Saturday, March 24, 2012

Daisy Bates

"When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her." 
-Adrienne Rich

Oh, Mike Daisey. Ugh. Why did you become my hero and then become the prime example of what I don't want to become!? For those of you non-This American Life listeners, Mike Daisey is a storyteller whose theatrical show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" was aired in what came to be their most popular episode to date this past winter. Last weekend, Ira Glass painfully retracted the piece due to factual errors in Daisey's story about his trip to Shenzhen, China and discussions he had with Foxconn factory workers.  

The original story is mentioned and linked in my last post about Rachel O'Neill because it was moving and his storytelling abilities were (are?) inspirational to me. Turns out, most of his tale is made up. He did go to China, however, he exaggerated most of his experience and completely falsified other portions. TAL took issue with this because Daisey told them it was 100% factual. He even deterred their fact checking efforts with blatant lies to keep them from contacting his interpreter and other sources that would surely discredit him. TAL says this goes against their journalistic responsibility to present the facts. Daisey's defense is he isn't a journalist and he used artistic liberty to make sure he was heard and therefore able to shine a spotlight on the very real problem of worker's rights violations.

Hmm. I don't buy it. Unfortunately for Daisey, this incident coincides with all of the KONY 2012 nonsense. Unfortunate because he seems to be just another example of what some are refering to as The White Savior Industrial Complex. Teju Cole* writes about this in The Atlantic and his quote summing up its definition best is this: 
"The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."
Ouch. Too true. And it hits close to home. I was all about Save Darfur years ago when I lived in Colorado; the movement aimed at stopping the genocide going on in Sudan. Couldn't tell you much about it now outside of knowing from Jezebel that George Clooney got arrested for protesting at the Sudan embassy last weekend. But when I slapped on a green sticker showing my support as I walked away from an information table at a summer festival, I felt like I had participated in saving humanity. Ha, even my last post about where our shit comes from reeks of my need to prove I'm at least somewhat considerate in order to lessen my guilt while I continue to browse Forever 21. (Full disclosure: went there today actually.)

While a portion of our intentions are to actually help, the desire for acknowledgment seems to overwhelm us. This is where we usually fail because our focus becomes "Look, look! I'm one of the good ones helping out the have-nots. So now I deserve what I've got!"  Invisible Children might truly want to stop Joseph Kony and the LRA, but their approach makes it undeniable that they want you to know they are the ones who are going to do it. (#MakeUsFamous2012) Daisey probably really does feel guilty about where all of his Apple toys come from and believes the injustice the workers face can and should be changed. But he also wants to have the best story and if cutting out the full truth will resolve the problems and assuage his guilt faster so he can happily go back to playing with his Ipad, then what's the harm? 

The harm, suggests Cole, is "there is much more to doing good work than "making a difference" and those who are being helped must be consulted on matters that concern them." Without that, we bulldoze over the very people we are trying to save in the name of our own names, thus perpetuating The White Savior Industrial Complex (TWSIC). And this happens all the time.

"Apparently, I'm part of the 1%. I hate 'The Help'"
                                        - Facebook status from October 2011
I've had trouble articulating eloquently what exactly enraged me the most about "The Help" but TWSIC pretty much hits the nail on the head. Can you think of a pop culture example that better illustrates our need to justify our privilege while over taking actual history? I'll be candid; if I didn't follow Melissa Harris-Perry on twitter or check into Feministing everyday, I probably would have been fine with the book. (Not the movie though. Seriously, it was too cheesy even for those of us feeling the most guilt and need for redemption, right?) Luckily for me, the historical inaccuracies, feminist heresy, and white savior blasphemy were intelligently pointed out before I could become entranced by Skeeter's efforts to save the maids! Kathryn Stockett really showed us how to appropriate someone else's story and use it to our own advantage, huh? But it felt good, so again, what's the harm?

While fiction can be used to encourage and inspire us in reality, there is no place for massive revisions within the truth about how our society has been shaped. Too many actual stories about the way history has occurred have gone unacknowledged to justify books like "The Help"**.  Allowing TWSIC to repackage those stories as a way to sidestep acknowledgement of our own racism and responsibility for atrocities such as segregation must stop. What is the solution? Telling the truth. Being honest even though it may reveal something ugly about us as a people. Accepting that white people did not initiate integration but were peacefully shamed into change by our black neighbors we so ruthlessly oppressed for centuries. 

"She didn't ask, she told."  - Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock

Daisy Bates was so audacious she pissed off white supremacists, white southerners, white politicians, white men, black leaders, black men, black southerners, parents of her students, and her students; just to name a few. She was threatened, harassed, and criticized. She lived her life as an unashamed, unapologetic black woman and that scared a lot of people. She instilled the kind of fear that exposes the truth behind rhetoric. She called out hypocrisy and challenged those who felt they were free from having to explain their cowardice to once and for all defend the constitution and extend its rights to all US citizens. 

L.C. and Daisy
Bates was born in Arkansas in 1914. At the age of eight, she learned her birth mother was raped and murdered by three local white men. Shortly afterwards, her birth father left her with the people she had believed to be her real parents. Her mother's murderers were never brought to justice and lived their entire lives openly, in uncontested freedom. This realization created a severe sense of insecurity and challenged her entire worldview. When she was 15, she became involved with a married insurance broker named L. C. Bates who was 10 years her senior. After she turned 18, they ran off to Little Rock together and established a black paper which published desegregation violations. This is how she became involved with the Little Rock Nine and ignited change.

After Brown vs. The Board of Education, segregation was deemed unconstitutional in public schools and districts all over the south began to reorganize and prepare to integrate. Little Rock Central High School had always been "whites only" but in 1957, 9 students with high grades and excellent attendance, were selected by the school board to be the first black students to attend. Daisy became their advisor and was prominently involved in all public discourse about the students and was the liaison between the city and the NAACP. She harbored the Little Rock Nine at her home and suffered greatly for being the face of their efforts. She and her husband lost all ad revenue for their paper and eventually had to stop its publication. Her house had rocks thrown through it on a regular basis and gun shots were fired into her living room. Not a day went by when her life wasn't threatened. 
Bates' home after the window was assaulted by bricks and bullets

Segregationists held protests and the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, enlisted the National Guard to block the students from entering. 

None of this slowed Daisy down. She was determined to make her efforts a success. As a riveting public speaker, her speeches attracted international attention. At the height of The Cold War, Russia used the US' race issues as propaganda outing the government as hypocrites. This greatly embarrassed the White House. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and used his executive power to overtake the Arkansas National Guard from the governor's control. This authority had not been exerted by a president since the Civil War. 

Once inside the school, the students weren't safe among their peers. They faced ridicule, taunts, and unbearable pressures day in and day out. Many became frustrated with Daisy and other NAACP leaders for not being able to protect them further or understand their struggle. This was not lost on Daisy and upset her greatly. The black community at large suffered during the fight because the white community blamed them for creating chaos for their own children in regards to their education. Despite all of this hardship, 8 of the 9 graduated under Bates' guidance and succeeded in lasting desegregation for Central High. 

The Little Rock Nine with Daisy Bates
Daisy, along with Josephine Baker and Rosa Parks, were the only women to speak during Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963. The male speakers were invited to attend meetings and discussions with the nations top leaders afterward but the women were kept out. This is significant. Black women during the Civil Rights days not only had to battle the white establishment, but faced profuse gender inequality within the movement itself. Daisy knew the male leadership would not extend her the opportunity to be Little Rock's NAACP president so she tricked them by running for the county position which usurped the authority of the city. This gave her a chance at winning the election and sure enough she did. She became the leading black figure in Arkansas. Women weren't considered capable leaders in the deep south during this time, but Bates' and others rose up to speak for themselves. When white women came down from the north to join the movement, they were awed by the tenacity and independence of the black women. They returned home inspired by what they saw which lead them to begin the women's rights campaign. Bates' made waves that transcended race. 

It's important to acknowledge that Daisy had to fight for acceptance within her own community. Just because many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were working to alleviate a deep societal ailment, they were painfully unaware and sometimes unsympathetic about women's rights. This doesn't take away from the great work they did and the accomplishments they made, however, it does remind us that humans are humans and therefore imperfect. Remember my Abigail Adams post? John Adams and the other founders believed that like slavery, rights for women would come later, after their rights were secured. Great leaders never can solve the problems of our time but they can change the course of history. As long as we recognize the difference, and remember there is always room for progress, we can be confident we aren't idolizing them in an undeserved way. 

Daisy was imperfect as well but she did give her life to her cause. After her husband died, she put all of her money into reestablishing their paper, a promise she had made him. As a result, she ended her life with very little. She isn't as well known nationally as other Civil Rights leaders but is revered in Arkansas. 

Learning about women like Daisy, and knowing that so much change can be initiated by one person really does inspire me. Her story is a great reminder of the power behind true, factual history. I'd rather hear Daisy's story than read a flowery, fairy tale, that simply repeats a fabricated myth about how righteous we are. Exposed flaws should make us want to be better, to do better. Referring back to Cole's article, we seem to acknowledge racism yet can never find any racists. We accept the existence of misogyny but refuse to out any misogynists. Invisible Children and Mike Daisey nobly condemn "evil doers" in the name of justice, yet when their integrity and approach are questioned, they proclaim no wrong doing. It is not immoral to want to help others, however, we must not dictate and disregard those we are trying to save. We must take ownership of our own participation in oppression before we can include ourselves as part of the solution.

Most of my Daisy Bates knowledge comes from the PBS documentary Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock. I strongly recommend it! You can watch it online at through the end of March. 

*Seriously, read Teju Cole's article in The Atlantic. It is very thought provoking and worthwhile. 

**If you did like "The Help" and you'd now like to read a nonfiction alternative to Stockett's book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is beautifully crafted; relating a white woman to the life of a black woman and her daughter in an honest, factual way. It's a great example of how to tell the story of someone else's struggle without covering up race issues and playing into The White Savior Industrial Complex. 

PS. Daisies make me happy. :)