Friday, January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures amplifies black women's brilliance

John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are America’s well-known and celebrated heroes who traveled into outer space. But it was the work of unknown black women mathematicians and engineers that helped them get there.

The film HiddenFigures, which opens in theaters nationwide today, features the stories of the black women who worked at NASA under Jim Crow conditions and helped the United States accomplish some of its greatest successes during the Space Race.

The film is based on the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly who was committed to telling the story of the large group of black women who worked at NASA that she heard about growing up in Virginia that most of the country didn’t know about.

“It’s time that they get their moment in the sun. We’ve seen John Glenn…But when we see him we didn't get to see Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson but now we do,” Shetterly said at a screening of the film in New York City. “The thing that I am so excited about is they are here. We are all here celebrating them. And these women are never ever going back into the historical shadows, not ever."

The story of the black women mathematicians and engineers at NASA is one of many of examples of black women’s contributions that is virtually absent from history. The Hidden Figures book is crucial because it is an important starting point for telling black women’s influence on a celebrated era in American history where they were overshadowed. Moreover, the book gave birth to the film which is amplifying black women’s brilliance through popular culture. 

The film focuses on three women Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Spencer was recently nominated for a Golden Globe award for best supporting actress in the film. Monae found her reward in portraying a pioneer.

"I got to portray a fighter, someone who wasn't going to let discrimination stand in the way of her dreams,” Monae said at a New York City film screening. “She knew she had something else to offer and she changed the what it meant to be an engineer at NASA and became the first African-American woman" (engineer there).

For Shetterly writing about the black women of NASA was about centering their stories and lives to give them their proper place in history.

“For me writing the book, it was always about the perspective of these characters…and their experiences with segregation and the schools,” Shetterly said. “I wrote the story that I wanted to read. I wanted to see these women as my protagonist and superheroes and ordinary extraordinary people.”

The film Hidden Figures is important because it offers audiences an uncommon Hollywood portrayal of black women– complex and developed characters, Shetterly said.

“One thing that has been very rare is to see a black woman in a protagonist situation, as three-dimensional people,” she said. “We’re talking about mathematicians, mothers, wives, complicated people, not perfect. I’m delighted with that. All of these women were that in real life.”

The women’s stories portrayed in Hidden Figures can also serve as an example for young black women to pursue their dreams in fields related to science, said Monae who mentioned that her music and style are influenced by her appreciation for innovation, technology and heroes such as black woman astronaut Mae Jemison.

“I just think it’s so important for young girls when they see this movie so that they fall in love especially if they had a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Monae said. “Now people will have new superheroes. Now people will have context because what these women have achieved is the coolest thing that I have read about and been apart of in a very long time.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

There is no break from institutional and racialized violence, not for any generation of black folks

The mothers of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Dontre Hamilton told me they’re committed to police reform so other parents won’t lose their children to police brutality the way they did. After they spoke Monday in an auditorium packed with college students at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro they stressed their commitment to saving lives and changing laws.

In less than 24 hours in the same state where they spoke Keith Lamont Scott’s
mother joined their ominous club when her son was fatally shot by police in Charlotte Tuesday, an act that sparked protests in the streets and highways of the Queen City.

At the same time that activists were demanding justice and answers in the streets of Charlotte I was inside the Spectrum Center downtown as Sean “Puffy” Combs led us down hip-hop memory lane with 20 years of hits from Bad Boy Records, which for many black Generation Xers is the soundtrack of our youth.

Combs told us that tonight we would forget about our problems, our worries, anything that was making us feel less than liberated.

Tonight, Puffy said, we would be free. But we weren’t.  

I got text messages from friends telling me to be careful because there was a shooting in Charlotte. I was confused. Then I got another text from a friend notifying me of protests in Charlotte and to look on Twitter for #KeithLamontScott. Police say he had a weapon in his hand that he didn’t drop before he was fatally shot. A relative said he had a book.

I was shaken, frozen and fought back tears as as the music blasted, lights flashed and people sang and cheered during the Bad Boy Family Reunion Concert.

Just the day before I heard Maria Hamilton of Milwaukee, Wisconsin tell students that even though she had walking pneumonia she didn’t want to miss the chance to tell them why they should not only register to vote but vote for Hillary Clinton because she is the presidential candidate who will work to change policy that will prevent police violence. Hamilton’s son’ Dontre Hamilton, 31, who struggled with mental illness, was fatally shot by police in a park in Milwaukee in April 2014.

Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner who died in July 2014 after he was put in a chokehold by New York City police, and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland who died in police custody in July 2015 after being arrested for a traffic violation, and Hamilton were campaigning on behalf of the Clinton campaign on Monday in Greensboro.

The mothers told the college students, who’ve come of age in the era of Black Lives Matter and numerous incidents of fatal police brutality against black women and men, that their generation has a duty to join them in the fight for justice and reform.

As I sat in the concert and scrolled though #KeithLamontScott on Twitter I thought about this generation of young black people who don’t have one singular image of anti-black violence the way my parents had Emmett Till’s bloated corpse scorched into their brains after the black 14-year-old was killed by white men in Mississippi in 1955. This generation has multiple images of black death.  

But those of us bobbing our heads to Biggie’s hits grew up with our own incidents of fatal and severe police brutality against black people in the 1980s and 1990s: Eleanor Bumpurs, Malice Green and Rodney King. But there were no cellphones or social media to help document and amplify their deaths. But they still left an impression on us. 

Puffy told us to be free that night. But there is no break from institutional and racialized violence, not for any generation of black folks. My dear high school friend Nikki Johnson Kirk sat next to me and told me how she is scared for her son and frustrated by the lack of accountability in these police-related killings of black people.      

She also has a grandson, an adorable toddler with the brightest eyes and cutest cheeks that create a smile that forces others to grin when they see his face. Both of us hope he will live to experience freedom, for real.

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."