David Bowie: Time to Mourn or Call Out?

Every other week, I co-lead an all-gender process and support group. Last night, one of our topics of discussion was, of course, David Bowie. Some of the people in the room felt displaced, distraught by his death. In this intergenerational space we held those who grew up knowing David Bowie was a big deal already as well as those who grew up along with David Bowie and saw his career take off. In this space, we shared stories of the personal meanings of his life as well as the confusing feelings left in his wake as some of us discovered information about his abuses and problematic behaviors. Yesterday, all throughout social media, I saw countless stories shared of how David Bowie’s music touched a million queer and trans people of varying races, ages, and countries. I have seen my newsfeed inundated with people’s shock and memories, with the ways in which he inspired them in ways they did not even know until he passed, with the ways he changed music, science fiction, and gender.

And yesterday is also when I found out about the rape allegations against him (that were cleared by a jury, but I also know that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen) and the facts of his statutory rape of a 14/15-year-old. And so my feed has also been ripe with explosive anger as well as nuanced discomfort, frustration, and exhaustion.

David Bowie and J. C. in Labyrinth Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection / Getty Images

David Bowie and J. C. in Labyrinth Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection / Getty Images

So what am I, a gender/queer Latinx, supposed to feel and do about this cultural icon? As someone who has worked for years on preventing and dealing with sexual assault and abuse? As someone who teaches on consent and believes in the incredible power and knowledge of youth as well as the incredible vulnerability of the teen years? As someone who sees White stars get a pass for things that celebrities of color get crucified for? As someone who works with many people feeling intense things about David Bowie’s death? As someone who grew up watching Labyrinth way more than should’ve been allowed but still did not feel the connection to Bowie that so many others do?

And how should others feel? The survivors of sexual abuse and assault hearing the streams of praise for someone accused of rape? The queer and trans kids of yesteryear for whom David Bowie’s music became a lifeline, became a hope when they considered suicide? The people living at that intersection? I don’t ask this because I have the ultimate answers or get off on telling others what to do (I mean, maybe, but that’s another story), but because we need to have the discussion and figure out where we stand and what that means.

Help: Feelings Are Hard and Complicated!

Our reluctance to have an honest and open conversation about the flaws of celebrities we love stems from a simple fact: we see ourselves in them. If your favorite smart, talented, successful celebrity can be classist, sexist or racist then what does that say about you? Well, it says that you can be classist, sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic.

But you can and you are at least some of these things sometimes. So am I. Own it. Learn from it. It’s not an attack, it’s the truth. Nobody is a perfect example of civil rights virtue. If you aren’t screwing up, you aren’t trying.

– Ijeoma Oluo

For those who are not mourning David Bowie: We can and must critique deplorable actions regardless of who is committing them. We must also acknowledge space for people’s grief, and respect the very real pain felt by people when in mourning. This does not mean erase people’s problematic, terrifying, horrible, disgusting, whatever actions. It means respect the fact that many people are feeling sadness. Bowie is dead; the people we should hold in kindness are those that feel the loss. It does not mean we have to mourn, erect banners, engage in commentary that doesn’t feel authentic to us. It does not mean we shouldn’t feel our feelings and get enraged at the ways the media perpetuate rape culture and gloss over issues we care about. It does mean we should allow for space to exist where people who are sad and hurt can congregate and feel their feelings. It means we should find those who are in a similar spot as us and vent our rage at this situation and David Bowie’s actions but not at the expense of those who are mourning.

Are we critiquing Bowie or his fans? Are we centering the cultural object or the person? Are we critiquing the abuses he committed or the fact that people can have big, complex feelings about it and are mourning his death? Are we critiquing how certain stars get so much praise upon their death and get their sins wiped away, but certain stars don’t? Are we critiquing how, due to ignorance and White supremacy, many mourn the loss of a White star and ignore the losses of countless people of color at the hands of police brutality? Are we critiquing people’s sadness to get cool points for not feeling anything? Are we assuming people can’t feel multiple things at once?

We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities. We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.

hunky-dory-sessions david bowie

For those who are mourning David Bowie: We have a right to time and space to grieve, to heal, to reminisce, to do whatever we have to do to feel whole. And we must not use our grief as a way to silence survivors of sexual abuse, even if we are survivors ourselves. We must remember that we do not have to immediately engage in a discussion of the problematic aspects of David Bowie with strangers (or even friends) if it feels too raw. We eventually must, however, engage with these and incorporate them into our understanding of Bowie because he was an icon but also a person. We should allow space for the pain of those who have experienced abuse and been repeatedly silenced, especially because so many have been abused by people like Bowie, by people in positions like his and with followings like his, and people have looked the other way “because they have done so much good for the community.” It means we should find those who are in a similar spot as us and air out our feelings in ways that feel helpful but not at the expense of acknowledging rape culture and abuse.

Are we conflating our mourning of Bowie the person with Bowie-what-the-icon-and-the-music-meant-to-us (and thus really mourning a piece of ourselves and our world)? Are we mourning in a way that erases all wrongdoing and promotes Bowie as a perfect cyborg of queer and trans visibility? Are we ignoring the impact of race, age, and money in these discussions? Are we mourning in a public forum and keeping eerily silent about the ways in which David Bowie abused his power? Are we mourning for David Bowie and ridiculing or ignoring the mourning for countless lives lost in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq?

We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities. We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.

OUR FAV IS PROBLEMATIC (#SorryNotSorry, David Bowie)

We tend to hold the people of whom we are fans to the same moral standards we hold friends, often expecting them to echo our politics or sensibilities in the same way that their art, whatever it may be, speaks to us. By definition, fame requires those on the outside looking in to rely on imagination to prop up celebrity narratives; the public’s glimpses into the lives and personalities of the famous are so mediated that though we think we know, we have no idea. Fame encourages us to fill in the blank spaces around these people with what we want to see, with what reaffirms our pre-existing assumptions. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to art we like, and to the artists who make it, we expect to see reflections of ourselves in them, even on the simplest of levels.

– Rawiya Kameir

Understanding that “our faves are problematic“is not a carte-blanche to excuse people from their wrongdoing because “everyone is problematic” (and trust me, there are a lot of examples/receipts showing that most of the people we like have shoved their foot in their mouth pretty deeply). We still have a matter of degrees and impact. And we must also remember that a mentality of “kill all people who do anything wrong ever” won’t get us anywhere in the long run. We can both remember and forgive as a people. We can hold folks accountable and keep them with us. We can remember, not forgive, and still move forward. We have options.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

Most of us know of Bowie as an icon, as a rocker, an artist, an actor, a pioneer—a larger than life concept—rather than Bowie as a living, breathing individual. We have to contend with the fact that the human Bowie (not the persona he crafted or what he meant to us or what his music did for our souls and survival) abused his power and privilege.

It can be difficult and scary and destabilizing to hold the reality of loving someone and/or thinking they’ve done amazing things with the realities of those same people doing horrible things, but that’s how the world is. This is what intersectionality is all about—about understanding the ways our intersecting identities make up our privileges and oppressions, about the complex ways in which our experiences and pieces form our whole.

Just like the queer and trans people who aren’t survivors of sexual abuse/assault should acknowledge the pain coming from survivors, straight and cisgender survivors should acknowledge the pain coming from queer and trans people. And those at the intersections—the queer and trans survivors—who feel confused as hell and torn (or staunchly on one side of the fence!) need our holding too. In discussing David Bowie’s death, we need to eliminate the transphobia, homophobia, and rape culture apologism in many of these conversations. These are all toxic forces that hurt our world.

We should not simply dismiss David Bowie’s artistic legacy and the impact he had on many AND we should not dismiss the allegations of rape and the realities of how he had sex with a 14/15-year old when he was a powerful and revered adult.

We must also listen to the people who interacted with Bowie instead of putting words in their mouth while also recognizing that there are larger forces at play—that just because someone does not feel victimized, it does not mean David Bowie did not take actions that were predatory and could have victimized someone else in the same situation. We can say “it was the 70’s!” and “things were different back then with all the free-flowing drugs!” or whatever to give context, but not to justify abuse and harmful behaviors. Some of us may feel puzzlement, disbelief, discomfort, and a lot of other emotions toward Lori M.’s account of her relationships with David Bowie and Jimmy Page, but we must understand that it is her story and not ours. Just because some of us would have felt or acted differently does not erase her reality and her truth. And we must also pay attention to what this narrative does in the public sphere.

Marginalized people and experiences are usually not neatly categorized and picture-perfect for the consumption of social movements. And when they ARE, or seem to be, something fishy is probably going on.

Older David Bowie

Moving Through & Beyond “KILL ALL RAPISTS”

A carceral, punishment-based justice system where we value an eye for an eye will not save us. It may feel good in the moment and scratch that “revenge” itch, but it will not save us. Booting “bad people” off the island will leave us with an empty island. What will save us is compassion, understanding, accountability, transformation, and restoration of justice. This is not easy, but it is what we must do. And it is not SIMPLE, but it is what we must strive for if we truly want to live in a different, better world. It does not mean we ignore bad things or ~*~magically forgive people and hug them even when they threaten our existence~*~ (more on this in a second).

As far as David Bowie and his work, each of us has to figure out how these things connect in our lives. Some people may swear off his music, some will not. Some people may feel revulsion when they seem him in movies they used to love, some may not. We can figure out how we as a society may honor the great work and things he put out in the world while not erasing his wrongdoing. Bowie is neither the first nor the last celebrity we’ll have to think about in these ways. We better start practicing these trains of thought if we weren’t doing so already (and many of us have been thinking about this for a while, especially in POC communities).

It’s easy for me to have compassion for people I like and see eye-to-eye with, for people who haven’t harmed me. Seeing those people as valuable humans who have worth, who deserve kindness and safety and care from the world and from me personally – that’s easy. Extending the same compassion and open-heartedness to everyone – to the people that have hurt me, to the people I disagree with about everything, to the people who would never listen to me or extend any care or empathy or understanding to me, to the people who don’t think I deserve humanity or kindness or safety – that takes a little more doing. Giving that kind of love is hard and painful.

Now, to be realistic about this, having compassion for people that have harmed me or that mean me harm doesn’t mean I need to allow them to be near me. It doesn’t mean I need to put my own safety at risk. And it also doesn’t mean that this compassion can’t genuinely coexist with real and powerful rage. But my hurt and my rage don’t obviate a person’s right to exist, to feel compassion, to be loved.

– Andy Izenson

As for me? I feel as Andy does. I choose to come to this from a perspective of radical love. Not always and not easily, but with intention and complexity and imperfection.

http://subtlecluster.tumblr.com/post/134001552016/this-radical-love-fosters-community-and-emerges

The REAL Origin of the African Birth Song: Surprise, It’s Racist

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr. Though it has a ton of problems (like refusing to shut down blogs being used to harass women, trans folks, and people of color), I’ve had an account since 2008 and it has accompanied me on my journey through college, years in the working world, and now—graduate school while I juggle staying in my field with expanding my horizons. I’ve found brilliant things on there, and while some posts only garner a tiny modicum of attention even if they’re wonderful, other posts can spread like WILDFIRE and go hugely viral. One such post is this one, about an “African birth song,” which almost has 150K notes:

[T]here is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.

The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.

You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when you are in tune with yourself and when you are not. When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and when you feel awful, it doesn’t. In the end, we shall all recognize our song and sing it well. You may feel a little warbly at the moment, but so have all the great singers. Just keep singing and you’ll find your way home.

Heartwarming. Much inspiration. Wow. So beautiful we could all cry a thousand tiny tears.

So what’s the problem, in a nutshell?

The “African birth song” is a half-baked invention of a White man that essentializes the “African experience” and does not event attempt to give any real details because it relies on collective ignorance about Africa that centers the world on a White axis. The text above does not provide any sources or even NAME this African tribe (though other versions do, but I’ll get into that later). The story uses exotification, the Noble Savage Myth, and people’s ignorance to make others feel warm n’ fuzzy and perpetuate incorrect narratives in the name of New Agey birth BS. This Tumblr post specifically, as many others have when they get reblogged, also uses the image/body of a RANDOM, unnamed indigenous woman from the Himba tribe. The list of problems goes on, because in the eyes of many non-African people, Africa is apparently just one huge jungle where everyone looks and acts the same, and all women run around topless feeling super connected to Mother Earth or something, giving birth in The Most Spiritual Ways We Should All Be Inspired By.

Himba woman who always remains nameless in reblogs of this stupid story.

Himba woman whose picture is used in reblogs of this story and always remains nameless.

Though this post focuses on Black and Indigenous folks, the same rule applies when discussing all other communities of color: we are not here to be your nameless, faceless inspirational memes. We want to be seen for who we are, and we want our own voices uplifted, not those of White folks who cannibalize our histories and profit off inaccuracies and tall tales.

Origins Of “THE AFRICAN BIRTH SONG” And Its Variations

While the story sounded cool and all at face-value, I knew there was more digging to be done because this smelled pretty fishy. What’s the real root of this “African Birth Song”? Beyond Tumblr and Facebook,  I found some other birth/parenting websites linking to this story, and that it has even been translated into Spanish and into Portuguese. It has been called “Your Song,” “The Song of Men,” “Remember Your Song,” “The Song of the Soul,” and more. The Birth Psychology website sources this book (“Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community” by Sobonfu Somé) as the origin of the text but, SURPRISE, I looked at it and the book doesn’t actually make mention of this story—though it does describe other ritual birth practices in certain African tribes.

Some don’t even try to source it to a person, and say this tradition comes from Namibia as a whole. Others say it’s rooted in the Himba people (the picture above, and the “featured image” for this post by J. Gerrits, are Himba women), even though the location of that tribe is apparently in an arid area, so there wouldn’t be a “jungle” to go to as the story say. Meanwhile, other Internetters say the source is the “Ubuntu tribe” even though there is, uh, no such thing—Ubuntu is a philosophy. Again, we see a trend: folks ascribing things to peoples they do not know or understand because they sound “appropriate” or “distant enough” to be credible (and again, such credibility relies on assuming the audience is NOT from Africa or any of these communities).

Aminata Traore, not Tolba Phanem

This is actually Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali, NOT Tolba Phanem.

Those that try to credit an individual (aside from Sobonfu Somé) cite “Tolba Phanem (African poet), 2007” and use another image of a Himba woman to accompany the post. Some websites say that Tolba Phanem is a great women’s rights activist, and show off her “picture.” Except a reverse image-search on Google shows me that the picture they are using is actually of Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali.

It actually looks like Tolba Phanem doesn’t actually exist, and the person who truly originated this story is a dude named Alan Cohen*, who published it in Issue #33 of Pathways to Family Wellness—”a quarterly print and digital magazine whose non-profit mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.” (If someone does find that Phanem is a real person, do let me know. I found nothing on her that was accurate/unrelated to this “poem/story.” And even the websites that cite very specific sources for this story don’t seem to return any hits or information—AND they also show incorrect facts that I *can* verify easily which makes them less credible from the get-go.)

[*EDIT 4/19/16: Commenters have been kind enough to keep digging and sourcing further. There seems to be another thread to this story linked to a White, Jewish man named Jack Kornfield which you can read about in this comment thread. I reached out to him but never received a response. Seems like HE may have been the originator of this story before Alan Cohen, but there is still no information about legitimate connections to actual tribal practices.]

So there we go. This story is a load of crap being adorned with “exotic” origin stories in efforts to legitimize it. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person who was skeptical, but not everyone’s skepticism drew them to my same eyebrow-raising and frustration. For example, this person was also skeptical, but much to my facepalming, this was their conclusion:

I’m an artist. A spontaneous, story-singing artist.
I work in the abstract and unproven, the ethereal and profound.
I make up stories and songs all of the time.
And they’re true.
They are invented and (sometimes) nonsensical, and maybe they never happened, but at the heart and at the center, they are true.
Because when we hear them (or tell them), we can imagine and believe that they really happened.
Or wish that they had.
This is a true story.

On some level, I get it. I used to do a lot of art, and I am surrounded by artists, writers, and storytellers. I know not everything that gets written down has to be non-fiction, and that we can spin stories out of grains of truth and blah blah blah. I get it. But to use THAT as an excuse for writing racially busted stories, and especially those that go viral on social media? No. Your art is not an excuse. Your art does not exist in a vacuum. Your art is not separate from the systems of racism and oppression in which we live, and to be an artist is not to be exempt from cultural critique and social responsibility. If you want to tell a story about healing, restorative justice, song-singing, and birth, then make it stand on its own merits and power instead of being lazy and using some nameless, faceless “tribe” to help make it sound more legitimate.

Connections To Reality & Healing/Justice

So is this “African birth song” remotely related to actual tribal birth practices in Africa? Or indigenous work around healing? Sort of. Does the idea of being “in tune with our song” sound deep, and like it would be amazing to find ways of achieving justice that don’t just rely on punitive measures, but instead look beyond that and aim for reintegration and accountability? Heck yes. But none of that erases the racist mess I describe above. However, let’s leave that behind for a bit so we can look at what connection this actually has to reality.

Because I don’t know much about birthing practices in Africa, and I doubt I could do ANY sort of justice to an entire CONTINENT in a single blog-post, I’ll focus on the healing/justice portions.

Indigenous/ABORIGINAL/FIRST NATIONS healing circleS

  • Here’s a quick explanation of what healing circles are all about and where they come from. Though there are not a ton of studies about them as far as “evidence-based research” goes, there are some folks working on this kind of thing (example!), and I was honored to meet a group of them at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference.

Restorative justice, transformative justice, and community accountability

The line “The [group] recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity” encapsulates a big part of the RJ, TJ, and CA models. While different organizations may have different definitions of these concepts and how they relate to each other, at its core, the ideas behind these models and principles are that a) communities as a whole must be involved in eradicating violence, b) perpetrators of violence should not just be “passively responsible” for their actions, and c) healing must be directed by survivors and those impacted by the violence. Finally, a tenet of TJ (though not always RJ) is  the idea that we must transform—not merely slightly modify—our societal structures that currently enable violence and set up punishments for it.

  • Here’s a great resource that explains both TJ and CA with text, graphics, and a list of resources. It also gives credit where credit is due (read: to groups like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation Five for their work theorizing, writing, and operationalizing these concepts). This other resource also gives more historical background on it because our current police state wasn’t always what it is now, and this one discusses how the RJ model has been co-opted by the criminal justice system in certain ways (and thus how TJ can be an alternative to that).
  • Another slew of resources aggregated by Critical Resistance on addressing harm, accountability, and healing. It lists books, toolkits, zines, websites, articles, and more. While CR focuses on the prison industrial complex (PIC), this list of tools is about multiple forms of violence, including sexual assault, DV, state violence, and so on.
  • Here’s the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which “embracing the values of social justice and liberation, is a space to re/envision solutions to domestic or intimate partner, sexual, family and other forms of interpersonal violence.”
  • The Revolution Starts at Home is a fabulous book, and here’s an excerpt on these kind of strategies from a grassroots lens.
  • Here’s another CA wheel that focuses on domestic violence and explains what kind of actions should be taken by men, media, educational systems, the justice system, clergy, etc. (though it’s heteronormative and presents men as the only batterers).

SO IS THIS STORY WORTH IT OR NAH?

I think the ideas about healing and community-building in this story are awesome, but Mr. Cohen is not the originator of the concepts AND he’s using a racist, colonialist, tired ol’ lens to share his regurgitated opinion. Thus, I think that while this story has some good nuggets in it, there are WAY better resources and texts out there to illustrate these concepts in ways that are historically accurate, relevant, and non-oppressive. We ALL deserve better than this story.

[Added 2:15 pm EST] While this may seem small to some of you, this is part of a larger trend—this is a pattern, not a story in isolation. If you’re an educator, activist, teacher, parent, speaker, power-wielder of some sort, imagine incorporating this into a lesson about media literacy in a classroom, so students can find appropriate sources of information for projects. Imagine incorporating this into a workshop about birthing practices if you work with expecting parents. Imagine bringing this into a discussion about POC solidarity, or a lecture about art and social responsibility, or a class about international feminism.

SFS14 Workshop Recap: “Beyond Yes Means Yes: The Law, Activism, and Practice of Consent”

Two-people-talking-logoMissed the Sexual Freedom Summit by @WoodhullSFA this past weekend? Fear not! I’ll be recapping some of the sessions I attended. First up: “Beyond Yes Means Yes: The Law, Activism, and Practice of Consent” by Andy Izenson (@andyeyeballs).

Overall, I want to commend Andy for a wonderful session. He managed to strike a good balance between hilariously personable and serious, all while providing useful information and having us directly practice some of the concepts through engaging activities (AND giving space to not participate for those who hate activities and/or may be triggered by ones specific around consent). I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to judging presentations, and I had a lovely time.

While I don’t think everyone left the session with the same delicious taste in their mouth (especially not the cisgender white man who probably felt attacked when he mentioned that a way for people, and particularly women, to stay safe was to do things like “not go into the dorm room of college guys if they’re drunk,” and there was a palpable sense of rage in the room), I’d venture to say 95% of folks felt good about the workshop. Curious to hear more? Check out the workshop description to start:

This workshop will take participants through an understanding of the current state of and conflicts around sexual consent in the law, within activist communities, and in their own practices. After last year’s workshop focused solely on personal practice, this workshop zooms out to take a wider view of what it means to commit to fighting rape culture on multiple fronts. Participants will have opportunities to learn and practice positive consent strategies in their interpersonal interactions, and takeaways enabling them to empower the members of their own activist subcommunities to speak up and connect against abuse and assault. The session’s goals are to allow participants to experience consensual empowerment in a safe environment and learn strategies for spreading that empowerment throughout their own work.

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