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black americans

Though we're all part of the same species living on the same planet, our experience as humans walking through this world can differ widely. Children see things through a different lens than adults. Women and men have different perspectives on certain issues. And because racism has long been an active element in our society, people with varying amounts of melanin in their skin face specific challenges that others don't.


As a white American, I don't instinctively know what it's like to walk in a black person's shoes. I can tell you about the legacy of white supremacy laced throughout our country's history. I can explain the far-reaching effects of slavery, lynch mobs, Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration, and more. I can intellectually break down the psychological and sociological impact of centuries of race-based oppression.

But I can't tell you what it feels like to walk through this world, right now, as a black person—which is why it's so important to listen to the voices of people who can.

David Summers shared a story on Facebook that reflects the experience of many black Americans—one that can help us non-black folks see through a lens we simply do not and cannot have. Perhaps that's why it's been shared more than 20,000 times. From the fear that any object he carries might be mistaken as a gun to figuring out how to smile at a stranger just right so he won't be considered a threat, the "black thoughts" Summers describes during his walk through a beautiful, white neighborhood—presumably a neighborhood most of us would consider "safe"—are heartbreaking.

He wrote:

"I took a black walk this morning. I took a black walk through a white neighborhood. When I take black walks, I think black thoughts. I am conscious of where I've placed my gun, my gun, and my gun. I mean, my phone, my wallet, and my keys. Because Peace Officers have a hard time telling the difference. I rehearse what I'll say if a concerned resident, or a law enforcement employee has questions about why my black body is walking through their white space. And I remind myself to make sure the law enforcement employee has his body camera recording. Sometimes it helps if there is video evidence to accompany the hashtag.

There is no way to be stealthy when you take a black walk. White neighborhoods are blanketed by a sophisticated security system comprised of nosy neighbors, Ring doorbell cameras, and white women walking their dogs. So, I've learned to notice the white world through my periphery. To be aware of the dangers without acknowledging them. There is an art to making white people feel safe. To say 'Good Morning' and flash a smile that shows confidence and deference at the same time. To being polite because your life depends on it.

I felt the squad car behind me before I saw it.

It moved deliberately. Not like the other cars mindlessly whizzing past. Its tires inched. Crept. Stalked their way toward me.

I kept walking.

"Don't take your hands out of your pockets," I thought. Or wait, maybe I should? Maybe it's better if my hands are clearly empty. But it's cold outside…maybe it's nothing. Keep walking.

The car rolled past me and made a slow right turn. I glanced quickly but didn't stare. The air is still. My ears tuned out everything but the slight scuff of my sneakers on the sidewalk and the fading sound of those stalking tires.

Almost there.

Suddenly the squad car re-emerged. It was a block ahead of me. It made a quick right turn, continued to the end of the street, and then waited. No more stalking. This was a show of force. This was a roar. This was a reminder that I was trespassing.

I kept walking.

"Don't take your hands out of your pockets," I thought. Or wait, maybe I should? Maybe it's better if my hands are clearly empty. But it's cold outside…maybe it's nothing. Keep walking.

The car rolled past me and made a slow right turn. I glanced quickly but didn't stare. The air is still. My ears tuned out everything but the slight scuff of my sneakers on the sidewalk and the fading sound of those stalking tires.

Almost there.

Suddenly the squad car re-emerged. It was a block ahead of me. It made a quick right turn, continued to the end of the street, and then waited. No more stalking. This was a show of force. This was a roar. This was a reminder that I was trespassing.

I kept walking.

As I approached the corner, the front window began to roll down. The occupant didn't speak. Didn't smile. Just stared. I was being warned.

I crossed the street and the lion trotted off. He had effectively marked his territory. The brave protector had done his job.

I however, couldn't help but wonder what I'd missed during my black walk. It's hard to hear the birds chirping, or to smile at the squirrels playfully darting along the branches when you're on a black walk. It's easy to miss the promise of a light blue sky, or appreciate the audacity of the red, yellow, and purple daisies declaring their independence from the green grass when your mind is preoccupied with black thoughts.

I took a walk through a beautiful neighborhood this morning. But I missed the whole thing."

Thank you, Mr. Summers, for sharing your "black walk" experience. Hopefully, it will prompt us all to ask ourselves whether our words and actions serve to reinforce or remedy what you've described.


This article originally appeared on 03.02.20

Identity

Statue of Henrietta Lacks to replace toppled Robert E. Lee monument in  Virginia

Her 'immortal' cells are estimated to have saved millions of lives.

"Henrietta Lacks" by yooperann is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A Henrietta Lacks mural in Oak Park, Illinois.

Lee Plaza in Roanoke, Virginia, was named for Robert E. Lee, and up until 2020, it was home to a monument to the famed Confederate general. In the racial justice protests of 2020, however, the monument was toppled and then removed. And in 2021, the city council voted to split the renaming of the plaza, with part becoming Freedom Plaza and the section where Lee's monument stood becoming Henrietta Lacks Plaza.

In a move that reflects the nation's ongoing reckoning with its racial history, a statue of Lacks will soon be erected in the city of her birth, right where the Lee monument stood. At an event at the site this week, artist Bryce Cobbs unveiled a full-sized rendering of Lacks, upon which the new statue will be designed.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black American woman and mother of five who was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951. While she was being treated at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, a doctor snipped cells from her cervix without her knowledge or consent. Lacks died of the aggressive cancer at age 31, but her cells lived on … and on and on, much to the surprise of Dr. George Gey, the researcher who studied them.


Unlike other patients' cells, which had always quickly died in Gey's lab, Lacks' cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours. These "immortal" cells, nicknamed HeLa cells after Lacks' first and last name, changed modern medicine in huge ways. HeLa cells have been—and still are—used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on cancer cells, to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to develop vaccines (including the polio and COVID-19 vaccines) and to study the human genome.

The world owes Henrietta Lacks a huge debt of gratitude for the medical breakthroughs her cells have helped humanity accomplish. However, it's also important to acknowledge the injustice that her cells were used without her consent.

In attendance at the art unveiling event were a son and grandson of Henrietta Lacks, both of whom have worked to have her story told and honored. Her grandson Ron Lacks expressed his happiness at the Roanoke event that the plaza project involved the Lacks family and that the organizers of the project had approached them first. The statue design by sculptor Larry Bechtel is set to be unveiled in October 2023.

The replacing of a Confederate monument with a statue of a Black American who contributed to the advancement of humanity feels only fitting. While we can't right historical wrongs, we can at least acknowledge them and make sure the people we choose to celebrate with monuments are deserving of the honor.

Trevor Noah says goodbye in his last episode of "The Daily Show."

Trevor Noah, who has spent the past seven years hosting "The Daily Show," has officially said goodbye to his late-night fans. While he could have chosen any note to leave on, he made his final words an emotional tribute to the Black women who have influenced him.

Since he took over the spot from Jon Stewart, Noah has made the show his own with a blend of quick-witted comedy and thoughtful commentary. Noah had big shoes to fill, but to his credit, he didn't try to cram his feet into them. He simply brought his own shoes and placed them right next to Stewart's, offering his own style of comedy and unique perspectives on the world night after night. Even in his "Between the Scenes" segments, where he chatted with the audience during commercial breaks, Noah frequently added insightful context to current issues.

In his final monologue, he credits those insights to his Black women mentors, from his own mother and grandmother to thought leaders he has had on his show to Black women in general. And it's quite telling that he managed to keep it together in his final show, right up until the point when he talked about these women.


"I've often been credited with having these grand ideas—people are like, 'Oh Trevor, you're so smart'—who do you think teaches me?" he said. "Who do you think has shaped me, nourished me, informed me?"

He credited the women close to him, but it wasn't until he talked about Black women in America specifically that he really began to get choked up.

"I always say, if you really want to learn about America, talk to Black women," he said. "Because unlike everybody else, Black women cannot afford to f*ck around and find out."

Watch:

Some of the women Noah mentioned by name responded with their personal stories of their interactions with Noah, and they offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at who Noah is.

Roxane Gay shared that her book tour for "Hunger" had been "a shit show," with journalists having no idea how to talk about fatness. She had "prepared for the worst" when she arrived at "The Daily Show," but said Noah turned out to be "a dream."

"He came to the green room and asked what language he should use around fatness and I said we can be real," she wrote on Twitter. "The word fat is fine. It was clear he had actually read Hunger. Not every interviewer could say that.

"We had a wonderful, interesting, nuanced conversation," she continued. "He was smart and kind and funny. He didn’t condescend or treat me like I was repulsive. This shouldn’t be remarkable but it was. I will always be grateful and never forget the consideration."

Tressie McMillan Cottom, author, professor and sociologist, has been on "The Daily Show" several times, but she shared in a series of tweets that her first appearance came totally out of the blue.

"To this day, only two men have ever slid into my DMs. One was a foreign prince of dubious financial means. The other was Trevor Noah. He politely asked me to be on his show. In my DMs. Like he had to ask. Blew my mind.

I was an assistant professor at a state school with a wonky book about for-profit colleges out on a small press. Trevor had not just read it. When we met, I would learn that he had read almost all of my years-long blog. *HE* asked *me* to be on his show.

I had the opposite of a marketing budget. I had the 'prayers and wishes' of publishing. Would I do The Daily Show??? I remember asking him backstage, 'why am I here??' With sincere incredulity he said, 'because you’re brilliant.' News to me.

It’s hard to overstate how much it meant to a writer and scholar without a serious elite pedigree or a major publisher to get a DM to be on The Daily Show. Trevor put together a team that reflected his own intellectual curiosity. If he booked you? He had read you.

When you see how many Black women he elevated? That’s him. That’s who he reads…Black women are truly the foundation of his intellectual project."

Walking the talk is always nice to see, and it's clear why Noah decided to close out his run on "The Daily Show" with the tribute he did.

Thank you, Trevor Noah. You will most definitely be missed.

Identity

Parents are sharing kids' delight at seeing Halle Bailey in live-action 'The Little Mermaid' trailer

"Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role."

Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

Kids react to Halle Bailey playing Ariel in Disney's live-action "The Little Mermaid."

It has been seven years since Disney first announced its plans for a live-action version of "The Little Mermaid," and four years since Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in the film.

Director Rob Marshall commented on her casting in a statement in 2019, saying in a statement, “After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role."

He didn't mention her race, but others did—for better and for worse.

While some celebrated the choice of a non-white actress, the hashtag #NotMyAriel revealed that a segment of the public took issue with the casting of a Black actress to play Ariel. Some claimed the character was supposed to be a fair-skinned redhead and making her Black wasn't true to the Danish origins of the story. In a Variety profile, Bailey shared with Variety that she relied on the support and encouragement of her family members, including her grandparents, to handle the racist backlash directed her way.


“It was an inspiring and beautiful thing to hear their words of encouragement, telling me, ‘You don’t understand what this is doing for us, for our community, for all the little Black and brown girls who are going to see themselves in you,’” Bailey told Variety.

As for the criticisms, as many have pointed out, Ariel is a fictional mermaid in a fantasy world in which race plays no part. Danish people can be Black, Black people can be redheads and the colors of Ariel's features aren't relevant to the storyline anyway.

Casting a Black actress does matter, though, especially for young Black viewers who rarely see themselves physically reflected in the world of Disney princesses. The first Disney princess, Snow White, was introduced in 1937 and we didn't see a non-white princess until Jasmine in "Aladdin" in 1992. In the past 30 years, Disney has had some catching up to do to create a more diverse and representative offering of its iconic characters.

Parents have been sharing the reactions of their kids to seeing the new teaser trailer for the live-action "The Little Mermaid," which show why that representation really does matter.

Here is a small handful of them:

@preciousavery

I love this for my 3 years old 🤎 #littlemermaid #toddlersoftiktok #hallebailey #girlpower

@workingmama

My daughter’s reaction 😭 to the little mermaid trailer. #littlemermaidtrailer #representationmatters

@nickyknackpaddywack

Mayas reaction to #thelittlemermaid trailer. #representationmatters #representationinthemediamatters #blackgirls


As an Upworthy commenter shared on Instagram, representation can be powerful for kids. "As a ginger who was little and getting teased relentlessly for the color of her hair and skin when little mermaid came out, I felt represented when the Disney princess looked like me and she was and is still my favorite. Ariel making a new generation of little girls feel seen and represented is beautiful. 😍😍"

For people worried about how this casting choice might impact representation for redheads, never fear. First of all, the live-action Ariel played by Halle Bailey actually does have red hair, so there's that. Secondly, considering redheads only make up 1% to 2% of the population, they are already well-represented in the land of Disney princesses. Aside from Ariel, we have Merida (from "Brave") and Anna (from "Frozen," though she isn't technically considered a princess) on the animated front, as well as Giselle from the live-action film "Enchanted," (though she's not considered an "official" princess, either). The only official animated Black princess has been Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog." For a live-action Black princess, we had singer Brandy playing Cinderella in a 1997 live-action TV film.

Now we have Halle Bailey cast as Ariel, a welcome choice for Black Disney princess fans who have rarely gotten to see themselves as "part of that world." And if this trailer is any indication, it's going to be truly magical.