My Letter to the President-Elect

Dear Mr. President-Elect:

I suppose congratulations are in order.  I must admit that it felt better to wake to an excited morning rather than the despair of the last two Wednesday mornings following the presidential elections.  In the days since your election, people have been saying that you were born to this fate, to unite America and bring peace to the world.  Others have declared that the United States has gotten beyond race.  Still more see you as the embodiment of Dr. King’s dream, a Universal man, written right into your DNA.  To be sure, your election represents a singular moment, a moment to seize the ground, a moment of great rupture precisely because the United States is and has been a racist country, a culture of white privilege, white supremacy domination, that your election makes anything seem possible, makes the world feel turned around.  But it only feels turned around.  It really hasn’t turned around, certainly not upside down.


I did vote for you, Mr. President-Elect, despite myself.  I meant to vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente, but I saw your name at the top of the ballot and felt the wave of enthusiasm rolling westward across the country, and felt the force of the words of the elderly African American woman somewhere behind me who told her friend, “I’ve been waiting sixty-one years for this!” So instead asking for another ballot, I just kept going down the ballot.  I voted for you even though I knew that in this campaign, you did what Democratic presidential candidates have been doing since Clinton, run away from the Black base of the party.  That you had to run away from the Black base didn’t surprise me because you really didn’t have to convince the Black base, only convince them to get out and vote on Election Day.

 I knew that you would have to denounce and repudiate Minister Louis Farrakhan; that is standard operating procedure for many African American public figures.  I knew that you would have to distance yourself from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, regardless of how widespread his views of U.S. practice in the world are.  African Americans simply are not allowed to hold these views publicly and still be taken seriously.  The nation must always be above reproach, even by those speaking for the bottom.  I knew that you would have to make a speech on race without broaching racism, would have to construct false equivalencies between Black anger and White anger, that you would have to relegate Black anger to older generations and a thing to be left in the past despite the dire conditions to which Black youths find themselves subjected.  I felt no shock at your Father’s Day speech castigating African American men as absentee fathers, talking down to them without context, the context of a prison industrial complex that removes so many young men from their families, or keeps them in transitory living spaces as they try to stay one two and three steps ahead of state authorities, or the broader context of the 50 percent of marriages that fail in the United States, or the lack of jobs that keep African American men officially out of the home so that the family can receive public assistance while they actually live with their families in what in the neighborhoods are open secrets.  Nor was there any surprise in your NAACP audience’s enthusiastic applause, long concerned with the politics of image and fear that working class Black folks might (continue to) sully the reputation of nice, middle class African Americans.  None of this shocked me because I knew it wasn’t for me.  It was for the people who needed convincing that you are a different kind of African American, more like them



That, Mr. President-Elect, is still the sad fact. Race did still matter, and race does still matter because racism still matters.  It remains a question of power and whose interest must be served.  The narrative is being constructed as it is being disseminated: the Civil Rights Era has come full circle.  On the most recent edition of Bill Moyers Journal, Mr. Moyers begins the hour with an essay that includes a montage Civil Rights Era stock footage and the naming of iconic names and places from the period.  I have a great deal of respect for Bill Moyers.  Nonetheless, I am troubled by the omissions in his video essay.  The omissions condemn real men and women who helped make that history and shape those years to obscurity and confinement.  The official story is being repeated on news talk television and sports talk radio.  Just this week, activist, actor and former NFL running back Jim Brown offered the same line on a Fox Sports Radio.  No one mentions the more radical edges of the movement, nor does anyone often mention the recalcitrant mainstream culture that has been in reaction to these movements since the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of the mid 1960s.  What does anyone think Nixon meant by appealing to the Silent Majority?  After all, affirmative action, a modest proposal indeed, remains controversial, and you could not be perceived as too closely associated with African American interests, only African American skin for its symbolic value. And right now, the country and the world are enamored with the symbolism.



Still, white Americans have come a long way.  I say white Americans, although I know you want to emphasize the “we’re all Americans, a United States of America” line, because, well, the rest of us haven’t done anything so unusual.  People of color in this country routinely vote for people other than those from their particular ethnic background.  Americans across the board routinely vote for candidates across class lines. So when I hear people say, “We’ve come a long way,” I don’t feel a part of that we because what Americans are being congratulated for is an accomplishment of white Americans, perhaps many of those same white Democrats who had preferred to vote for Republicans rather than their fellow Democrats who were represented as too liberal, often code for too friendly to communities of color and women.  Perhaps it was their children.  Either way, they should be proud of finally doing what the rest of us have had to take as business as usual.  So again, congratulations for reaching out to those white Americans and convincing them to choose something other than the fear and the familiar that they have been choosing since the Reagan years.  This is a change and reason for hope.


Mr. President-Elect, I have a proposal.  Because this is a moment of rupture, because this is a moment when anything seems possible, because this is a moment when people are hoping for reconciliation, I have a proposal, one that require courage and all of your exceptional skills of persuasion.  The United States, unlike South Africa, has had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so the complete story of the 60s and 70s remains untold.  Most U.S. citizens have no idea what horrors their local, state and federal government agencies wreaked upon dissidents through COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI.  Few know of the political prisoners who are now being completely erased from memory in the new narrative of American triumphalism.   Mr. Obama, as a gesture of reconciliation, I propose you grant amnesties and pardons to the African American, Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American and Hawaiian, and the radical white prisoners of conscience and prisoners of war now warehoused in U.S. federal prisons.

Mr. President-Elect, you can begin by pardoning Leonard Peltier.  The original sin of the United States was not slavery; the original sin of the United States was genocide, dispossession and displacement of the First Nations.  Leonard Peltier has now served more than 30 years. 


Oscar Rivera Lopez of the Puerto Rican liberation movement has served 27 years. 


Mutulu Shakur, Tupac’s stepfather, has served nearly 30.  Speaking of Shakurs, you could lift the bounty off Assata Shakur’s head, offer her amnesty, and let her return from Cuba, her home for nearly 30 years. 



How about pardons for Debbie Africa and Janet Africa. 


David Gilbert, former member of the Weather Underground, has also served nearly 30 years.  


 The San Francisco 8, former Black Panthers, have been re-indicted for murder charges that had already been thrown out years ago because the confessions had been induced by torture, cattle prods among other things. 


 Should they continue to be harassed in their senior years?  These men and women should be spared the fate of Nuh Washington, a Black Liberation fighter who died in federal prison.


Yes, Mr. President-Elect, you will be accused of radical ties or being soft on crime, a friend of domestic terrorists, of disrespecting the lives of police officers or federal agents who may or may not have been killed or wounded by these persons.  Guilt or innocence is not the issue.  Their rights to self defense and self determination don’t have to be the issue.  After all, the U.S. has been very forgiving of political crimes.  President Ford continues to receive praise for “reconciling” the country by pardoning Richard Nixon.  Many Americans thought that was a mistake, a mistake we still suffer from insofar as it left presidential abuse of power unchecked.  Still, most Americans at least seem to have forgiven Nixon.  G. Gordon Liddy walks the streets freely, even after encouraging his radio listeners to shoot federal agents in the mid 1990s.  Scooter Libby was pardoned after complicity in exposing Valerie Plame.  Speaker Pelosi took impeachment off the table despite the many impeachable actions of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of State Rice.  At the very least, William Ayres is an example of the benefit these freedom fighters can offer society.  And now there is another opening, one from your chosen home, Chicago, with the recent indictment of Chicago police commander Jon Burge on charges of torture, the torture of over 100 African American men by officers under Burge’s command.  Those are the men who reported the abuse.            




The world expects Guantanamo to be closed.  That will take political courage.  But what is practiced at Guantanamo was learned in U.S. state and federal prisons, all of it.  Few U.S. Americans know because the treatment of prisoners in law and order America doesn’t merit comment in the political calculations of most politicians and mainstream media.  The prisons should not be ignored as they are a stark example of the contradictions that will continue to plague U.S. society in their most obviously racialized and class manifestations.  The Land of the Free locks up more than 2 million of its citizens and residents.  African Americans make up more than half of those incarcerated.  When one adds to their numbers the number of Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, well visiting an American prison is like visiting a Third World country, right down to the sweatshop labor.  Mr. Obama, it will be hard.  But you should consider what a gesture of peace and reconciliation amnesty for these freedom fighters could mean.  Consider the signal it sends about your commitment to the U.S. dealing directly with its uncomfortable past rather than let it remain buried as the repressed memory within a narrative of victory over obstacles that will remain incomplete and unresolved without these dissident voices, these anti-imperialist, ant-racist voices.  Consider that, Mr. President-Elect.




A citizen








I haven’t been here for awhile. I spent today gathering data. Here’s some of what I found.

Here’s some more.

And some more. People are working.

Note that the crowd in Jenna is not entirely Black. Movements are never simply homogenous, undifferentiated. When I lived in Berkeley in the mid 1980s, South Berkeley, my grandmother asked me if the neighborhood was integrated. She grew up in Texarkana, Arkansas and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. I told her that it was integrated an integrated neighborhood, Black and Brown. we both laughed.

I've never seen it in print,
I have yet to read it in print,
but we assume that integrated
but we assume that integrated
always means integrated with
always means integrated with
“]the "white" majority. [Who's holding that sign?]
Bring a free mind. All can play.
Bring a free mind. All can play.

Of the Obamas and Black Anger Part Three

Black people have plenty to be angry about and spend quite a bit of time being angry.  They express much of that anger toward themselves in a variety of self destructive behaviors: fratricidal gang violence, hedonistic indulgence, self medication, and disdain for other Black people and Black communities, compounded by anger over being angry and disappointed in one’s people.  This is the paradox of the post Civil Rights Movement Black America: increased high school and college degrees and expanded dropout rates, an expanded middle and professional class and an expanded underclass growing farther apart, exponential growth in black elected officials, perhaps soon including the U.S. presidency, and exponential growth in black incarceration and subsequent loss of voting rights in many states, increasing incomes for some, frozen or decreasing wealth for the majority, select, high profile celebrities in all fields of endeavor and millions of invisible, desperate, hard working, disaffected people.  The powerful use those who succeed under the terms of mainstream society to bludgeon that suffering, black working class majority, offering comfort for compliance while the state institutions continue to fail.

No bombs dropped, just employment and property values
No bombs dropped, just employment and property values
We love L.A.?
We love L.A.?
Is this for sale on the Westside?
Is this for sale on the Westside?


No place like home
No place like home


No place
No place
Under extreme conditions, the familiar.
Under extreme conditions, the familiar.

 In several important areas, African Americans continue to be underserved.  Dilapidated public education characterizes the schooling of too many majority Black school districts, urban, suburban, and rural.  Police forces over-police Black communities and Black people, continue to brutalize and murder Blacks, and continue to be exonerated by police commissions and juries.  Medical care prices are out of reach.  City and county governments allow neighborhoods to become trash dumps, abandoning housing projects to criminal elements inevitably present in all communities.  Developers and real estate interests, including Black developers, price Black families out of their traditional neighborhoods through gentrification projects.  The recent foreclosure crisis represented one of the greatest transfers of Black held wealth in U.S. history since the theft of labor under legal chattel slavery.  An entire city of Black folks were flooded out of their homes due to federal and local incompetence and prevented from returning home to help rebuild.  That African Americans continue to succeed under any terms at all under these conditions should be the subject of great wonder.  Black people should be angry.

Of the Obamas and Black Anger Part Two

Don't ever change!
Don't ever change!

The Obama campaign has already been characterized as evidence of the embodiment of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. However, Dr. King’s political vision did not remain in 1963. Rather, that moment, and that politically useful message, has been elevated as the climactic moment of the Civil Rights Movement that found its resolution in the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 respectively. The imagery of a dream rooted in the “American Dream” firmly ties the values expressed in that speech to the soaring rhetorical themes of The Declaration of Independence. The mainstream discourse in the public sector and the private sector freezes August 28, 1963 as the dominant and really the only acceptable representation of Dr. King. The aspirations of African Americans are expected to culminate in the enforcement of the Civil Rights legislation. That Black people continue to agitate for rights upsets the apple cart. Calls for and the implementation of affirmative action policies, not especially radical solutions, have been used to perpetuate racialized hostilities. Calls for Black Power and self defense simply will not be tolerated. In short, the mainstream of America decided that the Civil Rights legislation of the mid 1960s and judicial opinion upholding and interpreting those laws should have been enough. Black people have nothing to be angry about but each other. The problems must be behavioral, never structural.

Remember this guy?
"Terminate with extreme prejudice."
"Terminate, with extreme prejudice."
"A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam... As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
Napalm Vietnam 1965
Napalm Vietnam 1965
1983, Caribbean holiday
1983, Caribbean holiday
Panama is for lovers.
Panama is for lovers.
Breakfast in Baghdad
Breakfast in Baghdad

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

This is another kind of dream.
This is another kind of dream.

Of the Obamas and Black Anger

Daps (terrorist fist bump? really?  Are we really that foreign?)
Daps (terrorist fist bump? really? Are we really that foreign?)

The discussion of the New Yorker cover featuring Senator Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim of Southwest Asia or East Africa and Michelle Obama dressed as a Black Liberation Fighter with full Afro and AK47 has taken primarily two tracts: the inability to appreciate the satirical intent of the cartoon exactly to condemn the politics of fear, or the bad taste, insensitivity and poor judgment of the New Yorker for publishing the drawing. Both tracts center their discussions, understandably, on the possible impacts on the presidential campaign. Lost, or at least submerged, in the discussion is the Michelle Obama part of the equation of the fear politics, U.S. fear of Black radicalism, U.S. fear of black anger, and thus the persistence of racism. She had the gall to admit that she has not always been proud of her country’s behavior. Imagine that.

imagine that
imagine that
imagine that
imagine that

imagine that

Imagine that.

The political right represents Black anger as unjustified, irresponsible, and a security risk. The political center and the center-left represent Black anger as perhaps justified for class reasons, but irresponsible, and a political risk as it mobilizes reactionary action from the White working and middle classes who should be in solidarity with the Black working and middle classes. That narrow political spectrum casts persistent Black disenfranchisement, poverty, alienation as essentially behavioral problems. If Black people stop acting the way they do, they too can succeed, a usefully vague notion. So the race that Americans want to take them beyond race turns on race and U.S. inability or unwillingness to address racism, the real “race” problem.

familiiar and comfortable; believable?
familiar and comfortable; believable?

Now, during the week of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama’s keynote speech Monday night played the familiar notes of American Exceptionalism, the narrative of uniquely American working class and middle class possibilities for upward mobility and wealth if one works hard enough and sacrifices enough. Michelle Obama emphasized, for example, how her story and her husband’s story are so similar: her raised working class on the Southside of Chicago, and him raised by a single mother, perhaps the only single mother in recent history who Americans have been asked to feel for, and her parents, working class white people. The message was clear: we are really all the same; we Black people are just like you White people.


Revealingly, the mainstream media picked up this sameness theme and framed it as a necessary humanizing of Michelle Obama, that indeed, she had to demonstrate to the American people, which really means most of the 80 percent white electorate, that she and her husband and their daughters are just like other Americans, that they love each other, work hard, believe in God, love their country, are Americans. Consider this: 8 out of every 10 voters in the U.S. are white. A significant number of these 8 voters need to be shown that Black people are human like them. That is what it means to humanize people, isn’t it, to make them more human in some one else’s eyes? How were they perceived before they were humanized? How do Whites really see Blacks if in the week when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech on the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, his wife still needed to be humanized, and this is taken as necessary and serious politics?

imagine this
imagine this

What We Choose to Remember, Part Two

But we are Americans. Malcolm understood that, what that means culturally, the way in which African Americans have created, developed, forged, cultivated, scratched out – which metaphor?- an identified and indentifying culture only possible under these unique conditions of U.S. political and social history. We live with the doubleness. It marks us. It marks our modernity. Henry Louis Gates and others remind us of the creole character of our culture, often as a critique of the Afrocentric, the essentialist. But creole-ness has not weakened the magnetic pull of Africa, and American-ness continues to complicate how one lives with the pull. We live doubled.

This is an American.
This is an American.
This is an American Maroon. Maroon, from cimaron, meaning wild and unruly, runaways.
This is an American Maroon. Maroon, from cimarron, meaning wild and unruly, runaways, stray cattle.
This not the South( thank you JVDZ).this is not the South either (Thank you JVDZ).
this is not the SouthThis is not the South either.

So what did Malcolm mean?

What We Choose to Remember

Josh Howard of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks has been in the news this week for disrespecting the national anthem over summer. The clip has been bouncing around YouTube.

Howard has been roundly criticized and denounced, reminded that he owes so much to this country, a country that has allowed him to earn millions of dollars at his profession. But many African Americans agree with Howard. African American citizenship is still problematic, unsettled, in question. Howard’s comments emerge from a discourse of opposition that has been a central theme of African American resistance and counter memory. Expressions of Black anger, of Black critique of the mainstream narrative of the U. S. troubles the plantation,the quarters and the big house. Americans, black and white, don’t like to remember.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, discussing Bourdieu’s concept of the unthinkable explains, “The unthinkable is that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives, that which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions were phrased”. He goes on to explain that this exactly describes the Haitian Revolution and the ongoing silences about that revolution. It is a silence that continually muffles discourses of black Resistance, erased from mainstream discourse and often relegated to legend or “mere rhetoric” in black communities.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, these men and the men and women they led saw themselves as rising to their historic roles in a revolutionary period, actors in the Caribbean phase of the French Revolution. Revolutionary France was ultimately unable to come to terms with African freedom in the Caribbean and under Napoleon attempted to reinstate slavery. The Haitian defeat of France, and England, and Spain in their attempts to fill the vacuum left by the French, shook the slave-ocracy of the young American republic. But the U.S. had its own problems, its own history of uprisings, its own grumbling slaves and natives. Theirs are the silenced narratives. They make Americans uncomfortable. They should. Josh Howard is a reminder, including his comments about the Obama campaign. How will Obama’s campaign and possible presidency be used to regulate African American dissent from the mainstream? Not everyone is drinking the kool-aid. “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism…I’m speaking as a victim of this American system…And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American Dream; I see an Amercan nightmare.” from The Ballot or the Bullet, delivered April 3, 1964 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The suit

Last night, 9/20/08, I performed a poem that is not a poem.  I wrote it down, typed it up, printed and read it.  It is really the script for a piece on the business suit. The performance entailed me undressing and completing the performance in my underwear and painting my forehead and chest  red, black and green.  No one knew what I was up to.  Afterwards, several people asked if I would be repeating the performance.  My initial response is no.  The piece was conceived as a one time performance that can’t be repeated.  For one thing, the surprise value is gone.  But beyond that, the piece is a kind of declaration of independence.  how many times does one need to declare independence? How many times does one need to openly reject hegemonic culture?

no shame
no shame

 That women on the floor to my left opening the water bottle is Jolia Allen.  She was one of the featured poets.  Below is DJ Watson , our final featured poet.

casting spells
casting spells

The event was an art opening curated by and featuring Mildred Rivera. Mildred, Madrid, is a Nuyorican artist who has been in Los Angeles for several years now.  This was the first time she had poetry as part of the opening.  The photographers were logocentric, forgetting to document the art, except perhaps incidentally. Then again, as the mc and opening poet, my stripping firmly focused the cameras on the poets.  I continued to mc in my shorts until the reading was concluded.

mildred and flag
mildred and flag

Mildred reading her 9/11 poem in front of an image of the U.S. flag.  The flag features a question mark and fingerprints superimposed over the stripes.  I’ve got to get a better image of it. 

Here is the poem I read.  Beginning with the tie, each article of clothing mention I remove.

The Suit


As you see, tonight I’m wearing the uniform.

The uniform, for all occasions

Weddings, funerals, graduations, induction ceremonies

The business suit, appropriately serious, somber, sober


A demilitarized officer’s dress blues

A remnant of 19th century rationalization of dress

The decorative buttons, a handkerchief

Where medals should hang

And no more epaulettes

Perfect soldiers without commissions



One night I was watching the Africa Channel

And this brother was being interviewed in his office

About the business climate in South Africa

It struck as ridiculous that this brother

Should have to dress in western suit

In order to be professional

That the premier of China wears a western suit


We wear our suits in the tropics and the deserts

And the air conditioned suites choking the planet

Honorary Europeans, bourgeois apes

And working class mimics


The tie, what is its use?

Merely a decorative noose

The shoes that do not breathe

These were a snake. Though they fascinate me

I don’t like snakes, but I wouldn’t

Wish this on them.  Is this how Eve’s children

Were meant to crush the serpent’s head?


This suit, is this the sign I’m civilized,

I’m modernized, this jacket, double breasted

For what? These pants? The shirt? Piece work

Stitched by Thai fingers

Sometimes I can taste the sweat


I don’t want to be modern anymore

It’s tiring and ridiculous

And harbors its own barbarisms

I don’t want to be an honorary Westerner



Call me romantic if you want

Call me essentialist and dismiss me

Call me post modern pre modern

In boxer shorts and spectacles

Even the post modern pre modern

Has sense of modesty and the practical


I will paint me in this sign

Of my black modernity (red black green)

I will wear this emblem

Of African antiquity (ankh)


I shall call me:


Tableau: the being-ness of simultaneous blacknesses


Now, I will read a poem