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A Writer With Writers: Connecting the Roots of Activism from New York to Baltimore

October 20, 2016

October 19, 2016

by Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

(Originally published here )


Cover: “The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation”

The goal of the A Writer with Writers blog series is to interview interesting and engaging authors and explore the ways in which they use their pen and paper to think about some of the issues with which our country is struggling. My questions range from defining democracy to defining liberation; from analyzing the strength of community organizing to finding ways to bend our privilege to make substantive changes; from understanding the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement to measuring the ongoing impact of the Black Lives Matter social movement.

This month, in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month and in an effort to continue our conversations about protest and community engagement, I sat down with Dr. Darrel Wanzer-Serrano to talk about his latest book, The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation.

Kaye Whitehead: Your book seems to have some good parallels to Baltimore’s current uprising. How do you see your book connecting to our city?

Darrel Wanzer-Serrano: I think that one of the great lessons of the Young Lords (and they are, by no means, the only group of the era to offer this lesson) is to never underestimate the ability of a group of young people to change things. Young folks are at the cutting edge of new communication practices and technologies, they’re at the forefront of new ideas operating on the ground, and they have their pulse on the communities in which they reside. Another connection is something I write about most explicitly in the intro and conclusion: community control. As in Baltimore today and in other eras, the Young Lords demanded that communities have some level of control over institutions and land, that the people must have a say in the decisions that impact their daily lives. Finally, I think there’s something to the connections between racism, sexism, and capitalism that the Young Lords so aptly diagnosed in their time—something that can be helpful in explaining the conditions that gave rise to the recent Baltimore Rebellion.

KW: Who are some of your greatest writing influences?

DWS: Most, but not all, of my influences come from the other scholars that I read, and that list is constantly shifting. I love the way that my grad school mentor, John Louis Lucaites, writes his endnotes. I’m drawn to the complexity of folks like Chela Sandoval, whose Methodology of the Oppressed is a marvel of decolonial[1] feminist scholarship. I’m drawn to the imaginative interplay between content and form in the work of Gloria Anzaldúa and other decolonial feminist scholars and artists.

KW: What does being a writer mean to you?

DWS: To me, being a writer means that I am enacting a set of commitments to social responsibility with/to various real and imagined audiences. Writing emerges from my own embodiment and geo-political locatedness, which is something that I feel compelled to recognize explicitly in my written work. Being a writer who is a critical rhetorician, I see my task as fundamentally persuasive in the sense that I’m trying to get my readers to understand some aspect(s) of the world differently than they had before.

KW: Are there any subjects that you find it difficult to write about? Why?

DWS: I’ve been having a hard time writing about how to challenge racism(s). (Don’t get me wrong—I think writing about the histories of racism and anti-racist struggle, as complicated and complex as they might be, is relatively straightforward.) When I think about how to get my predominantly white, Midwestern students to commit to anti-racist struggle, I am more prone to draw blanks. This isn’t a writing problem, per se; rather, it’s more of a conceptual problem of how to efficiently and comprehensively (a paradox, to be sure) make the case to young white people who lack a vocabulary for talking about race and racism in public.

KW: In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, what are some books that you would recommend that elucidate the Hispanic culture?

DWS: The first is the second edition of Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire. It’s probably my favorite history of the Latino/a experience in the US. Gonzalez (a former Young Lord) is a wonderful writer and does a marvelous job weaving together Latino/a historiography, primary sources, and oral histories to tell the complex story of how Latino/a people came to be. The second is Raquel Cepeda’s Bird of Paradise, which is a memoir that tells the tale of her troubled childhood and coming-to-be as her own self. She engages complex issues of Latino/a history and anti-blackness, along with her own journey of personal as she traces her ancestral roots.

[1] Decolonial: relating to the act of getting rid of colonization, or freeing a country from being dependent on another country


About the Author: Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy in the Department of Communication Studies, and founding member of the Latino/a Studies Minor Advisory Board, at The University of Iowa. He is a critical rhetorical historian whose research is focused on the intersections of race, ethnicity, and public discourse, particularly as they relate to formations of coloniality and decoloniality in the United States and within Latino/a contexts. Follow Dr. Wanzer-Serrano on Twitter or Facebook.

About the Interviewer: Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director at The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. She is creator of the #SayHerName Syllabus. Her new anthology, RaceBrave, was published in March 2016.

“Sexual Assault: An American Pastime” (Baltimore Sun OpEd)

October 18, 2016

by Karsonya Wise Whitehead 10/19/16


photo courtesy of black-women-change-petition-1.jpg

     It all began with one simple tweet. Writer Kelly Oxford, after listening to interviews about the “locker room” and sexual assault took to Twitter and shared — for the first time — the story of how she was sexually assaulted on a city bus when she was 12 years old. She then asked women to tweet their first assault. Within hours, hundreds and then thousands of women took to Twitter to share their stories using the hashtag #NotOkay. Within three days, over 30 million people had read or contributed to this thread, moving the conversation beyond social media and making a disturbing fact abundantly clear: Sexual assault is as American as baseball and apple pie.

     Women and girls shared that they had been assaulted when they were 5 or 9 or 19. It happened whether they were single, in a relationship or married. For some, they had multiple stories to share of being fondled or groped, touched or handled; stalked or grabbed. They shared stories of men forcing kisses on them or pinning them against walls, of uncles who made them sit on their laps or teachers who stared at their chests. Some of the tweets read like short stories with pain, guilt, shame and regret poured out 140 characters at a time. Some contributors used their real names; some created fake accounts to remain anonymous. Some stated that they had already shared their stories with their families, but many said that they had never reported them before. Some were related to their abusers: their fathers and uncles and brothers. Some went to church and school with them: their priests and teachers and deacons. Some sat in classrooms with them or went on dates with them or lived in the same building with them. Many were just nameless and faceless men and boys in the crowd who found an opportunity and took it.

     When people started questioning why women did not report their assaults, a subsequent hashtag, #WhyWomenDontReport, was created and in the space of a few hours, thousands of women responded in similar fashion: shame, fear, embarrassment, confusion, humiliation, self-hatred and a lack of trust that the system will work and hold their abusers accountable. It became painfully clear that there really is a “locker room,” and it is within this space that men and boys are led to believe that they can sexually assault a woman or girl without any fear that they will be held accountable.

     The conversation was not about Donald Trump. It did not start with him. We have been talking about sexual assault, rape and consent for a long time, along with daily forms of micro-sexual aggressions, from inappropriate touching to sexual innuendoes and jokes. We must now face the hard truth that the culture has not changed and that these rapists, these offenders, are our sons, our husbands, our fathers, our colleagues, our elected officials. It is within this environment that this tweet, once introduced, empowered women and girls to tell their stories. And if we do not change now, then we are complicit and we are helping to maintain an environment that encourages and rewards male violence, hyper-sexuality, and the degradation and silencing of women and girls.

And so we must:

  • Agree to no longer accept violent masculinity and victim blaming as the norm;

  • Design curriculum that teaches young girls and boys about what it means to ask for and give ongoing ardent consent;

  • Organize after-school programs and classes to teach young boys and girls how to treat each other as human beings, respecting both their bodies and their space;

  • Put more counselors in place to support and encourage women and girls to report sexual assaults;

  • And start a campaign to force the media to change the sexist and sexual nature of advertising.

This is how we change our culture. We commit to holding ourselves and our family and friends accountable. We lend our voices, bend our privilege and work together to unravel this thread so that we can do better and be better.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.” A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore’s NPR station.


September 13, 2016

Op-ed: The residents of Baltimore must end the violence and take back the streets.


By Karsonya Wise Whitehead


Baltimore City is a violent place, with one of the country’s highest homicide rates. It is also a city that is actively looking for solutions to solve this problem, though, thus far, nothing has changed, and our children are not safe. It is a complicated issue, and it is not ending any time soon: Over the Labor Day weekend, 22 people were shot in the city from Friday afternoon through Monday night, including a 4-year old, a 6-year old, and a 16-year old.


Our city, like many others, is built upon a system of systemic inequality, poverty, abandoned houses with broken windows, concrete jungles and cracked sidewalks. This violence is like a cancer that feeds off the city’s terror, off of our pain and lack of attention to it. We now find ourselves at a moment where we do not need more statistics or sociological studies, conference papers or empty promises. We need action. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”


There are no easy answers, but no child deserves to grow up in a city where the hardest part of the day is just getting through the streets safely. They deserve to be safe. They deserve to hold us to the highest standards, to expect us to do right by them, and to hold us accountable for helping to create and maintain a system that is designed to fail them, because it is unable to protect them. They deserve for us to not just try, but to solve the seemingly impossible problems.


This is hard for me to write because I feel safe in this city, but if the city is not safe for the least of us, then it is not safe for any of us. I take no hope from political promises. I am no longer waiting for someone or something to come along and save our city. Baltimore belongs to us, and if we want it to change, then we must be willing to do the hard work, to ask the hard questions and to demand more from ourselves and from our representatives. While I commend and support the conversations that have been taking place around the city to end violence, I am acutely aware that this is an election year and there is a tendency for stumping politicians to hear our pain, to march and cry and stand with us, because in this moment they need us and our vote.


Real change does not happen in a vacuum. It is not a pendulum that swings around an ideological spectrum. It happens because we push to make it happen, and so we should:


• Establish more recreation centers so young people will have a safe space to go when school ends;


• Place trauma counselors in schools to support children and their families;


• Force our lawmakers to enact stronger laws so that we can get illegal guns off of the street;


• Empower people to police their own communities;


•And require police officers to become intimately connected with the communities they are sworn to serve and protect — not just police.


We should also force our lawmakers to change the drug laws for low level drug offenses and grant clemency to those already convicted. We must also set up more effective prison-to-work programs to disrupt the prison-to-home-to-prison cycle and stop the return of violence to our streets.


Change is painful. It is messy, and it is difficult to get right, but it is not impossible. We must fight for our children’s safety, not because it is safe, or politic or popular, but because it is right. These are our streets and this is our responsibility.


Karsonya Wise Whitehead ( is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.” A version of this editorial will be aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore’s NPR station.

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication

A Writer With Writers: #BlackLivesMatter: Understanding Race, Revolution, & Resistance

August 25, 2016


August 24, 2016

Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.

Four years have passed since Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi launched the social justice international activist movement, #BlackLivesMatter (BLM). What began as a hashtag in response to the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin quickly became a rallying cry. Both the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and its meaning resonate around the world—from Ferguson to Tibet, from the White House to the United Nations. BLM is an intergenerational movement and a call for action to reform policies, racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality. Given that BLM is a movement in action, it is difficult to participate in the movement while critiquing it, but Dr Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor did just that in her new book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. We begin our discussion with a shorter interview on the Maryland Humanities Council website, and an extended version can be found  here with #BlackLivesMatter inspired-poetry and resources for further discussion.

today, my heart stopped
7.17.14 Eric Garner
he said, I cant breathe.
I cant breathe. I cant breathe.
I Cant Breathe. ICantBreatheICantBreathe.
I. Cant. Breathe.
they said, And you will never breathe again.

7.17.14 again
today, my heart stopped as
hoodies, skittles, iced tea
hands up, don’t shoot
loud rap music in parked cars
babies asleep on couches
mistaken homes, doors kicked in
mistaken identities, because we all look alike
have given way
to illegal choke holds
to being killed
for wanting to be left alone
for asking questions and demanding answers
for being frustrated
for not going silently into their night
for wanting to breathe
and for daring to demand these simple things outLoud

©Karsonya Wise Whitehead, RaceBrave


My Interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016), which is an examination of the history and politics of Black America and the development of the social movement Black Lives Matter in response to police violence in the United States. Interested in Dr. Taylor’s work? Follow her on Twitter: @keeangayamahtta.

  1. Why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write the book because I thought I had insight and analysis that would be useful for people either in the movement or sympathetic to the movement.

  1. What got left out in the final draft?

I forgot to include a section I had already outlined on the activist project of the 1950s called “We Charge Genocide” organized by the Civil Rights Congress. In the preamble for their report to the UN on police violence in the US they wrote:

“There was a time when racist violence had its center in the South…Once most of the violence against Negroes occurred in the countryside, but that was before the Negro emigrations of the twenties and thirties.  Now there is not a great American city from New York to Cleveland or Detroit, from Washington, the nation’s capital, to Chicago, from Memphis to Atlanta or Birmingham, from New Orleans to Los Angeles, that is not disgraced by the wanton killing of innocent Negroes.  It is no longer a sectional phenomenon. Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.  To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative.  We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy. “

I also wanted to include a section in the conclusion on W.E.B. Du Bois and Fred Hampton where I discuss socialism as a central part of the Black Radical Tradition.

  1. Do you consider yourself to be a scholar/writer or an activist/writer –can you explain what this title to you?

I don’t think of myself in any of those terms. I have been an organizer most of my life. I have organized against campus budget cuts, against the death penalty and police brutality. I have organized against the endless succession of wars the US has been involved in. I have organized for equal marriage rights for LGBT people. I have organized against NATO. And I have been an organizing for housing rights. Along the way I have learned quite a bit and its informed by academic work. I am not able to organize in the same way because I have a job as an educator. I don’t know what that makes me, but I’m not very interested in labels.

  1. Which writers inspire you?

There is nothing like reading something that makes sense. I am a fan of W.E.B. Du Bois, Anne Petry, Toni Morrison, Leon Trotsky, Nathan Connolly, Alan Maass, Michelle Alexander, Edmund Morgan, Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s hard to pick.

  1. How much research did you do?

I didn’t do a ton of research. I wasn’t trying to show something new. I was trying to analyze and understand what historical dynamics have resulted in the persistence of racism in our contemporary society. I read a lot but not necessarily for new information but how to make sense of the existing information.

  1. When did you decide to become a writer?

I have always been writing, for as long as I can remember. My father and older brother are writers. Maybe it’s a family trade, but I have never not been writing.

  1. Why do you write?

I write to understand the world. Writing is a coping mechanism. It helps me clarify my ideas. It makes me think more sharply.

  1. What is the hardest thing about writing and/or your research?

Well, writing is hard. It is hard to get it right and to most clearly and succinctly express oneself. Probably the most difficult thing about writing now is having the time to do it the way you want. Writing is about revision. Everyone wants the hot take but writing should be a slow process. It’s about re-writing and stopping and thinking and doing it over. It is very difficult in this day and age.

  1. What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?

Read. If you want to write then you have to read. Read a broad range of things. And then write. I don’t subscribe to the idea that writers MUST write everyday. But you should write as much as possible.

  1. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Hang in there. It gets better.

  1. Where so you see yourself in 10 years?

Doing the same things I’m doing now, but my kid will be older.

  1. What are you working on now? What is your next project?

I am working on my book Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s. It looks at the federal government’s promotion of single family homeownership in black communities after the riots in the 1960s. It is a critique of private institutions like banks and the real estate industry shaping public policy to their benefit and the detriment of black communities they claimed to be serving.

  1. What is the current state of the Black Lives Matter Movement and how do you see it moving forward?

It’s a big question. I think the movement is still sorting out what it is and what it wants to be. I do think right now that the movement is going through a process of maturation. Meaning that two years ago when everything was erupting, it was tempting to believe that a seat at the table—especially if it were a table in the White House—might put us in closer proximity to political power which might in turn get us closer to our goal of ending police violence. Instead, it was a stalling mechanism from the political establishment which has no real answers to ending police violence. Not everyone has learned that lesson, but enough people have learned the lesson that there is a greater emphasis on the political independence of the movement and advancing goals that will build the movement and worry less about appealing to those in power.

  1. If people wanted to get involved with Black Lives Matter, where would you suggest that they start?

In most cities there are coalitions or organizations working to end police violence. Find out who they are, where they organize and try to get involved. If there is no local organizing group then create one with other like-minded people.

  1. How do you think Black Lives Matter is going to be seen/defined 50 years from now?

I have no idea. It all depends on what happens in the next few years. No social movement is guaranteed to go one forever. You are either gaining momentum or you will soon be swept away. We have to focus on how to keep the momentum going.

what happens when the lights go out (my response to the DOJ’s BCPD report)

August 11, 2016

what happens when the lights go out



Photo from the Baltimore Uprising (photo credit unknown)

And now like Ferguson like New York like South Carolina

Baltimore has become some type of place

where some cops white or black or brown

male or female

masquerade as judge jury executioner

where we find ourselves with questions

and no answers

in mourning but without tears

in jungles concrete no glass

in prisons controlled guarded no bars

in hell our sins judged by sinners

dripping blood from their teeth

tearing our hearts straight out of our chest.

We must remember

that only the wicked see black skin as a sign of guilt

mistake loaded guns for tasers

running as an act of confession

wallets for loaded weapons

see toy guns as real

they never hear our shouts for help as real

they cant believe that we cant breathe

that we want to be free

that we want to grow up.

They cant accept that we belong here too

that it is our blood that runs thick with the same soil

that we use to grow our organic food

our pain being used to feed a nation again

our young brothers and sisters

now ageless and faceless

martyrs really

did not die did not pass away they are not lost

they were killed murdered shot choked

they are not lost

we know exactly where they are.

©Karsonya Wise Whitehead, RaceBrave, 2016

Sunday Morning Service (for Sandra Bland)

July 11, 2016

(arrested July 20, 2015)


We say your name

because we know they want you to be erased

to be just a memory

to be just a fragment

to be just a fragrance caught in their wind.

We chant your name

because we could not stop your arrest.

We saw it but could not act

as throwing stones at our computers never changes anything.

We whisper your name, over and over again,

because we still strive to find the normal

to give voice to our pain

to reclaim what we love

to remember who we are.

We whisper it, over and over again,

because there is a sore—

festering raw infested real—called racism

that has always been there

covered up for years by enslavement by reconstruction

by the nadir

covered up for years by segregation by voting rights

by amendments

uncovered finally by the stench that is post-racial.

We sing your name

because we have come to the place where we must be held accountable.

We didn’t want you to just be a hash tag, a name thrown around by politicians

who want our vote but not our voices but we let it happen, we couldn’t stop it.

We will stand on your name

because we have learned how to sit quietly and meditatively

at the feet of your memory

but we will not set up a tent and remain there

for there is no time for rest, not just yet.


© RaceBrave, Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 2016


July 8, 2016

Photo courtesy of BM (Black Matters) Shared with author by J Cameron Bayne

And this I believe, “To be black in America is to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 2016



06.05.16 (my life in real time)

What to this Negro is the Fourth of July?
–Every July 4th, I celebrate the fact that I am the descendant of people who chose to survive. In 1776, my ancestors (on both sides of my family) were living and surviving as enslaved people on somebody’s plantation. They chose to go forward every single day instead of backward. On that day, when most white folks and some black folks, celebrated America’s independence, they got up and worked and dreamed of freedom –the kind that wouldn’t come until 1865, only to be replaced shortly thereafter with Jim Crow; the kind that their descendants would continue to fight and struggle to achieve…even 150 years later. I am the descendant of people who chose to survive. Today: I celebrate their tenacity; I celebrate their survival instinct; I celebrate their choices; I celebrate their prayers and their tears and their sense of community; and, I celebrate that independent spirit that even in the face of incredible odds could not be broken. Today, I celebrated them, again.


06.06.16 (black wife/mommy blues)

  1. My husband states that he is going out for the run and I react –with fear with concern– like he is going to war.

    2. My son puts on a red t-shirt and red Converse shoes to go to camp and me and my husband both stop him and say Not Today. No red. No blue. No hoodie. Not. Today.

    The stinking Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, indeed. This is what it looks like Every Single Day when you are the wife and mother of a black man and teenage black boys.


06.07.16 (for Alton Sterling)

I must brace myself. I must steel myself. I must ready myself because the cycle has begun, again:
1. A black man has been shot and killed by the police.
2. We will cry and shout ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter and march and hold press conferences and demand justice.
3. The cops will be placed on Paid leave as the “investigation” takes place.
4. The media will put the victim on trial searching out every parking ticket and bad grade.
5. Folks will question the victim’s motives (even though there is video) as if he wanted to be shot and killed.
6. No charges will be filed.
7. No indictment will be had.
8. The cops will be acquitted.
9. America will move on.

–This is what the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave looks like from my perspective.




07.07.16 (for Philando Castile)

Another black man dead at the hands of the police.
Another hashtag memorial.
Another day of me being angry and scared. Another day when I feel like I could Burn this country to the ground.
Another day when we are reminded that we may not be enslaved but we are definitely Not free.
Another day of me struggling to figure out how to mother and save and protect my two big black boys.
Another day to wake up and find Black Death hanging out at my door.
Another day when I understand that to “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” (James Baldwin)

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