She Spat In My Face

She spat in my face.

It was a mist. It caught everything from my left ear to the left side of my lip.

Random white woman spit.

Racism exists… 

I left the store, and hopped on my bike with a 6-pack of beer and a plan. I did upwards of 20mph in the bike lane on Grand Ave in Oakland’s Adams Point Neighborhood; 6-pack in my right hand. Focused on getting to the house party and not dropping the beer.

A college classmate, D’Auria Henry was waiting on me about a block away from the house party we were set to attend. When I got to D’Auria’s car she hopped out and noticed I had on my Howard University sweatshirt. She said she doesn’t travel without hers, reached into the car and grabbed her garment. After grabbing the threads from her car, she reached in again to grab a dish of banana a pudding that she had prepared for the potluck/ party we were set to attend.

As she reached in the car, a white lady– 5’6 with matted black hair and a backpack, came walking past. The lady said, “I’ll throw a flower at you!” As she announced her action, she stayed true to her word. She tossed a flower in D’Auria’s direction. I saw it all happen. Didn’t flinch. I laughed– or better yet: I silently chucked and smirked.

The lady continued toward me.

I stood on the street-side of the sidewalk, straddling my bike. The lady walked on the building side of the sidewalk.

There was enough room on the concrete for her, or any normal person to walk by. A sizable amount of space didn’t prove to be enough. As she crossed my path, she waited until she was completely adjacent to me. Left side. Further than my arm’s reach, but close enough for the stretch of saliva.

She spat on me. 

I don’t remember the obscenity she said as she did it. I’ll never forget the shock hitting my stomach, nor the spit hitting my face. I was frozen. She took another step. She was now on my blindside, almost completely behind me.

I turned away from her. Toward the street. Still straddling my bike and holding my beer in my right hand.

I turned 180º. Not thinking. Reacting. I reeled around and launched my 6-pack of beer like a discus towards her. She was now about two or three steps past me.

My backwards frisbee toss of a 6-pack of beer connected. It hit her left side–gently. And then the entire case crashed to the concrete. Shards of glass and beer suds scattered.

Broken beer bottles
Broken beer bottles

That wasn’t sufficient. I dropped my bike.

I started after her. Taking took two or three steps in her direction “You spat in my fucking face!!!” I was yelling. I don’t yell often. When I do: I YELL!

She looked back at me, as her body gained momentum in the opposing direction.

Going from a walk, to a light jog and then a full run– she looked back at me and said: “You’re a fucking racist!”

I stopped. Right then and there: I was guilty.

I was guilty of being a racist. Assault with a deadly weapon. Armed robbery. Attempted homicide, kidnap, rape… whatever she wanted to throw at me.

If an officer had rolled around that corner at that very moment, it is very likely that I would have been arrested. If not shot.

She spat in my face. It hit my ear, my cheek … my lip.

I didn’t see it coming . Didn’t provoke it.

I was just straddling my bike. Headed to a party on a Saturday night:

In pursuit of my happiness.

… And then she spat on me. 

But I was racist.

I went back, grabbed my bike, used my undershirt to wipe my face; but I couldn’t wipe away the thoughts.

In many ways, African American culture is a reaction to being spit on. Many aspects of Black culture, both good and bad, are a direct reaction to the predicament we have been placed in as a people.

That Howard sweatshirt. That soul food dish. They are symbolic of African Americans getting disrespected, and then reacting in a way that is beneficial to us (and the larger society).

My violent reaction and vulgar language were an example of  what it means to be disrespected, and then reacting in a way that is detrimental to myself (and the larger society, maybe).

(Maybe it benefits the larger society if I choose the detrimental route… hmmmm…)

This combined with the stories I’ve been reading and writing about all summer: Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. Alameda County Probation and San Quentin Prison. Homicides of old ladies and little babies. It’s like turning on the TV or looking at a movie screen and getting spit on. And then walking outside and getting spit on.

We have to choose how to react.   

Racism is only a belief. Racism is only a belief.

Racism is only a belief… until it manifests in the streets.

D’Auria lightheartedly said, “that crazy white lady wasn’t that crazy: she was smart enough to run!”

We laughed it off, purchased some replacement beer from Whole Foods and started toward the party. Passing back over the scene of the crime, I stopped to kick the shattered glass off the sidewalk and into the street. A Caucasian couple walked past. The lady of the duo thanked me for cleaning up the neighborhood. I laughed silently,told the couple to have a good evening, and then took off to my destination.

Just before D’Auria and I entered the house party, she looked down on the pavement: she found $60 folded on the ground. We split it.

My beer money was restored, and so was my understanding of racism.

God bless America.  

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: An ethical look at an unethical story.

 

ImageA book report by Pendarvis Harshaw.

The subject matter: An African American woman whose cells have influenced the world over, and are the basis for most modern medicines; yet few know her story.

The subjectivity: a writer who is unashamed to identify herself, her background, and her stance on the subject at hand.

The substance: a story that brings together modern medicine, racism, sexism and gives more evidence to just how deeply these forms of discrimination are rooted in our society.

Rebecca Skloot received court records, she dug up health records… and she even got family records– which traced the lineage of one African American family back to its enslaved ancestors. There are laws that impede a journalist from obtaining health records; it’s not unheard of for those barriers to be crossed. But getting records on the family of enslaved individuals almost defies the laws of physics. It’s hard enough for African Americans to contact relatives and develop a comprehensive picture of their family tree; I’m amazed that a white woman from Oregon would be able to do so, so vividly.

Skloot is a journalist with a knack for science; a woman who heard about Henrietta Lacks cells as a youth, and has been chasing that unicorn ever since.

The unicorn, as my classmates at UC Berkeley’s Journalism school have defined it, is the perfect story.

In chasing down the unicorn, she succeeded. She left voicemails and went on wild goose chases that left her stranded in random parts of Baltimore, and she overcame. In not having access to the family, medical records, and little help from the snide doctors who were elderly and succumbing to diseases many of them worked to cure, she respectfully persevered.

She came out with a great story; she captured the unicorn.

The unicorn is the perfect story: the drama, the universal appeal, the characters and the resources to actually tell the story.

Although, in some senses, the unicorn had already been captured. Science articles, a Rolling Stone Piece, and a BBC documentary are just three of the many outlets that covered the HeLa story; so what makes Skloot’s tale any different?

Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t the HeLa story, as much as it was the Henrietta Lacks story. The story of a woman who birthed five children, maintained pristine red toenail paint, and had few photos aside from the iconic one of her standing with her hands on her hips. Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who fell victim to medical malpractice, and in turn rose to post-mortem medical infamy.

It’s an ethical look at one of the most unethical stories the world should have heard of, but still I question some of the ethics of the reporter.

I’d be gullible if I didn’t question her quotes and her details. The verbatim dialog, back and forth between her and her interview subjects, the type of sandwich the laboratory assistant ate on the day the cells first came into the lab. As a practicing journalist, I question how she could manage to remember all of these details from the first encounter with people—or was she rolling up to the scene with the audio recorder rolling and journalist notepad in hand? Was she walking into old Southern Black folks’ houses with a machine in their face, documenting their every last breath?

Her details are immaculate. They add the color need to carry a science story into the hearts of those concerned with the human story. But as a journalist, the first rule is to question everything—susceptibility is for suckers.

In the end, I have to appreciate a book this well researched. I’d love to see (not look through nor fact check, merely see the presentation/ organization of) her notes. I’d like to hear her talk about her relentless approach in contacting the family. I’d like to interview Skloot about the financial cliff she walked out on to fund the traveling, lodging and the entire book project by way of her student loans and credit cards.

I’d like to know what she’s working on next.

To think, the story of Henrietta Lacks brought together the plight of Baltimore, the cure for Polio, health insurance, the movie Jurassic Park, A famed Rolling Stone writer who lost his house in the firestorm in the Oakland Hills, The Nazi experiments, the Tuskegee experiments, and a lot of the issues that are currently debated during discussions about Medicicare/ Medicaid in Washington DC.

She did it subjectively. Never leaving out the fact that she was a woman, a white woman, a white woman who was out to advocate for the story of Henrietta Lacks, and her family. And although this is Henrietta Lacks’ story, it is told by Rebecca Skloot, and this is her (well researched) perspective on Henrietta’s life.

Photo Essay: A Walk Down MLK Ave. in South East D.C. on MLK Day 2010

He fought for Love. He fought for peace. He fought to uplifting Christ. And he fought to take down racism… But in the end Dr. King knew it was all about the allotment of resources in America.

His famous, “I Have a Dream” Speech, could have easily went down in history as the “Bounced Check ” speech. He spoke of America’s failure to include African-American’s into the greater society post-slavery. He acknowledged African-American’s role in the disenfranchisement, as many passively accepted what was given.

And now, 42 years after Dr. King’s assassination we have been given a National holiday in celebration of his birthday, and a Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in every major US city.

Every Martin Luther King Jr. Ave I have ever been fortunate enough to bare witness to runs through the most economically downtrodden part of the city.

I decided to take a walk down Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in the Nation’s Capitol, and this is what I saw…

Dr. King's Ave. in South East Washington DC

Martin Luther King Jr. Ave in South East Washington D.C. is a main artery through a predominantly African-American community. The area is in the transitional phase; the dilapidated structures of yesteryear still loom as a reminder of the 1968 riots after King’s death, the influence of crack cocaine in the 1980’s, and the economic turmoil that has plagued many Black communities since their creation- and through the current recession America is facing.

vacant housebuilding frame.Historically Black Community: For Sale

And like Every Black community in America, there were check cashing stores, liquor stores, heaps of trash in the street and graffiti on the walls

check cashing storeLiquor store. Good Hope.trash heapStanton Crew

But right next to the graffiti was something that started to open my eyes to the depth of the spirit present in the Anacostia community….

Islam on the riseSheik

Islam was far from the only religion present, in fact the number of Baptist churches was comparable to the amount of corner stores…Baptist church signUnion Temple

Fittingly enough, while attempting to take a shot of the church, another dominant force in the community conveniently intervened in my photo…

Cops and God.

But the governing bodies are also taking initiatives to aid the community…

A Government Savior?the plan...

dept. of Housing.

I don’t doubt the necessity for government aid in the Black community, but nothing trumps knowledge of self and knowledge of the land in which you reside. And in the community of South East Washington, D.C. there are numerous reminders of how fertile those grounds are, and how deep Black roots run through here said grounds.

Malcolm X centerFrederick Douglass' houseClara Muhammad schoolThurgood MarshallBlack owned Fish spotPeaceBlack familyBig Chair

And most of all… the words and image of Dr. King himself

MLK mural

On January 15th 2010 Dr. King would have been 81 years of age. To his memory, I give my respect.