On ‘Assata: An Autobiography’

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.

Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.

Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.

This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.

#blackhistorymonth

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On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree

On ‘The Hunting Ground’

We missed this documentary from two years ago. I’m not sure how, but given where I was emotionally two years ago, that may not be a bad thing.

Last year, in the wake of the outrageous ‘sentence’ handed down to Brock Turner and other college athletes who sexually assaulted women at various universities, I read Jon Krakauer’s Missoulaan incredibly chilling account of the lengths one university football town would go to to protect it’s star athletes. Sadly, Missoula, Montana and the University of Montana are but one of far, far too many college campuses plagued by an epidemic of sexual predation and violence against mostly young women. By no means are young men spared either, however.

The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary by the makers of The Invisible War, painfully and carefully tracks the criss-crossing of the United States by two brave young rape survivors from the University of North Carolina. Their objective is clear yet anything but simple: to call to account university administrators for their woeful and shameful inattention and at times contempt for those who dare report the assaults they not only endured but survived. In these brave individuals’ own words, ‘the responses by the universities were often worse than the actual assaults [they] experienced’.

In the wake of #metoo and what seems like daily revelations regarding sexual harassment and assaults by the rich, powerful and (in)famous, those of us ordinary individuals who have faced similar experiences and the inevitable doubt which follows from those in positions to hand out justice remain not only unsurprised but angered and feeling let down once again.

Indeed, based on the well-documented and researched figures provided throughout The Hunting Ground, I honesty felt a bit sick at various moments. Yet again.  

From the proportion of college-aged women who are likely to face an assault (11.2%), to the numbers of expulsions resulting from cheating  compared to on-campus assaults (the former vastly outpace the latter, which are negligible at best and quite often zero) to the proportion of all assaults remaining unreported (80%), its all a stark reminder that we collectively have a long way to go vis-á-vis believing women and men who are violated in the worst possible way.

At the very least, we should be able to ensure that those brave enough to step forward feel supported more than those who commit such heinous acts.

The Hunting Ground reminds us that we have a long, long way to go. And, given current events, now seems like as good a time as any to continue on that journey towards justice.

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For more information on creating an environment in which sexual assault is not tolerated or accepted and providing supportive environments for survivors, visit It’s on Us.

 

On ‘Strength to Love’

Strength To LoveStrength To Love by Martin Luther King Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

This quote more than any other moves me, and serves as a reminder that tolerating injustices of any kind, whether directed at me or at others, represents an incredibly slippery slope.

Nearly 50 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr remains a voice of strength and love and compassion aimed at shattering the hatred that justifies racial injustice. Sadly, nearly 50 years later, much of his writings and reflections related to his faith in a loving and just god and the reality of being black in the 1950s and 1960s America ring true today. As a diverse nation, we’ve come some way from the dark days of the civil rights era; but, if the last year has provided me with any sort of measuring stick on where we as a nation now stand, we still have much further to go.

I do not share MLK’s faith. Despite being raised in a Southern Baptist family, their god and the stories in The Bible never really made sense to me. Their god was one to fear, whose wrath was fierce. And, much of the rhetoric I heard justified the supremacy of those like us — white, middle class, privileged. In Strength to Love, MLK uses his faith and scripture to justify justice. To justify love rather than hatred. To justify compassion and inclusion.

So much of this collection of sermons and reflections remain relevant in these times. In a chapter entitled, ‘The man who was a fool’, he states, ‘The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live.’ I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, where technology has boomed. I wondered if he would be demonised as a ‘fake news pundit’ or a antifada anarchist. But, I also wondered how powerful these tools could be when coupled with his various messages and teachings, particularly amongst those who share his faith. And, particularly when addressing the various unarmed shootings of young black men by police officers.

He closes this chapter with these words: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul?’ I’m not sure where I lie on the existence of a soul, but whilst we in the United States possess so much stuff, I wonder if we haven’t lost which makes us truly rich beyond wealth. More than anything, I can only imagine how much more fortunate (and happier) we’d be if we would only view our fellow citizens as worthy rather than as ideological or racial enemies.

Strength to Love may represent a piece of our past and a long ago moment in our young nation’s history. But, to my mind, it serves as a powerful guide for what we still need to accomplish as individuals and as a nation.

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Silent majority

Across social media, women (and others) declare ‘me too‘ in an effort to shed light on just how prolific sexual harassment and violence are. Yes, it’s incredibly empowering to make a declaration and to publicly describe instances—not all of them by any means, but a sufficient number—attempting to wake others, primarily men, to the realities women live. It is also gut-wrenchingly disgusting. It’s disgusting because women have no problem believing it isn’t most but all of us who have lived with this shit our entire lives.

Whilst my mother’s generation took sexual harassment and assault as a fact of life, likely internalising most if not all of the blame, I suspect most women in my own generation are less reluctant or at least more idealistic about speaking up and out. Yet, we, too, have been silenced. And, we, too internalise it. For every ‘me too’ post we see, countless others remain silent. Why matters, naturally. But, that silent majority has their reasons, and all I or anyone else can really say is ‘you are loved, you are valued and you are believed’. Perhaps more importantly, ‘you are believed and I hope you are safe’.

I’d like to thank those men in particular who have voiced their support, their love and their horror reading our histories. Please, whilst you continue to support us, call out your buddies. Most of us women have tried, and often we’ve failed simply because we are not the dominant nor equal sex.

Simultaneously, and more startling, are the posts I’ve seen by men and more shockingly women suggesting that we all need to speak up. I suspect for many it is far, far too hard to do so. Hell, it’s been nearly 20 years since I was assaulted by someone I trusted and thought I knew better than most of those in my social network. Nearly 20 years later, after posting about my own experiences yesterday, the nightmares I experienced for a least a decade returned. A very large ocean and continent, not to mention a lot of therapy and healing, stand between me and that individual now. I know unequivocally that I am safe. Yet, last night subconsciously I did not feel safe at all. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a husband who not only gets the pain and horror I felt then but continues to support those dark days that return each year around the time of my attack, reminding me that I am loved and believed and safe. And, yet, in an instant, I can return to that incredibly vulnerable place I found myself in nearly 20 years ago.

The worst case involves those countless individuals currently living with similar experiences who do not have any sense of safety or support. Too many still fear their attackers because they cannot escape for whatever reason.  And, just as many are not believed. We may believe them, but those in their immediate surroundings do not. Those who have the power to step in and stop such attacks don’t. Those are the silent majority.

The voices of the silent majority are not to blame for not speaking up just as they are not to blame for the attack(s) they experience(d). Instead, let’s blame their tormentor and attacker. If we ever hope to allow all those who have experienced sexual harassment or violence in any form to speak freely and openly, we have to stop blaming and doubting them. From my very privileged position, it took the case of Brock Turner and nearly 20 years to feel like I could speak up openly.

Out_Of_1000_Rapes 122016.png

Taken from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system.

On ‘Between the World & Me’

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will never know what it is like to live as a black man or woman in today’s America. And, I can’t imagine raising a black child, particularly a young black man, in the US. All I can do is image the reality of knowing that they may not come home any time they leave.

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter to his son, I can understand the pain of history and helplessness that accompanies current events a little bit better.

Coates is very quickly becoming one of my favourite writers on contemporary issues in the US. His perspective alone equally intrigues and compels me. His writing blows me away. Through it, I can feel his anguish and uncertainty and anger, and share those sentiments. I also feel more than a little shame for being a part of a system that values him less than me simply by virtue of our individual histories. I am privileged because I am white and solidly middle class, as well as for growing up in a suburban utopia that never knew the dangers of simply stepping outside whilst black.

I sat down to read a part of this book; I ended up finishing it in a single sitting.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book. Not once, but multiple times. If we ever hope to move beyond the existing divisions and racial inequity that surrounds us all, we need to understand the experiences of those like Coates. It will make us squirm with discomfort and shame by actions which I imagine we in our privilege never think of twice. And, it should.

But, by understanding such perspectives a little better, we can also understand why so many feel compelled to take a knee or protest yet another white cop escaping justice for killing another unarmed black man.

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The stories we miss

I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss the case of James Byrd. But, I did. Last night, we watched the brilliant and chilling documentary, Two Towns of Jasper.

My sleep was more than a little disturbed.

 

Despite a lynching that took place nearly 20 years ago, this film and the reality of events surrounding James Byrd’s slaughter remain relevant today. I suspect this is why PBS’s POV chose an encore airing in August of this real-life horror story.

We need look no further than Charlottesville and the public boastings of folks like David Duke and Richard Spencer to understand that far too many individuals would welcome such ‘opportunities’.

But, perhaps the more troubling aspect of towns like Jasper are the words of those interviewed in Two Towns. A white man relaying that he doesn’t understand what changed, whereby ‘nigger’ is now considered a derogatory or unacceptable term for a black individual. By his own account, there’s nothing wrong with that word, as those sitting around the same table nod in agreement. A white woman at that same table makes claims that ‘James Byrd was no model citizen of Jasper’, to collective, murmured agreement. The implication is clear: maybe his death was brutal, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have it coming to him.

Perhaps the worst moments in this film were not related to the trials of those accused or the outcomes for those miserable humans who carried out a truly gruesome attack on another human being. The worst moment for me was when the local school board decided to adjust the academic calendar, and render Martin Luther King Jr Day as a make up day for days lost during the school year. They rendered MLK Day expendable, whilst the Jasper rodeo remained a day off from school. A fucking rodeo.

The board reinstated the holiday, but only after significant opposition. Reverend Ray Charles Lewis says it best: ‘It’s easier for whites to forget,’ he noted.

My family is from a town very much like Jasper. And, I grew up listening and being outraged by some of the same comments and reflections made around various tables as those made by the white residents of Jasper. Sadly, those conversations or ideas are nothing new to me, I suppose.

But, that doesn’t make it right and nothing will change unless those of us with power speak up when we hear / bear witness to such archaic notions and prejudices. Whilst everyone may have prejudices, as yet another white Jasperian claims, we don’t have to accept them as honourable or acceptable. Particularly not today.

We all have a responsibility to stand up and stop an injustice when we see it happen. We all have a duty to our fellow humans to call out those who feel justified in using derogatory and demeaning labels to characterise others. We all must stand up and defend those being beaten and thrashed, whether by words or fists, for simple being different.

Most of all, we all must speak up, particularly when our voices shake the most. Because that’s when it matters most.