When Blacks Face Blackface: Undoing a Century Old Spell in New Orleans

A Scribe Called Quess
Mar 5 · 23 min read
1949 Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club crew featuring Louis Armstrong as King

There’s been much ado about blackface in the media lately. From the runways of high end fashion to the halls of the political elite, the vile tradition of white folks blackening their faces and exaggerating the size of their lips and eyes to dehumanize black folks has reached into the highest echelons of Western society. In my neck of the woods, New Orleans, it has taken center stage in a most ironic way: with black people who voluntarily wear blackface aaaand — wait for it… invite white people to join them! It’s all a part of my city’s 110 year old Mardi Gras tradition of our most prominent black parade crew, Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, donning blackface in their yearly parades. I know what you’re thinking. Did this guy really just say the words Zulu and blackface in the same sentence. Irony much? At the very least. But that irony has been lost on the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and much of the mostly black city that upholds this very backward tradition. How does this happen?

Well at the end of the day, New Orleans is like one of those mythical towns you read about in a Tolkien or Rowling novel or watch in an M. Night Shyamalan movie that once upon a time had a bad spell put on it and 300 years later everyone’s calling up down and down up, left right and right left and the sky is green and the grass is blue and if you wait long enough it will rain so much plastic treasure from the sky that you forget the piss and vomit and blood beneath your feet and all these things all these things all these things are real in the land of fake believe. They make sense see? Because the spell said so. And we believed. And New Orleans is small town for America is small town for the world and sometimes the world is a small mind and it can shrink your town if you let it.

And if you let it then you’ll get trapped in the narrow confines of tradition and never be able to assess where the tradition comes from or how valuable (or poisonous) it is to your existence in the first place. Deeper still, you may not notice that the die was cast on the game long before you ever entered. So no matter how insular or unique your stunning little spectacle of a town is, it never really had a chance to survive the flood of spells that it inherited from its inception. Which is to say that when Zulu’s original formation, the Tramps Social Aid & Pleasure Club, attended a minstrel show at the black run Pythian Club in 1909 — a show that claimed to pay homage to the real South African Zulus though it presented them via black actors in blackface (which was probably a requirement back then as it was throughout the nation at the time) — and subsequently chose to don blackface in their parades thereafter as they changed their name to the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, while the dubious intentions remain unclear to this day, what is crystal clear is that they were inheriting a tradition that preceded them by decades. Eight decades and a year to be exact.

WE WEAR THE MASK

When the tools you use to critique your oppressor were handcrafted by your oppressor himself, with the intent to belittle you, then aren’t you just perpetuating the ills that he passed on to you? Isn’t the joke then perpetually on you?

Blackface minstrelsy got its first big push from actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice in 1828 when he painted his face black while performing a song called “Jump Jim Crow,” which he basically stole from black people. This routine of his spawned a tradition that would fester into America’s most popular form of performance by the end of the 19th century. At any given time during the 1880’s, at least 250 minstrel companies toured the US simultaneously. Even from 1915 to 1928, the first five to twenty years of Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s existence, there were at least 97 minstrel companies touring the US at any given time. So for a hundred years, the most popular form of American pop culture was a genre specifically designed to degrade and devalue black lives. It featured not only Rice’s Jim Crow character, but the compliant domestic female servant “Mammy,” her child-like and easily frightened male counterparts “Sambo” and “Tom,” the predatory and promiscuous seductress “Jezebel” and the archetypically angry black woman “Sapphire.” The sub-genre of “coon” singing introduced characters like “Steppin Fetchet,” and “Zip Coon” as lazy, ignorant unreliable figures usually prone towards criminal scheming. Even children were depicted as “pickaninnies,” the wild-eyed, wild-haired miniature versions of their adult counterparts.

It’s from these archetypes that so many racist depictions of black life are derived to this day. The entirety of modern American popular culture as it regards black folks (especially when art about black folks is created through a white American lens) is likely to be imprinted with the effects of the long malignant minstrel tradition. It reaches at least as far back to Hattie McDaniels’ Oscar-winning character, literally named Mammy, in Gone with the Wind in 1940 to contemporary America’s need for “gangsta rap” personas to dominate hip hop culture from the 1990’s to the present. (Every Li’l [insert rapper name here] draws roots from the pickaninny prototype of “Li’l Nigger Jim” for example.) The white supremacist propaganda that is blackface minstrelsy has blanketed the last 200 years of Western popular cultural messaging and it certainly covered the milieu from which the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club emerged in 1909.

While a unique wonder of a place, often acclaimed for its difference from all other cities in America and around the world, New Orleans is not exempt from the same racist ingredients of white supremacy that formed all other cultures in this country and the Western wide world. The Zulu of New Orleans did not develop blackface on their own. And despite their alleged attempts to repurpose it as an homage to the actual Zulu people or use it as satire of the rich white ruling class or petit bourgeoisie black people in New Orleans as they have claimed, all attempts fall flat on their face. For one, the real Zulu people did not wear face paint and they certainly wore nothing akin to the minstrel paint that Mardi Gras Zulus wear (unabashedly replete with enlarged white eyes and excessive white or red paint around the mouth). Furthermore, actual people from South Africa as well as other parts of Africa have born witness to the fake Zulu’s tradition and called it offensive and confusing.

As far as the second notion, we must visit the issue of satire. Satire is defined as “a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, or bad.” If this is what the Zulu intended in 1909, the attempt may have had more merit then as it poked at the notion that black actors were forced to wear blackface in any theatrical performance at the time. But even then it would have failed because the joke didn’t expose anything that wasn’t already commonplace. There’s no way to flip a joke on its head if the demographic that you intend to indict is impervious to your critique. Because their privilege protects them from ever having to be confronted by you at all. Further, when the tools you use to critique your oppressor were handcrafted by your oppressor himself, with the intent to belittle you, then aren’t you just perpetuating the ills that he passed on to you? Doesn’t the joke then boomerang itself back to you and yours to fester and rot in? Isn’t the joke then perpetually on you? Lastly, there’s the faulty rebuttal that Zulu’s blackface was designed to poke fun at the petit bourgeoisie black people of New Orleans at the time. Well if that were the case, their joke has long since run out of steam as the Zulu Club of today is comprised mostly of this very class of black folks.

One hundred and ten years and an immeasurable depth of internalized racism later, there’s no justification left for trying to flip this bad joke on its head, if ever it was successful in the first place. Besides, since 1975, a tradition has been established of the Zulu King shaking hands with the Rex King before the parade. Rex is the biggest white parade of Mardi Gras — and thus the biggest parade. Its (always white) King is donned the “King of Carnival” (in a 65% black city, let that marinate…) and its members dress up in suits painfully reminiscent of KKK regalia. Zulu’s parade precedes Rex’s, playing second fiddle to the main act — a clear signification of black citizens still taking sloppy seconds in a city where they are the dominant population. All this after the black minstrel king of Zulu condones and sanctions the rule of the highest king of carnival, the KKK Grand Wizard looking King of Rex, whose appearance inspires many black folks to leave altogether. If satire is intended to show someone as bad, then the joke has revealed nothing. If anything it’s only affirmed the values that blackface was always intended to affirm: black inferiority and white supremacy.

Further, this grand ritual of carnival in New Orleans merely mirrors the city’s socio-economic landscape riddled with systemic inequity. Where the rich white ruling class of New Orleans still hovers aloofly above the 65% black majority, dominating the economy and all of its subsequent areas of people activity. Where 63% of the city budget is doled out to cops, jails and reactive measures and only 3% is shelled out to children and families and a mere 1% to job development. Where 180 million tax dollars from the tourism industry are forked directly over to the New Orleans Tourism Company instead of the 100,000 hospitality workers upon whose back those dollars were made. Where 8 billion dollars are accrued in tourism dollars in just one year, made on the backs of these mostly black workers, but 53% of them barely survive under economic insecurity. And as their children turn to the streets to survive after the insufficiency of one of the worst public education systems in the country, they are quickly criminalized and turned over to the prison system, where New Orleans has consistently ranked, up until last year, as the prison capital of all the world’s history.

Symbols reflect systems, as a good comrade of mine always says. So I find it no laughing matter when every Mardi Gras day, we witness the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club parade above the heads of the black working class of New Orleans and toss plastic treasure and coconuts to the impoverished children and families of the city. Their hopeful eyes staring up at men and women who often make up the black middle and upper middle class of the city (and since the 1970s, include white middle and upper middle class riders too), bedecked in faux rich regalia, all of them in blackface. This is our royalty. And this is our training for daily life in New Orleans: where we endure the ritual of staring at a morbid reflection of our own blackness that falsely represents a sense of power, and then turning away entirely from the spectacle of white power as it is embodied in its most vile (yet honest) form. Where poor black folks wage slave away to survive quite often under the supervision of middle class black folks (think: overseers) who are in turn puppet strung by the rich white ruling class who the poorer black folks hardly, if ever see.

It’s a strange thing, this ritual of looking away. I noticed how few black folks noticed or cared at all what we were up to when my coalition Take Em Down NOLA (TEDN) and I committed to the cause of removing all symbols of white supremacy a few years ago. After four of the monuments came down in 2017, I remember talking to a co-worker of mine, who coincidentally, was once a Zulu King. His response was typical of many. “I never even noticed them thangs bruh. I mean like, who was that guy?” That guy was Robert E. Lee the general of the confederacy, who once wrote his wife a letter saying, “the painful discipline [of slavery] was necessary for [black people’s] instruction.” He was placed in the center of our city on a street named after him, Lee Circle, facing North as a middle finger to the Yankee forces that once conquered he and his army. It was white Louisiana bigots who put him there in 1884 under the push of national organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of Confederate Veterans as a way to push back against that pesky little era called Reconstruction that followed the Civil War where New Orleans black folks saw more comeuppance than we’d seen since we got dropped here in 1719.

But much of this history has fallen on deaf ears like so many collapsed trees in an unknown forest. Or like so many removed racist monuments across the country — some 100 in the last 2 years. Somehow I thought that our work to remove ALL symbols of white supremacy as a necessary part of the struggle to bring about racial and economic justice in our city would make a louder sound. One that to this day, would resonate with my people in New Orleans and inspire them to grab white supremacy by the roots and throw it out for good. Yet, the deafening silence over the last 22 months since Lee and 3 other monuments fell have shown me just how easily history gets lost in the grasp of the present — even as it’s being made. I’ve witnessed our work be quickly coopted and swept over by the political class — or to be specific our former mayor — and the philanthropic class as they’ve paid local non-profits and academic types to pacify the politics inherent in our demands with cosmetic fixes. Which is to say your local campaign to promote unknown facts of black history is not only a cooptation of our work, but in many ways a salve to cover up the fact that there are still countless remaining symbols of white supremacy in our city and more importantly, a system that reflects them. Blackface on the most prominent black social club being one of them.

FACE OFF

How have we internalized the ills of our own oppression and thus lent ourselves to the very evils we condemn?

So when the media maelstrom around blackface hit the fan, dead in the middle of Black History Month, only two weeks before Mardi Gras, we responded the same way we did when the TEDN movement started when black bodies dropped incessantly at the hands of state sanctioned violence from the summers of 2014 to 2016. We used it as an opportunity to educate, agitate and organize as is the organizer credo. We seized the chance to expand the conversation and thus the consciousness of our people. It all flowed consistently with our philosophy of removing ALL symbols of white supremacy. Further, it aligned itself with the very necessary and logical next steps of our work, which was to turn our lens inward from the ways in which white supremacy affects our public landscape and system, to focusing on how it most directly affects our own psyches. How have we internalized the ills of our own oppression and thus lent ourselves to the very evils we condemn? How does our investment in the ways of our oppressor impede our ability to fully liberate ourselves? How is our consciousness warped by white supremacist symbolism, and thus blocked from manifesting its fullest potential and necessary change on the material world? Zulu’s blackface tradition stood before the city like a glaring answer just dying to be seen.

To this end, TEDN was not the first to address the issue. Our allies at WBOK Community Radio brought the issue up several times. Journalists at the Times Picayune and The Advocate published articles on the issue before we ever said anything publicly. But when the media began hounding us for a statement, we decided that we’d rather seek out Zulu themselves for a meeting first. And if they ignored us, we’d take the next step and hold a press conference addressing the media while simultaneously making our position known to Zulu. Unsurprisingly, we were ignored by Zulu as we almost always are by those in power. So on Thursday, February 21st, we took to the streets. A mere dozen or so of us gathered across the street from the Zulu headquarters with signs and flyers to hand out to the passing rush hour traffic. On the way over, radio host John Slade of WBOK joined fellow poet and comrade Chuck Perkins’ show to chime in on the approaching “showdown.” He sounded like a wrestling commentator amping a big fight. “I don’t know, this is gonna be a whole other level of a fight. I think the Take Em Down folks are gonna have to dig deep on this one. I mean it was easy taking down those monuments and stuff — black folk in New Orleans don’t even know who those people are. But Zulu? Man! You talking about some sacred tradition there. Black people in New Orleans loooove they Zulu!”

Then he went on to say how it would really be something if they just busted out some chicken, some barbecue and turned the whole thing into a party. Now that would be the classic New Orleans protest, he said. I turned off the radio a bit disgusted at the hyperbole. As we all gathered on the neutral ground and held the press conference, the crowd of mostly black male business professionals across the street in front of Zulu swelled. Their voices swelled along with it. At one point, as the chorus of antagonistic hecklers in front of their headquarters rose, one of the Zulu men, in half done suit and tie, dipped into his luxury Bentley coupe. He came out with half of his face blackened as he applied the red lipstick. Another dipped into the building and reemerged the same, in blackface. Others yelled at us from across the street, most of their words barely distinguishable then and hardly memorable now. What stands out most beyond the live demo of blackface aimed at us like two middle fingers is what happened at the climax of our own live program.

Just as I started to call up our resident historian Leon Waters to detail the history of blackface’s origins for all within earshot, the sound of my voice was drowned out by the onslaught of percussion emerging from a marching band that approached from the corner. At first I thought, okay, Mardi Gras season, it’s a school practicing for parades, we’ll give them a few minutes to pass. But as the band came closer, they turned the corner and came directly towards the Zulu headquarters, revealing themselves to be an adult brass band. They had come with clear intention. They weren’t headed anywhere anytime soon. It was about 6:00 and the sun was setting. They stayed there and played until it was dark. Between random drunks and hood folk caping for Zulu telling us to leave Zulu alone, some approaching us on the neutral ground to show off their spectacular New Orleans footwork, and a Zulu member or two coming over to try to talk to us right beneath the level of fight-worthy aggression, the rest of the night played out like that episode of The Boondocks when all the black folks started dancing it up for R Kelly after he got released from prison. The Afro-centered beauty and aesthetic sophistication of black New Orleans song and dance aside, we had sunk into a real live minstrel show. Black on black. John Slade was right. No hyperbole needed.

I wasn’t in the least appalled, and with Slade’s premonition in tow, couldn’t be but so surprised by the Zulu’s doing what they did. They were performing precisely within the roles that they had accepted for themselves. Like Carter G. Woodson’s miseducated negro, they were all too willingly walking through the menial hole of a back door that they had carved for themselves. I wasn’t surprised by the hood folk caping for their designated heroes either. What did surprise me was the social media backlash to follow. The vitriol and hatred that was spewed directly on my coalition as a result of the face-off. “It looks like a Petty Fest out there.” “Black on Black Protest,” some would decry. Everyone had their own headline. Two hundred likes and laughing emojis here, a few dozen shares their, the story was burning up social media timelines for days — far longer than the 2 minute media coverage it received on every channel that night. What was most shocking was bearing witness to people — black people — that I either perceived as allies of the TEDN work theretofore, or who had remained suspiciously silent about it over the past few years, wholly endorsing messages that attempted to shame my coalition for our method of confrontation.

MASK OFF

No Facebook post or amount of likes can register more deeply than the physiological wisdom embedded in my body as a result of consistent organizing. The revolution will not be digitized. It will happen in and through the body as it always has, as it must.

It’s at this point that we must consider the severity of the Stockholm Syndrome wrought from Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder on the New Orleanian population of black folk and the depths to which it has taken root. Many of those that tossed harsh criticism at us were, as I’ve said, the same folks who have been speciously quiet about our successful efforts to have four racist monuments removed. Further, a perusal of some of those critics revealed that they more often than not belonged to a particular class of New Orleans black folks — the artsy, intellectual, non-profit working class of folks who make their living off of grant writing, theater making, alleged cultural bearing and the like — or what I like to call the far too often false vanguard. This is a dynamic little microcosm of which I am, to some extent, an unabashed offspring and intermittent interlocutor. (Before I ever became an activist and organizer, I was — as I continue to be — a poet and theater maker myself creating social justice oriented art with several outfits around the city.) They offer an interesting study on the progression of consciousness and social movements — or lack thereof — in our city.

In this case, the fact that folks prioritized critique of our methods over appraisal of our agenda’s worthiness in the first place was extremely telling. Or as my guy Chuck laughingly put it, “It’s a sad and shameful day in New Orleans when folks got all this to say to defend blackface, and NOTHING to say about taking down white supremacist monuments.” But what this class of folks most importantly misses is this: Unlike the artist and/or non-profit hustler who is often paid by the philanthropic capitalist class to advertise a social ill, to promote for the application of a bandaid to a gaping wound at best, it is the job of the organizer to “Educate, AGITATE, and Organize.” With an emphasis on AGITATE. There’s another level/component of education that occurs, when you AGITATE. And it happens along the lines of praxis — which is to say the application of theory. Which is to say, the words of an artist, grant writer, or social media poster sound nice in theory. But it is often the uninformed theory of those who lack the benefit of empirical evidence, or real life experience to inform their so-called knowledge. Not to mention the ideological foundation and political analysis that is often missing as well. On the contrast, any organizer worth their weight is rooted in political study that provides context and substance to their analysis. The words of an organizer become actions that affect real change in real time.

Digital banter sounds cute from the armchair from where hecklers play quarterback with twitter fingers. But they wouldn’t last two seconds in the real game. Hell they’re not even on the sidelines ready to relieve the real players. Instead they’re literally screaming at the TV that documents the real battlefield where real people are making real moves in real life. And these real moves are absolutely necessary. No significant change throughout the global history of resistance movements has ever been earned without direct action. I’ll repeat that. NO SIGNIFICANT CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE GLOBAL HISTORY OF RESISTANCE MOVEMENTS HAS EVER BEEN EARNED WITHOUT DIRECT ACTION. That’s from the end of American slavery to the Bolshevik Revolution to Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement to the end of South African Apartheid.

When I opened my mouth five years ago at a rally for Mike Brown and called for the removal of a physical pillar of white supremacy that towered almost 80 feet over my head as it had been for 131 years at that point, I did not know what my words could yield. But when my comrades conjoined our voices to become one band, one sound and marched the streets long enough to push the city to agree with us only a year later I learned the power of my voice and the collective voice of community. When that very pillar was emptied of the statue to Robert E. Lee seventeen months after that, I learned the power of persistence and commitment. These are lessons that no book (the only primary source for many an artist, intellectual and non-profit type) can teach me. No Facebook post or amount of likes or wows or angry emoji’s can register more deeply than the physiological wisdom embedded in my body as a result of consistent organizing. No words of any sort — the most hair raising, chill inducing poetry nor the most gut wrenching, toxic timeline post — can match the stiffening of the spine wrought from marching the streets to the beat of your heart’s passion. Making yourself walk your own talk, until your beliefs become a physical thing, until your word becomes flesh. The revolution will not be digitized. It will happen in and through the body as it always has, as it must.

As an 11 year educator I can tell you that what I’m describing is an entirely different type of learning, which reflects if not constitutes a different way of being in the world. Digital learning is visual, auditory, literary at best. Direct action teaches through a kinesthetic lens. Which is to say, the lesson is embedded in your body — blood, bone and muscle memory. These are the lessons that don’t change as easily because they become a part of all of you — mind and matter. Unlike book knowledge — completely based in the brain — a perspective born of direct action is usually so deeply embedded into its actor that it will take a physical engagement to redirect one’s perspective. Which returns me to TEDN’s direct confrontation of Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s minstrel tradition. It’s understandable how a tradition that has been practiced for a century and a decade can embed itself so deeply into its actors (and audience) that even asking, much less demanding them to consider another option would garner uproar. But that’s exactly why direct action is so necessary. For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. The dialectic tension of two opposing perspectives is a necessary part of yielding new results. Raising our voices against a centuries long toxic tradition is the least we could do to further the work of healing it. And we are not the first generation to do so.

In the 1960’s, when the last wave of social consciousness and activism swept the nation, New Orleans was not impervious to it. And the long arms of social justice reached then, as they are now, into the halls of the Zulu Club. Civil Rights activist and lead organizer of C.O.R.E., Oretha Castle Haley, after whom a street is named in the city, went on record as saying, “I think Zulu is a disgrace… Zulu is just a big mess, that’s all… that’s not us anymore than the grass skirts and coconuts are. I don’t think Zulu will be with us forever…” And then in an almost prophetically prescriptive moment that still applies to this day, “…but there’s so much internal fighting that the people who are against are just left to say to themselves, ‘What are we going to do about Zulu? This is simply not a militant community, and besides, we’re split in so many different ways. We have our Catholic Negroes and our Protestant Negroes, our downtown Negroes and our uptown Negroes, our light Negroes and our dark Negroes. And we have too many Negroes who don’t think they’re Negroes.”

And yet despite all the inborn communal division born of colonization that blocked forward progression in the 60s, as a result of Haley and other Civil Rights organizations’ push, Zulu dwindled to 15 members in 1964 and by 1965 and 66, they buckled to the pressure and scrubbed off the blackface for two years. But then in 1967, they returned to the foul tradition saying, “Damn that dignity stuff… Some people wanna pretty us up.” If dignity was to be damned, then the present day argument of Zulu blackening up as a symbol of pride, as their board member City Councilman Jay Banks claims, is a straight up lie. Just as much of a lie as his claim that “this is black paint not blackface,” as if the two were ever distinguishable. That myth is debunked by the origin story of the Zulu tradition being anchored in the trip to a minstrel show in 1909. Either way, we have a situation of the empowered, privileged elite selling us wooden nickels and wanting us to accept this as having real currency. It’s up to the people to know better and then choose to do better. But first we have to be able to see a lie for a lie. Before we can aptly see each other for who we truly are and unleash our enchained, colonized potential.

EYE TO EYE

We are one people, diverse in our makeup across false lines of country, state, city, parish, hood, but unified by the common thread of oppression that has muted and mutated all of our various identities.

My literary godfather James Baldwin once said, “Negroes look up, they look down, they look side to side, but they never look eye to eye.” In the aftermath of this Zulu blackface melee, I’ve watched arguments look in every direction but in the eye of the colonized heart of darkness between us. Folks have disparaged TEDN’s methods sounding just like white folks coming for Kaepernick. They’ve told us there are other more important issues on the table sounding just like white folks defending white supremacist monuments, meanwhile ignoring the fact that we’re comprised of mostly educators who dedicate our lives to molding the minds of our youth. And after long days of work, volunteer our time to organize not only for the removal of racist symbols, but against environmental racism, for worker’s rights, for accountability of public services, for equity in the city budget and more. They’ve accused my coalition of being outsiders who should leave issues like this to the local community. The fact that most of us are natives ourselves aside (or in my case a son of the soil with seven generations of Louisiana blood in my veins despite having come here at age 12), our accusers sound like Martin Luther King’s did in Birmingham, Chicago, [insert black city here] when he was told to go home and mind his business. As if not being born and raised in a place disqualifies the activist from doing their healing work of collective liberation. By that metric, we’d have to throw out other great New Orleanian activists like our ancestor the legendary Civil Rights activist Avery Alexander who helped initiate the monument removal movement in the 70s and wasn’t from here either but still fought till his death on behalf of his people. Or Charles Delsondes, a Haitian transplant who came here after the Haitian Revolution and gave his life helping lead the 1811 enslaved people’s revolt, the greatest revolt of enslaved people’s ever on American soil.

In order to achieve wholistic freedom for black folks the world over, we must start with stretching our minds beyond tunnel vision. And in so doing, break down the false lines of colonial demarcation that separate us by state, by city, by parish, by hoods. We are one people, diverse in our makeup across false lines of country, state, city, parish, hood, but unified by the common thread of oppression that has muted and mutated all of our various identities. The one thing we should all be able to see eye to eye on, are the systemic and unified ways in which white supremacy has worked to dehumanize and oppress us. Particularly, we should be able to see how it has bonded together around certain symbols that represent an ideology of anti-blackness. And those symbols should be easily identified and employed as a point of entry towards greater organizing that will lead to our liberation. If we can’t at least see eye to eye on that, I’m not sure how much hope there is to change the system that racist symbols ultimately represent.

In her poignant essay “Eye to Eye,” Audre Lorde says, “America’s measurement of me has lain like a barrier across the realization of my own powers. It was a barrier which I had to examine and dismantle, piece by painful piece, in order to use my energies fully and creatively. It is easer to deal with the external manifestations of racism and sexism than it is to deal with the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and each other.” Indeed. If we’re ever to truly see each other eye to eye, to bear vivid witness to each other in all our beauty and our scars, embrace one another beyond all the centuries old trauma that has settled in our blood and bones, it starts with scrubbing off the mess that white supremacy has made of us, piece by painful piece. You would think the outside work would be the easiest. But apparently even that can’t happen without reworking everything inside us.

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A Scribe Called Quess

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The Ellisonian Basement is a collection of writings about blackness & visibility in the post-modern world, OR Duboisian double consciousness under surveillance.