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Concrete Jungle: New York, Fashion And The Apartheid Of Shop And Frisk

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“New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do.”

– Jay Z (Featuring Alicia Keyes)

 “On the backstreets of America, they kill the dream of America” 

– Across the Lines, Tracy Chapman

 

1

Upon reading the news of Trayon Christian’s being falsely accused of credit card theft and arrested outside Barneys in New York, I had a memory of shopping with my mother for school clothes when I was eight.

We were at Sears, buying shirts and Toughskins jeans.  My mother worked from nine to five, sometimes later, and by the end of the day she was tired.  I never remember her being impatient with me on these occasions, but the way her car keys jangled in her hand and the strap on her purse hung off her shoulder as she waited outside the dressing room for me to change, I knew that we didn’t have time to waste.

As we stood in line to pay, a white woman rushed past us, and the clerk behind the counter smiled and began to help her.   My mother said, “Excuse me, but we’ve been waiting.”  The clerk said, “I’ll be with you in a second, all right?” to which my mother replied, “No, it’s not all right.  I’ve been standing here for ten minutes, I’m tired and it’s my turn.”  When the clerk ignored us with a smirk, my mother insisted she call a manager.

This wasn’t the first time she had confronted a salesperson, and while every exchange was different, the reactions were always similar.  My sister eased away from the counter embarrassed, but I was always fascinated, and a little afraid.  Some confrontations were scarier than others.  There was the time when a big macho white man in the U-Haul place, with oil-stained jeans, cowboy boots and an imposing height, cut in front of half a dozen people waiting.  My mother told him he’d have to wait his turn. After ignoring her twice, he went to the end of the line but not before calling her a fucking bitch. She shouted back, “And you’re another fucking bitch!”

In these situations, we found ourselves surrounded by shoppers, almost all white, staring at us outright, or turning away in disgust. My mother seemed omnipotent in moments like these, like Superman making time reverse, or grinding it to a complete halt. I can still see her standing there, refusing to back down until the manager apologized to her, determinedly not giving a damn about the stares and groans around us.

Eventually we left the store, vowing never to come back, as she firmly took my sister’s hand and gave me my clothes. With a “hold these, so we can get the hell out of here,” she walked out sharply on high heels, her dumbfounded audience still gathered, mouths agape behind her. In the car, we discussed the way some white people behaved in America, racism, and the importance of standing up for yourself in life. (My mother was what is affectionately known in some circles as a “bad bitch.”)

Some months after she died I went to Barneys for the first time to shop. With my inheritance, I had money in my pocket for exactly ten minutes. I was twenty-eight, I’d lived in New York five, almost six years already, and I’d never been to Barneys before. I remembered both my parents appreciating nice things when I was growing up, but even the best stores in the malls outside East Lansing, Michigan, couldn’t compare with the haute couture of New York’s boutiques and designer stores.  The mannequins, sassy and dead-eyed with hands on hips in store windows, seemed like defiant gatekeepers, challenging my right not just to belong to, but even to approach, their glamorous, foreign world.

Self-conscious but determined, I ventured in — to Gucci, to Prada, to Armani, to Ferragamo, to Bergdorf’s. While I was trying on shoes in one store, a sales associate — when you work at Walmart you’re a clerk, when you work at Gucci you’re an associate — asked me if I’d like a cappuccino while I waited. I may even have been offered champagne. I remember asking in my most cultivated voice, “How much is it?” to which she replied with a generous smile, “It’s free, sir; our courtesy while you shop.” I didn’t know stores did that.

In Armani I asked the salesman how much I owed for the shoes I wanted to buy. He nodded and walked away into a back room, and a completely different person came up to me holding an envelope on a tray with the amount due tucked inside.  I remember thinking, “They’re so fierce they don’t even talk about money here.”

Untitled-1I loved shopping in high-end stores. There wasn’t the cacophony and overcrowding that I was used to at the mall: these stores had a stillness and grace, their objects preserved as if in a museum. The staff had an unassailable authority. I stared in amazement at five-thousand-dollar coats, two-thousand-dollar shoes, ten-thousand- dollar handbags. This was a long way from Sears and Toughskins. I gave myself permission to try on clothes I’d never imagined I could own. With the exception of a few curious looks, most salespeople were friendly.

Others weren’t as gracious. No one was ever blatantly rude, of course, but I came to realize that the social codes and gestures in the fashion world were as elaborate as animal mating rituals on the Discovery channel. A raised eyebrow, slightly pursed lips, or a condescending “may I help you?” made it very clear who was welcome and who wasn’t. The images on the walls, the faces behind the counters, à la Abercrombie & Fitch, informed you that you didn’t belong, merely by the absence of your own reflection.

Untitled 3-1One day, after I had spent over $3,000 in matching gold rings for my partner and me, a saleswoman at Cartier asked,  “So, do you have the day off today?” Her tone was breezy, conversational, and had I confronted her about what she said, I’m sure she would have accused me of misunderstanding her.  But her meaning was clear: you don’t belong. My mother would have been all over her. Not — are you traveling from abroad? are you an independent business owner? are you wealthy and famous? are you royalty? But  – do you have the day off? As if I’d taken time away from my job mopping down the high-school cafeteria. I left the store deflated and pissed. I’d wanted her to be impressed by the wealthy black man with money and class in his new Prada coat, and I’d ended up feeling humiliated and confused. And then there was, of course, the possibility that she meant absolutely nothing by it at all. There is a form of racism that is so subtle, you have to scratch for it.

(I had an experience several years ago walking past a row of houses in a residential white neighborhood in upstate New York.  Some children shouted “hello” to me from their window as I passed. When I looked up there was no one there, but I could hear the children giggling, enjoying their game. I braced myself for the racist comment I knew was coming, the joke at my expense. It never came – they were just bored, and happy to see a stranger. I learned from this that the true madness of racism is not always the actual racist insult, but the constant bracing — waiting for the next bigoted, cruel encounter, whether it comes or not.)

 

2

Fashion became a fascinating study. The people drawn to the high-end stores came from all backgrounds. The woman reaching for the Gucci bag might be the wife of multimillionaire enjoying her six-figure monthly clothing allowance, a businesswoman who ran a Fortune 500 company, or a model using a soon-to-be- maxed-out credit card, knowing she hadn’t paid her rent this month.   What we had in common was that we wanted to look fabulous; and if you had the money, whether you came from the East Side, Harlem, Queens or the Bronx, rich or poor, that bag could be yours.

Untitled 4-1I began to understand that in the end it was race and entitlement, not just money, that decided who belonged in that world. A white person who pretended to have a million dollars in the bank would be treated like a king or queen by acting entitled. A black person might get away with it too, but we still had to deal with racism. Entitlement can be faked, whiteness can’t.

I once watched in fascination as a white woman brought her dog into Dolce & Gabbana. The dog pooped on the floor as she languidly studied the new fall line, oblivious to everything around her. A group of associates tripped over themselves asking if she needed anything, bringing her something to drink, cleaning up her mess. I didn’t know who she was, but clearly they did. Where I would have been mortified and over-apologetic, she didn’t even say thank you. I was mesmerized by her entitlement; outside the store life might have been different, but in this world she didn’t have to apologize for anything.

A dismissive voice in my head said high-end fashion was just a bunch of people who spent too much money on bags and shoes. And while that might have been true, there was also something else — fashion was an education on self-esteem and access to power.

barneys floorFor those of us programmed all our lives to believe we don’t deserve to have the best of everything, we sometimes have to force ourselves beyond our comfort zone and the internal resistance that says, “This is for white people, I don’t belong here, I don’t deserve this.” Which begs the question: what did I believe I deserved, and where did that belief come from?

Decolonizing one’s mind from the brainwashing of racism and class is not unlike being deprogrammed from a cult. Struggling economically may be familiar, but if we become financially empowered, we may feel as if we are living at a strange, unfamiliar altitude.

Empowerment may also come with a backlash. A black relative or friend might say, “You’re trying to be white” to shame or control you. But if “acting white” is about having financial security and healthcare,  about living well and stress free, who wouldn’t want to be “white”?  We are bullied by our culture into avoiding those things that would enhance the quality of our lives, so that we stay disempowered, victimized, and thus more easily exploited. Privileged White America doesn’t have to allow us our “piece of the pie” if we are too ashamed or self-hating even to approach the table.

Kanye West, in an interview with Zane Lowe in September 2013, said,

“This is what we do to hold people back…and we’ve got this other thing that’s also been working for a long time where (they) don’t have to be racist anymore, it’s called self-hate. It works on itself….where, just like that, where someone comes up and says something like, I am a God, everybody says, “Who does he think he is?”

I just told you who I thought I was.  A God.  I just told you!  That’s who I think I am.  Would it have been better if I had a song that says I am a nigger? Or if I had a song that said I am a gangster? Or I had a song that said I am a pimp? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right?  But to say you are a God? Especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in and your last name is a slave owner’s.  How could you say that, how could you have that mentality?”

 

3

Years ago, I had a fight with a friend. As black gay men, Allen and I had much in common, but whereas he’d had a very rich professional life as a lawyer, I’d lived more as the bohemian artist archetype (i.e. broke). The argument was stupid, really, I’m not even sure what set him off. I told him that sometimes, when I wanted a late-night snack, I went to the grocery store at 3:00 am with my pajamas and slippers on under a full-length coat. (My mother did the same thing under her fur coat when she needed a pack of cigarettes from 7-11.) I thought it was funny, but he was outraged.

Untitled 6This friend made six figures at his job, and the conversation extended from my eccentricity to my lack of a savings account and health insurance, to calling myself an “artist” when I made very little money from my art — and the fact that what I needed was a real job. He explained that the financial tide in the United States could turn at any point, and that a black person without money (not just what was in their pocket, but in a savings account, and preferably more than one) and without proper job-security, was a damn fool. He accused me of being frivolous and “acting like a rich white woman,” which I understood to mean entitled. “You can’t afford to think this world will catch you if you fall,” he explained. “White people can think that way, but you can’t.”

Ruth: You know what you should do [with the money], Miss Lena?  You should take yourself a trip somewhere.  To Europe or South America or someplace….These here rich white women do it all the time.  They don’t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and swoosh!- they gone, child.  

Lena: Something always told me I wasn’t no rich white woman                          

 –-Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

When I got past my defensiveness, I knew that some of what my friend said about the financial part of my life was right. But it was only later that I realized he was actually jealous of me. Even though I was “penniless” I was doing what I wanted to do, while he lived a life in golden handcuffs. He hated his job and had deferred his dream of being a painter. He’d even thought about quitting his work as a lawyer and going to art school once, but he knew his family would never support his “finding himself” and he was too attached to his platinum American Express card. So he remained bitter.

Now, having been accused of acting like a rich white woman, I became even more interested in the idea of entitlement. How did rich white women and men act? I watched who walked into designer stores, the nods of their heads, their tight smiles, the no-nonsense set to their jaws. I entered stores that required one to be buzzed in. I found that sometimes the best way to respond to a rude, entitled sales associate was by being rude and entitled back. It was a form of “fashion chicken” – seeing who would crack first.

Rich people didn’t ask for permission, they assumed it was already given. I started to stand up straighter. I stopped saying “sorry” when people bumped into me, and I stopped holding doors open for everyone as if I were the world’s butler while others walked past me often without even a thank you. When I asked for something, I asked for it directly, without the obsequious “may-I-please-be-allowed-to-breathe” smile I’d cultivated over the years — a smile that was friendly, but also said, “You don’t have to fear me, I have no real power.” I started saying yes to those cappuccinos with a polite “thank you,” instead of getting down on my hands and knees in gratitude for the tiniest acts of courtesy.

The associates I encountered might still be rude, but there was always that sneaking suspicion from their side that I might be a black person of “substance,” a celebrity or businessperson they hadn’t heard of or recognized, and if they were too rude, they might be in trouble later. (In response to the Trayon Christian arrest, one woman wrote on Facebook about the general snobbery and racism in many of these stores. Having worked in the industry for years, she knew the pathetic reality — that many of the employees had no real investment in, or security with, the company they worked for.  Despite their own entitled attitudes, they were one paycheck away from poverty themselves, like too many New Yorkers.)

Feigning white entitlement was exhilarating. I now understood it was the life-blood of the black gay balls and voguing in New York. And yes, there was always an ugly side of fashion, the unapologetic materialism, the elitism, the exclusivity. But there was something else: the aesthetics, the art, the creation of something beautiful. And sometimes it feels damn good: walking your own little runway down the aisle at Saks Fifth Avenue, gliding into stores where the music is pumping, and being accosted by salespeople offering the latest fragrance or cream as you walk past them as if they were annoying paparazzi. Feeling like a star.

“This is white America. [This] is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority, to live and look as well as a white person. And when it come to the minorities, especially blacks, we as a people for the past four hundred years is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization.  We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive.  That is why in the ballroom circuit if you have captured the great white way of living, or looking, or dressing, or speaking, you is a marvel.”     

–From the film Paris is Burning

I traded stories with other black gay men, and we laughed at tales of the occasional fierce black gay queen who found creative ways to buck the system; legends passed down like the tales of Brer Rabbit.   James, for example: when followed from room to room by security and asked more than once by the officious white manager with the tight smile, “Hi, can I help you find anything?” he replied, “Oh, baby, you sure can. I’ve been looking all over for you! Here, hold these, and walk over with me to shoes,”  proceeding to make the manager his personal valet. Give the kids a little Downton Abbey, gurl!

Or the wealthy black woman, waiting in a stretch limo outside while her grandson was in a designer store shopping with her credit card for his graduation present. When the young man went to pay, the manager humiliated him, asking where he got the card from and threatening to call the police; until he announced that his grandmother was right outside and that she’d spoken to someone in the store and cleared everything that morning. When the sales associate in question returned moments later from her lunch break and confirmed the conversation, everyone rushed outside in a panic to apologize to the black matriarch who, according to the story, had spent hundreds of thousands, if not more, in the store. The delicious part was imagining the tableau of associates on Madison Avenue gathering outside her limo window, begging Mrs. So-and-So to forgive them, apologizing in that familiar way of some white people that says, “We didn’t know your grandson was a ‘special’ black that belonged to you, we thought he was just your average garden-variety nigger.” The story, as it was told to me, ended with her wordlessly rolling up her black-tinted window — apology definitely not accepted — telling her driver to take her and her grandson home, and leaving the store’s employees standing there on the curb in her exhaust.

Many of us will never have that kind of power, black or white, but at least we can get near it, breathe the same air, by shopping in the same stores. And that’s what it means to go shopping in America, to shop at Barneys. To have someone open the door for you, to have someone greet you with “May I help you?” or say goodbye with “Have a nice day.” It’s supposed to be the fun side of capitalism, and you’d think people who looked like me, who built this motherfucking country with their bare hands, would at least be allowed to share in that experience without hassle.

But it doesn’t work that way; in fact, just the opposite. In fashion, being the descendant of slaves is a bit like using the wrong fork at a formal dinner party. People are embarrassed for you, or outright contemptuous, or worse. And it doesn’t matter how much money you have. Ask Oprah. It wasn’t enough that Hermès messed with her years ago, refusing to let her in their store at closing time; more recently, she was told by an associate in a high-end store in Switzerland, after asking to look at a bag priced in the tens of thousands of dollars: “I’m sorry, no, my dear. It’s too expensive for you.”

If I had Oprah’s power I’d have a special white person on staff called the “Racism Clearer.” The Racism Clearer’s sole responsibility would be to walk into any store I was about to shop in and say, “Okay, he’s on his way. This is what he looks like and how much money he has. So if you are thinking about starting any racist shit with him, think again.”

Untitled 7Oprah could easily do this, but I understand why she doesn’t. Having to go out of your way like that takes all the fun out of having money in the first place, of being black and powerful. It destroys the myth that many of us grew up with – that if you have enough money and power in America, you can outrun racism, you can get to that promised land where it can’t get you.  (Black tradition in the church often talks about another Promised Land where racism can’t get you, but the downside is you have to be dead to enjoy it — and no one cares about Louis Vuitton there.) Besides, Oprah knows that she’s so powerful, all she has to do is tell one reporter what happened, and she won’t just get an apology from a clerk, but from a country. The whole goddamn country. Switzerland had to say sorry to Oprah, all eight million of them.

It’s depressing that Oprah, possibly the richest person of color on the planet, and Barack Obama, the most powerful black man, can still be treated by certain white people (associates in designer stores, John Boehner in the House of Representatives) like sharecropper children in overalls and plaits, sitting on the back porch with bare feet. In the paradigm of entitlement based on race, any white person, anywhere, outranks them.

It must be noted: many white people, not only blacks, are seriously angry about what happened to Trayon Christian in Barneys. This is their New York, their America, and they know this is not who we are supposed to be as a nation. The understand the decision we face.

And not every white person feels entitled, either. Many years ago in the early Nineties, friends came to visit my partner and me, and we all went shopping. The man wanted to buy something beautiful for his wife for her birthday, and as she’d never been shopping in New York before, we went to Barneys. After much coaxing she bought a $2,000 dollar dress on sale with matching shoes that were also a little less than a grand. She’d never spent that much on an outfit before in her life. She was already a very beautiful woman – and the dress and shoes were truly magical on her. She tried several times to walk away and argued it was enough just to try the dress on, but he insisted. She couldn’t justify spending that kind of money, even though they could afford it.

Joan Crawford in “Queen Bee”: when her visiting niece tries to refuse the expensive dress which Joan has bought for her, saying, “But it just isn’t me.”  Joan: “Well then. You be the dress.”

When we got home that evening, she went into the bathroom and cried. In the end, she ended up keeping the dress (rarely worn, I’m told) and took back the shoes.

 

4

My experiment in entitlement led to an increase in confidence, which was wonderful, but it also led to maxed-out credit cards and debt, as I used retail therapy too often to heal emotional wounds. Yes, I bought some beautiful things that I still have, but I also bought a lot of shiny junk and toys, every day was Christmas, and the closet was filled with things I didn’t need. I learned that having money to spend doesn’t necessarily make you part of the “club,” even if it might give you a brief pass.

 “Money, you’ve got lots of friends/ Crowding round the door/ But when you’re gone, spending ends/ They don’t come round no more.”   

–Billie Holliday, God Bless The Child

Some of us believe – and an aspect of capitalism depends on this – that buying one more pair of sunglasses, one more designer bag, will get us closer to our real goal: buying whiteness. In this context, whiteness is the impenetrable state where one becomes so rich or powerful that one can no longer be humiliated for being black.

Untitled 8-1And then there are people who just want to go shopping. And we all know — there is nothing more exciting growing up, especially as a teen-ager, than saving your money to buy the thing you’ve always dreamt of, of finally being able to afford it. Which is why what happened to Trayon Christian in Barneys is so depressing and enraging, especially in 2013. This generation has watched as they fucked with our right to vote in Florida, as they fucked us with the Trayvon Martin verdict, as they fuck with the President’s authority as he passes bills using the proper legislative channels, as they’ve fucked with employment, student loans, minimum wage, after-school programs, and almost every source of dignity in this nation. The one sacred thing in a capitalist culture is the ability to spend money. And now they are even fucking with that.

Blacks are being pushed to the furthest corners of this society, cut off from all avenues of empowerment and participation, until the only remaining means of expression in this society is the most distressing and least creative of all – the role of the Total Consumer. The Total Consumer stays depressed, earning just enough money to buy what she needs, like food and rent (never own), has no savings, can barely afford health care, if at all, and has no money for school or advancement. As the Total Consumer eats, watching commercials (to learn about more things to eat and buy), he is encouraged to drink, smoke, have sex, and go out on the weekend, as long as he’s at his underpaid job bright and early on Monday. She has just enough disposable income to buy what the kids ask for at Christmas, and if she’s lucky, she can buy a car, and when she dies, a modest funeral. He’ll never have any real wealth, but he can play the lottery, hoping to win some day, so that he can buy a great big house, maybe have his own company and exploit other Total Consumers like himself. For those who reject the identity of the Total Consumer, the other choices may be violence or self-destruction. Is this really the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream for black (or even white) America?

 

5

I carry a Louis Vuitton bag.  I have other bags, but I bring out Louis on special occasions, and always when I fly. A casual outfit with slightly wrinkled shirt and jeans becomes “bohemian” or “lazy chic” when you have an expensive bag. Handbags speak a language. This bag is supposed to be an antidote to racism. It holds things well, but its true purpose, if I’m honest, is to tell white people the kind of black person I am. In other words, the kind they better not fuck with. Black gay men and straight black women in my neighborhood carry Louis Vuitton bags — macho black men have pitbulls.

Barneys-1Trayon’s experience haunted me for days. I’ve been at that counter at Barneys, pulled out my credit card and been asked to show my ID. The idea of being stopped, arrested, put in handcuffs and having to prove I’m not criminal, after following all the rules, was once unthinkable. Do I have to carry a bag to buy a bag now?

I’m used to watching out for police cars, knowing that at any time I could be profiled by the NYPD.  It’s warped enough outside my door in Harlem, but at Barneys? Even the Total Consumer isn’t safe anymore. It’s official: there are some white people in America who have decided to keep black people from everything, even the stuff that’s usually considered frivolous, vain. American greed, like American racism, knows no bounds.

Days after news of Trayon Christian’s lawsuit hit the media, Kayla Phillips came forward, having been stopped by plainclothes cops after using a debit card to buy a $2,500 purse. Phillips claims she was stopped before entering the subway, and interrogated about her purchase, which included being asked what she was doing in Manhattan in the first place. Days later actor Rob Brown, who made his film debut opposite Sean Connery in the film, “Finding Forrester,” came forward about being racially profiled in Macy’s in June, after buying a $1300 dollar watch for his mother’s college graduation – he’d bought the watch as a gift for her. Brown was arrested in a nearby store, while the watch was being serviced, and was taken in handcuffs through the store, where he implored the officers who arrested him to check his ID. By the time everything was cleared, and the incident was over, he ended up missing most of his mother’s graduation.

As Christian, Phillips and Brown recall their experiences, what stands out in all their stories is the emotional brutality of the encounters – the utter degradation and psychological cruelty, a sense of “how dare you think you are entitled to this belt/ bag/ watch” on the part of the officers. These incidents sound less like law enforcement and more like the Ku Klux Klan, burning down black businesses that competed with white ones in our nation’s past.

“What are you doing in this store, where did you get this money, what are you doing in Manhattan?”  There was a time when a slave who was off his plantation had to carry around a piece of paper to travel (written by his master, of course, because a slave caught reading or writing faced cruel punishment if not death). Or in South Africa under apartheid, when blacks required an identification pass. I remember the banners we students posted on the Diag at the center of University of Michigan’s campus – “Free South Africa!” We felt so free ourselves, or so we’d been told, that we felt we had plenty of freedom to spare. But in the township of Manhattan, as apartheid flourishes in the greatest city in America, who the hell is going to free us?

 

6

The rap artist, businessman and entrepreneur Jay Z (Shawn Carter) has a deal with Barneys to promote a fashion line due to come out at the end of this month. According to newspaper reports on a few of the items for sale, his raincoat is $675, a watch with black alligator strap sells for thirty-three thousand dollars. (A portion of the profits from the line will go to money for college scholarships.) I cannot claim to be a hardcore fan of Jay Z’s because I don’t know his music well, but I loved the song he collaborated on with Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind (New York).” The song is voluptuous and inspiring, and makes you believe again, after the heartbreak of 9/11 and financial collapse, that New York is a place where dreams can come true. “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/ There’s nothing you can’t do/ These streets will make you feel brand new/ Big lights will inspire you.”

Spiritually we needed that song and it was everywhere. Even if you don’t think you’ve heard the song, you’ve heard the song. Jay Z, who raps so eloquently on the track, was conspicuously silent for days after the Trayon Christian story was reported. There’s nothing you can’t do in New York, Keys tells us – except, of course, buy a Ferragamo belt at Barneys if you’re black. When the Daily News finally tracked down Jay Z, in Sweden on his “Magna Carta” tour, reporters were informed that he was “unable to answer.” Told he was unable to answer by whom?

I spoke recently with a friend, Iyatunde Folayan (LaTrice Dixon), about a road trip she took with a young cousin who is starting college. They were playing Jay Z’s music in the car. In one recent song, Jay Z calls out the actor and activist Harry Belafonte, as retaliation against Mr. Belafonte, who he felt called him out first. Jay Z raps in the song, “Nickels and Dimes”:

I’m just trying to find common ground/ ‘fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down/ Mr. Day O, major fail

Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now.

Many of the generation that listens to Jay Z, including my friend’s cousin, probably have no idea who Harry Belafonte is, or if they have heard of him, they think of a pretty man who sang calypso songs like “Day O.” They may not know his importance to the civil rights movement as one of the major benefactors of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign and his personal support of the King family. Belafonte funded freedom rides, voter registration drives and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as part of a movement that paved the way for the success of performers like Jay Z, and of Beyoncé, celebrated pop star, businesswoman, and his wife.

Belafonte was interviewed in 2012 by the Hollywood Reporter as he accepted an award at the Locarno Film Festival. When asked if he was happy with the image of minorities in Hollywood today, he responded:

Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking…And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.

Jay Z responded to his comments in an interview with Elliot Wilson (as reported by Gene Denby, NPR)

I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black President. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone. … I felt Belafonte … just went about it wrong.

While Jay Z might not have appreciated Harry Belafonte’s approach, Belafonte makes an important point, and not just to Mr. and Mrs. Carter; please, say something. You have money and a platform – talk about police brutality, education, poverty, anything other than what you drink (Cristal) or don’t, or the clothes you wear (Jay Z in his song “Tom Ford”: – “Clap for a nigga with his rapping ass/ blow a stack for your niggas with your trapping ass.”)  My friend spent the rest of the car ride educating her cousin on who Belafonte was, what his contribution to black history has been, and why, under any circumstances, it was wrong to refer to an 85-year-old man as “boy.”

On Monday, October 28, Jay Z finally responded to critics of his silence on the Barneys incident.  On his website he wrote:

I haven’t made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately? The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn’t want to make without the full facts. Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project, wouldn’t hurt Barneys or Shawn Carter, but all the people that stand a chance at higher education. I have been working with my team ever since the situation was brought to my attention to get to the bottom of these incidents and at the same time find a solution that doesn’t harm all those that stand to benefit from this collaboration.

I am against discrimination of any kind, but if I make snap judgments, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles? I am no stranger to being profiled and I truly empathize with anyone that has been put in that position. Hopefully this brings forth a dialogue to effect real change.

While I hear in Jay Z a desire to appear empathetic, he also appears to see himself as the victim. I hear a businessman panicking over a multi-million dollar deal and public relations situation gone badly wrong.  I worry about us as a people, about black capitalism at any cost, that “overcoming” in Dr. King’s vision means that blacks get to take our place at the table as exploiters.  That as long as we are getting paid, that is all that matters. We see rappers and superstars who sing or talk only in praise of money and rampant materialism, we watch as they turn us into minstrels and grotesque forms of ourselves, betraying our legacies. Beyoncé recently did a summer ad campaign for H&M, and a 50-million-dollar campaign for Pepsi. Star magazine (via Radar Online) reported this year that H&M has been linked to Southeast Asian sweatshops and inhuman labor conditions in their facilities. A Cambodian factory worker was quoted as saying, “Sometimes we are required to work from morning to morning. They say, ‘We are in a hurry.'” Director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights Charles Kernaghan said that the working conditions of H&M factories he audited in Bangladesh were “ridiculous” and some of the worst he’s ever seen. A factory collapse there killed 1,127 people. He said: “There was child labor, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages — and wages were very, very low.”

Contemporary mystic Caroline Myss talks about the role of archetypes in our spiritual journey, and particularly the ones that we all share; the Victim, the Child, the Saboteur, and the Prostitute. We all have known, or will know at some point, what it is like to be invited to “sell out,” to abandon our principles or integrity for currency – whether that currency be money, someone’s opinion of us, or a relationship we feel we can’t live without. (It is very limiting and convenient to interpret the archetype of The Prostitute as selling actual sex for money – most of us can comfortably say we’ve never done that.) The deeper question becomes: what are we willing to sacrifice at the altar of capitalism? A system that, at its most cynical, finds individual people worthless unless they are consumers, or can be used as slaves (anyone making less than a living wage is enslaved, if not physically, then economically). Does it make a difference if the exploiter is black?

Some people made fun of Sister Souljah’s album during the 80s, with its over-the-top expressions of rage. In one of her songs, “Slavery’s Back In Effect,” she imagines blacks being ordered by the government to report to nearby camps, once again enslaved. When I first heard this, I laughed ironically. Now reading in the Daily News about the third police incident with Rob Brown being dragged through Macy’s in handcuffs, what they are calling “Shopping While Black” and the controversy surrounding “Stop and Frisk,” it’s suddenly not so funny – the idea of a racist society that eventually turns against us. We may not go back to the shackles and chains Sister Souljah described, but can we call ourselves truly free when the world’s most successful rap artist refuses for days to release a statement about the alleged racist practicies of the store carrying his brand, and allows his representatives to say, “He isn’t allowed to comment”?  A Daily News reporter tried to show Jay Z a copy of their unfavorable cover story about him, but his handlers kept shoving the paper away so that he couldn’t see it. All these years after slavery and we’re still not allowed to read.

Untitled 9What hurts is that Christian and Phillips followed the rules – they went shopping as Bush instructed us all to do after 9/11, they fed their materialism, they presented the credit card and showed the requisite ID; but they were still humiliated, still abused, still treated with the same filthy contempt often afforded to those who we feel have nothing to contribute to society financially; those on assistance, the homeless. With the recent events in Barneys and Macy’s, the increased hate crimes in New York City against the LGBT community, and the continued policy of Stop and Frisk, this isn’t a New York I recognize anymore.

 

7

Malcolm X (Malcolm Little), whose birth date I share, lived in Lansing, Michigan as a boy, a few miles from my childhood home. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he describes the town of East Lansing, where I grew up, and the fact that blacks were not even allowed to be in the town after dark.  His father was murdered when Malcolm was six, his body found on a set of railroad tracks, practically cut in half. While the murder was never solved, Malcolm always suspected his father had been killed by a sub-group of the Ku Klux Klan in that area called the Black Legion. He believed they retaliated against his father because Earl Little had opened a store — he was also a preacher — and that he had angered white supremacists. Malcolm lost his father 40 years before I was born, but his story helped me to understand a little better my mother’s confrontations in those department stores, in that town, what it meant for her as a black woman to challenge racism with her children standing beside her watching; the legacy to which she felt she had a responsibility.

What’s painful now is that I truly believed, after growing up as a child of the Seventies, after the progress made during the Civil Rights era, after the assassinations of both King and Malcolm, that we would be further ahead. That we would have found, if not world peace, at least a national one. It hurts to think that maybe I will die with some of the same systems in place as my parents faced, as my great-grandparents faced. The same antagonism towards blacks. The same humiliations. When Trayon Christian is taken to jail for buying a belt in New York City, something is deeply, critically wrong. And the irony is not lost on any of us that the name Trayon sounds like Trayvon.

God’s tryin’ to tell you somethin’!  – The Color Purple

This is New York, this is the United States of America, a place where I am supposed to be safe, as a black man, as a gay man. Yet, around the corner from where I live in Harlem, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Islan “Rose” Nettles, 21, a black transgender woman, was brutally beaten to death on August 17, 2013 by a group of men. Islan was a true New York comeback story. After being hungry and almost homeless at one point, she turned her life around, got an apartment, a job at H&M, and was designing her own clothing line. She had just begun fully living her life publicly as transgender.  Friends described her transformation from a withdrawn, introverted teen-ager to an empowered woman. The men she encountered called her homophobic names, then beat her unconsciousness and left her on the street. Islan was in a coma for a week before she died.

As I go to the store this morning, I see posters all over the neighborhood asking for information about her murder. In her photos, in full makeup, fuschia lipstick and bold stare, she is beautiful, confident, radiant. Islan Nettles was trying to fulfill her dream in this city, the dream Jay Z raps about in “Empire State of Mind.” She may not have been a rich white woman, but she was entitled to that.

And while some may not want to see it, there is a connection between Trayon, Trayvon, and Islan, and it’s about more than designer belts and hoodies. It’s about a city and country, and the people who continue to betray them – on the inner- city streets, in the residential neighborhoods, in law enforcement, in the justice system.  It’s about the decision we all need to make, right now, about who this nation truly belongs to, and how to stand up to and say no to the people who continue to try and hijack it from us.

I wonder what kind of bag Islan had with her when she was found. Clearly, for the men who murdered her, it was to die for.

 

Images:
Barney’s window by Upper East Side, NYC, via Instagram. Woman walking into Barneys by Zuhal Okcu via Instagram. Barney’s card by Nox via Instagram.

Max Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996) and Mixed Messages: An Anthology of Literature to Benefit Hospice and Cancer Causes. His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.

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Less Than Half of Florida Voters Would Choose ‘Polarizing’ DeSantis New Poll Finds

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Ron DeSantis is facing much more challenging odds of winning re-election than some would assume as a just-released poll finds less than half of Floridians would vote for their Republican governor.

The poll, released by Florida progressive groups but more heavily weighted toward a GOP electorate finds just 48 percent of all registered voters would vote for DeSantis, and 43 percent would choose the Democratic nominee, Florida Politics reports. The Democratic gubernatorial primary is August 23, between U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, their former governor, and Nikki Fried, the current commissioner of agriculture.

“About 2,244 registered Florida voters [were] weighted to reflect a midterm electorate favorable to Republicans. Respondents were surveyed between July 26 and 31.” The poll was released by by Progress Florida and Florida Watch.

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis’ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Goes Into Effect as Schools Scramble to Avoid Parental Lawsuits

DeSantis is viewed favorably by 50% of voters, but unfavorably by 48%.

“Given his financial advantage DeSantis remains a favorite to win re-election, but his polarizing nature could put a ceiling on his support,” a memo from pollsters Geoff Puryear and Annika Ramnath reads.

Given DeSantis’ nearly-daily press conferences, often surrounded by children or law enforcement, many forget he won his gubernatorial election in an extremely tight race, by 32,463 votes, a margin of just 0.4%.

READ MORE: ‘Combative’ Press Secretary for Ron DeSantis Registers as Foreign Agent After DOJ Inquiry: Report

To beat DeSantis the Democratic candidate would need to overcome the poll’s five-point spread, meaning securing more than half of the nine percent of undecideds or pulling several points away from DeSantis, or greatly increasing Democratic voter turnout. Back in April DeSantis decried Democrats moving to Florida, calling it “a problem” because “they would continue to vote the same way.”

The polling memo notes that 65% of Florida voters “prefer the Democratic message” on abortion.

“Democrats in Florida need to make sure that as surely as abortion rights were on the ballot in Kansas…abortion rights are on the ballot this fall, and that voters know that Marci Rubio, Ron DeSantis, and legislative Republicans support extreme abortion bans, even for victims of rape and incest,” the pollsters’ memo adds.

DeSantis has doubled down on many of his highly controversial moves, including signing into law the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which made nationwide news for months. He reversed a 50-year law that effectively granted Disney World the ability to assume most governmental operations for its district, as a punishment for the company, a huge employer in the Sunshine State, speaking out in opposition to the anti-LGBTQ law.

Authoritarianism exert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, in June told Insider DeSantis is “a very dangerous individual” because “he is equally repressive, but doesn’t have the baggage of Trump.”

 

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RIGHT WING EXTREMISM

Trump Rambles for 108 Minutes in CPAC Speech Filled With ‘Unapologetic Fascism’: Report

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Former President Donald Trump spoke for nearly two hours in his closing address at the CPAC summit in Dallas.

In Trump’s view, America has been destroyed in the 18 months since he left office, with out-of-control crime, inflation, and oddly enough unemployment, which Trump estimates to be three times the official number.

Trump took the stage to the song “God Bless the USA” and began by thanking the “proud patriots” in attendance.

Trump said he was proud to be joined by Rep. Ronnie Jackson (R-TX), who was his White House surgeon.

“He was an admiral, a doctor, and now he’s a congressman,” Trump noted, saying he asked him which was the best.

“And he sort of indicated doctor, because he loved to look at my body. It was so strong and powerful,” Trump said.

Trump then introduced Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA).

“This is no time for complacency,” Trump warned. “We have to seize this opportunity to deal with the radical left socialist lunatic fascists. We have to hit them very, very hard. It has to be a crippling defeat.”

He went on to complain about Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed a procedural vote after Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote while Trump was speaking, resulting in harsh words for GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

“But McConnell is the most unpopular politician in the country, even more so than crazy Nancy Pelosi, and something has to be done,” Trump urged.

Trump said Biden “surrendered our strength and our everything [in Afghanistan], they surrendered our dignity.”

Michael Hardy, senior editor at the Texas Monthly, was one of the local journalists covering the speech. He said that line had “echoes of the Nazi ‘stab in the back theory’ of losing WW1.”

Trump then described crime in “Democrat-run (sic) cities” in very dark terms.

“The streets of our Democrat-run cities are drenched in the blood of innocent victims,” Trump claimed. “Bullets are killing little beautiful little children who never had a chance. Car jackers lay in wait like predators.”

Hardy described that as “some literal blood-and-soil rhetoric.”

And Trump went on saying “we need to courage to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done,” which Hardy said “is a rallying cry for street violence and worse.”

Trump went on to call for a military takeover of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Portland.

“Trump’s rhetoric is significantly more extreme than even a few years ago,” Hardy said. “This might be most frightening speech I’ve ever heard. Full-on, unapologetic fascism. Trump has either been reading Mein Kampf or having someone read it to him.”

Trump repeated his lies about election fraud and teased a 2024 presidential comeback.

Former RNC official Tim Miller said, “I know everyone in the DC GOP is just hoping Trump will die but it’s impossible to watch this CPAC speech and not come to the conclusion that he’s going to run and be very hard to beat in a primary. Sorry to be the bearer of bad weekend news.”

After his speech, Trump danced on stage to the song “Hold On I’m Coming” by Sam and Dave.

“Don’t you ever feel sad; lean on me when times are bad,” Sam and Dave sang. “Then the day comes and you’re down; in a river of trouble and about to drown. Just hold on, I’m coming. Hold on, I’m coming.”

Watch below or at this link.

 

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Legal Expert Explains How Alex Jones’ Texts Could ‘Connect the Dots’ on Trump for the Jan. 6 Committee

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Appearing on CNN early Saturday morning, former U.S. Attorney Michael Moore stated that the history of texts accidentally released by attorneys representing Alex Jones may fill in the gaps for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Speaking with “New Day” host Phil Mattingly, the legal analyst was asked about reports that the texts may be headed to House investigators, with the CNN host stating, “We saw a dramatic moment in the courtroom, in the Alex Jones proceedings over the course of the last several days. He was informed that his defense team accidentally sent two years of his text records to him.”

“There are connections and overlap with what the January 6 committee is working on when it comes to that. There are discussions of the committee perhaps getting ahold of those,” he continued before asking, “What is the process? Do you see that as a potential thing that can occur?”

“The text messages and the phone records, at least in some part are now in a court record, they’ve been filed in court. That makes them a little bit easier to get,” Moore replied. “The concern I have is the issue of the phone was delivered in all accounts, it may have been delivered in error but they did nothing to correct that or fix that or file a protective order on the evidence. So that information may be subject to a challenge.”

READ: Eric Holder predicts how Donald Trump will be indicted

“The problem for Jones is that information is now known and it’s out there,” he continued. “It’s clear there was deceptive testimony during the course of discovery and I think that makes them a little easier to get.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see these subpoenas come down for the information on the phones and ultimately at the end of the day they will get it,” he elaborated. “It will be used to see if this connects any of the dots that the committee has been trying to do for the last many months. Is there a direction from Trump, is there some direction from other people in Jones’ circle that we find in the text messages there.”

Watch below or at this link.

 

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