Your Own Black Self: A Conversation with Netta

by Clint Smith

One of the movement's most galvanizing voices discusses Mike Brown, misogyny, media, and her mama.

Clint Smith
Clint Smith
Clint Smith is a teacher, writer, and doctoral candidate at Harvard University. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and was named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. As a poet and essayist, he is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, an Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The American Literary Review. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than 4 million times. His first full-length collection of poems, Counting Descent, is forthcoming from Write Bloody in fall of 2016.

Like so many of us, I first encountered Johnetta (Netta) Elzie via her Twitter account in August of 2014. The unrest in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown was growing, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I saw on television wasn’t telling the entire story. Netta’s account, amongst others, provided on-the-ground and real-time photo and video commentary about what happened on August 9th and all that would transpire afterwards. I knew that I could count on her to provide a thorough and unfiltered account of everything she saw.

In the months that have followed Netta’s online presence continued to grow (she is quickly approaching 100k followers on Twitter). As further protests and unrest began throughout the country, largely sparked by the death of black men and women at the hands of police, I came to appreciate the candor and forthright nature of Netta’s voice.

Having initially connected on Twitter, we would end up having several phone conversations before meeting in person over lunch in Washington D.C. at the beginning of February. Netta is incredibly astute–keenly aware of how others perceive her, and yet remains incredibly clear about her principles and is unapologetic in sharing them. The level of honesty she brings to issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement is imbued with a frankness that few others with her profile have. Over an extended phone call and then lunch, we discussed the movement, life since Ferguson, her relationship with fellow activist and current Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray Mekesson, Kendrick Lamar, and what people get wrong about her.

 

So Netta, I imagine the last 18 months have been a roller coaster of emotions. Can you talk about what the life since August 2014 has been like?

It’s been so long. It feels like it’s been forever but it’s really a small blip. I swear some days I feel like I can’t even remember what happened before August 9th, 2014. It’s been amazing. It’s been a great way for me to learn more about myself, where I come from. It’s also been heartbreaking and some of my darkest moments.

I think I was very naïve in the beginning. Thinking because I had video proof or because I had pictures and I was there everyone would believe me and that’s just not true. And it’s still not true. Even when people have videos of police killing people, there’s still a section in this country—in this world—that believe black people are lying about the violence that we experience everyday. And then there’s the fact that because I’m a woman in the movement, I’ve experienced things that would never happen to DeRay.

What kind of things? 

I’ve been at a protest and sent DeRay all of my passwords because I thought I was going to die. Then, at the same time I’m also walking down the street trying to find my friends – I thought I was alone – but there was actually a car driving up next to me, and it’s two dudes, and one of them was like, “Hey babe, what are you doing after the protest?” And it’s just like what the fuck. We are walking, about to be gassed, the police have their rubber bullet guns—super hostile environment. And this dude rolls up on me and is like “what’s up?”

“It wasn’t until the movement that I started listening to people talk to me about what feminism really is.” tweet

It’s interesting to hear you say that because we’ve had conversations before about the role of feminism in your life. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am – but struggle with it everyday. I think my biggest issue with claiming being a feminist is that I grew up in a household where it just was never talked about. And when I grew up I really thought it was a bunch of man-hating women. Like I’m all for equality, but why I do I have to hate men too? It wasn’t until the movement that I started listening to people talk to me about what feminism really is. Now I’ve learned a lot more, and I really do think that black feminism is extremely important.

You mentioned specifically black feminism. In your mind, how does black feminism differ from mainstream – or white – feminism. What are the unique sets of differences? There are folks, like Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who have talked pretty extensively about the idea of intersectionality. I’m curious how intersectionality manifests itself in your life, specifically in your life as a black woman in the movement space. 

So black feminism is really important to me because when I think about what it means to own your own self. I think about how I used to struggle with telling people “No.” And once the movement started and it was clear that I was becoming one of the main people, I had a really hard time with telling people no again. So that was a struggle for me. I kept feeling like I had to give and give and give just to make other people happy, even if that meant sacrificing my own happiness.

I always felt like, as a black woman, I should support you even though you are sexist or even though you are a misogynist or even though you’re homophobic or even though you’re transphobic. All these things – something in me was still saying “I’ve got to support them. We all black.”

And how has that changed for you?

I take ownership in myself and in my actions, and if I accept or decline to do something it’s definitely for a reason; and the person or the organization who has asked me to do something will know exactly why it is that I choose or choose not to participate.

But to go back to what you were asking about intersectionality, not only my life experiences but my friends also coming into themselves and setting their own boundaries for what is or isn’t okay helps me grow because I respect them so much. I want to be on the good side. I don’t want to be harmful or problematic or saying things that hurt their feelings or dehumanize them. The movement has forced me to learn more.

That’s interesting, and I think a really important point. And it makes me think of what it means to be “woke.” Part of the nomenclature of the movement has been this idea “stay woke” And “wokeness” meaning this sort of consciousness and recognition of the larger forces that exist in both a social and historical context that have shaped the world as it is today and you mentioned how your perspective on issues around homophobia and transphobia have evolved over the years.

Yea.

So I think about that and I think about what it means for people who Black Lives Matter activist are seeking to get the attention of, at least to some extent. So I guess the question is how can you, or can you, allow people room to grow on issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia and not shame them for what they don’t know? Because sometimes it seems like there can be a culture of shame, that can be specifically brutal online. How do you find that balance between what it means to hold someone accountable compared to what it means to shame them for what they don’t know?

It’s really important to be able to tell the difference between teachable moments and a “you should know better” moment. And that just reminds me of how I was raised. I remember those moments where you had to get the leg tapped real quick was a you should know better moment.

But I also remember the moments where I would make an honest mistake or misspeak or do something that would disappoint my mother but it would be a teachable moment where she would talk to me, very firmly – like I am the child, she is the mother –you need to learn this lesson. But it wasn’t something that was an attack.

I guess one of the biggest examples would be how I dealt with my white classmates from grade school and high school. Because I’ve always been a part of “the black group” or always saying “Well what about black women? What about black girls? What about black people” So I’m used to having to deal with white folks and their privilege. It just takes a lot of discernment. Some people really do need a toolkit or a guide on why it’s wrong, because everyone doesn’t have the same lived experience to teach them how racism works. This is how white supremacy works.

I’ve seen people say this is a basic argument, and I totally understand. I feel it all the time. Like why do I constantly have to talk about white privilege? It’s so basic, you should know this. But, for a lot of people the movement is the first time they’ve ever had to deal with the fact that they have white privilege or any other type of privilege. So it’s all about being able to tell the difference between teachable moments and moments of stern accountability.

Some people will say it is not their job to teach white people about racism or it is not their job to teach white people about their privilege. What do you think about that? Do you agree with it?

I super agree with that! It’s not my job. But, I know people who can. I feel like it’s not my job to teach white people about white privilege, but I also think every article or every tweet or every retweet of a story is something I’m learning from. So, imagine people who have more privilege than me—who follow me—that they’re learning also. When I meet people some will say things like “Oh, I never knew black women experienced this,”  “I never knew black people went through this,” or “I never knew that this happened in a historical context to black people in America before.” Because if you don’t know where to look for it, or if you never had a reason to go look for it than why would you? I get it.

So part of what I hear you saying is that it’s hard to give a yes or no answer and just depends on the moment or the context or the person.

Right. I definitely have friends who just don’t talk to white people about those things. And then there are also white people we know who can do the work with other white people which is what I was talking about when I was tweeting about Macklemore’s song.

A lot of people have had a lot of different reactions to that new song, White Privilege II. What did you think about it? 

It’s a song by a white man talking to white people. I listened to it the night it came out. For me, was that I was still caught up that he got that Grammy over Kendrick Lamar. But when I listened to the song I had to put all of that to the side, and listen to the message and the lyrics. Macklemore decided to use this moment as a teachable moment for people who are struggling with the fact that they are waking up.

It reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book where he talks about white people being the Dreamers. So it kind of reminds of the welcome song when you wake up and you realize that the world is not perfect and that everyone does not have the same equal opportunity that you have. I love the part where he says, “We take what we want from black culture, but will we stand up for black lives?”

What did that part mean to you?

I mean with all the talk about cultural appropriation in 2015, 2014, and every year before that, I think about Amandla Stenberg and how she called out Kylie Jenner together for those braids she wore. Magazines were saying “Oh, look at her new braids. Never before seen cornrows!” And Amandla called it out for cultural appropriation, which it is. Tiffany from the block has been cornrowing everybody’s hair in the neighborhood her whole life.

“I wish my mom could know that I know someone like DeRay.” tweet

A lot of people think they have an understanding of you and DeRay’s relationship from what they see online. But what is the difference between the perception of how people see you all’s relationship in comparison to the reality of your relationship? What are the things that people don’t know? What do a lot of people get wrong? 

What’s most interesting to me is when I see women come for him. Or say that he’s being sexist or silencing black women. Some of them will use me as an example. And it’s just like, “Whoa, I can speak for myself.” DeRay knows that I can and will speak for myself. I feel like people are always assuming I’m just a pushover just because we don’t have arguments or disagreements online for them to see. We fight like siblings.

How has your relationship with DeRay changed since you met him?

Well he used to be a complete stranger, but now he’s one of my best friends. Oh God. I always cry when I talk about DeRay. This is the part that people don’t see. Just how thoughtful he is, or how caring he is. Or how deeply he feels. He’s so observant and loving. When I think about DeRay I think about someone I wish my mom could have met. I wish my mom could know that I know someone like DeRay.  Or could talk to him. Or love on him. But I also know what it’s like when people attack him. Or when the comments are too much. Or when the hate is just too much. And I’ve listened to him. I’ve seen his moods go from being really high to reading something so wild or saying something so harmful that it just ruins his mood. And that’s hard because I know exactly what that feeling is like. And I don’t like for that to happen to my friend.

I don’t think that people take into consideration that it happens all the time. We read hate all of the time. In order to block you I have to read what you said first. Take it in. And it’s hard not to internalize all of this but sometimes the comments get the best of you. I hate that I have to know that DeRay understands all of my bad days because he has bad days too.

What kind of toll does that take on you? To be on the receiving end of so much hate everyday?

It just makes me really tired. It makes me exhausted.

“I don’t live a fairytale life. I don’t live a celebrity life. There are people out there who want me dead.” tweet

Do you ever want to just retweet all of the hateful things people say to you just to show everyone how much hate you get? 

I do every once in a while. Just to remind people that shit is not sweet. This is still real. I don’t live a fairytale life. I don’t live a celebrity life. There are people out there who want me dead.

Do you ever get scared from the death threats?

No. I just feel like when it’s my time it’s my time. I made peace with that a long time ago.

What was your initial reaction when DeRay said he was running for mayor?

It makes sense. The way he moves. The way he talks. The way he interacts with people. It totally makes sense that he would like to enter the political arena.

Did you have any reticence or apprehension about him entering the race?

Oh a thousand! When he asked me, I wrote my list of pros and cons. I was very honest.

So what were some of the things on that list on both sides?

So the good things are that I think it’s inspirational for people who might want to enter politics because so many people in the movement are loud about not trusting the system. So what does it mean for the most visible person in the movement to decide to enter the political arena and push from the inside? Because some people really do believe you can push from the inside and the outside.

Do you believe that?

Yea.

Did you always believe that?

In August 2014 I was like fuck everybody. But now I do think you can do both. I think there are good people inside.

Could you ever see yourself running for public office?

I curse too much.

What is it that shapes your decision, online and elsewhere, to not censor yourself?

It would just be such a drastic change. I wouldn’t feel comfortable being miss pretty princess. Before August 9th I cursed. Now I curse. I want people to know I’m a real person. I was before this and I will be after this.

“You don’t get to wait until all of the real shit is over to give me a list of rules on how to be a public figure.” tweet

What about those who say you have a different set of responsibilities now?

Where they at.

On Twitter.

Well stay your ass on Twitter.

Fair enough.

Especially because when I was getting my ass kicked in Ferguson, people’s opinions didn’t matter. So now that we came out the smoke and we’re not being teargased, everyone has all these opinions on what the movement is or should be. And you don’t get to wait until all of the real shit is over to give me a list of rules on how to be a public figure. That’s respectability.

Randall Kennedy, a black professor at Harvard Law wrote a piece in Harper’s Magazine arguing for what he called a progressive defense for respectability politics—

That’s just really bold to me—that you have to play nice in order to better your community or to make white people feel inclined to believe in equality? No. In school I played the whole game. The whole be twice as good to get half as much. I’m tired.

Did it feel like you weren’t being your authentic self? 

Not at all. Which is probably why I can’t work for an organization or corporation ever again. I’m too opinionated. I refuse to go back into this box.

So what do you see yourself doing?

I want to write.

Who are some of the writers you most admire?

I really like Roxanne Gay. She’s really honest.

She’s really honest on Twitter too.

She is!

There’s been a lot of conversation around the hashtag #BlackGirlMagic What does #BlackGirlMagic mean to you?

It’s my sister. It’s how care free and fun she is. It’s her little laugh. It’s how brilliant she is. My mom was a magical black girl. My grandmother is a magical black girl. Even in my great grandmother’s last few moments of life, she is still a magical black girl. I think it’s just amazing. Like my great grandma, she built a couch. Her kids didn’t have a couch and she built a damn couch. I think that is the most amazing thing. So whenever I feel like I can’t do something I’m just like, “Granny built a couch. You can do whatever you want to do.”

I feel like I should put that on my refrigerator.

Right?! It’s amazing.

You mentioned your mother. Could you talk a little more about her? She’s passed away now, but what do you think she would think about everything that you’ve been doing?

I just hope that whenever I see my mother again, how ever I see her in the next life, I hope she just tells me that she’s proud of me. I think I find some type of solace in the fact that my grandmother is proud of me.

Before you start your writing career are you going to be actively engaged in DeRay’s mayoral campaign?

Definitely.

What will you be doing?

Not sure yet, but I like canvassing and solving issues of voter access. So hopefully around that. 

“Not voting can be seen as a political act, if you don’t believe in the options you have.” tweet

Let’s talk about voting.

People get so sensitive about other people’s opinions. It’s someone’s right to vote. It’s also someone’s right not to vote. Not voting can be seen as a political act, if you don’t believe in the options you have.

What about those who say that the decision not to select one of those options—

Is worse? 

Yea.

I’d say it’s up to that person. I think about in Ferguson I voted for Jay Nixon. It fucks me up that everyone I voted for failed me. My family always votes Democratic straight down the ticket.

Do you identify as a Democrat? 

I identify as a black citizen in America.

Have you met Obama yet?

No.

What would you say to him?

Very honored to meet you, Mr. Black President. Also very disappointed in you, Mr. Black President.

Why are you disappointed?

I don’t appreciate him calling protestors “thugs.” I don’t appreciate him calling kids in Baltimore thugs and not condemning police. He always gives such a caring hug to police, but the citizens the police are most likely to kill you call them thugs.

Can you separate Obama the President and Obama the man?

I can. I’m still excited. The other day someone retweeted a picture of this little black girl meeting the president. And I was thinking, this girl’s whole life, she’s had a president who looks like her. There’s an entire generation of little black kids who see a family that looks like them in this house. I never had that. I could have never imagined that black people would be in the White House.

How do you think that affects a young black person?

I think that representation matters. I think that if you can see it in the presidency you can see it anywhere. It gives people something to imagine. To see this man who goes to the barbershop, needs a lining – I mean, Kendrick Lamar is in the White House. What?! That is so amazing.

Kendrick Lamar or Drake?

Kendrick.

To Pimp a Butterfly or Good Kid Maad City? 

Section 80. Boom!

Hot Cheetos or salt and vinegar chips?

Neither.

Really?

Ew.

Being Mary Jane or Black-ish?

Being Mary Jane.

Steph Curry or LeBron?

Lebron.

New York or LA?

New York. Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy.

Everybody loves Bed-Stuy.

All the cool kids live in Bed-Stuy.

What are your thoughts of the role of Twitter in the movement?

I just remember in Ferguson twitter was a smoke signal. I remember Erika, an organizer in DC, told me that when she read my tweets, I felt your pain and I saw myself in you. And that’s why I came. And so many people told me that same story. That I needed to come an physically be there even if it was just myself. That means something. Sometimes though, it feels like everything I say is being judged or critiqued and there is no “off” time. So if I’m tweeting song lyrics, then people are like “Well you can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time.”

Do you ever just want to delete the app?

Oh I have deleted the app. Several times.

What’s the most time you’ve spent off Twitter since August 2014?

Maybe two weeks. Last winter. There was so much misogyny. I couldn’t handle it.

“It is not on the oppressed to teach the oppressor how to be less oppressive.” tweet

What do you see at the role of men in dismantling misogyny and patriarchy?

The same way I think about white supremacy. It is not on the oppressed to teach the oppressor how to be less oppressive. Or how to dismantle the shit that y’all built. Same with men. It’s not up to women to dismantle sexism and patriarchy and misogyny. It’s on other men. There are some people who tell me to just ignore it, that there are more good guys out here than problematic ones. But that’s the problem, you want us to ignore something out here that could kill us. You don’t see the seriousness of it and that’s a problem. You’re a part of the problem.

Who is the person who has most helped to shape the way you think about the world?

My mama. She was real black. Super black.

Lastly, what is one thing that you want people to know about Netta that they might not know.

I cry a lot.

Why do you think that’s important?

I always wondered: what would happen if the world reacted to a black woman’s tears the same way they reacted to a white woman’s tear? Wars are started over white women’s tears. Black men have been killed, lynched, and castrated over white women’s tears. The world stops when a white woman cries. What would happen if the world reacted the same way when a black woman cried? Black women feel emotions too.  We feel pain. We feel unloved. We feel unwanted some days. I want to share the crying moments, so that people can know that I’m human.

About the Authors:
Clint Smith
Published by Clint Smith
Clint Smith is a teacher, writer, and doctoral candidate at Harvard University. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and was named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. As a poet and essayist, he is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, an Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The American Literary Review. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than 4 million times. His first full-length collection of poems, Counting Descent, is forthcoming from Write Bloody in fall of 2016. View all posts by Clint Smith

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