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A.J. Verdelle Headshot

Quvenzhané and the Tweet

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The Twitter feed that illogically sexualized and demonized Quvenzhané Wallis could not be more puzzling or more outrageous. Wondering about what folks at the Onion are thinking, however, is not all that unusual for those of us who occasionally read Onion articles and jokes. But as of yesterday, no more Onion for me.

Every culture has its jargon. Witness Yiddish. Spanglish. Legalese. African Americans -- even those of us who are professional and/or intellectual, and are therefore less engaged with the ever changing and increasingly hyper-violent and hyper-sexualized language of the young -- often use the initials "Q.T." to describe the quiet tip, the downlow, the communication that we will not state publicly but which we feel is important enough to be discussed -- between us.

Well, this nation's confounding and devastating confusion about black children has been a source of consternation and discussion, on the Q.T., for us as African American mothers, and writers, and academics, and clerics, and professors, and professionals, and fathers, and brothers. The unexamined and insidious attacks on our children are increasingly coming up in public/activist contexts, at the NAACP, and the Urban League, and Essence, and Ebony, and Jet, and on and on. The Onion's belligerent and ridiculous attack on nine-year-old movie star and best actress Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis was so much more than uncalled for. Their calling her out of her name (which is another expression we use) -- was and is mind-boggling.

It's serendipity that Quvenzhané's name begins so unusually, with a "Q", because today, as I make this public complaint about the Onion and their abusive tweet and their cowardly unwillingness to name its author, we also must acknowledge the anniversary of another tragic American occurrence involving a black child. Fortunately for all of us, Quvenzhané was not assassinated, although if there was any shade of truth to the Onion's overreach, we might call it character assassination. But Trayvon Martin -- the "T" I'm thinking of today -- was silenced by another element of our reckless and disrespectful culture, a year ago today. Last February 26, none of us could stop talking about, thinking about, and praying for this young boy, assassinated under the most innocent of circumstances. Death by arrogant and unwarranted gunshot is one thing. Pecking and destruction by arrogant and cowardly "wordplay" is another.

America's racism runs so deep. The pathological perpetrators of racism are so conditioned by white superiority that they cannot even assess their own tragic flaws. Let me say this: if Quvenzhané was a white child, she'd be heralded as a 21st century incarnation of Shirley Temple. Quvenzhané is just that strong, and talented, and poised, and beautiful -- to those of us who can see her for who she is.

I remain convinced that white Americans -- not all, but many -- cannot see black children for who and how they are. They do not see this young child -- bolstered by serendipity and her own talent and her devoted parents and an amazing film -- living a dream, dressing up, attending the Oscars at age nine, nominated in a huge category, at age nine, having seen herself on a forty screen, at age nine, having been a cover girl, at age nine, sitting in the most high company, at age nine, smiling with her baby teeth. Nor could white America see Trayvon Martin, trying to feed his teenage hunger, trying to graduate from high school.

America does not have eyes to appreciate its own citizens. On the Q.T. -- these children, of whom Quvenzhané and Trayvon are/were but two, are as integral to America and its future as the blonde children this nation so routinely celebrates. The Onion needs to stop name calling. The vigilante's need to stop shooting. This shoot-em-up, defamation-prone, unexamined mentality drags all of us, every one of us, down.

We should all stand in the front of the classroom and act like Quvenzhané's fourth grade teacher: we should learn to pronounce her name. We should conduct some oversight about the insults we hear. We should be professionals, and responsible, and demand to know: Who said that?

Whoever dares to level such an unwarranted insult should be sent directly to the office. And in the case of a professional publication, that person should be outted and fired. And this is not a demand on the Q.T.