We are Trayvon Martin: LGBTQ and African Americans united by murder

April 20, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

 

What does Trayvon Martin’s murder have to do with gay civil rights protection?

The quick answer: The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act (mostly known by Matthew Shepard’s name). And this might be the only option the Florida Justice Department has in moving forward to arrest George Zimmerman and charge him with murder.

The nation is outraged that in 2012 an unarmed, African-American, 17 year-old high school student can be shot dead by a neighborhood watch captain because his egregious offense was   “walking while black” in a gated community.

By now you are familiar with the story—on February 26, Trayvon Martin left a 7-Eleven convenience store to head back home to his father’s fiancée’s gated community in the Retreat At Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, 28, of mixed ethnic descent (mother’s Peruvian, and father’s Jewish—he identifies as Hispanic)  began following Trayvon and called the Sanford Police Department. Although Zimmerman was advised by his superior not to pursue Trayvon he shot Trayvon in self- defense after a physical altercation initiated supposedly by Trayvon.

Was Zimmerman motivated by racism; therefore, racially profiling Trayvon?

And was Zimmerman’s act also a hate crime?

Many politicians are throwing around the h-word concerning Trayvon’s murder. Now many African-Americans are, too.

Renowned African American filmmaker Tyler Perry told CNN.com that “Racial profiling should be a hate crime investigated by the FBI. That way local government can’t make the decision on whether or not these people get punished.”

Perry recalled his frightening experience when he was pulled LAPD for making an illegal turn and having tinted windows. Once a black officer pulled up at the scene recognizing Perry. The arresting officers apologized and let him go. Perry stated that the incident, however, has stayed with him, opening his eyes to what type of treatment he might have endured if it wasn’t for his celebrity status.

In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in law.  Many African-Americans were irate that their protection under the law—which they argue they have fought for since being shipped to America in 1619—had to be associated with a white gay male who was killed in 1998.

Some African Americans, and, of course, heterosexual homophobes, wanted to know why couldn’t they have the James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act act solely to protect them. Many further argued that the law would serve to solely protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and queer Americans and would do precious little to protect them, particularly since the bill is commonly referred to as the Matthew Shepard Act.

“The more time I spend in the LGBT community’s civil rights movement the more I’m struck by the need for all the various human communities to support one another…Trayvon’s death is as personal to me as any white lesbian’s death.  Trayvon is my brother, and whether one is black, white, gay or straight, we are all human beings together in this struggle for human dignity.  It’s as simple as that,” Carol Fischer, wrote me in an email. Fischer’s a white lesbian and producer of bloomingOUT, a weekly queer radio show on WFHB Radio Station in Bloomington, IN.

In 1998 both James Byrd Jr., and Matthew Shepard were victims of bias-motivated crimes. Byrd, an African American was murdered by three white supremacists who chained him to the back of their pick-up truck at his ankles and dragged along a three mile asphalt road until he was dismembered.  Shepard was tortured, tethered to a fence and left to die because he was gay.

With Florida’s Stand Your Ground permitting Zimmerman to walk without charges, the Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes links gays and blacks together but that it’s also the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family seeking justice.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

The Hunger Games’ young racist fans

April 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Guest editorial by Rev Irene Monroe

The Hunger Games: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). Photo credit: Murray Close

There’s a frenzy surrounding the blockbuster film and book The Hunger Games. But the fan attention around the movie has taken a decidedly different turn from the fervor the book caused. The schism originates from the difference between reading ­— where one’s visual images of characters can be both personal and individual — and watching — where the film’s visual images of characters are a literal representation.

The film script follows the book closely and some of fans are apoplectic. The result is a tweeting tsunami of racist comments focusing on the presence of the few main black characters in the film.

Here are just a few of the racist tweets that have gone viral:

“why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie.”

“Kk call me racist but when I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”

“why did the producer make all the good characters black.”

“Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you pictured.”

Sadly, there are more vile tweets, some employing the “n-word,” that have been collected on a Tumblr page called Hunger Games Tweets.

Lionsgate, the distributor of The Hunger Games issued a statement praising fans who spoke out against the racist tweets, saying, “We applaud and support their action.”

Gay rights activist and actor George Hosato Takei who’s best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek, responded to these racist tweets stating, “Some fans outraged that blacks cast in Hunger Games roles. Teens killing each other in futuristic arenas, and they care about what color?”

There are several salient themes both in the book and film, but race is not one of them. While I won’t say this dystopic tale is post-racial, the author’s, Suzanne Collins, treatment of race is both honest and nuanced.

In April of 2011, Suzanne Collins told Entertainment Weekly that her characters “…were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. …But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described.”  Thresh and Rue. Collins said, “They’re African-American.”

And the characters Rue, Thresh, and Cinna are played in the film by African American actors, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi and Lenny Kravitz, respectively. Whereas Cinna’s skin hue is not mentioned in the book, Rue’s and Thresh’s are both explicitly depicted as having “dark skin.”

In describing the character Rue in the novel Collins writes, “And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor.” Prim is the protagonist’s, Katniss Everdeen, sister. I surmise since Prim is white and Rue is being compared to her many fans expected the same, ignoring what’s stated explicitly in the text.

And in describing Thresh Collins writes, “The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He’s one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox. “

Collins could have never imagined this sort of reaction to her non-white characters, yet it highlights resoundingly the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity in children and young adult literature.

Data analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2010 found that only nine per cent of the three thousand four hundred children’s books published that year contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity.

With the paucity of cultural and ethnic diversity in children and young adult literature, white characters and white culture become an expectation and literary norm that is both learned and internalized by white children as well as children of color.

“People very often talk about literacy with words, but there’s such a thing as visual and thematic literacy,” says Deborah Pope, the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which encourages diversity in kids’ books. “I think some of these young people just didn’t really read the book.”

While I agree with Pope that the fans who unabashedly expressed their racist views either didn’t read the book or didn’t read it carefully the theme and symbol of innocence and love in an inherently corrupt dystopic world affixed to a black 12-year old girl as Collins does with her character Rue in The Hunger Games is neither commonly nor comfortably seen in our world.

Do writers for children and young adult literature have a responsibility to be more explicit when introducing non-white characters in their books?

Or would being more explicit when introducing non-white characters play into a racist assumption that literary characters are white unless otherwise stated?

An easy answer would be to publish, to distribute, and to make part of core curriculum reading authors of color for children and young adults. Otherwise, this outpouring of racist tweets we see with The Hunger Games will merely be the tip of the iceberg.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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