I want to live in Wakanda

Black Panther fed my spirit.

I’ve always enjoyed superhero stories. I love science fiction and fantasy, and comic books almost always contain a little bit of both. I’ll admit that before the movie came out, I didn’t know much about Black Panther other than the fact that he existed. I watched the miniseries back in 2010, but that was it.

As you can see, the production value is decidedly subpar. But the story was good and the voice talent (Djimon Hounsou, Jill Scott, Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard) was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but promptly forgot it existed as I had no real expectation of ever seeing  a live action version. I watched Blade but never really got into it. Halle Berry as Storm in the X-Men movies was a disappointment, Halle Berry as Catwoman was an even bigger disappointment. Don Cheadle was good as War Machine but he was still a sidekick. It was a feel good moment, but not one that made me run to theater.

Then Chadwick Boseman showed up as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, and Marvel announced a Black Panther movie and I was excited. As casting news kept trickling out, I got even more hyped up. My brother (an OG comics nerd) has watched all the #BlackPantherSoLit and #InWakanda feverishness with a detached skepticism. I’m a skeptic too, but I couldn’t suppress my inner child on this one.  We went from a low budget cartoon on BET to this:

I GLADLY bought my opening weekend movie ticket almost two months beforehand.

*******SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON********

Black Panther was EVERYTHING. It felt so good to watch a movie where black people and black problems and black culture were the focus, and not an afterthought. The production was loving and thorough, as each Wakandan tribe incorporated references to actual African cultural clothing, hairstyles, and rituals.

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Best of all, the women were the black women I know in my own life–fierce, sexy, competent, multifaceted. Wakanda’s elite fighting force is all female. They rock bald heads and armor but still retain their femininity. Their general had a black male lover who respected her. T’Challa was in love with a covert operative who wants to serve not only Wakanda, but disenfranchised people all over the world–and we catch her in the middle of a mission to save African women from being sold into the sex trade. And all four of the women featured in the main cast are brown to dark skinned. It just felt so good to see women of my complexion being both objects of affection and trusted advisors to royalty.

T’Challa flanked by his love interest Nakia, on the left, and general Okoye, on the right.

So often the token black person in media is lightskinned; recently, more and more often they also look mixed and/or racially ambiguous. Kill all the diversity birds with one stone, as it were. But Black Panther is different. Because Wakanda is an African country untouched by colonizers, the Wakandans are overwhelmingly dark skinned–with natural hair! I’ve honestly never seen this in a movie that wasn’t about slavery. Wakanda is the Africa that exists in every black American’s mind, a myth of what could have been if slavery had never happened.

Lupe Fiasco captured this feeling in the track “All Black Everything” on his Lasers album. It’s one of my favorite songs of his, but it makes me feel so emotional that I can’t just listen to it at any old time. The first time I heard it, I felt chills down my spine and tears pricked my eyes. I’m an African American descendant of slaves; I’ve actually seen my ancestor’s burial grounds and the record that reduces his life to a mark on a tally sheet and a  comment  in the margins that “He was a good slave”. I am also descended from the Muscogee/Creek Indian tribe, a tribe that is virtually defunct thanks to the actions of the American government.

But Black Panther takes us a step beyond the color blind utopia that Lupe imagined, into a world where Blackness is, at least in one corner of the world, undefeated. It’s supreme, even, and because the Wakandans were  more concerned with pursuing excellence than being conquerors, no one else had to be oppressed in order for them to thrive. However, their choice to remain isolated means that the rest of history still unfolded as we know it. Could a small but technologically advanced country have defeated colonization on the African continent, creating a unity of nations so powerful that it stopped slavery long before the Civil War? We don’t know. But Erik Killmonger’s (righteous) anger at Wakanda stems from a feeling of abandonment, that Wakanda was strong enough to help its brothers and sisters in the diaspora and chose to turn away instead.

Killmonger was a powerful villain because in him, I recognized the same anger I feel whenever another black person is gunned down by the police, or gets a sentence three times harsher than the one given to the white person who committed the same crime. I feel that anger when I hear rhetoric about welfare queens and entitlement mentalities. To keep it 100% real, I felt that anger when I heard Africans complaining about black people wearing kente cloth and dashikis to the movie theater. My roots are lost to me. Ancestry.com can tell me I’m from Nigeria and most likely of the Yoruba tribe. But I don’t have a cousin whose house I can stay at. I don’t know what village I’m from. And anti-American sentiments are widespread enough in Africa that I wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed if I went exploring to find out.

The conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa is one that every African-American descendant of slaves faces. Do we fight and live  solely to protect ourselves and our families from the dangerous forces of white supremacy? Or do we share our resources in order to preserve Blackness across the country and across the world? It’s a hard choice, especially so because white supremacy is so vicious and the resources that we have are not nearly as much or as organized as Wakanda. We don’t have vibranium weapons to ship to the hood, or a superpowered king who can bring in allies from the United Nations. We all we got.

Even though Black Panther grappled with some heavy questions, I left the theater feeling lighter spiritually. For a couple of hours, I was in Wakanda; and there at least, black people would get a happy ending.

WAKANDA FOREVER.

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I’m a lawyer, but I’m still terrified by the police.

About two years ago, I experienced police intimidation firsthand. Prior to that date, I had only been pulled over by a cop once and didn’t actually get a ticket because he didn’t have his speed gun out to know how fast I was going. (#Blessed.) I had been in the car once before when my husband got a speeding ticket, but it happened in Macon, Georgia, a city with a significant black population, and the cop was black too. These things make a difference. The cop was brusque, but not threatening.

This time was different. We were road tripping our way back from Austin, Texas for a friend’s birthday. We had reached the area between Austin and Houston where the highway dwindles down to two lanes on each side, and we passed more cows and horses than other cars. Gerald was speeding, and so we weren’t surprised when we got pulled over by the state trooper. But the events that unfolded will haunt me forever.
ST: “License and registration, please.”
G: “Sure, officer. I need to get them out of my glove compartment, is that okay?”
ST: “I don’t know why you’re asking me.”
G: “I just want to make sure you know what I’m doing, officer.” (gets out license and registration) “May I ask why I’m getting pulled over?”
ST: “Sir, get out of the car.”
G: “Sure, I just want to know why I’m being pulled over.”
At this point, things escalated. The cop went from zero to raging maniac instantaneously, he was yelling so loudly and intensely that he was damn near frothing at the mouth. “GET OUT OF THE FUCKING CAR RIGHT GODDAMN NOW!” Gerald opened the door and before he could get one foot on the ground, the cop put him in a bear hug and hauled him out onto the ground. “YOU’RE RESISTING ARREST! STOP RESISTING!” In a flash, he had handcuffed Gerald, frog marched him to the squad car and slammed him face down onto its hood.
All I could do was scream silently, inside.
At this point, the state trooper’s buddy had pulled up to the scene. He put Gerald in the back of the squad car and the “arresting” officer (I put that in quotes because you’ll notice the conspicuous absence of Miranda rights recitation) came back to talk to me. Now that he had established dominance he was calm, confident, in charge of himself again. He grinned at me jovially, putting all his pearly whites on display and smacking on a piece of chewing gum like it was the only sustenance given to a starving man.
He turned on his good ol’ boy charm, asking me how I was doing, if I was in trouble, if Gerald was on drugs and that was why Gerald was so “agitated”. “If he would just act reasonably like you, this could have all been avoided,” he declared. The words stung, given the fact that at no point had Gerald raised his voice or pulled a punch–he merely had the audacity to exercise his Constitutional rights and ask the officer why he was being detained. Meanwhile, my so called reasonableness was me doing my best impression of a docile house slave in attempt to get us both out of the situation alive and uninjured. After some time of back and forth–it felt like an eternity, but the clock showed just 45 minutes–they let Gerald go and wrote a ticket for speeding, something which could have been done without ever having him out of the car.
I’ll be the first to admit that this account is an approximation of what happened. I was so afraid for my husband’s life that I couldn’t think straight. You can argue all you want about how we should have handled the situation. But there’s the law, and then there’s real life. When you’re on an unpopulated road in the middle of nowhere, facing down a power tripping cop with a gun, you do what you have to do to survive. In that moment, I was more concerned about not watching my husband bleed out on the side of the road than I was recording the incident and getting the officer’s name and badge number. So once again, the bad apple gets away with it. But I wake up next to my husband, whole and well, every day so I have no regrets about how I handled the situation.
The coda to this story is a conversation I had a few weeks ago at the hair salon. Much like barbershops, beauty salons are a place for all types of conversations. One of the other clients in the shop that day was a black, female police officer. She was talking about her job and of course that led the dialogue back to police brutality. I shared a brief version of the story above and was met with unbridled skepticism. She interrogated me about the details, damn near accused me of lying, and told me that we should have just complied without questioning because “Miranda rights are just what they show on television. Nobody really does it in real life.”
I understand that being a police officer is a hard job. They deal with people in crisis situations and people are rarely happy to see you–at best, you arrived just in time to stop something horrible from happening to them. Usually, the police show up after something terrible has occurred, or to tell people that they’re doing something wrong. But it’s also a job that they knowingly chose. And because police officers literally hold the power of life and death, it’s their responsibility to be better than the average person. More empathetic. More thoughtful. More careful. A barista who’s having a bad day can’t do anything worse than screw up your coffee order. A cop who’s having a bad day can kill you. Yes, they put their lives on the line. But it’s a hazard of the profession that they chose. Given these unique circumstances of the job, I don’t feel bad for cops who complain about their public image problem. They’re worried about popularity. We civilians are afraid for our lives.

Put your name on it

DISCLAIMER: The below is not intended as legal advice or counsel and should not be followed as such. If you have an intellectual property law issue, consult with an attorney because this blog post does qualify as legal representation and is written for informational and entertainment purposes only.

I’ve seen it time and again. A hashtag or tweet goes viral, white people start making money off of it, and a Black person pops up to say “Hey, I did that first! Where’s my credit?” Then I sigh deeply, and make this face:

 

It’s true that most people have no legal training. But I didn’t think you needed to go to law school to understand that if you get a product or service for free, YOU are what’s for sale. So that means: Snapchat owns your snaps. Instagram owns your ‘grams. Twitter owns your tweets. Facebook owns your statuses, photos, videos, messages, and whatever else you put on there. There’s also this neat thing called “the public domain”. Anything that isn’t copyrighted is part of the public domain, and can be used by anyone, whether or not they give you credit.

Not everything can be protected under intellectual property, and there are three different layers. A copyright protects the original expression of an artistic work, e.g. a book. A trademark protects a brand name and accompanying logos. Both “Coca-Cola”,and the cursive script it’s written in are trademarks. Patents protect physical inventions that make the required “innovative leap” from already existing devices.

So how does this apply to social media. Hashtags are not copyrightable because they don’t qualify as an artistic work. A poem in your Facebook status could be copyrighted, however. Hashtags can be trademarked, but only if you’re using them to sell goods as part of a business (ie, coffee mugs or t-shirts). The business part is important, because that’s what tripped up the creator of #BlackGirlMagic. (In my opinion, the fact that her shirts said “Black girls are…magic!” rather than #BlackGirlMagic is also part of it).

Even if you have a trademark, you can’t stop other people from using the hashtag in their tweets. For instance, a Black woman came up with the “Me Too” sexual assault awareness campaign ten years ago. She wrote a blog post about but didn’t get the credit. In my opinion, she has no right to be mad. If she had a website or a nonprofit called “Me Too”, then fine. But social media has a very short half life. When I googled”me too sexual assault”, Ms. Burke’s blog wasn’t even on the first page of my Google results (and let’s be real, nobody goes past the first page unless it’s for a school assignment). Get your SEO search together and hush. Some things you have to be okay with not getting credit for. There’s so much information out there that you’re basically shouting into a void unless you take proactive steps to stand out.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. The money is all in the execution. If your tweet goes viral on social media, your best bet is to go write a buy the website domain name, blog about it, and start selling something with your hashtag on it. (Shout out to the women who came up with #BlackLivesMatter and started an actual foundation.) Otherwise, a random white person will swoop in and start profiting off of it. Black Twitter hasn’t been just us since about 2013 so conduct yourselves accordingly. Otherwise you’re going to be scrolling through your timeline and see an ad with the hashtag you wrote on it going, “Hey! I thought of that!”

 

Bills, Bills, Bills

False equivalencies irk me. I try my best to ignore clickbait and purposely inflammatory social media posts, but every so often one gets to me enough that I have to pull out my soapbox. This is one of those times. You’ve been warned!

It’s hard to fit nuance into a Facebook status, but this one is woefully lacking. The TL;DR of it all is that this is ultimately a class issue (although race always plays a part in that because this is America). I don’t know any black people with well off parents who were not, or would not have been allowed to live at home and get back on their feet when they didn’t get a job right after graduation or when they got laid off from their first job. After Tex got laid off, we lived with his parents for 7 months and didn’t pay any rent, bills, nothing. If it had been much longer than that, they probably would have asked us to chip in for groceries but I wouldn’t have felt it was unfair. Conversely, I’ve known lower income white kids who lived at home and got part time jobs in order to contribute to expenses.

Truthfully, the vast majority of Americans (Black and white!) are living paycheck to paycheck. One recent study shows that about 60% of us don’t even have $500 in savings. That was a small sample size, but if that large a percentage of us don’t have even that small amount, how many don’t have the recommended 3 months’ living expenses? If your financial situation is that precarious, imagine the burden of supporting an adult child who is no longer eligible for Medicaid, must be registered separately on your car insurance, no longer eats 2 of their 3 meals a day at school, and is now at home 8 hours a day with the lights and A/C on. Together, that easily costs another $500 a month.

For parents who earn $250,000 or more a year and have inherited wealth, that picture is completely different. An alumni legacy scholarship and proportionally lower tuition kept them out of college debt. A trust fund from their parents allowed them to put 50% down on their first house, enabling them to pay it off in 10 years, buy a new home and rent out the old one (creating a second stream of income). So when little Becky wants to take off a year between high school and college, it’s no problem for her to spend her time going on spring break and overseas mission trips on her parents’ dime. When Timmy graduates and has to take an entry level job that only pays $30,000 a year, he can stay in his parents’ rental home until he makes enough money to get his own place (which will almost certainly be a house, not an apartment).

Comparing this situation to Black parents who didn’t buy a house until their child started kindergarten, have 15 more years on their mortgage, had to co-sign loans for college tuition, and have to contribute to the cost of a nursing home for their parents (who had no retirement savings) is just unfair. Couple that with the average person’s complete lack of financial education and it creates a vicious cycle.

I really think that financial education should be part of the K-12 curriculum. Every kid has to take calculus even though only a small percentage will pursue careers that require its use. But they don’t know how to balance a checkbook or create a budget as every adult will have to do? That’s madness. I got those lessons throughout life from my parents, and enterprising teachers who taught me about the stock market and income taxes. But that should be available to everyone.

Common Cents

America, the cheapskate. With this new administration, there’s a lot of talk about balancing the budget, reducing taxes, and that old chestnut–“job creation”.  Part of the problem is that we don’t have people developing skills that are more relevant to the economy than coal mining, but that’s another post for another day. But conservatives love to talk about how policies are helping or hurting small business owners.*

There’s all this talk about job creation and how things like the Affordable Care Act discourage business growth. **The truth is that it takes money to make money. If you can’t afford the expenses for your business–including reasonable employee wages–then you need to reevaluate before you start talking about growth. If you can’t pay your employees, you can’t afford to grow– period! So either you need to reevaluate your business processes to see how you can better handle your workload with what you have, or up your marketing game to get more business in the door.

It’s really unfortunate to me that so many business owners are so cheap. Everyone knows the saying “it takes money to make money”, but few seem to truly understand that. It’s not hard. When you are starting a business, most of your profits should be reinvested as working capital. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pay yourself something to live on. But the first three years are not for you to run out and buy an expensive new car or wardrobe, or lease an expensive office downtown in the hip neighborhood. They are for you to master your branding, network, market yourself, and find out what processes will allow you to scale up from the current skeleton crew operation.

As you all know, I’m a lawyer. As a service professional, an attorney’s or law firm’s reputation is everything because a lot of business comes through word of mouth. Doing a half-assed job on cases you shouldn’t have taken, and missing deadlines because you can’t manage your docket, is bad business and will potentially get you in trouble with the state bar.  Discounting every client who complains about your fee will bite you in the foot. If they are a repeat customer, they’ll expect the same discounted rate. The clients they refer to you will expect a discounted rate. They also won’t take your seriously. In my experience, the clients who get a discounted fee or are on contingency are the most high maintenance, demanding clients. They want to go to trial long after it’s clear they should take a settlement and go home. You waste precious billable hours wrangling them when you could be working on more lucrative cases. All of this for a client who is not substantially contributing to your bottom line.  Many of these things are true for other professionals as well.

So that’s why my interview the other day irked me so much. The firm had a standalone building with a dedicated reception lobby, two conference rooms, four offices and a break room. There was a recent model year BMW parked close by. My interviewer’s shoes looked designer and their shirts and suits looked custom tailored. Yet, they want someone to work for them 7 days a week for a pittance.  See, we millenials peep game. The same Baby Booomers who claim we’re lazy and entitled, told us to know our worth, negotiate everything, and demand respect. Now that the rubber has hit the road, they’ve changed their tune. They want us to do better, just not better than them. And that’s messed up.

 

*Everyone thinks about the Mom & Pop diner when you say small business, but they don’t give a crap. Under tax law you can create an S-Corp, literally “small corporation”, which can’t have more than 100 shareholders. But there are S-Corps which are multi-million dollar  international operations. #TheMoreYouKnow

**The ACA requires that businesses with 50 or more employees provide sponsored health insurance coverage. The cost of this coverage is deductible by the company as a business expense.

The more things change…

Last night, I went to bed with hope. As of 11pm CST, the presidential race was still neck and neck. I figured that I might as well get a good night’s sleep and let it be. I was going to have to live with the consequences either way, why wait in anxiety?

I always knew this was going to be a tight race from the simple fact that DJT (no free Google results on my blog!) was not laughed out of the presidential race. It was clear from the beginning that the old rules of politics had been completely rejected. Unfortunately, it was the fruit of a poisoned tree that was planted during the Clinton presidency. Philandering with an intern was certainly immoral. But was a consensual affair between two adults worthy of an impeachment? Certainly not. And since then, politicians have been exposed for doing much worse. The impeachment failed, but the gauntlet had been thrown. The seeds of what would later become the Tea Party had been planted and taken root.

Bill Clinton was followed by two terms of a hawkish Republican during a time of domestic crisis. George W. Bush was regarded by many (including my teenage self) as a joke. But it is only now, faced with DJT, that I realize how much worse it could have been. Given the excesses of a deregulated Wall Street, I don’t think any president could have prevented the economic crash (although Bush’s actions afterward probably made it worse). Similarly, 9/11 was another misfortune that could not have been helped. But strains of white nationalism began creeping in. There was talk then (as there is now) of creating a Muslim registry. Anyone that dared to question the president, the wisdom of the war on terror, or the necessity of a law that gave carte blanche for our government to surveil us was deemed un-American. The fissure between the two parties turned into an all out divide. Washington has never been a place of reliable cooperation. But suddenly, the Democrats and the Republicans weren’t friendly rivals willing to agree to a flawed but tolerable middle ground. We were enemies.

The election and re-election of Barack Obama was, for many of us, a refreshing palate cleanser. He spoke about hope, and change, and unity. We believed the fact that he was an Ivy League educated, world traveling, community organizing, biracial Black man, raised by a single mother, meant that he was emblematic of the melting pot that America claims to be. He was born poor and worked his way up to becoming the most powerful man in the world. No matter your politics, you had to respect the man’s passion and reverence for our country and our government. Right? Wrong. The stain of racism has never been bleached away. And the internet revolution created, for liberals, a growing consciousness of just how many other -isms existed. Race and gender were just the start. It goes deeper, to xenophobia, implicit bias, rape culture, misogyny, white privilege, etc, etc, etc. To some folks it must surely have seemed as if their very whiteness had become a crime, something that had to be explained away rather than accepted and unknowingly traded for unearned power. But rather than recognize our shared humanity and attempt to reach across the aisle, Republicans doubled down on identity politics. Their party was the sole party of religion, family values, patriotism, and all things wholesome. By extension, Democrats had to be the opposite.

The liberal party in any country always has it harder. Conservative values across the globe have one thing in common– uniformity. That uniformity makes them a force to be reckoned with, because they will hold their nose and toe the party line before they become the weakest link by defecting to the enemy. By contrast, liberals worship their conscience and have no qualms abandoning the party vote. They despise “politics as usual”, and must always vote for something rather than against something else. The lack of pragmatism is hugely damaging, because they sacrifice long term coalition building for short term satisfaction and the ability to say “I told you so”.

I won’t recap the 2016 election cycle. Volumes have been written on it and we don’t yet know what a DJT presidency will bring. The best I can hope for is the maintenance of the status quo. I find it hard to believe that a pathological liar who says things like “Grab her by the p*ssy” will magically transform into a measured, rational statesman during his inauguration. I am deeply, bitterly disappointed that half of America is either racist, or finds it acceptable to vote for one (because any candidate who is endorsed by the KKK and does not immediately repudiate such an endorsement, is giving his stamp of approval to what they represent). I am disappointed that an eminently qualified female politician who has suffered a few lapses in judgment is somehow worse than a man who proudly states that he would date his own daughter, and mocks any and everyone not white, male and rich. I am disappointed that black lives matter less than white comfort. It’s true that God is with us. But He is not responsible for what happens to us on earth–we are. God was with us during slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust and Vietnam, Japanese internment camps and 9/11. But people died all the same.

Our government only works as long as we believe in it. It only takes a spark to start a fire that will burn our institutions to the ground. For all of those who voted for DJT but claim to reject his hateful speech, now is the time to prove it. Prove it by holding him accountable from here on out. The line has been drawn. Are you on the wrong side of history?