A righteous tidal wave of anger followed people seeing the nine-minutes-plus videotaped police lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis late May 2020. Racist monuments glorifying the slave-owning Confederacy came tumbling down, especially in the Deep South. These acts to take down the statues were part of historic mass protests that swept the country during the summer of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The enslaved Black “Mothers of Gynecology” are now honored in this memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Two years earlier the monument paying homage to J. Marion Sims, once praised as the “father of modern gynecology,” was removed from Central Park in New York City, following many years of protest.
What led to the removal was a growing understanding and anger that Sims, a 19th century gynecologist in Montgomery, Alabama, used enslaved Black women as guinea pigs, experimenting on them with new medical techniques without using anesthesia or obtaining their consent. His techniques resulted in unspeakable torture.
Sims believed that Black women did not experience the same kind of pain as white human beings. Black people were nothing more than chattel to Sims and his ilk, who viewed them as less than human and actually treated them worse than animals. This was the prevailing view of enslavers in the South and even in some regions of the North.
Black women during this period were denied the right to control their own reproductive systems and destinies, starting when they were adolescents. This is horribly similar to the recent case of the 10-year-old girl from Ohio, raped twice, impregnated, and in order to receive an abortion, was forced to travel to Indiana, because of the fascistic anti-abortion law in Ohio. The doctor who performed that abortion is now being threatened with prosecution by the attorney general of Indiana, using a legal technicality to harass and punish her.
Treated as property, enslaved Black girls and women were systematically raped and sexually assaulted by white plantation owners and treated as “breeders” to produce more enslaved people. The enslaved grandmother of the great Mississippi activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, was forced to give birth 21 times as a result of this barbaric treatment.
Honoring those who resisted
In Montgomery where Sims first performed his horrific experiments, a stunning new monument was unveiled Sept. 24, 2021. “Mothers of Gynecology” includes figures representing Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, three of the 11 enslaved women who were unwilling participants in Sims’ depraved procedures. Anarcha was reportedly pregnant at age 17 during this time.
The statues, located at the More Up Campus, are almost 15 feet high and were created by local Montgomery artist and activist Michelle Browder. The campus is dedicated to changing how history is remembered, “by finding creative ways to honor the voiceless, the minimized, the ignored.” (anarchalucybetsey.org)
Browder says of her motives, “The endeavor is to change the narrative as it relates to the history and how it’s portrayed, regarding Sims and the women [who] were used as experiments. They’re not mentioned in any of the iconography or the information, the markers.
“No one talks about these women and their sacrifices and the experimentations that they suffered,” Browder said. “And so I feel that if you’re going to tell the truth about this history, we need to tell it all.
“There’s more to this history than Dr. King and Rosa Parks, and the Confederacy.” (al.com, Sept. 27, 2021)
The monument is a gut-wrenching reminder of the strategic role that slavery played in establishing the U.S. as the most powerful imperialist country in the world, through the ongoing systematic and systemic repression of Black people as an oppressed nation.
As every Confederate monument comes tumbling down, new monuments should eventually take their place, honoring those who gave their life’s blood to resist and destroy the monstrous institution of white supremacy.
Mark Clark, who served as a defense captain for the Illinois Black Panther Party, was just 22 years old when he and Fred Hampton, deputy chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, were assassinated in a raid coordinated by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Chicago police, and the FBI.
Clark and 21-year-old Hampton were gunned down by 14 police officers as they lie sleeping in Hampton’s apartment in Chicago, Illinois, in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969. About a hundred bullets were fired in what police described as a gun battle with members of the Black Panther Party.
But ballistics experts later found that only one of those bullets came from the side of the Panthers. The raid was also later found to be part of COINTELPRO, a secret FBI program whose purpose, as stated by one FBI document, was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalist hate type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.
The Black Panther Party, a creation of Huey Newton and fellow student Bobby Seale, insisted on a Black nationalist response to racial discrimination. The party’s Illinois chapter was being headed by Hampton when he was killed by authorities thanks to the information provided by FBI informant William O’Neal. Then a petty criminal, O’Neal infiltrated the party and provided the FBI with a floor plan of the Chicago apartment where Hampton and Clark were assassinated in 1969.
Much has been written about Hampton, including his charisma, leadership skills and intelligence but Clark, who died with him during the raid, is rarely talked about. As a matter of fact, when Chicago Police stormed into Hampton’s apartment, Clark was the first to be murdered. A bullet hit him in the heart and he died instantly.
Who was Clark?
He was born in Peoria, Illinois, on June 28, 1947. Clark became a member of the local NAACP chapter when he was 15 and later formed the Peoria chapter of the Black Panther Party. Clark also started the first free breakfast program for Peoria youth.
“He was very active in political things. Really just the fight against racism,” Gloria Clark-Jackson said of her brother when she published a book about him entitled, Mark Clark: Soul of a Black Panther in September 2020.
Clark and his siblings were brought up as Christians. His father, Elder William Clark, was a pastor and the founder of Holy Temple Church of God and Christ that can still be found on Webster and McBean on Peoria’s South Side.
“It was ironic that we were always taught to treat people right, but we weren’t always treated the same way, as people of color,” Clark-Jackson, who is a retired nurse, told WCBU.
Clark, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. and could call for order when older persons could not, attended Manual High School and then went to Illinois Central Junior College in Peoria. But he could not complete his graduation. Apparently, he liked to learn but didn’t like school. “Most of his knowledge came from his own efforts,” his sister Elner said in an interview.
Described as a “thinker” and a “quiet leader”, Clark suddenly passed away in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, when Chicago Police stormed Hampton’s apartment where he was. Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s fiancée, later recounted what happened.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. The police knocked on the door (around 4.35 am) and Defense Captain Mark Clark (who headed up the Black Panther’s Peoria chapter) answered the door by saying, ‘Who is it?’ The police said, ‘Tommy.’ And Mark responded, ‘Tommy who?’ Then the police responded back, ‘Tommy gun.’ After that, the police kicked in the front door and started shooting. And Mark was killed instantly.”
Reports said that when Clark was shot in the heart, his shotgun fired as a reflexive convulsion. That was the only shot the Panthers fired as compared to about a hundred bullets from the cops.
“He had a feeling for people and placed them above himself,” a close friend said of Clark after his murder.
Clark-Jackson, who shares her brother’s story in her book, was also a member of the Black Panther Party under Clark’s leadership. She told WCBU that she will never forget the determined, serious look that took over her brother’s face the day he recruited her into the Black Panther Party.
“I will never forget the words he spoke that still reverberate in my mind. His message is as clear today as it was then: ‘There are many who will talk about the injustice in this country, but only a few will do something about it. Which one are you?’”
The city of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government reached a settlement with Clark’s and Hampton’s survivors in the early 1980s. FBI informant O’Neal was hated by some and commended by others as his role in the 1969 raid that killed Hampton and Clark became known. And many believe that his guilt over his role as an FBI informant led to his death in 1990. O’Neal apparently walked in front of a speeding car which struck and killed him. His death was ruled a suicide.
HBO series Lovecraft Country, which references the dark and racist history of the United States. In the series, based on a novel by the same name, three Black travelers drive through 1950s America and get to a sundown town, where they are immediately pulled over by a cop. The cop threatens fatal violence if they don’t leave before sundown.
The scene brought back discussions around the troubled history of sundown towns and how some still do exist in various forms. Sundown towns were real across the U.S. from 1890 to the years following Jim Crow. They were all-white communities or counties that intentionally excluded Black people and other minorities through discriminatory laws, threats, harassment or use of violence.
These all-white communities were named sundown towns because they were places where Black people were allowed in during the day to work or shop but had to be gone by nightfall. “There were thousands of these sundown communities and most of them were predominant in the Midwest, in the West and in the North,” author Candacy Taylor told WBUR. “So most people assume it was the South that was the problem, but that really wasn’t the case.”
After slavery was abolished in the United States, many White lawmakers in the South introduced discriminatory policies leading to the establishment of the Jim Crow era. There was segregation in trains, buses, schools and other public facilities. And it was around this same period that many sundown towns emerged. But these sundown towns were not only in the South as already mentioned.
During the Great Migration, which began in about 1910, large numbers of Black people left the South to escape racism and poverty. Many moved to the North, Midwest, and West, thinking they would find a better life in other areas of the U.S. But they were wrong. History says that as more and more Black people began to migrate to other regions of the country, many towns that were predominantly White started using discriminatory laws and other means to discourage Black people from living among them.
It is unknown exactly how many sundown towns the U.S. had, but historians estimate that there were up to 10,000 sundown towns across the country between 1890 and 1960 and they were mostly in the Mid-West and West. At many sundown towns, signs were posted at the city limits. “N—-r, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On You In Alix”, one of the signs in Alix, Arkansas, in the 1930s, read. Other towns posted: “Whites Only After Dark.”
Some sundown towns also used discriminatory housing covenants to make sure that no Black person would be allowed to purchase or rent a home, according to BlackPast. “Cool Summers, Mild Winters, No Blizzards, No Negroes,” the town of Mena, Arkansas, advertised. There are also stories of how Black people who passed through these sundown towns but did not leave after dark were arrested, beaten, or sometimes killed by White residents.
Of course, there were sundown towns in the North, Midwest, and West that did not display signs warning Black people to stay out, but they enforced racial restrictions through violence. In 1930, two Black teens were lynched in Marion, Indiana, compelling the town’s Black residents numbering about 200 to leave. In the 1950s, a white mob also took to the streets of Vienna, Illinois, after a Black man escaped from prison. The mob set fire to many Black homes, forcing residents of those homes to flee.
And in some sundown towns, businesses that hired Black employees or served Black customers were boycotted by White residents. In some cases, Black motorists who passed through such towns were followed by police or residents to the city limits.
“The sundown town was really a way that the North and West patrolled and monitored race without having the dirty signs of saying ‘colored only’ or ‘whites only,’ ” said Taylor. “[It’s] almost a covert operation because there would just be one sign at the county line saying ‘N-word, don’t let the sun set on you here’.”
As sundown towns rose, Black people or Black travelers who wanted to tour the U.S. found it difficult traveling long distances, especially by car. BlackPast writes that in 1930, 44 of the 89 counties along the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles had no motels or restaurants and forbade Blacks from entering after dark.
Owing to these difficulties, a postal worker from Harlem known as Victor H. Green penned The Negro Motorist Green Book to help Black people or travelers find safe places to stay, shop and eat on the road. Printed from 1936 to 1967, the book was used by two million people.
Loewen during his research also found that many of the sundown towns burnt signs, adding that there is no official record that some existed at all. To Taylor, sundown towns are just like any other towns in America.
“I have been to a couple that still seem to hold on to their racist heritage, and they have a large number of white supremacist groups,” the author, who has spent time documenting Green Book sites and exploring how Black Americans can travel safely across the U.S in 2021, said. She added that some towns like Harrison, Arkansas, still display confederate flags and “big, scary signs”.
We are a collective of incarcerated Black people – political prisoners held hostage by the state – and our supporters on the outside who are making this statement on Emancipation Day.
On August 1, African people across the globe celebrate Emancipation Day. This marks the day the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed freeing enslaved Africans across the British colonies, including Canada.
Slavery may be over, but are Black people truly free?
We have learned that there are more Black people in prisons in the United States today than were held in enslavement. We learned that Black women are one of the fastest growing global prison populations, and that our sisters are being put in prison largely because of the war on drugs. We learned that Black incarceration goes up every year in Canada. We have lived out the laws passed that give longer and longer minimum sentences to Black men accused of gun crimes or accused of being in gangs, while white bankers and killer cops and CEOs who don’t give their workers PPE during a pandemic – the real gangsters – are never charged at all.
Are Black people free when prisons and jails across this country are filled with Black people? Is slavery even over when Black people clean and work in the kitchens for less than two dollars a day inside federal prisons? When our mothers and grandmothers come to visit us and are turned away and accused of bringing in contraband. When we are transferred across the country against our will when we stand up against unjust conditions. When we have to go on hunger strikes to demand basic human rights.
Are we free when police taser, and shoot, and kill Black people when they are called for wellness checks? Are we free when the off-duty police officer who beat Dafonte Miller with a metal pipe until he lost an eye is convicted only of assault, while his brother was acquitted of all charges? And while they are acquitted, white juries sentence Black men on no evidence for the crime of only having Black skin.
Are we free when there are police stations on the corner of our communities, but no grocery stores? Are we free when Black families can be evicted from public housing and when there are no safe places for our mothers to live? Are we free when our daughters and sisters can’t walk on the street in their own neighbourhoods without being propositioned by white men?
Are we free when little girls are handcuffed in school and arrested? When we can’t even get the tools to educate ourselves and free our minds and make a life for our families?
Are we free when we have no community or home to be released to because the land has been taken by gentrification or bulldozed or there’s a garbage dump in our community?
Are we free when the legacy of slavery is still being lived out by us every day, when those of us incarcerated still have overseers, when we are called n****r and other racial slurs, when generation after generation we are kicked out of school, kicked onto the streets, denied mental health treatment, and then warehoused in prisons where we can’t get parole?
Are we free when the skin we are born with still defines our condition?
In August 2018, prisoners in Burnside began a prison strike during “Black August.” Black August began in the prison system in California in the 1970s in commemoration of the freedom struggles of incarcerated people of African descent. The month was used to honour the deaths of revolutionaries like George Jackson, to create political awareness, and to build the emancipation struggle among prisoners.
In our research, we found that the original BLM – the Black Liberation Movement – adopted Black August as a radical month focused on the liberation struggles of Africans across the globe. Jonathan Jackson was gunned down outside the Marin County Courthouse on August 7, 1970. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in August of 1619. Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, and other revolutionaries were born in August.
The Underground Railroad started on August 2, 1850. In 1843, Henry Highland Garnett called a general slave strike on August 22. Gabriel Prosser’s slave rebellion was on August 30, 1800. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion began on August 21, 1831. In August of 1965 the Watts rebellion rose up. The Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE family on August 8, 1978. These are just some of the significant events that mark this month as a time of resistance and struggle.
August 10 in Canada is Prisoner Justice Day. Prisoner Justice Day was started in the 1970s to remember all the people who died in custody. On this day, prisoners across the country fast and strike for all our fallen comrades.
We say again, if this is freedom, we have not seen it, we have not felt it, and we have not lived it.
Emancipation Day is only meaningful if we use the day to organize for our continued freedom struggle. Any celebration of this day without commitment to ending punishing, policing, and prisons rings hollow and does not honour the labour of our ancestors.
This Emancipation Day is taking place while Black people in Canada are calling for defunding the police. On the news, we see people showing how much money goes into the police budget and how that money could be spent on safe housing or clean water on reserves or on beds to treat addiction.
We also want to add that defunding the police also means defunding prisons which in turn means abolition. On this Emancipation Day, we call upon every community where a new prison is being built to say no to more incarceration. It costs over 100, 000 dollars a year to keep the average person in prison, and even more for women. Over 20 billion dollars a year is spent on “corrections” in Canada, but we say that no-one is being corrected.
Black people will never be free while there are cameras on the corners of our communities, while police stop us whenever they want, when they drive around the streets of our communities, while prisons get more and more beds, while lockdowns and segregation have become the new normal, and while white defence lawyers, crowns, judges, juries, parole officers, C.O’s, and parole boards control our lives and freedom.
We cannot be free while prisons stand on stolen Indigenous land.
Black people will never be free while people believe some few small reforms are enough to stop the brutalizing of Black bodies. Black people will never be free when we can’t be safe and happy and feed our families and dream of the future.
On this Emancipation Day, we are still crying out for freedom. The whips and the chains might have been abolished, but until the bars are gone, we are not free, and neither are you.
Like prisons, healthcare systems are part of the way that empire reproduces itself.
“Anti-blackness has not distorted medical relationships and institutions, so much as built them.”
The past six months have highlighted the fight that Black people are in against state violence, both in the form of policing and the US healthcare system. Though the ruling class cries that the coronavirus pandemic is “the great equalizer,” the virus continues to demonstrate exactly who our capitalist health-care system was designed to keep alive. So far, across the country, about 42% of coronavirus deaths have been Black people, even though they were only about 21% of the population in the areas analyzed. InLouisiana, over 70% of people who died were Black (despite Black people being only 32% of the population). Along with high rates of death, countless stories have emerged about Black people turned away from hospitals, struggling to access testing, and being disproportionately arrested or ticketed for not following public health guidelines. On top of this, uprisings have taken hold across the country, starting in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd. Many groups are calling for police to be de-funded and for the abolition of the prison industrial complex. In the midst of a pandemic, it is crucial to understand how the prison industrial complex intersects with the medical industrial complex, and commit to abolishing both.
“The virus continues to demonstrate exactly who our capitalist health-care system was designed to keep alive.”
Though medical institutions portray themselves as benevolent and objective, the structural reality is that biomedicine was forged in the political and social terrain of colonialism. Commonly known as the medical industrial complex, we are all affected by a huge system that provides “healthcare” services for profit and makes billions of dollars each year. Mia Mingus, a writer and community organizer who focuses on disability justice, helped put together the above detailed visual of the medical industrial complex along with other organizers like Cara Page and Patty Berne. The diagram shows how four “core motivations” serve as the foundational structuring agents of the four sections of the visual. Desirability structures health, population control structures safety, charity and ableism structure access, and eugenics structure science and medicine. This is what makes the medical industrial complex so profitable.
Along with its foundations in anti-blackness, the medical industrial complex is also inherently gendered and contoured by ableism, fatphobia, and anti-transness. Internationally, all of these systems of domination affect vaccine development and allocation of medicines. This diagram also beautifully illustrates how all of these parts are interconnected and serve to sustain each other. In the bottom right-hand corner, we can see that the prison industrial complex has its own place in the diagram. The abolition of the prison industrial complex requires the knowledge that our systems of medical “care” have been built on carceral logics, from the criminalization of domestic violence survivors to psychiatric hospitals. In “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Angela Davis writes that board members from the Corrections Corporation of America and the Hospital Corporation of America, one of the first private hospital companies, worked together to help found Correctional Corporations of America in 1983. Like prisons, healthcare systems are part of the way that empire reproduces itself.
“Our systems of medical “care” have been built on carceral logics.”
Black health disparities are not an incidental feature of the healthcare system. The coronavirus pandemic has further demonstrated that the medical industrial complex is so deeply deleterious to Black people that reforms like increasing the number of Black doctors or unconscious bias training for healthcare professionals are not enough to ensure Black people’s live. The values of the medical industrial complex run in contradiction to the well-being of all Black people. In her essay The Death Toll, Saidiya Hartman writes, “the health-care system is routinely indifferent to black suffering, doubting the shared sentence of bodies in pain, uncertain if the human is an expansive category or an exclusive one, if indeed a human is perceived at all.” The pledge to “do no harm” has little meaning when Black people are still excluded from the human. Ultimately, Black “health” is an impossibility in a system built and sustained by anti-black violence and logics.
From its inception, the medical industrial complex has been in service of white supremacy and capitalism. In Frantz Fanon’s essay “Medicine and Colonialism,” he writes, “The colonial situation does not only vitiate the relations between doctor and patient. We have shown that the doctor always appears as a link in the colonialist network, as a spokesman for the occupying power.” The ruling class continues to claim that biomedicine is simply abused occasionally for evil purposes, which purposefully detracts from addressing that it has always been a child of slavery and European colonialism.
“Black ‘health’ is an impossibility in a system built and sustained by anti-black violence and logics.”
It is no coincidence that today, many health studies continue to act as though race is a biological category that exists without racism. Race-making has always been a crucial mission of the medical industrial complex. In his 1851 “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro,” Samuel Cartwright, a prominent physician, writes about a mental illness called drapetomania which compels slaves to run away. Twenty-four years after Cartwright’s report, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., dean of Harvard Medical School and an avid eugenicist, wrote an 1875 essay about mechanisms of crime. He writes, “If genius and talent are inherited…why should not deep-rooted moral defects and obliquities show themselves, as well as other qualities, in the descendants of moral monsters?” Theories of genetic inferiority created by physicians were the same that Prudential, one of the largest insurers of Black people at the time, used to justify their announcement in 1881 that insurance policies held by Black adults would be worth only one third those of white people’s. Their weekly premiums, however, would be the same. It should come as no surprise then, that a 2020 paper published in the Journal of Internal Medicine was entitled, “Obesity in African-Americans: is physiology to blame?” before public outcry forced a change in title.
Experimentation on Black people has also created the foundation for medical knowledge. People often reference the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, but there are also a plethora of other studies that were conducted on Black people, like the “Acres of Skin” experiments done by dermatologist Albert M. Kligman on incarcerated Black men in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1974.
“Race-making has always been a crucial mission of the medical industrial complex.”
White doctors even abused Black people after their deaths. In her book Medical Apartheid, scholar Harriet Washington explores the histories of medical schools stealing the bodies of Black people for dissection practice into the 20th century, even going do far as to rob Black cemeteries. Of course, medical history is also rife with examples of doctors abusing Black people’s reproductive freedoms. From J Marion Sims’ experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women in 1845, to George Gey’s 1951 theft of Henrietta Lacks cells which still power the medical industrial complex, biomedical encounters have always been a threat to Black women’s health.The Eugenics Board of North Carolina didn’t cease operations until 1977, and of the almost 8,000 people sterilized in the state, about 5,000 were black.
While medical and research institutions make sure to target Black people for experimentation and abuse, they also systematically deny Black people healthcare resources. Chicago’s Southside neighborhood lacked an adult trauma center until 2018, despite its high rates of gun violence. This is just a part of a long history of medical facilities being intentionally built far away from predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Framing any of the cases above as an exceptional misuse of science is a dangerous way of avoiding the conversation that they are all expected outcomes of a system that was never made to ensure the health of Black people. Science and medicine have not simply absorbed the racism of other institutions, they are institutional violence themselves. The state continues to discredit Black peoples’ legacies of healing through granny midwives, root workers, and conjurers because they are a threat to white supremacist capitalist medicine. Black people have been, and continue to be, the enemies of medicine. In the end, white people are only able to secure their own health when they can place it next to the unwavering illness of black people that they create and re-create.
“Biomedical encounters have always been a threat to Black women’s health.”
Abolition, whether of the prison industrial complex, military industrial complex, or the medical industrial complex, is always a positive project. Once the old systems are destroyed, we are faced with the task of world-building, of learning to “imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions,” as Angela Davis says. For the medical industrial complex, this means having conversations where the point of departure is the truth that Black people know what keeps them well. This means asking friends and family what it is they need to heal. For many, this means uplifting the holistic healing practices of our ancestors with the understanding that care can transcend both space and time.
Throughout history, Black liberation has always involved finding ways to ensure the well-being of one another outside of the state and its medical institutions. From enslaved women exchanging recipes for abortifacients with each other to granny midwives like Margaret Charles Smith, who delivered over 3500 infants in rural Alabama during the 20th century and never lost a mother in childbirth. From the Black Cross nurses who provided Black people with health services and education, to all the Black farmers who belonged to Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Collective.
“Midwife Margaret Charles Smith delivered over 3500 infants in rural Alabama and never lost a mother in childbirth.”
One of the most relevant examples of community healthcare and preventative services is the Black Panther Party and their survival programs. In spring of 1970, Black Panther Party made free health clinics and programs to feed children breakfast mandatory for each chapter. Health clinics were staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, as well as activists, who encouraged patients to ask questions and advocate for themselves. Physicians were trained in alternative forms of medicine as well as biomedicine, and the BPP required that doctors read the work of Mao, Che, and other revolutionaries. Along with their clinics, the BPP did research and screening on genetic disorders like sickle cell anaemia, provided immunizations, and trained members of the community as lay health workers who were able to provide both health services and social services. The legacy of these programs lives in many organizations, collectives, and health centers today.
In our current moment, groups all over the country are creating networks where people can access healthcare without relying on the medical industrial complex or prison industrial complex. Dream Defenders, a radical group of young people in Florida, has established a Trauma Response Center to combat the violence of both systems. The center offers “free legal services, violence interruption, mental health counseling, stop the bleed training as well as skills training and job placement, arts programming,” among other services. In Chicago, a volunteer Black health collective and mutual aid organization called Ujimaa Medics runs workshops on gunshot first aid, and also teaches people to respond to asthma attacks, seizures and diabetic emergencies. There are also organizations like Project LETS, which builds “peer support collectives” and other community-based mental healthcare systems. When we abolish the medical industrial complex, this is the world that awaits us.
“The BPP did research and screening on genetic disorders like sickle cell anaemia, provided immunizations, and trained members of the community as lay health workers.”
Mia Mingus writes, “What would it mean to not have to be afraid of going to the doctor? To be able to trust that the care and treatments you are receiving will not only take care of your body, but the planet and future generations as well?” Abolition looks like creating networks and institutions that answer these questions. The demise of the medical industrial complex gives us the opportunity to fully imagine and reimagine these new systems as our needs change, because they belong to us. The goal of this space is not to become human as defined by colonialism, but to generate Black healing from the violence wrought by ideas of health. Once we come to the collective understanding that anti-blackness has not distorted medical relationships and institutions, so much as built them, we are able to continue to imagine ways of taking care of ourselves and our communities that actually improve the wellbeing of all Black people. The abolition of the prison industrial complex and medical industrial complex are inextricably linked. We can keep us safe, and we can also keep us healthy.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
Brother Malcolm X (Omawele El Hajj Malik El Shabazz), the Black nationalist freedom fighter and human rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s, said that the oppression of Black people and people of color are due to a world-wide conspiracy of White supremacy. I have spent almost a year preparing to go back to college to finish my masters and PhD graduate studies in history. Because of Malcolm X’s lucid critiques of the world’s movement to dominate and subjugate Black people, and people of color, I want to compete my studies and research on the ideological creation of White supremacy in America and in the world. I will also centered my studies and research on Black people’s reaction to White supremacy in America and in the world to fight against White hegemony. White supremacy is the idea that White people, and their culture, religion, language, philosophy, mores, norms,values, names, economic systems, and history; are inherently superior to all Black people and all people of color. This concept of White supremacy develops as White people began to establish capitalism, exploit cheap labor in Afrika, and acquire indigenous people’s land in the Western Hemisphere of the world. Consequently, the system of racism, a falsified concept of Whiteness, colorism, Europeanization of the Black mind, destabilization of Afrikan countries, the capitalist exploitation of Afrika and Black people, mass incarceration, the oppression of people of color, biological warfare, the neutralization of Black leaders, the disaccreditation of Black nationalism, and Black self- hatred have its foundations rooted in White supremacy. The philosophy of White supremacy was used to justify the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the holocaust of the enslavement of Black people (Maafa), the Arab Slave Trade, European colonialism in Afrika, US Cointelpro (the United States Counter intelligence program), racial violence toward Black people, police violence in the Black community, institutional racism, apartheid, the sexual exploitation of Black Women, the emasculation of Blackmen, the creation of the n-word, White cultural domination of Black people, and segregation. Over the centuries, White supremacy has targeted Black people, and Afrika, to point of creating the conditions for us to be the victims of social and economic disparities for generations. The authors of White supremacy come from from all walks of life in Europe and America, particularly from professional fields, such as intellectuals, political leaders, judges, lawyers, scientists, Professors, educators, historians, theologians, and philosophers.
Let me give you some example of Whites supremacist books and authors I have collected in my research.
One of the White intellectuals that contributed to the ideology of White supremacy is named Dr. George Botsford. He was a Oxford trained Professor at Columbia University. He wrote a book called-A History of the Ancient World. His book was published in 1914 by the McMillan Publishing Company. By the way, the McMillan Publishing Company is still in existence today. The McMillan Publishing Company has produced millions of books used in public schools across the United States of America for the decades.
Dr. Botsford writes, “From the point of view of color three groups may be distinguished. The FIRST is the Black or Negro race of Central and Southern Africa. THEY ARE THE LOWEST IN INTELLIGENCE, AND HAVE CONTRIBUTED PRACTICALLY NOTHING TO THE PROGRESS OF THE WORLD. THE SECOND IS THE YELLOW OR MONGOLIAN RACE OF ASIA. THEY INCLUDE THE CHINESE AND JAPANESE, WHO HAVE LONG BEEN CIVILIZED, AND THE NOMADS, OR WANDERING PEOPLE, OF CENTRAL ASIA. SOME EUROPEANS, AS THE TURKS, HUNGARIANS, AND FINNS, BELONG TO THE SAME RACE. THE AMERICAN INDIANS ARE GROUPED WITH THEM BY SOME SCHOLARS; BY OTHERS THEY ARE REGARDED AS A DISTINCT RACE. THE THIRD AND HISTORICALLY MOST IMPORTANT GROUP IS THE WHITE OR CAUCASIAN RACE. TO THE WHITE RACE ARE DUE PRACTICALLY ALL IMPROVEMENTS OF THE PAST SEVEN THOUSAND YEARS. THE WHITE RACE IS TERMED CAUCASIAN BECAUSE SCHOLARS ONCE BELIEVED THAT ITS HIGHEST PHYSICAL PERFECTION COULD BE FOUND AMONG THE MOUNTAINEERS OF CAUCAS. THEY COMPRISED OF THE EGYPTIANS AND LIBYANS. THEY WERE THE CREATORS OF THE FIRST CIVILIZATION.”
However, on the same page of his book, he argues that Kemet (Egypt) was once the greatest and the most important civilization in the world. But he only sees Kemet primarily and totally as a White civilization. He does not accept the fact that Kemet was a Black autochthonous civilization in Afrika. Dr. Botsford writes, “so far as our knowledge goes the Egyptians were the first civilized people. They invented a system of writing as early as the fifth millennium (5000-4000 BC). We may say then, that the history of the world begins at this time.”
Unfortunately, America’s premier Egyptologist James Breasted in 1944 would continue a White supremacist argument that that Kemetic (Egyptian) people, and the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, were White people, not Black people. He writes in his book called, Ancient Times, on page 12, that they “were dark-skinned, but nevertheless physically they belong to the great White race.”
Years later, during the movements for Black liberation around the world, White supremacists were still fighting to maintain White hegemony on the earth. In 1965, Oxford University history professor and scholar, Hugh Trevor- Roper, wrote in his book, The Rise of Christian Europe in page 9, “undergraduates demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps in the future, there will prove to be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none, or very little; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa.”
But before Dr. George Botsford and James Breasted entered the picture to discredit the Black origins of Kemet and Nile Valley civilizations, White supremacists were already working to remove Black people from the annals of history, particularly Afrikan History. In their book, Types of Mankind: Ethnological Research, social scientists J. C Nott and George R. Giddon present a White supremacist argument that Kemet and the Nile Valley were products of White people. In 1971 on page 77, they write, “both in Egypt and in Nubia, was originally populated by a branch of the Caucasian race.”
Some of my research has brought me to some of the world’s most famous leaders and thinkers of European descent. Unfortunately, they helped to create White supremacist ideology that will work to prevent the world from seeing and treating Black people as human beings.
For instance, during his famous debates with incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas for the US Senator seat in Illinois. Candidate Abraham Lincoln, by 1860 he will become the sixteenth US President, explained to the crowd: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Legally, Black people had no protections of constitutional freedoms or rights in the courts of America. Roger B. Taney, a Chief Justice in the US Supreme Court ruled on the famous Dred Scott case of March 1857, saying “They [Black people] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the White race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics.” Since Dred Scott was taken to two freed states (e.g. Wisconsin and Illinois), he sued for his freedom in the US Supreme Court. Unfortunately, he lost his case. The US Supreme Court ruled against him. Powerful White people on the benches of the US Supreme Court did see Black people as human beings. The case was dismissed and Dred Scott was returned to enslavement. Later in that same year, Scott’s previous owners bought him and set him free.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, one of the founding fathers of America and US democracy, wrote that “all men are created equal,” and yet enslaved more than six-hundred Black people over the course of his life. Although he made some legislative attempts against American slavery, and at times bemoaned its existence. He also profited greatly and directly from the institution of slavery. In fact, he helped to write the language of the US constitution that protected slavery until 1865. Reading his writings, Thomas Jefferson did not view Black people as equals. He wrote that Black people are inferior to white people in his book called-Notes on the State of Virginia. He writes, “Comparing them [Black people] by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid: and that in imagination they [Black people] are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), German European philosopher and political theorist, wrote in his book called, Philosophy of History, “Africans have no conception of God or of a higher level of consciousness other than mere flesh.”
Reverend Buchner H. Payne, an American theologian, said in the 1867, “God is light, and in him was no darkness at all…. And if God could not be the father of the Blacks, because he was White, how could our Savior, being the express image of God’s person….carry such a demand of color into heaven, where all are White, much less to the throne.” As quoted by John G. Jackson in his book called-Ages of Gold and Silver page 218.
Reverend Dr. Henri Junod, a Swiss Protestant missionary, wrote in 1931 that Black people, “are an inferior race, a race made to serve.” As quoted by J.C. DeGraft-Johnson, in his book called-African Glory page 51-52.
Arnold Toynbee, Oxford trained historian, wrote in his book, A Study of History in 1947, “the Black races alone have not contributed positively to any civilization.”
Cecil Rhodes, British imperialist, creator of the Rhodes Scholarship, and founder of the De Beers diamond company, believed that Black people were inferior to White people. His White supremacist movements led to the colonization of South Afrika by Europeans. Whites took the lands and resources of Black people. Europeans began renaming parts of Southern Afrika Rhodesia. But Black people fought back European hegemony in Afrika. Black liberation movements rose up on the continent to free Black people from European colonialism. When Black people came to political power, they began renaming Rhodesia to Zimbabwe and Zambia. But before the liberation of Southern Afrika, Cecil Rhodes was the dominating force in that area of the world. He once said, “the native [Black people] is to be treated as a child and denied franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa.” (Magubane Bernard M. The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875–1910. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.)
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States. He served in the White House from 1913 to 1921. But before becoming the President of the United States, he was once the 34th Governor of New Jersey and the former President of Princeton University. President Wilson was a politician, lawyer, and an academic. He once said, “[Reconstruction government was detested] not because the Republican Party was dreaded but because the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded.”
I must stop there folks. Unfortunately, there is more on the history of White supremacy. I plan to write and lecture extensively about this subject.
However, I must state as a side bar note, there are many White intellectuals and scientists that presented the real facts on Black people, Afrikan History, Afrikan culture, and Afrikan spirituality, European History, world history, and American History. White scholars such as Herodotus, JeanFrancois Champollion, Basil Davidson, Count C.F. Volney, Charles Darwin, Dr. Louis S. B. Leaky, Dr. Donald Johanson, E. A. Wallis-Budge, Gerald Massey, and Leo Frobenius, to name a few. Unfortunately, their works are not presented in the main stream.
For example, Count C.F. Volney went to Kemet (Egypt) with Napoleon Bonaparte’s team of European scholarly professionals in 1798. At this this time Napoleon was the Empire of France, but he had an interest in the ancient world. They discovered that Kemet was a great Black civilization in Afrika and that she influenced the world. Volney writes in his book, Voyages on Syrie Et En Egypt on pages 74-77, “all have a bloated face, puffed up eyes, flat nose, thick lips; in word, the true face of the mulatto. I was tempted to attributed it to the climate, but when I visited the Sphinx, its appearance gave me the key the riddle. On seeing that head, typically Negro in all its features, I remember the remarkable passages where Herodotus says: “as for me, I judge the Colchians to be a colony of the Egyptians because, like them, they are Black with wooly hair……” In other words, the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans. That being so, we can see how their blood, mixed for several centuries with that of the Romans and Greeks must have lost the intensity of its original colour, while retaining nonetheless the imprint of its original mould. We can even state as a general principle that the face is a kind monument able, in many cases, to attest or shed light on historical evidence on the origins of peoples…..But returning to Egypt, the lesson she teaches history contains many reflections for philosophy. What a subject for meditation, to see the present barbarism and ignorance of the Copts, descendants of the alliance between the profound genius of the Egyptians and the brilliant minds of Greeks! Just think that the race of Black men, today our slaves and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences, and even the use of speech. Just imagine, finally, that it is in the midst of peoples who call themselves the greatest friends of liberty and humanity that one has approved the most barbarous slavery and questions whether Blackmen have the same kind of intelligence as Whites!”
But in conclusion, White supremacy did not come out of osmosis. White supremacist ideology was create by “credible” White intellectuals and leaders. White supremacy laid the foundation for today’s system of racism, a falsified concept of Whiteness, colorism, the Europeanization of the Black mind, the destabilization of Afrikan countries, the neutralization of Afrikan centered Black leaders, the capitalist exploitation of Afrika and Black people, mass incarceration, the oppression of people of color, biological warfare the disaccreditation of Black nationalism, and Black self-hatred in entire countries, in human beings, in Universities, in Colleges, in Egyptologists, in anthropology, in public schools, in private schools, in theology, in philosophy, in history, in literature, in western religions, in politics, in the Democratic Party, in the Republican Party, in slavery, in US reconstruction, in segregation, in government, in medicine, in European colonialism, and in science. White supremacy has created social and economic disparities within the Black community, and within the world Afrikan community, for generations past and present. This is why in Afrikan History, Black people began to justifiable fight back through Afrikan centric scholarship, Afrikan centered organizations (i.e. the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Moorish Science Temples of America, the Nation of Islam, the Organization of Afrikan Unity, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the Us Organization, the Original Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Afrika, Congress of Afrikan People, the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, the New Black Panther Party, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, Black Lives Matter, etc) Pan-Afrikanism, Black nationalism, Civil Rights, and Black Power. White supremacy is why we as Black people are still locked into a struggle for freedom, justice, equality, reparations, and a Black agenda in America and in the world.
-Bashir Muhammad Akinyele is a History Teacher, Black Studies Teacher, Community Actvist, Chairperson of Weequahic High School’s Black History Month Committee in Newark, NJ, commentary writer, and Co-Producer and Co-Host of the All Politics Are Local, the number #1 political Hip Hip radio show in America.
Note: Spelling Afrika with a k is not a typo. Using the k in Afrika is the Kiswahili way of writing Africa. Kiswahili is a Pan -Afrikan language. It is spoken in many countries in Afrika. Kiswahili is the language used in Kwanzaa. The holiday of Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January
They say it never rains in South L.A. Somebody lied. Because some days, there’s a big old cumulonimbus cloud…but it’s only over you. We walk around with these clouds, the fog creating blinders to the point where we can’t see one another clearly anymore. Often times, we don’t even see the people closest to us beyond the haze of their trauma and pain
I remember the sound of the hallway at my family’s house when I was younger. It was a voice in a low mumble when he’d talk to himself. It grew more animated the longer we left him alone. Sometimes, I’d stand at the doorway to his room and watch the scene unfold. It was as if he really believed whoever he was talking to in his mind was there in the room with him. I’d have to yell his name to snap him out of it. Then his eyes would light up as he looked back at me. His mind returned to the room and, every time, I could tell from his smile he was glad to be there with me.
I used to think some people just recalled memories out loud because my family vowed to protect his mumbling secret. Only the adults in our family knew he was clinically diagnosed. I wasn’t let in on the secret until I got older. His condition was hidden to the point where we forgot. We acted like it wasn’t there and wouldn’t even discuss it with one another. As a community, we tend to tuck away anything that makes us seem weaker because we, black people, are fighting against so much. But this hiding is dishonesty.
My co-creator for “Sad-Ass Black Folk,” Joel Boyd, and I sat down at a coffee shop for the first time in January 2019. Joel had an idea: a web series about black mental health. From there, the two comedy writers actively working through our own anxiety while unemployed, created eight characters, a world, and a story that would eventually become “Sad Ass Black Folk.” Through recalling our experiences with mental health in our community, we realized there was one common thread: Nobody was honest with us. As black folk, we have to be twice as good to get half as much so you can’t let them see you sweat, stress, or shed a tear. In our community, mental illness is categorized as a weakness that needs to be prayed away. What this leads to, and what we wanted to mourning on the screen, is suppression.
Through this journey, I began to recall my own experiences of suppression with depression and anxiety. Accompanying me on my way to school every morning in elementary school was a bubbling stomach ache that I blamed on swallowing toothpaste. In high school, it arrived in the form of being a “morning person” on the weekends. But it was neither toothpaste nor a chipper disposition; it was anxiety. Growing up, no one explained that there were clinical diagnoses for high-functioning, seemingly “normal” people. Only the “crazy” ones needed to actually tend to their brains. Sweeping “shyness” and tummy aches under the rug meant pretending everything was fine. Everything wasn’t fine and neither were the people around me.
We found out statistics, such as that only one in three Black Americans in need of mental health care receive treatment.
Our mumbling secret wasn’t the only one struggling in my life. I developed friendships with people that disappeared for months at a time and came back without warning. I had friends who made their mom answer the phone and say they were in the shower every time I called because they were afraid to tell any of us they had life growing in their belly before we even made it to high school. I had family members whose flared temper always embarrassed me in public. Let’s not forget the noble narcissists, the career swappers, and the conspiracy theorists that took their beliefs a bit too far.
This truth is where our characters in the show came from—the people Joel and I knew, our family, and our friends. Joel and I asked ourselves: What would happen if we brought all of these people we knew together for the purpose of healing? Further, we wondered: Would the person leading this healing be flawed as well? From there birthed the premise of “Sad-Ass Black Folk.”
After deciding grad school is wack, Preston, a socially inept, aspiring black psychologist, brings together a group of south L.A. misfits for a homemade group therapy “case study,” only to discover his own demons. He finds it difficult to usurp control of a sour-patch sidekick, a trust fund scammer, a sanctimonious activist, an EBT queen, an Eeyore sadboy, a nerdy hermit, and a hood hippie who are all battling serious inner issues. After encouraging these “patients” for weeks to be honest with themselves, they ultimately discover he’s been hiding what he’s going through more than them.
We want to normalize wellness, therapy, and healing and reverse the idea that there’s something shameful or wrong with people struggling with depression, anxiety, or serious psychological issues.
When we began interviewing black mental health specialists, Joel and I instantly felt less alone. We found out statistics, such as that only one in three Black Americans in need of mental health care receive treatment. However, Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. Clearly, our families weren’t the only ones evading the conversation on mental illness because not enough black folk are seeking or have access to help. The stigma, the suppression, the dishonesty, the mistreatment of black folk by specialists, and the misinformation keeps all of us from realizing we aren’t alone. So we process it through escaping in relationships, like Serenity in Episode Two. We run from our past without addressing our trauma like Jordyn in Episode Seven and Amira in Episode Five. We experience being hurt even more when asking for support by those we love like Aspen in Episode Four. We search for thrill in reckless behavior like Thad or decide to finally give up like Carl in Episode Three.
And so, beyond the web series, our mission became to create conversation and community through resources and events. We made sure the show reflected blackness in all of its expansiveness within Los Angeles in particular. We ultimately created this narrative, straight from our hearts, in the hopes that we’d make people laugh, start a conversation, and create a platform for healing.
We want to normalize wellness, therapy, and healing and reverse the idea that there’s something shameful or wrong with people struggling with depression, anxiety, or serious psychological issues. Since the journey, I’ve had friends and family start going to therapy. We’ve created events to prompt healing and community. And a year after that first coffee shop meeting, you can now watch all eight episodes on YouTube.
Let’s Not Glorify the Law: The Slave Trade Used to Be Legal
The law is a shaky foundation to rest on, particularly for Black people and other marginalized communities.
“An assumption that the courts will deliver‘justice” regularly ignores the fact that Black people have never known such a thing.”
Throughout the history of Black America, progress has often required breaking the law. For this reason, it’s worth questioning why, in sanitized mainstream narratives (for example, those shared in schools and government functions during Black History Month), the story of Black struggle is often divorced from incendiary, illegal acts. Most Black people in the United States are descended from enslaved Africans, and being Black in this country has never been wholly separated from that history. In fact, it still haunts us daily as we navigate its afterlife. This is a legacy that was demarcated by restrictions that continually pierced the everyday experience of living. For many Black people during the time of slavery, to be free was illegal itself — and in many ways, that reality has extended into every era following “emancipation.” Since then, the necessity of extralegal acts has continued for a people still constantly being ensnared by a society stacked against them.
“For many Black people during the time of slavery, to be free was illegal itself.”
Of course, Black people have often used U.S. law as a tool to make gains which often extended to many others. Activists have sued and otherwise challenged institutions in court throughout history, to great effect. For example, thanks to the legal battles of the N.A.A.C.P., Black people saw significant gains on this front in cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Guinn v. United States. Landmark legislation has resulted in significant changes for Black Americans, thanks to the efforts of organizers. For instance, the victorious Brown v. Board of Education ruling laid important foundations for the civil rights movement that encouraged other organizing leading up to the passage of legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act. Yet, racism is encoded in laws that criminalize poverty and other conditions Black people disproportionately experience. In a sense, that much remains like it always has been. The law is a shaky foundation to rest on, particularly for Black people and other marginalized communities.
However, we’re now in a historical moment when the racist and anti-Black president is, understandably, condemned as an affront to legality. Donald Trump’s first term saw the most lawsuits against a presidential administration in decades. “We’ll see you in court” has become a catchy utterance for organizations challenging Trump’s egregious attacks on the environment, immigration, civil and human rights. Witnessing the mockery of an impeachment trial during this presidency has exposed yet again that the law is unevenly applied, and that those with power are often able to break the law at will with no consequences.The law bends, twists and moves itself for many reasons.
“Racism is encoded in laws that criminalize poverty.”
As such, we’ve seen victorious attacks on landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act and a slew of other rollbacks over the past several years. These regressive legal developments should remind us that white supremacy is a constant within the legal institutions of the nation. That which is blatantly discriminatory has to go to court and be argued against because in the United States, it’s fair game to argue in court that those who are oppressed deserve their oppression.
The denial of pain and violence experienced by the oppressed is part of the dominant white supremacist culture. Were it not, we would never have had to go to court in the first place to plead for our human rights. The establishment has gradually eased the tensions of an ever-changing society so contentious issues didn’t turn into uncontrollable uprisings many times before. This is often the purpose of reform — to stave off revolution, to uphold the current legal system. An assumption that the courts will deliver “justice” — simply by upholding the law — regularly ignores the fact that Black people have never known such a thing, because our historic victories are perpetually under attack.
“White supremacy is a constant within the legal institutions of the nation.”
In fact, consider that the Constitution of the United States, often viewed as the ultimate basis for meting out justice, is a racist document in its origins. The European Enlightenment values embedded in the Constitution did not extend to Black people at its inception and still struggle to do so completely now. The Constitution is embraced in a bipartisan fashion and used for whatever means either side hopes to gain from it. Like interpretations of a holy text in a religion, the definite meanings of these laws and prescriptions are continually up for debate based on who is interpreting them and what side they’re on. This debate goes on ad nauseum, and is increasingly disillusioning for a populace weary of slow gains via trickle-down legal changes.
As per this country’s first laws, Black people were not meant to be citizens and our continued disenfranchisementis a constant reminder. From the fugitive resistance to slavery to the civil rights sit-ins against Jim Crow and the armed self-defense of the Black Power movement, many of our causes have involved battling institutions — not uprooting illegality, but uprooting injustices embedded within the law itself. What Black people have had to do in order to confront those injustices has often been illegal, from defending against police brutality to stealing food to occupying living spaces. Many have died along the way, because the white supremacist institutions leave us with no choice but utter defiance.
“Many of our causes have involved battling institutions — not uprooting illegality, but uprooting injustices embedded within the law itself.”
Thus, we should be warned by history not to overemphasize legality — or condemn all “lawlessness” — in our arguments for justice and our work in fighting oppression. To be clear, if a cop can kill you because they feel like it and you always “fit the description” of their target, you are not protected by the law. Why invest ourselves in protecting what does not protect us?
The history of Black resistance has always meant breaking the law, because unjust laws do not deserve our respect or obedience. Knowing that our enslavement, deprivation and segregation were all legal should inform our current choices about when and how to engage with the law. In order to achieve what’s been gained, laws have had to be broken and they will continue to need to be broken. We have had to be intolerant of the systems that oppress us and strive for a new reality — a reality in which oppressive systems are abolished.
As we reflect during this Black History Month, never forget we have always had to rebel, revolt and rise up against the law itself — not simply rely on it.
Only black people are shamed when they choose to wear hairstyles consistent with their natural hair texture.
By Ría Tabacco Mar
Ms. Tabacco Mar has represented black women in race discrimination lawsuits.
It was the fall of my first year of law school, in 2005, and I was headed to my first interview for a legal internship. I wore my only interview outfit, a conservative navy skirt suit and a cream blouse. A classmate complimented me on the look. Then she added, “But you’ll never look really professional with your hair in dreadlocks.”
I was reminded of that day as I watched video footage of a black student in Gretna, La., crying as she was forced to leave school because school officials objected to her hair. They claimed her box braids violated a dress code prohibition against “unnatural” hair styles because the braids included hair extensions. Extensions are sometimes used in black hairstyles, like braids, that don’t require the use of damaging chemical straighteners. The student and a classmate sent home for the same reason were not allowed to return until a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the school after both girls had missed several days of classes.
Far too often, black students are humiliated, shamed or banned from school because of bias against natural black hair. Just one week earlier, a 6-year-old black boy in Florida was barred from school because of his locs, also known as dreadlocks. And last year, twin sisters in Massachusetts were barred from extracurricular activities and threatened with suspension from their charter school because of hair extensions in their box braids, even though white students at the school were allowed to wear hair extensions in other styles.
The shaming and regulation of black people’s hair starts in school, or even earlier, but it doesn’t end there. Consider the case of Chastity Jones, who was selected for a customer support position in Mobile, Ala. After Ms. Jones completed an interview, the company’s human resources manager told her she could not be hired “with the dreadlocks.” Locs, the manager feared, “tend to get messy,” although she acknowledged that Ms. Jones’s weren’t. When Ms. Jones refused to cut off her hair, she was told she would not be hired.
Ms. Jones sued the company for race discrimination, arguing that its hair policy was unfair toward black employees, but a federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected her claim. The court reasoned that discrimination based on race is forbidden because, it said, race is immutable, while hairstyles can be changed. It’s true that hairstyles involve some degree of personal choice, but that doesn’t give employers free rein to discriminate against workers who wear dreadlocks, a hairstyle said to be named by slave traders who viewed African hair texture as “dreadful.”
When it comes to hair, only black people and multiracial people of African descent are punished when they choose to wear styles consistent with their natural hair texture. It’s unthinkable that a court would uphold a policy that effectively required white workers to alter their hair texture through costly, time-consuming procedures involving harsh chemicals. Yet that’s exactly what the appeals court apparently expected Ms. Jones to do to keep her job. In May, the Supreme Court refused even to allow Ms. Jones to petition for review, letting the appeals court’s bad reasoning stand uncorrected.
I was luckier than Chastity Jones; I got the internship. But I never forgot the hurtful comment.
Years later, when I joined a large corporate law firm, I noticed that I was the only professional woman of color with natural hair. Most young lawyers at the firm removed their suit jackets when they arrived at work and didn’t put them on again until they left the building. I wore mine whenever I stepped away from my desk, afraid people would see me without it and assume I wasn’t a lawyer.
It’s frustrating that schools, employers and federal courts continue to judge us based not on what we can contribute but on who we are and how we wear our hair.
But there has been some progress. Last year, the Army lifted its ban on locs and twists; the Marine Corps did the same in 2015. That move is a powerful antidote to the notion that hairstyles involving untreated black hair are unnatural and unprofessional. After all, if service members can do their jobs while wearing locs, surely the rest of us can, as well.