Student Post 4: Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Dogwood in April-1

We are the earth. We are essentially the earth itself. –Joy Harjo, on poetry

Hello blows through the trees […] Pass this love on […] –Joy Harjo, from pandemic poem

Today is Earth Day and #ThursdayTreeLove! None of my students wrote about trees or the beauty of the earth and our role as its custodians, so I’m giving you a tiny bit of a dogwood I couldn’t resist when I saw its petals against the clear blue sky.

Of course, I’m giving you a little more than that. One of my students shared her response to the Derek Chauvin verdict–guilty on all counts–and I thought about how taking care of the earth includes taking care of humanity. Hatred for, cruelty toward, and even disinterest in humanity are just as destructive as litter, noise pollution, oil spills, and global warming.

Our “sparkly” Jess of Black Modern Thoughts gives us something to think about as she muses over George Floyd’s murder, the route to justice, and the verdict for the former police officer in her post, “guilty”.


I am joining Parul Thakur for #ThursdayTreeLove every second and fourth Thursday of the month. If you would like to play along, post a picture of a tree on your blog and link it back to her latest #treelove post.

Guest Post | “Tightrope” by Elle Arra

Photo by Elle Arra

Today’s guest post for our series on living Black in the United States was written by my friend, Elle Arra. I met Elle Arra through her poetry blog here on WordPress. She is an amazing poet and visual artist, and I was delighted to learn she lives right here in Northern Alabama. In fact, we know many of the same people! We have made plans to get together for tea when meeting and greeting are safe again.

In this post, Elle Arra combines poetry, photos, and reportage to share her experience of participating in a protest over the Alabama District Attorney’s refusal to release officers’ body camera footage in the police shooting of Dana Sherrod Fletcher last November.


Suspended above the day’s mundanity and slog,
an ever-present tightrope
black bodies traverse in tandem.
It’s like navigating an ocean built
almost entirely of undertow
while maintaining stride and heft of dreams.

We are not permitted our hysteria
not without it being labeled non sequitur rage.

We walk this tightrope
lilting between full bloom
and languish,
walk with bullets in our backs,
twine around our necks,
asphalt under our skin,
knees on our windpipes,
tree branches in our hair,
blood like rubies cascading,
splayed bone like smooth porcelain,
black skin – ribbons and ribbons,
afro confetti––

Photo by Elle Arra

Sunday, August 16, 2020. I walked the four corners of US 72 and Wall Triana [in Madison County, Alabama] where giant signs were hoisted in peaceful protest of the shooting of Dana Fletcher 10 months earlier. I took photos and spoke with his wife and mother who have had to wedge their grief and mourning between breathing and fighting for justice. I cannot imagine having to take moments meant for private sorrows to fight publicly for transparency—the human and decent thing being denied them.

Photo by Elle Arra

I watched Dana’s now fatherless daughter playing in the grass while her mother, grandmother, and a sizable group gave everything they had to this effort. I took it all in–the focus on their faces, the bullhorn call and response, and the raised signs calling for justice.

Photo by Elle Arra

It was extremely hot and humid that late morning/early afternoon, but the dedicated group spent three hours occupying the four corners of the intersection adjacent to the lot where Dana was killed. People from all walks of life honked as they drove by and elevated their fists through car windows in solidarity. Several vehicles pulled up and gifted cold, refreshing, electrolyte drinks to the protestors. There was beauty in the coming together despite the bitter reasons for the gathering; there was beauty in the union of people of all colors and lifestyles for one common goal.

 

Photo by Elle Arra

On October 27, 2019 Dana Fletcher was fatally shot by a Madison police officer in front of his wife and daughter. Nearly a year later, there still has been no transparency in this matter. According to Alabama law, body camera footage is privileged information, so the District Attorney refuses to release the footage or the alleged 911 call that precipitated Fletcher’s death. Stills from the incident have been released, but these stills do not reveal the whole story.

You can help. Please go to change.org and sign the petition to enact the Dana Fletcher bill making bodycam footage public record.

Photo by Elle Arra

We walk that tightrope,
what a beautiful gait.

––even our dying is a glorious walk home.

To learn more about Elle Arra and her work, please follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Photo by Elle Arra

[All images in this post captured by Elle Arra with Fugifilm X-E1 f/1.0 1/4000 50.00mm ISO200].

“All Power to All People”

“All Power to All People.” Art installation by Hank Willis Thomas at Burning Man 2018. Photo by Christine B.

It’s time for another brief art lesson [and the crowd goes wild]!

The afro pick (or afro comb) installation above is the work of Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist who works “primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture” (Artist’s bio).

The work, entitled “All Power to All People,” was one of the many fantastic pieces on display [in 2018] at Burning Man a “temporary city” built annually in Black Rock Desert in Nevada. According to a New York Times article on the “monumental art” of Burning Man, Thomas’s 24×10 foot tall installation is on tour throughout the United States this year.

Popularized in the 1970’s, the afro comb has a long, long history that dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt and [also] has roots in West Africa. You can read about that here: Combs from Kemet.

The 1970s-style afro pick typically includes the “peace sign” and the “raised fist”–as seen in Thomas’s work.  It was–and still is–a symbol of Black unity, solidarity, collective identity, and Black empowerment.

The photo was shot by my pen friend Christine B, who participates in Burning Man every year. She surprised me last week with a few of these postcards and a very cool “Black Lives Matter” button. 🙂

I was not only happy to receive Christine’s postcards, but was elated that her photo led me to Hank Willis Thomas. A few summers ago, I photographed one of his other installations, but neglected to get the artist information [doh!]. Maybe, that work will be the subject of a blog post next week. Let’s see what time allows.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for a bit of tree love.

Guest Post | “Hear Me Roar” by Liv Grace

Today’s guest post for our series on living Black in the United States was written by up-and-coming performance phenom, Liv Grace. Liv Grace graduated from high school a couple of weeks ago, and she is already making her mark in this world. In this post, she shares a little about her music journey and her song and music video, “Hear Me Roar,” which she wrote in protest  of police brutality and racial injustice in the USA. Be sure to watch the video. 


Yoooooo! My name is Liv Grace, and amongst many other things I am a singer, songwriter, and producer. I’ve always been a lover of music and the arts. I’ve loved making music, writing, and editing films since the day I found out my Nintendo 3DS had a video camera. I started writing poetry and fictional stories around the fifth grade. I’ve been singing in choirs since I was really young. I’ve harmonized on praise teams all throughout middle and high school, and I’ve been “belting it out” in school musicals for the past five years.

What I love most about music is its ability to bring people together and make them feel something. A simple melody has the power to make us feel a plethora of emotions and a lyric can help us see the world through someone else’s eyes. I’ve always loved the feeling I get when I listen to music and I like being able to give that feeling to others.

I’ve always been composing harmonies. I remember watching a video of young Ariana Grande when I was in middle school singing into a microphone connected to a guitar looping pedal, layering harmonies and singing over it. I was mesmerized, and immediately I knew I had to try it. Unfortunately, my middle school allowance was not large enough to purchase a professional guitar looper and trying to convince my parents to purchase a $100 guitar looper for me—a twelve-year-old with no guitar—was surprisingly difficult. I decided to do the next best thing and downloaded a free beatbox looping app on my phone. I picked a random song from my iTunes playlists, listened to it on repeat and recreated the instrumental with only my voice on loop. My obsession with arranging and recreating harmonies ran wild from there. I found myself recreating Broadway cast albums and singing all of the parts. I’d post small clips of me harmonizing with myself and singing covers on Instagram.

In my junior year of high school, I decided it was time to start creating my own music. This was daunting, yet exciting. Ironically, around that same time my dad, brother, and I stumbled across a space connected to the Hirshhorn Museum called ARTLAB+. That space literally changed my life. In fact, the only reason I actually completed my very first song was because I needed it to apply and audition for one of their arts programs. I was accepted, but didn’t go in with high hopes. I showed up, I sang it, and they loved it! It was at that moment that I realized this thing I’d been doing as a therapeutic hobby was something I was actually good at! I’ve been writing melodies, producing instrumentals, and composing harmonies ever since.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

At the beginning of the shelter-in-place [to flatten the curve of COVID-19], there was a moment when nobody in the US knew what was going on or how to deal with it. My school extended our spring break while administrators and teachers worked on an action plan, so there was this huge chunk of time in which I was able to focus on things that made me happy. I’d started a music account on Instagram earlier in the year, but rarely posted on it due to lack of time. Now, I had what felt like all the time in the world!

Like many others, I began to use this surplus of time to focus on things that I genuinely enjoy and to learn new things. I finally had enough time to pour into one of my passions—music. I started actively posting on Instagram and from this the opportunity arose through ARTLAB+ to share my creative process as a teen artist in collaboration with the Nicholson Project, an artist residency program.

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

A couple days into the process [and after I’d written a song on mental health for the project], the video of George Floyd’s murder took over all forms of media. It wasn’t the first time I’d watched my people carelessly shoved to the ground by law enforcement. Every time a video comes across my feed, my heart aches, but watching George groan in pain as he yelled for his mother was the last straw. I knew I needed to use my gift to speak out. I decided my mental health song could wait and began writing “Hear Me Roar.”

When it comes to creating, I overthink everything. I spend hours writing and rewriting, trying to find the right drum pad or the perfect harmonies to accent, but with “Hear Me Roar” everything just flowed so organically. The song just came to me. The chorus popped into my head as I was soaking in a bubble bath. The next day I sat and wrote two verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, and arranged backing vocals in one sitting.  The next day I produced the instrumental and just continued tweaking throughout the week until the song was finished. I let it breathe for a little bit, listened to it about a week later and called it a wrap.

The song was done, and I loved it.

A little after the song was finalized, I decided I wanted it to be released with a music video, so I grabbed my video camera and my dad’s mini projector and pushed my bed to the other side of my room. Over a couple days I filmed, directed, and produced the video.

“Hear Me Roar” is the song I needed to hear as we mourned the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black people who lost their lives to police brutality. I needed a song that would remind me no matter how hard anybody tries, they cannot silence my voice.

We often see the tragedies and the news and feel hopeless, like our voices don’t matter. But they do! Not only do they matter, our voices have the power to move mountains and make change in the world. My hope is that “Hear Me Roar” can remind people how powerful their roars are and that they should use them to speak out on issues that matter to them. Right now, we are in great need of change and if we use our individual and collective voices, we can make that happen!

“Hear Me Roar” is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Youtube Music, Deezer, and Napster! It is also available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play Store. You can find links to all of these stores here:

A percentage of the proceeds from “Hear Me Roar” will be donated to the ARTLAB+ program.  Individuals involved in the program devote their lives to uplifting and amplifying the voices of young artists of color and provide us with equipment, professional guidance, and a loving environment to express ourselves in our own creative and unique ways. I want to help the program give the opportunities they’ve given to me to other young Black artists.

You can find me and more of what I’m up to here:

We need your voice to create change, so keep roaring!

Liv Grace. Photo provided by the artist.

#GoodTrouble

John Lewis, after arrest in Mississippi, 1961. He served 37 days in Parchman Penitentiary for ‘disorderly conduct”–using a restroom reserved for whites.

When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble [and help redeem the soul of America].  –Congressman John Lewis (February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020).

Guest Post | “‘Naming’ Our Grief” by Chanté Enu

It is not unusual for artists to use their work as a platform against social injustice, so it is not surprising that we have seen a resurgence of social justice art since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many artists have used Instagram to share their messages. 

My former student, Chanté Enu [formerly known as Chanté Marie]–singer, songwriter, and artist–contributes to the dialogue. Her social justice artwork, which she has begun to post on Instagram, reminds us to “say the names” of those who have succumbed to police violence.

For today’s post on living Black in the United States, she shares a piece from her series, Voices Mourning in Protest and a little about the motivation behind its creation. 


This piece is a tribute to the many Black individuals whose lives were taken by the police. I added names to the canvas in hopes that while viewing this composition people will say their names and remember:

George Floyd. Jamar Clark. Timothy Thomas. Danroy Henry Jr. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Artago Damon Howard. Jeremy Lett. Lavall Hall. Thomas Allen. Charly Leundeu Keunang. Naeschylus Vinzant. Tony Robinson. Anthony Hill. Bobby Gross. Brandon Jones. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Frank Shephard. William Chapman. David Felix. Brendon Glenn. Kris Jackson. Spencer McCain. Victor Emmanuel Larosa. Salvado Ellswood. Darrius Stewart . Albert Joseph Davis. Samuel DuBose. Christian Taylor. Asshams Pharoah Manley. India Kager. Keith Harrison McLeod. Junior Prosper. Anthony Ashford. Bennie Lee Tignor. Jamar Clark. Nathaniel Harris Pickett.

The list goes on.

The focal point of this piece is a black woman in mourning. She represents the heaviness of the grief and loss many of us feel.

My prayer is that we expel the monsters of apathy and disconnect that plague our nation and invoke genuine feelings of connectedness through our collective grief over the loss of these lives.

Through this piece, I hope people understand that it is our responsibility to speak up, to advocate, to say their names, to protest injustice, to deeply care about the injustices against Black lives.

Summoned Mother | Tameka Cage Conley

All mothers were summoned, when George Floyd called out for his mother. —Rachel Costa

Every mother heard him. We heard George Floyd. We hear him. —Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo who was murdered by New York City police officers in 1999.

For today’s post on living Black in the United States, I invite you to view a three-part series presented by the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. The project features Dr. Tameka Cage Conley, an artist I initially met many years ago when she was a student–an English major, of course. 😉 I am so very proud of her and her work.

The museum describes the “Summoned Mother” series as:

a memoir of a particular American motherhood: Black and uniquely precarious. This three-volume video series features Dr. Tameka Cage Conley, a literary artist and mother to a six-year-old Black boy, as she responds to George Floyd’s breathless call on motherhood. Conley juxtaposes the works of Elizabeth Catlett with those of contemporary Black poets, bridging the visual and literary arts in a meditation of Black artistry’s longstanding eye on injustice.

Dr. Tameka’s masterful weave of poetry, art, story, and song achingly reaches that primordial place in all mothers that compels us to protect, to rescue, to do something.

The project was spearheaded by Kwadwo Nnuro; the entire series is approximately 42 minutes in length.


About the image: The image that leads today’s post features a favorite photo of my son and me–modified for the post.

Other posts in the “Black Lives Matter” Monday series:

Breathe | Two Poems

I do not have a guest post today. Instead, I offer two poems written [by Toi Derricotte and Ross Gay] in response to the murders of George Floyd and Eric Garner. Both men uttered the words, “I can’t breathe” before they died at the hands [or feet] of police officers.

Why I Don’t Write About George Floyd [2020]
Toi Derricotte

Because there is too much to say
Because I have nothing to say
Because I don’t know what to say
Because everything has been said
Because it hurts too much to say
What can I say what can I say
Something is stuck in my throat
Something is stuck like an apple
Something is stuck like a knife
Something is stuffed like a foot
Something is stuffed like a body

***     ***     ***

A Small Needful Fact [2015]
Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.


About the image: I shot [and edited] the photo above about 5 years ago while on one of my campus photo walks. A few days after George Floyd’s murder the photo “resurfaced” while I was looking through my archives for a different photograph.

Guest Post | “Fight for Social Justice” with Tiff & Lu

Today we continue our Monday series of perspectives on #BlackLivesMatter, racism, police violence, and living Black in the United States. For today’s post my niece Tiff and her daughter Lu share a photograph which speaks to their passion for social justice.

Tiff is an activist, and she is teaching her daughter to stand up for herself and for others. Lu was only a few months old when she participated in her first protest–against migrant children being separated from their parents and placed in “cages.”

Here, Tiff and Lu participate in a recent #BlackLivesMatter protest. Tiff is always on point with her signage, but Lu’s position on the issue of race and social justice is so profound that we have little choice but to lean in and listen.

Let’s get this right before Lu grows up. We don’t want her to [still] be fighting racial injustice at the ages of 18, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 75.

Guest Post | “Safer in War Zones” by Steven Beckford

Today we continue our series of perspectives on #BlackLivesMatter, racism, police violence, and living Black in the United States.  Today’s post was written by Steven Beckford, someone I’ve known since he was a tiny tot. He has served in the United States Air Force for more than 15 years. Here, Steven provides a sobering perspective on what it means to serve a country that does not value him as person because of the color of his skin.

***   ***   ***

Because I serve in the United States Armed Forces, people have been asking me how I feel in light of everything that has been going on, so here are my thoughts. [Please note: These are my individual views as a citizen of the USA who happens to serve his country].

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Bothan Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Charles Kinsey, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin.

This is a small number of incidents that occur too frequently as it relates to Black lives and police brutality.

When people protest police violence against Blacks peacefully and respectfully too often the mainstream narrative becomes about patriotism or the American flag.  Think about Colin Kapernick. Although his “taking a knee”–a respectful posture–was about resisting police brutality, far too many people twisted the issue and made it about disrespecting the flag.

I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother’s side of the family is from Mississippi. Growing up I thought being called the n-word was normal. I thought that being mistreated by the cops was normal. I found myself handcuffed and ankle-shackled at times just because I was driving a car that didn’t fit the supposed Black stereotype, so cops assumed I had drugs on me. I have been denied entry into stores with my friends because we were Black. The assumption was that we might steal something, so we had to go in one at a time to be better “monitored.” I have been a passenger while my older sister was pulled over. I have had to watch police berate her and call her a Black b**** for literally no reason at all.

Despite all of that, I joined the military. I served and continue to serve with honor. However, when I turn on the news, I see how people care more about the perception of unity than actual unity. When I go into a store in uniform, I am treated kindly; when I go to same store in civilian clothes, I am treated with far less than respect.

I have felt safer in actual war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan than I have in America. Why? Because there I know who is trying to kill me and I can actually defend myself. In the United States it’s hard to know who an actual enemy is.

I am a member of the United States Air Force serving my country proudly, but I am apprehensive about returning to the U.S. not just to live, but even to visit.

I not only have to watch people who could be me, my brother, my sisters, my mother, and friends die needlessly but I am also forced to witness different treatment for whites.  We all witnessed it. Think about Dylan Roof.  This white guy went into a Black church, prayed with the congregation, opened fire and actually killed nine people, and was then taken for a meal before being taken to prison.

I am sad, angry, and tired of this. Because of the response to George Floyd’s murder, people say “this time is different” and have hope that America will change. I am not sure I’m as hopeful.  I’ve heard that before. How many “this times” do we need? Someone can call the cops on me while I’m out birdwatching and all they have to say is that I am Black. That’s a near death sentence for me–a death sentence because cops responding to the scene will automatically treat me as a threat that should be and can be put down with little to no consequences. If you do not believe me, research the names mentioned above, and look at the penalty for most of the officers.

This isn’t just about the killings.

This is about honoring confederate leaders, people who wanted to keep Black people enslaved. There is no Fort Pol Pot, no Hitler Air Base. It is in America that we honor those who wished to oppress.

This is about a national anthem for which we cannot even sing the full song, because of lines such as: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave’/From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave.”

I am just tired… I am tired of all of this… I am not here pleading for special rights… I am not asking for the considerations that America has given to the Japanese after placing them in internment camps during World War II.  I am not even asking for the benefits that America has given to the Native Americas… I want the guarantees and rights that are supposed to come with being an American. I want to be treated equal.

Can America just give me that?

Photo by Tammyatwt on Pixabay