Equality for All? Black History, Gay Rights, and Messy Power Fights

Jon Stewart, in discussing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling about campaign finance said, “Corporations now have more rights than gay people.” (It’s a small reference in a long sketch.)


In some states, you can still be legally fired for being gay. Sexual orientation is not a protected category under the law in the same way race or gender is. Yet the highest profile battle over gay rights at the moment is the legal fight over Proposition 8, regarding same sex marriage. If same sex marriage becomes legal in California, or even nationwide, that would not change employment protections — not a small consideration in this economy or in general.

A document called the Dallas Principles is gaining some traction in pushing the idea that full civil rights for gays and lesbians (or the GLBT community) should be the dominant issue on the table.

In the context of speaking about Black history and women’s history at Scripps College tonight, I decided to add in another factor: gay rights and equality claims by groups competing to be heard and have their issues addressed. I had a long conversation with some friends last night about the Dallas Principles; the fight over Prop 8; and how the language of civil rights has become a fraught space. The use of civil rights terminology by the GLBT community is viewed by some African-Americans as co-opting language of a different struggle. (A 2005 opinion piece in Time gave some background.)

Equality is always political. There’s a great example of Frederick Douglass battling with white female suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Douglass was a strong and early supporter of womens’ suffrage. But after the Civil War, during reconstruction, Anthony and Stanton opposed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It gave black men clear legal rights to voting, well, equality-in-name. But in the post-Reconstruction period few Southern black men could actually exercise their voting rights without fear of violence or death.

In any case, let’s back up a step. The Civil War is over. Frederick Douglass, who signed an original women’s suffrage document and went to the Seneca gathering in support of women’s rights, is appalled that his former compatriots now seem set on denying him the franchise.

Her writes a letter to a third party. It reads in part:

Rochester, Sept, 27, 1868
My dear Friend:
I am impelled by no lack of generosity in refusing to come to Washington to speak in
behalf of woman’s suffrage. The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as
that of man. [But] I am now devoting myself to a cause not more
sacred, certainly more urgent, because it is life and death to the long-enslaved people of
this country; and this is: Negro suffrage. While the Negro is mobbed, beaten, shot,
stabbed, hanged, burnt, and is the target of all that is malignant in the North and all that is
murderous in the South his claims may be preferred by me without exposing in any wise
myself to the imputation of narrowness or mean. ness towards the cause of woman. As
you very well know, woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing
power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation.
She is the victim of abuses, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended I think that her cause is
as urgent as that of ours. I never suspected you of sympathizing with Miss Anthony and
Mrs. Stanton in this course. Their principal is: that no Negro shall be enfranchised while
woman is not.
Now, considering that white men have been enfranchised always, and colored men have
not, the conduct of these white women, whose husbands, fathers and brothers are voters,
does not seem generous.
Very truly yours,
Fred Douglass

After black men had received the legal right to vote, Douglass went back to campaigning for women’s rights.

So, was he right to prioritize black male suffrage in these battles? This is the kind of messy fight that occurs over and over again in history… whose equality coms first? Can we all walk through the door together or will we be bumping shoulders trying to cram through a small passage to an uncertain promise land of access to power?

Campaign Finance FUBAR

In a 5-4 ruling today, the U.S. Supreme Court “OKs unlimited corporate spending on elections” (I’m using the LA Times’ verbiage here because it’s just plain and simple. The subhead reads: “The justices overturn a century of U.S. electoral law by a 5-4 vote. Millions of extra dollars are expected to start flowing from big business to Republican candidates.”)

If the money were going to run to Democrats, it would still be a validation of money over votes… and we’ve seen that battle fought time and again. But this changes the spectacularly in favor of corporations.

In 2004, in a book called Trust, I wrote about the volatile mix of money and party politics, and the way that voters with less money and education were often literally disenfranchised or given little actual choice at the polls (for example, in areas where one party effectively won the election by winning the primary).

I put Trust online for free using a Creative Commons License.

You can read TRUST here.

As I say, “In order to win and keep winning, politicians have to get paid not only by us, the taxpayers who provide their salaries, but by the corporations and rich donors who fund their campaign.”

I do have some very specific suggestions in the book about how we can change things. But it first helps to understand how we got here. It’s a very weird and fascinating history.

Haiti IS Cursed–By Our Ignorance

An op-ed in today’s New York Times begins by saying:

Those who know a little of Haiti’s history might have watched the news last night and thought, as I did for a moment: “An earthquake? What next? Poor Haiti is cursed.”

The author, Tracy Kidder is a well-respected journalist who penned Mountains Beyond Mountains, about public health guru Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti. But to use the “cursed” meme to sell people on an otherwise uncontroversial op-ed seems, to me, sensationalistic at best and at worst irresponsible. The word conjures up racialized images of voodoo (the fact that voudoun is actually a religion and not just a mockery is another battle I can’t even fight here) that people with far worse intentions are all too eager to exploit.

Take, for example, evangelist Pat Robertson, who says that Haiti “swore a pact with the devil” to become free of the French. (See the video below.)

The truth is far more inspiring, humbling, maddening, and challenging to our notions of freedom. The Devil probably could have cut Haiti a better deal than the French did. (And can we just talk about who that woman is sitting next to Pat Robertson and how she can stand looking at herself in the mirror after murmuring assent to Robertson’s words?) After being defeated militarily by revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, the French colonial powers who held Haiti demanded reparations in the form of 150 million gold francs in order to recognize the new, free nation. That number was later, generously of course, reduced to 90 million gold francs, or over $20 billion current U.S. dollars.

The ripple effect of this bargain cannot be underestimated. A free Haiti was hobbled economically from the start. They did not finish paying off the “independence debt” to france until 1947. The triangle of Haitian/French/US relations also paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, which expanded and enriched the United States. Deposed former Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide wanted to get the money back from France. The current President has forgone any such claims. (A good primer on the claim for the return of the money comes from this article from the Wall Street Journal.)

At a time when racialized language is under deep scrutiny (just call Harry Reid), we have to realize that the meme of the “curse” has its own racial baggage in this context. It’s a phantasmagorical way of dis-engaging Western history from the literal rubble of Haiti. Just as individual enslaved people in America worked day to day to buy their freedom, the Haitian people collectively worked themselves to the bone to buy theirs. But freedom without resource is a shaky freedom indeed. The enslaved Americans who worked themselves free and gained manumission often found themselves, both before and after the end of slavery, in a form of legal limbo, where their few rights (and land and possessions) as free blacks could be taken away by a capricious legal system, with lynching as a lever for those who stood too proudly. It was precisely the legal technique of inverse reparations — in this case, “reparations” that Haiti paid to the French — that set the foundation for the massive poverty of the nation.

We use language, like the selective telling of history, to confuse things sometimes. So Haiti becomes “cursed” instead of shackled by a post-Colonial debt that no Western nation ever had to bear. (Can you imagine if the U.S. had to pay England for its freedom? Talk about taxation without representation.)

I imagine, somehow, what might have happened had the billions of dollars in gold not been exported out of Haiti but helped to build its infrastructure and education. I imagine the fallen buildings rising off of the broken bodies, and rearranging themselves into new shapes: stronger, earthquake-resistant schools, homes, and roads; a countryside not stripped by the desperation of deforestation; and then, in this alternate Haiti, the stronger one built by its hard-earned resources, an earthquake could still hit, but the country would withstand more of nature’s blows and remain a land blessed by the fruits of the hard work of its people.

Reax to Tavis publishing R. Kelly Memoir

Reaction is running hot to Tavis Smiley gearing up to publish R. Kelly’s memoirs.

From the SmileyBooks press release

“I’m writing this book as Robert, not R. Kelly,” the singer says. “I’m tired of being misunderstood. I will show you the tears, fears, and sweat. I will open my heart and reveal the good in my life as well as all the drama. I want to tell it like it is.”

There is no direct mention of the sexual assault allegations that resulted in an acquittal.

From Gina MacCauley’s What About Our Daughters:

I had hoped this was a hoax, but apparently Tavis Smiley, who is accused of gathering large numbers of Black folks together so that they could get pitched predatory Wells Fargo loans (disproportionately affecting Black women) is joining forces with another accused predator, R. Kelly. Its amazing that the primary unifying force in the Black community is EXPLOITATION of women and girls. If you go to TavisTalks.com you will see front and center and item announcing that R. Kelly has joined Smiley Books. When is that State of the Black Union and how do we get a permit to protest it? I’m serious.

The comments are no less critical.

And from Danielle Belton’s The Black Snob:

And this book will be just another in a long line of signifiers to perverts that you can do pretty much anything to a woman, girl, child, whatever, and someone will love your trifling ass anyway because it’s our fault for having vaginas. But for Tavis, and others who claim to be holding the entire race to a higher standard, this is further proof that you never meant to hold anything to any standards ever. That “cash rules everything around you, dollah, dollah bill, ya’ll” and you could seriously give two craps about the implication of being the speakerbox to a known predator. After all, freedom of speech, ya’ll! And SOMEONE was going to publish his book so why not Mr. Accountability? Pardon me while I go regurgitate something.

(Belton’s blog also has a link to a guest post about Smiley and Wells Fargo.)

It provoked a conversation on Twitter where several of us talked about who gets the mic when it comes to representing blackness in media. The short answer, in my mind, is that the people who are the best at getting the mic are people who help build the platform: people like Tavis who are business-builders as well as media-makers. So all critiques have to be funneled through the lens of economics: if you don’t like what one mediamaker does, do you have an alternative brand or model?

What do you think?

Be Farai (Be Happy): Resolution 2010

Be FaraI (Be Happy): Resolution 2010

My first name means happy, and this year I intend to live my naming.

During 2009, I lost my job as host of the radio show News and Notes and decided to explore what I was meant to do versus taking a new job right away. I questioned that decision many times (often while looking at bills), but as I rang in the New Year I realized that I made the right decision for this stage of my life. My quest to “Be Farai” is to find what I’m really meant to do, and enjoying doing it.

I’ve worked a series of high profile jobs and learned that my work is one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, but it can’t be the only thing in my life. While continuing to write, broadcast, and publish (my first novel came out this year) I have also taken time to hike, go on a fitness retreat, and reconnect with friends and family. I’ve lost 20 pounds since my top weight of 2009 (which was my top weight ever), and I’m working to keep the numbers trending down with a new exercise regime and more cooking at home.

I feel reinvigorated in pursuing new media projects, especially around the intersection of social networking and citizen media. Our emotions and cycles of politics and social engagement affect our ability to process information. It seems impossible to talk about changing the news industry without acknowledging that news, without context, is something many people find alienating if not outright toxic. I believe that social networking can provide a community for both media producers and media consumers (many of whom are becoming one and the same) which allows us a space where we can discuss and process news, and the emotions that news generates.

Fifteen years after my first blog posts, I’m making 2010 the year I begin blogging seriously again. I’m working to figure out what makes sense in our age of niche-media-moguls. (I’m a fan of just talking about whatever interests me, but I also recognize I need structure.) Theda Sandiford, @bondgyrl on Twitter, and I have been comparing notes about approach.

In any case, despite the upheavals, I will put 2009 down in the WIN column of life: a year of change, growth, stress, maturity, and health. I wish all the best to everyone in 2010.

And: good advice via Twitter from a media maker:

@AnnCurry: Breathe in the New Year. As you breathe out, let go of what you don’t need.

Me on my India journey, blogging from Bangalore, December 2009.


Got Stories? “The Value: What Matters More than Money”

I’ve been experimenting with a new multimedia reporting/profile series called “The Value.” It airs both on public radio via WNYC’s syndicated show The Takeaway, and online at http://www.thetakeaway.org.

The idea is to ask: what’s worth more than money? In some cases, like Anna Deavere Smith, it’s mastery of craft and storytelling. In others, it’s adventure (in Antarctica!); service to people who’ve survived the civil war in Sri Lanka; or creating an urban oasis.

I’m limited by the fact that there is no travel budget, so the series has to be where I am: mainly NY, but also, in the coming weeks, DC, Baltimore, Miami, Northern and Southern California, and St. Louis.

I would LOVE suggestions for stories. Email me via the “contact” link on the top right of this website.

Here are the first four episodes of The Value.

26/11: Eyewitness Account on Anniversary of Mumbai Terror Attacks

On the anniversary of the “26/11” terror attacks in Mumbai, I was in the city for a conference and got a chance to interview Farzad Jehani. He’s the co-owner of the Leopold Cafe and witness to attacks that left 11 people dead in his restaurant. A total of 173 people died in the November 26, 2008 attacks.

Jehani and his brother run the Leopold Cafe. It is sometimes described as a “backpacker bar,” but it’s more clearly a space where young middle class Indians and people from around the world come to have reasonably priced food, beer, and get a good welcome.
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Obama Year One: A story of fear and hope.

(Note: This article can also be viewed on the Huffington Post, where I would encourage you to post comments.)

A year ago today, I was in NPR’s Los Angeles studios, providing commentary for the network’s election night special. I’d worked a double shift, first as the host of the African-American focused show News and Notes, then rolling on into the coverage of returns and looks at ballot initiatives like California’s Proposition 8. After Barack Obama was announced the winner of the U.S. Preidency and we wrapped up the special, I drove down Jefferson Avenue in Los Angeles… and almost got carjacked. I’ve rarely spoken about the incident, but it’s time for me to examine its resonance as I look back on the last year of American life, of black American life, and of journalism. Continue reading »

Culture Saturday Report: Black Beauty Meets Ebony-and-Ivory Broadway

Notes on:
Forum: “From Hottentot Venus to the White House: Black Women on Beauty and Bodies,” Open Center, New York City
Musical: “Memphis,” Broadway, New York City

                   Supermodel, mother, and marathoner Veronica Webb   “In order to change things, we need a script,” said Veronica Webb, now a television host and, in 1990 the first black woman to get a cosmetics endorsement contract with a major American company, Revlon.

Webb was talking about ways to make personal beauty — and the beauty industry — a place of adventure and accomplishment for black women. She was speaking at a forum called “From Hottentot Venus to the White House: Black Women on Beauty and Bodies.” Most of the attendees were black women. The natural hair-to-perm ratio was at least 3 to 1; the audience culturally savvy, professional, highly educated, and political. The forum didn’t quite provide a script, but it did serve as a check-in, a moment where people could have a sophisticated dialogue, check in with old friends, and meet new people of like minds.
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Is “saving journalism” enough?

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years– through full-time jobs at Newsweek, MTV, CNN, ABC, Oxygen, and NPR; part-time ones at One Economy, KALW, and WNYC; PopandPolitics.com; and three non-fiction books on race, politics, and media. I’ve rolled with the punches and thrown a few. But now more than ever, the business that I entered at the age of sixteen, with my first national publication, is, well, in a hell of hurt.

Many of my highly skilled friends who report, edit, or run newsrooms are unemployed, underemployed, or just plain scared. Lots of people are worried about the fate of reporting and media in America. Organizations are going bankrupt or out of business, including scores of America’s daily newspapers. Tens of thousands of journalists are being given their walking papers and finding they cannot re-enter the industry. We have created ways that entirely new forms of media can upend “old media,” but that digital victory is without a clear profit model. Continue reading »

“How Do I Write A Novel?”

People ask me this question all the time, as if there were only one way to write. Writing — not just the product but the process — is as individual as our fingerprints.

That said, I can give you my own experience writing my novel Kiss the Sky, and we can go from there.

Where is “from there?” Well, that’s up to you. I get so many questions these days about writing, selling, publishing, and promoting books that instead of just saying whatever randomly comes to my mind, I’d like to know what’s on yours.

I’d like to do one or more of these each week…. Let’s set that as a goal, not a rule.

So: if you have a question about writing on your mind, just email me through this website.
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E. Lynn Harris: A detective of his own soul

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?

That’s the title of the memoir by bestselling novelist E. Lynn Harris.

It was also the question that his friends and fans are asking.

E. Lynn Harris died on July 23 of hypertension-related heart failure at the age of 54.

I describe him as “a detective of his own soul,” because the way he had to unpack layers of his own identity, including but not limited to his sexuality, paved the way for him to write.

I was privileged to be a part of a recent memorial for Harris at the National Black Arts Forum. Novelist Tina McElroy Ansa led the event. She and her husband, the filmmaker Jonee Ansa, are both incredible people and gave moving (and often funny and inspirational) testimony to E. Lynn’s life.
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Writing, Passion and KPIX

I bet that got you intrigued! (At least I hope so.)

In any case, I have done a couple amazing things, if I do say so myself.

One, I have managed to have some incredibly passionate book readings. I don’t just mean reading sex scenes from Kiss the Sky (as I did at BEA and Bird ‘n Beckett books in SF, actually). I mean discovering the delight in letting the written word flow trippingly off the tongue while reading live. I almost mistyped “reading love”… but that’s about right. I love reading aloud… some readers dread it… but to me it’s like rediscovering a book that I read a long time ago but don’t quite remember.

The readings in San Francisco were great: Bird ‘n Beckett and the Book Passages at the Ferry Building. Both treated me like queens.
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“Kiss the Sky” goes multimedia… onstage and online

Kiss the Sky has a 90 song playlist of music I reference, everything from “Unloveable” by the Smiths to the “Negro National Anthem.” I just shared it on imeem.

Check out the KISS THE SKY MUSIC MIX: http://www.tinyurl.com/kts-imeem-mix


Thanks to BoldAsLove.us, I got to witness some of the best creativity in Black Rock and do a reading with a musical flourish. As part of the Northside Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (a neighborhood whose motto should be “Love Me, Love My Amp”), Rob Fields of BoldAsLove.us coordinated a Kiss the Sky event with four Black Rock Bands, all very different, all amazing.
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BOOK TOUR…NY rock n roll n MORE

Hey dear people. I sent out this email last week… please buy the book this week if you can! It helps to have a rush of sales… and to get buzz going with e-commerce vendors like Amazon and bookstore owners.

Many thanks.


On Fri, May 29, 2009 at 10:22 AM, Farai Chideya wrote:

Hi folks:

Right now it’s gray and drizzly o’clock on a MAGNIFICENT morning… a morning where I get to tell all of you what I’ve been up to for the past few years, besides hosting NPR’s now-ended “News and Notes” and guest-co-hosting on WNYC’s syndicated radio show “The Takeaway.”

I’ve got a novel out– my first! “Kiss the Sky” is Essence Magazine’s Book Club pick of the month, and it’s building a wide fan base of people of different ages, styles, and demographics. (I like to think of my readers as adventurous people who may seem PERFECTLY normal on the outside. Or not.)

Michael Eric Dyson called it “perfect summer reading,” and I’ll talk about Kiss the Sky and my fab writing group The Finish Party, on the contributor’s page of the July “O Magazine.”

“Kiss the Sky” is about the battle of a black rock star to overcome her demons (including self-doubt, religious conundrums, drinking, and bad choices about men) and make a comeback. You’ll met her friends and family from Harvard and Baltimore; the two very different but deeply flawed men she’s torn between; and travel with her and her band from New York to the Midwest and the South; from London to Paris to South Africa’s Joburg and Durban.
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Namaste, Mama

“A mother never dies,” the man said to me. “A mother never dies.”
His name is John. We met today on the subway, five days before mother’s day. I was taking the C train uptown, and luckily the stifling hot, crowded train partially emptied out at 42nd Street. The seats were still packed, but you didn’t have to hug yourself tight while you clutched the rail.
Before I knew his name, John offered me his seat. I used to be the kind of fearful feminist who thought turning down any help was a good thing. Now I remain a proud feminist, but I’ve learned enough about men to accept true chivalry for what it is: a meaningful ritual that can be examined, and refused, but gently. So I told him that I preferred to stand, not because I didn’t want to be beholden to him, but because I actually like to stand. I even have a standing desk.
John was a little worn around the edges… fifty-something, wearing the uniform of a working man’s government agency. He was a thin man with large liquid eyes that were exaggerated by the thickness of his glasses.

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What what? Book tour!

So I was SO delighted when I got to do my first book signing at the LA Times Festival of Books. I was on a panel with Lawrence O’Donnell, who helped create and write The West Wing and is now an MSNBC pundit among other things. Very folksy-funny and a good guy to hang with. It was part of a larger politics panel and I felt we barely got going before it was over. Time flies.

And speaking of time flying:
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Farai on a Roll (with Butter)

Hey folks:

In these serious times I felt compelled to use the corny joke in my header.

I want to thank everyone who’s been passing on love and information since I left NPR. It’s a journey for sure, and one with some surprising twists.

First: I’ll be on WNYC’s The Takeaway for the first three weeks of March. I’m looking forward to getting into their news mix. Check to see what time The Takeaway is on in your area, or podcast or stream the show. More at http://www.thetakeaway.org/.
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