Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Half Manifesto/Half Working Document for #OccupyWhiteness



In the summer of 2003, I was the Cape Town, South Africa about to perform in the University of Cape Town.  We were less than ten years removed from the official overthrow of apartheid and many of the patrons coming to our show were coming to the University for the first time in their lives, even though in some cases they lived or worked walking distance from the institution.  There had never been a reason to come there since it became accessible to all, and it had not crossed their minds to visit it for the sake of doing so.  Many entered the building tentatively.  Their brains knew apartheid was over.  Their bodies, requiring more rigorous unlearning, were not yet sure. Together with Staceyann Chin and Ursula Rucker, we welcomed them in.  We invited them backstage.  We – foreigners, black people from America – were telling the South Africans that apartheid/segregation was over and that it was right that they be there; that the space was theirs to enter. 

But in examining that phenomenon in the days that passed I remember being in Houston and deciding to go downtown, and my peoples in the hood there asking (this would not have been more than 2 years prior to the Sth Africa trip), “What you wanna go there for? That’s white people shit.”  I was aghast.  “I paid my taxes I said. I saw some shit down there I like…”  They looked at me like I was a little crazy or like someone maybe to be pitied.  But they knew why in a different way from how I knew why.  I was certainly by then (having lived 15 yrs in the U.S.) fluent in how black people are made to feel uncomfortable in white spaces.  I’ve been followed in stores, been pulled over and questioned separately from others in the car, had my car stopped and the white person in it asked if she or he was alright, I’ve suffered the double takes and the studious attempts to make me invisible – the sort of behavior that ‘freezes’ any discerning person out of company he might have designs on keeping.  But I am an immigrant, and I didn’t have several generations of that making its way felt throughout my body, so that my body hadn’t ‘learned’ in the same way, that those spaces weren’t mine.  Certainly I was uncomfortable in them, but if there was something there I wanted to be a part of – sports event, museum, symphony, restaurant, public park – I went anyway.

I arrived in New York City in 1987 fresh on the heels of the Howard Beach case in which a gang of white youths chased a black man out onto the parkway where he was struck and killed by a motorist.  I was here less than a year before Yusef Hawkins was killed in the same neighborhood for a similar infraction.  There were places whiteness ‘froze’ us out of, and there were places where whiteness used white people to let us know in no uncertain terms that we couldn’t be there.  But for most of my 26 years in the United States I’ve lived in Brooklyn, NY.  For the most part, black people in NYC go anywhere.  For the most part white NYC does not bat an eye to see us at the opera, an expensive restaurant, a ballgame.  It is not that white NYC is less racist than anyone else.  It is that the nature of the city has meant that they’re accustomed to spaces being integrated.  There isn’t (for the most part) something that can be done about it.  Whiteness cannot claim exclusivity of space because the culture of its being not so, is already firmly established.

The recent murder of Trayvon Martin, the subsequent acquittal of his killer, and the inability (by much of white America) to understand that George Zimmerman actually had no right to even question Trayvon Martin, suggests that the culture established in Brooklyn, USA, in which one expects to see youth of color in numbers in a museum as easily as in a pool hall, as easily as on Wall Street; does not exist in Sanford, Florida.  In the days of heartbreak following the court’s devaluing of the life of Trayvon Martin by finding George Zimmerman guilty of absolutely nothing, I found myself struggling to find words to say to the young people whom I teach, to say to my daughter when she starts asking me questions.  In the frustration, I’m asking myself time and again, how do we force whiteness in America to recognize the right of people of color to be wherever they want to be.  This exclusivity of space is a question at the center of the culture that has defined America racially and it has made its way from Reconstruction through Jim Crow, through residential redlining, through de facto segregated public schooling, up until today.  OccupyWhiteness aims to address it.

OccupyWhiteness is an initiative which seeks to encourage young people of color to go into spaces they do not think of as ‘theirs’, spaces which they see as ‘white’, and create cultural shift in those spaces, simply by being there in numbers.  Public spaces of corporate buildings, public beaches in neighborhoods not their own, museums, the opera, parks, restaurants and the like. 

Young people of color in groups of 3 or more will visit an event, location of their choice.  They’ll simply enjoy themselves there.  They will also observe their surroundings and round table after their outings to talk about what they noticed, what they felt like etc. There are no accompanying adults. In this way, the young people are both companions on an outing and support system for one another in negotiating whiteness in public spaces.

This is for young people of color between the ages of 16 and 24.  They should be old enough that their parents already let them out socially on their own, and young enough that they’re still part of a rough peer group.  Ideally the youth going out on any given outing should be friends, or have at least met with one another once before.  There must be a level of comfort with one another.

OccupyWhiteness hopes to ‘launch’ before the end of August.

Support and Organization:
For now, OccupyWhiteness is a Chicago-based initiative with hopes that people nationwide will soon adopt the model.  A committee of youth of color and supporting adults is currently being formed, who will get the logistics right and perform experimental ‘outings’.  Reports from these will be publicly broadcast.

OccupyWhiteness will be an initiative of Nin-Ja Works Productions, which seeks to launch programs and support efforts toward social equity through youth engagement.  It will operate under the auspices of Young Chicago Authors.  Support will include youth protocol preparations (or what we also like to call ‘alternate language skills’), legal aide backup and we hope, eventually finance.  Some outings will cost perhaps more money than the youth who want to go can afford.

We are still building this initiative’s vision, but keep looking for word of our efforts.  We will need your support in the near future.

Roger Bonair-Agard

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email

Monday, July 15, 2013

Day After the Verdict - For my young people

Day After the Verdict – For my young people.

I wrote a piece shortly after the story of Trayvon’s death broke.  Zimmerman was yet to be arrested.  Yesterday, we found out why.  I am a 45 year old black man and today I’m not sure what to tell you all – my several sons and daughters, about what to do with the world, about what to do with the lot the world has given you today.  It is brand new and it is not new, the ways in which we are renewed in our understanding; in the understanding they work hard to instill in us, that our bodies are still theirs to possess and dispose of as they see fit.

I have a 2 month old daughter.  She will begin saying words in less than a year.  She’ll start asking me the incessant ‘whys’ about a year after that.  My clock is running out.  I haven’t a clue what to tell her or how to justify to her that I think she can do anything she puts her mind to, or be anything she wants in America.  She will sometime soon be an 8 or 10 or 12 year old black girl who leaves the house on her own for the first time and finds out some frightening things about what it is to be in her skin on this planet.  But I do know this, I am lucky enough; blessed enough, to still be alive to wait for her when she comes back home, to be there to hold her when she gets home with the questions that I can’t answer, that maybe she will someday answer, that maybe you all will someday answer and so that’s the first answer. 

Your first act of defiance is this: Survive. 

If you’re alive tomorrow, you’re an asset, a threat.  Then survive the day after that.  Survive long enough to love and trust and cherish other black boys and other black girls and cherish and value your own bodies and theirs.  Begin by practicing the most radical self-love you can.  I suspect there is no other shield we have.  We have to practice magical realism on our bodies.  We have to anoint ourselves in the belief that we are magical and invincible and unkillable.  Each and every one of you has to realize that you are an instrument in the overall magic that will protect you and that energy is enacted every day when you do your own work towards survival, healing, love and struggle.

It will cost you rage, skin off your knuckles, bouts of chest heaving grief, panic, feelings of suicide but you can survive all these.  Survive and defy and love on the fifth day after today and the sixth one.  What I am asking you to do is no easy task.  I’m asking you to not give in to nihilism, to the feelings that it’s of no use.  This is what is wanted of you by those who would own you or see you disappear.  I’m asking you to figure out how to protect your own bodies while fiercely loving them and the bodies of your people around you.  You’re going to have to start that in some really awkward ways.  You’re going to have to start smiling at niggas on the train.  You’re going to have to start upnodding old men in the park.  You’re going to have to give poems and books and political ideas to young women in the street without saying anything to them.  You’re going to have to start today, to go out and make sure you make one other person of color feel his body, her body is respected protected and loved each day.  You’re going to have to arm yourselves with ideas and educations and make yourselves fiercer more complicated thinkers in order to have the conversations with your children that I don’t know how to have with mine today.

I was telling the young people here at a party earlier this year, when everyone was jumping and carrying on in a circle and they were like ‘look the old man got a lil sumpn!’ that I can do anything y’all do.  I can jump and dance and run fast and slapbox and all of that.  Problem is, at 45 I just can’t do nothing the next day.  This is where you all come in.  Today, is the next day my niggas.  Tomorrow is the next day.  Do not let them rob you of your will to live well.  Practice walking into the rooms they don’t mean for you to be in deliberately.  Practice belonging there.  Practice loving yourself in spaces you’ve thought weren’t yours.  Practice being heard.  Practice asking for the service you deserve in a manner that suggests respect and that you already know you will not be denied.  The Northside is yours.  The Art Institute is yours.  Millenium Park is yours.  Logan Square is yours.  Don’t fuck around and let my daughter believe that it isn’t hers 20 years from now.  Don’t fuck around and let your shorties believe it isn’t theirs 20 years from now.  Perhaps most importantly, don’t let George Zimmerman’s shorties believe that it isn’t our shorties’ joint 20 years from now.  We need to all be in those spaces, loving ourselves and respecting one another’s bodies in those spaces in such numbers and with such joy that the Zimmermans in our lives don’t know who to profile.  Paris is yours and Los Angeles is yours and Montreal is yours and Sanford, FL is yours and London and Trinidad and Miami and Cape Town and Skokie, IL.  You have the right to be in any of those places anytime you want.  Go there.  Be black there.  Be Latino there.  Be Arab there. Be a presence of dignity and love and power to be reckoned with.

In this space, at Young Chicago Authors, a room has been created both literal and figurative for young people to come when their bodies are at siege.  This is what this space represents.  This is what the Louder Than  Bomb Festival is for and it has grown from a festival of about 40 young people to a festival of about 3000 young people over the course of 13 years.  It is important that you know however, that YOU made the room.  YOU created the space; not the old people who ‘founded’ things.  We’re on the planet longer than you and that means we know how to write grants and do accounts receivables and what not.  It is your energy that drives this and has driven this space.  Show up here too loving your bodies and one another and learning how to survive and defy.  Let’s survive this long enough to know what to say. 

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Few More Words about Trayvon

i wrote this essay and posted it in several places shortly after the story first broke. I am re-posting it as a prologue to more things i'm about to write on the issue.

A few more words on Trayvon
for my young-blacks
 I joke sometimes that I’ve become, officially, an old man.  I no longer walk quite the same gauntlet of tough-guy that young men must walk.  I don’t get very often the same sized-up glare that we men (especially men of color) wear as shield; that we wear to remind us that we are indeed men.
 Most often I wear a beard now, and while my body is in decently good shape, there is enough grey flecking that beard now and dappling the edges of my hair, that young men will often now nod at me and refer to me as ‘Sir,’ or in my native Trinidad, as ‘Uncle.’ Those who read my own shielding tough-guy grill, or the young men whom I teach in jail or in rougher-neighborhood schools might call me O.G., itself an honorific of respect accorded to dudes who were once in the game, or their mothers.  I am an old man, and many days grateful for the fact that it means I don’t have to think about getting into a fight when I enter the bar, a club, when I pass a group of young me on the street.
 More importantly for me, I see young people now – again particularly young people of color, as my children.  Like the president has now famously said, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon Martin…” and I often think that this boy could be my son, this could be my daughter, and increasingly now I’m seeing them all wearing hoodies.  When I say that I’m seeing them wearing hoodies, it is not that they’re wearing them more out of homage to the slain young man who is also my child, but that I am seeing them more.  Suddenly the fraught nature of the lives of young black men, always a central idea in my head, always an occupying thought when I am gauntleted by white institutions of power, is stark in my head, realer to me than ever before. 
 The debate about the role of the hoodie in Trayvon Martin’s death is the silliest, saddest debate ever – thank you Geraldo.  It ascribes blame to a young man and the loving parents who fund his existence for having the temerity to buy him an article of clothing, that might shield him from wind, rain and cold, and also have the added effect of making him anonymous.  It attempts to lessen the responsibility of the man, who stalked the boy for several blocks, left his car, against the advice of the police, and shot the boy to death.  The people who use this argument – some of them black, sadly – have found, in 2012, yet another way to suggest that young black men should not have the same rights as white ones.  They suggest that we make targets of ourselves by certain clothing choices, as if our black skins weren’t target enough.  The evidence is clear and the hoodie has nothing to do with it.
 The discussion I’m trying to have here has little to do with hoodies, but let’s back up a little bit and you’ll remember – those of you who might also be O.G.s – how much the hoodie was part of white suburban skater culture in the 80s.  In those days, apparently the hoodie didn’t make anyone seem like a thug.  But then again, thug apparel in those days might have been Cross-Colors and Karl Kani apparel, overalls with one strap off the shoulder and a leg rolled up.  Overalls are not today, nearly as thuggish.  The irony of these Grand Wizard white men (or perhaps this is not irony but a coincidental recognition) telling me that I look thuggish if I wear a hood, is not lost on me.  And as such I see my brothers who symbolize unity with other black men across the country by wearing hoodies, as an anti-Klan unit.
 With that, let me get back to what I mean by when I say I see young men more and more often in hoodies.  It is that I see them and I love them more than ever.  I see them and know they are mine.  They are my children, my brothers, my protected and my protectors.  Having been taught like everyone else to maintain a sharp eye and alert demeanor around black people, having fought to insulate myself against the self-hating insiduousness of such thinking, having fought to be and become a man and to see my brothers as men, being constantly enrolled in the fight for my own personhood, against those who would see me as thug, sexual beast, athlete or entertainment, the simple symbology of the hoodie as given us by the Trayvon Martin case has done for my vision a most unexpected thing.  I now see and love my brothers more clearly.
 A few days ago, I was riding home on my bicycle up a major Chicago street.  It was late – past midnight.  The streetlights were on but the trees make interesting shadows with the lamps late at night.  There is a theatrical dappling effect of light and shadow. It wreaks havoc with vision if you’re as stupid as I am to not have headlights, and not be able to see the potholes.  Maybe it also made me invisible, and so now when I think of the 40-ounce bottle of beer that was flung out of a car and crashed at my feet, I have to remind myself that they might not have seen me there at all.  But that isn’t what I thought at first.  I was filled with an incredible sadness, a loneliness.  I realized that there is no way for me to process anything that happens to me, any injustice against my body, outside of the lens of the assault against blackness that seems to have been ratcheted up in America today.  I was not filled with rage.  I did not turn my bicycle around and pedal furiously after the car – an earlier version of myself would certainly have done that.  I just rode the rest of the way home suddenly tired and saddened, that this is what it had come to, that my body, which I had long suspected wasn’t completely mine had suddenly lost all value in the world.  Long dispensable and viewed by white America as property – the white American subconscious has not transcended this idea yet – like the housing market, the value of my body had now hit rock bottom.
 White panic in the face of a black president is a real thing.  What might have been veiled by the smug authority of believing that there were just some social places we couldn’t rise to, is now unveiled by the panic that we might get there and well… act the way they have, lo these last 500 years.  The rhetoric used to attack Obama, the openness of the bigotry in the language of talk show hosts and presidential candidates reflects this.  Whiteness in America feels besieged by niggas and they’re having no more of it.
 It is why so many can come up with justification for the absolutely unjustifiability of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, and it is why the police still refuse to arrest George Zimmerman.  It is why too that it is important that what I feel now when I see my young brothers in hoodies, is a massive instinct toward protection and love.  We are only valuable to one another now and so we must make ourselves most valuable to one another.  The hoodie is not cloak for nefarious activity.  It is a swaddling garment.  It must keep us warm and safe, all us messiahs unto ourselves.  It is important to understand that they are coming for us.  We must educate ourselves and realize that our greatest vigilance has to be against the language and behavior of those who have been really clear about the disposability of our bodies.  We have to prepare to defend ourselves, as the prophet Malcolm said, ‘by any means necessary.’  Our bodies are under siege.  It has come to this.  Take it from an O.G.  Take it from your Uncle.

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email