Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Tragedy of Phylicia Barnes: Cupcakes and Colored Girls

The Sad Tragedy of Phylicia Barnes versus Natalee Holloway

Phylicia Barnes disappeared without a trace on December 28, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland last seen around 3:00 am presumably to buy some food. She had everything going for her, a straight A student, a young lady with a bright future from Union Academy in Monroe, NC, an outer Charlotte suburb. To all who knew her, she had it all, a winner among winners. She vanished when visiting her sisters in Baltimore. News coverage on both the Baltimore and national level are scant, but in the initial article in the Baltimore Sun, there is a curious passage that perhaps tips off a disturbing attitude implicit handling this case, “Barnes is an A student who does not have a history of running away or of criminal behavior, according to Anthony Guglielmi, a Baltimore police spokesman.” Why does it even merit mentioning that this young lady has no criminal history unless one would be inclined to predispose she does, and on what basis would the question arise when examining an A student?

While Baltimore is no Aruba, the tropical “paradise” where conspicuous hedonism is the national identity, these two cases appear so similar. Natalee Holloway came from Mountain Brook, Alabama, a high income community just outside Birmingham. She had just graduated from Mountain Brook, High School, an honor’s student who was an enthusiast participant in school activities including the drill team in the school marching band. She was destined to head to undergrad school at University of Alabama with a full scholarship where she intended to prepare for medical school. This young lady was on the fast track to be a fine doctor.

So why is it that Phylicia Barnes receives relatively little attention in the news media even cable news and the localities involved where viewers could not escape the Natalee Holloway tragedy from her disappearance on May 31, 2005 until Hurricane Katrina took all the attention though Holloway coverage would return getting far more attention on a regular basis than Miss Barnes? Is it because the chances of murder seemed so obvious in the Holloway chase? After all quickly villains emerged, a young man who’d quickly become a world renowned punk, Joran van der Sloot with his shady looking sidekicks, brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe . Is it because such an occurrence is so unthinkable in tiny Aruba the island where fantasies of pleasure come true? People getting killed and disappearing in Baltimore aren’t that rare. Last year 222 people were murdered. More disappeared. However, most of those were involved in urban street violence. For a very impressive young lady like Phylicia Barnes such a fate is quite rare. Natalee Holloway’s saga would occupy the lead slot on at least one Fox News program every night interviewing detectives, lawyers, forensic experts, friends, family, and classmates of Ms. Holloway, Aruban officials, and people from Natalee’s home town. Her plight would find Greta Van Susteren travelling the globe searching for answers and Geraldo Rivera would make her a cause de célèbre for tabloid journalism. Phylicia Barnes received almost no primetime coverage relegated to the day time and weekend morning shows with relatively few viewers. More than two weeks after her disappearance, Fox News interviewed her father on “Fox and Friends Weekend.” While some might accuse the networks of going overboard on Natalee Holloway, what could be employed as a greater power that could call attention to her disappearance than the national and even world media? While her story does not live up to the urgency of national issues including conflict in Iraq and Iran (gee, don’t you think those military families of deceased service men would like at least a nod of appreciation telling their loved one’s tale), perhaps bumping up the priority of her case would be justified if it helped to bring the tragedy to conclusion? Still, the irony remains – two promising young ladies who were brilliant and popular students – one received saturation coverage, the other almost escapes notice?

Did we tell you Phylicia Barnes is African American? Natalee Holloway was pin-up girl gorgeous, blonde, blue-eyed, makeup verging on the trashy side – in other words, white and sexy.

There in lines the difference between the two cases. Young white woman and girls are our culture’s dream of human perfection as long as they’re pretty. Somehow they seem to be the embodiment of every American dream. Think of the iconic all-American images we bestow on the girl next door (of course we know what kind of neighborhood that would be as right out of Norman Rockwell Americana). We ascribe and associate titles of royalty which just aren’t associated with black girls – homecoming queen, prom queen, and all kinds of princesses, or Miss State Fair, Miss Alabama, or Miss America regardless of the small handful of minorities who have been so honored. If it’s any consolation to African Americans, white men, not particularly attractive fully grown white women, Asians, Latinos, and white boys the same age as Natalee or Phylicia don’t get much press either. Only babies and grandparents get more attention than the vast spectrum of our sea of humanity, but nubile white females get the highest degree of attention when they are victims. Conversely, black males of that age don’t even get mentioned unless they’re valedictorians or stars on their school’s sports teams which would at least earn them mention in the news – but after a day or two, they’re gone too.

Clearly, not all men and especially women even more so women are created equal where the ratings driven mainstream media is concerned. The public gets very worked up when seemingly innocent white girls’ fate meets evil. Fear and horror grip the population. Demands for resolution become deafening, the young lady’s biography becomes a tale of human virtue. Families blessed with a lovely girl of that age reassure themselves nothing happened to their little cupcake but oh how gripping is the fear that she might meet a horrible end even though the chances of being a victim of violence remains incredibly low.

Racism is not always in your face hatred. When it’s as obvious as to where white folk call black folk “niggers,” it’s easy to recognize and fight. There is a tendency for some to say, “racism, what racism, we elected Obama after all!” None of this recognizes that more insidious and less obvious forms of racism. How do we account for not developing the resolve and simply allow things like the total failure of urban school systems to function in productive and supportive ways to effectively educate the next generation of those kids who have every right to escape the grips of the squalor. How can we tolerate and not intervene with full-force to end the kind of street corner genocide where in many communities such as Baltimore where on any given night the odds are better than not that at least one young black man will be killed in the streets. We deprive the personal tragedy and that each of these deaths is some mother’s son by associating the killings as gang warfare or drug violence. Such labels strip the victims of their humanity making them disposable human beings. That we mention failing schools and urban violence side-by-side helps us understand in many ways, one leads to the next. Where kids challenged, encouraged to see goals and ideals for themselves, taught effectively so they could achieve it would be unthinkable to think such kids would waste away and ooze out on to the mean streets of the big cities. Nevertheless, the master culture feels that it attempts to address these issues through a myriad of social programs continuing to believe that these problems could be solved if only more money were spent as if not taxing those selfish rich people to death is the answer. Plenty of money is being appropriated. The money is being spent, but HOW is it being spent and WHERE does the money go? Look at the largesse of urban school bureaucracies often incredibly bigger than suburban schools but look how those additional offices provide nothing that help kids on the classroom level. Nevertheless, millions and millions are spent on studies and blue ribbon panels that invariably reach the same conclusion – spend more money, create more programs, but where does it become someone’s responsibility to get results?

Fast forward back to the Phylicia Barnes case, both North Carolina and Maryland are states with large populations of black middle class citizens and a significant number of people who reach high positions in corporate and government settings. They almost seem to be stealth accomplishments because so little is made of their success and held up as goals for achievement when it seems like the only place blacks truly excel in our society is entertainment, especially sports. Ghetto kids start to believe their ticket out of the ghetto rests in the NFL and NBA. The odds that any particular kid will realize such glory is probably far less likely than being gun downed in the street or struck by lightening.

A wonderful young lady has vanished without a clue. Would anyone recognize the face of Phylicia Barnes? Would we have recognized the face of Natalee Holloway? Five years later her graduation picture and several others we identify almost instantaneously with Alabama’s up and coming angel who disappeared in the tropical paradise of Aruba. About the only consolation one can find is that Aruban law enforcement is more inept, corrupt, and ineffective than even the worst police departments in big city America.

We pretty much know what happened to Natalee Holloway; Joran van der Sloot killed her. Any doubt he didn’t was erased when he killed another young lady in Peru That he might spend the rest of his life in one of the world’s nastiest prisons is just rewards for his treachery even if it weren’t specifically for Natalee, but the Holloway family deserves better closure than that.

We have no idea about Phylicia Barnes or even to what extent she is a priority in Baltimore. Just add one more to the body count of black people in a city where there’s not a huge difference between 222 and 223 murders for 2010 as if to say what’s the value of one particular human being compared to the rest, just one more report to file. This kind of dehumanization helps show why society is so tolerant of such high murder rates to begin with. Some human beings aren’t as human as others.

Phylicia Barnes disappearance should challenge all of us to challenge these assumptions and demand justice. The similarities of these two cases parallel in so many ways, but when a lovely white girl vanishes, it is such a real life case of the damsel-in-distress motif it somehow appeals to every sense of chivalry. Chivalry is an ancient concept borne in European and British aristocracy. As much as American society eschews notions of royalty and privilege based on class, those ancient rituals lurk just beneath our subconscious, and we see the dreadful contradictions they breed.

Despite the many resources employed, millions spent, and saturation media coverage, Natalee Holloway remains missing though Joran van der Sloot surely looks like a guilty murderer. There is still hope, albeit getting slimmer by the day, Phylicia Barnes, might turn up okay.

Keep Phylicia Barnes in your prayers. A tragedy like hers demands to be told.


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