By What Right Does Take Em Down NOLA Get to Tell Zulu What to Do?

This essay was originally published by The Lens on March 1, 2019.

“Kings and Jungles” by New Orleans artist  Annie Moran

“Kings and Jungles” by New Orleans artist Annie Moran

Organizers of Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the group that credits itself with removal of the Confederate monuments, have more in common with white supremacists than they care to admit.

Last week, less than a dozen of them gathered on the neutral ground outside of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club headquarters to protest members’ use of black face paint as part of Zulu parading pageantry, arguing that the tradition stems from minstrelsy.

The most recent national dialogue about blackface began with revelations of white policymakers’ blackface-wearing pasts. In a maneuver reminiscent of white discourse about black-on-black crime, Take ‘Em Down NOLA attempted to shift the spotlight away from the racism of people who make public policy that has material impacts on millions of Black people and instead challenge the cultural traditions of Black New Orleanians.

Like many contemporary social-justice activists, they seem to share the white supremacist belief that working-class, Southern Black people need to be changed; that we need to submit to their higher wisdom and agenda.

Take ‘Em Down NOLA reinforces the narrative that the Black masses are stupid and need education — in fact, so stupid that we annually celebrate our own ridicule. Having sought and secured press coverage, Take ‘Em Down NOLA is not protesting a minstrel show; they’re starring in a self-produced minstrel show, and it throws into question the sincerity of the group’s effort to rid the 110-year-old Black club and cultural tradition of the symbols it has long deployed.

Though NOLA.com columnist Jarvis Deberry reduces  all criticism of Take ‘Em Down NOLA to haterism by blackface supporters who are doing nothing for justice, I am neither defending blackface nor am I arguing for a reprioritization of social issues. I want Black people from New Orleans, particularly those who don’t have a community-organizing and/or public-relations background, to understand the incoherence between what Take ‘Em Down NOLA is saying and doing and how they fit into a larger social-justice context.

Community organizing is not a purely whimsical art form. There are agreed-upon rules. The purpose of organizing is to build a base of power to shape change. Veteran organizers train nubies to analyze power dynamics in order to identify the best tactics to meet their goal. In a power analysis of Zulu, the following questions become pertinent:

Who is in a position to make the decision about club tradition that Take ‘Em Down NOLA feels should be made? Answer: Zulu Club leadership.

Who or what gives Zulu leadership their decision-making power? Answer: Zulu’s dues-paying members and the general Black public that lends social capital to the club’s traditions.

How might Take ‘Em Down NOLA have convinced  Zulu’s power base to align with their goal and organize their power to pressure the decision-makers?

Take ‘Em Down NOLA could have tried to converse with members who stand around outside Zulu headquarters in the evenings. They could have asked someone they know for a connection to an active member who might be sympathetic. Hell, they could’ve waited a week and a half and thrown paper planes with their agenda onto Zulu floats. Instead, they chose to stand outside Zulu headquarters with bullhorns, playing to media that they had cued by sending out press releases in advance.

The PR campaign tactics were guaranteed to offend Zulu members and leaders alike. They make it far less likely that Take ‘Em Down will ever succeed in engaging with the club it seeks to influence.

In an Advocate article, Take ‘Em Down NOLA lead organizer Malcolm Suber states that if Zulu doesn’t stop using black paint, Take ‘Em Down NOLA will pressure the City Council to stop giving them permits to parade. Given how obviously the protest tactic undermines Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s ability to build a base of power among Zulu  members, I have to wonder: is a City Council-sponsored Zulu ban the actual goal?

See, when they levy a threat to have Zulu canceled for non-compliance, this isn’t just about aesthetics.

That we still choose to gather in the streets en masse — not to spite whitey, but because we just want to be around each other — cannot be explained with logic. It’s a testament to the strength of community and our culture, something older and deeper than our “resilience.”

White supremacists have employed various tactics to deprive us of the nourishment we have always found in community. Code Noir curfews and, not coincidentally, the refusal to grant permits to social aid and pleasure clubs for second lines comes to mind. And yet, we persist in honoring that which has granted us survival — our relationships with each other.

Black New Orleanians have long decided that resistance to white people’s ideas about who we are does not have to be at the center of our cultural traditions. Our culture is not a propaganda campaign to convince others of our worth. Our culture is a living force. It grows, it responds, it transforms. It takes new shape but never dies.

Deberry, and most recently NOLA.comguest columnist Chuck Perkins, insist that a refusal to agree with Take ‘Em Down NOLA is evidence of our self-hate. This paternalism saddens me. I have observed how post-Katrina activists sowed distrust by convincing some of us who came of age over the last 13 years that Black New Orleans needs outside leadership, that any resistance to that leadership is evidence of our oppression, that it puts us in service to white supremacy.

While exposure to new ideas, new relationships, new experiences inevitably changes us, justice does not come by accepting guidance from people who only want to be in relationship with you insofar as they can take credit for changing you.

If Zulu’s aesthetic is meant to transform, I trust that the social aid & pleasure club will be responsible for bringing that about. Until then, Black New Orleanians do not have to submit to any group, columnist, or self-proclaimed “movement” leader who wants to function as our cultural judge, jury, and executioner.

Daily, I am in awe of the brilliance that it has taken for us to protect our proverbial soul, our confidence in the value of our Blackness. It’s the part of us that knows our voices, experiences, and ideas are valid and guides us to share them without fear.

In the social justice minstrelsy embodied in the media spectacle they have created, Take ‘Em Down NOLA organizers may think they are educating and organizing us, but I think they have a thing or two to learn themselves.

Revived.

In the past day, six different people have asked me what was going on with my blog. Whoops. It honestly didn't occur to me that folks were checking for my work like that. I mean, six is a small number, yes, AND it's more faithful readers than I imagined myself to have. I see the numbers in my squarespace analytics app. My readership ain't as low as it could be. Just over 15,000 people from 27 countries read my Black Panther review. A few thousand read my Kara Walker piece (I even got an email from the NYT telling me to remove or license the image) and another few thousand the first Anti-Imperialist Parenting post. But reading an essay cause the title piques your interest while scrolling through social media and actively seeking out new writing by the essayist are two different things. In short, I can't even put into words how grateful I am to hear that my work is resonating with people so much that they're coming back for more. Thug tears. I take those questions as a sign. To answer: I spent all the spare $16 I had at the new vegan soulfood spot on Broad, several times over, instead of paying for my website subscription. It was well worth it. And now I'm back to pick up where I left off. Full of the most delicious bread pudding - but not shit, cause greens, fresh juice, and good sense.

Anti-Imperialist Parenting: Introduction

 "[T]he responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capitals, raw materials, technicians and cheap labor, and to which they export new capitals — instruments of domination — arms and all kinds of articles; thus submerging us in an absolute dependance [sic]."

- Che Guevara, "Message to the Tricontinental" (1967) 

Picture chosen for no other reason than that it's currently my fave cause I'm feeling nostalgic -where'd by little baby go?!?  

Picture chosen for no other reason than that it's currently my fave cause I'm feeling nostalgic -where'd by little baby go?!?  

As a black feminist, my life practice centers anti-imperialism, the rejection of and resistance to global capitalism characterized by the U.S. and select European countries' (alternatively referred to as "the State") monopolies on raw materials in the Third World/Global South, exploiting the labor of people of color, especially women, in the process; and as a parent, keeping my child alive and content is 99.9% of my life practice. Starting with this introductory post and continuing for the next several weeks, I will be publishing a series about my and a few guests' explorations in anti-imperialist parenting. From cloth diapering to carcerality, the series will include personal narratives, theories, and tips for everyone - non-parents included - to become and to teach children how to be more independent of the state in both thought and action.

Anti-imperialism is a constant exercise in relinquishing our dependence on the State, organizing to subvert our exploitation, and hopefully.. someday... maybe... no pressure but pressure... eliminating capitalism and redistributing wealth and life chances. The conveniences on which we've come to rely, from gas-powered anything to plastic to smart technology, are soaked in blood. The blood of the people killed by the Imperialists' "human rights interventions" that justify occupation of other countries and gain access to raw materials; as a result of the environmental degradation of extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use, and disposal; by starvation as a result of forcibly maintained underdevelopment; by each other as we contend with the trauma of economic abuse. To rely on the conveniences used to comfort us from our exploitation is to be complicit in the violence that the Imperialist state generates in order to make such conveniences available to us. To exercise independence from the state, loosening our dependence on the conveniences it grants us, requires time, a luxury that a lot of parents, particularly those at the intersections of being black, Indigenous, poor, and/or woman, don't have. Across the board, including in our child-rearing, we're encouraged to save time to maximize our labor capacity, from spanking to microwaving meals, often with no thought about how these actions are born of our experiences as subjects of the Imperialist state and how they will shape our children's relationships with the Imperialist state. Nonetheless, I believe in us - black and indigenous peoples, women, poor people, and everybody else too. I'm a 25-year old, low-income, black, single mother with little outside support - if I can do the bit I do (which is, admittedly, far from complete independence), you can do something.

The first rule of anti-imperialist parenting is to accept that we're not raising anti-imperialists. We cannot make our children embrace anti-imperialism. In other words, the first rule of anti-imperialist parenting is to practice consent.

The denial of children's right to consent is the basis of white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist empire-building. Describing all the dark-skinned peoples of the world whom they encountered as childlike (and feminine), European colonizers justified their murders, the theft of land and resources, the erasure of cultures, and the exploitation of labor. Reclaiming consent for children (or perhaps more accurately reclaiming our ability as adults/parents to respect children's right to consent) is a fundamental prerequisite to thwarting imperialism. Parenting a child does not mean we own them and can turn them into reflections of ourselves. We do, however, wield a lot of influence, and that influence can be detrimental if we teach them in word or action that what they do or don't want doesn't matter to us, their primary caregivers, when in actuality, what they do/don't want has material consequences for people all over the world.

In the next post, I'll be writing about my experiences of consent, my approach to practicing/learning to practice consent with my ten-month old, and the decisions I've made for our family in his pre-verbal stage to minimize his complicity in the evils of imperialism (to which he most certainly did not consent yet). I'm also hoping to include ideas and experiences from parents with older children - holler at me if you'd like to share.

I feel crazy as hell for writing this. But I like it.

"#ReHumanize, for Albert Woodfox" at UNO St. Claude Gallery

This exhibition review was originally published here by Pelican Bomb on September 4, 2015.

JACKIE SUMELL,  KIJANA TASHIRI ASKARI/FOOTJOY CONTOUR SPIKELESS GOLF SHOE (ON SALE)/#H-54077  (DETAIL). TWO FRAMED WORKS ON PAPER. COURTESY THE ARTIST.

JACKIE SUMELL, KIJANA TASHIRI ASKARI/FOOTJOY CONTOUR SPIKELESS GOLF SHOE (ON SALE)/#H-54077 (DETAIL). TWO FRAMED WORKS ON PAPER. COURTESY THE ARTIST.

Dedicated to Albert Woodfox, the only unliberated member of the trio of black male political prisoners known as the Angola Three, “#ReHumanize, for Albert Woodfox” at the UNO St. Claude Gallery highlights the commodification of those imprisoned by the American penal system. With Jackie Sumell’s delicate drawings and hand-written profiles of former and current prisoners and Devin Reynolds’ jarring, advertisement-like paintings, the exhibition asks viewers “to imagine a world without prisons and to begin to dream of ways to better insure [sic] public safety and wellbeing without the need to simply dehumanize and punish.” “#ReHumanize” does not allow viewers to imagine or to dream; instead, it force feeds them a skewed perception of the “other” to elicit a superficial, empathetic response on the basis of shared humanity with those victimized by the Prison Industrial Complex.

To rehumanize means to make human again. The concept of humanity is a collection of hegemonic values that are projected onto us to regulate social behavior and to perpetuate the status quo; our ability to reflect it and the institutional response to our reflection of it largely depends on where we exist in the socioeconomic matrix. At the intersection of art and activism, those who are best able to reflect the human ideal are endowed with institutional visibility, allowed access to funding and a platform. Thus is born the career social practice artist. The title of the exhibition rightfully suggests that humanity can be given and revoked. However, “#ReHumanize” operates on the deluded beliefs that it is the role of the social practice artist to project humanity onto the “other” and that viewers of these projections can liberate said “other” with their gaze—a delusion many buy into because it is consistent with their savior complex. Reynolds and Sumell fail to realize that their projection of humanity onto prisoners actually prevents the abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex. As long as humanity is the basis for justice and compassion, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism—the forces that sustain the Prison Industrial Complex—will continue to thrive.

As an example of the ways in which the prison system dehumanizes, Reynolds and Sumell focus on the replacement of prisoners’ names with inmate numbers. Sumell couples pencil drawings of objects that have stock-identification numbers identical to prisoners’ Department of Corrections numbers with brief profiles of each prisoner. By placing the drawings where viewers might expect an image of the prisoner, Sumell argues that the replacement of names with numbers is evidence of prisoners’ dehumanization. Reynolds and Sumell prove that the concept of humanization is synonymous with colonization when stating in a large manifesto-like wall text that, by having their “real family names” taken away, prisoners are dehumanized. For most black, Latino, and Native-American prisoners, family names were forced upon them by the Europeans who colonized and/or enslaved their ancestors, replacing indigenous African and Indo-American names with European ones, followed by other forms of degradation intended to alienate them from their cultures of origin. The purpose of humanization is to organize and control.

As with the inextricably tied systems of global oppression, compartmentalization and competition power the human ideal. The privileged subject identifies the “other,” in the case of “#ReHumanize,” prisoners, and assesses similarities and differences. Sumell chooses not to detail the reasons why the profiled prisoners are or were incarcerated; she compartmentalizes because to acknowledge a history of crime would limit many viewers’ ability to perceive the prisoners’ humanity. But the prisoners’ crimes are as much an aspect of their humanity as their love for ice cream and walks in nature, which she does include. All so-called crime is a reflection of the human ideal—of hegemonic views regarding women, poor people, people of color, money, liberty, social acceptance, and respect. It is the projection of humanity that lands people in prison in the first place. Yet, Reynolds and Sumell propose that, to counteract the trauma of the prison experience, we must project humanity onto them again.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF PAINTINGS BY DEVIN REYNOLDS OUTSIDE OF UNO ST. CLAUDE GALLERY AS PART OF “#REHUMANIZE, FOR ALBERT WOODFOX.”

INSTALLATION VIEW OF PAINTINGS BY DEVIN REYNOLDS OUTSIDE OF UNO ST. CLAUDE GALLERY AS PART OF “#REHUMANIZE, FOR ALBERT WOODFOX.”

In efforts to rehumanize the people in the St. Roch neighborhood, Reynolds deconstructed the barrier between the community and the gallery by installing over two dozen small paintings on the chain-link, barb-wire fence that divides the gallery’s gravel parking lot and the sidewalk. With a mixture of sadness, bewilderment, and condescension, Reynolds told me that the day before the opening, he arrived at the gallery to find that a piece that reads “MiKKKael Jordan” with the image of a white-hooded Nike Jordan logo had been ripped out of place and hurled toward the building. Unaware that it is the same humanity he is projecting that leads people to want expensive tennis shoes, Reynolds mocks Jordan-buyers’ efforts to reflect the human ideal. Humanization is funny like that.

The strength of the human ideal lies in its transmittable and transmutable nature. The human ideal functions cyclically because our projection of humanity is a sign of our humanity. When we humanize someone, we train him or her to project. A country of humans is a country of complacent slaves deceived by crumbs of access and privilege to ignore the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, and imperialist nature of the humanity that they perpetuate. Once one has been humanized, humanization comes easy. The real work is acknowledging how we have all been traumatized by the projection of the human ideal and working to heal from that instead of continuing to project our trauma onto others by being human and humanizing.

Throughout United States history, the human ideal has been touted by self-proclaimed allies to bring institutional reform. Thomas Jefferson advocated for an end to American participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In a presidential message to Congress, Jefferson described the transatlantic slave trade as “those violations of human rights.” But not only did he continue to own and domestically trade enslaved Africans, he openly opposed private manumission and public emancipation and proposed legislation to outlaw free people of color. Forty-six years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though she had never been to the South, Stowe wrote about fictional black characters there to enlist the support of northern white women readers like her for the abolitionist movement. But when Harriet Jacobs, the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, wrote to Stowe asking that she write the preface to her soon-to-be-published slave narrative, Stowe declined because, she said, Jacobs’ inclusion of extramarital sex (a relationship that Jacobs explains in the text she had to protect herself from getting raped by her owner) was un-Christian and undignified.

Neither the transatlantic slave trade nor domestic slavery was abolished because of African people. And to be clear, only one was abolished at all. The United States abolished the transatlantic slave trade to sever economic ties with Britain, the largest international trader of enslaved Africans, and to accelerate the domestic slave trade. The United States reformed slavery (enter: the Prison Industrial Complex) because free slave labor in the South impeded the economic growth of the industrial North and threatened the stability of the Union. The transatlantic slave trade was abolished and slavery was reformed to protect humanity—that is, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. The revolution will not be led by humans.

Oppressed people are conditioned to seek evidence of our humanity in the gaze of those who best reflect the human ideal, and in doing so, we alienate ourselves from the people who are capable of seeing us for who we are and not for our potential to be more like them. From the Big House to the Ivory Tower to the six-by-nine-foot cell that Albert Woodfox has been kept in for 43 years, we’ve long known privilege is a joke, but it’s a narcotizing one if you’ve got it and an appealing one if you don’t. When we relinquish the need for validation, when we relinquish the desire to be perceived as human, that is when we unite. We seize control of Attica. We set fire to sugar plantations in Saint-Domingue. We slice throats in Virginia. We throw trashcans through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Our actions seem illogical to some, riotous. Unhuman, unreadable, we see each other.

Reynolds and Sumell command us to rehumanize. I refuse.

"what's going on" at Boyd | Satellite

This exhibition review was written for and published here on PelicanBomb.com on April 14, 2016.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF “WHAT’S GOING ON” AT BOYD | SATELLITE, NEW ORLEANS. PHOTO BY DALE GUNNOE.

INSTALLATION VIEW OF “WHAT’S GOING ON” AT BOYD | SATELLITE, NEW ORLEANS. PHOTO BY DALE GUNNOE.

I do not believe that white people are inherently incapable of facilitating conversations about the impact of white supremacy on black and brown lives. In fact, it is because I want white people to be having these conversations that I criticize them when their attempts are haphazard or merely self-congratulatory. Boyd | Satellite’s “What’s Going On” bills itself as “an homage to Black Lives Matter,” but its choices don’t reflect an understanding of the movement or its commitment to meaningful change.

To its credit, the exhibition includes some great pieces by individual artists. The late Jeffrey Cook’s sculpture Song of Silence, 1996, memorializes two friends lost to gun violence with upward-facing, cast-iron guns, the barrels of which have been wrapped in black twine and cloth—the tools of death preserved, stripped of their power, now rendered sacred objects. John Isiah Walton’s painting The Farm, 2016, depicts a white man on horseback looming over a black man picking cotton at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, highlighting the transtemporal exploitation of black labor from plantation to prison. These and other scenes of anti-black violence are literally reflected on the graphite surface of a work by Ron Bechet, which is etched with statistics of unemployment, income inequality, juvenile arrests, and housing insecurity, all relayed in second person, mapping these realities on to the viewer and the gallery.

But “What’s Going On” suffers from a lack of curatorial vision and intentionality that detracts from the potential power of these works. A faint reference to Marvin Gaye and the superficial dedication to black resistance in the exhibition’s title don’t provide enough context, making the pieces feel like disconnected jabs at sentimentality. An homage to Black Lives Matter is, by necessity, an argument for the value of black life, and the curation of the show should reflect this.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement was started and has largely been led by black women, black female artists have been excluded from “What’s Going On.” When asked if the work of any black women was being shown, gallery owner Ginette Bone responded, as though it had never crossed her mind, “Now that you mention it, no.” Local Black Lives Matter activists, many of whom are also women, hadn’t been contacted either.

Furthermore, Boyd | Satellite has centered white artists in the exhibition’s promotional materials and in the physical placement of their works in the exhibition. The flyer for the exhibition only shows gallery owner Blake Boyd’s photograph Swat, 2008, and, in the reminder email for the opening, only Ti-Rock Moore’s works are distinguishable. Moore’s pieces are also the largest in the show: the three eight-by-twelve-foot panels of Possession, 2014; her now-infamous installation Angelitos Negros, 2015; and the Jeff Koons-esque Cracka Please, 2015, a collaboration with the artist Cypher. Only one black artist, photographer L. Kasimu Harris, has more than one piece in the show.

By not dedicating enough space and attention to the works of the black artists, the exhibition undermines the ethos of Black Lives Matter and devalues the works of the black artists that are included, while placing the white artists and gallery owners on a pedestal for their choice to take a stand. Just because a gallery on Julia Street is highlighting an important subject doesn’t mean that the exhibition actually addresses the issues at hand. I’m not convinced that black lives matter to Boyd | Satellite beyond the visibility and publicity that their pain brings to the gallery.