As the #MeToo movement surges on, elevating the national conversation around sexual assault and gender inequality, Professor Heather Shotton believes one crucial population is missing from the discussion.
“Thirty-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime,” Shotton told her audience at the University of Akron, “the highest per capita rate in the nation. The fact that Native voices are absent from [Me Too] is part of the problem.”
Shotton’s delivery at the university’s Rethinking Race symposium was slow and measured, covering more than 400 years of Native American history in “Slurred Realities: Pocahontas, Misrepresentations, and Political Punchlines.” As part of the two-week forum, now in its eleventh year, Shotton was one of several keynotes centered on unraveling difficult conversations about race.
From debunking the myths fortified by the 1995 Disney classic to the arrival of Native costumes every Halloween, her talk was a visual feast of how unchecked stereotypes can color perception of an entire group.
Google “Native American women,” Shotton notes, and you’ll be bombarded with two types of images: one of the sexualized Native women, with come-hither eyes and a sexy pout, or historical portraits of women in traditional attire. “When we reduce indigenous women to nothing more than a costume or a cartoon . . . it skews our understanding of the real history. What would it look like if we shifted how we saw Indigenous women?”
As a citizen of the Wichita & Affiliated Tribes, Shotton, 41, spent the first half of her childhood in Davis, Oklahoma, a small town where she and her family enjoyed a tight-knit Native community. But when her family moved to Texas just prior to Heather’s junior high years, only three other Native students were enrolled. “There was often a black/white binary in my community,” she said. “So, you were either/or, and I wasn’t really either.”
When it came time for college, “Oklahoma was home,” she said. She received three degrees – including her doctorate – from the University of Oklahoma, where she currently teaches Native studies. In 2016, she was named Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association.
After her formal remarks, one student questioned how to become more informed about the issues facing Native populations. “I feel like the education many of us received was watered down,” she told Shotton.
Shotton chuckled before answering. “You’re right. It is watered down. Most of our histories were written by non-native people, so it’s a western, colonized perspective.” She urged them to read literature by indigenous authors and scholars like Adrienne Keene or Sarah Deer for an alternate viewpoint.
“Understand your place as an ally,” she cautioned the students. “Sometimes that means working behind and not taking up center stage.”
In December, a suburban Houston school district yanked copies of the young-adult novel “The Hate U Give” from all 25 of its school libraries.
In January – after a student-led outcry – copies were back in the high schools of Katy, Texas, albeit paired with a parental consent form. The consternation began when a middle-school parent complained about profanity and drug use at a party depicted in the book’s opening scene.
Angie Thomas, who wrote that scene, had a few observations about her breakout book, which spent 38 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. It was arguably the young adult sensation of 2017.
‘There are 89 f-words in ‘The Hate U Give;’ I know because I counted them,” Thomas told an overflow crowd at the Cleveland Public Library. “And last year, more than 900 people were killed by police. People should care more about that number than the number of f-words.”
The novel, characterized by YA king John Green as a “classic for our times,” centers on Starr Carter, a 16-year-old growing up in a gritty neighborhood and navigating a preppy private high school.
“I went to a mostly white, upper-class Christian school in conservative Mississippi,” Thomas said of Belhaven University. “They love Jesus but they don’t want people to have rights. I had to be two Angies.”
Thomas, now 30, was warm and frank and proud, declaring her love for the Cleveland Cavaliers and describing a complex Mississippi heritage: saying y’all and having a mother who heard the shots that killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Yet Thomas said she grew up without anyone calling her the n-word.
In the second chapter of “The Hate U Give,” Starr is riding in a Chevy Impala alongside her childhood friend Khalil when he is pulled over and shot to death by a police officer.
The novel germinated in Thomas’ anger over the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old shot in the back on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform. It began as a short story, her senior project as a creative writing major at Belhaven.
By the time Thomas finished writing “The Hate U Give” three years ago, it had ignited a bidding war among 13 publishing houses. And Amandla Stenberg had been cast as Starr in the Fox 2000 film, a decision that inflamed some readers who pictured a darker-skinned girl as they read the book. Thomas responded on Twitter that she was not involved in casting, but that she “supports Stenberg 1000%.”
“So much of her story is Starr’s story,” Thomas said. “But that’s Amandla’s story to tell. I know colorism is an issue, but I watched her on the set in Atlanta and she understood so much. She made me cry. I hope people will give Amandla a chance.”
In an aside, Thomas praised “Black Panther,” which dominated the weekend box office. “If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you doing with your life?” she enthused. “It’s going to change the film industry. It’s already changed mine (movie). I can’t say how, but it is.”
As she does in most of her ports-of-call, Thomas explained the title. The first letter of each word spells thug, a reference to the tattoo across Tupac Shakur’s abdomen. He explained it as “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fxxxs Everyone” or T.H.U.G L.I.F.E.
Teenaged Angie idolized the music of Tupac, and saw hip-hop as art-as-activism. She had a short-lived stint as a teen rapper, calling herself Young Short-A. And she encouraged her audience – packed with youth from throughout Cleveland – to see themselves as roses in concrete, a reference to Tupac sampling Nikki Giovanni.
About 500 Clevelanders turned out to hear and cheer Thomas, whose next novel, “On the Come Up,” is due out in June. She returned the crowd’s affection: “You drive trends. You change language. Hip-hop was started by teenagers, 15-, 16-year-olds in the Bronx in a basement with a turntable and a mic.”
Without embellishment, she declared her intent: “I am here to beg you to change the world.”
Anisfield-Wolf poet Elizabeth Alexander will be the next president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, becoming the first woman to head the nation’s largest foundation for the humanities.
“All of the things that I’ve cared about my whole life and worked toward my whole life Mellon does,” Alexander told The New York Times.
The author of six books and two collections of essays won the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement prize in 2010. A year earlier she recited an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her latest book, “The Light of the World,” chronicled the sudden loss of her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus, and became a top book of 2015 for the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and other outlets.
Alexander, 55, who lives in Harlem with her two sons, spent 15 years rebuilding the African-American studies department at Yale University before joining the Ford Foundation, where she directed grants in journalism, arts and culture. She helped design Agnes Gund’s $100 Million Art for Justice Fund.
Her first job is listening, Alexander told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “There’s still a lot I need to learn to figure out together with the staff, and what it is we want to do, so I am not laying out a foreign program,” she said.
Alexander riveted her audience in Cleveland’s Severance Hall in 2010 when she read “Stokley and Adam,” a signature poem about Adam Clayton Powell and Stokely Carmichael from her book “Crave Radiance.”
She told the Chronicle that she hopes to use her new position to help the public “understand that philanthropy is not just about, you know, sending checks, but it’s also about amplifying ideas.”
She will join the Mellon Foundation, headquartered in New York City, in March.
Nikole Hannah-Jones has no interest in frittering anyone’s time.
“You would never hear me use the word ‘diversity’ except to criticize it,” she declared to a large Cleveland audience at Case Western Reserve University’s Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. “Diversity is a word that makes white liberals feel good.”
The 41-year-old MacArthur “genius” recipient and New York Times journalist is “a fundamental voice reshaping the national education agenda,” as CWRU President Barbara Snyder puts it. Hannah-Jones specializes in investigative reporting on school re-segregation and its consequences.
“Nothing says more about us than our choice about where we send our children to school,” she said. “I’m not talking about Trump voters. I’m talking about progressives who don’t live their professed values.”
Perhaps her most-discussed reporting last year published as a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story entitled “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” In it, the author explores how she and her husband decided to enroll their child in their Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood elementary school, where most of the children are poor, black and Latino.
“I decided we would not use our privilege to escape the children in our neighborhood,” Hannah-Jones told her audience, which included students from five Cleveland-area schools, three of which fit the same demographic profile. “As an upper-middle class, highly-educated person, I can make up for whatever that school isn’t giving her.”
Some of the response to the story was withering. Reader upon reader asked, “How dare you sacrifice your child?” The author’s retort: “Whose children should we sacrifice?”
She spent the bulk of her Cleveland presentation making vivid what becomes of children mired in re-segregated U.S. schools. Those citizens grow up to experience more poverty, more illness, more segregation and shorter lives. And Hannah-Jones came packing information specific to her audience: the history of busing in Cleveland and the rapid re-segregation once the court order came off. Ohio public schools rank fourth in extreme racial segregation– only New York, New Jersey and California are worse.
This matters, Hannah-Jones said, because the only instrument proven to shrink the racial achievement gap is integration. In the 17 short years during which the country moved toward integration, which peaked in 1988, the racial achievement gap was slashed by more than half. As a schoolgirl in Waterloo, Iowa, young Nikole herself was bussed, more than two hours each day.
She stressed that white children didn’t make her, or any other students, better but the resources that accrue to whites do: more experienced teachers, more classroom resources, more advanced-placement curriculum and more rigorous instruction. Hannah-Jones calls this “the milk and honey” that too rarely touches the black and brown children, now composing half of the American public school enrollment.
“And then we blame those children for not achieving what white children do who receive all the milk and honey,” she observed.
“If we truly care about our children, why wouldn’t we do the one thing we know helps every child? This is the denial of full citizenship and equality in the place we expect the most equality: school.”
The writer has little truck with magnet and charter solutions. “One thing about the choice movement is it market-izes what should be public. If you play the Hunger Games with public schools, those on the bottom will continue to die.”
Hannah-Jones won a Peabody award for an absorbing 2015 piece called The Problem We All Live With, which will also be the title of her forthcoming book.
That radio journalism is a portrait of the Normandy Public Schools, the worst performing district in Missouri. Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, led Hannah-Jones to this topic, because McSpadden – in the hour of her grief – spoke out about her teenage son managing to graduate just months before Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot him dead. This caught Hannah-Jones’ attention. McSpadden declined to be interviewed, but other African-American mothers stepped forward to delineate their struggles against the abysmal Normandy schools ensnaring their children.
Hannah-Jones described her pessimism that African-American children will achieve full equality, even as she spoke of her own family’s generational gain, naming the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son” as her favorite. A student bluntly asked why — given her assertion that the future is bleak — she had brought her own daughter into the world.
The journalist laughed, allowing that her pregnancy was unplanned, but then turned serious. “One of the biggest acts of resistance is to say, ‘I will exist.’ Our existence is our resistance.”