the urgency and anxiety concerning the shutdown (trust, I need my damn refund check). However, there is very little the common person can do besides hope and pray that this mess of an administration can get it together. But there is a lot that the common person can do to end rape culture, fight patriarchal power, listen and care for Black girls and women, and etc.

The assault against Black women that was elucidated in Surviving R. Kelly is not a distraction. It is a plea to do your part in ensuring that there are less R. Kelly’s in the world – something we all have the ability, and responsibly, to do.


Immigration in Trump’s Post-Truth America

*This was originally a short essay written for my American Studies course*

The United States of America has a long, documented history of its obsession with national identity. This obsession with identity has manifested itself into the close monitoring of, and desire to identify, the “American culture” or “national narrative.” Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, authors of American Cultural Studies: an Introduction to American Culture, report national narrative as, “a story of agreed principles, values, and myths that gives the country a coherent sense of identity.”  In an attempt to control the national narrative, and define American identity, there is an increasing surveillance and preoccupation with immigration. The growing presence of immigrants threatens the homogenous narrative, identity, and culture that the majority (heterosexual, middle-class, Christian, english speaking and white) is so desperate to define and propagate.

In order to adequately examine national identity, a critical examination of white supremacy and American exceptionalism must also be considered. American exceptionalism, a byproduct of white supremacy, alludes to images and ideas of baseball games, apple pie, and fireworks. It appeals to the notion of a fair and color-blinded democracy, hardworking individuals, and extending equal opportunities to everyone. American exceptionalism insinuates that anyone can come to the “land of free,” and through hard work and dedication to one’s country, success can be achieved. But the reality is that, these privileges are only extended to white Americans (although many people of color use this model to gain success). Whiteness has always been the measure of Americanness; the concept of whiteness is older than America itself. Pamela Perry, in her essay titled “White,” explains that European historians, travelers, and naturalists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century cultivated and circulated the notion that fair skinned (white) people were perfect and pure. British colonist then brought these ideas of whiteness to the Caribbean and North American colonies, laying the foundation for American white supremacy and the horrors, oppression, and unequal structures that come along with it.

Through colonization, the standard of Americanness (read: whiteness) was set, performed, and enforced by nativist (nativist were people who believed that they were ‘true’ Americans, although they were descendants of those responsible for the genocide of indigenous people – the true native people of this land). Evidenced after a large influx of immigrants in the early 1800s due the the lax provisions on immigration, self proclaimed nativist became a growing and influential opposition to immigration in the 1850s emphasizing the importance of pure “American values.”  In the late 1850s into the 1900s, the process of Americanization, stripping immigrants of their native culture and assimilating them into the “national fabric,” was exuberant. Immigrant children in New York City schools were made to practice pledging allegiance to the American flag as a part of the public school curriculum, businesses like Ford Motor Company and facilities like the YWCA and YMCA held classes teaching immigrant workers English, and ceremonies were held across the country where aspiring citizens would pledge allegiance to their new homeland. But what’s even more telling, in this process of Americanization, is how assimilated immigrants would discriminate against and expel new waves of immigrants and Black people. When discussing how immigrants sought acceptance into Americanness, Julia Higgins wrote in an opinion piece titled “Immigration: The Myth of the Melting Pot,” she wrote, “you became white by opposing those who weren’t.” Essentially, mirroring the mistreatment brought against them at the hands of whites granted them access to whiteness,  legitimacy as person of America. Built into the “national fabric” of America was/is dehumanization and discrimination of the “others.”

Fast forward to present day America and the same ideas of whiteness cultivated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the concepts of assimilation and Americanization introduced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, still persist today. A great example of this is the 2016 Presidential Election.

In large part due to the 2016 Presidential Election, present day Americans are haunted by and engrossed with identity, citizenship, and who is really American and who really belongs. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is arguably coded language for keeping America white, homogeneous, and racist. It is, arguably, anti-immigration and obsession with American identity that got Trump elected. He established his entire political platform on racism and xenophobia, first targeting Mexicans. He would spew racist propaganda such as, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapist.” The use of “they” here puts emphasis, especially in the context he used it, on Mexicans being non-citizens and even less human. Throughout the course of his campaign, he used language that made clear distinctions between “them/they” (people of color, usually) and “us” (true American, e.g. white people). National identity, and the need to define it, was Trump’s ticket to the White House.

There is similar language used by neo-Nazis when it comes to national identity. Marisol Bello of USA TODAY did a study on the white power movement and how their attitudes towards immigration is strikingly similar to their attitudes towards race. When interviewing a neo-Nazi, he said,

“Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that’s how movements like ours gain a foothold… When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. … We are the answer for white people.

And now this immigrant thing in the past couple of years has been the biggest boon to us… the immigration issue is the biggest problem we’re facing because it’s changing the face of our country. We see stuff in English and Spanish. … They are turning our country into a Third World ghetto.”

The use of “them” and “our” is very indicative of what white people think they own and have the ability to audit based on white supremacist standards.

In the New York Times, journalist Lynn Vavreck goes into detail about the clear line drawn in the sand as it pertains to immigration and citizenship. She writes in “The Great Political Divide Over American Identity” that:

“The distinctive emphasis Mr. Trump’s primary voters placed on the importance of European ancestry and Christianity explains a lot about the 2016 presidential battle over the meaning of America. Would America be “stronger together,” as Hillary Clinton believed, or weaker because of the non-European, non-Christian people knocking on its door?”

This context makes it easier to see why many people interpreted Mr. Trump’s appeal to “make America great again” as a call to exclude some groups of people from belonging or feeling like Americans.”

In 2016, leading up to the Presidential Election, The Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation that fields political research to ensure democracy, fielded an interview of over 8,000 people who voted in the 2012 election. The results speak to how a lot of people see and value what they believe to be American identity. Forty-nine percent of Democrats placed importance on “those who want to call themselves American” to either be born in America or live most of their lives in America. A third of Democrats deemed affiliation with the Christian religion was also essential to American identity. Across the aisle, 72% of Republicans believed either living life in America or being born in America was a precursor to citizenship. Fifty-six percent of Republicans thought that being a Christian was vital to Americanness. Additionally, 75% of Democrats and 95% of Republicans thought that speaking English was of importance, and 16% of Democrats and 23% of Republicans believed being of European heritage was important.

While some may look at these numbers and assess that many Americans, both Democrat and Republican, are moving away from an “exclusionary notions of American identity” as Vavreck puts in her article, I see these figures and conclude that the numbers, especially across party lines, leave very little room for those that don’t fall within the bounds of white, Christian, English speaking, and native born, all byproducts of white supremacist notions of Americanness. Particularly, outside of these specifically structured bounds are immigrants. This is evident in policies and proposed legislation that this current administration has announced since the election of Trump, including but not limited to, Executive Order 13769, popularly known as the Muslim ban or the travel ban, and ending the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).  

Executive Order 13769 was one of Trump’s first orders of business of as President of the United States. It is popularly known as the “Muslim ban” because it restricts immigration, travel, and visitation from predominantly Muslim nations. The most recent update on this xenophobic executive order was more than 100 million individuals, according to lawyers from the ACLU, from the following countries: Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela. Trump and his administration are pushing for the legitimacy of this ban under the guise of national security and protection against terrorist. Not only is it racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic to equate all Muslims to terrorist, but it’s a wildly inconceivable claim given Trump’s documented record of anti-Muslim tweets and statements. Several federal judges agree that the executive order is based more on bigotry than national security. Judge Theodore D. Chuang of the Federal District Court in Maryland says that “the new proclamation was tainted by religious animus and most likely violated the Constitution’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.” Similarly, Judge Derrick K. Watson of the Federal District Court in Honolulu says that the order “plainly discriminates based on nationality.”

Not only are immigrants being prevented from entering the country, but immigrants and their descendants that are already here are on the receiving end of Trump’s anti-immigration crusade. The ending of the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, popularly known as DACA, is an example. DACA offered legal protection to roughly 800,000 people known as “DREAMers,” who entered the country illegally as children. More specifically, DACA offered individuals brought to the United States as children before mid-2007 the ability to apply for protection from deportation and work permits if they met certain requirements. It also, under certain guidelines, allowed beneficiaries the opportunity to enroll in primary and secondary education and obtain work permits. The ending of DACA puts more than 800,000 at risk for deportation.

The Muslim ban and the ending of DACA are clear signifier of whiteness controlling and defining the national identity of America via anti-immigration and xenophobia. By deeming them all as terrorist or safety hazards (Muslim ban) and/or denying them access to resources (DACA) is exclusionary and designed to deny humanity and revoke aid to marginalized individuals based on American essentialist standards that aim to erase marginalized people from the American narrative.

However, studies predicate that immigration is set to increase in vast numbers in the coming years, creating less homogenous communities. Rehian Salam in the National Review explains that America’s cultural character is rapidly changing due to the influx of foreign-born individuals. He writes, “Over the next 50 years, demographers at the Pew Research Center anticipate, new immigrants and their descendants will account for 88 percent of all population growth.” The reasoning for this is in part due to native-born Americans having extremely low birthrates. Salam is calling this influx of foreign-born individuals in America a “cultural war,” a war between Republicans/conservatives and non-native-born individuals.  

This ongoing cultural war between native-born and foreign-born individuals has offered several, mostly ignorant and rooted in bigotry, arguments against immigration. One of the most common is that “immigrants will take all of our jobs.” This has always been the “to-go” argument for people against immigration, but there’s was an increase in this rhetoric in the conversation concerning DACA and the DREAMers. There is a plethora of research that disproves this claim. David Card from the University of California, Berkeley writes in “The Elusive Search For Negative Wage Impacts of Immigrants” that immigrant work has very little effect, sometimes none at all, on native-born Americans. He also states that immigrants are more likely to compete with each other than native-born Americans. Additionally, a whole range of economists, 95% to be exact, answered that the average American would be better off with more (highly skilled) immigrants working in the United States. More specifically, Americans benefit from immigrant workers in innovation, the price of good and services, the numbers of jobs, government finances, and even wage.

Another argument is that immigrants don’t assimilate into “American culture.” Again, this is assuming that there is an universal, agreed upon culture by which America operates. However, there are various studies that have rendered this claim to be false. Economist Jacob Vigdor speaks on 20th century immigration and says,

“While there are reasons to think of contemporary migration from Spanish speaking nations as distinct from earlier waves of immigration, evidence does not support the notion that this wave of migration poses a true threat to the institutions that withstood those earlier waves. Basic indicators of assimilation, from naturalization to English ability, are if anything stronger now than they were a century ago.”

The notion of the need for immigrants to assimilate troubles me, and supports of my original argument. The desire for immigrants to assimilate is the desire for immigrants to strip themselves of their original culture, language, and customs and take on those of whiteness. Or, better yet, to just fade into the background of “American culture.” Hence, erasure of identity for the national narrative. This speaks to my original argument that whiteness is threatened by immigration because it distorts their idea of what American identity is and should be.

In his article in the National Review, Salam poses the question of how to integrate this growing number of immigrants into “American society.”  He says that,

“To win this new culture war, conservatives must do more than embrace a new approach to immigration. They must offer a new conception of American nationhood. Just as the melting-pot nationalism of the 1900s forged a new American identity that natives and immigrants of various European nationalities could embrace, a new melting-pot nationalism is needed to counter the ethnic and class antagonisms that threaten our society today.” 

A “new conception of American nationhood,” as Salam puts it, would mean that the myth of American exceptionalism would have to become reality and equal opportunities would have to extended to everyone including immigrants. That means wealth would have to be distributed and systems would have to be dismantled. Melting-pot nationalism sounds nice and progressive, but, for me, it needs to goes beyond that into taking a serious look at the way whiteness has constructed the current concept of American nationhood and how that works in concert with American exceptionalism and white supremacy.

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