Monday, June 27, 2016


“This award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students, that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.
All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics:, the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize. Now this is also in particular for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.
Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.
Now — I’ve got more, y’all. Yesterday would’ve been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.
Now the thing is though, all of us in here getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right? Now dedicating our lives to get money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body, when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.
There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done, there’s been no tax they haven’t levied against us, and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so… “free.”
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now. And let’s get a couple of things straight, just a little side note: The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right, stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, the thing is that just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Jesse Williams, receiving the BET Humanitarian Award, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016


For many years I have been watching the film industry and other media insidiously manipulate the images and angles through which African Americans are viewed. This manipulation has been going on so long and been so consistent and pervasive I could write a book about it, but Donald Bogle already did.
       Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films is a popular book originally published in 1973. It is currently in its fourth edition, updated to include the entire twentieth century. Mr. Bogle will need more updates as the pattern continues into the twenty-first century.
It did not surprise me that Academy Award nominations were rained on Precious, the 2009 movie about a black family that is seriously dysfunctional. That kind of focus is in keeping with the Academy’s history of honoring particular types of roles played by black actors. Among the more than 300 Oscars handed out since 1927, fewer than twenty have gone to black people. 
The winning roles for black actors have largely been when they played characters that conform to conventional white expectations for African Americans—servants, slaves, musicians/athletes, or people who were corrupt and/or cruel. 
The black actors who have received Academy Awards for both leading or supporting roles are: Hattie McDaniel (a maid in Gone With the Wind, 1940), Sidney Poitier (a handyman in Lilies of the Field, 1964), Denzel Washington (a slave in Glory, 1990), Whoopi Goldberg (a dishonest psychic in Ghost, 1991), Cuba Gooding Jr. (a boxer in Jerry Maguire, 1997) Halle Berry (a waitress in Monster’s Ball, 2002), Jamie Foxx (the singer Ray Charles in Ray, 2005), Morgan Freeman (a former boxer in Million Dollar Baby, 2005), Jennifer Hudson (a singer in Dreamgirls, 2007) and Mo'Nique (a brutal and abusive mother in Precious, 2010).

In 2012, the Academy returned to where it began with McDaniel, awarding an Oscar to Octavia Spencer for her role as a maid in The Help. In 2013 two movies about American slavery—Lincoln and Django Unchained—received lots of attention. Both included black actors; however neither of the award winners for these movies was black. (Jamie Foxx was not the right kind of slave.) There was another slave movie released in time to be considered for the 2014 awards, Twelve Years a Slave. That movie excited the country so much, they totally forgot about Fruitvale Station, the movie they were marveling about earlier in the year. 
In my opinion, and I wasn’t alone in this, Fruitvale Station was an excellent movie that dealt directly with contemporary issues. And that, no doubt, was its undoing. 
Why focus on a movie that makes people squirm when you have a perfectly good "black" movie set in the distant past that reassures us all that we’ve made such great progress. Twelve Years a Slave wowed the Academy and received the 2014 Best Picture award. Steve McQueen, the black director, apparently was not so impressive. He managed to direct the Best Picture, but he was not the Best Director. Lupita Nyong’o  received an award for Best Supporting Actor in her role as, surprise! a slave.

The dubious exceptions that prove this insidious rule are Louis Gossett (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1983) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2007), who won Oscars as strong military men, though both characters were stern and pitiless. In the same year Precious was released, Morgan Freeman starred in Invictus as Nelson Mandela, one of the most inspirational figures of our time. Although Freeman was nominated, I was certain that a role depicting a black man as a shrewd, resourceful, inspiring leader would not receive an Oscar. I was right.

By celebrating only roles that are subservient, cruel, demeaning and/or within an “acceptable” profession, Hollywood's majority reinforces America’s assumption of white dominance.
The case of Denzel Washington is a stark illustration of this practice. Washington is one of the most talented actors ever; he became Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the title roles of two films about complex and empowered black men—Malcolm X (1992) and Hurricane (1999). The Academy Award voters didn't find either of those to be winning performances. In 2002 when Washington finally received an Oscar as best actor in a leading role, it was for Training Day, a film in which he played a brutal and crooked cop. That was a role he could be honored for.

Academy voters for Oscar winners are 94% white and 74% male, and their average age is sixty-three. I expect this trend to continue.
And it is. 

Excerpted from "The Viewers Involvement" in the essay collection, Not All Poor People Are Black by Janet Cheatham Bell.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

#WhitesAgainstTrump: Is Silence Consent?

 Answering and asking some questions.


I do not blame good, well-intentioned people who think of themselves as White for not wanting to be identified with, and/or responsible for those who take pride in the "supremacy" of those with white skin, like the KKK, Nazis, Donald Trump and those who support him.

However, if all Muslims are held responsible for terrorism in the name of Islam, all Mexicans are rapists and all Blacks are criminal suspects because some are, why shouldn't all Whites be considered xenophobic white supremacists? 

I know. It's uncomfortable. There's something really queasy about being assigned to a group based on something as superficial as your skin color.

 Wait a minute, doesn't that put Whites on the same level as Hispanics, Blacks and Muslims?

I'm sure that's okay with you. After all this is America and we are all equal, right? 

Besides, aren't we trying to get away from racial, religious and ethnic labeling?

Absolutely, we want to get away from that kind of labeling, but for now and for the past 238 years this is how we Americans have learned to identify and categorize people. 

To verify this, read the U.S. Constitution and its several amendments. In this document that lays out and defines who and what this country is/wants to be, Blacks are described as 3/5 of a person. The very last racial/ethnic group to be afforded the right to vote--AFTER white men with no property; AFTER black men, and AFTER women--were the Nations occupying this land before Europeans decided they should have it.

If you know your history, you know that labeling and categorizing people by religion and ethnicity/race is WHO WE ARE. A variety of groups--Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Jews--had periods of being outcasts before they were ushered into the privileges of being White. Some sped up their entry into whiteness by abandoning their heritage and Anglicizing their names. 

If all of us "obvious ethnics" are held to account for whatever someone does who looks/believes like us, don't you wonder why all Whites are not accountable for the continuing massacres by white American terrorists and the bile being spewed by Donald Trump? 

There are Whites who believe they should be accountable. Whites who don't want to be mistaken for white supremacists or assumed to agree with Trump. Their organizations Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the White Privilege Conference and the older American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) oppose racism and the injustices that come from labeling and blaming groups of people for the behavior of a few. Silence on this defining issue appears as consent.

Where do you stand?

Monday, October 5, 2015





by Janet Cheatham Bell

The night after I read "Reframing the Victim," an article in the September 13, 2015 New York Times Magazine, I woke suddenly from a sound sleep with the realization that I had been raped.

For years I had been smug about the fact that, although a couple of guys had tried to force me to have sex while we were on a date, I had successfully fought them off. I was also proud that one night when I was visiting another country, a man who lived there and whom I barely knew, maneuvered himself into giving me a ride, without my traveling companions, back to where we were staying. On the way he got "lost," which meant we "had to spend the night in a hotel." I was a woman in my thirties so I knew what his end game was. Whether he sought to seduce me, or intended to use force, I was ready when he approached me. I lied that I had a really nasty American venereal disease that I didn't want to spread in his country. He  backed away immediately and didn't try to touch me again. The next morning he drove quickly and directly to where my friends were waiting.

When I was reunited with them, they asked, "How did you get out of that?" My two friends and I were women who had learned not only to take care of ourselves, but also to make our own way in a world that overwhelmingly advantaged men. A world where we expected most men to make some attempt--whether feeble or forceful--to have sex with us, no matter whether we had known them for years or minutes. 

Counting these victories as part of my experiences, I was rather pleased with myself for not ever having been through the horror of rape. Reading that article, however, unlocked a carefully hidden memory. It wasn't really that I had forgotten the rape, I had simply refused to acknowledge or speak of it. Being a "rape victim" did not fit my image. 

Once I came of age, and by that I mean, once I figured out that I was capable of shaping my own life, I have preferred to see and present myself as a person with personal power. This was a departure from the first 25 years or so of my life when I believed I had no ability to determine how I lived. I liberated myself by deciding what other people expected of me was not how I had to be

In my childhood I was being prepared for a lifestyle dictated by my race and gender. Making this matter worse, I grew up at a time when sexuality and sensuality were only vaguely alluded to and never spoken of openly. Even married couples could not be shown in bed together on television because that could imply intimacy or sexual activity. I was told not to touch my own genitals, called "private parts." When I began menstruating this rule was suddenly and uncomfortably reversed. A new rule was introduced to never "fool around with boys." Whatever that meant. 

Eventually, my hormones demanded that I "fool around with boys" and, unsurprisingly in my ignorance, I got pregnant. I barely had any idea how women conceived, and knew absolutely nothing about contraception; not sure I'd ever heard the word. (This was before The Pill.) I was certain about one thing, however; I wasn't ready to be a mom. A couple of friends had already become parents and their lives had no appeal for me. (This story is covered in detail in "Choosing a Life in the Dark Age" an essay in my collection, Not All Poor People Are Black.) 

This was long before Roe v. Wade, so my abortion was illegal. Our family doctor, who confirmed that I was indeed pregnant, helpfully gave me the name of a competent abortionist and promised to take care of me afterward to be sure it went well. He even made a house call a few days after the abortion was completed. After I had healed, I went to him for a final exam. When he finished the vaginal exam and while I was still on the examining table with my feet up in stirrups, he raped me. Without a word, he slid his penis inside me. I couldn't believe it! What in the world was going on? I was all but naked, legs spread wide and the man who had been my family's physician for years was sticking his penis in me. 

I didn't know what to do; but, like so many women, I decided it was somehow my fault. It was because I was now a "fallen woman" that he felt free to stick his penis in me. I thought: if I hadn't had an abortion, he wouldn't have dared do this. I was so confused and ashamed for bringing this on myself that I started crying. He seemed surprised and asked why I was crying. I didn't have words to respond. I knew what he was doing was wrong, but I didn't try to get up or tell him to stop. Who was I to defy our doctor!?

Either my tears unnerved him or he had finished what he set out to do, because he stopped, told me to get dressed, and left the room.

When this memory came rushing into my consciousness, I was furious, livid! I wanted to confront him and backhand his face as hard as I could! My fury was thwarted because I couldn't find him on Google. (He's probably dead because he raped me nearly 60 years ago, and he was probably 20 years older than I was at the time.)

When he raped me, I felt helpless because I had surrendered to the belief that women had no strength. That I lived at the mercy of those who were in charge. I also knew that in American society physicians were/are considered to have unquestioned knowledge and power, especially over our bodies. I accepted the rape as my shame and did the only reasonable thing: shoved that shame into the box of sexual-things-that-are-never-to-be-mentioned, along with my abortion, and buried it as deeply as I could.

Several years later, after receiving my degree and a divorce the same month, I began to reinvent myself by doing what I wanted. I determined not to allow anyone else to define, limit or take advantage of me. I would decide who I was and what I wanted to do. In other words, I began to "use my energy in the direction of truth and love for myself."

I have learned much during this process of self-discovery that continues to this day, some fifty years later. My most important lesson is that each one of us has to claim her/his own power.

Encouraging women to believe they have no ability or responsibility to make their own choices leads to demands for policies that say if two drunk college students have sexual intercourse, the male student is guilty of rape because the female doesn't have the capacity to give consent. How does this policy work if both drunk students are the same gender? Or what if one student was a transgendered woman who had formerly been a man? Would she still be considered incapable of taking responsibility for herself? 

Fortunately, there is a bright light at the end of this very long tunnel of society's approval/denial of our rape culture. The tacit support of "boys will be boys" and the blaming of women for "enticing" boys by universities and colleges are finally coming to an end. Why? Because young women have ended their silence and are using their power in the direction of truth and love for themselves. To see how, view It Happened Here, a new documentary about rape on college campuses.The war is on!

NEXT TIME: More Sex Talk

Monday, September 28, 2015

Blacks on Television

I was there at the beginning

With a fresh television season now going, I feel it's incumbent on me to provide a little background for those who complain about how some blacks are "representing us" in TV's current offerings. I do understand our penchant for being easily annoyed because we have had and still do have many things to complain about.

My concern is that we've created such a comfy home in the Complaint Department that we forget the things we could be grateful for. What you focus on  E X P A N D S, so I want to focus on and expand a few things I'm grateful for regarding black folk on television. 

First of all, we are on television! and it's now gone beyond the stage of our being occasional "tokens."

There was a long exchange on Face Book some days ago about "loud, fat, sassy black women" on daytime talk shows. I don't watch these shows, so I can only go by the lamentations in the discussion, to which I added this.

"I think the producers (as always) are doing what they believe will bring eyeballs to their shows. There is a desperate competition for viewers these days. Tyler Perry has demonstrated that his brand brings viewers; that's why Oprah snatched him up. If you can't get TP, you can at least hire TP-type characters and hope that will do the trick. And apparently, it has. The Real Housewives of Atlanta pulls the viewers and NeNe's career is blowing up. On the other hand, Shonda's women aren't doing too bad, either."

Viola Davis, Regina King and Uzo Aduba had just won Emmy Awards, and not a one of them played a "loud, fat, sassy black woman." Nobody in the discussion thread bothered to mention this. 

I am not a fan of Tyler Perry's shows, and I have recoiled every time I've seen an episode of Real Housewives/Basketball Wives; HOWEVER, I am thrilled to see all these black folks getting paid in the entertainment industry. I know you youngsters believe there have always been blacks on television, except they were often not representing us in the way we wanted to see ourselves. Not so.

I remember when there weren't any blacks on television. NONE!

In fact, I remember when there was NO TELEVISION!

Commercial television appeared in the late 1940s. By 1955 half of all U.S. homes had television. My family got our first in 1952. I was fifteen.

The first black I remember seeing on television was Eddie Anderson in The Jack Benny Show which first aired in 1950. His character was named Rochester. He was a wise-cracking, eye-rolling servant who called Benny "Boss." Back in those days, we preferred the classy Nat King Cole Show, but NBC struggled mightily to get sponsors for that show in the mid-fifties so it didn't last long. There was no shortage of commercial support for the other shows of that period with black actors, Amos and Andy and Beulah (a maid). Push-back from the black community got Amos and Andy cancelled, but it continued to run for many years in syndication.

Our whole family gathered (along with thousands of others around the country) on Sunday evenings to watch The Ed Sullivan Show that ran from 1948-1971. Sullivan periodically included black performers and we couldn't wait to see them. I first saw Richard Pryor doing a Rumpelstiltskin bit on Sullivan and have been a Pryor fan ever since. Motown artists like Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and the Supremes were popular Sullivan guests and we were thrilled to see them.

In the late sixties we welcomed a break from the stereotypical roles with Bill Cosby in I Spy, and the much-praised Julia, starring Diahann Carroll. In the 1970s, Norman Lear ramped up the number of blacks on television producing sitcoms like Good Times and The Jeffersons, and adapting Sanford and Son (originally a British show) for American TV. Aside from Roots, Alex Haley's history-making series about slavery, dramatic programming about black lives was avoided. When a few were aired in the eighties, they didn't last long. I was crushed when my favorites, Frank's Place with Tim and Daphne Reid and A Man Called Hawk starring Avery Brooks were quickly cancelled. 

Despite the fact that really good black shows can still be cancelled too soon (my son's show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell for example), there has never been anything on television like what's going on now. 

Not only are there black actors in all types of roles in "white" shows, but there are shows with predominantly black casts on the major networks like Blackish and Empire, not to mention the black women who are the leads in Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. And since TV is an imitative industry, the success of these shows guarantees there will be more of them.

On cable, I can hardly keep track. Larry Wilmore is hosting Comedy Central's The Nightly Show and Trevor Noah The Daily Show, and W. Kamau Bell will soon debut United Shades of America on CNN. "Unscripted" programs showcasing blacks are on a variety of cable networks, and there are three cable channels programming mostly black shows:  BET, TV ONE, and OWN (Tyler Perry's home).

I remember when I (and most blacks) watched every television show that had a black actor. No matter how buffoonish the character, we were happy to see somebody on the little screen that looked like us. Today (and for possibly a couple of decades now), there have been too many of us for me to watch every appearance of a black person on television, even if I wanted to.

We can see black folk on television (or streaming) anytime we want. I will not watch the "reality" shows, but I won't miss Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away With Murder 

So instead of being disgruntled when we see a black person who doesn't fit the image we prefer seeing, switch channels! We have choices now.