Category Archives: Culture

Naked Graveyard: The Ghosts of My Nudes

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Below is an excerpt from my most recent piece (“Living in Fear of My Own Personal Celebgate”) which has been published in the NSFW issue of Kernel Magazine. I encourage you to go read it.

“My nudes are out there somewhere: naked orphans of mine, moles and smudged eyeliner and half smile. The girl in those photos is wearing a red satin bra one size too small. She’s floating in cyberspace, between the pages of a dusty yearbook, or perhaps plastered on a bar’s bathroom wall, eyes blacked out with Sharpie. Some days I think of the photos and am filled with dread. They are exposed specters of a girl searching for beauty in her own bones, her body rising from the grave to sink her teeth into my throat, dragging me into a bottomless pit of ruined reputations.”
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The Feminist Death Match Between Emma Watson And Beyoncé Is Some Anti-Feminist Sh@t

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Below is an excerpt from my most recent piece (‘The Feminist Death Match Between Emma Watson And Beyoncé Is Some Anti-Feminist Sh@t”) which has been published over at xoJane. I encourage you to go read it.

Hopefully you all remember the numerous times Beyoncé’s feminism has come under attack in the past? No? I’ll refresh your memory. When Beyoncé dropped Beyoncé last year, accompanied by a corresponding collection of music videos, the think pieces flew fast and thick. “Is Beyoncé a feminist?” “OK, but is Beyoncé actually a feminist?” The speculation was endless, despite the fact that Beyoncé was self-identifying, answering the question before it was even asked. But somehow many mainstream publications still thought that their opinion on Beyoncé’s feminism overrode her own identification.

When Emma Watson gave her speech on Saturday, I didn’t see a single tweet (other than from Men’s Rights Activists) criticizing her. No one dissected the roles she’s taken in Hollywood, the times she posed in sexy clothes, no one has questioned her relationship status.

Yet when I tweeted the above tweet, those kinds of dissections were exactly what filled my mentions—dissections voiced by white feminists. No angle was left uncovered. The responses ranged from “Maybe because Emma actually dresses like a lady!” to “Maybe because Emma has a college degree!” “Maybe because Emma didn’t dedicate an album to her husband and take his last name!” “Maybe because Emma doesn’t gyrate on stage!” “Maybe because Emma included men in her argument!” Don’t believe me? Look on Twitter. These tweets aren’t hard to find.

Guys…as a white feminist whose feminism is by no means perfect and has committed her share of missteps in the past, let me say this as gently as I can: This…shit…has…to…stop.

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Lucy: Why I’m Tired of Seeing White People on the Big Screen

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I’m tired of seeing white people on the silver screen.

First, let me note that I am white. I am a white woman who goes to the theater to see probably a dozen films (if not more) in a given year, a white woman who readily consumes TV shows and series and often blogs/tweets about them. I love film. I love what Hollywood could be, but I must say that I don’t love what it is, and that is a machine generating story after story in which the audience is asked to root for a white (usually male) hero over and over and over (and over) again. I’m tired. I’m tired of directors pretending that white actors are the default and that people of color are a distraction when it comes to filmmaking. I’m tired of black women in Hollywood being relegated to roles of slaves and “the help” over and over again. I’m tired of films convincing themselves that they are taking on something fresh and new, the likes of which the world has never seen, but in actuality adhering to tired tropes and stereotypes.

One example that comes to mind is Avatar, a “groundbreaking” film about aliens and humanity, which, underneath it all, is the same old White Savior story. But more recently is Lucy, the film starring Scarlett Johansson in which a woman named Lucy evolves and is able to use 100% of her brain’s capacity after she unwittingly ingests a massive amount of drugs.

Lucy is about what humankind could be: it’s about possibilities. As Lucy’s brainpower grows stronger and the volume of knowledge she is able to access increases, she delivers monologues about how little humans understand about death, existence, and the universe, mediating on time and history. The film likes to think of itself as reimagining everything that we think we know about humanity, and presents to us their vision of what the most evolved woman on earth looks like:

A blonde white woman.

See, I just can’t get right with that.

You see, I was an anthropology major in high school and by the time I was 16 I’d learned all about Lucy (Australopithecus), the collection of bones found in Hadar and thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago, one of the oldest hominids we know of. Lucy the film doesn’t try to hide how cute they thought they were being by naming the supreme evolved being in their film “Lucy:” they show an ape-like creature crouched by a stream to illustrate just how far human beings have come, and say as much in the opening lines, depicting vast cities built up to show our progress. The original Lucy was not really an ape, though: she had small skull capacity like apes, but her skeleton shows she was bipedal and walked upright like humans. Hadar, by the way, is in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia.

So I guess what’s sticking in my craw is the assertion that while human life originated in Africa—a detail the film neatly skims over, placing the ape-like Lucy that Johansson sees in North America—somehow the way we imagine the most evolved human being is blonde and white. Even more, when Lucy gets surges of knowledge in the film, her eyes flash brightly blue. Because blue eyes, we all know, are the universal symbol of superiority, right?

How is it that in a film whose premise rests on the idea of reimagining the past, present, and future, we still end up with a blonde white woman with flashing blue eyes as the stand-in for what personifies evolution and supremely fulfilled human potential? At one point the Ape-like Lucy and Evolved Lucy meet face-to-face as Evolved Lucy does a bit of time-traveling. Their fingers touch, and we see them deliberately posed to mimic the famous Creation of Adam painting, and in that moment I saw what I suppose we were supposed to see: humanity at its beginning, and then humanity at its end, at its most perfect. Blonde, white, and blue-eyed.

I can’t accept that. I can’t accept that there was only one black woman in the entire film, who delivered one line and who we never saw again. I can’t accept that the bad guys were Asian and that although in China, Lucy’s roommate says, “I mean, who speaks Chinese? I don’t speak Chinese!” I can’t accept that in Hercules, which I also saw this weekend, there were no people of color except for Dwayne Johnson himself and his mixed-race wife, whose skin was almost alabaster. I can’t accept that she got maybe two lines and was then murdered. I can’t accept that the “primitive tribe” in Hercules consisted of dark-haired men painted heavily, blackish green, to give their skin (head-to-toe) a darker appearance, so the audience could easily differentiate between good and bad guys by the white vs. dark skin. I can’t accept that during the previews, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a story about Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, where not a single person of color is represented, casts Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton to play Egyptians. I can’t accept that in the preview for Kingsman: The Secret Service, which takes place in London, features a cast of white boys and not a single person of Indian descent, which make up the largest non-white ethnic group in London. I can’t accept that in stories about the end of the world and the apocalypse, that somehow only white people survive. I can’t accept that while my daily life is filled with black and brown women, they are completely absent, erased, when I look at a TV or movie screen.

I can’t accept that. And I can’t accept that when we think about the potential of humankind and what our brains are capable of doing and thinking and feeling, that people of color would be absent from that imagining. I can’t accept that. And I won’t. I’m tired of seeing people that look like me crowding screens both big and small: I am not what the world looks like. Hollywood, stop whitewashing characters. Give us more films like this year’s Annie. I’m no Lucy: like everyone else I’m only using a tiny amount of my brain’s capacity. But you don’t need to be a superhuman logic-machine to see that Hollywood has a major problem with depicting people of color, and it’s time to actually reimagine what the world can and should be. 

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Chicago Filmmakers Choose Substance Over Stereotypes

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When it comes to documenting the lives and stories of people of color, Hollywood is notorious for being more interested in the perpetuation of stereotypes than meaningful portrayals of marginalized communities with value and humanity. And often when those films are made and manage to find a spot in the mainstream, there exists another problem, this time on the audience’s end: studies show that Caucasians have what is called a racial empathy gap—they struggle to relate to the experiences (specifically pain) of people of color—and that extends into the way they respond to films featuring people of color. One example is last year’s Best Man Holiday, a film featuring an almost entirely black cast and exploring topics such as friendship, cancer, love, and faith. Despite the fact that its plot was based upon these universal themes, the film was referred to as “race-themed” by major media outlets such as USA Today, causing moviegoers of all colors to question whether mainstream media can only view non-white experiences as defined by their race, rather than by their humanity and the universal experiences that make us human.

Filmmakers who choose to focus on the stories of marginalized communities face unique challenges in finding funding and mainstream attention for their projects. Chicago filmmakers Cy Weisman and Josh MacNeal have certainly faced their share of those challenges. While discussing mainstream audiences’ reluctance to connect with plotlines that deviate from white, hetero-male perspectives, the brother and sister duo agree that the problem has multiple layers, including 1) mainstream audiences are unfamiliar with stories about black, brown or gay characters because they feel those narratives are specific to those communities; the only real exceptions are stories that have a white, male, or heterosexual character present in the lead i.e. The Kids Are Alright and Freedom Writers. And 2) films featuring black, brown, or gay characters that get mainstream attention pigeonhole those lives and experiences in a way that makes black, brown, and LGBT experience “niche,” as opposed to one part of a broad spectrum of humanity.

“Living in the inner city is only one aspect of the black experience,” says MacNeal. “And unfortunately audiences, especially youth, have become conditioned to the idea that these experiences shown on BET, for example, define black lives. The experiences being shown, however, are limited.”

MacNeal, who grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago, didn’t become conscious of racism and the way he was perceived as a black man until he was older, he says, and as a filmmaker has focused heavily on illustrating other aspects of black experience and identity than just the narrow version mainstream media chooses to portray. “It’s troubling,” says MacNeal, “that films that happen to feature black characters are automatically described as ‘black movies,’” rather than universal tales of friendship, adversity, love, etc.

“Movies about white people are never called ‘white stories,’” he says, and laments the fact that when “black stories” are told, they focus on drugs, violence, or thug life, usually without exploring the systems behind those realities.

On his part, his goal is to create work that reaches beyond the pigeonholed perspective and digs into the experiences that are universal, experienced by a variety of characters: black and white, straight and gay.

Weisman, on the other hand, who does the writing for the duo’s films, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and says her consciousness of racism—and also sexism—emerged at an early age, and recalls music as being one of the first mediums in which she really noticed negative messages by and about black and brown communities being perpetuated—usually by black and brown artists.

“White kids bought into ‘ratchet’ culture before it was ever called ratchet culture,” she says, “and the business of art and film has been built on those tropes ever since.” Interesting, she notes, that trends within black music have largely been dictated by the appropriative tastes of white suburban youth, and expresses disappointment in rap artists who no longer rap about lived experiences and life narratives, instead choosing to create music about wealth, possessions, and name brands—experiences that not even white suburban youth can relate to. “Most people aren’t rich,” she adds.

“It’s so rarely about art anymore,” she continues, “or being an artist. So many songs these rappers and singers perform are written by somebody else, and many movies being produced are remakes or drawn out sequels. The process of creating has been watered down.”

Not so with Weisman and MacNeal, who write and direct all of their films, and are currently seeking funding for their next major project, Urbs in Horto, a crime thriller set in Chicago. Urbs in Horto is focused around exactly the sort of exploration of identity that MacNeal and Weisman agree need fixing in filmmaking: three different stories about diverse characters of different backgrounds, and juxtaposing those characters’ lives—moving beyond the drug violence and white collar crime—in order to reveal the universal experiences.

Weisman criticizes the superficiality she sees in music and film today, which she insists are inextricably connected. That is why she uses them almost interchangeably in her critique of both mediums, and which is why their plans for Urbs in Horto involve working extensively with indie musicians and artists to create the soundtrack that they imagine for the film.

“Music is an integral part of any movie,” Weisman says, and expresses her excitement about the prospect of working with indie artists.

“That’s the great thing about film,” MacNeal says, echoing his sister’s excitement. “We’re tapping into Chicago’s creative community for actors and artists, but we’re also creating jobs in the city we grew up in for legal, real estate, food services, etc.”

“Anything we can do for Chicago is awesome,” Weisman adds.

And Chicago needs this discourse, they both agree: segregation, violence, and poverty are just a few of the challenges faced by Chicagoans, and that’s why the brother and sister team declare that audiences need stories that speak deeply to the community now more than ever.

The purpose of Urbs in Horto, MacNeal says, is to spark that conversation while still offering the action and exhilaration that comes from crime thrillers.

“Film is an art form, but primarily a form of entertainment,” says Weisman. “We need to encourage people to seek and expect more substance in what they consume.”

She insists that a film can be a thriller with action and excitement—and even violence—while still offering a depth of human experience. The task is changing audience’s standards for the films (and music) they consume. But how?

“Give other options,” MacNeal says simply.

He believes that audiences’ preference for stereotyped narratives is really just a case of consuming what’s available: eating junk food because it’s what’s in the fridge. His sister agrees, adding:

“If you give audiences other options—show them more multi-layered stories that feature marginalized peoples—then they will respond.” She describes what she perceived as a shift from positive to negative representations of minorities in the media—The Cosbys and The Martin Lawrence Show transitioned into countless scripted reality TV shows & uninspired sitcoms. She says emphatically,

“If we transitioned into this cultural low, then we can transition out of it.”

Her brother agrees. The key, he notes, is for directors and producers with a foot in the game already to support the next generation and have a dialogue about the importance of these depth-driven stories.

“That’s why I applaud the fashion industry, especially the CFDA, for how they mentor and propel their young designers. In film, Spike Lee is a great example of someone who’s doing it right,” MacNeal says. “He focuses on the issues and helps out who he can. He does a good job uplifting younger filmmakers.”

And the pair of them are young indeed. Weisman is 26 and MacNeal is a mere 20, one of the youngest filmmakers in the industry and already earning attention for his latest film, The 4th Meeting. The way they see it, making a difference is a matter of making the right film and making it reach a broad audience. And they might be right.

“There are people that need to hear these stories,” Weisman says, “and people who want better content. We’re not the only ones who feel this way.”

No, Ms. Weisman, you are not.

To contact or see their work, visit here: http://www.joshmacneal.com/urbsinhorto

Image credit: Rudy Lorejo Photography

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Dear Forbes: This Is Why Iggy Azalea Doesn’t “Run” Hip-Hop

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The Internet is currently on fire following a piece on Forbes that was initially titled “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” but was changed after the backlash forced Forbes to realize what an absurd claim they were making. The new title is “Hip Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.”

I’m annoyed for multiple reasons. Let’s discuss them, shall we?

First off, I wouldn’t go to an Iggy Azalea concert if it were happening on my front porch. While I understand (somewhat confusedly) that she does have something of a fan base, anyone who has any love for hip-hop is currently decrying the notion that this woman “runs” hip-hop. Or anything at all, really. But that’s why the article title was changed, right? Because it (as the update reads) “did not accurately reflect the content of the piece.” Nor does it affect, um, reality. So yeah, good choice, Forbes. But you’re not off the hook.

Let’s get into the article. Here is the author’s reasoning for what he calls Iggy Azalea’s “notable” “rise to prominence”:

Making a name for yourself as a woman and hip hop is laudable enough, forget the fact that she is a white, blonde, Australian woman. In a genre dominated almost exclusively by African American men she sticks out like a statuesque thumb.”

Yes, making a name for yourself in hip-hop as a woman is laudable. But lauding Iggy Azalea here is ludicrous. The author seems not to understand the fact that it is precisely because Iggy Azalea is white and blonde that she has “made a name for herself” in hip-hop. White privilege has successfully floated her to the top of a genre where black women have fought for decades to be represented: her presence (and success) in hip-hop isn’t a shining beacon for feminism, but for the power of whiteness and what it can accomplish.

The author goes on to say:

“While this is all happening very quickly for her in America, she has actually been honing her craft for a decade now, first rapping at the age of 14. In the ten years since, she has seen and been through all the trials and tribulations of the industry.”

Really? All the trials and tribulations of the industry? All of them? Black female rappers encounter a unique struggle in their journey to success in an industry bent on attacking (and exploiting) black female sexuality, not to mention the complex dichotomy of battling male rappers on their misogynist lyrics while also being pressured to support the genre of hip-hop as a whole. The experience of black women in hip-hop is nearly analogous to life outside of hip-hop: black women being asked to choose between supporting black men in the struggle against racism and supporting their own struggle against misogyny (and misogynoir.) Has Iggy Azalea had to make these choices? No. Rather, she is flippant about the subject of race, spitting this lyric in her song D.R.U.G.S:

 

“Tire marks, tire marks, finish line with the fire marks

When it really starts I’m a runaway slave…master

Shitting on the past gotta spit it like a pastor”

 

“Shitting on the past,” huh? Bye Iggy.

In the end, the idea that Iggy Azalea’s fame is “unlikely” is equally absurd. Of course it’s likely. A woman who represents every patriarchal and white supremacist ideal of beauty—tall, slim, undoubtedly white-featured, blonde—finding success in an industry that champions these qualities is entirely unsurprising, especially in a genre that is, as the author says, dominated almost exclusively by African-American men.” Iggy Azalea is not a success story I wish to celebrate. To me, she isn’t a success story at all: she is a novelty, a tiresome example of white female privilege and the delight white culture finds in white people appropriating any and everything.

Lastly, I would ask Hugh McIntyre if he has heard of FM Supreme. Awkwafina. Dominique Young Unique. Rapsody. Jean Grae. 3d Na’Tee. Women of color in hip-hop who are making a name for themselves against all odds. They run hip-hop. Next time you’re feeling all gushy about women in hip-hop…maybe write about them.

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Belle: A Lesson In the Timelessness of Racism and Misogyny Against Black Women

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It’s not often that audiences are exposed to a portrayal of racism that is viewed through the lens of black women. Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman in 1700’s England, was the daughter of an admiral and an enslaved African woman. The film Belle, which was released nationwide this weekend, follows Dido’s life in the household of William Murray, her great-uncle, who was the earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. We watch Dido become a lady, educated and accomplished, while still forced to dine separately from her family in the company of strangers due to her lower status as a non-white person. We witness her experiences with romance and her complicated friendship with her white cousin, all during the infamous Zong case.

In the film, Dido becomes acquainted with an aspiring lawyer and abolitionist who advocates against the Zong slavers and, in turn, exposes Dido to the realities of slavery and racism that she had previously been sheltered from in the household of Chief Justice Mansfield. Meanwhile, as she comes of age and her cousin is introduced to society, she becomes painfully aware of what her race means outside the home of her great-uncle, becoming conscious of the unique prison she finds herself trapped within as both a non-white person and a woman. Her cousin, Elizabeth, is white, but poor; she doesn’t have the inheritance that Dido is privileged with. But the two young women discover how complicated both racism, sexism, and classism have made the world: Elizabeth can eat with her family and be introduced to society without burden; yet without an inheritance, her options for marriage are extremely limited, and the gentleman that she would marry will not have her, as his own pockets are empty, requiring a hefty dowry. On the other hand, Dido can afford to not marry if she wishes, or marry who she pleases, given her inheritance. Money gives her some independence, yet it seems she will not be able to marry at all, given her status as a non-white person: “too high to dine with the servants,” she says at one point, “but too low to dine with my own family.”

The intricacies of marriage and money and dowries in the 1700’s were complicated and seemed far different than what we experience in our world today, but what I saw in Belle—juxtaposed with the ancient-seeming idea of black bodies as property, cargo that can be thrown overboard as if drowning were not drowning but a mere spoiling of goods—was a startling sameness. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761 and died in 1804, yet the experiences this film projects in its illustration of the past bear shocking resemblance to the challenges black women (and black people) currently face in the United States today.

Dido’ fetishization by the two Ashford brothers, for one. While one brother sees her simply as an exotic Other who he can bed without forming attachments—very different than the attitude toward white women of the same time period, whose virtue was unequivocal and untouchable—the other is downright violent in his conception of Dido, calling her “repulsive,” but still expressing a desire to rape her. The scenes in which that older, more violent Ashford brother addresses Dido directly, giving voice to his unbridled racism and at one point assaulting her, are indisputably disturbing. Disturbing not just because they represent a disgusting and brutal history of humanity, but because I see remnants of those attitudes today in the way the world perceives the bodies of black and brown women: exotic, sexual, sensual, different, objects. We see it in the way Miley Cyrus and almost any given white pop star (Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, for example) use black women’s bodies as props in music videos: something to be appropriated and used for one’s own pleasure, and then cast off in pursuit of the next trend. In addition, the rape of black women still does not seem to carry much horror in 2014: it was most recently the punchline on Saturday Night Live, and last year Russell Simmons was forced to apologize for his highly-offensive “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.” None of this is too different from the way the Ashford brothers perceive Dido’s body: an exotic Other not worthy of love or respect; merely lust, and lust framed in a particularly problematic racism.

The younger Ashford brother adds another layer to Dido’s complicated experience as a black woman: one night while he and Dido are sitting away from the crowd on their own, he confesses to being “taken with her,” and compliments her beauty in a strange way. Her mother’s blackness, he says, is undoubtedly ugly, but Dido’s “better half” (that is, her white half) won out in her features, which is what makes her so beautiful.

Shocking, isn’t it, that someone as beautiful as Dido would be struck down for her black half, and regarded as more beautiful simply because her white features are more prominent? Not so shocking when you consider it in the context of our beauty standards today, in which a quick Google search for “beautiful woman” returns almost entirely white faces. In American culture, the black women who do manage to be considered beautiful by mainstream societal standards are almost always mixed-race or possess white features: slim noses, light skin, straight hair. While the occasional darker skinned woman does manage to catch the public’s attention from time to time, she faces fetishization as well: look at Lupita Nyong’o. The public’s rabid consumption of her image often seems almost surprised with itself for finding a dark skinned woman so attractive, a feeling compensated for with adoration that borders on frantic.

Belle also examines the relationship between white and non-white women. Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth, speaks unhappily about the role of women in the world, noting that “we [women] are but their [men’s] property.” Her statement is almost comical: while bemoaning her own state of disadvantage as a [white] woman, she entirely ignores the disadvantage of black women, who were quite literally property. Where Dido and Elizabeth’s relationship was once intimate and carefree, tension grows between them as they become more aware (in different ways) of the power dynamics between them. Elizabeth’s ignorance and apathy—as well as her own racism—become roadblocks in their relationship, something we see often today when it comes to white feminists’ denial of their (our) own privilege and unwillingness to acknowledge intersectionality. Elizabeth is something of a feminist in her consciousness of the prison women are forced to live within in a sexist society, but her obliviousness to the plight of black people—and black women—blinds her to the ways that Dido’s identity impacts her life. That blindness is never actually remedied in the film—at one point she attacks Dido verbally about her “lower status,” but bites her tongue before saying something blatantly racist—and nor is it always remedied in our time, as white feminists so often attack women of color on decidedly racial ground, all the while claiming to be non-racist.

There was another moment in the film that paralleled our times so decidedly that it took my breath away. Toward the end, when Mr. Davinier—the young abolitionist lawyer that Dido encounters—is speaking passionately about the racist laws that made the Zong massacre possible, he says:

“Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are a framework for crime.”

Yes, they are, and this is our world, our country. We live in a country where:

  • African-Americans are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than whites.
  • African-Americans are frequently (illegally) excluded from criminal jury service, according to a 2010 study released by the Equal Justice Initiative. For example in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 African-Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from serving on cases involving the death penalty.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crime.
  • The Sentencing Project reports African-Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
  • In New York, the infamous stop-and-frisk program continues to racially profile black and brown New Yorkers, even in the face of data that undermines its purpose.
  • Stand Your Ground laws continue to indicate racial bias in favor of white criminals who use it in their defense, meanwhile Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others receive no justice.

The list goes on and on. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761. It is now 2014, and the film about her life gives me very little comfort in the progress we have made as humans. In Belle, the courts rule against the slavers on the Zong, and Mr. Davinier rejoices, stating that the decision will reverberate throughout the world and will change the future. But the Chief Justice, Dido’s great-uncle, tempers the young man’s happiness: “History will judge whether your optimism is warranted,” he says, knowing there is much work to be done.

He was right. There is. And one of the greatest mistakes we can make in doing that work is acknowledging the ways in which we’ve come so far, while ignoring the ways in which we have not. Belle provides a view of an incredible life, a story not often told. We need these stories. We must keep hearing them. Mr. Davinier says at one point that a country that ignores the suffering of some and not others is “a country for whom hope is lost.” Let’s not be that country. Let’s not be that world.

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5 Ways Chicago Transit Authority Shows It Hates Chicagoans

If you live here, you have felt it. Perhaps you’ve thought, “I have been standing on this platform/bus stop for half of my life. Why? Someone must hate me.” The answer is…someone does hate you. It’s Chicago Transit Authority. If you live in Chicago and have felt the keen sting of CTA’s loathing, then read on and perhaps find some small comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

1. Ventra

Any true Chicagoan knows that this must be the first item on this list. If you need to see proof that CTA hates us, you need look no further than Ventra. CTA inflicting Ventra on us was, for all intents and purposes, an unprovoked attack. No one hated the old system: no one was tweeting @cta railing against the Chicago Card. No one was creating parody accounts mocking the absolutely absurd functionality of the Chicago Card. The old system worked…and then along came Ventra. From bank cards being charged in addition to the Ventra card, to inexplicably nonfunctional cards, to a completely and utterly mystifying account interface online, to fundamentally clueless Customer Care employees, to hour-long hotline waits, and oh, let’s not forget the fact that you are instructed to pay cash when your already-paid-for Ventra card doesn’t work on their worthless scanner…Ventra has been (and continues to be) a nightmare. Every single day the line to board the bus is at a standstill while each person must tap their card 3-4 times before it’s actually read. Meanwhile:

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Oh, of course. We’re being double-charged when we’re forced to double-tap. Of course.

Even worse: Ventra and CTA continue to pretend we’re all crazy for not liking the new system. See this lovely exchange on Twitter:

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“which is pretty rare?” <cue uproarious laughter>

Yeah. Right. You’re not fooling anyone.

2. Bus Bunching

Bus bunching is, to the CTA, like the common cold. It seems like such a simple thing, but the CTA cannot—I repeat, cannot—find a cure. Like most Chicagoans, I waste precious time every day of my mortal life waiting. Just waiting. Staring at potholes that will never be fixed, and waiting. I live on the near South Side and catch the 29 every day, a bus which is always full of people trying to get to work and kids trying to get to school. But at any given time while trying to catch the 29, there is a 20-30 minute wait. But it’s more than just a long, empty window. It’s the fact that at the end of that long, empty window…two or three buses come all at once.

I have many questions for CTA, but here’s one: what good does 3 buses all at once do anyone? Great, the thirty people now crowded on the bus stop can now get on multiple buses. But now there are three buses all in a row at every bus stop until Congress: traffic is congested, streets are blocked, people are pissed. Why not just have the buses come every 8 minutes? Like they’re supposed to? What is happening at your depots where every…single…day this occurs? It happened when I lived on the North Side too: the 147, the 151. North Siders, you hear me. Bus bunching is a blight. But CTA doesn’t care. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Abysmal Customer Service

I’m not even talking about Ventra, because everyone knows that the dunces they have working at Ventra are a bunch of salespeople trying to convince you to use your Ventra card as a credit card too—yay corporations interfering with civil life!—and maybe attempt (attempt) to troubleshoot your nonfunctional, worthless plastic Ventra card. I’m talking about CTA. Never have I encountered more apathetic, defensive, blame-shifting grunts in my entire life. Here’s the conversation I had this morning after calling to complain about bus bunching:

Me: “Is there a manager I can speak to?”

CTA: “No.”

Me: “Okay…well can I tell you my complaint?”

CTA: <silence>

Me: “Hello?”

CTA: “Go ahead.”

Me: “Well, the 29 has been really bad lately. There are old ladies waiting on a stop with no benches waiting for 30 minutes, and then a bus comes and they can’t even get on it because it’s so packed and—”

CTA: “Give me your phone number. I’ll have a manager call you back.”

Me: “Um…okay. Here’s my number.”

CTA: “I see in the system that you already complained about this.”

Me: “Yes, last week.”

CTA: “Oh, a manager called and left you a voicemail.”

Here’s a screenshot of my phone:

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Guess what, CTA? No, a manager never called me back. No, they didn’t leave a voicemail. See? My voicemail box is empty. So what are we supposed to do when we have a complaint or a grievance against CTA? Well, some people might take to social media, but CTA’s Twitter often seems to be run by what appears to be a petulant teenager. See, the Twitter account runs fine when they’re just reporting outages, service disruption, etc. But when they actually have to interact with customers who are complaining? They take the apathy you experience when you call them on the phone and add a pinch of defensiveness and a sprinkle of subtle sarcasm. Tweet at them. You’ll see. If you like being treated with contempt and thinly-veiled indifference, tweeting at @cta is the hobby for you.

4. Cattle Cars

I have been told a story by different people a few times in my lifetime: a story about public transportation in Japan and how there are guys that stand on the platforms with sticks to shove people into the subways to fit more people into the crowded cars. People always tell this story with a kind of amused awe: “can you believe they do that over there?” and no one ever really knows if that little tidbit is true or not. But this story always annoys me, for two reasons. 1) It’s racist. “Oooh look how weird and intense Japanese people are!” and 2) Do you really think that is not your life here? Okay, there are no people with sticks shoving people into train cars, but every day riding a bus or a train in Chicago during rush hour (and often outside of rush hour) is like transforming into a heifer for thirty minutes of my life. It might as well be a mosh pit. A combination of delayed trains/buses, route cuts, and not enough actual vehicles in the city creates the cattle car effect: people are smashed against one another. So forget riding CTA if you’re claustrophobic in any way, but cattle cars lead to other problems too.

Sexual harassment. Violence. Theft. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve witnessed/experienced taking advantage of the tight train situation in order to cop a feel. Same with people taking stuff from people’s purses, pockets, backpacks. And as for violence: well, people get pretty testy when they’re forced to be pressed against a stranger’s usually-odorous body for long periods of time. “Waiting for signal clearance”—those dreaded words— means you’re not even making any progress in your trip: you’re just cuddled (standing) with a stranger for no reason. Tempers flare. Fights erupt. It happens all the time.

But does CTA care? Who do you call when you’ve just been crammed into a train car for 45 minutes, had your ass groped, and your wallet stolen? CTA? Ha. You must have already forgotten #3 on this list. Go back and reread that. Short answer: They…don’t…care.

5. No Change

No, I don’t mean that they won’t make change if you’re paying cash. (Which, speaking of cash: you’re out of luck. Ventra wants to be credit card dependent. And your fare increases if you don’t use Ventra and continue to pay cash.) What I mean is that nothing has changed. Unlike anything else, where there are complaints, outcry, protests against a company and apologies are made, processes are tweaked, Ventra and CTA just dig in. One of the complaints about Ventra (mentioned above) is that, unlike the old system, you can’t tap your wallet in order to scan your Ventra card without your bank cards also being charged. This complaint has been made since the initial roll out, with Ventra reps promising to look into the problem. But now, this is what you get as response when you ask Ventra about it:

They have no intention of making a change: not about Ventra and not about anything else. The onus is on Chicagoans, like it is for everything else, and the ripples of CTA’s ineptitude extend beyond delays. The fact of the matter is, that CTA’s refusal to find solutions for the problems they are charged with creating every single day in Chicago leads to things more problematic than delays. Kids can’t get to school on time. Adults can’t get to work on time. The elderly and disabled are forced to wait (often at stops without benches, and often in bad weather) for up to 40 minutes in some parts of the city. Groping and sexual harassment increase. Theft increases. Anger increases.

You see, what CTA doesn’t realize is that their behavior doesn’t just mean a bad train ride. It means a bad start to the day. Take one look at the Twitter account @ctafails and you can see the negativity that begins from the moment Chicagoans step onto the bus stop in the morning, which is then reanimated when they’re trying to return home at night. The CTA website reports that on an average weekday, 1.6 million rides are taken on Chicago public transportation. When you fail even a fraction of those customers, interrupting their days, ruining their commute, making them late to work, what does it mean for the morale of a city? This makes me think of an article I read recently on Salon, “The Troubling Reasons Americans Are So Depressed.” In it, the author discusses “learned helplessness” and how Americans, due to corporations and call center hold times (among other things) are becoming depressed and angry because of the amount of our lives we spend waiting on hold, waiting in line, and (I add)…waiting for buses. The helplessness, the author says, is the helplessness of those who are resigned to the indifference of the institutions we depend on.

What else can we do? I’m not sure. Rant in blogs like this? Perhaps. I see the helplessness that the Salon author examines in his article. I feel it. What do you do when the buses won’t come and you’re late to work and you can’t afford a cab and you call customer service and if someone answers (if they answer) they don’t care and no one ever calls you back and nothing ever changes?

It’s funny…the CTA Twitter account recently tweeted this article: Public Transportation Shapes Where Millennials Decide to Live, where I found this stat: “54 percent of the participants said they would consider moving to another city if it had more and better options for getting around.”

Careful, Chicago. You might just be the city we’re moving from, not the one we’re moving to.

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In Defense of V. Stiviano: Your Misogynoir Is Showing

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This will be short.

Today, anyone paying attention is expressing their contempt for Donald Sterling. For example, Snoop Dogg posted this particularly eloquent video which sums up my feelings on the matter pretty accurately. In general, everybody hates Donald. From his blatant expression of ownership over Stiviano—dictating who she spends time with, what she does with her social networking sites, etc.—to his disgusting overt racism, he is currently public enemy #1. When he said this of the Clippers:

“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have-Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”

he made it clear that when it comes to black bodies, he claims absolute ownership. David West’s tweet on Saturday is extremely accurate:

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In general the trends on Twitter indicated almost zero support for Sterling, with the exception of a few trolls. I did, however, notice one troubling trend on multiple social networks, repeated by men and women alike: the idea that somehow V. Stiviano is to blame in all this, and that it’s really her status as a “gold digger” that we should be talking about.

Let me spend two seconds telling you why blaming V. Stiviano is a mistake. Really, just two seconds.

  • V. Stiviano is not the one on tape spewing horribly racist garbage, parading around like a glorified Calvin Candy and exhibiting all the traits of a narcissistic, abusive white supremacist.

That’s all. Just one bullet. There’s no list. That’s it. It’s that simple, because focusing on V.Stiviano and whatever relationship she might have with Donald Sterling is irrelevant, misogynist, and relieves him of accountability. The fact that people would rather delve into her work as a model, whether or not she’s actually dating Sterling or “using him” for his money, and whether or not she’s had plastic surgery, rather than spending the time giving critical thought to a man whose idea of black bodies is no different than a rancher’s idea of cattle—the ongoing story about Cliven Bundy is particularly well-timed in all this—indicates the hatred for women (particularly black women) that is so prevalent in Americans of all races.

It is easier to hate V. Stiviano, isn’t it? To turn the rifle on a beautiful brown woman comes naturally to Americans who have been carefully groomed to never blame white men for anything, ever. But when we focus on V. Stiviano, we demonstrate our deep-seated hatred of black women. She is not the villain here: in fact, she is the agent of change. She is the hero in this little story. How can we, on one hand, hate Donald Sterling for what he says on that tape, and on the other hand criticize the agent who did the exposing? You’re confused. You know racism is horrible, but the racism you (we) have been fed our entire lives says we also must hate Stiviano: a woman. A beautiful woman. A beautiful woman of color. Each of these things have bigoted attachments that we’re choking on when we try to be proud of her. And we should be proud of her. Why wouldn’t we be? She exposed a racist for what he is, and simultaneously liberated herself from a relationship in which her womanhood and her blackness were being torn down and controlled.

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Think long and hard about where your blame is coming from. When we blame Stiviano, when we imply that the emotional abuse she clearly suffered in her dealings with Sterling, that she “let herself” be “enslaved,” it implies that Sterling and racist, abusive scumbags like Sterling, are not responsible for their racism and abuse. Sterling is rich, white, and male: he has all the power he needs to ensure that a woman like Stiviano—young, brown, and female—lacks the agency and power she needs to be autonomous. Others imply that Stiviano’s beauty gives her power over Sterling, which illustrates a profound lack of understanding about the way patriarchy, misogyny, and misogynoir operate and the ways in which women who are seen as beautiful are just as susceptible to abuse and coercion as anyone.

What it comes down to, and the only thing it comes down to, is the fact that Donald Sterling is a racist, misogynist, narcissistic, abusive piece of human garbage. Period. That’s it. When you turn your sights on V. Stiviano, you expose not only your misogynoir, but your intellectual laziness. Keep your eye on the ball, America. Sterling and only Sterling is to blame here. Soon there will be media campaigns dedicated to discrediting Stiviano based on her previous sexual partners, her tattoos, her clothes, other rich men who she supposedly “used:” all the weapons a misogynistic and misogynoiristic culture employ to protect men like Sterling. Do not be distracted. Do not be deceived. Eye on the ball.

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Why Steve Harvey Needs to Have A Seat

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As Mimi and Nikko’s sex tape makes the rounds on the Internet, I knew it was only a matter of time before the policing began. Sure enough, yesterday a friend posted a recording of Steve Harvey on the radio, in which he earnestly advised “young women” against the making of sex tapes, etc. and once again revealed himself to be the sexist, opportunistic D-bag that so many have come to loathe.

The excerpt of his little speech that I heard begins with him explaining that the internet is forever, and how what gets put online stays online forever. Case in point. And while it’s true that many people—young or not—lack full understanding of the permanence of the Internet and how nothing can ever be truly erased, I already have a problem with the direction this sermon is going because…”young women?” Now, I haven’t actually seen Mimi and Nikko’s sex tape, but from what I understand…it’s a sex tape with Mimi and Nikko. Not Mimi. Mimi and Nikko.

Steve Harvey-types view women and sex through the lens that misogyny has provided for centuries: the lens that renders men invisible when there is an instance of shame being doled out. Casual sex, unwed pregnancy: centuries of misogyny dictates that it only takes one to tango; that the shame of “illicit” sex falls squarely on the shoulders of one and not two. And those shoulders always belong to a woman. When it comes to wagging a finger or calling someone a whore for premarital sexual activity, the man involved somehow dematerializes into a puff of smoke, leaving the woman to bear the brunt of society’s scorn alone.

In the radio recording, Steve Harvey goes on to rail against the Internet:

“The Internet has become a playground for evildoers. You sit up and you listen to somebody and all the sudden they’re making decisions and comments about you and they never even met you.”

He then adds:

“Please young women out there, think of yourself […] think about what people will say about you when you’re not around; stuff people will say behind your back.”

What’s annoying about Steve Harvey is that he delivers these little gems under the guise of being interested in the empowerment/protection of women and girls. A thin guise, I might add. Harvey warns girls about the backlash they will receive from random people on the Internet if they participate in a sex tape, but isn’t Harvey pretty much exactly that: a random voice on the Internet/TV/radio making comments about girls and women he’s “never even met?” He cautions us about the shame we will receive if we dare make a sex tape, but uses the same shame as the tool to keep us from doing it. Shamed if you do; shamed if you don’t. According to Harvey, women’s lives should be dictated by the expectations and presumptions of others. Our bodies are not our own: we exist at the will of laws perpetuated by people like Steve Harvey, who would have us covering our ankles in the name of modesty. Harvey isn’t interested in empowering us: he only wants to lay red tape in tight boxes around us in his effort to corral us into his idea of the ideal woman.

And Steve Harvey’s ideal woman is exactly what you would expect, fitting neatly into the virgin/whore dichotomy that has plagued women for lifetimes. “You’re not here for sex,” Harvey says in the recording. “You’re here for life. God didn’t create you for sex.”

Oh?

And why not? Why are we not here for sex? Isn’t it part of life? But more importantly, how did this conversation go from talking about sex tapes to sex in general? It’s one thing to say “Hey boys and girls, sex tapes are forever. It may be sexy now, but you may not want the whole world seeing that in ten years.” Sure. Fair facts. But that’s not enough for Harvey, and for some reason he seems incapable of addressing boys: only girls. Rather than using the Mimi and Nikko sex tape as a teachable moment about privacy, permanence, and the longevity of Internet decisions, Harvey can’t resist transforming that moment into a diatribe about shame and God’s plan for women’s bodies.

You see, those who are truly interested in empowering women and girls use different words. Instead of “Think of the horrible things people will say about you,” people who are truly interested in empowering women and girls say, “Don’t worry about what people say. You are autonomous.” Instead of, “You weren’t put here for sex,” people who are truly interested in empowering women and girls say, “Sex is one of many beautiful parts of life when it is consensual. You can have as much or as little of it as you want: just protect yourself.” These are the words we use when we seek to empower girls and women. The kind of shaming tactics Steve Harvey employs are not only tired, patriarchal regurgitations, but they fly in the face of actual women’s empowerment and turn “sex” and “women” into painful opposites that should have nothing to do with another. And everything else aside: men and boys are still absent from Harvey’s lecture.

This has all been written about before. Extensively. Yet Steve Harvey still added this to the end of his little speech:

“You’re putting your most precious gift out on display. For a pearl, you gotta dive to the bottom of the ocean […] Ain’t no diamonds laying on top of the earth: they don’t grow like corn. […] This thing every man got to have: your body. Your precious jewel. You’re sitting on a gold mine. Please act like it, young ladies. Act like you’re sitting on a gold mine. Because it is what every man is after. And we will pay dearly for it.”

Is anybody else creeped out? Is anybody else extremely uncomfortable about the fact that Steve Harvey is telling girls that they should treat their vaginas like a means of currency because men will “pay dearly for it”? Let me tell you a few things, Mr. Harvey. I’ll put them in bullet points so you don’t miss anything:

  • Women’s vaginas are not our most precious gift. Our minds, our souls, our personalities, are far more precious and will do more for us in our lives than the so-called gold-mine between our legs. In fact, for vaginas to be gold mines, they don’t bring us much gold just sitting down there being vaginas. Ever heard of women’s struggle for equal pay? Come on, Steve.
  • Diamonds aren’t that f*cking great. In fact, they’re intrinsically worthless. Their value is based on artificial scarcity, a system created by tycoons who seek to propagate the belief of their rarity to increase their worth. It’s almost like the idea of chastity. Chew on that.
  • If women “aren’t here for sex,” yet it’s the thing that “every man wants,” then does that mean that men are here for sex? Why would “God” make men for sex and not women? That seems silly. No, it doesn’t seem silly. It is.
  • Nikko was in the sex tape too. Where’s your sermon for him? Aren’t men and boys’ bodies just as valuable? Is their sex not also precious?

Steve Harvey’s explicit advice to young women is that when it comes to our sexual activity, we should think before we act—before we “give it away”—because “think of what people will say about us behind our backs.” And when it comes to a society that makes women’s bodies and what women do with them a matter of scorn and shame, Steve Harvey knows which side he’s on: the side that does the scorning and the shaming. His critique looks no further: it stops at the young women who are held prisoner by this ideology. He does not criticize the ideology itself; rather, he upholds it.

Steve Harvey is not interested in empowering or protecting young women. Instead, he joins the likes of Tyler Perry, Tyrese, Chey B, who would sit on their towering soap boxes making money off policing the lives and bodies of women. Write a book about young boys for once, Mr. Harvey, if you want to impress me: write a book about rape culture and the way we teach young men that women’s bodies are trophies, objects, status symbols, commodities.

Oh wait. You already know. Because with all your jabbering about gold mines and diamonds and precious jewels, you’re doing the teaching. The woman, Mimi, that you are criticizing is doing exactly what you suggest. You said what’s between our legs is a gold mine, right? Isn’t Mimi set to make a gold mine from this sex tape? Oh, but that’s not what you meant, right? A little too much autonomy, mixed with too little care for “what people say behind her back.” Have a seat, Mr. Harvey. Have this one. Or this one. Or this one. Just make sure you choose a sturdy chair, because times are changing: women see through your crap and we’re not here for it. Get comfortable. You may be sitting for a long time.

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People of Color DO Survive the Apocalypse: 5 Books You Should Read

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It’s been written about before: the problem with mainstream post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction and its absence of people of color. In the imaginations of so many writers of these genres, people of color don’t ever seem to survive the apocalypse, or somehow the series of events that led to the dystopian society that has banned smiling (or dreaming, or whatever the big “gasp” factor is) wiped out people of color along the way. Post-apocalyptic fiction is a craze, and not a new one: we have always, on some level, wondered what happens next, after we destroy ourselves, for a long time. (Think about it: the Bible’s versions of Heaven and Hell are a kind of dystopian fiction in itself. A book talking about what happens next if we keep f@&#ing up the way we have been? Just saying.) Yet somehow the versions of these stories that make it into the mainstream—and don’t get me started on Hollywood—almost invariably star white people, and especially white girls. But in case you’ve ever looked at the whitewashed array of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books that line the shelves and asked yourself, “Do people of color survive the apocalypse?” the answer is yes. Read these books.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Environmental and economic crises lead to societal disintegration in Parable of the Sower. Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a minister who loses her entire family when the chaos of the outside world enters her home compound. She ventures out into the wasteland of America alone and what follows is her journey to a new future in the face of almost certain death. Octavia Butler was a genius and you should read everything she’s ever written. Pronto. You can buy Parable of the Sower here.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The setting for this post-apocalyptic future is Saharan Africa, in a world that is ruined by rape and genocide. A young girl named Onyesonwu—which means Who Fears Death?—is raised in the midst of a society that hates her; a society that she must overcome if she is to 1) survive and 2) save the world from the evil that plagues it. She is not only extremely brave, but flawed, funny, and powerful, and the story involves magic, self-discovery, and analyses of racism and sexism. In short: it rocks. You can buy Who Fears Death here.

Panther in the Hive by Olivia A. Cole

Chicago hasn’t really gotten its fair shake when it comes to post-apocalyptic stories, and this book takes place in a Chicago of the not-so-distant future, following the story of Tasha Lockett, an oddball brown girl who finds herself alone in the city when a cybertronic disaster overcomes the States. It’s a coming of age story that takes on healthcare, racism, sexism, and political corruption. Oh, and I wrote it. Just throwing that in there. You can buy Panther in the Hive here.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

If you like zombie novels, here’s one for you. Colson Whitehead isn’t known for genre work, but this book was a doozy. The story follows Mark Spitz, a survivor in a civilian sweeper unit who is clearing Zone One of straggler zombies. It’s deep, dark, and literary, and it will leave you thinking. You can buy Zone One here.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson has won too many awards to count, and you should really check out all of her work. But Brown Girl in the Ring suits the purposes of this blog, following the story of Ti-Jeanne, a new mother who finds herself alone in a Toronto that has collapsed into violence and gang rule, with the rich and privilege having fled the city and barricaded everyone else inside. A little bit of voodoo. A little bit of love. A lot of adventure. You can buy Brown Girl in the Ring here.

There are others: this is just five. Do you have a favorite that isn’t listed here? Share it in the comments. There’s a shortage of these stories in fiction, so let’s collect them here.

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