Pop and Politics

A Feminist Home on the Web

An interview with Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay (28) is like a fast-paced workshop on how to be a tireless wireless feminist. Mukhopadhyay is one of six female staff members that run the blog Feministing. The site editors and founders are motivated by their belief that young women are rarely given the opportunity to speak on their own behalf on issues that affect their lives and futures. Feministing aims to provide a platform for women to comment on and analyze these issues. Roughly 25,000 unique users per day visit the site, which gets more than 50,000 actual hits a day, according to the site's most recent data. A men's group, in response to Feministing's success, has created a mock-feminism blog site at Feministing.org. Mukhopadhyay says: "That shit just makes us more famous."

The site is no sorority house side project. It doesn't "hate" men. It doesn't have male contributors, although men frequently respond to its blogs. It prefers quick, off-the-cuff blogs and rants to fully reported news articles. Mukhopadhyay is the only woman of color among the site staff. They make money off of page ads which is typically spent on new writers or travel.

The San Francisco Chronicle in an article about feminism and First Lady Laura Bush in May 2006 called for a new, all-inclusive "Big Tent" feminism, and chided Feministing as "righteous" in stating that feminism isn't for everybody. AlterNet praised Feministing for its ability to segue flawlessly from rants on Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to reports on a skin-tightening product called "Virgin Cream."

As a feminist blogger, Mukhopadhyay's focus is on productivity and connectivity. During our interview, she huddles up with her laptop and multi-tasks. While firing off responses to my questions, she's also reading an update about an alleged gang rape at Fresno State, recommending other blog sites to me, discussing the pros and cons of polyamory versus hetero-normativity and debating the relevance of mainstream media.

GM: Is the blogosphere the location for a new feminism?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay: If you are an activist and not reading blogs, you're not doing your job. [The blogosphere] is a listening audience and an active audience. It could be anyone out there; an anti-feminist from Ohio, a housewife in Illinois.

GM: Are most of your readers from the Midwest?

SM: We get a lot of response from the Midwest and Austin, Texas, but the Bay Area and New York City are our two mainstays. We hear from a lot of college students.

GM: What do you think draws people to a blog site like Feministing?

SM: Anonymity -- that's the best part about it, for most viewers who want to participate in in-depth discussions. [Anonymous] people say shit they wouldn't normally say. People chime in with very personal stories. "As a woman of color in this town...," you know, like that -- I'm sorry, I just saw an update on this 11-year-old girl who was [allegedly] raped at Fresno City College. Excuse me for a second. I've got to write about this immediately...

GM: It's almost like it's you and your computer against the world. But aren't there drawbacks to leading a feminist movement through blogs? What about face-to-face dialog?

SM: Well, this is our activism; engaging with other bloggers. But yeah, we talk all the time about whether or not we are organizing the people we talk about or if we're just computer nerds. We want to alliance-build. But is it always safe to sit behind your keyboard? No. I still don't always feel confident or safe.

GM: How so?

SM: People come to the site, read my blog and say things like "Don't get out of hand." This is still the dominant view, and there is still such a gendered power imbalance, and it's easy to get caught up in all that and think, "Well, you're right." People have told me I'll never have a journalism career. Some say my writing is unbalanced and anti-white. But it's not, not in this context. I write what I feel and what I see, through the lens of post-colonial theory.

GM: And how, through that lens, are you working to build alliances?

SM: By continuing to read and write. By going to events. I attended "Action in Media" at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] this spring. It made me realize how much influence Feministing has. People there knew who we were. In feminism, it's so important to be among colleagues to challenge each other and be surrounded by each other. Plus, a lot of men read my blog. That's how I get laid (laughs).

GM: I think men come to feminism in a lot of different ways. I have a friend whose idea of feminism is to let woman pay the tab at restaurants and bars.

SM: That "what can women do for me" mentality is patriarchy at work. They try to put the joke on us. Statistically, men still make more money than women. But that's not what it's all about. It's about access and power.

GM: Can you elaborate? What are some issues you are focused on right now?

SM: In politics, there is an assault on women and reproductive issues. Look at South Dakota right now and this whole "Plan B-conscience clause-pharmacy ban" thing. I get hundreds of comments daily. I've got 140 comments on drinking and self-esteem alone. I can't read through all that. But also issues like immigration, and how it's a feminist issue. It's not just about the lives of women. It's about how gender and sexism affects our lives. There's Roe vs. Wade, child molestation, rape laws, affirmative action, health care, prostitution, and retirement, like how women have no access to pensions in the UK. I'll even talk about Britney [Spears] once in a while, if it's relevant.

GM: You talk about building alliances, challenging notions of access and power and how gender and sexism play out in society. You don't need to be a feminist to actively struggle against these things. Plus, plenty of folks are quick to dismiss women who stand on a strong feminist platform. Do you consider yourself to be an unmitigated feminist?

SM: Yes. I am a feminist, because I believe that this society is inequitable because of gender, race, class and sexuality. I recognize it and actively seek to change it.

GM: Do you expect people to be on the same page with you?

SM: Feminism can be recognized in many ways. For me, it's more about what our moments of resistance are as women: a mother kicking out her deadbeat husband for not taking care of their child; women with multiple sex partners; women earning power in board rooms. Taking back. Acting back. It's complicated.

GM: Is it possible to have a united feminist movement?

SM: Those chicks who flashed their tits in the 60s largely cater to the white middle class. They often don't do enough to include women of color. I think what you see now is little clusters [of feminists] getting together on issues, like the Duke rape case. It's fragmented, but once something happens, people rally.

Political Invisibles

What does it mean when a democracy removes the vote from several million adults? How is the political process affected when certain groups -- racial minorities and low-income whites, in particular -- bear the brunt of this disenfranchisement?

These are not abstract questions intended to tax the minds of students in a poli-sci class. Rather, they are questions about a massive contraction of the franchise that is occurring, today, largely in the shadows, in the United States.

Let me explain. Over the past quarter century, the number of incarcerated Americans and those with felony records has more than quadrupled, largely because of the ways in which drug wars have played out. The African American portion of the prison population has skyrocketed -- currently getting to the point where half of prisoners are black.

There are, in 2006, well over two million Americans living behind bars. If you pick up a felony, you automatically acquire a host of collateral handicaps. If it is a drug felony, you are ineligible for welfare and public housing in many states, you lose access to government loans, and depending on which state you happen to live in, you lose your political rights -- your ability to vote and to sit on juries.

In many states, especially those in the old South, picking up a felony means that you can never vote again, unless you complete the extraordinarily cumbersome and time-consuming process of applying for clemency.

In Florida, where nearly three-quarters of a million residents are currently disenfranchised, people who have finished their prison, parole and probation sentences and who want to vote have to fill out pages of questions, provide an array of detailed personal information, and submit an application for clemency to the clemency board, which then makes recommendations to the governor.

Four times a year, the Florida governor convenes a panel to hear these applications. Those seeking a restoration of their voting rights have to travel to Tallahassee to petition the governor in person, a significant journey for a poor person from Miami who has to find travel money, hotel money and also the money to absorb income lost from days off work. While tens of thousands start this process, the governor only hears about 50 cases per session. As a result, far more people lose their vote each year than can possibly hope to regain it.

In Mississippi, the process is even more restrictive. To get their vote back, a Mississippi felon has to convince a member of the legislature to introduce a bill specifically re-enfranchising that individual; both houses of the legislature have to support the bill; and the governor has to sign it.

Not surprisingly, few people navigate these mazes successfully, and as a result, more than five percent of all adults and a quarter of adult, male African Americans in the South are legally prevented from voting by state authorities.

Anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that we're a country divided. While the 2000 presidential election produced the freak outcome of an almost-exactly tied race, with the electoral college coming down to Florida and Florida coming down to a few hundred votes, we're in a period where Republicans and Democrats are both able to rely on support from nearly half the eligible electorate, leaving a couple million votes on the margins to decide electoral outcomes.

With more and more low-income people now being funneled into the criminal justice system -- the result of a recalibration of social priorities that has led America in recent decades to embrace a scale of incarceration not seen anywhere else on earth -- more and more people are returning to society as political invisibles. They complete their sentences, and yet they remain without rights of political participation that most of us assume to be universal.

These political invisibles have a dramatic effect on election outcomes. In 2004, for example, while many of the voteless had too many other things to worry about to care about casting ballots come Election Day, many others were desperate to vote.

Lloyd Brown, in Virginia, had spent the better part of a decade trying to convince state election officials to let him vote again. First he'd encountered active resistance, then, when a new governor came in who wanted to re-enfranchise people, he found the elections department had lost his paperwork and he had to start the multi-year process again from scratch.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Jamaica S. spent five years trying to get re-enfranchised after losing her vote on an accessory charge that had only resulted in 15 months probation. Clinton Drake, a Vietnam veteran living in Alabama, had been permanently disenfranchised following a marijuana conviction. Victoria, in Washington State, had lost her voting rights after committing welfare fraud. All of these men and women told me how frustrated, ashamed, and humiliated they felt because they couldn't vote.

Take an increasing number of poor people out of the process, and politics is increasingly becoming a game played by, and for, the affluent classes. Remove the voting power of the urban poor, for example, and issues of importance to inner-city America are unlikely to get much attention when politicians are busily stumping for votes come election time.

Since we presumably want ex-cons to rehabilitate themselves and become law-abiding stakeholders in the community, we should encourage, rather than prohibit, their political participation. By not doing so, society has given up on them. By not doing so, society is keeping them invisible.

Raunch Culture

I think my first indication that taking a beginners' stripping class was not going to be exactly what I had been envisioning was when we (a group of ten girlfriends on a bachelorette party outing) were introduced to our instructor, Daphne. She happened to be a perfect physical mix of Jenna Jameson and Mary Lou Retton.

She also paraded around the waiting room in little more than a bra (think see-through black lace, not sports), short shorts (think matching black lace with ruffles on the butt, not something she would wear biking), and five-inch red and black platform shoes. Earlier that day, anticipating nothing more than maybe a minor deviation from a run-of-the-mill aerobics class -- doesn't Teri Hatcher do this as a workout? -- I'd thrown on a faded tee-shirt I'd had since high school and stretched-out, paint-spattered sweatpants.

Daphne led our group into a large studio, illuminated only by big candles dripping sexy red wax amidst five metal poles. She turned on Barry White, and I almost died when she then whipped out a bag of neon-green g-strings with ties on each side and started passing them out. Sure, I was among close girlfriends -- but let's just say I wasn't thong-ready under any circumstance.

I felt better when she ordered us to put them on over our underwear, because we were going to learn how to give "our men" a sexy dance involving the removal of said g-string. I felt less better when, upon my attempted sexy removal, the piece of neon-green floss actually got stuck and I had to reach down into the back of my sweats and yank it out.

My dismay mounted when we started learning more moves: we had come from a huge brunch (and I was admittedly about three Bloody Mary's deep), so I could barely move, much less roll around the floor, splay my legs, gyrate my hips, twirl like a ballerina around a pole, or according to Daphne's impassioned instruction, "sloooooowly trail my fingertips from my hair -- giving it a sexy tousle -- down the side of [my] body, across my breasts… " At one point, my friend Liz looked over at me and wailed, "I feel like a 90-year-old woman with arthritis trying to be sexy!"

Part of the reason why we took the class in the first place is because my girlfriends and I tend to consider ourselves pretty adventurous and free-spirited. A few months back we started regularly going to (female) strip clubs and getting the occasional lap dance, while the mostly male clientele licked their chops. However, suddenly two things made all of that a lot less alluring for me -- and one of them wasn't that every time I tried to swing around the pole, I got dizzy and my sweaty hands caused me to land in a heap on the floor.

First, taking the strip class put me square in the stripper's shoes (heels), right there on the stage, under the flashing lights. Second, and more importantly, reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy gave insight into the mind of the stripper, and the overall rampant pornification of our culture at large.

Levy writes about the proliferation of "raunch culture," which, regardless of my self-proclaimed staunch feminism (women can make any choices they want!), I have been unwittingly engendering by doing things like going to strip clubs. Levy says in raunch culture, it's the norm that "all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual … and the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment."

All during strip class, Daphne kept repeating the mantra ad nauseum: everything we were learning was for "[our] man." To me, empowerment signifies control -- and the man-centric philosophy strip class (not to mention the whole stripping industry) seemed to espouse flew in the face of female control, either in society or just swinging around the pole.

Empowerment in my view is also about equality -- and if all things were equal, would women necessarily want to be stripping for the greasy dollar bills that men throw at them with the same hand that wears their wedding bands? If my experience is any indication, I don't think so. Proponents of "female liberation" might argue that some women are really comfortable with their bodies and like what they do with that pole, but as Ariel Levy says so perceptively, "because I am paid to is not the same thing as taking control of my sexuality." Liberation implies we have broken the chains that have bound us to our status as sexual inferiors, and as Daphne's sultry intonations suggested, that's definitely not the case.

Ms. Levy continues, "The vast majority of women who enter the [stripping] field do so because they are poor and have no more attractive alternative" -- and they stay poor. It really unsettled me to discover that I, as a "feminist," would exploit one woman's lack of power in the name of my own empowerment. This sort of hypocritical "empowerment for sale" mentality strikes me as another layer of conspiracy in the race to keep women down, and indicative of the fundamentally economic nature of the inequality of the sexes.

If we were smart and really empowered, we women would use our economic power to take sex out of the equation. Similarly, Female Chauvinist Pigs quotes Erica Jong as saying "sex is not power -- women in decision-making positions -- that's power. When the senate is 50 percent women, that's power. Sexual freedom is a smokescreen for how far we haven't come."

In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to be judged for something other than my physical appearance, and for something other than just my sex. Strip class taught me though that at least for the moment and to the detriment of all women, even the rare few who actually hold truly powerful positions, achievement for us is tied to sex.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Pick a Bigger Weapon

When conscious and political hip-hop had risen to its zenith in 1993, the radical anti-capitalist hip-hop group The Coup, led by politically-minded emcee and producer Boots Riley, released their first album, "Kill My Landlord." The video for the Oakland, California-based group's first single, "Not Yet Free," was on regular rotation on BET's Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps.

When the genre of politically conscious hip-hop was removed from the mainstream spotlight soon after, Boots and DJ Pam the Funktress remained active, receiving acclaim and praise for their follow-up albums. Their last ablum, "Party Music," was named the best rap album of 2001 by Rolling Stone and best album of 2001 by the Washington Post.

Now signed to Epitaph and armed with a better record deal, the Coup is ready to make another killing with their upcoming release, "Pick A Bigger Weapon." PopandPolitics.com caught up with Riley, a former youth activist, at his home in west Oakland to rap about politics, hip-hop, and the new album.

PopandPolitics.com: What motivated you to become an activist and what motivated you to pick up the mic?

Boots: Everyone wants to connect to the universe. I found that to really be part of it all, to really connect to the universe is to help to change it as opposed to just being there watching everything go past me. I think once I started organizing when I was 15, I realized that this is why I wanted to get involved. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to feel like my time here is significant.

PandP: On "Laugh/Love/Fuck," (a song from the upcoming album "Pick a Bigger Weapon") you say on the chorus that you're here to, "Make the revolution come quicker." How do you plan on doing that through your music?

Boots: Hopefully, my music can be used by organizers as something to inspire themselves and others to keep doing the work they're doing. Also, there are messages that can be rallying cries to rally more people to the cause of what they're doing. I think music in and of itself serves as a cultural point of reference. People can hear an idea, a theme, and some music and know that everyone else that is listening to this music is relating to that theme or idea or goal in some way -- so it can help and create a unity of thought in some way, shape, or form. Hopefully my music can be used that way.

PandP: The new album's heavy on funk. How does The Coup's sound fit in with the current Bay Area scene, juxtaposed with the hyphy culture that's going on?

Boots: We've always been very funky in our music. And what's coming out is a variation of that funk that's been in the Bay Area for a long time. So we're right there in the middle of it. Our bass has always been low. Our stuff has always been crazy. My rhyme patterns have always been unorthodox. I think some of what people call "hyphy" music is mainly drums with few instruments. There are a few hits that are out that sound like that, and people call it hyphy. People think of Mac Dre's music as hyphy and his stuff is very much bassline, keys, guitars, everything. It's the same sound…. And our music is part of that sound that's always been there. The hyphy thing is more of an attitude than a sound change.

PandP: How did the industry react to the original cover art for "Party Music?" [The original artwork, completed three months prior to 9/11, depicted the twin towers blowing up and was slated to hit shelves around the same time.] What was your personal reaction when 9/11 happened?

Boots: I heard about it [9/11] on the radio and I didn't make a connection to the cover really, because planes slammed into the World Trade Center and I didn't picture it looking similar. On the album I have a bass tuner and Pam [the Funktress] has conductor's wands. It's supposed to make the statement that our music is destroying capitalism. I was fine with pulling the cover. My music talks about masses of people coming together to affect change. The album cover was only a metaphorical piece of art that talked about what we wanted our ideas to do… I was fine with pulling it so that people didn't mistake what I was talking about.

At the same time, it had gotten so much publicity. Many entertainers at that time that had anything political about them were scared of getting shut out of the industry. I had publicists that were like, "I can't work on your album anymore 'cause I won't have a career after that." I used it as an opportunity to speak out at the time against bombing Afghanistan. The main controversy I got was not for the album cover, but for the statement that came out afterward that stated the U.S. had created worse atrocities all over the world, and what the flag stood for, to me, was slavery and oppression. That's what got all the right-wing writers up in arms.

PandP: Your new album's coming out on Epitaph, what used to be a predominantly punk label. Why is a punk label enlisting more conscious hip-hop?

Boots: As you see from marketing, the same people that buy Jay-Z buy Linkin Park. The same people that buy David Banner buy Evanescence. It's the same people buying all of this stuff. Record labels see that. A lot of the punk audience listens to "underground" hip-hop. Also, Epitaph is known for taking groups that sell 100,000 to 150,000 copies each time out and tripling, if not quadrupling and quintupling their sales. They have groups that they have taken from 50,000 sales to 700,000 when they join them.

PandP: I remember watching your videos in the early 90s. Your videos used to get played on BET, but they don't play any of your recent videos.

Boots: BET's Rap City used to be a format in which, if you could show you had a good quality video and song and you had national distribution, you had a good chance of being able to get played on Rap City. It's not like that anymore. You have to show that you're getting regular rotation spins on the radio.

PandP: Is your audience generally comprised of an alternative crowd? You were featured in Bakari Kitwana's article "The Cotton Club: Black-conscious hip-hop deals with an overwhelmingly white live audience" in the Village Voice.

Boots: My live audience is the same as most hip-hop audiences, which has to do with the fact that black people are kept away from shows. Even here, the KMEL crowd [a popular mainstream urban radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area], it's not mainly black when you go to their shows, it's mainly a white audience. A lot of that has to do with how shows are promoted. That doesn't mean that the crowd that listens to this music doesn't have more black people listening to it, it has to do with how promoters are encouraged to keep black people away, everything from ticket pricing to where flyers are passed out to where events are held.

What I was talking about [in the article] is that hip-hop is being gentrified by the police and by the industry, which is quite a different angle than what he [Kitwana] took. What he tried to say was that black people don't listen to any music that's political anymore, which is not the case. He tried to make it seem like 50 Cent and Eminem have a greater percentage of black fans, and we know that's not true. If you get anywhere close to platinum or gold, most of your fans, 90 percent of them are white. My point is not that a lot of my fans aren't white. Many, if not most of my fans, are white -- but that is the same for Master P, that's the same for Jay-Z, that's the same for all of hip-hop.

Hip-hop in general, when black folks get together, the police don't like it. A fight that happens when there's a black crowd turns out the whole show, the police shut it down. But a fight that happens when there's a white crowd, those fighters get pulled outside and the show goes on. You don't hear about it because the show didn't get cancelled… The other thing is, police can decide based on no obvious criteria at all, to okay the permit for your event and that really just depends on who they deem the crowd is going to be.

Yeah, most of my audience is white. Most of the people that buy Nikes are white, most of the people that buy FUBU are white, most of the people that watch Dave Chappelle are white. We live in the United States and the people that have the money to buy these things are going to be white. My music is about the working class defeating the ruling class, and in the working class, there are people of all shades.

PandP: Why the title "Pick a Bigger Weapon"?

Boots: It means "up the ante." And the reason I used "Pick a Bigger Weapon" is because I think that we're all fighting the system whether we feel like we're in the struggle or not, and that fight takes the form of struggling to pay the rent, trying to keep the lights on, things like that. Those are the struggles we all should be engaged in collectively. It's about taking our daily struggles and collectivizing them and it would be a stronger blow to the system.

Also, my girlfriend and I were having dinner with poet Jessica Care Moore and my girlfriend was on her third or fourth martini and Jessica was like, "C'mon girl, pick a bigger weapon." That's symbolic of people looking for ways to make their lives better and right now we've been taught to overlook actually fighting the system together to make our life better.

100% Indian Hair

Every time I drive down La Brea here in L.A., I always do a double take when I cross Pico. There is this huge red sign in front of a store in a strip mall that says, "100% Indian Hair." As a South Asian woman, I find this sign ridiculously strange and wonder just what exactly would happen if I walked into the store. Would they turn me away? Would they kidnap me into the back room for a hair hijacking? Should I start collecting the hair out of my drain and bring it in for some extra money to pay for grad school? What is it about my kind of hair that makes beauty shops so excited about advertising that they have "100% Indian Hair?"

I am reminded of a former African-American co-worker of mine every time I think of hair weaves. I remember the first time she told me she was getting hair extensions in her hair, how she was so excited and ecstatically told me, "I'm paying more money for my extensions because it's real human hair!"

I was mortified. "Whose human hair is it?!?!"

She thought about it for a minute. "You know, I don't know. I just know it's human hair."

I was seriously grossed out by this thought. I likened it to using old nail clippings and glueing it onto someone else's nail. You see, in the process of getting hair extensions, one gets long strands of hair, sometimes fake, some times real. These strands are then placed into people's hair to give the appearance of longer, fuller hair overnight. The hair can be braided in, glued in, sewed in, or clamped in. People pay a lot of money to get this hair placed into their own. But the thing that they don't know is where this human hair comes from.

Why Indian hair? Because our hair is the best. No, for real, that's what the research shows. Indian hair is thicker than European hair and thinner than Chinese hair. Once treated, it is less prone to breaking. The best kind of hair is long and untreated, with all the cuticles in the same direction. It is collected in plaits. Where, oh where, can you find such hair?

Well, the web research show that plaits of hair in India are cut off for weddings or offered to god at religious temples. This hair is then collected by "hair factories" that buy it for 15 rupees (25 cents) per gram. This one hair retailer based out of Chennai says, "Indian women donate their hair as an offering to their god as a sign of modesty. It is their understanding that it will be sold by the monks for a substantial sum of money that will be used to finance schools, hospitals and other publicly favored facilities."

I have some serious problems believing this. First of all, I don't remember an Indian wedding I’ve attended or a Bollywood movie I’ve seen where the hair was cut off the women. Secondly, women in India are ridiculously vain about their hair and will spend hours going through the ritual of soaking their hair in warm coconut oil and shampooing twice. A woman would have to be desperate and really in need of the 15 rupees per gram to cut her hair. Thirdly, supposing that women cut off their hair at the temple as an offering to a god. I'm not so sure that they'd be happy in knowing that their hair is really going around the world to be weaved into someone's hair for $50 a plait.

OK, here comes the speech. The thing that disturbs me about the whole hair trade is the "south corrupts the south" mentality, i.e., women of color in the United States are the ones benefiting from the exploitation of woman of color in South Asia. How can women consciously get human hair weaved into their own without knowing where the hair came from? Or that it came from the exploitation of other women of color? It's the same way people of color will go to Wal-Mart to buy their clothes without consciously thinking of the people of color who created the clothes in sweatshops. Where's the solidarity, people?

I'm all about looking good and spending the money on making that happen. I'm also totally aware that I have cream of the crop hair that is the envy of all, and whatever I say will be met with, "What do you care, you have 100 percent Indian hair." I also understand that there is a whole culture of getting hair weaves that I am not a part of, and that by telling people not to get hair weaves anymore, I am inflicting my cultural values on theirs. I get it. But I do think that, as one woman of color to another woman of color, it is important to know the truth about 100 percent human hair, that this hair was actually alive and had a life before it entered into a weave.

As for me, I'm going to start collecting the hair off my pillow and see if I can make some money with my 100 percent Indian hair.

Who Needs Black History Month?

During an interview with Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" last month, Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman called Black History month "ridiculous," igniting a firestorm of debate about its observance. Freeman told a visibly shocked Wallace, "I don't want a Black History month. Black History is American History. There's no white history month."

Since Freeman's statements became public, I have read numerous editorials written by black intellectuals calling for the end of the celebration of black history month. The premise is that Black History month is no longer necessary, and that a 28 day observance both confines and trivializes the historic contributions of African-Americans in this country.

Prior to even thinking about what Freeman was saying, I had to first get over my continued outrage at white people asking black actors, athletes, and entertainers what they think about issues that are outside of their areas of expertise. Publicizing the opinions of Morgan Freeman doesn't make him a spokesman for the black race. I don't see anyone seeking out Robert DeNiro for opinions about Iraq, but that's a whole different discussion.

But in response to Freeman's comments, all I can say is, "Please."

Celebrating Black History Month no more confines the history of African-Americans than the one day MLK holiday confines the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King. Or that St. Patrick's Day confines the history of Irish-Americans to March 17th. Want to know how to trivialize African-American history? Eliminate Black History Month.

Mr. Freeman and others maintain that in place of Black History Month, black history should be incorporated into the mainstream history of America. Their thought process is that black history can be celebrated every day by its proper inclusion in American history. Mr. Freeman went so far as to ask Mike Wallace, "Which month is white history month?" The answer unfortunately, is that every month remains white history month in this country, and it is precisely for this reason that Black History month remains relevant and necessary.

Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton, director of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, (which originated the observance of what is now Black History Month), points out that the country still has a long way to go in making its history inclusive. As she told the Baltimore Sun in December:

"We have a mission to research, promote, preserve and disseminate information about the contributions of African-Americans in history and their diaspora," she said. "When that mission is complete, maybe celebrations like Black History Month can take a different slant. American history books -- and the way it is taught -- still [do] not include the full contribution of African-Americans or other minorities for that matter.

"Dr. Woodson hoped that one day there would no longer be a need for Black History Month because it would be incorporated into American history all year round. So the goal Morgan Freeman speaks of is our goal as well."

In some ways, I can understand where Freeman is coming from. Ideally, we wouldn't have to have a special month because American history would be inclusive of all history. Freeman, however, also seems to be advocating that we shouldn't even speak of our differences. Instead, we should just pretend that not only is everyone equal, but that we are the same.

When Mike Wallace asked Freeman how we can get rid of racism, he replied:

"Stop talking about it. I'm going to stop calling you a white man. And I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You wouldn't say, 'Well, I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.' You know what I'm sayin?"

I don't know about you, but I simply cannot agree with Freeman. We will not solve racial issues in this country by putting our collective heads in the sand and hoping they will go away. We can't run from our own racial past and delude ourselves that everything is ok in America. Our society still remains segregated in many ways, from where we live and where we worship, to who survives a hurricane. We like to think that we are a society beyond racism, but reality doesn't bear that out.

Race is America's great taboo, and the fact is that there are differences -- cultural and physical -- between people of different races. We need to acknowledge those differences. Pretending like they don't exist is ignoring the elephant in the room. Mike Wallace is a white guy. Morgan Freeman is a black guy. Why ignore the facts?

It's been said that history is written by the victors. Until American history becomes more inclusive of the contributions of all its citizens, Black History Month remains one of the few tangible ways that we can keep our nation's history accurate.

Who needs Black History Month? We all do.

Queer Love Goes Mainstream

I found out about "Brokeback Mountain" months ago when it was a tiny gossip article on AfterElton.com, a Web site reporting the latest news in gay and bisexual male visibility in mainstream media. I pinched myself multiple times as I read that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal would be swapping spit in this so-called "gay Western" movie.

I wasn't dreaming.

I have seen many other notable and honorary queer movies that rival "Brokeback Mountain," but these movies, if they do ever hit the theater circuit, are categorized as "artsy" and attract only those who find out about them on PlanetOut.com.

The fact that two famous male celebrities are confident that this movie is not career suicide shows America how far we've come in terms of gay visibility. Every queer milestone, from Showtime's hit television series "Queer as Folk" to NBC's slapstick "Will and Grace," paved the way to this movie.

"Brokeback Mountain" is a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story by Annie Proulx about two macho cowboys falling for each other in conservative and rural America. Rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) are sheepherders in Signal, Wyoming. Lonely in the wilderness and surrounded by hundreds of sheep, Jack and Ennis start to break out of their macho-men shells and turn to each other for comfort.

Then the summer ends and they drift apart. Ennis marries his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack gets seduced in Texas by cowgirl Lureen (Anne Hathaway). They raise families in separate states. But every year, for the rest of their lives, Jack and Ennis find themselves back on Brokeback Mountain in an unspeakable relationship.

It's the untold story of same-gender loving men who gather in secret and whose closeted love story brings more truth about being homosexual than any Pride parade could ever do. And Donnie Darko's doe-eyed Gyllenhaal and Cassanova's charismatic Ledger making out on the big screen? That's the stuff locker room fantasies are made of.

Could this movie be a hit? I had nightmares for a month before "Brokeback Mountain's" release of movie theaters with tumbleweeds rolling around the seats and a few American Family Association members popping champagne bottles. But the box office told a different story. In December, "Brokeback Mountain," which was only showing in five major cities with notable populations of openly queer men, was already the highest grossing movie per-theater.

Having climbed up and down "Brokeback Mountain," I'm now coming to the conclusion that the mainstream media's overall labeling of the movie as "gay" is problematic. I'm better off watching blurry versions of "Falcon" clips off the Internet because Gyllenhaal and Ledger fail to meet up to the sticky, sweaty, and juicy adjectives and verbs of Proulx's short story. The lackluster sex of "Brokeback Mountain" introduces the controversial idea that being gay is more than just about being sexual with men.

From the looks of the movie, Jack and Ennis prefer quietly riding horses together with the spectacular Wyoming backdrop to their sorry attempts to have man-to-man sex without a manual (and without protection!). Basically, these men are not in lust with each other. They're in love with each other. Jack and Ennis have a beautiful and, dare I say it, sexy, relationship…with their clothes on.

It's a romantic story line worthy of hits like "Titanic," "Monster's Ball," and "Jerry Maguire." After their initial roll around the hay, Jack and Ennis continue to ride horses and each other…for over 20 years! That's 19 years and six months longer than my longest relationship.

By the middle of the movie, even horny little ol' me preferred to see Jack and Ennis growing old with each other on the ranch to Jake and Heath mastering "The Joy of Gay Sex." Director Ang Lee should save that for the DVD's unrated version.

Alas, Jack and Ennis live in a world without rainbow flags, pride parades, terminologies, other men who like long walks in the woods, and tolerance. They live in two states that unanimously voted for our publicly homophobic president. Their relationships with their wives gradually fall apart, but these loveable label-less deviants aren't the enemies. The ultimate villain is a moralistic society that cannot comprehend their love and swallows them whole.

Thankfully, we now live in a society where "Brokeback Mountain" is one of the country's top ten films, a society in which the movie just won four Golden Globe Awards. My dreams about "Brokeback Mountain" are getting better. I see film companies fighting over scripts that feature gay characters. I envision both heterosexual and homosexual movies being shown comfortably next to each other in theaters. I can also foresee multitudes of young queer men re-enacting the scene where Jack Twist ropes Ennis in the same way that young girls stretched their arms out like Kate Winslet in "Titanic."

All Jack and Ennis had in the end was "Brokeback Mountain," but the popularity of their love story lets the next generation of queer citizens hope and fight for more. And you bet your sweet ass that I'm hoping Jake and Heath make out Britney-Madonna style when they win their Oscars.

The Next Generation of News

The fate of the printed press will rest in your hands. Or rather, at your fingertips. In fact, you are becoming part of this media shift as you read this article -- not in print, but online.

According to the latest reports from the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper readership continues to drop, going from 62.4 percent in 1990 to 54.1 percent in 2003. In an extreme case, the San Francisco Chronicle reported a 16 percent decline in sales from March 2005 to September 2005.

Part of that decline has to do with how people like me get the news. It's not that I'm choosing to be uninformed and not reading the news anymore. In fact, I'm more in tune with what's happening than ever before. While copies of my printed local daily newspaper, The Davis Enterprise, sit on the stands collecting dust, I'm online getting my news for free.

These days, who has time to read the lengthy daily newspapers when there's laundry to be done and quarters to be salvaged? I want to see my news delivered in up-to-the-minute free byte-sized pieces -- and thanks to the BBC Online and CNN, I'm saving lots of quarters for laundry.

That's good news for me, but bad news for the newspaper industry. Unknown to many newsreaders, the digital age is wreaking havoc on printed newspapers -- both in readership and in classified advertising.

Classified advertising is the backbone of the newspaper industry. The money from classifieds funds a significant portion (27 percent, according to a December 11th article in the LA Times) of a newspaper's budget. Even my high school newspaper survived solely because our advertising efforts paid for the paper's printing.

But with the rise of sites like Craigslist.org, which provide the same classified advertising that newspapers do -- but for free -- newspapers are facing a huge loss in revenue. According to a November 30th article in the SF Weekly, Craigslist.org takes away $50 million a year in revenue from Bay Area newspapers. I still remember the days when searching for a job, a car, a house, or even grocery coupons took place through the daily newspaper. Now, one can accomplish the same tasks online without paying a dime.

Major metropolitan dailies, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The San Jose Mercury, and The Los Angeles Times are trimming down their staff and their text in the wake of declining readership and revenue. As a result, the quality of newspapers are suffering and young journalists such as myself will have a more difficult time finding a job. I received a letter from The Oregonian saying that they cannot have their summer internship program because of "budget cuts." Uh-oh.

On the bright side, I believe that the digital era of journalism will usher in a new system of news reporting. The next generation of reporters must work harder and faster (and unfortunately, for less pay) to develop news for the next generation of news consumers.

It is a transition that I witnessed as a newspaper intern for The Visalia Times-Delta when it launched an online breaking news section. Reporters would upload a short five-paragraph preview of their story and update the story as it developed. The final story would appear in the newspaper the next day.

I wondered why the newspaper would instantly offer its latest news for free. My editor told me that many of Visalia's residents were frequently visiting the newspaper's Web site, so this was a way of reaching out and retaining them as readers.

Newspapers' websites are also helping newspapers retain advertisers, too. According to a December 11th article in The Los Angeles Times, the readership at newspaper sites overall is up 11 percent in the last year to 39 million. "Newspapers are seeing a rapid rise of online advertising revenue to $2 billion," according to the article. It may mean more pop-up ads for newspaper readers, but the press will survive.

As long as there are still people who read and make the news, journalism will still have a place in society. The Internet and the digitalization of the daily metropolitan is only fueling the reader's ease to find out about the latest events developing in their community. A generation that loved the smell of a freshly printed newspaper will be replaced by a generation that loves the speed of digital text loading through DSL.

Confessions Of a Video Vixen

It's easy to dismiss Confessions of a Video Vixen, a book by ex-groupie turned 15-minute-fame-purveyor Karrine Steffans, which is rocking the hip-hop world.

Although Steffans -- whose tell-all remains on The New York Times bestseller list -- bills her story as a cautionary tale to young girls aspiring to be the next hottie in a hip-hop video, she lacks the necessary introspection and self-criticism, and she has an inflated view of herself and the goldilocks weave she sports.

So what if Steffans drank and did lots of drugs with A-list rappers and athletes? Her sexual diary includes romps with Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Damon Dash, DMX, Dr. Dre, Shaquille O'Neal, Irv Gotti, P. Diddy, Ice-T, and Fred Durst. Rappers passed her along to friends like bottom-shelf champagne.

Still, there is something to her story. Women's voices in hip-hop are muted, and Steffans' book comes along at a curious time. Essence magazine is attempting a campaign to take back the music, protesting vile video images degrading black women. Hip-hop feminist conferences are sprouting up across the country.

Meanwhile, the "video vixens" subculture is a be-seen-and-not-heard paradigm. Indeed, though Steffans' voice shouldn't be elevated as an emblematic one, in a fair critique of the video industry, accounts like hers need to be included. While Steffans has bought into the hegemony of her fate, she is offering a narrative in a genre that essentially relegates women to visual eye candy. Despite her poor choices, Steffans' tale has the potential to at least advance the debate.

"You would like to think [that] maybe these men who are exploiting women in hip-hop videos…will think twice, because you could be named or called out," says Gwendolyn Pough, a professor at Syracuse University and author of Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere.

Pough says young girls who read Confessions need to understand how Steffans was objectified. "The story she ends up sharing, for people who want to help younger black women, knowing about those kinds of pitfalls and traps out there is helpful on that level."

Steffans, a former stripper, would sidle up to rappers on the set. After working a day on Jay-Z's "Hey Papi" video, the two took a beach drive that ended with him whipping out a condom and placing his hand on the back of her neck. When Irv Gotti wanted to kick her off the set of Ja Rule's "Between Me and You," Steffans, um, convinced him orally.

"She's very smart when it came to thinking about something to market. That, to me, is genius," says Whyte Chocolate, the Atlanta video dancer who stirred controversy last year by having her rear end swiped with a credit card by Nelly in "Tip Drill." But the veteran of 30 videos adds that Steffans is more groupie than video dancer, given that her portfolio is only a handful. "If she's a video vixen, then what the hell am I -- a video queen? This book was a disappointment. It could've been more exciting. What she said was true -- the artists wanting to fuck and get their dicks sucked. But it's not for everybody. She portrayed herself as a ho…You are only as good as your reputation. I built mine. Don't stereotype me. You earn the respect you demand."

Steffans is promoting herself with the aplomb of an ex-reality television star, appearing on urban radio shows, giving book signings and interviews. Her book caused so much stir in New York that she had to hire a bodyguard, and endure the wrath of emcees' wives calling radio stations, incensed at her accusations and pluck.

And some wonder if her narrative is giving ammunition to feminists -- or setting back women in hip-hop. "She's clearly an opportunist, and her perspective is sort of delusional. Her take on a lot of her 'relationships' are romantic when it's obvious to me…that the [rappers] really didn't see her as a romance. They saw her as sex. She sort of glamorizes this idea that she's having sex with these people. I don't see where there was a relationship or a bond there," says Tunesia Turner, of the Detroit-based hip-hop/soul group Black Bottom Collective.

Steffans tries to justify her reasoning -- she grew up in a household rife with emotional and physical abuse. Her baby-daddy is rap pioneer Kool G Rap, a man she hooked up with at age 17 and whom she claims beat her and forced her to perform oral sex until her nose bled.

She escaped his thumb, venturing to Los Angeles and immersing herself in the glamorous hip-hop world of parties, VIPs, and decadence. "The top reason a woman finds herself in a rap video, sprawled undressed over a luxury car while a rapper is saying lewd things about her, is a lack of self-esteem. I know it sounds like a cliché, but no one who values, loves, or knows herself would allow herself to be placed in such a degrading position," Steffans writes in the introduction.

But after she finishes her underbelly tour and learns that people like Shaq won't break her off any significant loot after she crumbles, Steffans veers back into her old ways. She trademarks the name "Superhead," a sexual nickname that stuck like ear wax. Steffans also writes that she can't wait for her son to read the book, and concludes by saying that she would do it all again.

Confessions of a Shopping Addict

I stood in a line that wrapped around the block for an hour and a half with hundreds of other women. I'd like to say that we were lining up to vote, to donate clothes to the needy, or maybe even to see "March of the Penguins." But I can't. It was a Thursday night and we were the lucky ones who had been invited to a special pre-opening shopping party of the clothing chain store, H&M.

For months, women in San Francisco were abuzz with the news that H&M was finally opening its doors in our city. Low-cost yet fashionable clothing would be ours! Ours! If you aren't familiar with H&M, it may difficult to understand the excitement this store causes in women across the board, whether they are hard core shoppers or not. I think it would be best if I illustrate this point with a personal example.

It was in New York City last summer that I discovered the delights of H&M. I was in town to cover the Republican National Convention and happened upon the store in my off hours. I only buy clothes twice a year and for me, shopping at H&M was like freebasing crack -- except it was cheaper and I got to buy really cute outfits. I was hooked and all of a sudden, nothing else mattered, not even the fact that at the exact moment I found and was trying on the perfect black knee-length floral skirt for $20 -- $20! What a bargain! And it wasn't even on sale! -- I was supposed to be covering a protest outside the Fox News building.

H&M won't make you lie, steal, or kill, but it will make you do crazy things like stand in line for an hour and a half, get into fights with people who try and cut in front of you, and squeal at ridiculous window displays. I never thought I'd be the type to stand in line just to hand over my hard-earned cash to a big chain store, but there I was -- and just hours after seeing Robert Greenwald's new movie, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."

The movie documenting the evils of Wal-Mart is currently showing at small screenings across the country, and I was lucky to be at work when there was a free screening of it at San Francisco State University. While the film doesn't expose any earth-shattering information about Wal-Mart, it's very effective in hitting home the negative effects of the big chain store on communities, local economies, workers, and the environment.

The movie was still on my mind when I finally made it through the doors of H&M, and it made me question how much they were paying their employees. What benefits did they receive other than a 25% discount? As I tried on a black canvas pea coat with a fur hood for $60, I wondered who had made it and what hours they were forced to work. I picked up a wooly green knit cap priced at $8 and thought about all the small mom and pop stores that had closed because of Wal-Mart. Would anyone in San Francisco suffer because I purchased this hat at H&M?

In my mind I started walking out the door and away from the store. Everything within a three block radius was chain store after chain store. If a Wal-Mart opened in downtown San Francisco, it wouldn't be mom and pop stores that would suffer because they had already been run out of the area. Instead, it would be a retail battle of epic proportions, where Wal-Mart is Godzilla and Macy's is Mothra and all the people who have just stuffed themselves at the Cheesecake Factory are trampled and eaten as these two monsters battle it out. Similarly, H&M is taking business away from Gap, Express, and Urban Outfitters, not the local mom and pop stores. Would I shed a tear if H&M stomped the life out of Gap? Not likely.

Then I thought about my friend who owns a small boutique in the Mission neighborhood five miles away. I should spend my money at her store instead of H&M, but she didn't carry knit hats right now and when she did, they were much more expensive. This may come as a shock, but being the editor of a non-profit website isn't exactly the most lucrative profession. Shopping at small expensive boutiques, especially with rising housing and gas prices, isn't in my budget.

At the same time, being a 31-year-old working professional means that I need clothing other than t-shirts from American Apparel. Admittedly, the knit hat would be an unnecessary purchase, but the gray zip-up sweater top and the canvas pea coat were items I needed. Of course, when I say "needed" I don't mean that I would die without them, but they are necessary for performing my job in a professional manner. Kind of like a laptop, staples, and stickies.

Last year after I watched "Super Size Me," I stopped eating fast food. It wasn't hard, actually, because there were so many alternatives. I started bringing my lunch or would eat only at independent delis, taquerias, and chinese take out places. But after watching the Wal-Mart movie, I still don't know what the alternatives are. There isn't any other place where I can buy affordable, fashionable clothing.

In the end, with visions of Wal-Mart employees getting hours erased from their timesheets and Chinese workers getting locked in factories, I took my purchases up to the cash registers. What else could I do but carry my bag of H&M clothing out of the store and start walking home?

It was dark outside and I was a few blocks from my apartment when a car pulled up next to me and started honking. I was scared and quickened my pace, but the car continued to follow me. I looked around for help, but not many people were on the street. Then I glanced behind me and realized the car had three women in it and they were yelling at me. At first, I couldn't understand them, but then they pointed at my bag. "H&M!!! Is it open yet??"


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