Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Melissa Harris-Perry took the walk that many wish they could

My Grandmaw was a news junkie. I mean she watched all kinds of shows and she kept up with everything. Celestine Marie Burnside, my 82-year-old black Southern grandmother, knew who Jay-Z is and about his clean water work in Africa and about Puff Daddy’s empire from Bad Boy Records to his Sean Jean clothing line.

Grandmaw was hip to all things, from pop culture to social justice. She watched 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20/20, Nightline, Headline News, CNN and FOX. One of her favorite news programs was Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC.

When I first heard that the MHP show was over I thought about Grandmaw. My Grandmaw loved the MHP show so much because she knew the importance of media representation. She grew up in the Jim Crow South either not seeing our images at all or seeing us in portrayed in ugly extremes. On the MHP show, she saw not only an intelligent black woman host who is unapologetically black but also black people’s stories told with dignity and fairness.

It wasn’t until I went home during her last summer that I realized how much she watched and loved the MHP show. During one Saturday morning visit I sheepishly asked her if I could turn to the show and she enthusiastically replied saying yes and that she didn’t realize it was time for “my girl” to come on television. Grandmaw felt like Harris-Perry was one of us. Grandmaw was invested in the host and the show much like the rest of the viewers known as #Nerdland.

During her last weeks of her life Grandmaw watched a lot of television. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July 2013. With each day her body grew weak and fragile. But her mind stayed sharp and her hunger for information never waned. Grandmaw, who was a member of the usher board at Second Baptist for decades, didn’t have the energy to make it to church so she spent Sunday mornings watching Melissa Harris-Perry.

My Grandmaw was particularly interested in the coverage and outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and the portrayal of Trayvon Martin, the teenager that Zimmerman fatally shot. Grandmaw looked to Melissa Harris-Perry’s show for truth and context. As we watched the Zimmerman trial unfold we watched the host introduce us to experts, issues and angles to stories that are seldom seen.

The last Sunday I spent with Grandmaw before she died we watched the MHP show. I remember Grandmaw saying how proud she was of the host, “Aww, that’s my girl right there!”

Image result for melissa harris-perry show msnbc

My Grandmaw was also proud of me and the journalism I produced during my 10-year career as a newspaper reporter. But she didn’t know what telling those stories cost me. I told her about things that happened at work but not about all of the insulting, humiliating, degrading ways in which superiors and colleagues devalued and dehumanized me. Journalism is a tough business especially for those who are black and a woman. Jill Nelson describes what it's like to be a black woman journalist in her memoir Volunteer Slavery.

I stayed in some newsrooms way longer than I should have only because I had no choice. Several months and years-long job searches resulted in hiring freezes and job cuts at media outlets. As much as I desperately wished and prayed for an exodus, I had to earn a paycheck and take the disrespect and discrimination that manifested in my body physically and mentally.

About 10 years ago at a National Association of Black Journalists convention professional development workshop for black women journalists the room flooded with tears and tales of crushing bigotry and unfairness that black women experienced at the nation’s top newspapers, networks and magazines down to weekly newspaper and local television newsrooms. Women talked about the work and stress-related illnesses for which they were prescribed medication from depression to high blood pressure. That day black women journalists at every level from across the country realized we were not alone in our suffering. A few years later several reports of young black journalists suffering from heart attacks and strokes made me think about the heartache and horror stories I heard at that workshop. In full disclosure I am now a post-doctoral fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper research center founded by Harris-Perry. But I write this as a black woman with newsroom experience.

For me the stress of staying in a toxic newsroom resulted in depression, insomnia, weight gain and sometimes excessive drinking and smoking. Some of those journalism jobs put my body and soul through hell. At the time it was the only way I could financially support myself.
Harris-Perry had a choice. She has another job as a political science professor and director of a research center. She holds a PhD in political science and is the author of two books.

In an email to her show staff Harris-Perry wrote: “It is profoundly hurtful to realize that I work for people who find my considerable expertise and editorial judgment valueless to the coverage they are creating.” Many of us black women journalists experienced the same treatment. But we couldn’t leave. There was nowhere to go. Harris-Perry left. There will not be months and years of newsroom toxicity and trauma for her to experience just to put food on the table. Good.

I don’t know exactly how Grandmaw would react to the end of the MHP show. I know she’d miss it like I do. But I also think that she’d understand why Harris-Perry left and applaud her for doing it.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

#OscarsSoWhite diversity debate prompts question of the awards show’s relevance among people of color

After the Academy Awards announced a slate of all-white nominees in major categories this year celebrities including Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee called for a boycott of the awards show. A communications researcher says the Academy must become inclusive if it wants to be relevant among people of color.

Dr. Sherri Williams, a faculty member in the Communications Department at Wake Forest University, studies representations of people of color in the media. FOX 8 in High Point, North Carolina asked Williams to offer insight into the debate. Williams said the awards show is already irrelevant among many black viewers.

"There is and already has been a quiet and maybe undeclared boycott of the Oscars by African-Americans anyway,” said Williams who teaches a class on race, gender and the media. “People already don't watch the Oscars and they have really become obsolete because people don't see the work that they enjoy and the work that really expresses their life stories on television so they already haven't been watching."

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag created by April Reign last year reappeared again this year because the exclusion of the work of artists of color is “systemic and ongoing,” Williams said.

“This is a conversation that has been ongoing not just with African-Americans but with people of color across the board because throughout the years, I mean pretty much since black people, people of color, have been represented in films they haven't necessarily been recognized for the work that they've done and people have become really frustrated by this," she said.  

The Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement in response to the call for more diversity saying the Academy will revamp the way that it recruits members. In the 1960s and 1970s the Academy tried to recruit younger people so it could remain vibrant and that’s critical now, Williams said, if it doesn’t want to lose the interest of other groups.

“Right now the voting Academy is 94 percent white, 76 percent male and the average age of the voters is 63,” Williams said. “The Academy needs to really reflect the country and it needs to really show and reflect what's going on in this nation or it really risks becoming obsolete not only with African-Americans but with other demographic groups." 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Black Twitter crushes AP for Renisha McBride tweet, highlights social media's power

Renisha McBride was more than the “woman who showed up drunk on porch.” But that’s the way The Associated Press referred to her yesterday after a man was convicted of fatally shooting her.

The original tweet that the global newswire service sent from its official Twitter account was apparently removed and replaced with another update with less offensive language and a note “rewords language from previous tweet.”

But Black Twitter did not miss the original tweet and immediately took AP to task for its portrayal of the unarmed 19-year-old black woman who knocked on the door of a white man, Theodore Wafer, after she reportedly crashed her car.

Black Twitter saw the “drunk” AP tweet and criticized the AP for portraying
McBride as a homicide victim who was responsible for her own death. Black Twitter applied that shift in responsibility to other historic and contemporary examples of injustices against black Americans with the hashtag #APHeadlines. Here's a collection of some of those tweets.

The social media response to the McBride tweet crushed the old one-way letter to the editor model of communication with editors. Readers, in real time, let the AP know that its words to describe the justice reached in the McBride case were an injustice.

Communities of color often lament negative news coverage they receive. The way the media reports on the background of black crime victims is often criticized. Reports showed that McBride had alcohol and marijuana in her system at the time of her death. But are those facts that needed to be included in a breaking-news tweet about the verdict? No.  

The AP’s insensitive wording about the McBride verdict is very important because it is one of the few national media organizations to report on the trial with any significance.

There were mentions of the verdict yesterday on national newscasts and websites. But the Wafer/McBride verdict was not a priority among national news outlets.

The fact is, black women and the violence committed against us is rarely a top news story. In 2011 after Anthony Sowell was convicted of killing 11 black women in Cleveland that story barely made it through one national news cycle. Producers and editors were too preoccupied with the cases of defendants Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox.

Even when they’re the defendants, white women get more media attention than black women crime victims.

Renisha McBride didn’t get much national mainstream media coverage after she was fatally shot or during her murder trial. When black women’s pain is in the news it is devalued and belittled. The AP tweet is an example.

But activists kept McBride’s story alive through social media. I first learned of her death from a Facebook update from my cousin who lives in Detroit. Then I saw the #JusticeForRenisha and #RememberRenisha hashtags on Twitter.

Social media has empowered communities of color to be their own media agenda setters and gatekeepers and bypass traditional mainstream media outlets to get their messages to the masses. That’s a good thing.

But social media has also put more pressure on journalists to get information out even faster than ever before. There is little time for journalists to think much about what they’re doing. The rush to be first also increases the possibility to be wrong. Social media magnifies and amplifies journalists’ mistakes in a way we’ve never seen before.

However, journalists have to find a way to step back and think about what they’re doing before they send a message to millions of followers who are ready to retweet or refute their updates.

A former journalist friend told me about #APHeadlines. She wondered if more diversity in AP newsrooms and on its social media desk would have prevented the unnecessary tweet about McBride. I don’t know. But it is clear that diversity in mainstream newsrooms has taken a strong hit in recent years.

Just last week the Pew Research Center reported that there’s been a loss of almost 1,200 black journalists in daily newspaper newsrooms from 1997 to 2013.

There is no question that racial diversity is important in newsrooms and contributes to more accurate and complex portrayals of people of color.

But there is no guarantee that journalists of color would work on or even be consulted on editorial issues regarding race. I know several black journalists who were consulted after newsroom editors and producers committed grave racial editorial errors.

This time it was AP. Next time it'll be another mainstream media outlet that will make a mistake that will put a dent in its credibility. Perhaps others will learn from the AP’s mistake.

If they don’t Black Twitter will bring it to their attention. The tweets is watchin'.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Dealing with rage, angst after seeing a Facebook photo of the man who tried to rape me

I hadn’t seen him since he tried to rape me more than twenty years ago.

I thought I’d never hear anyone talk about him again. But a college classmate told me that the guy who violently attempted to rape me reached out to the classmate on Facebook.


Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Fury. Confusion.

Wait, what? I know my classmate didn’t just tell me that this man who pinned me down to a bed, smothered my body with his until I couldn’t move and left purple-blue-black bruises on my chest, arms and legs for weeks now wants to chat it up with my homie on Facebook ? This can’t be real. Right?

But it was real.

I shouldn’t have, but I looked at his page to see if that was him. It was. Damn. There he was smiling in photos looking like the boy next door and not the beast that he is.

I was angry. Hot. After I saw his picture and told my friend, again, what happened that night when I was a 20 year-old college student I felt like someone just bashed me in my back, knocked all of the wind out of me. All the memories from that night came back fresh. For a moment I was stuck in the pain of 1993 and here he is smiling on Facebook today like that night never happened.

I always said if I never saw him again in life that would be too soon. And it was. After seeing his face I felt a suffocating rush, a wave of rage and it was about to crush me. I could not breathe as I thought about how I begged him to stop like I had never begged anyone for anything in my life then or since. I sat still as I recalled how I pleaded with others in the house to please help me. No one did. But I boxed my way out of that room. His plan to rape me failed.

Then my guilt of not reporting him rose up and rolled around in my stomach. Ugh. Lawd. I always felt horrible for not going to the authorities. But I honestly did not think it would do any good.

I didn’t think anyone would believe me.

Back then it seemed like no one ever believed black girls when we spoke up about sexual assault and harassment. Just a couple of years earlier it seemed like all of black America hated Desiree Washington for “putting that boy (Mike Tyson) in jail.”
Even a few of my own relatives talked about the “fast-tailed girl” who should have never been around that grown man by herself in the first place.  

If people would easily dismiss one of black folks’ most beloved young women, a Miss Black America contestant, why would they believe me?

Two months ago when President Obama released a report from the new White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault I couldn’t help but to think about my own experience. I was more than happy to hear that the President of the United States, the father of two black daughters, realizes that rape is a crisis on the nation’s college campuses and it’s everyone’s responsibility to seriously combat it.


What if prominent black male leaders used their voices to talk about the safety of black women and girls back in the early 1990s? Would I have felt safe to come forward then? News of President Obama’s task force also highlights how rape and rape culture still exist on college campuses at an alarming epidemic level.  One in five women is sexually assaulted in college, according to President Obama’s task force.

I study social media and how people use it, especially people of color. But I never thought about how social media has the potential to disrupt our lives by unexpectedly unearthing evil people and painful events. I’ll never forget what he did to me that night and how alone I felt in that house full of people while fighting for my life. Those memories are vivid and clear. But seeing his picture on Facebook brought on a special mix of outrage and angst.

I wonder how many other women and men end up seeing the faces of their attackers on social media decades later. I don’t know. But social media is reintroducing people into our lives from our past in ways I would have never expected.