Monday, August 29, 2011

Slavery is Never Chic; The Black Experience Don't Come Cheap

Good morning boys and girls, dedicated readers of The Urban Politico. It is time for story time with The Storyteller. Today we're talking about the latest foolery to hit the Black community in America as well as the continued devastation caused by one of the worst natural disasters in American history. Now you may be thinking that foolery and catastrophe have nothing to do with each other, but trust in The Storyteller and you will see The Light of the Sun... Word to Jill Scott.

And now that I've mentioned Ms. Scott let me kick off the first story. Jilly from Philly, when she first stepped on the scene, was seen as this neo-soul Earth Mother. That homegirl sister-friend that every Black woman had could relate to. The kind of friend you shared clothes or swapped jewelry with. Jewelry like big thick wooden bangles or your favorite pair of hoop earrings. Well this past week the fashion industry took it upon themselves to rebrand your door knockers as "slave earrings." The culprit Vogue Italia.

Of the earrings the glossy fashion rag wrote:

"If the name brings to mind the decorative traditions of the women of colour who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade, the latest interpretation is pure freedom. Colored stones, symbolic pendants and multiple spheres. And the evolution goes on."
News of these "slave earrings" first hit the interwebs a week ago today. Outrage ensued across the black blogosphere. The go to blog for "contemporary women of color" decried the earrings and their name; commenters blew up over the blatant racism from the magazine known for its stunning all Black issue.

Vogue Italia quickly apologized and renamed the earrings "ethnic earrings," saying something got lost in translation between English and Italian that produced the word slave instead of ethnic. But the description remained about women of color brought to the Southern United States in chains. So again the Black blogosphere attacked. There were postings on why slave is not synonymous with ethnic. It isn't. There were postings that this was just the latest gaffe by an industry that doesn't employ many Blacks in the upper echelons of the company where decisions are made. There were postings that wrote off the earrings as "more white people not getting it" much like this.

Usually a staunch understander of media gaffes, advertising missteps, etc. this I just can't defend, let alone understand. Slavery is not and never has been chic. Gold hoop earrings that Black women wore to the new world while linked to each other by their necks and shackled about the feet in coffles does not make me think hot fall trend. Large gold hoop earrings Black women wear today does not make me think that I'm paying tribute to my ancestors who could only express themselves by looped adornments hanging from their ear lobes.

Sorry #fail.

Vogue Italia's lost in translation moment, half-assed apology, and all around insensitivity just adds to a time in our culture in this country that piling on Black people for sport is just the "en vogue" thing to do. When a Black blogger can write at length on why it's a great time to be racist in this country you know like I know that something is wrong with this picture in this "post-racial Obamamerica."

The fact of the matter is we're not post-racial. We're in fact very far from it. The sheer thought that we somehow became post-racial in the three short years from August 2005 to November 2008 is jejune and nonsensical. To believe that the hegemony in this country woke up with a heart and soul bleeding Black people and love for the bruhs and the sistas is also jejune and nonsensical.


Because it just didn't happen.

Check It.

I say August 2005 for a reason. On August 29, 2005, six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina came roaring up the Gulf Coast in all of her category 3 might. She pounded the city of New Orleans -- my family's home town -- with wind and rain. Katrina dumped on the N.O. more than commenter Killswitch dumps on us here at The Urban Politico. But it was not Katrina that caused the most destruction. Remember with me now, Katrina had come and gone through New Orleans by Monday night. It was the breaching of the levees early Tuesday morning that sent water rushing through New Orleans. That forced people out of their homes and to the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome.

Both of my parents were born and raised in New Orleans. My grandmother lived in the lower 9th ward. As did my aunt and a cousin. This is a picture of my grandmother's house one year after Katrina.

This is a picture of my cousin's house one year after Katrina.

Do you see a house. Nope. Me neither. That was in 2007. It's sad to say much of the lower 9th ward in New Orleans still looks like this.

Last night, while I was at work, The Associated Press put out its customary Katrina update. It says:

"Redevelopment has been slow in coming to the Lower 9th Ward. The neighborhood has just 5,500 residents -- one third of its pre-Katrina population.

But politicians investors, and celebrities continue to promise a better future. City leaders recently announced plans to rebuild a high school and pave the neighborhood's roads. And actor Wendell Pierce, who stars in an HBO series about New Orleans, is backing a new supermaket for an area that hasn't had one in 20 years.

While some residents welcome the news, they remain skeptical because empty houses continue to line the streets."

Somebody please tell me why in the six years since Katrina the roads of the lower 9th ward haven't been paved? But I won't even get hung up on that. We've all seen the photo-ops with Brad Pitt where 9th ward residents have returned to their ghost town and now have an energy efficient home that still resembles a shotgun house. We've seen the Spike documentaries, maybe an episode or two of the now defunct K'ville, or the going strong Treme, we've given our opinions about what happened, who's at fault, and why the local government of then Mayor Ray Nagin, the state government of former governor Kathleen Blanco, and the Federal government run by George W. Bush all failed. We can have those political, it's-so-sad, that's-a-damn-shame conversations at length and get nowhere.

The conversation that we need to have and are not having is what allowed this to happen. Army Corps. of Engineers, I'm looking at you. Why in a city that in some areas is eight feet below sea level do you put up clay levees? As in clay made of mud and water. As in clay that erodes in storm surge.

For real.

For real.

That's what happened. That's the cause for all the flooding destruction that claimed lives, homes, and livelihoods. The new levees don't look much better. They look like lego's and they still aren't finished; six years after the fact. Every hurricane season the question is raised, "What happens if another Katrina comes to New Orleans?" Answer: New Orleans is screwed. The city is no more protected now than it was when it was thriving and vibrant.

If there was ever any hard evidence of how forgotten Black people can be in this country it is in images from Katrina. If there was ever any hard evidence on what modern day racism in this country looks like it is in stories from Katrina. If you ever need evidence of how Black people are trivialized in this country go see the lower ninth ward.

But this story is not the about the clusterf*ck of an aftermath in post-Katrina New Orleans. This story isn't even about the epic failure of Vogue Italia's Slave Earrings. This story is about being Black in America; a station I doubt anyone actively wishes for in life.

To be Black in America is to not belong to any one group except Blacks in America. It is to remember the past but not harp on it for fear you make the hegemony uncomfortable. It is to know the leaders of your race as well as you know the founding father's and try not to give either or any preference in the classroom or else you be called a traitor to your race and or a traitor to your country. To be Black in America is to know you will be judged on sight, or sight unseen depending on what your name is. It is to work harder for less just to be equal. It is to be accepting and understanding of ill-timed, ill-formed comments on race from a tongue of the other. It is even to be wholly in love yet still critical of the first Black President.

To be Black in America is to be complex. It is an experience wrought with as much pain as there is joy. It is an experience that is different for every Black person because as we all know Blacks in America are not a monolith. But most importantly it is an experience that should never be cheapened for political pot shots or to sell jewelry Black women have been rocking since LL Cool J said, "I want a girl with extensions in her hair/ Bamboo earrings/ At least two pair." It is an experience we as Blacks can inherently understand but not always coherently explain. It is an experience that brings us together in times of crisis like Katrina, or tears us apart between Allen West, Maxine Waters, and Herman Cain.

It is an experience that should never be taken for granted. But it is. And that is a problem.

It's not the actual slave earrings, plantation weddings, stereotypical ads, controversial movies, or the likening of Barack and Michelle to monkeys in a zoo that bothers me. It is the fact that whoever thought up those things, ideas, and images thinks that it is okay. That it is funny. That it is satire or edgy, politically controversial but not over the top. That is my problem.

As a Black woman from Chicago, with roots in the deep South, who chose a profession in one of the most cynical industries in the world, it would be easy for me to turn a blind eye toward race relations, injustices, problems in the community, etc. The reason I don't is not only that I'm confronted with these issues on a daily basis just walking into the newsroom, but because if I turned a blind eye like so many others, my lack of voice, my non discontent would only exacerbate the problem of cheapening the Black experience; for profit, for political gain, for fun.

It took journalist John Howard Griffin making himself Black in Black Like Me to understand the experience. But at the end of the day his Blackface came off. Ours does not. So no matter how enlightened he was, he and other race sympathizers will never understand Black in America; sorry Soledad.

Some may say the fuss over media images is over blown (Vogue Italia). Some may say -- myself included -- White people, Hispanic people, Asians, whoever, all have the right to tell their stories starring Black people (The Help). Some may say running for President puts you under intense scrutiny and Obama should get over it (the media). But what most cannot say is that being Black in America and confronting these issues on a day to day basis is easy.

On this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the one week since slave earrings made their splash across computer screens, I urge you to think of your own experience in America and whether or not it has been easy. Then ask yourself, if someone took all that you went through, your history, your past, your present, and made a mockery of it, dismissed it as if it never happened and didn't exist, how would you feel?

The End.

1. Slave Earrings: Offensive, Racist, Advertising Insensitivity, Lost in Translation?
2. New Orleans post Katrina: Will it get better?
3. Black in America: Should we be over it and embracing the post-racial or is their too much in the way for "us" to get there.

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