African-American Poetry from 19th Century America, Racialized Fear in Ebola Coverage, and the Annie Lennox Mess

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voices beyondThis week in Juicy Fruit, we of course talk about Annie Lennox, who released a cover of the iconic Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” in the same week she weighed in on Beyoncé’s right to claim feminism. Later in the week, Ms. Lennox gave an interview to Tavis Smiley in which she managed to explain the meaning of our titular song without even using the words black, African American, or lynching.

And Ebola coverage remains wall-to-wall in the media, but how does the fear of the disease tie in to deep-seated fear of what was once called “the Dark Continent,” and ideas about the “other” being scary and dangerous?

Shonda Rhimes also gets a shout out for her no-nonsense dismissal of a twitter user’s complaint that there are too many “gay scenes” in her shows.

And for our feature interview, we speak with Erika DeSimone, co-editor of Voices Beyond Bondage: An Anthology of Verse by African Americans of the 19th Century. Often when we think of black Americans in that period, we think of people who couldn’t read or write, because they weren’t allowed to learn. But DeSimone’s book dispels that myth—at the same time bringing to light beautiful poetry.

“Something is very wrong that we have this huge treasure trove of literature, this whole poetry movement, that nobody has said ‘Hey, let’s pay attention to this,'” she says.

We asked why this work has gone unnoticed for so long. “History is written by the winners,” she explains. “And by and large the winners are not African Americans in this country.”

Unpacking White Privilege. Plus, Are These Really America’s Favorite Desserts?

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In the late 1990’s, feminist and anti-racist activist Peggy McIntosh described white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

The invisible knapsack metaphor persists today as a way of introducing people to the concept of privilege. It comes in many forms – male, white, straight, cis, able-bodied, and other identities all confer certain benefits – but the suggestion of privilege can spark emotional denial.

On this week’s show we talk about white privilege and how it manifests itself in our culture, with Dr. David Owen. He’s an associate professor of philosophy at UofL, and is on the local planning committee for the White Privilege Conference, coming to Louisville this Spring.

In our Juicy Fruit Segment, we bring you the story of a hairstylist in Prince George’s County in Maryland, who was fired when his HIV-positive status was discovered by his boss.

We also dissect Sarah Silverman’s controversial equal pay video (and the enduring phenomenon of the celebrity non-apology-apology), and how gay-friendly comics often miss the mark when they stray into race- or gender-related humor. And finally, we celebrate National Dessert Month! Jai goes through a list of the most popular desserts in the US and we try to guess what they are. Did we agree with the choices? Let’s just say this week marks the first time the phrase “rot-gut dessert” was ever uttered on Strange Fruit.

(Picture courtesy of White Privilege Conference, which is still looking for volunteers! Find out how you can help at whiteprivilegeconference.com.)

SCOTUS Does Everything By Doing Nothing; Raven-Symone & the Usefulness of Labels

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This week, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the marriage equality cases that were pending in Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Utah. By doing so, they legalized same-sex marriage in many states immediately (including our neighbors to the north!), and paved the way for others to follow soon.

Fairness Campaign Director Chris Hartman joins us this week to talk about the decision, what it means, and what it doesn’t—particularly for those of us in the Bluegrass State. (Full Disclosure: Jaison and Kaila are long-time board members at Fairness.)

ep88collageHe also brings us news from Berea that makes this week bittersweet: After over three years of trying to pass an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the measure was voted down by the city council. We talk about the long fight there and the dedicated Bereans who fought it.

Chris also sits in for our Juicy Fruit segment this week, where the topic du jour is labels. Actor Raven-Symone received much side-eye this week for telling Oprah that she doesn’t identify as African American, but as American, and she doesn’t identify as gay or bisexual, but as a “human who loves humans.”

To Chris, it seems apropos to what he heard in Kentucky this week. “Those sorts of platitudes are exactly what we have faced in Berea and the other cities where people love to say, I believe in fairness for everyone, I don’t wanna discriminate against anyone, everybody should be treated with human dignity, but I don’t support [...] creating protected classes,'” he says.

Chris also pointed out the tendency of younger people to eschew labels—or in some cases, to identify as queer rather than specifically gay—because they don’t remember a time when those labels were more necessary for solidarity and community building. “They don’t want a closet to exist. I don’t think any of us do. But we came from a place where closets were necessary.”

Jaison gives Raven the benefit of the doubt. “I saw it more as an indictment of society’s racism and homophobia,” he says. “She said, ‘If I allow you to label me as lesbian, if I allow you to label me as African American, I also allow you to insert upon me all those stereotypes that you think about blacks, and think about lesbians.’ I just think that because she isn’t a student of queer studies or black studies, she doesn’t have the language to articulate that in a way that sounds better.”

The consensus in our studio seems to be that if you’re comfortable with yourself and confident in your identity, labels shouldn’t make you uncomfortable.

“That’s cool and all, that you don’t do the label thing,” Kaila says, “but thank god we had people like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston—people who weren’t afraid to claim blackness, who weren’t afraid to claim queerness. Thank god for those people.”

 

Susan Sarandon & the WWE’s Damien Sandow Weigh in on Muhammad Ali’s Legacy; Janelle Monáe on the Android as a Metaphor for Oppressed People

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It’s been a star-studded week for Team Strange Fruit! We spent some time recently on the red carpet at the 2nd Annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards, where we got to chat with celebrities and honorees about the Champ’s civil rights legacy.

star studded collageAli famously refused service in the US Army when he was drafted during the Vietnam War, claiming conscientious objector status. The Army denied his claim, and Ali was found guilty of refusing induction, stripped of his World Boxing Association Championship title, and banned from the sport for nearly four years—at what would seem to be the peak of his athletic career. (Here’s a great timeline of Ali’s life.)

This week on the show you’ll hear us check in with Susan Sarandon, who was honored with the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Global Citizenship. She pointed out the significance of Ali’s actions. “You just do not see celebrities or athletes putting themselves on the line the way that he did,” she explained.

“If you look at the context in which he came forward, it was so heavy and so brave of him to take the stance that he did, when the country was on fire with so much racism, and the Vietnam War was so divisive.”

We also chatted with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer, and were completely charmed by Kid President. (We didn’t have room for all our red carpet interviews in the main show this week, so check our playlist at the bottom of the post for interviews with Holly Robinson Peete, Jim Brown, William Mapother, and more, as bonus fruit!)

For our feature interview, we speak to the Electric Lady herself, Janelle Monáe, who was in Louisville for the Idea Festival. She and some of of her compatriots from the Wondaland Arts Society spoke to a group of young people in a session devoted to improving the world by the year 2035.

She has famously avoided questions about her sexual orientation, preferring instead to eschew labels. We caught up with her in the green room before her presentation, and asked her why.

“First of all, I think it’s boring,” she said. “Although I wear black and white, I know that my life is not black and white. We’re complex beings.”

red carpetShe also explained her use of alter-ego Cindi Mayweather as a metaphor for oppressed peoples, and gave us one of our favorite quotes ever, on the subject of women: “We come in peace, but we mean business.”

And finally, for this week’s Juicy Fruit, we were joined in the Strange Fruit Studios by the WWE star Damien Sandow (That’s his character name, but he graciously started off the segment with, “I’m off today, so you can call me Aaron if you want.”).

We asked for his take on the recent attention on athletes and domestic violence. “When you’re on television, when you play for a sports team, you’re gonna have people—especially children—that look up to you, whether you like it or not. And that is a responsibility, in my opinion.”

Speaking of children, Aaron spends a lot of his time in schools, talking with kids about making good choices and helping each other. He was also at the Ali Awards and made a donation to the center after attending.

“It’s a history lesson,” he says about the center. “And also it’s a testament to the man. And that man has inspired so many people.” We know the phrase ‘gentle giant’ is clichéd, but it does come to mind when you meet Aaron—at least outside the ring. We’re glad he’s making Louisville his home, and can’t wait to see what he might do next!

Artist Turns Demolished Public Housing into… a Bee Sanctuary? Plus, the “Angry Black Woman” in the New York Times

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It’s IdeaFestival time in Louisville, and that means cool people who do cool things descend on our city to talk about the things they’re doing. We chatted with one of those folks, Juan Williams Chávez, this week about his work, and what it means to do social activism through art.

honey crewOne of Chávez’s big projects, the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary, takes place on land that was once home to one of the country’s most notoriously awful housing developments. Built in the mid-1950s, the 33-building, high-rise complex fell into almost immediate disrepair, and was described in a Missouri history book as “something out of a Charles Dickens novel.” It was eventually demolished in the mid 1970s.

Today, thanks to Chávez, it is home to a bee sanctuary, where members of the community learn about urban agriculture. The decision on how to use the land wasn’t incidental. “Bees function as a community,” Chávez explains. “Pruitt-Igoe was designed for community. I wanted it to kind of go back to community.”

In our Juicy Fruit segment this week, we talk about the “angry black woman” stereotype that reared its head in a New York Times feature this week, pointed at television producer Shonda Rhimes.

The backlash was righteous and overwhelming, and the Times’ Public Editor ended up issuing an apology (and an acknowledgment of how troubling it is that none of its 20 critics are black). We break down the stereotype and how it does and doesn’t play out in pop culture.

“And speaking of things that are hard for a lot of folks to understand,” as Jaison says, “it’s Bisexual Awareness Week.” We dispel some of the most common misconceptions about our bi brothers and sisters.

Project Runway’s Mondo Guerra on the Importance of Communication in HIV Treatment; Pioneering Black Artists in Jug Band History

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mondo2It’s a busy weekend in Louisville! The Louisville AIDS Walk takes place this Sunday on the Belvedere, and one of this year’s special guests is fashion designer Mondo Guerra. Mondo came out as HIV positive when he was on season 8 of Project Runway (he came in second, but would later win the first Project Runway All-Star season). He’s now part of Project I Design—a national campaign geared toward improving communication between HIV patients and their doctors.

We speak with Mondo this week, who says that despite increased awareness, there’s still stigma surrounding HIV. When he came out on TV, he’d been HIV positive for 10 years but hadn’t told his family yet, waiting until just before the episode aired to have that conversation. “I was very self shaming, and I was very embarrassed, and I didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about this,” he says.

“Stigma has always played a role in this experience, this journey that I’ve had with HIV. But at the point that I’m at right now, living with HIV for 13 years and what I’ve been through, I really try to not use the word ‘stigma’ in my own personal vocabulary, because I feel like there’s so much negativity attached to it.”

Elsewhere in town this weekend, the National Jug Band Jubilee is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Saturday at Waterfront Park. Author Michael L. Jones is on the event’s board, and hopes to broaden the appeal of jug bands to the descendants of those who pioneered it: African Americans.

loujug“When you think of the African slaves, when they came here, they didn’t have instruments. They had to make their own instruments,” he explains. “And so they turned household objects into musical instruments.”

Jones stopped by our studio this week to introduce us to some jug band greats who made music history right here in Louisville. His new book, Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee, contains photos and detailed stories about how Louisville played such a big role in the evolution of jug band music—and how record companies tried to erase the black players who contributed to its rise.

“This is something that originated in African origins, that African Americans are totally divorced from, because they think plantations, and banjos and stuff,” Jones says. “[In] jug music, you see the first combination of European tunes and African rhythms,” he says.

“I tell people it’s the secret history of rock and roll.”

 

Louisville’s own Sara Martin, billed as “The Famous Moanin’ Mama,” sings the Jug Band Blues, in 1924.
 
 

InVisible Ink: The media on race, sexual orientation and gender-based violence

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[Originally published at LEO Weekly]
 

jaisonleoA recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that the old punchline about white folks having only one black friend might very well be true. (Who else was happy when Aisha Tyler’s character briefly appeared on the NBC sitcom “Friends”?) The Washington Post breaks down the results of the study this way: “In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race.” This means that white people have about 91 times as many white friends as they do black ones. White America, please marinate on this information and then govern yourselves accordingly. And Black America, the next time a white co-worker tells you that some of their best friends are black, smack ‘em on the head with this LEO and tell ‘em to quit lying.

It’s football season, and despite reviews that he played well in the preseason, Michael Sam was dropped by the St. Louis Rams, but then picked up at the last minute by the Dallas Cowboys. I am glad that Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, will continue to play the game he loves and get paid for it, at least for now. It seems to me that because he is openly gay, Sam’s performance on the football field is judged more critically and skeptically than would otherwise have been the case. Jason Collins, as the NBA’s first openly gay player, has similarly had his performance discounted and underrated, despite indications that he was a satisfactory player before his coming out. Couple Sam’s cut from the Rams with the offensive and reductive coverage by ESPN of his locker room showering habits, and it seems to me that openly gay professional athletes in the major pro sports still have an uphill battle to get the respect they deserve both on and off the field.
Elsewhere in football, 27-year-old Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens is facing stiff public backlash after TMZ released video footage of the 212-pound running back cold-cocking his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator and dragging her unconscious body into the hallway. Initially, the league only suspended Rice for two games for the domestic battery incident, admittedly never having asked the hotel for the elevator footage. Readers, please understand that athletes have been punished more harshly than a two-game suspension for smoking weed. It was only because of the video release and the subsequent public outrage that Rice has since been fired by the Ravens and banned indefinitely by the NFL. The handling of this and other domestic violence cases by the NFL sends a horrible message to players, women and young male fans alike about the value the league places on a woman’s worth.
Speaking of gender-based violence, reports of the assault and murder of trans people, especially trans women of color, continue to make the news (or not make the news). I recently hosted award-winning transgender blogger Monica Roberts of The Transgriot as a guest on my “Strange Fruit” radio show. I was shocked to learn from her that more than 400 trans women have been murdered in Brazil in the last few years.  Domestically, it happens far too often, too. A trans Latina woman named Alejandra Leos was killed in Memphis just this month. A Trans* Violence Tracking Portal (TVTP) report from May reveals that at least 102 trans people in 12 countries were murdered by that time earlier this year. Although the specific motive for each instance of violence and murder is undocumented, TVTP founder Allison Woolbert notes that social and institutional bias against trans people is the prominent factor in the deaths, as she explained in an interview with the website Vox: “All of the murders that are in our system are directly due to the societal conditions in which transgender people are forced to live. The suicides, the violence, the missing persons and the murders are all directly related to a person’s gender identity.”
I look forward to the day when violence against women—trophy wives and transgender alike—is no longer a national or international phenomenon.

How Louisville’s Local 236 Fought for Racial Integration in the 1950s

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International Harvester Co. assembly line and press, 1948. Credit Royal Photo Company Collection, University of Louisville Photographic Archive, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

International Harvester Co. assembly line and press, 1948. Credit Royal Photo Company Collection, University of Louisville Photographic Archive, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

Labor historian Toni Gilpin will make two appearances in Louisville tomorrow to tell the little-known story of a local  labor union that was ahead of its time.

A local chapter of the United Farm Machinery workers organized at Louisville’s International Harvester plant in the late 1940s, and began advocating for racial equality both inside and outside of the plant. Their efforts would lead to an entire factory of mostly white workers walking off the job to protest the unfair treatment of their African American colleagues.

Outside the factory walls, union members tried to desegregate the Brown Hotel and Cherokee Park—both whites-only at the time—and were met with violence and forcible removal by police.

Gilpin spoke with Kaila about the work of Local 236. She will appear tomorrow afternoon at the University of Louisville and tomorrow night at the National Association of Letter Carriers.

More photos of the International Harvester plant are available in the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives.

Journalist Chris Tomlinson Explores His Family’s Relationship with Slavery & Its Legacy

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Tomlinson-Hill-Cover

“There are black people in town who have the same last name as me, and I never thought about why that might be.” 

Author Chris Tomlinson says he hears that a lot while touring for his recent book, called Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name—One White, One Black. In it, he traces his family’s history to a cotton plantation in Texas, and reaches out to another Tomlinson family whose ancestors were held as slaves there.

Slavery is a topic that brings up strong feelings in Americans, because as Chris points out, it was part of our country’s economic and social as recently as five generations ago. But he says it wasn’t white guilt that motivated his work on the book. “I’m not asking forgiveness for what my great grandfather did,” he insists. “On the other hand, I do have an obligation to recognize the privilege that I have because my ancestors oppressed people.”

Chris says slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the institutionalized racism that has always been present in the United States have afforded white people unfair advantages, and it isn’t helpful to ignore that reality. “Until 1964, no white member of my family ever had to compete with a person of color to get a job or to get a privilege. And even today I can go places and I’m treated in a different way.”

Tomlinson Hill is a fascinating look at how the remnants of slavery are still present in our every day lives—sometimes even our own names. Tomlinson was in town as part of the Authors at the Library Series.

In our Juicy Fruit segment this week, we talk about Ray Rice, former running back for the Baltimore Ravens who was released from the team after TMZ posted video this week of him physically attacking his then-girlfriend in an elevator. The assault happened in March, but at the time, Rice received only a two-game suspension. Accounts differ about whether the NFL saw the footage then, or not until this week. 

Rice and his girlfriend were married subsequent to the attack, spurring understandable concern from experts and survivors (domestic violence rarely happens just once, and usually escalates with each incident). Others blamed Janay Rice for staying with and marrying the man who had knocked her unconscious.

Financial scholar and commentator (and Louisville native) Dr. Boyce Watkins penned an open letter to Janay Rice, praising her for her decision to stay with her abuser. We read an excerpt from his letter on this week’s show—specifically this passage, which was widely scorned on social media:

For every woman who made the mistake of staying in a relationship with a perpetually abusive man, there is another woman who is glad she made the choice to keep her family together.   Some will call these women stupid or the product of male manipulation; I call them heroes, ultimate mothers, and powerful people.

At the very least, women deserve to have a say in what happens to their families without paternalistic eavesdroppers forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.

With black families being torn apart left and right by the pitfalls of extreme feminism, we should appreciate situations where someone isn’t seeking to throw the baby out with the bathwater and destroying their family at the drop of a hat.

Dr. Story points out that while most domestic and sexual violence is intra-racial, black women feel pressure to excuse the violence visited upon them by black men. “Black women have been living with these things in silence for fear that if they air it, they’re somehow race traitors or they’re selling their man out.”

She calls for black male thinkers and writers to speak up when high-profile black men commit violent crimes against black women. “You got contempt for Darren Wilson? You need to have contempt for Ray Rice,” she explains. “Both parties felt as if it was their right to be able to do anything they wanted to a black body.”

Monica Roberts of TransGriot; High School Poets Write about Identity

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You know her from her groundbreaking work as the TransGriot, and a frequent commentator on Strange Fruit. We know her as our Auntie Monica! Award-winning blogger Monica Roberts stopped by the Strange Fruit Studios on a recent visit to Louisville, and we checked in with her about the state of trans human rights.

While Monica’s blog covers a little bit of everything—”sports, feminism, human rights, whatever I feel like talking about,” she says—the overarching focus is the lives of transgender women of color.

monicapicWhy a trans women of color blog rather than a general trans women blog? “Trans people of color experience a transition much differently from our white counterparts,” Monica explains. “We are impacted negatively by racism that we deal with in our parent society, and even in the LGBT ranks.”

Even within the transfeminine community, there are challenges unique to different segements of the population. “The issues that I face as a trans woman of African descent, and the issues that a trans woman of Latina descent faces are two different issues,” she says. “I don’t have to deal with, like a Latina woman does, being jacked up on the street for immigration issues. But both of us do have to deal with stop and frisk.”

We also take you along as we visit an after-school spoken word poetry workshop, where high school students—largely LGBTQ and African American—work through tricky subjects like oppression and identity, through their writing.

And in our Juicy Fruit segment, we get an update on Michael Sam, released by the Rams, picked up by the Cowboys’ practice squad, and obsessed over by ESPN when it comes to showering with the team. We also talk about a conservative commentator who thinks gay people should pay more for life insurance, and learn about Dr. Story’s first book, “Patricia Hill Collins: Reconceiving Motherhood.”

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