Dear America – Nothing Will Change Until You Face Yourself

Emelda De Coteau
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Emelda De Coteau

Mother, wife, sister, friend, writer / blogger / creative organizer, budding photographer... These are just a few of the many hats I juggle each day. I believe creativity is oxygen for the soul. I created Live In Color blog to celebrate the beauty in every moment, from faith to inspiration and motherhood.And it is soon becoming Pray with Our Feet blog which will focus on the intersection of faith and activism. Follow the inspiration on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/praywithourfeetblog/
Emelda De Coteau
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Photo Credit: Nitish Meena

Last night I dreamed groups of us moved slowly, herded like cattle, pushed into large spaces meant to contain undesirables, those folks swimming across oceans, desperately chasing illusions of freedom; they hail from countries we callously dismiss because their faces are the color of copper pennies and mahogany, faces like mine.

I tried to run, all of us did, but escape seemed impossible; our mouths full of invisible cotton, choking words we longed to utter into the angry stillness enveloping us. It is the kind of dream one finds nearly impossible to awaken from because it echoes real life.

What is unfolding in America today under the guise of “immigration policy” is barbaric. Infants and children callously taken from their parents arms, left screaming for hours in unending agony, unable to be held or touched by workers in these shelters. Is this what we are becoming? Perhaps it is partly who we always were? Facing this scares us. And so, we swallow self examination with either avoidance or the shallowness of political correctness.

For the last several months, I have come back to Andrea Ritchie’s recent book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. It’s an arduous read, with account after account of atrocities committed by the state against women of color, from the indigenous to those who were enslaved:

“On the estate I am speaking of, those women who had sucking children suffered much from their breasts becoming full of milk, the infants being left at home. They therefore could not keep up with the other hands: I have seen the overseer beat them with raw hide, so that the blood and milk flew mingled from their breasts.”

Pain. Suffering. Sorrow. Ripping families apart then and now…

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Tetteh

All of these practices exist within a continuum of the historical dehumanization of people of color. And at this moment, migrant children are under attack with no regard for their psychological or physical welfare. According to a recent article in The Washington Post “nearly 4,600 mental-health professionals and 90 organizations have signed a petition urging President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and several elected officials to stop the policy of separating children from their parents. The petition says:

These children are thrust into detention centers often without an advocate or an attorney and possibly even without the presence of any adult who can speak their language. We want you to imagine for a moment what this might be like for a child: to flee the place you have called your home because it is not safe to stay and then embark on a dangerous journey to an unknown destination, only to be ripped apart from your sole sense of security with no understanding of what just happened to you or if you will ever see your family again. And that the only thing you have done to deserve this, is to do what children do: stay close to the adults in their lives for security.

A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12 in McAllen, Tex. (John Moore/Getty Images)

I read these words over and over, each time the weight of my anger and sorrow grows. As I look back at the lead story photo, a little girl bewildered, desperately trying to make sense of a senseless situation, I see Nai, myself (the daughter of an immigrant), and every child. They all long for reassurance, love and safety. Now a country which espouses the rhetoric of inclusion has taken this away from them in a burst of fury led by a few and fueled with xenophobia.

James Baldwin once wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it faced.” If we continue to run from ourselves as a society, we will merely create new iterations of the same oppressive systems rooted in ideologies of white supremacy, patriarchy and greed.

And folks of all ethnicities can internalize and carry on the work of institutionalized racism, turning hatred inward, toxically afflicting their own communities. Have we not seen it’s manifestations time and time again with practices like colorism, a term first used by writer and activist Alice Walker which she defines as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color,” in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

None of this is going away until we confront the ghosts who refuse to leave because we so vehemently deny their existence. The crying children of immigrants; our response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico; high maternal mortality rates for women of color; the school to prison pipeline; deadly attacks on those in the transgender and gay community, all of these egregious wrongs are symptoms of a society at war with both the most marginalized and itself.

Each of our lives depends upon tearing down the myths which have held generations captive for centuries. Our collective freedom is inextricably linked to each other. When we come to understand this then fully lasting liberation can blossom within our hearts and souls.

Feeling overwhelmed by all of this? Start with this action:

Sign the petition over at Moms Rising, urging your lawmakers to reject the bills on the table. Here is some info from Moms Rising (the rest is available when you click the link above – “Sign the petition”):

On Friday, President Trump suggested that he won’t change HIS policy of intentionally separating kids from their parents, unless Democrats agreed to his other destructive immigration demands.

Trump’s demands include passing a very dangerous bill proposed by Speaker Ryan. This bill will NOT end family separation. Instead, it would result in children being detained indefinitely in worse conditions, without basic standards for their care or well-being.

It would also result in the near immediate return of other children to the very life-threatening conditions they are fleeing and from which they are seeking asylum (a legally protected right in both national and international law).

Why the #SayHerName Movement Matters

Emelda De Coteau
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Emelda De Coteau

Mother, wife, sister, friend, writer / blogger / creative organizer, budding photographer... These are just a few of the many hats I juggle each day. I believe creativity is oxygen for the soul. I created Live In Color blog to celebrate the beauty in every moment, from faith to inspiration and motherhood.And it is soon becoming Pray with Our Feet blog which will focus on the intersection of faith and activism. Follow the inspiration on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/praywithourfeetblog/
Emelda De Coteau
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Why the #SayHerName Movement Matters
Cover of the #SayHerName report, African American Policy Forum

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”

― Audre Lorde

Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a beautiful 7-year-old girl with a soft smile and skin the color of copper,  loved Hannah Montana and Disney princesses. Yet we will never know the woman she would become. Five years ago, police entered her home searching for a murder suspect. In a matter of seconds, officer Joseph Weekly fired his gun, shooting the youngster as she lay sleeping underneath a blanket. Later Weekly insisted he did not realize his gun went off. Although indicted, he was later acquitted.

Did you know her story before reading this column? I certainly did not in 2010.  The cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and other black men make front page news (as they should), and ignite protests nationwide, but we hear little about police brutality and its impact on black women and girls.

While the now infamous image of officer Eric Casebolt with his knee lodged into 15-year-old Dajerria Becton’s back in McKinney, Texas is beginning to widen the conversation around police brutality, many people are ignorant about how this violence decimates the bodies and spirits of black women and girls.  You see, wearing skirts, lipstick or high heels does not protect us from structural racism.

Black Women and Girls Pushing For Change, a Long History

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Since the first Africans were brought to these shores and enslaved, black women and girls have stood up to systems of oppression, fighting behind the scenes for progress. From Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, and more recently Alicia Garza (one of the founders of #blacklivesmatter movement), there is a long history of black women actively resisting.

When Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others were murdered by police, again, black women and girls stood on the front lines, holding signs, organizing marches for days on end; the academics, writers and artists among us spoke to the palpable pain reverberating around this country in myriad ways. Three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, started the #blacklivesmatter hashtag on social media following George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. As we all know, it’s since emerged as a rallying cry for changes in policing.

Yet when a sister dies, is injured or sexually assaulted at the hands of police, there is often deafening silence., If black lives matter, where is the collective outcry – the mass marches, vigils and viral posts on social media for women and girls who look like me? This apathy signifies the reality of living in a society which is resigned to view us through the narrow lens of nefarious stereotypes – super women incapable of feeling pain, angry, hyper-sexualized or unfeminine. Yet perhaps even more saddening (because, frankly, I expect this from mainstream America) is the unwillingness, by some within our own culture, to examine and call out sexism; this hesitancy seeks to erase the suffering of black women and girls, dishonoring the fullness of our humanity.

The Report – #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women

Two months ago, the African-American Policy Forum, the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia University and Andrea Ritchie, Soros Justice Fellow and expert on policing of women and LGBT people of color released #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women. According to the African-American Policy Forum’s website, this document focuses on the stories of Black women who have been killed by police, specifically calling out “the forms of police brutality often experienced by women such as sexual assault.”

“Although Black women are routinely killed, raped and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality,” said Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Director of the African American Policy Forum and co-author of the brief. “Yet, inclusion of Black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for Black communities and other communities of color.”

Why We Must #SayHerName – Honoring Humanity

Hundreds of  years ago freedom fighter Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I a woman?” In 2015, I say,  are we not human beings whose perspectives matter? We must name black women and girls across the spectrum of identities (heterosexual, LGBTQ, along with those who struggle with mental health issues and intellectual disabilities) within every sphere – public, private and online. Without proclaiming these authentic truths the struggle remains one dimensional, ultimately stifling a part of the community it seeks to liberate.

Calling the names of black women and girls, while actively listening to their stories, does not  divide our community along lines of gender, or dismiss the toxic racism black men confront daily. Instead, it’s an opportunity for our brothers to understand the unique ways we are affected by police brutality and various forms of assault. This is essential if we are to begin candid conversations which lead to collective healing. All of us wrestle with trauma in some capacity.

Black women are the backbones of our community, often heading households, juggling childcare with work and school. According to a recent documentary, 72% of homes are led by single mothers. Ignoring us, or pushing aside the validity of our experiences teaches black boys to disregard the voices of women and girls they see each day – their mothers, sisters, aunties, classmates, girlfriends and wives.

Each life is precious, our worth is immeasurable. Let’s not stifle the conversation through exclusion. Join me today in embracing an expansive truth that affirms the suffering of each individual, while seeing possibilities for deep empathy and radical love. We are here. We matter. And when you see us fully, you see yourselves.

I leave you all with a quote from the great thinker J. Krishnamurti about the power of connection: “Listening completely, without resistance, without any barrier is the miracle of explosion, shattering the known, and to listen to that explosion, without motive, without direction is to enter where thought and time cannot pursue. The seeing is not only with the brain, but also beyond it.”

Photo source: techonfleek.com
Note: This was originally published in July  for Beautifully Said magazine.