Tag Archives: African Americans

Black Women’s Maternal Mortality Rates in the US are Staggeringly High

Pregnant African American mother holding her stomach

As part of ProPublica and NPR’s series on maternal care in the U.S., Nina Martin and Renee Montagne tell the devastating story of Shalon Irving, a vibrant 36-year-old epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who died three weeks after the birth of her daughter earlier this year. Irving was educated, insured, and well-supported by family and friends; still, she became a casualty of missed opportunities and neglect by healthcare providers. The story explores how a constellation of factors — not least of all bias in the healthcare system and the chronic stress of living with racism — combine so that black women are more than two times more likely than white women to die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

By April 2016, Shalon had given up. She had a new boyfriend and she was on her way to Puerto Rico to help with the CDC’S Zika response, working to prevent the spread of the virus to expectant mothers and their unborn babies. There she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by accident. Her excitement was tempered by fear that the baby might have contracted Zika, which can cause microcephaly and other birth defects. But a barrage of medical tests confirmed all was well.

More good news: A few weeks later Pryor [Shalon’s close friend] learned she was pregnant, too. “All right,” she told Shalon, “let’s finally go after our rainbows and unicorns! Because for so long it was just dark clouds and rain.”

In reality, Shalon’s many risk factors — including her clotting disorder, her fibroid surgery, the 36 years of wear and tear on her telomeres, her weight — boded a challenging nine months. She also had a history of high blood pressure, though it was now under control without medication. “If I was the doctor taking care of her, I’d be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one,’” her OB-GYN friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley said.

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Brit Bennett Reflects on Living the Past Year in “Trump Time”

380887 34: A young African American woman listens during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 in Washington. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

On the night Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone feeling winded; just hours earlier, I’d been at a polling site in Bed Stuy where black and brown people, many of them women, smiled and waved and high-fived each other, certain that we’d soon be celebrating a national milestone just like we had eight years before.

Writer Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers will be adapted for film with actress Kerry Washington as producer, reflects on her experience of reality in the past year since President Trump’s election in a poignant personal essay for Vogue. Back to back scandals, large and small explosions of racial animus, and the whiplash-like event of Trump following the nation’s first black president have “compressed time,” Bennett writes, and have made the author, and her mother, who grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, question the notion of progress.

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

Last September, I traveled with a publicist who is also black to a warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, in order to sign books. As we left Baltimore and headed toward a city that is, according to the latest census, 87 percent white, we began to see red Make America Great Again signs on lawn after lawn. “When I see those signs, I feel the same way as when I see a Confederate flag,” I said. She understood what I meant—that visceral sense of dread. Both symbols represent a racialized nostalgia that, to me, only evokes fear.

I did not realize then that, within the year, those two symbols would collapse into each other.

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Kevin Young Is Ready to Engage the Public with Poetry

(A. Scott/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Kevin Young, the director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of the National Book Award long-listed Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Post-Facts, and Fake News, became poetry editor of The New Yorker just this past March. In this profile of Young in Esquire, he talks about the “great hoax” of race, the musicality and influences of his own work, and his desire to engage the public anew with poetry, which he says can “take us out of ourselves and bring us back a little bit different.”

Young claims Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove as important influences, and says he sees music as the essence of his art. Though his poems do not lack for depth, they rarely scan as difficult, let alone forbidding. He likes puns, and freely borrows forms from other fields (the blues, fugitive-slave posters, film noir). In college, he told me, he realized that “poetry was not this thing in the atmosphere. You have to look in your backyard. That’s the stuff to write about.” At the time, he’d never read a poem that represented someone like his grandmother. “I remember thinking, If I can get her in a poem, then I’ll have done something.” Young began to look to poetry as a sort of archive, vindicating evidence of “family—blood, adopted, imagined,” to borrow the dedication of Most Way Home. In “Oblivion,” he writes what might be his motto, or maybe a fervent dream: “Nothing // stays lost forever.”

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L.A.’s Underground Museum is a Vital Hub of Contemporary Black Culture

Guests attend the John Legend performance at The Underground Museum for Belvedere DARKNESS AND LIGHT listening event on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Columbia Records)

In a feature for W, editor and writer Diane Solway talks about how the Underground Museum, an arts space in a nondescript building in Central Los Angeles founded in 2012 by figurative painter Noah Davis and his wife, sculptor Karon Davis, became a vital convening point for creatives, culture workers, and audiences interested in ideas of black excellence.

These days, guided by Karon, Kahlil, and other family members, the Underground Museum is an anomaly in this era of starchitect-designed private museums and foundations: a modest, black-family-run art collective whose convening power is likely the envy of every cultural institution in the country. Beyoncé, the artist David Hammons, and the actress and activist Amandla Stenberg have all been spotted in its purple-themed garden; John Legend and Solange Knowles have launched albums there; and the director Raoul Peck visited to screen his acclaimed James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Equal parts art gallery, hangout space, film club, and speakeasy, the UM, as it’s affectionately known, focuses on black excellence, not struggle, though it’s been nimble enough to address recent racial turmoil by creating a forum for talks by Angela Davis and by Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. Jenkins likens the museum to “a salon you would have found during the Harlem Renaissance,” in the 1920s and ’30s. “There’s something coming out of that place that is so radical in its potential that you can feel it,” concurs the L.A.-based sculptor Thomas Houseago. “And it draws a mix of people that I don’t find anywhere else in the world. As a white artist, it’s not like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ It’s, ‘Great, you’re here! More hands.’ ”

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In the Wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, Why Does R. Kelly Still Have an Audience?

(Rex Features via AP Images)

At Rolling Stone, reporter Jason Newman recently revealed another round of sexual assault and abuse allegations against R. Kelly. The allegations are from one of Kelly’s former girlfriends, disc jockey Kitti Jones, who dated the singer from 2011 to 2013.

It was June 2011, and R. Kelly had just performed to a frenetic crowd at the Verizon Theatre outside Dallas, Texas. It had been nearly two decades since the singer’s raunchy lyrics and honeyed voice turned him into a R&B superstar and sex symbol. But despite multiple controversies over his alleged sexual relationships with underage girls, his still-dedicated fan base sent his latest album — the throwback soul LP Love Letter ­— to number six on the Billboard 200…

[Jones had] been into Kelly since she was a teen in the early 1990s, when she’d hide in her room with his music to escape her mother’s tumultuous romantic relationships. She’d buy every magazine he was in and, upon the release of his 1993 solo debut, 12 Play, took a limo to a third-row seat at her first Kelly show. She’d seen him in concert seven times since. “He was my Brad Pitt,” she says.

The story of Jones’s relationship with Kelly includes food deprivation, forced sex acts, and a dormitory-style, cult-like atmosphere with his other girlfriends. It echoes Buzzfeed’s July story, “R. Kelly is Holding Women Against their Will in a Cult, Parents Told Police,” reported by Jim DeRogatis, who has followed the cloud of allegations surrounding the singer since before his 2008 trial for child pornography.

Jones says she went to Rolling Stone to support the women mentioned in the Buzzfeed report, some of whom are younger than 21 and are, according to one woman’s parents “brainwashed” by the singer.

Reports of Kelly’s illicit, predatory behavior go back to his marriage to singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 years old and he was 28. (Vibe published an apparent marriage certificate in its December issue that year). Over the years I’ve personally heard from Chicagoans with memories of Kelly traipsing the halls of local high schools looking to befriend teenage girls. Much less clear than Kelly’s gleeful exploitation of women and girls — he calls himself the “Pied Piper” of R&B — is how and why he gets to keep an audience and a job.

Rolling Stone’s article came out just a week after accounts of producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior were first published in The New York Times and The New Yorker. The public responded with shock, outrage, and then action. Weinstein was fired from the company he co-founded, expelled from the Motion Picture Academy, and could face criminal charges. Some of his accusers, like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, are powerful Hollywood players, but regular women also stepped forward on social media to tell their own stories of sexual violence, using the hashtag #metoo.

Accusers of other powerful, predatory men soon followed: actor Kevin Spacey, Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, NPR’s senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, and ex-New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish.

In a tough news cycle, the courage of survivors heartened me. I’ve been the victim of sexual violence more than once. I know many women who can say the same, but often, it’s only behind closed doors, in voices thin with internalized shame that we speak of these things if we ever do at all. Also heartening, of course, were the consequences forced on many of the predators — the public shaming of them, the loss of deals, relationships, credibility.

Weinstein’s victims, that we know of, were mostly white — with the exception of Lupita Nyong’o, who published a detailed account of her experience with the producer in the New York Times. Bim Adewunmi, a critic I admire, wrote that black actresses, who get fewer roles for less pay than their white counterparts, were mostly saved in this instance because of their lack of desirability in the eyes of the mainstream. Weinstein was reported to have turned down actress Sophie Okonedo for a role because he doubted that she was “fuckable” enough to draw audiences. Adewunmi’s thinking didn’t sit right with me; sexually predatory behavior isn’t fundamentally about desirability. Also, women of color — especially indigenous women — have a higher lifetime incidence of sexual violence than white women and are less likely to report it to authorities or use social services to get help. We haven’t been saved from anything just because multitudes of us aren’t on one predator’s list.

There was a lot of silence after Nyong’o spoke up, and with R. Kelly’s victims, there’s been a similar silence. Perhaps it’s news fatigue: Everything is exhausting and heartbreaking, and one can only be outraged so much. Still, it’s curiously telling who the outrage and action follows. There are black women writers and activists who’ve tried to wake us up to the horror of Kelly’s behavior, yet he continues to tour and record music. Right now, on this very day, about half a dozen girls and women may be held in a weird, multi-city sex cult in R. Kelly’s homes. Some of their parents have asked for help. Aren’t they worthy of our collective fury, too?

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The Athletes Who Felt Seen by Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city”

(Rex Features via AP Images)

Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning second album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” debuted five years ago last week. For Justin Tinsley at the Undefeated, California athletes, some of whom Lamar referenced in songs like “Black Boy Fly,” reflect on how much the album made them, and other young black men, feel seen.

Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.

Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination withThe Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”

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The Nigerian, Feminist Designer who Flouts Convention

A Maki Oh presentation during New York Fashion Week. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

For The New YorkerAlexis Okeowo profiles Nigerian fashion designer Amaka Osakwe, whose delicate yet adventurous creations from the line Maki Oh have been worn by Michelle Obama, Solange, and Lupita Nyong’o. Nigeria, a massive country with bustling metropolises, an expanding middle class, and a fashion-forward cadre of cosmopolitan “repats,” is still conservative about sexuality and female agency. Osakwe’s work pushes hard against those old mores while still embracing some of the country’s traditions in textiles and dressmaking.

Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.

Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.

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Keeping Black Farm Families Connected to the Land in Michigan

AP Photo / Gosia Wozniacka

Owning land provides families with a legacy and, hopefully, some stability, but how do farmers keep their family farming their land? At BuzzFeed, Bim Adewunmi talks with blueberry farmers around tiny Covert, Michigan, to see what life is like for farmers of color. Only 1.46% of America’s farmers are black. Many Covert growers inherited their profession and have enjoyed a rewarding rural life, steady income and something to give to their children, and land, as one farmer tells Adewunmi, is power. But they still struggle to interest their kids and grandchildren in the job.

Farming is physically demanding, financially risky, costly and tenuous, and the market, like the weather, is constantly shifting. When parents raise their kids to go to college, save money and have more opportunities at their disposal, it isn’t surprising that younger generations leave home to work instead of stay on the family farm. As one farmer said, “We worked hard to show our kids what we considered a better life, and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities. They’re doing exactly what we told them to do.”

“He worked on the Hawkins farm for a time,” she says of her husband. “He always loved blueberries, so when we bought this place, he put his own blueberries out there. They’ve been here since 2001, I believe.” Harold died of cancer a few years back, and Carol assumed responsibility for the business. It is safe to say, however, that she never wanted to be a farmer. “If this wasn’t right here at the house,” she says, gesturing out of her kitchen windows, “I would’ve sold it a long time ago, is all I can say. It was my husband’s thing. I was just… I didn’t wanna be a farmer.” She giggles, but it’s a laugh filled with resignation. When I press her about the potential significance of holding on to her late husband’s legacy, she holds firm. “Uh-uh. I keep it because it’s here at the house. You see, it’s a ‘U,’ right here. And I just don’t want anybody else out there. So that’s why I keep it. And it does pay for my son’s college, the berries. So…” This time when she trails off, her laugh is knowing.

Unsolicited family legacy aside, Carol Baber’s most pressing headache is labor. All her berries are handpicked. Blueberries are graded — the handpicked ones generally get the best price at market, but they are also the most labor-intensive to produce, and picking conditions must be dry (“Nobody wants a wet berry,” Steven tells me, sagely, when I ask), which means picking during the hottest, most arid hours of the day. And that’s before the other maintenance issues that concern a blueberry farmer: weeding, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, and so on. “It’s hard for me because I don’t have any equipment,” Carol says. The Hawkinses help out with spraying (she buys the materials), but “it’s really hard to keep the grass down. So I’m working on trying to get a tractor.”

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How Did the Blues Become the Blues?

AP / Beth J. Harpaz

There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.

In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.

That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.”  The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.

Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”

It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.

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Why the “Black Grateful Dead” Thrives Outside of Top 40 Radio

Frankie Beverly from Maze performs in Chicago in 1986. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

For the Undefeated, music writer and essayist Bruce Britt offers a compelling history of soul band Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, whose ebullient hits like “Before I Let Go,” “Joy and Pain,” and “Happy Feelin’s” have been mainstays of black American social gatherings for nearly half a century. Deeply entrenched racial divisions in the music industry have allowed Maze to become one of American music’s best kept secrets.

Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”

With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.

“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”

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