Black Boys and Bird-Chests: The Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia

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Black Boys and Bird-Chests, or the Racialized Legacy of Body Dysmorphia in African-American Men

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

The burn in my chest the first and last time a friend’s mom punched me was the final time I allowed myself to be okay with having a “bird-chest” and lanky arms. I remember the thought crossing my mind followed solely by the immediate regret of showing up over this house at all, and I should’ve demanded such a thing the day white friend told me he was blacker than me because he could dunk on a full-sized rim and I couldn’t.
However, the catalyst for this sudden change today came somewhere between the push-ups and sit-ups, and everything she thought was a favor to build me into a more suitable image of what she deemed acceptable for a young Black man to be when I realized that anyone speaking of my body or forcing themselves upon my body’s right to exist was not okay. Perhaps if I made such a stance for myself sooner, I would have a prouder self-image that doesn’t equate my body’s lack of athletic hardiness to a failure to live up to my cultural pride.

The world is obsessed with the Black male body image, in a way that often crosses into the gross. Not only in how these bodies can perform as a tool or commodity, as we often find in sports but in how one should conduct itself within parameters of Blackness. In the last year alone, we’ve seen Terry Crews having to defend his body against other high-profile Black men about what he did or didn’t do to protect himself during a sexual assault. The power isn’t with Terry Crews, however, and while it is also with these other celebrities, it speaks to a culture surrounding Black bodies; it’s rooted in a traumatizing experience that many Black men go through in their youth that not only pressures Black boys that dictate Black identity only as an extension of our bodies’ physical worth — and more specifically, only when we abuse it.
To be frail in a Black space is to be seen as less than Black. This was the case for me even before that day at my friend’s house in Ohio; it was like this before I was old enough to know, everything I did at a young age was dedicated to hardening my body to the same icy stone that one might expect of Black men.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

At six years old, I was expected to know how to play basketball, I was expected to race and run laps, and fight and be struck square in my chest without crying, caving on flinching because I had a ‘bird-chest” and that, in the world of West Philadelphia was not okay. The fantasy of my future involved a sport, and only a sport — and somewhere down the line basketball, and the revulsion of anything feminine, but the over-consumption of anything female. There were even dreams of what my first tattoo might be.

Imagine my mother’s disappointments when despite all of this, I still lacked all repulsion with anything athletic. And honestly, to this day I’ve never had little more than an ear piercing.

It was not my mother’s disappointments that concerned me or continues to do so, but the point of view of my family — both young and old — that somehow I tarnished my sense of Blackness by not dedicating myself to physical achievements. No matter the academic or emotional milestones I hurdle, we can always come back to the failure on my part to end up Strong in this one real way which counts to them — even if I no longer have a “bird-chest”. It always ends with an expectation to hit a gym sooner or later.

Infamous image of Gordon, or “Whipped Pete” (1863) depicting his scarred back

And, it wasn’t until that eventful night where a punch took it steps too far that I realized this was not regionally specific behavior — this was behavior canonized across Blackness and where I rebelled against it, it became the basis of my peer’s masculinity to the point it ostracized me from my Blackness and, in truth, there’s no reason for that to have been.

Yet, to this day, when I look upon my own Black form and how it fails to conform to this image I have now grown to expect of myself, I feel an involuntary revulsion. I feel beautiful, but at the same time, I am forced to feel incomplete, because the brownness of my skin is supposedly meant to be accompanied by a hardiness, and not a softness. I’m incapable of seeing even the curves I’ve developed as anything as my own way of escaping the whiteness and weakness my bird-chest once implied.

The history of Black bodies as commodity isn’t unknown to our understanding of what America is and it is ahistorical to discuss Black male bodies and not mention this. Slavery was all about reducing a whole culture’s human spectrum — their emotions, memories, their habits, and happiness — into a disgusting price tag to be tossed out on a wooden chopping block.

Ken Norton as Mede posing for slaver inspection, formulating one of the earliest forms of the fetishization of Black male physique.

The mind held little worth, though it could be marketed as a profitable gift with purchase, and the idea of a greased up mass of muscle who could only react, and never act (and therefore exist) became the model of Black men. Thus, we can note the beginning of the fetishization of Black male bodies.

This legacy continues throughout American fiction. In 1975, the graphic adaptation of Kyle Onstot novel of the same name, Mandingo was released by Paramount Pictures. The film, starring boxer-turned-actor Ken Norton, depicted the sexual victimization of male and female Black slaves and the gross physical exploitation of the Black male form. In the film, Mede (Ken Norton) is a prizefighter forced to physical extremities such as bathing in cauldrons of hot salt water to toughen his skin. His worth is placed solely in the fact that as a Mandingo (of the Mandinka ethnic group) he is of superior physical virtue, and thus more suitable for breeding. The film ends with the murder of Mede after the Woman of the House extorts sex from Mede, culminating in his execution due solely to attracting the unrequited sexual desire due to his biology.

The stakes Black boys face today are nowhere as comparable as these moments of extreme brutality in reality, or fiction, but the line of succession passes itself forward. Today, only the conduct is different; Terry Crews has to defend his choices to not assault his sexual aggressors to other high-profile Black men who in some sense of a world are challenging his sense of Blackness for his decisions to not use his body — which is apparently his physically imposing — to fight.

Some might suggest that this is a case of Machismo, and while it is similar, as both concepts can be attributed to hypermasculinity, the extreme racial fetishization by both Black and White cultures makes the concept feel as unique as the other systematic structures imposed upon Black existence.
In any case, Black men are expected to resolve conflict violently or not at all, and this narrative has become a dangerous entity — a caustic cancer that has ended in the routine and systematic execution of Black youths. The narrative of the Black male form as monstrous have followed us further back than the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown or the prolific exposure of social media.

Public Domain Clip Art of Trayvon Martin, black minor executed in 2012

Yet, there is always the expectation to perform our strength and to fit into this idea of our bodies as a vehicle of aggression. It’s not an uncommon part of my day for a stranger to waste sixty whole seconds of my time guessing which sport I play — and it’s never soccer, tennis or track: football, or basketball, only.

And if I were to investigate the effects of this trauma inward onto myself, I find the ways that this trauma manifests itself routinely in my behavior: the sudden pauses and obsession with my image in the mirror, or the peculiar ways my self-image prioritizes the same arms, chest, and torso that alienated me culturally from a sense of Blackness that has no origin within Blackness.

In 2018, Javaugn “Javie’ Young-White (@jyoungwhite) penned a thread which poignantly explored the body dysmorphia suffered by African-American men due to this phenomena. “A lot of Black men struggle with body dysmorphia [because] of the emphasis that is placed on our athleticism [and] physical stature throughout childhood [and] adolescence,” he says. “It’s especially confusing because the body types we’re told to aim for also serve as justification for profiling and unarmed murders”

When our bodies are used to clock the mileage for our race and culture, it becomes the weapon by which others oppress us. How else could in the case of those less than athletic do our forms become synonymous to whiteness, or in cases of racial brutality, our physical intimidation become juxtaposes to the barbaric imagery?

The middle ground between these two ideas speaks only to the extreme ways race factors into our bodies, and the demands expected of these bodies in our youth. It speaks to the false realities we shove onto children to appeal to a standard that is as toxic as it is hypermasculine, and the traumas which haunt these youths — and have for generations

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Steven Underwood is an award-winning writer and essayist from Columbus, Ohio. Multifaceted, He has expanded his range deep into the recesses of Black speculative fiction and poetry. In the past, Steven has published essays with MTV News, Essence, Le Reine Noire, Comicsverse and Banango Street on identity and culture. He cites his writing style as the intersection between Toni Morrison and Fredrick Douglass. Follow him on social media @Blaqueword.

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#THECRAFT: 6 Things Artists Need to Know About Social Media

Art, Articles, Essays, Non-Fiction

By: Steven Underwood

What’s Güd?

A lot of you guys have been asking me for advice on this pro-art thing so I decided why not turn this into a series?

Today, we will be covering social media in this steadily rising landscape. All artists know that exposure is important, but how to use it is kind of a hit-or-miss. What’s SEO? Are metrics important? Should I have a high follower count?

Read sweet babies. Let me guide you.

  1. Twitter vs. Instagram: social media platforms are as diverse as they are specific in execution. The main question artists ask is what they should be on? Maybe you know you should be on social media, but you’ve heard conflicting success stories about both. Essentially, it’s important to look at these mediums for what they prioritize. Writers have gained a lot of success on Twitter due to its idea and written based format; careers are literally defined based on how successful your thoughts are and that’s why it’s so important to apply this to your work. Instagram is far more visual. Just think about it, we’ve all heard the term IG model before, not Twitter Model. Brands and clients pay more attention to what they can see on a platform designed to make what you see better! Graphic designers should pay special heed to this, but not too much. Twitter has a need for Design as a form of meme generation and gif processing. I hear the older folk asking “What about Facebook?” Eh… Facebook as a brand is good for getting news out, or posting updates, but you can get better reach with these other two. It has a use, but as a support to these other two formats.
  2. Network Groups: Networking is 80% of the job. If you don’t know anyone, you won’t get far– no matter your talent. In writing, this means you should be hunting for the DM group chat on Twitter and doing whatever you can to stand out and participate. This includes online Forums and FB groups. Keep your name in their mouthes and betaread! Giving criticism and doing reviews for other writers will not only get your name out, but that translates into more Social Media advocacy. Followers are closely watched by publications. They matter! What matters more is if your posts are being shared by others who might have a larger network than you, or if you’re interacting with someone who has a better standing socially. This doesn’t mean be fake, or lie about what you review, but authentically these people share the same passion you do. The rest is simple to iron out. Visual Artists on IG should go to Meet-Ups, and frequent groupchats as well. Also, don’t be afraid to spam!
  3. Metrics/Avoid Purchasing Followers: This is a big one, and it isn’t top priority because now most people know its bad. Essentially, your follower count is only as good as a Thesis statement in an essay: it’s vital, but not as good as your body paragraph. Metrics are fat superior. For Example, my twitter account @Blaqueword, boasts a pretty 1k in followers, pretty average. However, my impressions range into the 40,000s. How? My followers are frequent and avid users and my tweets “go in”. Basically, more of my followers interact and share my content AND they have a larger follower count than me (boasting 100 active followers with a blue check mark works out soooo well). As long as I use this, my posts and shares will always guarantee me an upward trajectory! However, purchasing followers works out worse for you. If your followers are all not interacting, clients/brands will notice and hold it against you. It makes you a creative catfish. Sure, they should be interested in you because they like your work, but that’s not a good bottomline. They want someone who can guarantee sells or interest. You just don’t. Organically generating followers always works out.
  4. Scheduled Posts: This is probably the most difficult feat. Staying on top of your social media is important and draining. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough hours in a day. Well, not postinf frequently enough in one day can drastically harm your impressions and therefore your metrics. If every 10,000 impressions gets you 2 followers and they afford you 300 bonus impressions with whether they like/share your posts, you miss out on a lot of potential reach. But, being online limits how much art you actually get to do. Ergo, scheduling. For @Blaqueword, I use Hootsuite. It allows me to not only schedule posts, but knowing my analytics, I can better understand what I should be posting about via knowing my audience. CMS (Content Management Systems) is an important factor in all of this. Know your tools of your craft (or pay someone else to).
  5. Analytics: SMM or Social Media Marketing is all about knowing what your numbers are. This is categorized in so much. For instance, my IG: @Blaqueword holds a humble amount of followers. However, I can increase my range of likes and follows by applying posts at the time specific audience members interact. Most of my followers are from Columbus, OH and like Culturally mindful content on Fridays at 9 PM. So, I post those things at the exact time AND include hashtags to appeal to those groups! Starting off, this is difficult and requires a lot of base-setting. You’ll end up using random hashtags just to see which stick and which do not, but it is a necessary step, so if you’re self-concious about a step, feel free to delete and try again. After all, if you failed that means no one saw, right? (Wrong, god and Beyoncé saw, but they forgive you)
  6. Hire a Writer: Not a self-plug, though I do run several Social Media accounts for brands at a retainer fee. You need to know your medium well enough to pull this off and most of it involves proper writing technique. Writers thrive on social media because we can coordinate our thoughts for the platforms. If you can’t, it’s going to take a lot of footwork to get Followers to fall in. And, honestly, that means you’re depending solely on luck. Don’t do that. If you are incapable of reading trends and knowing what to say at the moment, you probably won’t get a tweet that sticks like grits. Take it from me, a man with 7 viral tweets under his belt, knowing when to say the right combination of words is key!

If this all sounds very business-like, welcome to Art: it’s 60% business. You just got to know how to play it to your advantage. If

Any more questions? Comment! I’m happy to answer.

Steven Underwood (@Blaqueword) is a writer from Columbus, Ohio, where he reigns supreme as the original Urban Bohemian. He received his Bachelor’s in English: Creative Writing and now wanders fiction shelves employing his academic powers to investigate where it says exactly that Black kids can’t be wizards.

#TRENDSETTER: ‘EBONY ANTEBELLUM’ PLAYLIST OF BLACK EMOTION

#TRENDSETTER, Art, Music

By: Steven Underwood

Inspirational Black Voices that characterize Black emotion, from an American point-of-view, from an African origin story, featuring music that reflect realities of black life.

 

Comment below with suggestions you feel should be added!

#TRENDSETTER: CONGRATULATIONS TO ‘STREET SERENADE APPAREL’’s GIANNA ROSS @ the #WCWFashionShow

#TRENDSETTER, Fashion

By: Steven Underwood

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#Wcwfashionshow set it off with Gianna (or Gia, as she is affectionately called)’s ode to the Streets.

Yesterday, New Jersey native, Gianna Ross, released her street inspired collection for Street Serenade Apparel. Her line focused on the dynamic looks of rap, hip-hop and black culture, celebrating the fierce nobility in our nouveau noir generation. The bold Centenary University Alum’s showcase stunted, featuring several of her sorors as models for her collection.

“Heart Beat Of The Streets”

An ode to the Streets, Culture, & the People that arose from it. Using the streets as our muse & embracing our journey, from the ground up🥀✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿

Do what Janelle Monae said: Femme the future and follow her Movement!

IG: streetserenadeapparel

IG (Owner): Gia_lizz

Like, Comment and Follow for a close look at this artist’s journey!

#INSPIRE: LOVE FOR GQ

#TRENDSETTER, Articles, Non-Fiction

“I want to be an authentic, unapologetic warrior for black culture and the culture of the street and how it moves. My thing is most importantly to change the narrative of the black race. I can’t relate to anything that isn’t about that.” — Love, formerly Sean Diddy Combs, for GQ April 2018.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures from his shoot. Got any favorites? Comment below!

#DEADPOOL: DONALD GLOVER LEAKS FANTASTIC ‘DEADPOOL’ SCRIPT VIA TWITTER

#TRENDSETTER, Articles, Culture

By: Steven Underwood

“For the record: I wasn’t too busy to work on Deadpool.” Tweeted Donald Glover, moments before dropping a 14 thread false pilot episode, featuring topical jokes such as Sanaa Lathan biting Beyoncé’s and Tekashi69’s (lack of) rap skills. This BOMB dropped just after Glover and his brother parted ways with the Deadpool animated series, where “differences” in creativity were cited. (Pictures below).

After reviewing the script, Glover stated that it was likely his “different” approach that scared away the prospectively lucrative deal.

By different, I of course mean Black.

What do you think? Do you agree Sanaa Lathan bit Beyoncé’s face? Where do you imagine Gambino’s series fitting in? Comment below

#LISTEN: BLAQUEWORD’s SUNDAY SIT BACK PLAYLIST

Articles, Music

Sit back and enjoy a little vibe while you scroll through some more social media savagery.

//tools.applemusic.com/embed/v1/playlist/pl.u-11zBX83HKW2428?country=us

Like, Comment and Subscribe! Don’t forget to subscribe to our Patreon here for exclusive content every week!

#NYFW: 5 Stages of Grief

Fashion

NYFW come and you ain’t go? Well, that’s on you love. I ain’t got tickets, but I do know the pain you going through.

First, it starts with the phase I like to call: REALITY. You look at that calendar and realize despite the promises you made last year, you did not in fact save or request tickets for Fashion week.


Second, you BARTER. You look through your contact list at every friend, family member, or Fashion blogger you met at an odd party you weren’t invited to but crashe dro network. No ones came through.


Third, You hunt. So now that you can’t finagle in by favors, you’re going to want to look for any and all ways to push through that Versace designed ceiling into the promised land. You get to searching for all off-brand Fashion week events. The ticket prices beat you back down to reality. You’re poor. You’re sad. You’re pathetic. 


Fourth, you break down in agony. How could you have forgotten? This is your fault and you know it. You don’t deserve Fashion Week. You are a churl, a peasant and this event is for the Fashion Gods. 

Your friends eye you like you’re trippin’. They’re concerned not for you but for their clout hitting numbers as low as Trump approval rating following four natural disasters in a row.


Finally, you ease on down. You sit and open your IPhone and settle down on some good ol’social media: where you can watch the highlights in peace. You promise yourself you will go next year.

#TRENDSETTER: Asantè Shakirah, New Jersey

#TRENDSETTER, Articles, Fashion

Asantè Shakirah, 20, New Jersey; Wardrobe Stylist/ Creative Director/ Boutique Owner

IG: Stylesbya.s

Boutique IG: @CloudedVisionApparel

Boutique Website: CVA

“Why Compete, When You Can Collaborate?”

***

Retro fashion and textiles have a miracle when threaded together. Asante Shakirah, a fashion student at Centenary University, began Clouded Vision Apparel in 2015 as a vintage fashion boutique. Her store features fashion that pulls back the clock to a time of flamboyant pattern and extravagant color over the high-end fashions involved with the current era of online stores.

Her boutique houses over 30 different sets from “The Little Black Dress,” on Sale for $15.00 to the “African Tribal Print Tank” on Sale for $15.00.

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Affordable is Asante’s goal. As a stylist, she understands the importance of clothes that bring fourth the inner miracle and mind of the women, combining class, wit and vibrancy with the retro introspective of a modern age. Despite this, Asante’s clothes draw heavy inspiration from an afrocentric aesthetic including savanna tans to a tribal ambiance about her fabric and illustration. Clouded Vision Apparel carries culture on its back and into its brand a spiritual hymn.

Asante’s inspiration possibly comes from her work as a stylist, an artist of aesthetic. As an artist, her perspective is excellent and she uses this perspective to create sets, outfits and looks that she sees accentuating the ideal of the women she hopes to wear her work. An ideal of sharp sentimental confidence. Aesthetics and brands that are dedicated to helping women stand out among the crowd in a uniquely familiar way.

As a stylist, found publicly through her Instagram handle (Stylesbya.s,). she operates freelance in the New Jersey/New York/Pennsylvania region with a willingness to travel. Asante can best be reached by social media or email at StyledByAsante@gmail.com.

#TRENDSETTER: mufaro limited, Cincinnati, OH

#TRENDSETTER, Fashion, Non-Fiction

By: Steven Underwood

Product Rating: 4/5

Ohio has a lot of inspiring artists walking the scarlet pavements, and even more inspiring black businesses. On the suggestion of model, Brandon Watters, I decided to look for one instead of supporting some white enterprise and feeding the capitalist agenda. I still ended up feeding the capitalist agenda, but I also ordered one of my new favorite tops.

Mufaro’s boutique is a collection of largely unisex East African-inspired streetwear. The founder, Mufaro (IG: mufaro_ltd), is a Zimbabwean born designer from Cincinnati, Ohio who was featured in numerous fashion shows including the Ankara Miami fashion week, the RAW Artist showcase, and the Emani +Mufaro Expose in Dallas, Texas. Mufaro LTD.

But, even with these ventures under his breath, I only really needed to know he was an Ohio artist, and I leapt right into his site and put my coin into his purse.

I ordered the Dashiki Extended Shirt/Skirt ($60.00). A neat black long sleeve with a flowing skirt covered in Zimbabwean-inspired print and three zippers on either side and up the tail. It is a unisex piece that men can wear as an extended tee (which I do), or as a skirt.

Photos courtesy of Mufaro LTD homepage

Ever since I collected the shirt, I have worn it exactly five times, and it has never failed to impress. It’s infinitely versatile: suitable for numerous occasions and makes a very clear statement about what I am about. I get compliments and unlike when I usually try out something new in my style choices, I don’t feel any bit of self-consciousness and hyper visibility. The one issue that I encounter is that many of the western-inspired styles that frequent my closet do not – or cannot really match the design choice. But, I enjoy a challenge; and this outfit gives me a challenge to own my own unique style – because style should never come easy, especially when you’re doing it for yourself and not for the power in the brand.

The design is beautiful, and the only real difficulty I had with the end product was a trouble with the stitching that came undone on the inseam when stretched just a little too much when I pulled the shirt on. Still, the product is beautiful.

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mufaro limited New line imagined by Zimbabwean born Mufaro (male) Based in Ohio (Cincinnati) Inquiries|mufaroltd@gmail |Ankara Miami fashion week www.mufaroltd.com

Black Cat Blues

Art, Non-Fiction, Poetry

 

A Poem for the first day of Black History Month.

by Steven Underwood

 

***

The Black Graymalkin is never free;

Though liberated in city it appears to be;

Its leash, like thread, vanish in the eye;

But still held in chains till feline die.

 

Onyx Graymalkin, your roar is low,

If you are to speak, who would know?

Dense Graymalkin, you are meek,

Though your pelt is velvet, sleek.

Observant Graymalkin, you lurk in shade,

You hide from the daylight that whiteness made.

 

Black Graymalkin, are you me?

How cruel a society do you flee?

From whose ebony Pride are you bred?

From what dark skin do you shed?

 

Toil, Graymalkin, they will fear;

No love for loved ones you hold dear.

This world is black, dark like pitch;

And from your trouble this land grow rich.

Flee, Graymalkin, don’t you stray;

The present is black because you’re black all day.

 

We the People in a Less Perfect Union

Art, Articles, Culture, Non-Fiction, Poetry

Sometimes, it’s better to look at the world through poetry until it starts to make a lick of sense.

***

On Monday, he wasn’t our president, and we celebrated the legacy of a man with as many faults as he had virtues. The skies held their breath, and a world of bright blue became bleak and cried. We remembered how we love the rain, but this was different.

Together, We investigated the landscape of the world. We judged the people of the time: for treating people like cattle, for their shameful attitudes, for their racism. We couldn’t see how these people, relatives, and friends to many of us, couldn’t see what was going on in front of them. That same day, we ignored many obvious clues that history was licking its fingertips and turning a few pages backward in its book just for emphasis.

On Tuesday, We pressed our thumbs to small digital boxes and opened Twitter. We discussed “Dr. King’s Dream,” and judged the black community according to it. Are we honoring him when we kneel during a pledge of allegiance? Is calling a white person racist acting in his image? Dr. King’s progeny got into the tabloids and said Dr. King would’ve liked Donald Trump. Our world cracked at the seams.

On Wednesday, We steeled ourselves for the worse, and found that our best metals were but rust: we would lose Barrack Obama. The skies remained gray, but the winds whipped with a sheering coldness. Tempers were high, and we fought each other. We lashed out, without really knowing what we were lashing out f. Anger for anger’s sake, a test of those chains we swore would remain. Both to unite us, and to shackle our ambitions.

On Thursday, We maintained the song of Monday. Dr. King’s progeny’s comments sang again. I stare blankly at the screen for a moment. This is someone who knew him best, isn’t it? I re-read a line by Fredrick Douglas, and I make us remember.
“Power concedes nothing without a Demand…It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or with both. “
I take to this new world of zeroes and ones, and I make a declarative. “If we are to believe MLK would’ve supported Trump, then maybe MLK isn’t the person we should look up to?”
Few comment. Many have a feeling. The words hang in the air.
On Friday, the sky wept upon his head. Orange flushes down his face and drips onto the American soil beneath his feet. The brown in the soil becomes stained in chemical lies. We shake our hands and test these chains. We meditate on what others have decided for us. We ask ourselves how people could be so ignorant. We judge the people for many things: for their racism, for their bigotry, for their sexism, for their phobias.
History hasn’t turned her page.
The page becomes wet and the ink runs down the page. Our name runs with it. These symbols hold no more meaning.
On Saturday, we ask ourselves if we can be united when these important things have no more meaning.