Notes From The Dominican Republic (Day 1 1/2): Building [Black] Bonds

I’m finished watching the sun rise over the Caribbean Sea before I head out for the official program of the ASWAD conference, where I am scheduled to speak on race and politics after the Obama presidency.  So far, every step of the way, my trip has been filled with so many new connections. Beginning with my flight, where I met an older Dominican couple. We talked, laughed, shared snacks and stories. Even though my Spanish is limited, and their English was non-existent, we somehow made it work.

Then, following the flight, I happened by chance to have someone overhear the hotel I was going to as I told the bus driver. This man was also African-American, and was also a presenter at this conference, and he told me he was at the same hotel. On the bus, we discussed where we are from, what were our intellectual interests of study, and what we are presenting on. He, the professor, was shocked that I was an undergrad speaking at an international conference. He offered to mentor me, in addition to introducing me to other conference participants that can offer me good advice on my future. Already in a country that I know nothing about, but I know I’m not alone.

At the hotel, I find out that my University’s credit card did not go through. So I’m in a new country, and technically homeless. This is my low point. But they are kind enough to allow me to spend two nights no charge until my UMass colleague arrives with the money. I then met a Liberian man, living in Haiti and working for a Human Rights organization, but a frequent vacationer in the DR. He’s gracious enough to show us around and give us a good time. This is all happening in less than 12 hours.

I remember growing up, and seeing my father, always opening up to all the black people he met. Even if he didn’t know anything about them, he knew that the color of their skin connected them, and that was enough for him to extend his hand. Now, in a foreign city, but where everyone is as dark as me, and I see how far the connection of skin goes through the hospitality that has been offered to me from complete strangers.

It’s a connection of shared struggles and experiences. It’s a connection that transcends boundaries and languages, and then reaches out and embraces the soul.

Here’s to four more days on the island of Hispaniola.

What The Trayvon Martin Halloween Costume Tells Us

Trayvon BlackFaceBeen wrestling with my conscience all day as to how productive sharing this picture would be. Apparently, some people thought it’d be funny to get in blackface and be Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for Halloween.

I think it’s vital for people to understand how real institutional racism is when looking at the current disparities that exist in America. But now that I’m looking at this picture, however, I’m realizing that it doesn’t just end there. Yes, the reasons why racism still persist today is in a large part because of structural forces that were unambiguously designed to create inequality, but it is also the product of peoples’ ignorance and a willingness to not only be complicit to the problem, but to contribute to the problem through continually making a mockery of the suffering of marginalized groups of people. In this case, the murder of Trayvon Martin.

As long as people like this continue to remain willfully ignorant, no matter how hard we try, young men like Trayvon will continue to be killed, African American men will still be herded into prisons, police will still function as a terrorist threat to urban communities, along with the continuation of other racist institutions.

We keep expecting to have a serious and productive conversation on race, but we’re forgetting one thing: It’s people in this picture that make up most of this country. People who don’t take the suffering of others who are different seriously, because they don’t take others’ person-hood seriously to begin with. In fact, like this photo tells us, they sometimes might even find their pain amusing.

Trayvon, And The Complicity of White Privilege

This post was written by Gabriel Baillargeon, a photographer based in the western Massachusetts area. 

“White is an attitude, not a color.” – James Baldwin

IMG_1567_2 (1)Recently, in mid-July of this year, I had been one of the few white faces that had attended the Trayvon Martin Candlelight Vigil held at the courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts. The rest of those who attended represented the many generations of African-Americans that have suffered at the white hands of this nation’s ongoing history of institutionalized racism. Trayvon’s case was not an exception to such a history as many whites would prefer, which is a common trend regarding many instances of blatant racism such as this.

It was at this candlelight vigil where many had spoken about their outrage over Zimmerman’s acquittal. Faces had expressed sentiments of anger or were sunken with sadness, but such expressions of grief were not either blind or hopeless. That night, State Rep. Benjamin Swan had said– and I’m paraphrasing– “I know you are all angry, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what you do with that anger that matters. We have to channel our anger in a positive way.”

I had sensed a strong connection among the people of this African-American community. These people knew what this nation’s problems were, all while being ironically scapegoated by this nation as a problem.

In the gathering, I sought to somehow connect myself to the black struggle. Of course this sounds paradoxical, since I, being white, am apart of that oppressive force that creates such a struggle. How can a white person or, more importantly, a white collective, attach themselves to be the arm or subordinate appendage, rather than being the mind or paternalistic supervisor, of the oppressed African-American collective (or even any oppressed collective for that matter)? Though I am still lacking the insight for such a solution, the answers that construct it doubtlessly must come from the voices that have been long neglected for much too long because of white indifference. Attending the vigil was only the start of understanding how to mobilize a consciousness that runs parallel to specifically black sentiments.

That day I saw black men, women and youth cry. Through them, I too, was able to cry and gain a grasp onto a struggle that I could never fully understand. It was an incredible human moment. Trayvon had been a single representative of the black community. The conservative media had made him out to be an animal, as this nation has done for countless blacks for many generations.

This tendency to dehumanize other human beings does a terrible thing to us. When we deny the humanity of human beings who are in most instances forced to be separated from those who have the luxury to create the golden standards, we likewise deny the humanity of ourselves.

The inability to feel the suffering of human beings puts us in the presence of desperate ultimatums which we will not be able to feel if we do not find the means to act. The inability to feel or talk about what others are feeling makes us indifferent, and we therefore reduce ourselves to becoming another complication in the issue at hand. Even worse, when we are indifferent to indifference, so that we are unaware of it, we are standing still and going most certainly nowhere.

Though I will never endure the struggle of black men, women and youth, I can certainly seek to understand why it exists and, above all else, LISTEN and LEARN from the voices that the struggle hushes, while providing for the privileged majority the same mentality to be at the service of true justice. To be indifferent is to be complicit, and to be complicit is to be apart of the problems that have infected our institutions, communities, homes and even the infinite depths of ourselves.