Concrete Jungle: New York, Fashion And The Apartheid Of Shop And Frisk
â€œNew York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, thereâ€™s nothing you canâ€™t do.â€
â€“ Jay Z (Featuring Alicia Keyes)
Â â€œOn the backstreets of America, they kill the dream of Americaâ€Â
–– Across the Lines, Tracy Chapman
Upon reading the news of Trayon Christianâ€™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.Â My mother worked from nine to five, sometimes later, and by the end of the day she was tired.Â 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 didnâ€™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.Â Â My mother said, â€œExcuse me, but weâ€™ve been waiting.â€Â The clerk said, â€œIâ€™ll be with you in a second, all right?â€ to which my mother replied, â€œNo, itâ€™s not all right.Â Iâ€™ve been standing here for ten minutes, Iâ€™m tired and itâ€™s my turn.â€Â When the clerk ignored us with a smirk, my mother insisted she call a manager.
This wasnâ€™t the first time she had confronted a salesperson, and while every exchange was different, the reactions were always similar. Â My sister eased away from the counter embarrassed, but I was always fascinated, and a little afraid.Â Some confrontations were scarier than others. Â 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.Â My mother told him heâ€™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, â€œAnd youâ€™re another fucking bitch!â€
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 sisterâ€™s hand and gave me my clothes. With a â€œhold these, so we can get the hell out of here,â€ 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 â€œbad bitch.â€)
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, Iâ€™d lived in New York five, almost six years already, and Iâ€™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, couldnâ€™t compare with the haute couture of New Yorkâ€™s boutiques and designer stores.Â 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 Bergdorfâ€™s. While I was trying on shoes in one store, a sales associate — when you work at Walmart youâ€™re a clerk, when you work at Gucci youâ€™re an associate — asked me if Iâ€™d like a cappuccino while I waited. I may even have been offered champagne. I remember asking in my most cultivated voice, â€œHow much is it?â€ to which she replied with a generous smile, â€œItâ€™s free, sir; our courtesy while you shop.â€ I didnâ€™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.Â I remember thinking, â€œTheyâ€™re so fierce they donâ€™t even talk about money here.â€
I loved shopping in high-end stores. There wasnâ€™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 Iâ€™d never imagined I could own. With the exception of a few curious looks, most salespeople were friendly.
Others werenâ€™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 â€œmay I help you?â€ made it very clear who was welcome and who wasnâ€™t. The images on the walls, the faces behind the counters, Ã la Abercrombie & Fitch, informed you that you didnâ€™t belong, merely by the absence of your own reflection.
One day, after I had spent over $3,000 in matching gold rings for my partner and me, a saleswoman at Cartier asked, Â â€œSo, do you have the day off today?â€ Her tone was breezy, conversational, and had I confronted her about what she said, Iâ€™m sure she would have accused me of misunderstanding her.Â But her meaning was clear: you donâ€™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? ButÂ – do you have the day off? As if Iâ€™d taken time away from my job mopping down the high-school cafeteria. I left the store deflated and pissed. Iâ€™d wanted her to be impressed by the wealthy black man with money and class in his new Prada coat, and Iâ€™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.Â Some children shouted â€œhelloâ€ 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 â€“ 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.)
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 hadnâ€™t paid her rent this month. Â Â 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.
I 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 canâ€™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 didnâ€™t know who she was, but clearly they did. Where I would have been mortified and over-apologetic, she didnâ€™t even say thank you. I was mesmerized by her entitlement; outside the store life might have been different, but in this world she didnâ€™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.
For those of us programmed all our lives to believe we donâ€™t deserve to have the best of everything, we sometimes have to force ourselves beyond our comfort zone and the internal resistance that says, â€œThis is for white people, I donâ€™t belong here, I donâ€™t deserve this.â€ Which begs the question: what did I believe I deserved, and where did that belief come from?
Decolonizing oneâ€™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, â€œYouâ€™re trying to be whiteâ€ to shame or control you. But if â€œacting whiteâ€ is about having financial security and healthcare, Â about living well and stress free, who wouldnâ€™t want to be â€œwhiteâ€?Â 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 doesnâ€™t have to allow us our â€œpiece of the pieâ€ 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,
â€œThis is what we do to hold people backâ€¦and weâ€™ve got this other thing thatâ€™s also been working for a long time where (they) donâ€™t have to be racist anymore, itâ€™s called self-hate. It works on itselfâ€¦.where, just like that, where someone comes up and says something like, I am a God, everybody says, â€œWho does he think he is?â€
I just told you who I thought I was.Â A God.Â I just told you!Â Thatâ€™s who I think I am.Â 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?Â But to say you are a God? Especially when you got shipped over to the country that youâ€™re in and your last name is a slave ownerâ€™s.Â How could you say that, how could you have that mentality?â€
Years ago, I had a fight with a friend. As black gay men, Allen and I had much in common, but whereas heâ€™d had a very rich professional life as a lawyer, Iâ€™d lived more as the bohemian artist archetype (i.e. broke). The argument was stupid, really, Iâ€™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.
This 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 â€œartistâ€ 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 â€œacting like a rich white woman,â€ which I understood to mean entitled. â€œYou canâ€™t afford to think this world will catch you if you fall,â€ he explained. â€œWhite people can think that way, but you canâ€™t.â€
Ruth: You know what you should do [with the money], Miss Lena?Â You should take yourself a trip somewhere.Â To Europe or South America or someplaceâ€¦.These here rich white women do it all the time.Â They donâ€™t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and swoosh!- they gone, child. Â
Lena: Something always told me I wasnâ€™t no rich white woman Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Â –-Lorraine Hansberryâ€™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 â€œpennilessâ€ 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. Heâ€™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 â€œfinding himselfâ€ 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 â€œfashion chickenâ€ â€“ seeing who would crack first.
Rich people didnâ€™t ask for permission, they assumed it was already given. I started to stand up straighter. I stopped saying â€œsorryâ€ when people bumped into me, and I stopped holding doors open for everyone as if I were the worldâ€™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 â€œmay-I-please-be-allowed-to-breatheâ€ smile Iâ€™d cultivated over the years — a smile that was friendly, but also said, â€œYou donâ€™t have to fear me, I have no real power.â€ I started saying yes to those cappuccinos with a polite â€œthank you,â€ 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 â€œsubstance,â€ a celebrity or businessperson they hadnâ€™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.Â 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.
â€œThis is white America. [This] is everybodyâ€™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.Â We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive.Â 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.” Â Â Â
–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. Â Â 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, â€œHi, can I help you find anything?â€ he replied, â€œOh, baby, you sure can. Iâ€™ve been looking all over for you! Here, hold these, and walk over with me to shoes,â€ Â 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 sheâ€™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, â€œWe didnâ€™t know your grandson was a â€˜specialâ€™ black that belonged to you, we thought he was just your average garden-variety nigger.â€ 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 storeâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€œMay I help you?â€ or say goodbye with â€œHave a nice day.â€ Itâ€™s supposed to be the fun side of capitalism, and youâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 doesnâ€™t matter how much money you have. Ask Oprah. It wasnâ€™t enough that HermÃ¨s 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: â€œIâ€™m sorry, no, my dear. Itâ€™s too expensive for you.â€
If I had Oprahâ€™s power Iâ€™d have a special white person on staff called the â€œRacism Clearer.â€ The Racism Clearerâ€™s sole responsibility would be to walk into any store I was about to shop in and say, â€œOkay, heâ€™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.â€
Oprah could easily do this, but I understand why she doesnâ€™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 â€“ that if you have enough money and power in America, you can outrun racism, you can get to that promised land where it canâ€™t get you.Â (Black tradition in the church often talks about another Promised Land where racism canâ€™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 sheâ€™s so powerful, all she has to do is tell one reporter what happened, and she wonâ€™t just get an apology from a clerk, but from a country. The whole goddamn country.Â SwitzerlandÂ had to say sorry to Oprah, all eight million of them.
Itâ€™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 sheâ€™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. Sheâ€™d never spent that much on an outfit before in her life. She was already a very beautiful woman â€“ 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 couldnâ€™t justify spending that kind of money, even though they could afford it.
Joan Crawford in â€œQueen Beeâ€: when her visiting niece tries to refuse the expensive dress which Joan has bought for her, saying, â€œBut it just isnâ€™t me.â€Â Joan: â€œWell then. You be the dress.â€
When we got home that evening, she went into the bathroom and cried. In the end, she ended up keeping the dress (rarely worn, Iâ€™m told) and took back the shoes.
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 didnâ€™t need. I learned that having money to spend doesnâ€™t necessarily make you part of the â€œclub,â€ even if it might give you a brief pass.
Â â€œMoney, youâ€™ve got lots of friends/ Crowding round the door/ But when youâ€™re gone, spending ends/ They donâ€™t come round no more.â€ Â Â
–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.
And 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 Presidentâ€™s authority as he passes bills using the proper legislative channels, as theyâ€™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 â€“ 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 heâ€™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 sheâ€™s lucky, she can buy a car, and when she dies, a modest funeral. Heâ€™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. Kingâ€™s dream for black (or even white) America?
I carry a Louis Vuitton bag.Â 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 â€œbohemianâ€ or â€œlazy chicâ€ 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 Iâ€™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.
Trayonâ€™s experience haunted me for days. Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m not criminal, after following all the rules, was once unthinkable. Do I have to carry a bag to buy a bag now?
Iâ€™m used to watching out for police cars, knowing that at any time I could be profiled by the NYPD. Â Itâ€™s warped enough outside my door in Harlem, but at Barneys? Even the Total Consumer isnâ€™t safe anymore. Itâ€™s official: there are some white people in America who have decided to keep black people from everything, even the stuff thatâ€™s usually considered frivolous, vain. American greed, like American racism, knows no bounds.
Days after news of Trayon Christianâ€™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, â€œFinding Forrester,â€ came forward about being racially profiled in Macyâ€™s in June, after buying a $1300 dollar watch for his motherâ€™s college graduation â€“ heâ€™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 motherâ€™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 â€œhow dare you think you are entitled to this belt/ bag/ watchâ€ 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 nationâ€™s past.
â€œWhat are you doing in this store, where did you get this money, what are you doing in Manhattan?â€Â 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 Michiganâ€™s campus â€“ â€œFree South Africa!â€ We felt so free ourselves, or so weâ€™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?
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 Zâ€™s because I donâ€™t know his music well, but I loved the song he collaborated on with Alicia Keys, â€œEmpire State of Mind (New York).â€ 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. â€œNew York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/ Thereâ€™s nothing you canâ€™t do/ These streets will make you feel brand new/ Big lights will inspire you.â€
Spiritually we needed that song and it was everywhere. Even if you donâ€™t think youâ€™ve heard the song, youâ€™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. Thereâ€™s nothing you canâ€™t do in New York, Keys tells us â€“ except, of course, buy a Ferragamo belt at Barneys if youâ€™re black. When the Daily News finally tracked down Jay Z, in Sweden on his â€œMagna Cartaâ€ tour, reporters were informed that he was â€œunable to answer.â€ 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 Zâ€™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, â€œNickels and Dimesâ€:
I’m just trying to find common ground/Â ‘fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a nigga down/Â 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 friendâ€™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 â€œDay O.â€ They may not know his importance to the civil rights movement as one of the major benefactors of Dr. Martin Luther Kingâ€™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 BeyoncÃ©, 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 lookingâ€¦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 BeyoncÃ©, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now youâ€™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 Belafonteâ€™s approach, Belafonte makes an important point, and not just to Mr. and Mrs. Carter; please, say something. You have money and a platform â€“ talk about police brutality, education, poverty, anything other than what you drink (Cristal) or donâ€™t, or the clothes you wear (Jay Z in his song â€œTom Fordâ€: â€“ â€œClap for a nigga with his rapping ass/ blow a stack for your niggas with your trapping ass.â€)Â 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 â€œboy.â€
On Monday, October 28, Jay Z finally responded to critics of his silence on the Barneys incident.Â On his website he wrote:
I havenâ€™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 didnâ€™t want to make without the full facts. Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project, wouldnâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 itâ€™s towards, arenâ€™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.Â I worry about us as a people, about black capitalism at any cost, that â€œovercomingâ€ in Dr. Kingâ€™s vision means that blacks get to take our place at the table as exploiters.Â 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. BeyoncÃ© recently did a summer ad campaign for H&M, and a 50-million-dollar campaign for Pepsi.Â 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, â€œSometimes we are required to work from morning to morning. They say, â€˜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 â€” 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 â€œsell out,â€ to abandon our principles or integrity for currency â€“ whether that currency be money, someoneâ€™s opinion of us, or a relationship we feel we canâ€™t live without. (It is very limiting and convenient to interpret the archetype of The Prostitute as selling actual sex for money â€“ most of us can comfortably say weâ€™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 Souljahâ€™s album during the 80s, with its over-the-top expressions of rage. In one of her songs, â€œSlaveryâ€™s Back In Effect,â€ 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 Macyâ€™s in handcuffs, what they are calling â€œShopping While Blackâ€ and the controversy surrounding “Stop and Frisk,” itâ€™s suddenly not so funny â€“ 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 worldâ€™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, â€œHe isnâ€™t allowed to commentâ€? Â 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 couldnâ€™t see it. All these years after slavery and weâ€™re still not allowed to read.
What hurts is that Christian and Phillips followed the rules â€“ 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 isnâ€™t a New York I recognize anymore.
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. Â 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 motherâ€™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.
Whatâ€™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.
Godâ€™s tryinâ€™ to tell youÂ somethinâ€™! Â â€“ 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 â€œRoseâ€ 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. Â 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 â€œEmpire State of Mind.â€ 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 itâ€™s about more than designer belts and hoodies. Itâ€™s about a city and country, and the people who continue to betray them â€“ on the inner- city streets, in the residential neighborhoods, in law enforcement, in the justice system.Â Itâ€™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.
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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'GOOD LUCK WITH THAT'
‘Trying to Have It Both Ways’: Ivanka ‘Flailing’ as Trump Indictment Slams Family
While Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump have taken to their social media platforms to viciously lash out at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for indicting their father on a reported 30 charges, Ivanka Trump posted a rather muted statement on her Instagram account which simply said, “I love my father, and I love my country. Today, I am pained for both. I appreciate the voices across the political spectrum expressing support and concern.”
According to Daily Beast conservative columnist Matt Lewis, the so-called “First Daughter,” who served in the White House with her father, is trying to stay true to her former president dad, while distancing herself from his legal problems — and it is not going to work for her.
As Lewis put it, Ivanka is “flailing” in her attempts to shed the memory of her participation in the Trump administration that reached its lowest point on Jan. 6 when supporters of Trump stormed the Capitol and sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives.
“It’s hard to argue with anything Ivanka says here, but it is not a statement of moral clarity. Nor is it (conversely) a statement of strong support for her father. She’s flailing and trying to have it both ways,” Lewis wrote before adding, “Now, it’s understandable that a daughter might not want to utterly condemn her father. Further, children are not responsible for their parents’ sins. Except, of course, if you consider the fact that Ivanka served as the primary weapon in the ‘Trump’s not such a belligerent pig as his four decades as a public figure would make you think’ propaganda push.”
RELATED: Trump is so ‘unmoored from reality’ he can’t act as a defense witness: ‘Art of the Deal’ ghostwriter
Noting that Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner — who has baggage of his own — both stuck with Trump in the White House for all four years, Lewis added, “As far as the former first daughter goes, she and her husband might be done with politics, but once you’ve been a party to an administration like Trump’s, it’s going to be a long time before politics is done with them.”
“So, Ivanka, you want to have a seat at the cool apolitical kids’ table? You want to be once again accepted by the socially liberal billionaires’ children you used to go to the Hamptons with and now have Miami Beach playdates with? You want to enjoy the privileges of being a Trump with none of the shame? Good luck with that,” he concluded.
You can read more here.
Dominion Wins ‘Blockbuster Victories’ Against Fox News – Last Legal Issue Will Be Decided by a Jury: Report
Dominion Voting Systems won what are being called “blockbuster victories” Friday afternoon when a judge ruled the company suing Fox News for $1.6 billion in a major defamation lawsuit had met its burden of proof that Rupert Murdoch‘s far-right wing cable channel had repeatedly made false statements.
The final, and likely greatest legal issue Dominion will have to prove will be actual malice. That issue will be decided in a jury trial, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis ruled Friday, according to Law & Crime.
Unlike previous cases, Fox News will reportedly not be able to argue the on-air statements its personalities made were opinion.
CNN legal analyst and Brookings senior fellow Norm Eisen calls Friday’s decision a “huge win for Dominion on their summary judgment motion against Fox News.”
READ MORE: Capitol Police Issue Warning Over Possible Trump Protests ‘Across the Country’
“Dominion won partial summary judgement that what Fox said about them was false! Now they just have to prove actual malice and damages,” Eisen says. “Meanwhile Fox’s motion was totally denied.”
Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, an MSNBC contributor adds: “Dominion’s evidence Fox made false statements with reckless disregard is as strong as any I’ve seen.”
The judge was very clear in his ruling.
“While the Court must view the record in the light most favorable to Fox, the record does not show a genuine issue of material fact as to falsity,” Judge Davis wrote. “Through its extensive proof, Dominion has met its burden of showing there is no genuine issue of material fact as to falsity. Fox therefore had the burden to show an issue of material fact existed in turn. Fox failed to meet its burden.”
READ MORE: ‘Propaganda Network’: Media Reporter Says Dominion Filing Exposes Fox News as ‘Void of the Most Basic Journalistic Ethics’
Attorney and MSNBC host and legal analyst Katie Phang points to this key passage in Judge Davis’ ruling.
Dominion has won the argument on the issue of falsity, meaning that as the Court funds below, “it is CRYSTAL clear that none of the Statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.” pic.twitter.com/7lKEspN0WI
— Katie S. Phang (@KatiePhang) March 31, 2023
Court watchers and news junkies are familiar at this point with the massive legal filings Dominion has made in which it exposed how Fox News knowingly made false statements regarding the 2020 presidential election. Those filings, each hundreds of pages, also detail internal Fox News communications and bombshell conversations between the company’s top personalities, executives, and even Chairman Rupert Murdoch.
Image of Rupert Murdoch via Shutterstock
RIGHT WING EXTREMISM
Capitol Police Issue Warning Over Possible Trump Protests ‘Across the Country’
The U.S. Capitol Police and the Senate Sergeant at Arms on Friday jointly issued a statement warning they “anticipate” Trump protests across the country. The statement is not time-specific, and it states it has no information on “credible threats,” but some Democratic offices are allowing staffers to work from home Friday and Tuesday.
“The Sergeant at Arms and United States Capitol Police (USCP) anticipate demonstration activity across the country related to the indictment of former President Trump. While law enforcement is not tracking any specific, credible threats against the Capitol or state offices, there is potential for demonstration activity. USCP is working with law enforcement partners, so you may observe a greater law enforcement presence on Capitol Hill,” the statement reads.
“The SAA and USCP are monitoring the potential nationwide impacts to Senate state offices,” it adds.
The House Sergeant at Arms was conspicuously absent from the statement. Speaker Kevin McCarthy has control over that office.
READ MORE: Trump Trial Could Go Well Into the 2024 Election – Or Possibly Even Past It: Former Prosecutor
Additionally, Axios is reporting, “several House Democrats are allowing staffers to work from home as a safety precaution,” noting that “the memory of Trump supporters ransacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 is still fresh on the mind.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) is allowing staff to work from home for safety reasons. She told Axios, “I don’t ever want to see a Jan. 6 again.”
“I’ve been in the Trump hate tunnel, Donald Trump has gone after me, and quite frankly I don’t have security. I don’t have entourages.”
She’s not the only Democrat to raise concerns.
“Much of the language from the former President and his devotees is similar to what inspired Jan. 6th,” U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips said. “I’m concerned about safety for my colleagues and my staff.”
READ MORE: ‘Lighting the Match’: Marjorie Taylor Greene Blasted for Off the Rails Rant Defending Trump
Meanwhile, House Republicans are issuing full-throated support for Trump and calling for protests.
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who was called out by name in a six-page letter Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg sent to Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan Friday morning, announced she will be in New York on Tuesday to support Trump when he is arraigned. She has posted several tweets since Trump was indicted.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy issued a statement Thursday seemingly designed to gin up rage and action in the MAGA base.
“Alvin Bragg has irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our Presidential election. As he routinely frees violent criminals to terrorize the public, he weaponized our sacred system of justice against President Donald Trump. The American people will not tolerate this injustice, and the House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account.”
Image by Elvert Barnes via Flickr and a CC license
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