Black History Month: Asking the Hard Questions

On February 17, Sr. Coordinator of Alumni Student Recruitment & LEAD Scholars Phyllis Taylor invited the LEAD Scholars to the Alumni Center for an engaging discussion about Black History Month and the silenced social issues surrounding this celebratory time period. The event, described by Freshman Melissa Smiley as “eye-opening and inspiring,” featured guest speaker Professor Angela D. Dillard, who joined in on the viewing of an episode of the PBS series, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, and led a thought-provoking discussion about the ways in which Black History is commemorated in today’s society. “How are things being celebrated and remembered in our country and why do we care?” she asks. “Is this really just a time for the country to pat itself on the back because somewhere down the line, the country “did the right thing?”

With all of the discussion happening on campus in regard to the Black Student Union’s seven demands, it is important to discuss the underlying social issues surrounding contemporary views of Black History. The topic is often presented to us as if all aspects of racial inequality have been since eradicated or fixed; as if the social, political, and ideological changes that provide blacks with true equal opportunity and comfort in a society dominated by whites were immediately activated by the end of the civil rights movement. While we notice the blatant misrepresentations of Blacks in the media, the disproportionate amount of incarcerated Blacks, the disparities in White and Black socioeconomic status, and the shockingly low population of blacks on this very campus, the way that Black History is memorialized implies that these existing issues are merely coincidental and thus do not need to be addressed in relation to the nation’s history.

Furthermore, Dillard argues that the ways in which Black History is commemorated through monuments and celebrations are often not accurate representations of history. Black figures such as Martin Luther King, James Meredith, Malcolm X and Stokley Carmichael are idolized for merely being associated with the Civil Rights Movement, all of their personal (often conflicting) ideologies and mannerisms aside. “Somewhere along the line, history can sometimes become two-dimensional. We lose the knowledge that history is made up lives and lives are made of people and people are complicated. I think the Civil Rights movement is something of a mythology,” Junior Matthew Williams said. James Meredith, for example, disagreed with beliefs associated with the civil rights movement and considered himself very far removed from the movement as a whole. Yet, the recently vandalized Civil Rights Monument at the University of Mississippi features a life-sized statue of Meredith Himself, the man who, as Dillard says, resented the movement as a whole.

Nevertheless, sometimes the impact that history is expected to make upon society cannot reach the desired intensity if history merely writes itself. “I think we sometimes lose sight of reality when we think of our history… I don’t think that is a bad thing, though. The civil rights leaders were great men and women, heroes even… We need giants to emulate, to aspire to,” Williams said. It would be wrong to lose faith in the individuals who exhibited such unabridged courage during the time when non-violent protestors were beaten and hosed, James Meredith was shot on the Mississippi border, Stokley Carmichael shouted “BLACK POWER” and LBJ championed the phrase “We shall overcome.”

However, there are pressing questions that should be asked. Who is being left out of Black History? What portions of Black history are our nation’s government deciding to portray and not to portray? Why was Rosa Parks not allowed to speak at the March on Washington? Why are the deeper issues in Black History often separated from White history? Why do many Blacks on campus feel unwelcome, unsafe, and simply out of place?

Just because our nation flaunts egalitarianism, because our nation is desegregated, and because our nation did, at some point, “do the right thing,” it does not mean that these questions are negligible. Contemporary goals for thorough integration and overall cultural competency must still be met, and discussions such as these are small yet powerful contributions to the cause.


India Solomon
University of Michigan
Residential College Class of 2017

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Don’t Forgive, Don’t Forget: Why I Stand Behind Dylan Farrow

In 1977, Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old girl. In 1988, Sean Penn was arrested for beating Madonna with a baseball bat. Charlie Sheen was arrested for assaulting his wife in 2009, but his history of abusing women stretches back to his college days. And Woody Allen probably – definitely – molested his daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1993.

These statements make people uncomfortable. More often than not, slight amendments will be offered – “allegedly,” people will interject. “Nothing’s been proven.” Then the conversation will shift to how Annie Hall is a really great movie.

Well, no one’s arguing that you can’t separate a person’s body of work from their arrest records, but I would argue that the people who wince when you mention words like “rapist,” “pedophile,” or “batterer” do not simply want us to give Manhattan fair treatment. They do not want to just watch a movie for a few hours in peace.

No. These people, and our entire society, want the dark stain of transgression lifted altogether. We want it to go away. Because if we believe the survivors of their crimes, if we convict, the Woody Allens of the world won’t be able to make movies anymore. And that’s just too big a price to pay.

“We just don’t know the facts,” the world cries.

Here are some facts: according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, approximately 2 – 8% of sexual assault allegations are false. Between 4.7 and 7.6% of child sexual abuse allegations are false – in fact, nearly all research done on this topic shows that children tend to understate, rather than overstate, the extent of the abuse.

Yes, I know: everyone is innocent until proven guilty!  Unless, of course, they’re the victim – in which case, despite the research and the studies and the facts – they’re liars until proven truthful. They’re the ones who are put on trial.

When Dylan Farrow published her open letter on February 1st, she provided a clear, concise, and heartfelt account of her childhood abuse, and her words provided an insightful analysis of the way we forgive sex offenders and abandon their victims. “For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away.”

And she’s right – that’s exactly what they were. It’s hard enough for justice to be served when the perpetrator is an average person off the street, but when they’re a white, educated, extravagantly wealthy and universally adored celebrity, they’re untouchable. And frankly, we’d rather not try to touch them anyway. When we give Woody Allen an Oscar, what we’re really saying is “your creative endeavors make you worth more than a seven-year-old child.” We pat him on the back and tell him he matters, while we kick her into the shadows and tell her that she doesn’t.

And when that child emerges from the shadows 21 years later, we’re going to wonder what her angle is. There’s a statute of limitations on child abuse cases, so Allen can’t face charges. Farrow has married and, it would seem, moved on.  In other words, this seems to be the part where the “lying bitch” decides to reintroduce old rumors just to cash in on some of the attention surrounding our American film icon.

But that argument, which is the one that Allen makes in his response to Farrow’s letter (albeit slightly modified; for him, the criminal mastermind behind this smear campaign is his ex-wife Mia Farrow) has never made much sense to me. Why would a well-adjusted, 28-year-old woman want to step into the spotlight and fabricate a tale of childhood sexual abuse when we know from what we’ve seen over and over again that she will either be ignored or crucified? Why do we keep insisting that women who speak out against famous men are manipulative, power-hungry, or insane when all they’re really doing is throwing themselves to the wolves?

Woody Allen is a child molester. Picking and choose who receives consequences for their actions is the modus operandi of our justice system. And our reluctance to hear those ugly words – from Dylan, from anyone –  is derived from the discomfort of seeing our hypocrisy laid bare.

How many Oscars does a child molester have to win before we’re willing to become complicit in his crimes?


Hannah Engler
University of Michigan
hmengler@umich.edu

The Incarceration of Avery Edison and Why it Matters

We in the US like to think of Canada as our non-threatening and much more liberal cousin to the north. This week, however, they are making headlines for a human rights violation: detaining a transgender woman in a men’s prison.

British comedian Avery Edison arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Monday morning with the intention of visiting her partner and picking up some things she left behind before she moved back to London. Because she had previously overstayed her student visa, she was denied entry and interrogated by immigration officials. Though her passport identifies her as female, the officer regularly switched between male and female pronouns when talking about her on the phone. She even overheard him say that he had “one male ready for pick-up.”

Instead of sending her home to England, Edison was sent to prison. Before the officers determined where to detain her, she was forced to undergo a medical examination to determine her sex. When they saw that she was a pre-operative MTF (male-to-female), they decided to send her to Maplehurst Correctional Complex, an all-male facility. Never mind that her passport identified her as female and that there is a trans* unit at a nearby women’s facility. Her genitals were the only factor in this decision.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened in Canada. According to the Ontario Human Rights Convention, it is completely legal.

“Transgendered people may be placed with those of the sex with which they do not identify,” it states.

Since violence against the transgender community is widespread in the general population, one can only imagine the conditions within the prison population. If an inmate’s gender presentation is different from the rest of the population, they are far more likely to be abused by staff and inmates alike than their cisgender counterparts. Most people would consider this a cruel and unusual punishment. Not to mention that the law does not even get the terminology right (transgender is widely considered correct, not transgendered) Being humiliated and de-humanized before being sent to a violent environment the way Edison has is something that no one should ever have to experience. Hopefully this awful situation will provoke change in the way the legal system treats transgender offenders.

For more information and updates, check out the #FreeAvery hashtag on Twitter.


Lauren Harsh
University of Michigan

Haruko Nishimura: The Many Faces of a Fantastic Femme

“My passion as a director and performer is to question the relationship between audience and performance—to put them in each other’s way—to cause collision and conflict—with the goal of awakening and transformation. The characters I create are transformers—the weak become strong, the powerful losing power, the good becoming evil—they express unimaginable possibilities.” – Haruko Nishimura, http://www.gf.org

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure to see Degenerate Art Ensemble give a presentation as a part of the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design’s Lecture Series. A Seattle-based performance group, Degenerate Art Ensemble (from here on out, I’ll refer to them as D.A.E.) was founded in 1993 by Haruko Nishimura, the group’s main performer, vocalist, and choreographer, and Joshua Kohl, the group’s composer, musical director, and conductor. While both Haruko and Joshua are equally vital to D.A.E.’s productions, I was most drawn to Haruko’s story and role in D.A.E. She described to the audience her beginnings as a dancer – how she traveled around the country performing on street corners, sidewalks, and underneath bridges – in order to express herself, and to witness the public’s reaction to her dancing. I remember when she told the audience about her experience dancing on the University of Washington’s campus: as students began to join her, someone shouted, “It’s a motherfucking dance off!” Haruko laughed as she said she suddenly had to “dance for her life.”

What was most inspiring to me was D.A.E.’s current project, titled “Predator’s Songstress.” It was created in 2012 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962, but its true power lay in the story told of the performance. In “Predator’s Songstress”, Haruko takes on the persona of real and imagined iconic women, or “anti-heroines”, exploring their influence and transformation through song, dance, and the surrounding architecture of the Space Needle – the performance’s site. The first three portraits created were Yamamba, Warrior, and Gracie. In each of these portraits, Haruko is decorated in heavy prosthetic make-up to make the identities of these women all the more realistic.

Yamamba is an imagined elderly mountain woman who is cast away from her society once she reaches old age, expected to slowly wither away and die in the wilderness. Despite this, the wilderness does not destroy Yamamba – it only gives her more power and she thrives more than she ever would back in her society.

Warrior is an imagined Duwamish woman, part of the indigenous Native American tribe in Seattle, Washington. The Duwamish people have very little representation in the modern world and have been continually oppressed since the city’s establishment in 1865. Warrior takes on a Joan of Arc-like demeanor, and in Haruko’s performance, she leads a rebellion to take back her beloved city.

Gracie is undeniably real; in the 1960’s, she opened a very successful strip joint in Seattle. While it had a short run, for it was closed within months after opening, many of Seattle’s citizens, even the mayor, enjoyed its vivacity and lively spunk. She was a frontrunning businesswoman.

For me, Haruko Nishimura is a truly inspirational woman. Through her passion of song and dance, she gives a voice to the voiceless and expresses the many roles of women in hauntingly beautiful ways. What I really love about this project is how diverse and truly unique each woman is – it shows us how as women, regardless of age, race, or background, we can all find our own special ways to unveil our power and make a difference in our lives. If Haruko’s next “anti-heroine” was you, how would your portrait be represented?

Find more information about the fantastic work of the Degenerate Art Ensemble at http://degenerateartensemble.com/.


Lauren Stachew
University of Michigan

NIPPLE ALERT: What’s So Wrong with Nudity?

 

With the media currently deep in the midst of its Miley Cyrus obsession – praising her, shaming her, and everything in between – it is no surprise that she has been dominating the covers of virtually every magazine in existence. From the trashiest of tabloids to luxurious couture, everyone and their mother knows that if Miley is on the cover, no matter the validity of the headline, people will pay attention. Which is why her *scandalous* feature in W Magazine’s February issue has caused quite the stir:

Surprisingly, this isn’t Miley’s first nude magazine cover (hello Rolling Stone).

What really appears to have people up in arms is one particular picture in the spread.  GASP.  It’s a NIPPLE. Not even all of it is exposed, but it seems like mothers everywhere are covering their impressionable young daughter’s eyes and devouring the comment sections of any online media outlet confirming their perspective that it is ‘racy,’ ‘inappropriate,’ ‘scandalous,’ or any other adjective under the “slut shaming” umbrella. What puzzles me is how some people react in such a harsh way when their own naked body is something they see everyday. There are people that would prefer not to have their bodies publicized sans-clothing, but is it right to judge someone who has the confidence to display it proudly?

The fact that this is Miley Cyrus we’re talking about is irrelevant. If she pulled a Lorde and had suddenly spontaneously appeared on the music scene just as she is now, a 21 year old who likes to wear nipple pasties and booty-pop, things would be different. She’d more or less be accepted as she is by fans and the industry. Maybe, we’re operating like parents that struggle to see their innocent children grow up into sexual adults; people refuse to cut celebrities any slack because we prefer to remember them the way we always have.

Whatever the reason is, we cannot keep preaching “love your body”, “you’re perfect the way you are” messages if we harshly criticize a public figure for doing just that.

We are all born naked.  If you want to proudly display your body, feel free! However, we should refrain from passing judgment on others if their behavior dissents from what you’re comfortable with, because they’re not necessarily living to please you.  Miley Cyrus is not living to please you.


Nicole Echeverria
University of Michigan

Let’s Not Stop Hillary Clinton

Recently, Time magazine published an issue with the tagline, “Can anyone stop Hillary?” on its cover. What’s worse: it featured a man holding onto a high-heeled shoe for dear life.

Clinton has not decided if she is running for presidency, but according to the Time article by David Von Drehle: ”Clinton is so globally famous, so politically wired and so primed for the presidency after two campaigns at her husband’s side and one epic race of her own that her life as a private citizen has become virtually indistinguishable from her life as a candidate.” Sounds great, right? Strong-willed, intelligent, and tenacious, Clinton is a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, whenever she or her rumored path towards presidency are talked about, it’s always in the darkest of lights. She is painted as a monster, or, as SNL so kindly pointed out, as Godzilla, on a path of destruction and power.

Why do we need to stop Hillary? Why is it that whenever a woman in politics is talked about, she is either too delicate to handle power, or too dominating and terrifying to wield it? We saw enough of it during the 2008 elections: Palin was too soft, too beautiful. Every time she opened her mouth, people wrote her off as unintelligent. Her beauty pageant past was a large focus, instead of her ideology. On the other end of the spectrum, Clinton was seen as “too shrill”. One reporter even dared to say that she sounded too much like a nagging housewife.

Men, on the other hand, no matter how idiotic they sound or how often they’re in the public eye for some controversy or another (Carlos Danger, aka “Anthony Weiner”, I’m looking at you), still receive more respect than these women who are actually improving our country.

Clinton doesn’t need to be stopped and here’s one more reason why:


Hannah Gordon
University of Michigan
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts ’16
Communication Studies
Creative Writing Fiction

Pussy Riot 101 and Current Amnesty

It’s worth a watch. A group of women dressed in bright colors with neon ski masks pulled over their faces perform Russian punk on a church altar. The collective of women, otherwise known as Pussy Riot, uses music to protest the misogyny of Russian society.

On February 21, 2012, the band performed a song near the altar at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The cathedral security service took the band members into custody. Three of the members, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Katya Samutsevich and Masha Alekhima, were convicted and imprisoned. They were not released until late December of 2013 for the following video and lyrics (translated below).

(Chorus)

St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin
Drive away! Drive away Putin!
(end chorus)

Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners are crawling and bowing
The ghost of freedom is in heaven
Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains

The head of the KGB is their chief saint
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend the Holy
Women have to give birth and to love

Holy shit, shit, Lord’s shit!
Holy shit, shit, Lord’s shit!

(Chorus)
St. Maria, Virgin, become a feminist
Become a feminist, Become a feminist
(end chorus)

Church praises the rotten dictators
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines
In school you are going to meet with a teacher-preacher
Go to class – bring him money!

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, you better believed in God
Belt of the Virgin is no substitute for mass-meetings
In protest of our Ever-Virgin Mary!

(Chorus)
St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin
Drive away! Drive away Putin!
(end chorus)

Pussy Riot is a musical collective of about 11 women and is inspired by punk bands like Johnny Rotten and singer-songwriters like Patti Smith. In August of 2012, they held a series of musical protests about the growing restrictions that women face under the oppressive rule of Vladimir Putin. The protests have expanded to include songs about LGBT rights and to show the corruption behind countless arrests that have taken place in recent years.

The arrest was meant to silence the band but instead, it handed Pussy Riot a global fan base. Amnesty International started focusing more efforts on Russian human rights violations. A book, “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,” tells their story. There is even an HBO documentary that tracks the band’s journey. The list goes on.

This Wednesday, for the first time, Pussy Riot is coming to the US. Two of the members are scheduled to speak at an Amnesty International concert in Brooklyn and afterwards, the women will return to Russia and continue protesting. Having spent close to two years in prison, the pussy rioters know exactly the risk they take every time they perform and especially now that they are expanding outside of Russia. With the Olympic games scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia later this month, they are sure to attract even more police attention when they return home.

Still, it’s the Russian government and not the band that should be worried. As they proved in 2012, locking up the rioters will never stop the riot. Pussy Riot, with its colorful ski masks and worldwide support, isn’t going anywhere.


Emma Bergman
University of Michigan