( A Homeboy's Notes On Art And Culture)

robert lashley

robert lashley
Bellingham, Washington,
July 16
A semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Robert lashley often performs at Northwest spoken word venues and has helped Bellingham, where he lives, develop one of the nation's finest poetry slam scenes. He has had poems published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His poetry was also featured in "Many Trails To The Summit", an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. His full length book, Songs My City Taught Me, was published by Radical Lunchbox Press in 2009.


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OCTOBER 30, 2011 4:40PM

On Black Men And Street Harassment In The Pacific Northwest

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The street outside the Tacoma Art Place is a pastiche of history on top of history. The remade apartment complex above the building sits diagonally across a set of dilapidated building more than 50 years old. Under those rooms, three trendy Pho restaurants nestle the pawn shop where addicts like my father would pawn anything they got their hands on to get a fix. Across the street from shop, a desolate lot overlooks a shiny new discount grocery store. To sharp eyes sensitive to the area's history, the mixture and contrast's of the past and the present can be dizzying. 


In the month that I’ve been the Art Place's Writer in Residence, I’ve been trying to time the block's rhythm; to get acclimated to it's changes and understand the people who have lived there in sixteen years since i've left. My job, along with paperwork and doing the phones, is to answer any question about writing anyone has; whether it be a paper, assignment, book recommendation, or just to provide a resource that a school can't. No matter any expository pretensions of decency I put on in this essay, my success will rely on whether or not I help them; and if the people who come in that office say I am a failure, then I have failed.


In order for me to not fail, to actually help people instead of kill time in this neighborhood, I have to be honest about every aspect of the environment I'm in. To do so, I have to take inventory of the black men that I see outside my window. In my office hours (drop in and non), there have been countless numbers of black men over 35 who have not known how to act. Some of them have scowled at the students  from the windows. Others have resorted to the type of comments that weren’t cute when Dolomite and Blowfly used them in 1978. One 53 year old man, dressed as if he was 17, started flirting with a 16 year old girl on the 28 bus going north.



I write this in relation to Sonita Moss's Unsafe in Seattle (  for the sake of honesty and the dialogue that black men in the Pacific Northwest need to have in regards to street harassment. In what I’ve heard in regards to the subject so far, I hear black men talk about cultural morays, accuse the women who talk about it of lying, and reflexively wince at any criticism put toward a black man( not them in particular, any black man, period), and black women talk about wanting black men to just stop harassing them. 



And I also hear “The Argument” ( I. E what black men go through in America). You want to hear an argument about what black men go through? I lived with my dad in the Hillside Terrace projects, 23rd and G, between 1986-1994, and I have the scars and the funeral notices of loved ones to prove it. I also was bused every morning from 88 to 92, from Tacoma to University Place, Washington, later living there, taking my fair share of racism, both subtle and no so much. So yeah, I could make "the argument" as good as good as anyone.



What I also know is that for every bum that black men want to cover under "the argument", there is as least 5 people damaged by him. For every deadbeat brother black men say is maligned there is a child who is indirectly told that the pain the deadbeat caused him is meaningless. A young man with a higher statistical proclivity for suicide because of the scars the dead beat left him. A young woman who’se being bombarded by the torture porn the dead beat calls rap.  A woman who's eye popping obstacles the deadbeat has a part in are pushed aside on the account that we need to "save our black boys". A mother/partner/ who is told over and over again, in book, movie, and media lecture, that they need to go beyond the call of human duty to save the race and make the dead act right. (Not to expect equality, reciprocation and love. To "make him act right") Every time black men bring out "the argument" in the discussion, to shut down dialogue by trading in on pain, they telling an entire community of people that their story, their pain doesn’t matter.



Yes, I have to make the standard caveat: black men don’t have a monopoly on street harassment. I have groaned almost every night I’ve had to walk down Holly street in downtown Bellingham, because of the brutal things I’ve heard white men say to white women, several of them my friends. To act as if the problem of harassment is a problem of color instead of patriarchy is to not just ignore the problem, but their experiences as well. 



There is another side to that caveat, however. I’ve been reading blogs for years-primarily Feministing, Feministe, Jezebel, and Racialicious-and I haven’t seen a single woman who’s made the “black man’s fault” argument. Not one. I've read a lot of arguments relating to the interpersonal conflicts that second, third and 4th wave feminists have/had, some crossing over into race, some of them being very painful. I've seen a lot of arguments where the only logical thing for me to do was the shut the hell up and listen. I've read many posts on the subject of street harassment where women have to great pains to not single out black men as the only perpetrators. What I haven’t read was the“ get a nigga” essay that almost every black men's rights blogger accuses feminist bloggers of writing in every article, paragraph, and sentence.



And the black men who accuse white feminists of being out to get them( and accuse black women of being their accomplices) might do themselves well by listening to what those women have to say about the culture, particularly the culture of the pacific northwest. A great deal of the arts dialogue in the Seattle and Tacoma media is a sewer, with racism and sexism being the primary pumps of toxic waste. If I wrote in a novel such actual characters as  the white frat rap group Mad Rad, the white frat fans who love them, and the media that prop them on a pedestal, I'd be accused of being racist toward white men. If I put in a short story any character that did what I have actually seen some of the elite white male slime balls in Seattle/Tacoma literature, music, or media  do, I'd be accused of writing a caricature. They do exist, however, and women of all colors in this area and beyond have been writing about them critically for a very long time.



Who also exist are the black men who take the crumbs these white men throw at them, and have thrown at them for decades. The rappers who trade on horror core an get an enthusiastic following in Bellingham frat venues. The old thugs in Seattle and Tacoma unlucky enough to survive the gang wars of the 90's, thugs who I see during every office hours. The "playa‘s" that Sonita Moss sees every day in Seattle, many of them black men who outlived the usefulness of their "cool"( or at least the usefulness that white men had for them). Black men can( and probably will) talk about the cultural circumstances these brothers endure till my grandkids will be complaining about street harassment, but there comes a time when we have to take some responsibility; whether it be a quiet groan,  a “shut the hell up“, or just a personal commitment to not harass someone in the street.  I don’t know if it will save the race, but it’ll help a little.

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