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Unheard Voices
Perspectives from those too often ignored.

Stop Trying to Understand Neutrois

The following is a transcribed excerpt from Every Thug Is A Lady: Adventures Without Gender (AK Press).

Neutrois refers to an individual who has no gender and does not identify as male or female. Many have gender dysphoria very much like that of trans-people. It is often denoted with the ‘null’ symbol, meaning empty set.

Every Thug Is A Lady

I frequently get misgendered in public, mostly because dealing with people of alternate gender identities is still a niche problem that the general population isn’t hip to, and I have no idea whether I should correct people or not. Probably my #1 source of anxiety in life is the thought of inconveniencing other people with my existence, thus compounding the problem.

What if I correct them and they get confused and call me by the other binary gender and I still make a frownyface and the get ULTRASUPERCONFUSED, and I have to correct them AGAIN? I might as well just die at that point because of how inconvenient I’m being. They don’t care. They just want to get me to sign up for a monthly coupon book. They’re making minimum wage. They don’t want to deal with my confusing, made-up-sounding gender identity issue: They have a quota to meet, and I am suddenly the lady at Starbucks with six kids in tow ordering a double nonfat skim skinny vanilla latte, three shots — ONE decaf and TWO Pike Place —nine pumps of syrup NO MORE AND NO LESS no whip with cinnamon at exactly 165° and DEAR GOD DON’T TOUCH THE LID, IF YOU TOUCH THE LID WITH YOUR HAND-OILS YOU WILL LITERALLY RUIN MY DAY when they were just trying to be polite by using a proper title. It’s not their fault. Until I turned around and started talking, they thought I was some sort of homeless male teenager who likes Rocky Horror. Now I’m making a scene, and taking up their time, and they just want me to go away. And I, in my day-job, am a lowly photo tech who is forced to interact with plenty of longwinded people who generate scenes and talk altogether too much, so I know how uncomfortable it is. Plus, I’m pretty much the laziest person in existence, and have no idea what I want people to call me in all manner of pronouns so I just … don’t. And I don’t really have anything to correct them to! How awkward is that, “uhh, you called me ma’am and I’m not.” ‘Oh, sorry, sir!’ “I’m not a sir either … uhh … I’ll be going then …” So I just don’t bother. Cuz I’m lazy, and people are stupid and easily confused.

One time I got in a fight on Facebook with my best IRL friend over a status talking about my wanting nothing more in life at that moment than a canned pasta product and a pair of boxer-briefs. I am a girl, he contested, therefore I have no dangly-bits that need the sweet carded-cotton cradling that only a pair of boxer-briefs can provide. It was probably the stupidest argument I’ve ever been in on the internet, and I have had arguments on the internet about base tones of semi-permanent vegetable hair dye.

But it actually really upset me, because here’s a guy that’s known me for 4 years, who I consider almost an extension of myself, and he’s arguing gender politics in regards to fucking UNDERPANTS on Facebook. I expected him to know better, but then again we don’t talk about all that lame touchy-feely hugboxy gendery shit. We have heated discussions about how much we dislike Max Green in Escape the Fate. We don’t do gender politics.

And really, I don’t mind it, otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with him. We do things like mosh together, and drive to Toledo together, and go to IHOP and eat French Toast together. We are, quite simply, bros. We’ve been bros since day 1 — all the way back in 2007 at a FFTL show when I was a raccoon and he was a recovering suburban thug. He doesn’t treat me like he treats the girls he rolls with — I don’t know if his gender-confusion radar is so finely-tuned that he saw past my trying-too-hard from the start or if he’s just picking up on the general air of neutrality and mosh-readiness I throw off, but I’m OK with it. I’d much rather get in the pit with him than bitch, complain and start drama. Maybe that’s it — I don’t act like a whiny bitch, so he doesn’t treat me like a whiny bitch.

And no, I haven’t come out and told him, “hey brah I’m not really a boy or a girl so plz refer to me with the singular “they” kthx let’s get IHOP nao plz?” and that sort of bugs me (it feels like lying! But he probably already has it figured …) but on the other hand, does it matter? He’d probably just push me and I’d fall down in a parking lot again and scrape my back all up and then my mom would accuse us of having sex again (LOL, NO) and honestly it doesn’t really matter cuz he already treats me like a person and not like a fucking vagina.

I love him to bits. BROS

To read our interview with Julia check out the aptly titled An Interview with Julia Eff.

Julia Eff is the author of Every Thug Is A Lady: Adventures Without Gender. Julia’s latest zine is called Brothers and Sisters, I am an Atomic Bomb.

Andrew Luck, Football, and Manhood


Photo by Getty Images/pascalgenest.

Like much of sports-loving America I remain shocked by the retirement of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. He was one of the poster boys for the National Football League. He was the reigning Comeback Player of the Year. He was a four-time All-Pro selection. He was one of the best players and a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate. He was destined, it seemed, to one day be a Super Bowl champion and in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But as Luck, only age 29, made his announcement, it was evident that his soul was not in it any longer. He talked about the ravages to his body in just six seasons. The breath of those injuries is mind-boggling: torn cartilage in two ribs; partially torn abdomen; lacerated kidney that left him urinating blood; at least one concussion; torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, which cost him a full season; and this mysterious calf/ankle issue that ultimately led to Luck’s retirement.

Yes football, at any level, is a brutal and relentless collision sport, where bodies are hurled like human missiles. After years of dodging the magnitude of what football does to its players, there is at least some acknowledgement of the dangers and permanent damage thanks to studies and lawsuits.

That is because football has an unapologetic gladiator mentality, except for the fact these men and boys are not fighting any war, they are fighting each other over a piece of pigskin filled with air.

I wanted that mythological heroism badly, me a fatherless only child, so I dove head-first into what football represented when I was eight or nine. We boys played with and without equipment or pads. We played at lunch time in our grade school courtyard and we played on the weekends in our ‘hoods. We tackled each other on concrete, we smashed each other into fences, poles, even parked cars.

Football, more than any other sport, was our rites-of-passage into manhood. It did not matter if you dislocated a shoulder (I did many times), broke a nose, had teeth knocked out, or were bleeding in some way; to be a boy, a man, as we were taught and as we policed each other, was to get up, immediately, for fear of being called some horrible sexist or homophobic word.

I also lived vicariously through what I watched on television every fall and winter weekend for years, and I got tremendous pleasure in seeing body blows inflicted at the college and pro ranks. I truly believed that this was what I had to do, to punish others, to be able to absorb punishment as well.

This is because toxic manhood is at the root of football, at every level. Toxic manhood is about violence, domination, hurting and destroying others at any cost. Toxic manhood is about power and privilege, and who you can exercise that power and privilege over. No American sport symbolizes the ugly excesses of toxic manhood the way football does.

Even when I was first challenged by women about my sexism as a much younger man, I never considered giving up my love of football. Here I was digesting bell hooks, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, and other women writers while gleefully cheering on football violence and toxic manhood for several more years. Because what comes with giving up any form of toxic manhood is the real fear within us boys and men of being called, like Andrew Luck, a quitter, a sell-out, of being booed for daring to march to your own beat.

But this shifted dramatically for me a few years back while flying a cross-country trip. I met certain legendary players from a certain legendary pro football team, in the cramped coach section. They were uncomfortable, and most could barely sit, stand, or walk without great pain. I thought of the countless stories of players with memory loss, of the growing number of former players who became prone to wild mood swings—one moment at peace, the next minute screaming and fighting. It likewise made me think of the numerous players, after their careers were over, who have committed suicide, arguably because of the head traumas they suffered.

This is why Andrew Luck’s press conference was both difficult to watch and a revelation. Here was a young man clearly tormented about what he had been taught and done much of his life, and he was rejecting it. He simply could not take any of it any longer. Not only is Luck determined to have a pain-free life, to be available to his wife and possible future children, but his action and words say to me he also wants to be a very different kind of man, that he was, boldly, rejecting toxic manhood as represented by football.

My hope is that because of Andrew Luck’s celebrity status and fame, he will be seen, over time, as an example. That it is okay for men and boys to cry, to be vulnerable, to say they, we, are hurting, that it is okay to walk away from things that are harmful to us, to others, without being publicly ridiculed for it.

It is my hope that Luck’s gutsy move will one day also be a reminder to parents, coaches, boosters, scouts, sponsors, and others who have pushed so many of these players, from boys to men, without any regard for their long term health, and without any regard for how they, we, define manhood.

Just like it took Muhammad Ali an incredible amount of courage to say he was not going to fight in the Vietnam War, that he was going to reject manhood and violence in that way, I feel it is actually heroic of Andrew Luck to remove himself from something that he has clearly loved his entire life, but that he realizes now has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of man he is, or the kind of man he hopes to be.

Kevin Powell is a civil and human rights activist, and author of 13 books including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. An upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global pop culture and hip-hop icon. You can email Kevin: kevin@kevinpowell.net

An Interview with Julia Eff

Julia Eff

How does neutrois differ from other nonbinary terms like genderqueer or androgynous? With gender-related language so swiftly evolving, what does neutrois mean to you?

Neutrois is sometimes just written as the null symbol, which in math stands for an empty set but looks like a little “NO!” sign, which obviously stands for “STOP WHATEVER BULLSHIT YOU’RE DOING OVER THERE RIGHT NOW, MY MOST RIGHTEOUS DUDE”. So neutrois is the complete absence of gender, not a queering or blending of genders or taking elements of the binary, plus the fun and excitement of constant dysphoria with no cure that makes you want to claw your own face off.

For me, neutrois is just the empty set. It’s being completely outside the concept of genders and not wanting to look at it or think about it and feeling like nothing, but also an alien and a sick bass line and a snowstorm. It’s a lot of wishing we were all just floating brains in jars, or I could equip the whole world with mind-jamming technology so they wouldn’t make any more assumptions about me based on preconceived notions tied to how I look and nobody knew anything about me that I didn’t tell them. Most of my problems are other people and the body I affectionately refer to as my soggy trash-husk. I’m very comfortable with myself as a floating brain creature.


Your book touches on feeling something was “off” about you growing up. How did you arrive at the label of 'neutrois' for yourself and the way you feel?

I don’t know when I figured out my Overall Bad Feelings had gone from “you are crazy and cannot fix yourself” to “you are not the letter it says on your drivers license”, but it was a long ways coming. I always struggled with how I looked not matching how I saw me in my head, not because I was particularly ugly or anything but because everything I did just felt wrong in every direction no matter where I tried, so there was a lot of grasping at straws when I was younger and now I look back on everything prior to like, age 23 with a mixture of shame and sadness. I guess I sort of figured it out for myself after another average garden-variety Julia moment of explaining to somebody that life would have been better if I’d just been born Twiggy Ramirez, and finally just ended up doing a lot of googling. There wasn’t the sheer level of gender discourse on the internet back in 2011 that there is now so it was a pretty hard search and it was a goddamn miracle when I found something. I’m so strong in every aspect of my me-ness that it was not a pleasant thing to have to suffer through cuz that meant not knowing, y’know?.

In 2011, genderqueer/genderfluid and androgyny were emphasized as not having to include dysphoria, and being a mix of genders instead of being separated from the concept entirely so those didn’t fit me. And even when I found the term neutrois, it wasn’t included in the umbrella of “true” transness because there’s no roadmap for a genderfree transition, so Every Thug unfortunately has some pretty weird “I’M TRANS BUT NOT!!!!!!” shit going on in it and now I want to claw my face off when I listen to myself talk, which is I guess an improvement overall since I’m such a cringe factory. There’s an AFI lyric, “we’re the empty set, just floating through and wrapped in skin”, which is equally cringey but super awesome, and I scratched it into all my notebooks when I was younger because it meant so much to me so when I finally found a word that represents “the empty set” as the way to explain myself made me feel so safe in myself, and a lot better than “well...idk...I feel like a girl who’s pretending to be a boy who’s dressed as a girl who dressed as a boy...ok but do u kno what Twiggy Ramirez looks like??”

Over the years I’ve come to use genderfree, gendermagical, genderweird, and genderwizard to describe myself too. Like yeah bruh, I’m a level 96 gender mage with +40 bandaid powers and massive anxiety, the fuck is you?


You also mention some people in your life being less than accepting of who you were at the time. Has Every Thug Is A Lady done anything to change the gender views of anyone in your life that may not have been so accepting before?

I don’t think so. I cut a lot of people out of my life before, during, and after writing the zine and haven’t felt the need to really go back and check on people that were known assholes five years ago, y’know? A lot of people I mention in the zine for being dismissive transphobic shitcanoes were already long gone by the time I made the first copies for exactly that reason. I have a hard enough time living with myself some days, I don’t need that kind of nonsense in my life.

But what the zine has done is make it easier for new people to be welcomed into my weird little world. If anybody has any questions, I can direct them to the book or its follow-up zine Whatstheirname. I wrote it originally as a way to get my friends and people around me up to speed on the situation without having to talk about it all the time, so it’s actually served that purpose really well.


You wrote Every Thug Is A Lady five years ago. That's a long time. How do you relate to it now as an artist and as a person five years down the road?

I didn’t expect it to take off the way it did. The first run was like, 30 copies, just for friends. So as an artist, it’s surreal to be thinking of how many thousands of people have read this now and still be talking about it five years later. Pioneers picked it up as a book because I threatened to take it out of print cuz I was really just sick of looking at it--it was in the right place at the right time and became this force of nature on me, so it’s weird as an artist to have that be the thing that people ask me about all the time when it’s not the thing I’m the most proud of at all, because I’m my own worst critic and there’s things I’d go back and change in a heartbeat but I won’t because it’s a time capsule of who I was and where I was artistically at a point in time. It bums me out when my more recent stuff gets overlooked in favor of the thing that I’m like OH GOD WHY I COULD HAVE SPACED MY LINES SO MUCH BETTER THAT DOODLE IS STUPID OH GOD I HATE IT about, but it’s really cool to still be getting letters from people saying this helped them somehow, or they saw it and it resonated so perfectly with them that they went out and made their own zine too.

As a person, I’ve grown and changed so much in the last five years that I look back at 2011-me and go “damn kid, you were a hot mess, but ya got a lot of heart”. I’m grateful to myself, though, cuz this was the foot in the door to the zine community again and now I’m involved and go to events and have met so many cool friends and inspiring artists from it. I hate it sometimes, but it’s put me in a spot where I can do the things I’ve dreamed of doing since I started doing zines in 2005. I’m happy I made it but like all the other things I made when I was just a couple years out of high school, I want to bury it in a deep hole and never see it again cuz the perfectionist art-shaming asshole side of me is so real.


Along similar lines, what have you been up to since ETIAL came out? What are you working on these days?

EVERYTHING. At the moment I’m:

• compiling a Marilyn Manson fanzine called The Devil In My Lunchbox.

• working on a bunch of stuff that revolves around Myspace, shitty bands, fan culture, and archiving the internet.

• trying to properly assemble my zine collection into something worthy of being called a public archive, but that’s probably gonna come more after I move into this house I’m buying and it’s got space to be  organized instead of just crammed into some paper cases in the corner of our living room.

• following my lifelong dream of becoming basically a record producer for zines, helping cool people with cool ideas but a lack of technical zinemaking experience make shit. So I’m collaborating with a few friends at the moment to help them get their first (or second) zines out. This winter I did the layouts and collage work for my friend California Rachel’s six-foot-long zine about Indiana Jones, Truly The Shittiest Archaeologist Ever, and we’re working on her second one right now, which is sadly not about Indiana Jones but still really good.

• Last year I did a series of mini zines about growing up in a small shitty farm town, and overall I’m working to get more back into the satire-with-a-message stuff I was doing when I first started doing zines, but right now I’m focusing on the music end of things cuz those are the feelings I’m having at the moment. This summer I’m doing a reading at Plan-It X Fest in Indiana (which fulfills my lifelong dream of doing zine things in a music festival context, so even if it’s not Warped Tour [and lbr it’s way better than Warped Tour] IT’LL DO) and I’m hoping to put together some readings and zine-y events in Detroit real soon!


Where is the best place readers can find all of your work?

If you want to read all my things, my webstore (crapandemic.storenvy.com) is the best bet. If you just want to keep abreast of my hollering, I have a tumblr (crapandemic.tumblr.com) and a twitter (twitter.com/julia_eff), but people follow that a lot expecting insightful zine things and then unfollow me when they realize I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m literally just a bag of anxious raccoons that just wants to make high-pitched wailing noises about emo bands and have a good time.

To read an excerpt from Every Thug Is A Lady, check out Please Stop Trying, You're Obviously Never Gonna Understand It...

Julia Eff is the author of Every Thug Is A Lady: Adventures Without Gender. Julia’s latest zine is called Brothers and Sisters, I am an Atomic Bomb.

Dr. King, Poor People, and the Need for Compassion

Photo by Getty Images/DenisTangneyJr.

I have no personal recollections of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., since I was but a baby when he was assassinated in 1968. Nor did I know until years later that, as I took my first steps as a child, Dr. King was staging what would be his curtain call, a relentless effort on behalf of the underclass. 

Dubbed “The Poor People’s Campaign,” it reflected his views on the Vietnam War and the ugly riots in ghettos, both of which ripped the nation apart. I learned in school about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that King had a dream, and that he was murdered. But I didn’t learn about his last campaign for economic equality until I was an adult.

King was born into the black elite of Atlanta, and he could have avoided discussions of poverty, as many others leaders have. But being black during segregation meant well-to-do African Americans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with working-class blacks, often living next door or across the street from the most impoverished people in their ‘hoods. This meant King not only observed the daily lives of business owners, educators, lawyers, and other professionals, but also felt the weary blues of domestic workers, Pullman porters, shoeshine men, and beauticians. 

We dishonor King’s legacy when we lean heavily on his “dream” but ignore that the civil rights movement relied on the commitment of poor black people who risked their jobs, homes, and safety, from Montgomery to Selma to Memphis, to create a more equal America. 

Indeed, the full name of the March on Washington was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” because the ability to sit anywhere on the bus or at a lunch counter meant nothing if one could not afford to ride that bus or to buy a meal at that lunch counter.

This formed the crux of MLK’s argument when he put his Nobel Peace Prize and status as a national and global leader on the line and condemned the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year prior to his assassination, in an address at the renowned Riverside Church in New York City. In a speech that should be held in the same regard as the “I Have A Dream” address, King not only criticized the war, but highlighted that we were sending poor blacks and poor whites to fight poor yellow people in Vietnam. 

He also called for “a radical revolution of values,” from profit and material things to people, and pinpointed the gross financial gaps between Americans. His wokeness around economic hardship had accelerated just two years before, during a visit to the Watts section of Los Angeles after the deadly rebellion that occurred there, prompting King to call riots “the language of the unheard.” It also drove him and his wife Coretta Scott King to move into a rundown building on the west side of Chicago, their very presence demonstrating the vicious cycles of poverty.

King’s Poor People’s Campaign was designed to confront poverty head on, bringing a rainbow coalition of black, white, Latinx, Native American, Asian, and others to Washington, D.C. There they set up the same kind of tents and shacks that we now routinely see in places like downtown Los Angeles, populated by a permanent homeless class. 

When I recently visited L.A., I cried after witnessing countless people of every background and age in tents, sprawled on the ground, sifting through bug-infested garbage cans for a meal. There was disease and stench and an overwhelming sense of depression, in the midst of high-rise condos and the Staples Center and great wealth. This is not in a nation overseas, this is in our America, this gross poverty, this gross despair.

Poverty is a form of violence. I know that firsthand, because I experienced it growing up poor with my single mother in Jersey City, from the late 1960s into the early 1990s. Until I was seven, we shared a one-bedroom apartment in a rat-and-roach-infested building with one of my mother’s sisters and her son. My cousin slept in the same bed with his mother in the living room, while I slept in the same bed with my mother in the bedroom. 

I grew up knowing about welfare, food stamps, government cheese, unpredictable heat and hot water, fear, desperation. I remember hunger, and my aching stomach served as a constant reminder of what we lacked, of our daily struggle to survive. America did not hear the desperate cries for help from poor people like my mother, like my family. 

We know the root causes of poverty, as they have forever been the same. It is the inhumane greed and neglect of those with means at the expense of the rest of us. It is being forced to live in poverty bubbles—ghettos, trailer communities, homeless encampments. 

The poor are trapped in a horrible cycle of broken-down tenement buildings, minimal social services or resources, terrible public schools, and limited options to get ahead. Poverty breeds isolation. It leads to people preying on each other. It leaves many of us resigning ourselves to a life of misery, of merely surviving day-to-day. 

As the late rapper Tupac Shakur once put it, we were given this world, we did not create it. I inherited, like a family heirloom, the poverty my mother received from her parents. We knew of no other reality, and the traumas and scars of being poor remain with me to this day, despite what I have been able to do with my life.

This is why King laid out a vision to confront poverty head on—as bold as his decision to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, the site of his assassination, in support of black garbage men who were on strike to demand safer working conditions, job security, and fairer wages. 

This is why I wait, during every presidential campaign cycle, to hear candidates talk passionately about poverty, only to be disappointed.

We cannot continue to ignore King’s appeal to challenge economic justice and economic opportunity for all in our America. This is not to diss wealth or the wealthy. No one can control the circumstances of their birth, nor is there anything wrong with privilege, as long as that privilege is tied to a sense of humanity. 

Just as King did to the end, we can direct our compassion toward those who hurt, as my family did, because of our background. We can practice what he called “a dangerous kind of selflessness.” We must care about each other, every single day of our lives. We must figure out practical solutions to address poverty, to address homelessness, or we will continue to be a nation that is spiraling dangerously out of control, morally and spiritually.

Kevin Powell is a Civil & Human Rights Activist; Public Speaker; Author of 14 books; Poet; Journalist; Filmmaker; Pop Culture Curator; Biographer of Tupac Shakur



Impeachment, Trump, and the Joker Movie


Photo by Adobe Stock/Konstantin Savusia.

I saw new Joker movie, oh boy. I sat in the back row mad close to the exit—intentionally—because I could not help but think about mass shootings and angry males, especially when I saw a couple of men sitting alone, shifting much in their seats ahead of the darkness and Joker as I entered the theater. Terrible to feel this way, but this is America, and here we are.

As I digested this good-but-not-great character study of the Joker performed by the breathtaking Joaquin Phoenix, I could not help but think about one of the greatest American films ever, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, featuring Robert DeNiro’s star turn as the anti-hero’s hero Travis Bickle and how shamelessly Joker samples and remixes that 1976 film. I also thought a lot about the current state of this country under the beet-red dictatorial thumb of one Donald Trump, a man so bloated with hate and violent tendencies and race and male and wealth privilege gone crazy that an entire nation finds itself trapped in a viciously abusive relationship with him.

Yes, Trump should be impeached. No, I do not think Republicans, or his base, will abandon him, because they need what he represents, what he fuels, just like Travis and Joker need “the others” to blame, to help justify their cruel and crude downward spiral into madness. Besides, what could be easier than to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump because of any—or all—of the following: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; potential Russian, Ukrainian, or Chinese influence on the 2020 campaign cycle; how he treats immigrants, African Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, women of all backgrounds, workers, the disabled, those with little to no healthcare; his reckless disregard for truth, competency, justice, or basic human decency? I mean, take your pick!

As I watched Joker, I reflected on past presidents like Andrew Johnson who, on the heels of Abe Lincoln’s assassination, publicly rallied hate against newly freed Black citizens with a national speaking tour. I concluded that we must consider the question that we never ask when we look at Richard Nixon or Donald Trump, Taxi Driver or Joker: How do we define manhood in this fair land, and why we can't we see the simple truth that America loves violence in every form because America was “founded” on violence? We obsess over violence like we obsess over food, or the latest iPhone.

I respectfully disagree with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent statement in which she describes the times in which we live as an “aberration.” An aberration for whom? Or, rather, when would we call any historical period "normal" when our country marginalized, hated on, or disenfranchised anyone, just because of some facet of their identity? Presidents Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon and Donald Trump and the fictionalized movie characters Travis Bickle and the Joker hold more in common than merely Whiteness and their blatantly disturbing notions of manhood. They also represent White fear in its most extreme forms; and that massive fear is there because what they have been told they are, throughout American history, from generation to generation, has been a lie ... a lie built on a thirsty lust for power and obscenely flimsy mythologies ... a lie built on the backs and exploitation of those others or, yes, anyone who is not them. Whiteness, yup, is a social construct, a system, and so is any meaning of manhood built on violence, greed, ego, senseless competition, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other sort of debilitating anxiety that swells our heads with the belief that someone is coming to get us, that someone is coming to take something away from us.

See, for example, another important Scorsese film, Gangs of New York, and how American-born Whites and newly immigrated Whites are pitted against each other, with the endgame being consolidated Whiteness and consolidated White power, at the expense of those not White. See, for example, how if you are a wealthy White male spiritually and intellectually decapitated by your privilege and access to the levers of power, you get to become a Donald Trump, even if you are mediocre, even if your White-skin privilege does not save you from eventual self-destruction and society’s impeachment. See, for example, how if you are a poor or working-class White male living with his momma, like the Joker, who believes, in his bare bones, it is me against them, you are able to become an outcast, a menace to society, a shape-shifter who gets to lean in on your Whiteness and your maleness, even if your White-skin privilege does not save you from eventual self-destruction and society’s impeachment—

For Andrew Johnson it was Blacks and their audacity to not only want to be free, post-slavery, but to be equal. So he quite literally busted open the door for the Ku Klux Klan and White supremacists to terrorize Black America for another century. For Richard Nixon it was Jewish people, or Black radicals like the Black Panthers, anyone he felt threatened the sanctity and law-and-order mandate of his presidency. For Bill Clinton (yes, some so-called lefties are very guilty, too) it was the Los Angeles rebellion, and Black criminals who needed to be locked up for good (see Clinton’s devastating and inhumane crime bill). For Donald Trump it is anyone—like anyone—who is not White and male and super-rich and not him. Because Trump is racist Whiteness and sexist manhood on steroids, writ large for all to see, but it’s been there ever since Native Americans were mercilessly pursued and slaughtered, and since Black folks were savagely beaten down into terrifying and mostly silencing slavery.

For a Travis Bickle or a Joker or any average White man, or any given mass shooter on any given day, it is because they are not or could never be a major political leader, a major celebrity, or anything of the sort, so they create alternative realities that centers themselves, in the profoundly selfish way we who are males or we who are White are taught to do.

Joker is not just a movie, just like Donald Trump’s presidency is not some aberration. Joker and Trump, to be blunt, are the many insecure White males I have encountered throughout my life—teachers, college professors, police officers, co-workers—whose foundations are easily cracked when confronted on their power trips, or when they feel threatened, real or imagined. Or it is Bill Clinton, still, refusing to apologize, directly, in the most human way possible, for his abuse of the presidency with the Monica Lewinsky affair, and instead becoming outraged that journalists would even dare ask him questions, in spite of the fact he was impeached for his behavior. And it also is the abuses of a Bill Cosby, a Harvey Weinstein, of us all who call ourselves males yet never engage in any manner of self-examination whatsoever. Because who is this Joker movie really for, if not for us men and boys, ultimately? We are all Travis Bickle, we are all the Joker, we are all Donald Trump, if the best we can offer is being evil and violent and ultra-paranoid when we feel our backs are up against the wall?

Yes, mental illness must be discussed, because we are clearly a very traumatized world, and have always been. And because any manhood, mine, yours, Trump’s, or the Joker’s, is highly dangerous and spiritually and emotionally impeachable if we refuse to have this conversation.

And, finally, at the same time, we’ve got to ask ourselves why has all of this been permitted to wreak havoc for so long, that, as a result of our indifference and deferred eyes, the most barbarian versions of manhood can simply waltz into the White House, or that such a violent orgy of a film like Joker can be made and smash box office records, and few ever bother to ask, far beneath the surface in both instances, how, and why?

Kevin Powell is an American civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and the author of 13 books, including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. His upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global hip-hop and pop culture icon. You can email Kevin: kevin@kevinpowell.net

What the Year 1619 Means to Me


Lithogram diagram of a slave ship hold. Image by Andrew Hull Foote, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have very mixed feelings about the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves, my ancestors, to Jamestown, Virginia. It is because I know well American history, and it is because while a visiting scholar at James Madison University in Virginia earlier this year, I decided to make my first trip to Jamestown. I know what I had been taught from grade through high school about this momentous date. I barely was taught anything else about slavery, how my ancestors had been stolen from Africa, stripped of their names, languages, cultures, identities.

But I knew, minimally, they were not “indentured servants,” as there was never a choice to not be a slave. I knew that from 1619 to 1865, 246 long and soul-stripping years, they were beaten, raped, terrorized, reduced to human property, and killed as they, these profoundly wounded persons, literally built the economic infrastructure of America for free.

As I walked through that Jamestown settlement, I could feel the energy of those first slaves. I struggled to read the history the way it was told in parts, as if slavery was not so bad. Yes it was so bad, as we still deal with the legacy of it in America. Many of the founding fathers were slave owners even as they were declaring all were created equal.

Several of the early presidents of the United States participated in slavery. Much of what slaves were taught continue to trigger Blacks, from divisive conflicts around skin color, to our diets, born of necessity and desperation on those plantations, which wreak havoc on our health.

1619 means, to me, the mental brainwashing and physical and spiritual devastation of an entire race of people, and that truism undermined the morality of America right from the very beginning; and we are paying the price for it in this 21st century when we see so many trafficking in the same kind of hatred, violence, and fear-mongering that was levied against my ancestors back then.

What we need in America, what has not happened, is an honest national conversation on race that tells the entire truth about the legacy of slavery, while also acknowledging that, per Dr. Ivan Van Sertima’s landmark book They Came Before Columbus, the history of this part of the world does not and did not begin with European history, that Black people and other people of color have been in these many spaces and places all along.

What we need in America at schools, public and private, and from educators of every background, are lessons which do not whitewash slavery, which do not ask Black children, when discussing slavery, to be slaves. What we need in America is a steady gaze in the mirror, accepting that inseparable of any talk about history, about democracy, from 1619 to the Civil War to Dr. King to Black Lives Matter, is the story of those who were brought here as slaves, and how that painful legacy of white supremacist thinking and behavior remains a nasty open sore on the American democracy.

I did not think about any of this until I got to college, because in spite of being a straight-A student K through 12, 1619 and what it wrought was watered down—nor were we ever taught the Civil Rights Movement and its efforts to right the wrongs, ever. As a result I grew up as dutifully self-hating as a Black slave on those plantations. It was not just me; it was most Blacks in my community. It was not until I got to that college, Rutgers University in my home state of New Jersey, and began to truly study American history through a different lens—my lens—that it blew me away what slavery had done to us.

I cried reading slave narratives and historical texts. I cried as I imagined what it must have felt like to be un-free for one’s entire life. I cried at how ashamed I had been for so long of Africa, of how I had swallowed whole the distorted and racist images of that motherland from whence my people had come. And yes I cried that day earlier this year when I walked the grounds of Jamestown wondering to myself how any people enslaved could still manage to worship God; to build and create numerous inventions; to put forth songs and sounds that are the foundation for much of American music; to be so patriotic that we have fought in virtually every American war, even as we were being denied our own freedoms; and to be so humanly resilient that we have bounced back time and again, even as what began in 1619 birthed, for many of us, including my single mother and me, generations of poverty and hand-me-down depression and traumas we can never seem to escape.

This is why there have been calls for reparations from we descendants of African slaves across decades and eras. There has never been a true and consistent repairing of the human damage done—

So, if 1619 should mean anything now, it should mean it is past time to pause, to be equally comfortable and uncomfortable in our American skins, as we face this tragic history, and ourselves, once and for all. Otherwise it is just another celebration, another anniversary, that will fade away like the haunting cries of those packed at the bottom of those slave ships so long ago.

Kevin Powell is a civil and human rights activist, and author of 13 books including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. An upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global pop culture and hip-hop icon. You can email Kevin: kevin@kevinpowell.net

As You Come Home: Immigration, Reunion, and the Continuity of Power

Photo by Flickr/npatterson

The Cuchumatanes in Guatemala.

It’s 11:09 pm. In seven hours, a taxi will take me to the airport. I listen to “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and let my mind drift to all the people I will hold and hug and fall into tomorrow. My sister, her son. We’ll cuddle-up on the couch. My best friend, her wife. My baby brother and his baby. We will eat Ethiopian food on the floor without silverware. Mom will cry instantly. And dad, when he sees me, will wrestle his tears and probably lose. And this will let loose in me a careless joy.


Yesterday, I bounced along in the front seat of a mini-van through the dirt roads of the Cuchumatan Mountains in Guatemala. As we drove, dust curled up and around the body of the van. We stopped; I pressed my hand against the dashboard. The ayudante, who collects passengers and their money and makes sure everyone has a seat if any seats are left, hopped out of the sliding door behind me, swooped around to the front, and tossed a large rock out of the road. As we continued, he stuck the top half of his body out the window and called out “Nebaj! Nebaj! Nebaj!” — our destination. We stopped again and a gaggle of kids on their way to school piled in.

The driver, like so many, had lived in the United States. In Los Angeles. He, too, had worked in construction. The van was clean. No rips or holes in the fabric, no thread holding upholstery together. “This one’s mine,” he said, patting the light brown steering wheel cover. They have three other vans in their family, all used for public transportation and all paid for with money he made in the U.S.

“Did you come back because you had to or because you wanted to?”

“Yo quería regresar,” he said. He wanted to come back.

“And do you want to go back? To the U.S.?”

“No, I’m home now,” he said. And he gave the names and ages of his children.


The “Home” I’m watching, repetitively, on YouTube is a cover by father and daughter Jorge and Alexa Narvaez. The son and the granddaughter of Esther Alvarado. In 1987, Ester traveled, undocumented, to the U.S., where her son and granddaughter now sing songs on YouTube.

How Alexa belts out the beginning “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa….” Her dad whistles without pursing his lips and she moves her face around, as if searching for her own whistle, then suddenly: “One day I’m gonna whistle?” she asks, right in the middle of it. How he looks at her and she understands and keeps singing. How she rests her arm on his elbow as he’s strumming. How she seems to be yawning huge at the end when she belts out “Ho-oh-ome.” And then she lays her head down on his arm.


As a human rights accompanier in Guatemala, I pass my days with people who might be threatened, harassed, arrested without cause, beaten, or murdered by those in power or by those sent by those in power. On the day we elected Donald J. Trump, I was traveling the mountain highlands of Ixil in northern Guatemala.

On that day, anyone who talked to me talked about the elections. The kids talked about it, the bus driver, the two men at one of those little front-of-the-house-tiendas where I stopped to buy agua pura. Water in hand, I ran to catch another bus. The local radio station was on, in the Ixil language, which I didn’t understand, but abruptly, “Trump” popped out, right after “Los Estados Unidos.” I thought everyone was looking at me with side-eyes. I kept my head down.


If I’m not on a bus here, I’m usually sitting in someone’s kitchen. In one kitchen, an Ixil woman handed me a bowl of water to wash my hands while tortillas cooked on the stove. As usual, I poured water over one hand, then another, letting it splash onto the dirt floor. She put more wood in the stove. A red bandana kept her hair out of her face. She didn’t look at me directly, at least not much, at least not by my cultural standards, but I was getting used to that.

She asked how long I was staying. “Maybe a year,” I said, “but I’m going home next week to visit. It’s hard,” I added, “being so far from my family, you know.” And she looked straight at me. Of course she knew. Of course she understood. They all understand.

Their fathers were taken by the army in the night. Their daughter’s body never found. The scar on the top of the head. The ones that fled, lived on the move in the jungle.

“And we have to rent our land now,” she said. “Work for plantations during harvest — if we’re lucky. It’s hard to find work,” she told me. Everyone tells me.

So, they flee. Like her two oldest have done. Like they did during the war. To my country.


I like how all I can see in the video is the bed they are sitting on, with a black notebook on it and, in the background, drawn curtains and a yellow wall and how that is enough to remind me of my favorite aunt. To feel myself again in her one-story house with a front yard of half-green grass in the suburbs of L.A. I wonder if they too are in southern California when they sing: “Take me home.”


“How long did it take to get here?” asked a friend of mine when I returned to Guatemala. We had met on my first visit five years ago. She lives in the countryside, raises cows, has never seen the ocean.

“A long time,” I said. “Like twelve hours, overnight.”

“That’s it?”

The only people she knows that move between countries, move between them in the desert, in the night. And in the days, thirsty, they sleep.


I’m drinking tea as I sit listening: “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I bite my lip and bounce my knees, anxious to see my dear friend who is like a sister, and her son, my adopted nephew, who is like a godson. At the same time, Daniel Ramirez Medina is in a detention center that is like a prison that is a business run for profit in Tacoma, Washington. One of hundreds of immigrants detained in the recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. He is a student, with legal permission to live and work in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA.

When Daniel arrived in the U.S., via the desert I suppose, he was the same age as my nephew. When I arrive in Los Angeles tomorrow, I will swing him, my nephew, in my arms. Two days later, I will fly to Tacoma, where Daniel is detained, to see the rest of my family: my parents and my little brother and my dear friend and her son. We will ride public transportation and when the bus turns right, my adopted nephew will lean into me hard, trying to knock me down. I will laugh and let him push me over.


Last week, someone suggested I was a terrorist. Through a bullhorn. I was in line for the security check to observe the trial of a man who, in a different trial, had already been convicted of genocide. I was there for the trial of the Dos Erres massacre. The accused was Efraín Ríos Montt, trained by the U.S. in “counter-insurgency techniques.” The man in charge during the seventy-seven massacres in Ixil. The man responsible for the deaths of the family members of those who drive me through their mountains and feed me in their kitchens.

It made me sweat. The yelling. The bullhorn. “We want you here as tourists, not terrorists.” But afterwards, I calmed down. It didn’t stick. It’s not uncommon for people to shout at witnesses or their observers when ex-military officers are brought to trial. The words, I believe, were not meant to harm me so much as to discredit those I was there to observe, those who survived crimes committed, in part, with U.S. dollars. In my time in Guatemala, I’ve come to understand the power elite as an interlocking web rather than as separate competing groups of so-called legitimate and illegitimate powers.

Currently, thousands of Guatemalans attempt to migrate to the U.S. They flee joblessness, poverty, and violence. In La Libertad, for example, in 2011, narcotics traffickers massacred twenty-seven people. The killers included former members of Guatemala’s most elite military unit: The Kaibiles. Those who can perform surgeries on themselves in the middle of the jungle, whose training includes biting the heads off chickens. Some of whom were trained by the United States at The School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC).

Throughout the Internal Armed Conflict (1960–1996), thousands of Guatemalans fled the violence and sought asylum in the U.S. According to intelligence documents, the U.S. knew about the human rights abuses and continued to give Guatemala’s military millions of dollars. The U.S. knew, for example, about another massacre, near La Libertad, twenty-nine years earlier. In 1982, the Kaibiles, still in uniform then, murdered two hundred and fifty-one civilians. One hundred and thirteen of them children. They were the best Kaibiles. The elite of the elite. What they did to the girls, they did in front of their families. That massacre is known as Dos Erres.

The powerful are still the powerful. They are not giving up their power. And they do what they can to stop those who threaten it. As I waited outside the courthouse to hear the case for the massacre of Dos Erres, I looked at the man with the bullhorn. He looked calm. He looked well-fed. Like me, his skin was light.


The struggles of rural Guatemalans are different now. Some fight for land (often taken during the conflict) or against dams on their land (frequently dams built during the conflict or built on land “bought” during the conflict); some fight in court (cases of genocide, sexual slavery, torture during the conflict) and some fight to find the bodies of their loved ones (secretly kidnapped, tortured, and buried during the conflict).

Things are different since the Peace Accords were signed. Survivors bring military officials to trial for war crimes. The U.S. gives less money directly to the Guatemalan military. Most of the Kaibiles have stepped out of their uniforms. The School of the Americas is called by another name. Indeed, the river of power that threads through Guatemala has changed. But it still runs strong.


The people I stand with here are defending their human rights, the ones set out by the United Nation’s International Declaration on Human Rights and by basic morality. For example, you should not be killed for protesting.

Two months ago, during a protest against hydro-electric dams in his region, Sebastián Alonso Juan, seventy-two-years-old, was shot. On hearing the shots, the other protesters fled. Sebastián was not killed instantly, but was left. The company’s private security forces were there. And the police. And he was left. The firefighters were called and did not come.

Four hours later, he would die. In the weeks after his murder — before observers went to the scene, interviewed witnesses, and spoke with authorities — I’d thought Sebastián was just left to die. It is a sick sensation to wish someone had been merely left to die. Even in that short time he had between life and death, those who do the bidding of the powerful did not let him be. I wish I didn’t know. I rub my hand hard along my cheek, trying to make my body forget.


“No one should be forced to live away from their loved ones,” Jorge Narvaez wrote when he made a second “Home” YouTube video. This time he sang with both his daughters, hoping to move viewers to sign a petition to bring home his mother Esther. She had been deported.

In this newer video, the “as you come home” tells a different story. The words are the same, but the resonance, here in my chest, has changed. Do we have a responsibility to let in everyone who has suffered? I don’t know. But when we are responsible, in part, for the conditions from which they flee? That, I think, is a different story.


What happens to all those men, the Kaibiles and others, trained to bite the heads off chickens, to kill their pets? What happens to all the torturers — some of whom we trained — once the Peace Accords are signed? How can they put their hands to use?


Want to know what happened to me that day at the court house? What stuck? I remember it like it is today. After we go in, another man enters. He was outside when we were harassed. He is a friend, perhaps a family member, of the plaintiffs. I hear him tell them what was said to us outside: “Terrorists…blah, blah, blah,” he repeats.

“But,” he says. “Well, I mean…there is the U.S. What they did with the conflict here, the genocide. Their money, their weapons. The training. I mean that part, that part is true.”

The woman I’m traveling with knows I’m a U.S. citizen. She smiles at me, sympathetically. The man talking doesn’t know me, doesn’t know where I’m from. His tone is not accusatory, but informative. He’s just saying what happened. I try to smile at him like I’m okay with it. I try to be okay with it.

It’s not like I don’t know. It’s not like that’s not why I’m here. I know what we did. What we’re doing. It’s why I’m here. But I can’t look at him anymore. It’s too much. I turn away, lean against a wall. I keep my back to him so I don’t have to see.


Every day, being here becomes more uncomfortable. In that van in the mountains with the driver who had lived in L.A., I was with a woman from Germany. She sat between me and the driver and it was her, not me, that answered his questions. He asked first where we were from.

She knows what people say when I tell them I am from the U.S. When she tells people she’s German, they sometimes whip their arms out straight or say “Heil Hitler.” And I let her answer the driver’s questions. I let him think I was from Germany. I would rather he think I am from Germany.


My dad tells me that when I was little, I pretty much skipped learning to walk and went straight to run. “A speed racer,” he says, making quick motions with his arms. And I talked to everyone, he tells me. And was filled with light. And light fills his face when he says this.

My dad is just over seventy, Sebastián’s age. He walks slow, hunched forward just a bit on his right side from a fall he took a few years back. But whenever he tells me how I was at age two, at age five, at age nine, he embodies me at that age. As he remembers, I glimpse a child-self I could not know without him; I am there in his arms, his walk, his unself-conscious smile that is mine, and in his eyes that shine with pride.

As I watch Jorge’s video, the one before his mother was deported, I think of returning to my family as I think of those who will never be returned. I imagine my short stay at the airport and I imagine the stays of those caught in the administration’s travel ban. Look at them on the bed in that room of light. Look how Alexa looks at her father in that first chorus. Like she has everything. Like she always will.

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