bayard rustin, a. philip randolph, “allyship”, and the 1963 march on washington

State of the Re:Union on NPR aired a wonderful segment today on the great yet often skipped-over Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. I had watched a fabulous documentary of Rustin called Brother Outsider in a most memorable class I took with Professor Elmo Terry-Morgan at Brown University called “Black Lavender: African American Gay and Lesbian Plays in the American Theater.” When I saw the film I was saddened, though not surprised, by how much I had heard about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how I had never even heard the name Bayard Rustin. This in itself is an important story of how intersecting identities play out in the context of social movements.

Rustin was the one to introduce King to the ideas of nonviolent social action. He was the architect of the March on Washington, and many other nonviolent events, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, Rustin was also a gay man. What would it mean for the Civil Rights Movement to have a known gay man seen as a lead organizer?

I highly recommend you listen to the radio segment, or watch the film, for the entire story of Rustin’s full and complex life. Below I will just discuss one moment of the radio segment, but please know this is just a moment, not the story of Rustin’s whole life or identity.

Today’s radio program told of one crucial moment that made way for Rustin to be able to continue his work planning the March on Washington faced with a major setback: “The fall of the meticulous planning Bayard is doing: there are some things he has no control over. Bayard had been very frightened or worried that the gay issue would come up before the march. And Strom Thurmond [bitter enemy of de-segregation] took the floor of the Senate, maybe three or four weeks before the date of the march…and rails against Bayard and the march. He calls Bayard a draft-dodger, a communist, a homosexual, and includes details of his arrest. Panic spreads through the march’s office….But A. Philip Randolph would not be coward. Randolph calls a press conference because they have to deal with it, and Randolph, who qA nothing if not extremely dignified said that ‘how dare a segregationist like Strom Thurmond condemn someone for immorality. We stand by Bayard Rustin. He is our organizer. He is Mr. March on Washington.’ And it’s that moment really that is the end of using the gay charge against Rustin effectively. 

Activists disagree on whether the word “ally” is useful, or if it has been too watered down or become too problematic. Activists, especially in the context of organizing around rape and sexual assault, also have differing views on bystander intervention. However, if ever there was an ally move, what Randolph said at that press conference seems like the one. Standing by Rustin, having his back, and making it about the inhumane ideology of Thumond, instead of accusations against leader Rustin….to me it seemed like Randolph intervened in a way that not only saved the march and the movement, but saved Rustin from the pain and humiliation of yet another atrocious attack. Rustin went on to be the one to read the demands of the March on Washington after King’s I Have a Dream Speech. 


Later in his life Rustin would go on to be active in the gay rights movement, and use his organizing skills there. Through a long-term relationship, he was able to build more positive connotations with his gay identity after being harassed by it for so long. There is so much to say about this individual. For now I would just like to honor how history (and uncovering parts of history that have been hidden) can demonstrate (despite all the terrible news we are inundated with constantly), distinct moments when good steps were taken in the name of justice.


It’s Black History Month… and I’m angry.

Amazing poem by Jasmine Mwanaisha.
Hell yes, Solidarity, Anger, Consciously choosing not be blind. Yes Yes Yes


My eyes roll counter-clockwise as if to dial back enough time to catch myself from swinging.

My soul makes sounds for words my mouth hasn’t learned to form yet

This heavy burden grieves me

The weight of atrocity that some have the option to not see

Like changing the channel on TV – they can easily remove themselves from my reality.

But the reality is I’m still grieving.

View original post 610 more words

sexual assault and the language of justice

Right now I am thinking about justice and how we say we will “work for justice” but sometimes work isn’t a strong enough word for me.


I just read an article about male sexual assault survivors and specifically a case at Brown University. The article references my case and the current federal investigations at Brown. I feel overwhelmed by anger and grief and horror that this is still happening like this. I stand in such strong solidarity with survivors everywhere, and am so glad people are able to come forward. I wish we were being listened to more powerfully and swiftly.

Thinking about racism, classism, homophobia, and their intersection with rape culture, the concept of working for justice just doesn’t feel enough for me in this moment.

I work for justice.

I also CRAVE justice.

I HUNGER for justice.

I CRY for justice.

I PRAY for justice.

I SCREAM for justice.

I SLEEP for justice.

I SURVIVE for justice.

justice justice justice

There are too many of us and too little is being done and yes we need to work but we also need to honor the parts of ourselves that NEED justice, whatever that means to us. Justice is more than an abstract concept to be worked on. Peaceful, non-violent, but POWERFUL and REDEMPTIVE and LIBERATORY justice. I stand in solidarity with male survivors of sexual assault and with Andrew at Brown and with survivors everywhere, whether we come forward or not. I also think it’s time we start conversations about the language of justice, and what we really need from institutions and support networks in order to feel that social justice is in fact more than a fluff term. I want more meaning in the words. I want more done with the words. I want us to talk about what we don’t have the words to say.

quotes in tribute to dr. martin luther king jr.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I pulled some of my favorites books by African American authors off my bookshelf. I am sharing some quotes from these treasured works in tribute to MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, Social Justice, Racial Justice, and Liberation for all. I stand in strong solidarity with the marchers and protesters today who are linking the legacy of Dr. King with the current injustices as seen recently in Ferguson, Staten Island, and so so so many other places. I stand in solidarity and I mourn the loss and oppression of good and innocent people and I celebrate the incredible work and contributions in every walk of life that African Americans have been making for centuries. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., had asked us to do something really hard. Many people felt he had asked us to do something impossible. He had asked us to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. When he died by the gun, for many, many people, in the Movement and out of it, there was a feeling of release. We can’t do it, many felt; we can’t live as nonviolently as Martin Luther King, Jr., did (and once again the white man–in the person of King’s assassin–has demonstrated why.)…Our communities did erupt in violence, many of them; several went up into flames….The rage, the laughter, the feeling of being relieved of a burden too noble for mere persecuted humans to bear. And underneath everything, the longing for the presence of the Beloved. Deeply missing him. The one who loved us and saw us and stayed with us, knowing he would not survive his blatant love for us; not survive his vibrant, dancing life.” Alice Walker, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 169-170

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail

“In a paradoxical sense, once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any single sub-society–Black or gay–I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look “nice.” To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.” -Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, p. 181

“Black people are victims of an enormous amount of violence. None of those things can take place without the complicity of the people who run the schools and the city.” -Toni Morrison


We have tomorrow

Bright before us

Like a flame.


A night-gone thing,

A sun-down name.

And dawn-today

Broad arch above the road we came.

We march!”

-Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, p. 65

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” -Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream Speech, March on Washington, 1963

cultural appropriation: the importance of saying “i messed up”

I was sitting at work (at a local independent bookstore) and noticed a group of four college-aged people pointing and laughing at my book on display. I watched as I heard one say, “that’s just wrong.” And I cringed because I agreed with them. The cover of my book alone could be the parody cover of a book about cultural appropriation. A white girl wearing Indian clothing surrounded by dark-skinned Indian boys and a subtitle: “The Memoir of an American Teen Who Dared to Be Different.” More like the story of a white girl of privilege who had the opportunity handed to her by her parents to live abroad during high school.

Still hours later, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach. I have often been the person to point out books, movies, posters, advertisements, etc. that are incredibly racially (or otherwise) problematic. If I had never seen the book before I probably would have had a similar response as the visitors in the bookstore today.

But I have seen the book before. I wrote that book. I wrote that book one year before I learned the term “white privilege” and devoted myself to educating myself as much as possible about racism, global and national white supremacy, and my own privilege.

Do I feel shame that the book is mine? Yes. Do I think it is important for white folks to acknowledge that the things they did in their “past lives” (before “waking up” to unpacking their own white privilege) and to be open about it–yes. We can’t take back what we did or who we were. We can use those experiences to push other white folks to wake up. My reflections about my own writing almost a decade ago can be painful, but they can also show how much my thinking and consciousness have changed. And is that not what needs to happen for white folks to finally get on board with fighting racism and oppression? A shift in consciousness? I would say yes. I would also say yes to documenting and sharing our missteps along the way. As a writer, I will always try to speak my truth. But my truth changes. At the time when I wrote the book, I knew what I knew. I did my best. Now I know I can do better. I think the urge for white folks (especially those with class privilege as well) to try to pretend that we are and always were perfect anti-racist activists or allies or however you identify–I think that is not only is impossible, but it is completely unproductive.

About an hour after the college students left the bookstore, a young teenager walked in and picked my book up off the shelf and when her dad came in behind her she said to him, “Dad, someone wrote this when they were fourteen! Maybe I could write a book!”

I couldn’t help but smile. When we are young we don’t know everything there is to know about injustice, especially coming from white, privileged backgrounds. But if we practice finding out voices early, then hopefully we will “wake up,” and when we do, we will be practiced at using our voices in the medium that feels most comfortable. I hope that teenager goes home and starts writing. I hope it serves her now, and I hope it serves her ten years from now, when she realizes she thinks completely differently then she did when she was younger.

Here’s to being honest as much as possible. As a writer. As an activist. As a person.

“africa doesn’t need a savior. america needs a savior.” + reflections on my time in india

Some very important points are made in this NYTimes Op-Doc, An African’s Message for America, featuring a Kenyan activist, Boniface Mwangi, discussing with high school and college students the impulse to volunteer abroad, especially in India, Africa, and the Middle East, instead of investing in local communities back home. Watching the film led me to reflect on my experience living with my parents in a boys’ orphanage in India when I was fourteen. I strongly recommend you watch the op-doc by Cassandra Herrman (only six and a half minutes.) First I will share some of the quotes I found especially important. Then my personal reflections about my time in India follow below the quotes.

Boniface Mwangi: “I can’t hold myself back when there’s injustice. I can’t.”

Duke University Student: “There is a clear sense of glorification and there’s a sense of this faux-heroism and then I’m here doing very similar work and people aren’t as excited by it.”

Boniface Mwangi: There’s a quote, it’s a Nigerian quote. ‘Until the lion has it’s own storytellers, the hunter will always be glorified.’ That’s what we need in Africa, we need the people who live in Africa to tell their own stories.”

Student: “The problem is how you frame the issue. You’re not going there to save anybody. You’re going there to save yourself….these experiences played a part in them getting a job. So they are the people who benefit, it’s not Africans.” 

Boniface Mwangi: “As you try to save the world, you’re neglecting the issues at home….If you abroad you think America is all rosy and beautiful and things work. And cops do their job. And then you come here and realize that cops lock up innocent people. You come here and realize that cops discriminate against people of color. They shoot them. They arrest them.”

Boniface Mwangi: “I think that Africa doesn’t need a savior. America needs a savior.”

*     *     *

When I was fourteen years old I lived with my parents in a boys’ orphanage and Hindu ashram in Varanasi, India, for nine months. That was in 2006. In high school and college when I began studying critical race theory and racial justice politics, I felt a great deal of shame about this experience. That we did something wrong by going.

I can’t speak for my parents, but it is my understanding that their intention was never to go there and save the orphans or the people of Varanasi. They were seeking a spiritual experience with their spiritual teacher in the most historically spiritual place of his lineage. They knew they were going for themselves, and that was okay. They also were going for me, because as parents they knew it would be a profoundly life-changing experience for a young teenager to have, which of course it was.

I remember watching the children of the orphanage get attached to our family and other westerners who visited temporarily, only to see them leave, and I knew it was unsustainable. I wanted to be absolutely involved in the children’s daily lives for ME, because it made me feel more alive, and it gave me the feeling of a big family and of siblings that I didn’t have growing up. But that wasn’t what was best for the children. Since our visit many changes have occurred in that place, and it is now run much more by people who live in India permanently, and there are clear boundaries set for western visitors.

I wrote a book about my experiences during that year, titled The Year of a Thousand Colors (for sale locally at Booklink Booksellers in Northampton, MA, and also on here) and I have experienced a lot of shame about the book. Not only because I wrote it when I was fourteen and therefore I have grown a great deal as a writer since then, but also because it is clear evidence of what some might call a selfish thing that we did.

And yet, that experience led me to return to the United States, begin volunteering at a domestic violence shelter when I was sixteen, join racial justice movements, become a radical activist and community organizer….

I do think travel changes us. Being white, upper-middle-class, my eyes were opened by my experience in India. I came back home desperate to uncover where there was injustice in my local community. Of course you don’t have to go to India (or even leave your town or city, most likely) to experience this eye-opening if you are from a privileged background. But because white supremacy and segregation and gentrification and so many other things, injustice is often (intentionally) kept hidden from those growing up steeped in privilege.

I can’t change my story. And I also can’t suggest that people, especially young people, don’t travel, because the cliche is most certainly true–travel opens one’s eyes to the realities of their homelands. That said, I think the point this Op-Doc makes about intention is very important. If you are traveling to a place you believe has less than you, FIRST learn about those in your local communities that have less. Then spend a great deal of time interrogating what “less” means. Less money? Less infrastructure? Less safety from police and state violence? How do you define “having” and “wealth.” Very important to think about before going abroad. (And this self-interrogation will likely change how you see home, too). And finally, know why you are going. You are going for yourself. And if that is what you need to do in your life journey (as it was in my family’s when we went to India) then it is okay. But be authentic. And when you come home, don’t pretend injustice isn’t present here. Don’t be a savior abroad, but be careful how you are a savior here. How the “faux-glorification” spoken about in the Op-Doc exists in U.S., too, for young people from privileged backgrounds who work in “community service” or “underprivileged communities” (I use quotes here because they are heavily racially coded terms and extremely problematic).

Perhaps someday I will write a second edition of my book with a deep reflection on what it means to live abroad, and what I have learned about the experience since then. For now what I can say is that without a doubt, the people I encountered in Varanasi saved me, and led me to the path I am on today. I did not save them. Thank you Mr. Mwangi for your work and for forcing viewers to ask themselves hard questions. The hardest questions lead us to the most important work.

whites gotta open up: the willingness to unlearn racism

Yesterday an older white woman came into the bookstore and asked if I was the one who had recommended The New Jim Crow and explained the premise of the book to her a few weeks back. I said yes, that was me, and her whole face lit up and she said, “Thank You! I finished it, it was so enlightening and eye-opening, and has been so helpful now that so much is in the news. I’m able to think from a different perspective!” She said she had been debating race with her son for a while and he always used to be challenging her but now that she has read the book she sees his side.

As she walked away I thought, this is the power of writing and reading and the sharing of ideas. It shouldn’t be such a big deal that she decided to take the suggestion and buy the book. It shouldn’t be such a big deal that she actually read the book, and returned to tell me about it. But sadly, it is a huge deal, because our education system does not address race and racism in it’s curriculum in order to equip rising adults to have mature conversations about it, and the structure of our white supremacist society make it so that if a white adult would like to avoid reading anything written by a person of color or anything challenging white supremacy in general, they can certainly do so. 

The importance of this woman choosing to read the book was even more poignant because just five minutes after she left, an older white man walked into the bookstore, and after a brief conversation about the book he was buying (The Heart of Everything That Is, the story of Sioux warrior Red Cloud written by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin), and after I mentioned that a customer had just raved about The New Jim Crow (naively thinking he was interested in books about oppression and the vibrance and power of oppressed communities) he asked me what “Jim Crow” meant. Yes, that happened. And in disbelief I gave him a mini history lesson. He proceeded to say, “Well, so you’re a young person, so you think the police are horrible and are the bad guys?” and I said I do think in too many instances the police are not protecting all peoples and that it’s not a belief that necessarily comes from me being a young person. He began to push back that the robberies he hears about ARE done by Black men and so the police are not unfounded in the way they conduct business….

My stomach crumpled. I wanted to scream and I wanted backup and I wanted to be alone in a cave and I want to lock him in a closet with a pile of radical books. I had a line of customers behind him. I wrote down two book recommendations and slightly wished I had more time to give him my spiel, though I sincerely doubted whether my spiel would have done anything.

When it comes to pushing other white people to evaluate their own whiteness and challenge white supremacy, there has to be some opening in their consciousness–some willingness to maybe, just maybe, have missed the mark on this one. It is hard to be wrong. It is hard to have a paradigm shift. But I am guessing the woman who bought The New Jim Crow already had an inner willingness to change her vantage point. Without that willingness, it’s unlikely I could have changed that man’s mind, even if I hadn’t had a line of customers behind him. Even if I had had all the time in the world, and felt that debating with him was a good use of it.

This is why the attention we place on our own minds is so crucial. The exchange of ideas only works when it is actually that–an exchange. A reckoning with a different viewpoint than the one you were taught. A willingness to unlearn. 

i guess i am starting a blog?

Hi there. My name is Lena. I have resisted the push to start blogging for quite a while. I have felt too deep a chasm between the writing I publish and the personal writing I keep safe in my journal. However, that gap has becoming increasingly narrow, as I begin to publish very personal work and I find I am writing about ideas in my journal that need to be heard by more than just the other voices in my mind.

Who am I? I am a white, upper-middle-class, queer, spiritual, jewish, radical, anti-racist, survivor, writer, artist, nature-loving woman. Can you tell I struggle with how to identify? And yet I owe you, my dear reader, at least a decent attempt, to begin to earn your trust. So maybe you will read my words every now and then. Maybe they will resonate on some level, surface or deep down. Maybe.

“You, too, are a foreign correspondent in your own right. So how (and whether) you now proceed is, of course, up to you. That’s the thing about cocreation. To exist, it requires the presence of more than one point of view.” –Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid